Blood and War

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Chapter 54 - Allies

Catherine stared through the slits in her helmet. Her protector thought it wise to keep her identity from their new allies and to him, it was enough that he Aldrich introduced her as his daughter, Cathy.

No one would dare challenge him on that, and these humans had no interest in her. She was just a woman to them, despite her battle gear and her place at his right hand.

A vampire would have understood the significance of this gesture, that being seated beside Aldrich, put her in a position of authority.

It made her the second highest ranking person in the room, but the humans dismissed her, and Catherine had a strong suspicion that Aldrich wanted them to.

So she remained silent, and she observed. The human lords were not easily convinced. They wanted to fight a war that they understood. They wanted to call the country to arms and start the war outright because they had no concept of the men they faced.

“You’re wasting time, Aldrich. You allow these people to stream deeper into our lands!” Lord Gustav shouted.

His face was red and splotched with anger. His massive hand slammed upon the polished wood of the table, and the glasses almost toppled at his vehemence.

Gustav was a man just shy of seven feet tall with hard eyes, hair braided into long plaits, a beard that made him look like a bear and a frame of sheer muscle. He was a man that never met a problem he could not conquer with sheer, brute strength.

His great sword was almost four times the length of a regular blade and nearly three times as wide. Another man would barely lift it, and she saw Gustav handle it as if it were a mere stick.

Unfortunately, because of his size and his strength, he fought with it as if it were a blunt instrument. There was no finesse and no form to his fighting. It was also the style of his politics and his reasoning.

The man to his right, almost a full foot-and-a-half shorter was Mordel. He was older than Gustav by nearly twenty years.

He was not dressed like the Highlander in bear skins and leather armor. He wore iron leggings, a breastplate, a silk cape trimmed in wolf pelt and upon his large hand was a large gold seal ring that proclaimed him a king among men.

There were silver strands in his blond hair, and his gray colored eyes were weathered at the corners. He listened more than he spoke and there was consideration in his eyes. Of these men, Mordel was the oldest but by far the best strategist. A man of thought and action, but it was not he that spoke.

“Would you rather start the war today? Have the vermin run over our lands while we run around with our pants around our ankles and our arses hanging out, while we try to get an army together?” The voice suited the man. Redhead, red beard, red face, freckled skin, eyes the color of whiskey, wide shoulders, arms like a blacksmith and hands just as big.

He looked almost top heavy, but if you have once seen him handle his battle ax, you would understand the danger of the man. His brash manner and his power hid many things, including a keen mind.

Her father always disliked the man, hated that he saw too much and read into situations too easily. His people called him Hammer, but his real name was Angus.

Angus’s only concession to armor was two leather wrist guards. He wore clothes woven from cotton that looked coarse and held many variations of muted color in crosshatch bands, but they were soft to the touch.

Catherine knew this because she once owned a blanket made of the same material. It was the trademark of his lands.

It was the man seated closest to him that she disliked the most. It was he who was the one to bar consensus and he who brought the negotiations to a standstill every time.

He could not be more unlike the other men, if he came from another planet. He was a finely chiseled specimen of mankind. He was tall but not as tall as even the shortest of the others.

Broad shoulders flowed into slim hips, and he was a swordsman as was his father, the man in whose stead he came. Unlike his father, he obviously had no interest in this alliance. His country lay the closest to the north.

Arun was a man among men and a man greatly respected. Arunial, his son, was no such man and his prowess with swords, among humans, had apparently gone to his head along with his father’s wealth.

“Well, my country is well defended. We have the sea to our coast, the northern mountain ranges at our back, the desert to the east and we will not need to pull down our pants to distract the enemy from our inadequacies,” Arunial murmured and Gustav almost imploded.

“That will all help you naught when your turn comes,” Mordel bit out. His hands were white-knuckled on his chair and his eyes angry it was obviously an old taunt.

“Gentlemen,” CAtherie’s voice caught them off guard as if they had forgotten her presence and she would wager they had.

“You all know castle Nuire? Cliffs to the coast? Never been invaded in over two thousand years? It guards the main gateway to the east, wide moat, gun turrets and it survived a two-year siege in the Aonic war?” They stared at Aldrich as if he spoke in some foreign language. They nodded one by one, the legend of the Nuire was a well-loved tale.

“How fares the Nuire, daughter?” Aldrich asked idly for her to report as if he had not received the news himself.

“My men came back from there yesterday. It lay in ruins as if it were abandoned these last many years, but it was intact less than ninety days ago,” Catherine dutifully reported, and they stared at her wordlessly, as if waiting for some further explanation, an earthquake or an act of nature...

“The gateway to the East fell without sign or word. A bastion of our civilization, conquered. Do any of you really feel that your lands, your keeps, your fortifications are better than those built by the ancients?” Aldrich asked quietly.

His elegant fingers toyed with a shard of Balconic rock. His handsome features, his wiry elegant built, his fine clothes and his cool uninterested expression were all so out of place among these men.

The weight of his authority and the sense of age in his eyes, dwarfed these big men, despite their stature. In this room, he was the main predator, and the silence was answer enough.

Aldrich’s expression never wavered, never changed, but she could feel it. The sense of victory and the satisfaction. Between these four men, they just gained two thousand more soldiers to their cause.

“What do you bring to this war?” Arunial drawled, and Aldrich smiled almost cordially, only Cathy saw the flash of anger in his eyes.

“Come, daughter, let us enlighten these gentlemen,” Aldrich invited, and she stood with him.

Outside they mounted the waiting horses and left the small concealed camp. They rode less than forty feet before they took a path between two boulders that led gradually down.

The humans and their guards were uneasy in the unexpected close quarters. Two bends further down and hidden by land that was densely vegetative and basically flat, a wide ravine lay even deeper below them.

It was a place that no man would find on his own, an anomaly. Water cascaded into a deep pool at one side and in-between, almost a thousand soldiers sparred, slept, cooked and worked.

“Welcome to the war, gentlemen,” Aldrich drawled, and their faces said more than words. They hadn’t expected so many men, and they never suspected that they were right on top of the base camp.

They had no idea of just how much Aldrich and Dillon had managed with their combined efforts these last few months.

For now, it was better that they didn’t know there was another camp just a day’s ride away with almost as many men. Trust was still a scarce commodity when the enemy had many faces.

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