CHAPTER 23 - ISMIŃA’S CHARGE
“Have you received any word yet from Queen Shafis?” asked Elarosh. Gren was pacing up and down in his villa while a physician checked on Elarosh’s ribs and other wounds inflicted upon him by Alkan.
“Not from the queen,” replied Gren, “but from King Gunner.”
Elarosh looked at him with surprise. “The king? He’s already back from Yearn Answer?”
“Almost,” Gren replied. “King Hepharis had sent ravens to their kingdoms to call their banners. Gunner’s army is already on their way here now as we speak.” Elarosh could see Gren wasn’t cheerful at this news.
“Why are you not relieved at this?” He asked.
“Because Alkan has been spotted no more than a weeks’ ride from here! The northern kingdoms will only be able to come to our aid within a fortnight!”
Elarosh gave a humourless laugh. “Trust Alkan to call for war when the leaders are away! He’s indeed a coward!”
A messenger entered the room and handed a letter to Gren. His expression remained the same, and Elarosh could not tell if it was good or bad news.
“It’s from Queen Shafis.” Gren finally said. “The hosts from Pømel Tarq and Gantell Fair have reached their kingdom and are now marching south to meet up with the rest of the kingdom’s army,” he sighed with relief.
He went quiet for a while, reading the rest of the letter. He frowned. “Shafis has given clear instructions for us to keep a lookout for certain,” he looked at the parchment, squinting at the name, ’Antonin Japther’.” He announced. “We’re to make sure he’s protected and kept out of harm’s way!” He slammed his hand on his desk. “This is war! Why must I look after this man when there are thousands of lives at stake?! I can’t guarantee the safety of every person’s life in the army!”
Elarosh scratched his head. “What’s so special about him that the queen doesn’t want him to come to any harm?”
Gren picked up the letter again. “He’s apparently lost someone close to him at the sacking of Støne Fønt, who was a member of the Council of Seven.” Gren carelessly tossed the letter onto his desk. “Well, I cannot promise her his safety. A stray arrow or a randomly thrown spear could easily kill him. I won’t lose sleep over one man’s life! Besides, by the time Gunner arrives, the battle would probably be over!”
Looking out of his window, he asked Elarosh, “Are you sure you can fight?”
Elarosh stood up. “Yes,” he firmly said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.” Gren nodded. He couldn’t argue with his cousin’s bitterness towards Alkan.
Gren was still furious and feeling guilty over the fate of his spies and their families he sent to the Quinthørr Islands. He never thought Kegen would be able to find them. He was also particularly enraged over the decision the Senate voted on earlier that week.
Along with Senator Benton Fenrald and a few others, he proposed to the rest of the Senate that their army stay within the capital and fight on the defensive. The Løng River would serve as a barrier. The idea he proposed to the Senate was simple: the Løng River will slow Alkan’s army, while the capital city’s army could easily pick them off with arrows. But the Senate was overly cautious. Should they fail and Alkan managed to cross the river, he would arrive with his host and overpower the city. They would not allow this to happen.
Instead, the army would meet Alkan on the field, ready to fight and keep the enemy away from the city. Senator Benton was furious over their decision.
“It’s alright, Benton,” Gren said while leaving the Senate Hall. He was disappointed at the lack of spine the senators had. “They had the most votes, but I’m not one for hiding. I’ll lead the army myself.” Benton didn’t want to hear another word of his friend going to war, but Gren assured him that his cousin would provide him with excellent strategic advice.
Looking out the window again, he asked, “Do we have a solution in crossing the Løng River?”
Elarosh smiled. He reached into his tunic and brought forth a well-designed drawing. “According to your engineers, we have a solution to cross as many soldiers as possible over the river!”
* * * * *
Morgan stood on the balcony, looking at the last of the soldiers leaving the kingdom to march south. She remembered her conversation with her father earlier that day.
“You will come back to me? Won’t you?” Antonin got down on one knee and drew her into an embrace.
“I’ll do everything I can to come back home to you and your mother,” he promised. He looked at her and saw tears were falling. He gently wiped them away. She looked down and opened her hand. He saw she had a white rose, freshly picked from their garden. She pinned it to his chest.
