“Do I really need to give a speech?” Fabius asked the old Lord. His entire army milled about in front of the raised podium that had been constructed for him.
Sucellok’s beard! He had never addressed more than ten men before and here his words would be translated every hundred feet for the entire army.
“It isn’t the speech that matters, Fabius. These men are scared. They are fighting something they do not understand. They set out to take down Ianthine and now they are protecting it. You have to show them, why they should follow you and your command. You have to gain their trust.”
“And you think pulling this idiotic trick is going to help?”
“Impressions are everything, Fabius. And you are leading them.” The showman’s hand pointed the podium.
Fabius stood before the milling army, looking expectedly up at him. His stomach lurched. He was leading so many of these men to their deaths and there was nothing he could do about it. Atleast, he’d drank mead with all of them the last night. The bond would help him bear the loss.
He climbed up the small mound. The blue royal banners flew all around, interspersed with the smaller banners of the nobles.
“I know a lot of you have issues against magic and magic-people. But we are men who are compassionate towards all. We are the only ones with the bravery and the heart to stand up for the Empire.” He unsheathed his sword in a smooth flowing motion and head it aloft. The blade sizzled in the open air and caught a bluish-green flame. “And we have our own brand of magic.”
“For the Empire!” A cry rang out from his own battalion and was quickly echoed by the other bands.
“Let our enemies fear the flames of Archernaur.” Fabius flailed the sword, his own spirit rising with the glowing plume from his blade. He had always refrained from naming his own sword even though his father had told him it was a mark of strength for a king. But today, the name rolled to his tongue without realizing and naming the sword made adrenaline course through his body.
“Did you just name your own sword?” Ainsley said as he walked back towards the tent.
Fabius sighed. He wouldn’t hear the end of it. “Yes, it happened. Now, go report for battle.”
Ainsley grinned. “By the flames of Archernaur, victory is ours.”
Lord Tremane rejoined him in his tent. “That was very well done. You would make a fine showman too.”
Fabius grunted. “A flaming sword? I still can’t believe I did that.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I have a lot more tricks I have always wanted to use in battle. Today is my lucky day.”
Fabius shook his head. The showman had been preparing various powders and concoctions ever since Lord Sheamerg had turned up with his army. I will crush those bandits.
The battle wasn’t as fierce as Ainsley had expected it to be. He’d been put in command of a troop of fifty people, why he didn’t know. But Commander Nermo had deployed ten troops to first push the bandits against the gorge and then eventually cut off their main army and defend the eastern gate.
Besides the normal formations and battle tactics that were employed, Ainsley loved the new flash-balls that had been handed over to every troop captain. Although they appeared like harmless children’s rubber balls, they had been filled in with the same powder that the showmen used for entrances, only much brighter. All he had to do was light one up and throw it at the enemy. It created a bright flash of light which blinded everybody who looked at it and also created a loud bang which scared animals and men alike. The only catch was warning your own men.
He had also been given a few glass vials filled with a vile green colour liquid, which when broken rendered everybody unconscious within a few feet.
But Ainsley was even more impressed with actual magic. Different coloured bolts rained down from top of the gate and the ramparts with varying effects. He even saw weird looking cats and dogs rip through the bandit ranks.
But they barely needed the tricks or spells. The bandits did not seem a very organized or coherent bunch opting to attack only the gate instead of trying to breach the walls as well. It took the Northern Alliance less than three hours to quell the bandit forces from the gate. Why they had bothered to attack surprised him.
The eastern gate opened as a legion of soldiers poured out wearing the tabards with the Ianthine crest. He’d received word that the Commanders of Nothern Alliance and Ianthine intended to run the bandits aground.
Ainsley called out to his men to reform the line with the other troops. They would flank the vanguard from Ianthine. He waited at the front of the line for the Ianthine troops to move forward but a commotion at the back drew his attention.
A few men toppled off the wall as arrows were fired from this side of the wall.
“What the…” Ainsley rode Ardagh through the ranks to get to the men who had fired but a loud explosion at the gate halted his approach.
The Northern Alliance cannons had opened fire on the Ianthine legion.
Elena yawned. She had begun dreading the war on the very first day. The volume of papers had doubled overnight - lists of rations, placements of her troops and the movements of the bandits and the northern alliance. Three stacks of documents as high as her knee lay beside the everyday stack of developments. Even with Fabius’ support, holding off an army of ten thousand was going to be a challenge. The thoughts of the kiss lingered on her mind. But he wouldn’t forgive me working with a Halan. Her heart felt torn.
The doors clanged open, as Androl bustled in, his face grave, his chest heaving.
“What happened, Androl?” Elena clutched the hem of her long blouse.
Androl closed the doors behind him and ordered the guards not to let anyone in before turning towards her. “The Northern Alliance has turned on us.”
