Too excited to leave you an a/n here! Read read read...
Kel didn't have to say anything, she just gazed at the familiar face, taking it in inch by inch, the hazel eyes, noting with sadness the dark-rims beneath them and the stubbly cheeks. Alex looked tired. She stepped forward and embraced the man who was her leader, friend, and brother. Alex clung to her, his face buried in her hair, for quite some time. Luckily Lanith had gone to bed early and the others were all busy upstairs, giving the blood-siblings some privacy.
'We're nearly there Kel,' Alex murmured at her ear. It was a relief to hear the resolve in his voice, he was tired, but not yet broken.
Kel gave Alex a comforting squeeze before releasing him from her embrace. She made some hot tea, pouring them both large mugs before indicating that Alex take a seat. She also fetched some food from the larder, doubtful that Alex was looking after himself properly.
'Eat, then speak,' Kel instructed, taking a sip of her hot drink.
'Yes mother,' said Alex exasperatedly in a manner that was surprisingly reminiscent of Neal. Kel wished, when she allowed herself such moments of day dreaming, of a time when things were set right in Scanra and she could introduce Neal and Dom to Alex, and sit down with all her favourite people, Raoul, Lucie, Lalasa, Owen and even Wyldon, and just enjoy their company.
Alex wolfed down the bread, meat and cheese, but shook his head slightly when Kel made a move to fetch him more.
'Where are we?' Kel referred to the plans that had long dictated what would happen next.
'You're all here, except...' he took a mouthful of tea.
'What?' asked Kel, foreboding rising in her heart.
'We're missing five.'
'Who?' Kel's voice wavered, not really wanting to know the answer.
'Matthias, Lorna, Warren, Mikel and Charle.' Said Alex heavily. 'I hadn't come earlier because I've been trying to track down what happened. As far as we can find out, they weren't discovered, they've just been seized as slaves and taken East, either for army or plantation.'
'If they can keep their heads down...'
'They might be okay. But Kel, I can't spare anymore time to look.'
It was bitter to swallow, but Kel understood. She'd hold onto the hope that they'd be alright for the time being and that whatever happened in the next week or so there would be someone alive at the end of it all to go and try to free them. After a few reflective moments, Kel looked up and gestured for Alex to continue.
'My mage is in contact with Master's Harailt and Numair on the border. It is my belief that George has men closely monitoring Maggur's army. I also believe that the Wildmage, though very near to giving birth, had all sorts of birds reporting to her.'
'So we're just waiting?' asked Kel.
Alex nodded slowly. 'And we have to hope that the Tortallans can create just enough rumblings on the border to draw some of the army away. Once they've gone...'
'We attack.' Said Kel simply.
It was not an easy situation to be in, waiting when so many things were out of their control. If the Tortallans committed their forces and Maggur felt he had enough troops in the south without mobilising the forces around the capital, then things could go horribly wrong; their assault on the city would be doomed to failure and the Tortallan army would suddenly be fighting an offensive war in which high casualties were a certainty.
Tensions were running high and Kel had to intervene as petty arguments broke out even amongst the most veteran fighters. It was the horrible, endless waiting. Hours dragged on and on, trapped between eagerness to be doing something and the fear that when it all started things had the potential to go terribly wrong.
One morning, on her usual daily trip to the market, Kel could sense that things were beginning to stir. She sent Lyssa back to Lanith's house so that she could investigate further without worrying about the Rider's Scanran. Kel was almost trampled by a mounted squad of soldiers that came haring down Market street. She made her way to a small bakers towards the north side of Hamrkeng. Kel ducked inside and was confronted with the beautiful smell of freshly baking loaves. Usually it would have set Kel's mouth watering, but not today. Today her stomach was fluttering, and her heart beating double-time, every nerve on fire.
The woman baker looked up over a stomach that was full with child. Widowed, not much older than Kel and with a babe on the way, Kel's heart had nearly broken the first time she'd met this determined young woman. Seeing who it was, Millyae beckoned Kel forward.
