Part Three: Chapter 36
The soldiers jeered at their black-robed captive as they pushed and dragged her along; yet, although her eyes and scowl spoke of a murderous fury at the abuse, not once did the elf-woman lash out against it. Her demeanor suggested to Berac that she’d given herself up voluntarily to his host’s men rather than been caught unawares—but when dealing with her kind, it was never wise to let one’s guard down. With a casual glance over his shoulder, the ousted king summoned a pair of spearmen to his side; then, draining the last drops from his wine cup, he pretended to ignore the parade until it came to a sudden, silent halt no more than three strides from him.
“Well, Fashra?” spoke Berac after a moment spent staring into the elf’s eyes. “Can you give me a reason why I shouldn’t have you spitted on sight?”
But the woman wasn’t fazed by his threat. She neither fearfully blurted a prepared response nor dumbly stammered in search of one. She dropped to a knee and bowed before her master—yet the movement was so coolly executed that it could’ve been taken as an affront. “I was willing to watch you handed over to the Sinians, but not to strike at you myself. I could’ve finished you off when Argen failed to restrain you, yet all I did was keep Leena from screaming.”
“Am I supposed to be grateful? Flattered? Bah!" Berac flung his empty cup at the elf then, purposely aiming short of her kneeling form by at least a hand’s breadth. It bounced off the ground before striking her shin, dulling the force of impact if not the venom behind the toss. “Answer the question!”
Fashra rose swiftly and stepped back, nearly returning to the rough grips of the soldiers behind her. Even now she seemed not to be rattled—just unwilling to remain a downed target. For all she knew, Berac might snatch up a spear to hurl her way next. “I’ll give you two reasons, then. One: because you yet desire the comforts of my body.” At this she flashed Berac a knowing grin and reached down, briefly parting her robe below the waist to reveal a sleek, bare thigh. Her long, straight silver hair gleamed under the midday sun. “And two: because I’ve gathered some information for you.”
Seconds passed as Berac stared on, stroking his goatee in thought. Fashra’s little exhibition had succeeded in distracting and temporarily calming him. The lust in his eyes was far from hidden. Yet at last he regained his senses, scowling: “You’ll not be slithering under my sheets anytime soon, girl. And why should I believe any report from you…assuming you’ve one worth hearing?”
Fashra’s eyes narrowed. “It was you who sent my brother to his death in the Sinian camp…but he knew the risk yet didn’t begrudge the task. If any of his slayers’ plans are foiled by what I’ve to tell you, then I’ll consider it revenge for Ashyd’s fall. Your enemies are mine also. Listen to me…and if you’re pleased with what I’ve to say, then perhaps you’ll retake me into service.”
Berac wondered when he’d last heard a thing that truly pleased him. This exile in the wilderness wasn’t such a far cry from his palace life of ease: he had ample supplies of food and drink, servants, and entertainments provided by his desert allies. Yet each day passed outside of Crûthior saw him slip further into depression. It was even worse on him now than in the hours leading to the city’s inevitable fall—for at least then he didn’t have this dreadful shame of desertion to bear. Yes, here in his cousin Hatrakori’s camp on the fertile banks of the Toros River, leagues from the black walls, he’d little to do but sit and sulk, awaiting the instructions of his cursed foreign mistress. Sit and rot from a poisonous rage in his guts. A rage for which there was presently no outlet.
“Go on, then.”
Even having pressed him so, Fashra paused now, her face turning to the tent behind Berac. The elf’s slender mouth parted but snapped shut before the words came. The futility of requesting a private conversation inside had likely dawned on her. Thus, resetting herself, she began: “Doubtless you thought I’d fled the citadel after you last saw me…yet I kept hidden there till but a few days ago, passing unseen in the invaders’ shadows. I thought if I remained behind long enough I might catch a scrap concerning my brother’s fate, but I heard nothing of him in all the soldiers’ babblings. Eventually I discovered King Oen’s niece—the rumored lover of that warrior my brother was sent to kill—and it came into my mind that I should abduct her: for if any besides the DoomBringer himself knew what’d befallen Ashyd, surely it would be her. Yet before I could lay hands on the woman, the strain on me grew. My presence…or that of other lurkers like me…had been discovered. The guard was suddenly increased. I’d no time left for anything save a fast escape.” Here she stopped, scowling. Berac had turned his face away from her disinterestedly, motioning for a nearby servant to fill him a new cup of wine.
“So you failed. Hardly surprising. Seems to run in the family, wouldn’t you agree?”
