The hell of every god had opened up once Rockdale Pass let out the Ambsells. The clanging of swords had rung all about her and her Ericorian stood before her to protect the flight of arrows. Several had actually hit within her range, even struck her Ericorian right before her eyes. Such was why she wore a helmet, she thought, even though it felt unwieldy. But she was moved whenever the fighting line pushed forward, even though she would have preferred to be on the battlefield itself, fighting with her men. Now her tent was on the top of a small copse, which offered a bit of protection and gave her a better view.
For the most part, it seemed interminable, watching her men slash their swords in the air, duck behind shields, and fall to the Ambsells. At times, they pushed the Ambsells back, and others the Ambsells drove them back. And all the while, she heard a drummer drum war songs out. Had he nothing better to do?
Her colonels occasionally consulted her, and Selby numbly directed them to drive eastward or westward.
Finally, a lull came at midday. The Ambsells withdrew toward Rockdale Mountain. Men drank greedily from waterskins and attended to wounds. Selby called for a War Council.
When only half of her Council met her, her brow furrowed. “Gorgovish? Tellanar?” She looked around. “Millick?”
The Council members coughed and looked down or away. Selby sighed. “I see.”
Ambassador Keldrick joined them just then, ducking under the tent flap. “My apologies for my tardiness, Your Majesty. I was on the other side of the camp.” He bowed.
Selby removed her helmet. “Casualty count? Reports?”
“Six thousand dead, some two thousand wounded, Your Majesty,” replied Colonel Berolt, whose armor was encrusted with blood, though Selby suspected it was not his own.
“I’ve three scouts who tell me that more troops are coming through the pass, Your Majesty….” The Lieutenant who told her this looked sick as he reported this.
“No matter, we have siege weapons on their way – they will be here by end of afternoon,” reported Captain Tomerond.
“Captain, all due respect, what good will that do if our camp has been overrun?”
“Do you really think we will be overrun by late afternoon, sir? So soon?”
Selby spoke up and told them, “Both of you, enough. We cannot count on what we do not yet have. Plan for it, yes, count on it, no. Assume we will not see those siege weapons. But also plan to keep the whole of our fight on the pass. We cannot let more of them through or any siege weapons we may have will, if we are overrun and have to retreat, fall into their hands, and that we cannot afford.”
“Your Majesty, a rider has arrived,” called a guard from outside her tent.
“Send him in,” she returned.
In came a harried-looking scout, exhaustion plain upon his face.
He bowed before her. “Your Majesty.”
“Have you an update?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. Central Cliff Watch has been breached. Men on the beaches at Gull Port. We were ambushed there. By Ormon ships. We lost fifteen ships. They lost twelve, but four ships made it to the beaches of Gull Port.”
No one said a word for a moment at first. Selby’s heart plummeted.
“They’re caught between both rivers… they won’t be able to get far, not right away,” she said faintly, glad she had pushed for moving her men on the southern border to Central Cliff Watch.
“They’ll be able to get through the fortifications soon enough,” General Stonefield told her.
“But our own ships will land at Gull Port in response as well, General. We agreed upon that.” Selby sighed. Her head was throbbing suddenly.
“Are you well, Your Majesty?” asked a Lieutenant whom she did not recognize.
“No, Lieutenant, no I am not. There are Ormons on my land from the East, having burned my ships to get there. There are Ambsells who have killed my men all over the battlefield just out there, and they wait to kill more men. They all want Clemongard. So no, Lieutenant, I am not well.” Selby turned and looked about the tent. “How do we drive them back?”
The men in her tent glanced at each other uneasily.
“Very well. If we have no answers, then I shall supply one, at least. Send two riders, one to Holland Fort, one to Moss Grove, have them split their strength and send it Gull Port. The second half, send here. Are you in agreeance?” Selby barely waited for ayes and nays before she stepped outside to dispatch a Guard with the message.
“Your Majesty – this is just a lull. We need to see you safely back to your quarters,” pointed out General Stonefield.
“A break in the fighting.”