'What can I be getting you today?' And in an undertone she added, 'I've orders to bake as many loaves as I can in the name of the King. They're moving out.'
That afternoon saw an exodus of four hundred soldiers from Hamrkeng and its surrounding lands. The relief Kel felt was counteracted slightly by the knowledge that they were marching south to attack her friends and colleagues on the border. Luckily, as Alex had predicted, Maggur did not ride further than the city gates with his men. From her position amid a throng of clamouring townspeople, Kel caught her first glimpse of the man who she'd hated for so long.
Unlike Blayce, who'd been a small rat-like man, and unlike Stenmun who'd been nothing less than a giant of a man, Maggur looked to be pretty average in build. Like most Scanrans his hair was blonde, but he wore it close-cropped in a style not dissimilar to Lord Wyldon's. Ornate though the scabbard that hung at his waist was, the sword hilt itself looked well-used and Maggur held himself with a fighter's stance. Kel studied the man even as his blue eyes roved over his neatly marching soldiers. Once he glanced her way and Kel's heart skipped. She forced herself to keep up the role of a slave girl intrigued by the soldiers marching off to war for a little while longer, before sliding away through the crowd, back to Lanith's house.
Impatiently Kel waited for Alex to drop by. She had no idea where in the city he was staying, if indeed he was staying in one place. It was frustrating to have to wait to be visited and Kel spent most of late afternoon and early evening pacing the kitchen and bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, running over plans endlessly in her head.
After dinner, Kel joined her fellow soldiers in the hidden room and worked off some energy by performing strength and flexibility exercises until at last, Alex poked his head around the door. Everyone stopped what they were doing immediately and Bert poked Rees awake, conscious that no one would want to miss this moment.
'Tortallan armies have crossed the Vassa in four places,' Alex spoke quietly, yet they didn't miss a word. Maggur's marshalling the troops for an assault at daybreak.
'Then we're going tonight?' questioned Henry.
Alex shook his head. Kel was pleased that her soldiers didn't erupt in outrage, despite clearly wanting to they were well trained and let Alex continue.
'We need the soldiers to be at least a day's ride away,' Alex explained. 'Maggur will still be setting up troops, the attack tomorrow won't be full force.'
Although it was difficult for Kel to accept, she trusted Alex, they had to. And finally, after years of waiting, she had a defined date on which they were going to strike at Maggur's stronghold itself. Tomorrow, the first of May.
Kel went with Alex that evening, slipping through the shadows of Hamrkeng after her brother. She met with her Tortallan troops, seeing some of them for the first time since they'd left Trebond. Many had been working as slaves in various industries, others had been holed away in cellars, attics and secret rooms. All looked wiser and tougher for their mission. They spoke Scanran with ease and seemed at home with both their comrades and Scanran hosts. Kel worried what effects the mission might've had on their fitness, but she tried to push this out of her mind; there was nothing she could do now other than instruct the men to sleep, eat and stretch well in this last twenty-four hours. Then they'd know...one way or another.
Final instructions were given and each man had at the ready both his sword and clothes that included a steel-studded jerkin, dark shirt and soft padded slippers. Kel returned to Lanith's house and donned her own dark clothing and protective gear.
Lanith came amongst the Tortallans and with a small hand gesture, removed all traces of magic from the Tortallans. Their iron slave rings clattered to the floor. Kel rubbed the slightly chaffed skin and flexed her neck, relieved to be rid of the collar. She settled down and slept fitfully for most of the morning. Kel had to force herself not to worry about what was happening on the border, where Raoul, Dom and the rest of Third company were. Instead she relived her years in Scanra, both the happy and painful moments, and prayed for the courage for what they were about to do.
Great Mother, Kel called out silently. I have rarely asked for your favour, and I know I'm not your diligent vassal like Lady Alanna, but please, please would you be guiding and helping us this evening. If what people have hinted at is true; that the Great gods do want to see Maggur deposed, then would you please guide our arms and our heads later. Let Alex do what he plans, let us get him there, please, please.
