Leman handed her a cup. “Drink. You need to return to coldness and steel, so that fire is under control. Now you are not in control.”
Tracy drank, obeying the authority with which she was addressed blindly. Around her, bits of canjira were flashing like neon signs, responding to her emotions. As the draught cooled her, the flashes subsided, and soon she was able to view Neil’s treachery dispassionately.
“So now I know who the DarkLord is. And I’m sure I can defeat him. I will leave the sword here, and borrow one from the armory.”
“No – this is but a first battle, and he will not take part. We will ask for a champion test. We want our whole army to gather before we engage. The fact that he has chosen to confront us now shows lack of confidence. He should have just attacked, or remained hidden and tried to contact you and subvert you. He had the opportunity to get to you under cover of our forces gathering, and to insert himself in our confidence, yet he did not. Why? Why choose this confrontation unless it is to instill in you certain doubts? And though ownership does confer benefits, I do not believe he is immune to the full power of the blade.”
“But I trusted him, and now I cannot trust anything.” Tracy was now calm, but underneath, far underneath, a rage was burning. “I did not ask for this. My life has been destroyed in the other world, with my mother bearing first the burden of my father’s death, and now my disappearance. When I do return, if I return, she and I will be locked in conflict, where before we were each other’s support. Even if we can reach an explanation that will satisfy her, she and I will never be friends again. We have been sundered completely. And why? Because here you believe me to be your savior. But what if I’m not? What if Neil simply saw me, thought I looked like the one prophesied to bring him down, and reacted to that? And I’m not?”
“If you had not been the one, the Red Lady, you would not have crossed over to escape, and would have died at his hands in the mirror labyrinth. I think if you trace his path in the other world, you may find some other red-haired girls dead at his hands. But see, look how he has wrought his downfall. By searching you out, by killing girls he thought would be you, he has brought you here. And by interfering after that, he simply prepared you even better. Now, cool yourself. Your mother can be brought here by you, which will mend all you fret now. Not yet, for we need strongholds, but one day soon.”
A weight fell away from Tracy at these words. Of course that was the solution, and if her mother could come, so could Julian. Her heart lifted and sang at the thought, and she realized that she could now face a thousand Neils if needed.
“Now for our tactic. We will not go back looking triumphant. If we ask for a champion test rather than a battle right now, it may deceive him into thinking we are also unsure of our strength, and that you, especially, are afraid of him. Also, a champion test allows us to move on unhindered. If we win, he has to withdraw back to his castle.”
“But what if we lose? What then?”
Leman smiled. “We will not lose. Zaphorim is the veteran of more battles than I can count, and such men stay alive.”
An hour and more later, the two armies faced each other across a space where the canjira had been cleared away. In this clearing stood Zaphorim, lightly holding a short sword and a staff, facing a soldier very similar to those who had raided the village where Tracy had first found shelter.
The two combatants simply stood, both looking relaxed, neither seeming willing to attack the other. Tracy had been told that there would be no signal to start, no end until one lay dead. Finally Zaphorim raised his staff, and holding it horizontally in front of him, his short sword held below it, point upwards, advanced on the other, who raised a shield and the rather long-shafted spear, almost a pike, that he carried.
The two started to circle, shuffling in small steps, then Zaphorim darted forward suddenly, dropped to the ground as the pike thrust at him, turning the drop into a forward roll that brought him up under the other’s guard. As he came up from the roll, the short sword flashed upwards and drove into the other’s throat. The momentum of the roll and thrust flung the other backwards to thump into the ground, where he quivered, kicked once or twice, and then lay limp.
Zaphorim stepped over him, drew his sword from the dead flesh, and then shook it at the enemy.
“Withdraw! You have until sunset! We claim the victory.” A murmur swept through both armies, and Tracy watched for Neil’s reaction. He, however, had swathed himself in the black cloak, and whatever he thought was private.
He leaned towards one of his generals? Aides? A quick conversation took place and then he was riding away, and the army slowly followed in his wake.
Leman touched her arm. “Go to Zaphorim and salute his prowess. We need to solidify our moral strength.”
Tracy nodded, and walked to where Zaphorim still stood over his fallen foe. “Hail victor! We thank you, our champion, for this victory!”
