Dracia looked out over the grassy hills outside of Winsdell. All around her were Elites dressed in their silvers and blacks. Black horses grazed on the grass in the early afternoon sunshine. Elites nodded at her as they passed, some leading their horses, others carrying small canvases to set up tents for the night.
If Dracia’s scouts had been correct, the enemy forces would reach Winsdell sometime tomorrow. Dracia had moved most of her Elites out into the fields this morning to be ready for the impending attack. She had sent a much smaller force to oversee the river on the other side of town in case some forces made their way from there. She had just seen Darron off to check on how preparations were going along the river.
She looked around to see everything was going to plan around her. Her Elites appeared as they always did, steady and ready to do whatever task was needed. She looked to her left to see Roderick stroking his horse as he looked around at the activity. He whispered something to his horse and patted him before walking over close to Dracia.
“How are you feeling, Captain?” he asked as he stood by her side.
“Like I usually do before a battle, anxious, but sure that all will be well,” answered Dracia truthfully.
She might have been a little more anxious than normal. This was the largest test she had faced as High Captain. The Sentinel had not met so large a force in many years, long before Dracia had joined as an Elite, but she was still sure of herself and sure of her Sentinel.
She did worry about the men and women who were preparing around her. She knew it was inevitable they would suffer at least some losses. She hated to think of it, but she had to be realistic. They were facing at least two thousand enemy soldiers. As talented as all of her Elites were, there were still only four hundred and seventy five of them.
“Yes, the Sentinel will stand strong,” said Roderick. “As will its High Captain.”
Dracia turned and looked at Roderick. “You do have faith in me to lead us, don’t you?” she asked quietly.
“You know I do,” replied Roderick. “You are not one to second guess yourself, so don’t start now.”
“It’s this waiting that is getting to me, that is all. I am not used to having to wait for enemies to come to us.”
“Come on. You said you wanted to check on our novices in the back lines and see how the moving in of the people in the castle and Fortress was going. Let’s take a ride into the village.”
Dracia nodded and turned to whistle at Aarit. He walked over to her and stood still, allowing her to mount him. Roderick mounted his horse, and they both took off at a fast walk towards the village. As they got close to the palace, Roderick and Dracia turned to look at someone calling Roderick’s name. Dracia saw it was Roderick’s mother, Lady Glain with Lord Alaric by her side. Roderick pulled up his horse close to his mother and hopped down. Dracia did the same and followed Roderick to meet with his family.
“Mother,” said Roderick, walking forward and taking his mother’s hand, giving it a kiss.
“I am so glad to see you before we head into the palace, my dear,” said Lady Glain smiling at Roderick.
“Brother, it is good to see you as well,” said Roderick to Lord Alaric.
“Yes, I am glad I can wish you well, Roderick. I hear this will not be an easy test for the Sentinel.”
“No, but we will be successful, I have no doubt,” said Roderick.
“High Captain.” Lord Alaric bowed towards Dracia. “I wish you good fortune in this battle as well.”
“Thank you, my lord. We are well prepared and ready for this battle. You need not worry for Winsdell.”
“Is it true you are asking the novices to fight, High Captain?” asked Lady Glain.
“Yes,” said Dracia. “We need the numbers, and our novices are already very proficient.”
“I suppose Galen will be included even though he has been running himself ragged between the Disciplines and the Royal Academy.” Lady Glain sounded angry, but Dracia knew she was only reacting as a worried mother.
“Novice Galen is our most talented novice,” said Dracia. “He is as proficient in many areas as most of my Elites. I know you are worried for your son, but you must know I will do everything to keep all of my men and women safe. The novices will be on the back lines. They will more than likely see little to no action.
“Mother, Galen wants to fight. This is the life he has chosen, just like me,” said Roderick.
“He has not chosen it yet. He could still pick a different route. I hate to think of him fighting before he is ready,” said Lady Glain as she wrung her hands.
“I believe he is ready for what I have planned for the novices. You should go see him before you settle in the palace inner courts for the night. He is near the Fortress in the field.”
Lady Glain nodded at Dracia and then turned to Roderick. “I hope you will stay safe as well, my son. I will pray to the king’s gods for your safety.”
“I appreciate it, mother, but I am not worried. I will be by my High Captain. I trust her completely to keep us both safe on the battlefield.”