“I’m aware of what a lull is, General. But we must see to our men on the field, those wounded, those dead. And reform in a such a way that gives them pause to think we have more men – until we are spelled by those from Holland Fort and Moss Grove. That won’t be at least two hours yet.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. But you must return to your quarters. The fighting may resume at any moment.”
Ambassador Keldrick stepped forward. “If you please, Your Majesty. I’m not commanding a unit, I can escort you to your quarters.”
“Very well,” Selby returned, feeling like a child out of bed after curfew. Ambassador Keldrick gestured before him, but she waited for her Ericorian to follow her.
As soon as they stood before their horses, the Ambassador grabbed her reins. “If Your Majesty would be so kind as to replace her helmet…?”
Selby glared at him but saw that the Prince from Romeny was not going to relent. He had gone from Ambassador to body guard. If they made it out of this alive, she would be sure to speak highly of him to his father for this.
As she wound her braid about her head so that she could replace her helmet, Selby studied the Ambassador. Blood was encrusted in several places on his armor, and she didn’t think it was his. Sweat had trailed down through the grime on his face – he had fought dearly for his life out on the field of battle – for her country – and won. Selby could not help but respect him.
He handed her the helmet and Selby fit it onto her head. She swung up onto her horse and waited until he was ahead of her on his horse.
The battlefield was littered with soldiers. While many of them were her Clemongardian, and even a few Ericorian, a fair number were Ambsell. Her nostrils flared with distaste when she saw the gore, the opened wounds still seeping, the indelicate nature of some of the death wounds…. And everywhere upon the grass was blood; her horse’s hooves were slick with it.
And then there was a distant “Take cover!” screamed from the tent halfway down the hill they had just vacated. Selby didn’t recognize the sound of arrows whizzing through the sky at first but they landed in the grass about her with tiny thuds.
Then her horse reared, screaming in pain. An arrow protruded from its neck.
“Selby, jump!” yelled Ambassador Keldrick.
Her horse was falling to the ground beneath her and she had just enough time to launch herself from her saddle lest she be crushed beneath him. Ambassador Keldrick wheeled his horse around and held out an arm. It was so surreal….
But an Ambsell was running toward her. How had an Ambsellon soldier gotten this far? A scout? Running directly for her, running like a mad man – and she had no time to draw her sword!
Her cleaver – she pulled it from her waist. She recalled ArmsMaster Andeval’s lessons – what it was like to kill a man.
Selby saw the Ambsell’s sword arc up and saw her opportunity – she reached inward and sliced the man’s neck open. Blood sprayed all over her. She jumped to the side to avoid his sword, narrowly missing it.
Somewhere, in the back of her conscious, she heard the Ambassador yell, “Selby!” again. Looking at her dripping cleaver, and then at the man whose life she had just taken, she chastised herself for not using her shield instead.
“Selby!” It was the Ambassador, in front of her, on his horse, ducking arrows.
She held up her arm and he hauled her up into the saddle before him. He kicked the horse into a full gallop and immediately, they dashed up the hill toward her quarters. Ericorian were surrounding her from the back and guards had packed up her tent, moving it back out of range.
Finally, they were out of arrow range. “Thank you,” she told the Ambassador breathlessly. “You’ve saved my life.”
Over her shoulder, he cleared his throat awkwardly. “Of course, Your Majesty.”
Selby was struck then. She glanced at him over her shoulder. “You called me Selby back there.”
He coughed. “It was shorter than Your Majesty. Necessary. Your Majesty.” But he smiled a small bit. “We shall have to find you a new horse once we break for camp. A good, strong courser, I think, trained well.”
Then he paused. “How – how are you?”
“I’m not injured, if that’s what you mean.”
“Well, many people, after they’ve – taken a life for the first time, they are – a bit upset by it.”
Ah. Understandable, mused Selby. “I don’t have the time to be upset about it. He would have killed me. It was him or me. Although I am covered in his blood, aren’t I…. Bother.”
“Truly the Cleaver Queen now,” remarked the Ambassador. “Your first weapon of choice when killing a man was your cleaver.”