With supreme effort, Fashra stifled an immediate outburst. The men behind her stepped forward in anticipation of the opposite, hands moving closer to hilts. At last she unclenched her teeth and replied: “Under present circumstances, that remark coming from you seems a bit unfair…”
In delivering those words, the elf had just gambled with her life. Now hands were on hilts, and a near-dead silence had fallen over the scene. The only noise was that of the river babbling off at a distance to her left. She was used to being treated like a dog by Berac, the soldiers…by all the human usurpers of this waste that had centuries before flourished under the care of her ancient kin. She could tolerate a personal insult, a reprimand, or even a moderate beating. But what she could never take from them in silence was such idiotic comments concerning the inferiority of her family or her race. So few of her people remained to toil in this parcel of the world. Here the elfin line would soon fail—but never their pride.
Luckily for Fashra, however, the king chose to laugh her response away. “I’ll let that one go…for the courage it took to speak it. But that one only. Now get to the point! I don’t care about your misadventures, elf…nor did I need another picture of the Sinian bastards lounging in my chambers and roaming about my halls.”
“Very well,” she nodded…and the soldiers relaxed. “There are some within Oen’s council who, seeing the king’s revenge achieved, urge him to withdraw at once, letting his warriors take only such spoils as they can shoulder for the march home—and leaving not a single man behind to be slaughtered upon your return. They lost men defending Relinydd from the Domalin prince’s sudden assault and, hearing rumors of a greater upheaval in the West, now fear to leave their homeland undefended. Chalemos is well fortified, they say—but should the Domalins seize an opportunity to burn their way south through the villages of Sinia, Oen’s force would likely starve before it could lift a siege. Gethod is in chaos. Scarcely can they depend on aid from the Ithiros, neither for supplies nor men-at-arms. And what few of their allies from Relinydd who didn’t race home at the news of that city’s taking have since been recalled without reason given, adding to suspicions. What? Why are you grinning so?”
“Because you’ve told me nothing I’ve not already guessed and well planned for—and thus have placed yourself back in a precarious position. I return to my original question…”
“Oh, but I’m not finished yet, lord. They say Oen had a look at Van’s corpse before its burning…and that he was furious to find Argen dead before he could judge the man himself. He doesn’t desire to leave behind the city that so many of his people fought and died over, regardless of how much loot they could carry out of it—not on little more than a whim that Domal has its eye on a conquest of Sinia. Thus the plan is to split his forces, leading the majority south…yet leaving enough behind in an attempt to hold the city until he can manage a return.”
“Ha! The fool!” Berac suddenly leaned forward in his seat, eyes wide. She had his attention now. “He’ll spread himself too thin and so be defeated on both fronts! No sooner than he sets foot out of Crûthior will we storm the weakened sections of the walls. Our scouts report they’ve hardly begun repairing the outer breach yet. The dogs are too besotted with my wine and women to lift a finger, no doubt, foolishly thinking any resistance left to be scattered and broken. This is much better than striding through open gates into a city stripped bare! We’ll regain much of what was dashed from our hands…and flay the offenders alive!”
As he spoke these last words, a hint of madness gleamed in his eyes—and Fashra thought it best to let his boast hover in the air a moment before deflating it with what she had left to say. Picking up on this in the woman’s expression, Berac faltered. His smile vanished, and his brows furrowed as he addressed her again: “Is there something more?”
“If only it were that simple. Oen won’t leave until Crûthior’s fortifications are again sound. And with you currently sitting here idle, it won’t hold him up long.”
Berac’s frown deepened. He could see where this was going, and he didn’t like it at all.
“Furthermore, he’s taken to giving out spoils to your commoners still living in the city in exchange for their aid in mending the wall—and, if necessary, even in defense of the city against you. Those who come before Oen but don’t accept this, he plans to turn loose once the defenses are restored. Till that day, he’ll let none out that can’t find a way themselves. Yet I doubt even then you’ll see many wandering here.” She raised a warding palm before Berac could retort. “Take no offense, lord! You’re not a hated king in the eyes of most. But neither are you loved enough for them to risk striking out into the wilds, when the alternative is to keep their homes and come into a bit of wealth to boot. The Sinian hoard will be significantly diminished by this…but lust for plunder isn’t what started this war. Despite the rumbling of some of Oen’s captains, their own shares will likely not be cut too deeply. Most of it will come from the king’s own pile, no doubt.”
Berac was still fuming, but Fashra sensed his anger was no longer directed at her. He sat there in silence, scowling while twisting a finger in his black goatee, his mind turning over the information given.
Her plan had succeeded. At least for the present, she’d regained the man’s confidence.
At last Berac reclined in his chair, taking another sip of wine. “So, Fashra—assuming all this can be verified—what would you suggest I do?”
“You should cease lounging here, awaiting a sign from that foreign witch—or else you won’t be walking through the gates anytime soon. Force Oen’s hand! Make him see the wisdom of his opponents in the council. Attack now, with all the strength you can muster!”