“I will do everything to keep your son safe at my side, Lady Glain. I depend on him. You should be very proud of the fighter and man he is. I have not met a better one,” said Dracia.
“Thank you. I am very proud of him. I always have been.”
“I hope you both stay safe during the battle,” said Dracia. “We must be off. I need to check on the palace before we see to the novices ourselves.”
“May the Sentinel stand true,” said Alaric as Dracia and Roderick mounted their horses.
“It will,” said Roderick “Our captain is strong and just.”
Alaric bowed to them both before Roderick and Dracia trotted on towards the palace.
“Thank you for saying that to my mother, Captain,” said Roderick as they rode along the street.
“I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, Roderick. I believe you are the best man I have ever known and the bravest fighter. I would not want to ride into battle with anyone else at my side.”
“And there is no other High Captain I would serve as I do you. I hope you know I mean it.”
“I do, Roderick, but let’s not get all sentimental right now. We will have many years together as friends. I am even willing to bet we will face more fights side by side.”
“I’d say I look very forward to it, but it seems wrong to want future battles.” Roderick gave her a large smile.
She couldn’t help but smile back at him. “Well, just look forward to the friendship part then, because no matter what happens in our lives, I will not give you up.”
“I wouldn’t let you,” said Roderick as they rode up to the walls of the palace.
As they passed through the gate through the first wall, they were met by many people setting up places to stay for the night. There were small tents and blankets on the ground. Tables had been set up, and Dracia could see several lower noblewomen of Siccaria organizing food and water. As they road on, they saw a few of their novices running around, helping to set up areas for more people to find rest. The novices stopped and bowed as Dracia and Roderick passed, Dracia nodding at each one.
Roderick and Dracia rode on through the next gate of the palace until they came to the front door. They dismounted their horses in front of the palace doors, whispering to their mounts before leaving them standing close by some palace guards. They were let into the front doors to be greeted by Princess Lexine who was walking down the stairs.
“Dracia,” said Lexine running down the last few stairs. “I am so glad to see you.”
“You are?” asked Dracia as Lexine took her hands.
“Of course, I was hoping to see you before the battle,” said Lexine. “You must know how important you are to me by now.”
“I do, your highness, but everything will be well with the battle. You do not need to worry about me.”
“But I do, Dracia,” said Lexine. “I am so worried about you and others.”
Dracia smiled. “You mean all of my Elites and novices, of course.”
“Yes, I hope all of you come back safe, including you, Roderick.” Lexine turned to look at Roderick.
“Thank you, your highness,” said Roderick with a bow.
“Where were you headed, Lexine?” asked Dracia. “You should be getting ready to enter the inner court, shouldn’t you?”
“I don’t plan to enter until tomorrow morning. I thought I might take a walk today before everything happens.”
“Towards the Fortress, perhaps?” Dracia glanced at Roderick.
“I only want to wish my friend well, Dracia. Is that so wrong?”
“No, you should go, but be careful. There is more people about than normal. Tell your friend he has my permission to walk you back to the palace after you wish him well,” said Dracia.
Lexine looked at Dracia and smiled before hugging her. “Thank you.”
“Before you go, have you seen your brother?”
“He is with Lord Ethen in the east parlor,” replied Lexine.
“And the king?”
“He has not left his rooms today.”
Dracia nodded. “Go on, then, come back to the palace soon.”
Lexine walked towards the door as Dracia and Roderick moved down the hallway towards the east parlor.
“High Captain,” said a voice behind Dracia as she and Roderick moved through the hallway.
Dracia turned to see Princess Lilith coming her way. “Yes, your highness.”
“I wanted to wish you well before the battle tomorrow.”
“Did you?” asked Dracia, looking down at the Princess.
“Yes, of course, I do hope you and I will become much closer soon, maybe even as close as sisters.” Princess Lexine smiled up at Dracia.
“I am not sure how that could ever be,” said Dracia with a frown. “But I thank you for your well wishes. I hope you stay safe within the palace walls.”
“My brother sends his regards. He asked me to tell you he hopes to see you again soon in his last message. I believe he thinks of you often.” Lilith reached out and put her hand on Dracia’s arm.