Elena’s eyes widened. “What? That’s impossible.” Her breath stopped.
Androl clamped his hands on the corner of the table. “I told you not to trust the prince. Not all decisions are to be made by your heart. Three minders died at the eastern gate. They didn’t even see that the arrows came from men fighting by their side.”
“They attacked us? Have they allied with the bandits?”
Androl shook his head. “They don’t seem to be with the bandits. But it could be an elaborate ploy to simply to lull us in. We pushed them back behind the gates with Lord Falmus’ help. They aren’t used to seeing familiars yet.”
“Is the city safe?”
“For now. I sent in the orange league to hold the eastern gate. But we need to plan our defences now. We do not have enough soldiers to hold back two armies, especially if they band together.”
Elena raked her nails against the wooden surface. A tingle ran through in her fingers even though she knew she actually couldn’t feel anything. It can’t be. Fabius can’t betray me. After what happened between us.
“This is not the time to hesitate, Elena. They must be countered and swiftly.”
“No, but Fabius is on our side. We should at least talk to him.”
Androl came around him. But his eyes did not betray the usual softness for her.
“Elena, I know you have a soft corner for him. But he’s a prince. Of the most powerful kingdom in a thousand years. Do you think he would ever let a city like ours stand? We are a threat to them and I have been telling you ever since you decided to start the campaign of protecting the magicians.”
“But Fabius wouldn’t,” Elena’s voice cracked. “He can’t.”
Androl growled. “And how do you know that? You haven’t seen the man for ten years. Are you sure he hasn’t changed?”
Elena sputtered. “No…I…He couldn’t have changed so soon.” I just met him last night.
Androl let out an exasperated gasp. “Elena, snap out of it. Ten years is a long time. See how much you have changed in the past year?...” He paused, lowering to look into Elena’s eyes. “Wait, you haven’t meet him after the council meeting, have you?”
Elena shied away. She didn’t know why she felt guilty about it. She was the Empress after all. She shot back. “So what if I did?”
Androl’s brown eyes held her stare till guilt racked her once again.
“I…He came to meet me in the middle of the night.”
“Yesterday? He was there when I came in, wasn’t he?” A guttural groan escaped Androl’s lips. “No wonder you changed you insisted on staying in your tower in between. You wanted him to come find you.”
Elena stared at the desk. She wanted to shout back at Androl. That man wasn’t her father. He had no right telling her who she could meet or where she stayed. But somehow the words didn’t come to her throat.
“So what did he say?”
Elena looked up. The man’s expression had mellowed, as if he understood the emotional turbulence going through her. “That he loved me and the only reason he hadn’t come after me all those years ago was because his fathers lied to him and told him that my father had died way back and I didn’t want to meet him.”
“You believe him?” Androl’s voice surprised her. It wasn’t an accusation, it was a genuine question.
Elena nodded. “I knew the moment I saw him at the council. His feelings for me still remained. And he still loves me.”
Androl stayed silent, so she continued. “I know you think I’m stupid but he promised to aid us.” She saw Androl’s eyes squint a bit.
Androl sighed. “Sometimes I forget you are yet a young girl who has yet to bear her first child. Listen, Elena, he may actually care about you and he may actually believe both of you can have a happy life. But I doubt he’s the imbecile he portrays himself to be. He has been brought up by strong kings and his first instinct will always be to protect their rule. And I do not think the horde of advisors around him will let him run away. And neither would he have taken control of all the imperial armies, if he did not want to carry out his princely duties.”
A whirlwind of emotions raged through Elena. How could Fabius have betrayed her after proclaiming his love to her? Could he have really turned into the prince he detested becoming? Was this the result of her not saying yes? Could he really have turned on her for that?
Androl continued. “It may seem heartless to you but Fabius is being practical. He saw an opportunity to bring Ianthine under the thumb of the Throddens and he took it. I would have done the same. And you have a bigger duty now. An entire city is dependent on you and those needing your aid will only increase. And they look now towards you. To become a beacon of hope for all the magicians and their right to be treated on par with the others.”
Elena sniffed. This was exactly why she had stopped herself from saying yes to Fabius.
“Fabius attacked your people. It’s time you answered back in kind and show that you’re the Empress of a new world.”
Elena’s face hardened. Androl was right. It’d been ten years since she’d known Fabius. A long time to change a man. It was very much possible that he’d toyed with her feelings. She had been naïve to fall for his charade. Now, he would face her wrath.
“Androl, organize battle strategies and defence of the city with the other lords. I will send these insects a message.”
Androl nodded, his face lined with a thin smile.
He feels proud of me. Warmth flowed through her.
“What do you intend to do Empress?”
The gems on her fingers bristled with energy. “It is time we put the big gems to use.”