“Since I love roses,” Morgan began, “I want you to have one and know that I’ll be thinking of you.” Antonin took his daughter back into his arms and stroked her hair. “I will wear it with honour, my little M!”
Saying goodbye to her brother was just as painful, but he was too cheerful to take the situation seriously.
“We’ll be home before you know it!” He had said. “Alkan’s head will be mounted on a spike, and I will marry Sarita!”
Coming back to the present, Morgan, still looking at the marching men, whispered a silent prayer for the gods to bring her father and brother back home, safe and sound.
* * * * *
While kneeling in prayer and the smell of incense filled the air, Shafis felt a sudden shift in the atmosphere. She looked around the temple, but she was the only one inside the courtyard; she and the thirteen statues of the Evertheenians. She ordered her ladies-in-waiting, as well as the men her husband insisted on having around her, to wait outside so as not to disturb her, but she had an off feeling she wasn’t alone.
Feeling rather uncomfortable, she decided to retreat to her palace. No sooner had she gotten up from the cushion she was kneeling on came a firm voice, “Shafis!” She whirled around. She wasn’t someone who would frighten easily, but these were dark times, and the entire world seemed to be on edge.
“Shafis!” came the voice again, more urgent than the first time. She looked everywhere but couldn’t find the source. The voice seemed to be emanating from every part of the temple.
In the dim light, the statue of Ismińa began to radiate a powerful glow. Shafis, now standing, walked slowly towards the statue. With each step she took, the light became brighter until suddenly, the statue came alive. The goddess stepped off the pedestal the statue was built on and turned to face her. Ismińa stood before Shafis in her godly form. Gasping, Shafis fell to her knees, bowing her head.
“Great goddess!” Shafis spoke in awe.
“No,” Ismińa said gently. “I’m not one of the Great Six. Please, Queen Shafis. Rise.” Shafis stood and craned her head to look up at the towering goddess.
“How is it you would show yourself to me? I’ve caused great calamity on my people. If I’m to face divine justice, then let it be so!”
Ismińa gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m not here to punish you, Shafis. Rather tell you to stop punishing yourself.” Ismińa began to walk slowly around the queen as if inspecting a new dress, her form shimmering with every step, while Shafis stood rooted in her spot.
“Remove all these sordid thoughts from your mind. I have watched you for a long time now. That little spat you had with Alkan? He was going to come for the north anyway, whether you believe you started it or not. And yes, I was the one who gave you the strength you needed to face him.” Shafis looked at her in awe. “You will need to have a clear mind for what lies ahead,” continued Ismińa. “You will need to be stronger than you’ve ever been before.”
Shafis began to sob. “It’s too much!” She hid her face in her hands. “People think I’m strong and fearless, but inside I feel as if I’ve been broken down into hundreds of pieces. When I think I am doing the right thing, it turns out to be the opposite! I allowed my daughter to--“ Ismińa held up her hand to silence her.
“That wasn’t your fault!” the goddess said.
“But I let Ysha go to Joshen, knowing she slept with Alkan! And now I hear she’s with child! How can I-- “ but Ismińa stopped her again.
“Enough!” She said in a firm voice. “Whatever the outcome, you will rise above this. But I need you to focus on the task at hand. There won’t be just one war. More will follow.” Shafis’s eyes grew wide with shock.
“Be the queen you were born to be,” Ismińa continued. “Lead your people! They will follow.” Ismińa walked back and climbed the pedestal where her statue once stood. Shafis went closer to her.
“But Alkan has proclaimed himself a god! If my people begin to follow him, I won’t have a kingdom to protect!”
The form of Ismińa was already beginning to solidify. A soft wind brushed against Shafis’s face. She heard the goddess’ voice, almost as a whisper, “Lead your people!” A light flashed, and Shafis had to cover her eyes. When she opened them, the statue of Ismińa stood before her, once again holding the scales of balance in her right hand.
Feeling renewed, she rushed towards the doors and almost ran into her ladies-in-waiting.
“Your Majesty,” the one servant bowed. “Shall I get you ready to retire for the night?”
Shafis looked at her with an expression of determination and renewed strength. “No. I’ll be in my office. I have business to attend to.”