Dracia could feel Lilith’s cold touch even through the half sleeve of her dress. She shivered slightly, remembering the effect Fannar’s magic had on her. She found her head was slightly foggy, but nothing as severe as the night Fannar had kissed her. Dracia stepped back and the princess’s hand fell off her arm.
“We must be going,” said Dracia. “I need to speak with Prince Leal.”
“I am sure you do. Tell him I wish to speak with him when he has time.”
“I will,” said Dracia as she turned and continued to the east parlor with Roderick by her side.
“Are you well?” asked Roderick as they approached the east parlor.
“I am,” answered Dracia stopping at the parlor doorway. “Whatever she was trying to accomplish with that little chat did not work.”
“What didn’t work?” Prince Leal walked up to meet Dracia, taking her hand and bringing her into the room.
“Princess Lilith stopped me to talk with her, some nonsense about her brother. I believe she might have tried to charm me with her own magic in some way, but it didn’t have much effect,” said Dracia as she smiled at Ethen as he stood.
“The gall of that woman to approach you and talk of her brother,” said Leal. “I do not like you being around any of the Navalians.”
“It is no matter. I barely register her as a bother. I am wary of her, but I am not afraid.” Dracia sat in a chair close to Ethen. “She did tell me to let you know she wishes to speak with you, Leal, when you have time.”
“I do not believe I will have time to even glance at her in the near future, hopefully not ever,” said Leal.
“How are preparations going, Captain?” asked Ethen as Leal sat down to the left of Dracia, while Roderick sat down on the other side of Lord Ethen.
“As well as they can. My Sentinel is in position. I see the folk of the village are moving into the palace and the Fortress as we speak.”
“And when do you expect the attack?” asked Ethen.
“We are hoping not at least until not mid-morning tomorrow. I have several scouts who have ridden ahead. A few have returned saying there is no forces within a half day’s riding distance so far. They will continue to ride out into far hills to keep watch.”
“What is your plan for the rest of the afternoon?” asked Prince Leal.
“I have come to the palace to check on preparations here. All seems to be going well. My novices are in place behind the first walls, helping the noble women of Siccaria. I will ride out to the Fortress in a moment to check on things there before settling in the hills for the night.”
“I will go to the Fortress with you, Captain, and find my own place amongst the hills. I want to be ready when the fighting starts.”
“You are welcome to join Roderick and me at our camp, Ethen.”
“I will,” said Ethen standing. “I will walk ahead to the Fortress and see about borrowing a horse for tomorrow.”
“I will go with you, Lord Ethen, unless my Captain needs something of me at the moment,” said Roderick as he stood.
“No, go on Roderick, make sure Ethen gets whatever horse he likes. I will be along in a moment. I need to speak with the prince about the palace defenses. I will not be long.”
Leal and Dracia stood up as Ethen and Roderick left the room. Leal immediately grabbed Dracia’s arm and pulled her to him.
“Thank the gods I get you alone for at least a few moments, Dracia.” Leal he put his hand behind her head and pulled her in to kiss her.
“I am happy to have a few minutes with you, as well,” said Dracia as she put her arms around him. “I do want you to know how much I love you.”
“No,” said Leal before kissing her again and then pulling back. “None of that. Everything will be well. We will successfully defend our village, and then we can find a way to be together in all aspects of our life.”
“I don’t want to be away from you anymore,” said Dracia as he leaned his forehead against hers. “I don’t want to have to push you away or hide who we are.”
“Then promise me you won’t, Dracia. Promise me that no matter what happens or what anyone says, you will never push me away again.”
“I do promise,” said Dracia. “I don’t think I could stay away from you at this point, anyway. As you have said before, we are too tied together for us to be unwound.”
Their lips met again, this time for much longer, neither seeming to want to pull away. Dracia tightened her hold on Leal. She believed they would be victorious, but she was scared that she may never hold him again if she let him go. She pulled back slightly and buried her head into his neck, feeling tears come to her eyes.
“It will all be well, my love,” he whispered into her ear.
“I know,” she said quietly against him. “I just don’t want to leave you. I know I have to. I know I must lead the Sentinel and protect our people, but I don’t want to let you go.”
“Do you think I want to let you leave me?” Leal pulled her back to look at her. “I would keep you here with me if I could. I would ride out with you and stay by your side, but we both have duties to our people.”