Kel pleaded to the silent deity for what seemed like hours. Late in the afternoon Millyae and Lanith bought bread to the hideout, their eyes desperate with a grim hope that the Tortallan fighters could fulfil all their hopes about finally rid of Maggur. The bread, which smelt wonderful, was tasteless in Kel's mouth and stuck in her throat. She forced some of it down; if they had to fight through the night she'd need all the energy she could get.
When the tenth bell had chimed, and darkness had truly encased Hamrkeng, the freedom fighters made last minute adjustments in their secret hideaways. Kel strapped Courage and several daggers to her dark belt and readjusted her wrist guards. She shook out her limbs, every nerve and sense jangling and alert.
She had been trying to make up a speech in her head for the past hour but the words slipped from her head as soon as she'd composed sentences; her mind was focussing on everything else; slight noises, the thumping of her heart within her chest. As Kel opened her mouth to speak, Rees beat her to it.
'We know what we're up against,' the man squared his shoulders. 'We know what we've gotta do. It's been an honour Lady Knight, an honour.' He saluted her with Alex's sign, just as she'd taught him. The others followed suit and Kel could only respond by repeating the gesture. Kel knew that if she lived to be a hundred, although that was looking unlikely at the present time, she'd never forget this evening; not just for the fight that was about to commence, but for the group of people she'd spent the day locked up with. Shoulder-to-shoulder they stood, from all backgrounds, united to help a country they'd never even visited before the mission, all ready to give their lives for a cause they only half understood but knew in their guts was right. Kel didn't think she'd ever seen such a definition of honour before.
They crept from the house, slippers padding silently across the cobbles. From a courtyard they dispersed in pairs, creeping through the shadows of the Scanran city. There were still people about, but dark cloaks drawn around their person helped to hide their weapons from any sober citygoers.
Unlike Corus, Hamrkeng did not have a palace, but it did not have a castle either. Rather a fortified district that housed the government buildings, army barracks and central command post from which Maggur ruled. The city hall was easily the largest building and rumour had it that Maggur had erected himself a throne at one end from which he could observe any subjects bought before him.
Whilst in theory, such a district was easier to infiltrate than a castle, it was a sprawling mess of buildings; not a good fighting environment. Once they were inside they would also be unable to secure the entrance, meaning that any sort of alarm that was raised could mean that Maggur could call for any aid from within the city. Their best chances were to strike, and strike quickly.
The other unpredictable element was the precise location of Maggur, and the likelihood that as soon as the invasion was discovered he could disappear into Hamrkeng city and be lost until his reinforcements arrived.
As the district wall loomed ahead of them Kel and her partner Bert ducked through the archway into a courtyard that was covered by canvas, and came face to face with half of her Tortallan fighters, waiting in silence. They raised hands of greeting but otherwise remained sensibly quiet. Kel and Bert shed their dark cloaks; they'd only get in the way once the fighting began.
Kel performed a quick headcount. Four were missing. They waited tensely in the bizarre tent-like courtyard. The surrounding buildings were eerily quiet. Kel wondered how Alex had arranged the removal of the buildings occupants. Five minutes later or so, the final four fighters arrived and explained in a whisper that they'd been waylaid by two drunk men trying to pick a fight.
Despite the distant sounds of the city, the atmosphere in the courtyard was so still Kel reckoned she could've heard a pin drop. Kel hand signalled five men to the front that were clutching rope-ladders and other wall-scaling equipment. She inhaled, the world was still around her for a moment and then, she brought her hand down in a decisive movement, they were off.
If everything had gone to plan so far, Alex's inside women would either have drugged or killed all the watch guards for this ninth to twelfth bell shift. It gave them a window of opportunity to scale the wall in two places that couldn't be seen from the main garrison, only from the watchtowers.
The rope ladders were thrown so that they draped over the walls. A scanran mage that Alex had assigned to Kel's invading force used his gift to secure the other ends of the ladders to the earth on the other side of the four metre high wall.