Zaphorim bowed, then walked back to the ranks with her. “With your leave we need send scouts to check perimeter, and check that the enemy does withdraw. Also to check for scouts from them.”
That evening, around the fire, Tracy raised a question that had been bothering her. She had no military, or fighting training that would be of use in preparing tactics, yet she also knew that a protracted war was bad for the country, for the people and for the armies. Was there some way in which they could attack quickly and win a decisive victory?
None of the council thought so. The reasons were many, and included the slow speed at which the armies could travel, the fact that the movements were difficult to conceal and that the area of land in which to fight was limited. The unknown land, as Tracy now discovered, was actually quite small, with most of the surface covered in water. Then, the mountains occupied far the larger part of the surface area, with very few coastal areas or large plains.
It was towards the next morning that Tracy recalled what she had read about guerilla fighting and tactics when she was reading the biography of Che Guevara, and realized they had to change their style of war if they wanted to win. As they travelled to the meeting place she explained the idea to Leman – small, mobile groups, striking quickly at the big force and then withdrawing to the mountains, never engaging for more than an hour, drawing troops into ambush and fighting from cover.
“And you say in your land people win war this way?”
“Cuba and several other countries won a war against much bigger forces in this way. It means thinking about being fast, and quick, and hiding, but then, you are already hiding, aren’t you? Except in that small part of the lowlands, where there are enough soldiers to fight.”
“You are Red Lady, and you must tell the council this as truth. You have to make them see it. I will stand with you, because I believe you will win this war for us.”
The ideas were radical and new to a population who had fought either by means of the champion system, or in formal battle facing each other in lines. What hindered the talks more than anything else was the feeling that it was somehow immoral to fight in this way.
Tracy had to muster every argument she could, and it surprised her how many came readily to mind – the cause of the just against the unjust, the need to engage fairly and on equal terms with a force superior in numbers and firepower, and the final and, as it turned out, deciding argument, that the need to remove a tyrant and despot from the land justified the means one might employ.
The one thing that worried her, that once her troops started to employ such tactics, was that Neil might be as aware as she was of their use during warfare, and have many of the effective counter-measures up his sleeve. Chief among these, of course, would be to pursue the same slash and burn tactics against the civilian population that many other forces have used to flush out the ‘hidden’ army.
That night she discussed her fears with Leman.
“You see, when a small army goes up against a big one, the big one usually wins. That is why this kind of warfare, where the small army never fights a big force, or fights very quickly from a distance and then runs away, works so well. They keep damaging the enemy until such time as the big army is no longer so big, and then an attack on conventional means can work. But the big army can attack the support the small army has from farms and houses, and make sure they are not supplied with food and shelter. In some places in my world where this was done, the population no longer supported the rebels, but in others it simply increased support, and then the big army simply burnt everything and destroyed everything.”
“Yes, but you forget, Red Lady, that is already happening. People do not have to support the rebels to be put to fire and sword, as you saw.”
“So they are in it already, and a bit more won’t make a difference?”
“Yes. And I agree with you. I know the generals feel bad now, but when the first strike works, they will change. Now, we need to practice some more on your control of the lift.”
Tracy obediently got out her wand and worked for an hour under Leman’s direction, lifting stones and moving them, slowly at first, and then flinging them against targets. It was, she was surprised to find, as tiring in some ways as actually physically lifting the missiles, except that she could lift things she would not be able to move with mere physical strength. And, what was more, she could control the trajectory during the flight, making a block swerve and dip before striking its target.
After that Leman had her work on controlling the ignition of the canjira, and directing the flames to whichever point she chose.
Between these and the swordplay Tracy had developed a more muscular physique and was now much stronger than she had been before. Her fitness had always been good, but now she had muscular strength to go with it.
Even if she did not feel like the Red Lady yet, she was looking the part. Dressed in a loose robe over her own tight-fitting jeans and T-shirt, she looked regal, and when she donned the armour the smiths had constructed for her, she did not look out of place. Now if only she could convince herself – or maybe that’s the way heroism worked? You got put in the middle of a situation and you got the costume and you did what you could and if you were lucky it all worked?
She lifted her sword and suddenly thought of that other teenage girl who had led an army to victory – Joan of Arc. If she could do it, I can. I just hope I don’t end up on the pyre, as she did, Tracy thought.