“I know and it will all be over soon. I plan to end this as quickly as I can. I will leave no doubt of the might of the Sentinel.”
“You really will be my fierce, warrior queen, won’t you?” asked Leal with a smile.
“I am afraid I will. I will always have to do something to see to the safety of our people. I hope you do not mind.”
“No, I do not mind. You can be as fierce as you like as long as you are my queen.”
Dracia smiled at him before kissing him. “No matter what happens, I will always be yours.”
“And you know my heart and life belong to you, Dracia. I do wish we had more time together today. It has been too long since I’ve been with you.”
“It’s only been two days,” said Dracia as she pulled away from him, straightening her uniform.
“Yes, much too long,” said Leal smiling down at her.
“It will only be one more night. We will be victorious tomorrow, and tomorrow night I will find you.”
“Please, stay safe,” said Leal as he took her hand.
“I will. I always come back to you, my prince,” said Dracia as Leal kissed her hand.
They spent a few more moments talking of the defenses of the palace. Dracia finally had to pull herself away from him, knowing she had lingered too long. She smiled at him one last time, wishing she had a few more hours with him before she left. She walked out of the palace to mount her horse and ride to the Fortress.
As she approached the Fortress, she saw a steady stream of people from the village making their way to the north entrance where some Fortress attendants and a few novices stood by, greeting people, and sending them to different areas on the first floor. Dracia spotted Galen, who was talking with an older man. She rode over to speak with him.
“You should see about your cough, sir,” said Galen to the man. “It sounds as if you might have an infection in your lungs. When you get inside, you should go see the attendants in the infirmary. They will have some elixir that will help you.”
The old man thanked Galen before walking slowly to the north entrance. Galen turned and greeted the High Captain as he looked up at her.
“How are you, Novice Galen?” asked Dracia looking down at him.
“I am well, High Captain,” answered Galen. “I heard that man cough while he was in line to enter, and I couldn’t let him pass without checking over him.”
“You seem to have the heart of a healer. Perhpas, after this battle, we should talk of your future. You might need to rethink continuing on with the Disciplines.”
“I believe I could be a healer and still serve as an Elite, Captain. I do not plan to abandon the Sentinel at this point. I would like to complete the Disciplines.”
“You could serve as a healer here and still be an Elite. I won’t lie and say I do not wish it because an Elite who is a gifted healer would be a great asset to the Sentinel, but I also want you to think of your future and what you want. I understand you had a few visitors today.”
“I did. I just returned from seeing one back safely partway to the palace. She said you requested it,” said Galen.
“I did. She is very important to the kingdom and me. I very much wish for her to be happy.”
“I do as well,” said Galen.
“Then I hope you will think hard on your future, Novice. Now, have you seen your brother and Lord Ethen? They arrived ahead of me as I had business in the palace.”
“I believe they are still at the stable, High Captain.”
“Thank you, Novice. Thank you for serving during this time.”
“I am very happy to serve the Sentinel and you,” said Galen. “I wish you safely through this battle, you and my brother.”
Dracia nodded. “The Sentinel will stand true.”
“Because our High Captain is strong and just,” replied Galen as Dracia urged her horse on towards the stables.
She found Roderick and Lord Ethen easily. They all three rode around the Fortress, finding everything satisfactory. They next rode to the river and met with Darron. He seemed very focused on his task, much to Dracia’s pleasure and surprise. After assuring all was well prepared there, they rode back to the front lines in the hills, settling in just as the sun had started to set.
After eating dinner, they sat around a small fire Dracia had lit just to give them light as the sun set behind the hills. All around them, other Elites had lit small fires and lanterns, giving everything a strange perpetual twilight feel under the waning moon.
“Are you worried about tomorrow, Captain?” Ethen sat back, his hands on the ground.
“As I have said before, I would be a fool not to worry about any battle, especially one where we are facing such large numbers. I am worried, but I am not doubtful. We will not fail. I only hope our losses are minimal,” answered Dracia. They were all three quiet for a moment.
“You seemed to have been in some battles, Ethen,” said Dracia. “Do you ever find yourself fearful?”
“There are times I have been afraid.” He seemed to be thinking over the question. “I have never really been scared of pain or even death in the moment. As you know, Captain, death is always something you face in times like these. One day none of us will be able to avoid it.
“I have been more afraid of leaving those I love behind. I have been thinking much of my love back home. We just became betrothed before I came here. That is why I was late. I needed to speak with her family and arrange everything. We are to be married when I return in the fall.
“I would hate to leave this world without getting to spend at least a few more moments with her. I want her to have no doubt of my feelings for her. I want her to know that one of the main reasons I fight for what I know is right is because of her. I want to prove worthy of such a good woman.”
Dracia nodded. “I feel as if I have lost so much time with the one I love. I have tried to push him away and let others dictate who we are. If somehow, I do not make it tomorrow, I worry he will not truly understand what he means to me. I worry he will resent my memory in some way, believing I never truly fought for us.”
“I doubt he would ever feel that way, Captain, but you still have a chance to let him know where you stand for sure.”
Dracia gave Ethen a questioning look.
“I think he is wanting to ask you why you are sitting here with us right now, High Captain, if you really believe he has any questions about how you feel for him,” said Roderick with a small smile.
“It’s true. Your Sentinel seems well prepare and settled in. Your second is a very capable man whom I know you trust. I am here as well,” said Ethen. “Do you even expect the enemy here until at least morning?”
“No, we have had no sight of them yet. They can’t be here until mid-morning at this point.”
“Then I think you might have somewhere else to be for at least a few hours,” said Roderick. “It wouldn’t hurt for someone to check in with the palace and make sure all is well one more time.”
Dracia stood up and looked down at them. She did want to go to Leal. She couldn’t deny it, but was it right? She was the High Captain of the Sentinel; shouldn’t she stay with her people?
“Whatever questions you are going to ask, the answer is yes, you should go,” said Ethen. “You won’t be far away. I’ve seen you ride that horse of yours. You could be back here in less than ten minutes if you had to. Now, call your horse over and go now, while you still have time.”
Dracia hesitated for one moment before Roderick gave her a small nod. She whistled and Aarit walked over to her.
“I will be back by sunrise,” she said as she mounted Aarit.
“I would say try to get a little rest, but you never do before a battle,” said Roderick
“No, I don’t plan on resting.” Dracia urged Aarit forward into a fast trot, weaving around tents and Elites who were sitting and standing around.
She made it to town in good time, letting Aarit move faster than she normally would through the village as the streets were deserted. She rode past the first wall of the palace. With so much activity, no one gave her much attention. She rode through the gate towards the palace’s front door, only nodding at the guards who stood there. She considered finding a side door or climbing up a wall to the second floor but decided she didn’t care who saw her enter and go to Leal’s room. She knew who she was, and she had every right to come and go in the palace as she pleased.
She left Aarit on some grass that lay before the palace doors, whispering to him, and knowing he would stay put. She knocked on the palace’s front doors and was let in by two palace guards with no words exchanged. She entered the hall and looked up the stairs, pausing for a moment.
She hadn’t been to Leal’s room in many years. They would sneak away to an old forgotten room high in the towers whenever they had meetings in the palace. She wondered if this was truly wise. Should she just turn around and go back to the hills? No, she decided, she wanted to be with him. There was no shame in being with him. Before she could change her mind, she walked up the stairs and turned down the hall until she came to his door.
She knocked and waited. After less than a minute, the door open, and Leal’s attendant, Malven answered the door, staring at her with wide eyes.
“Whoever it is, Malven, tell them I am not seeing visitors,“ Leal said somewhere in the room.
Dracia looked at Malven, who bowed and then moved out of the way for her to enter.
“I don’t believe I quantify as a visitor, do I?” asked Dracia as she walked into the room to find Leal sitting on the sofa, drinking a glass of wine.
He stood up quickly and faced her. He was very comfortable dressed in loose pants and a shirt that was half-opened. He looked at her like he couldn’t quite believe she was there.
“I believe I will go, your highness, unless you require anything else from me?” asked Malven.
Leal stared at Dracia as she turned and said, “No, I do not believe either of us will need anything else tonight, Malven; sleep well.”
Malven left the room and shut the door as Dracia smiled at Leal.
“Is it really you?” he asked, moving closer to her slowly.
“It is.” Dracia took off her belt and placed her sword against the wall by the door, before unfastening her cape and draping it over a nearby chair.
“You are really here in our rooms?” asked Leal.
“Our rooms?” asked Dracia with a raised eyebrows.
“Yes, I have long thought of these rooms as ours; they should be ours. I have imagined you many times here with me, which is why I am having a hard time believing this is real now. I’m afraid you are just a figment of my mind that seems very real due to a few too many glasses of wine.”
“I am very real,” said Dracia as she moved forward towards him.
“I thought you would spend the night in the hills with the Sentinel.” Leal reached out and took her hand.
“I should probably be in the hills, but I found I could not face tomorrow without seeing you and being with you first. I wanted you to know just how much you mean to me. I want there to be no doubt.”
“I told you, I wanted to hear none of this. There will be more time after this for us to be together. There is no reason for such talk.”
“Maybe not, but I have let fear and others dictate who we are for too long. I have wasted time pushing you away and listening to people tell me I shouldn’t be with you. I wanted you to know, I was wrong. I should have spent every moment I could with you. When this is over, I will always be near you when I can.”
“You did promise me today you would never push me away again.”
“I did,” said Dracia. “I intend to keep all the promises I have made to you. I intend to keep them in every way.”
“Then this truly will be our rooms,” said Leal.
“Yes, now are you going to kiss me, or did I come all this way for nothing?”
Leal pulled her closed and kissed her ardently. “Will you stay with me tonight?” he asked as he pulled back slightly.
“Yes, I need to leave before sunrise, but I will stay with you until then. I will have to leave you for a while tomorrow, but I will come back here when it is over.”
“And you will stay here with me permanently, won’t you?”
“Yes,” she answered before he claimed her lips again, picking her up and taking her to their bed.
Dracia woke up while the room was still dark. She felt immediate surprise as she opened her eyes. She never slept the night before a battle. It took her a moment to realize where she was as she looked down and saw Leal’s arm around her. They were in the middle of his large bed, her laying with her back up against him as he curled around her, holding her tight.
She knew she needed to get up and get dressed, but she allowed herself a few more moments to lie in his embrace. Everything felt so right at that moment, him lying next to her, holding her in their bed in what should have long been their rooms. Everything should have been so simple. He loved her, and she loved him. They should have been completely happy together living in the palace, and soon it would be as it should.
Dracia decided there was no use stalling any longer. She had a hard task ahead of her, but she was ready to do it. She turned in bed to face Leal, reaching out to touch his cheek. She felt his early morning stubble as she moved her fingers lightly along his jaw line.
“Dracia,” said Leal sleepily as his eyes half-opened.
“I have to go,” she said quietly. “You should sleep a bit more.”
She leaned in and kissed him as he reached up and touched her cheek. Dracia rolled away from him and sat up in the bed, lighting a candle on the small table there with a touch. She quickly found all her clothes around the room, slipping them on. She took her candle and stood in front of Leal’s mirror, removing her pins and re-braiding portions of her hair, so it was secure for the battle to come.
When she was done, she looked over at the bed to see Leal sitting up, watching her. She walked over to the bed and sat down on the edge as he moved over next to her, picking up her hand.
“You will come back to me, won’t you?” he asked.
“Yes, I always do,” she said. “You will stay safe, won’t you?”
“I will, and you will be here with me tonight in this room.” Leal picked up her hand and kissed it.
“I will. Tonight, and every night after,” said Dracia as she went to stand up. Leal pulled her back down and kissed her one more time.
“I will see you soon,” said Dracia as he pulled back.
She stood up and looked down at him, giving him a small smile. Before she could cry, she walked quickly to the sitting room to put on her belt and sword and grab her cape. She left the room and the palace finding Aarit quickly. She mounted him and rode speedily back into the hills.
As she rode through her Elites, she found many were already up, or perhaps they hadn’t slept. She could see the sun start to make its appearance in front of them over the distant hills. She made it back to Roderick and Ethen to find them both putting away blankets and other supplies and sticking them on a nearby horse and cart that would soon be sent back to the Fortress.
“Did you do what you needed to do?” asked Ethen, smiling at Dracia as she hopped down from Aarit.
“Yes, all was said that needed to be said, and I believe no one is left with any doubt now. I am ready to face the day.”
“Good,” said Roderick with a nod, “Because we had one of our scouts return about fifteen minutes ago, and the first of the forces will be here by the tenth bell this morning.”