Quickly, and as quietly as could be managed, the men hauled themselves up the ladder. Kel raced up the ladder, one hand in front of the other; afraid of heights no longer. Clambering over the wall she half-scuttled half-jumped down the other side and surveyed her dark surroundings. They were to aim for the main garrison, where Maggur was likely to be, and try to prevent any of his soldiers from entering or leaving.
Kel hand-signalled that they split into two groups of twenty for the purpose of navigating the maze of buildings. When trying to sneak in such large groups there was little that could be done. Some of Alex's mages were fine illusionists and managed to hide the group from the eyes of some hostlers and also from two squads of newly recruited soldiers.
As they neared the garrison, fiery torches illuminated the paved square and Kel could see a guard squad lazing on the steps that led up to the main doors. There was nothing for it. With any luck, by now Alex and Tor's group would've made their way to the back of the building. Kel resettled her grip on Courage. And charged.
The group of Tortallans and Scanrans sprinted across the flickering courtyard. Shouts went up from the guards at the door, which lead to more confused red bedecked Scanrans spilling out of surrounding buildings. Kel's men crashed into the guards at the gate, and for several minutes Kel was lost in the roar and clash of the fighting. She was at the front of her fighters, Courage cleaving space ahead of them, whilst some of her comrades fought to keep other Scanrans off of her back. They had to get inside quickly and shut the door; they couldn't hold for long pressed on both sides.
The fight moved forwards slowly, and Kel's men were able to scramble over piles of bodies and into the entrance hall. One mage blasted a wave of Maggur's outside fighters back, which gave them the much needed chance to press the great oak doors shut behind them. Bolts were hurriedly slide into place and for now, their backs were protected.
Kel didn't doubt that the doors would either be quickly broken open, or that the soldiers, who knew the building a lot better than she did would find other ways in. They had to keep moving forward. It would be costly, but this whole mission was one big gamble. Someone had knocked over a vat of burning oil, whether on purpose or deliberately Kel didn't know, but it gave some of her fighters a chance to sprint away up the corridor.
Fighting in confined spaces was even more chaotic than on a battlefield and Kel had to let them go, there simply wasn't room inside to fight as a big unit. They knew as much as she did about the layout and whilst it was risky to spread out, it was the best chance they had of catching Maggur if he tried to escape.
Another two squads poured into the entrance hall. Kel took a brief moment to wipe the sweat and blood spatter from her forehead before ploughing into the fighting. She had trained her men well and the hall soon fell silent. A slice on her upper left arm was leaking blood, but Kel ignored it. She also ignored some dark figures dead on the ground; she daren't look at who they'd lost.
'Come on,' she called in Scanran, and took a route up the main stairs. There was the city hall, its entrance but a huge archway. The room that stretched beyond was massive. From a distance, Kel hadn't quite appreciated the scale of the building. It was also empty, so Kel kept her group of soldiers moving. Ahead of them fighters tumbled out of a corridor, Kel's group were set to charge again, when the men waved a white flag with a bloody red handprint at them.
'Stop,' Kel commanded, hurrying forward. There were six Scanrans, supporting a nearly unconscious elderly woman who Kel presumed was a mage.
'We're with Alexei,' one of the men explained, 'We got separated. There's been heavy fighting.'
Kel in truth had no idea where they should go, but sensed above all else, that they had to keep going, to search, ferret out Maggur.
'Right, half of you that way, try and find Alex's group and the rest of our fighters. Others, with me.' It seemed likely that if Maggur had set the city hall as his throne room, then there would be private rooms adjoined it at the back. Time to sniff out a rat.
They set off at a fast run down the length of the hall, adrenalin had flooded Kel's system and she felt more alive than she had in weeks. There was no time to think or worry any more, she just had to fight. They paused, facing the two doors at the back of the gigantic chamber. Sword raised, Henry flung one door open, the room beyond was empty. Kel motioned to the second door, which was duly opened.
Of the two chambers, the second looked more private, so Kel led her men in there. When they emerged out the back of the chamber, the corridor beyond was empty, but there were distant sounds of fighting.
'Hang on,' panted Eprim, one of the mages who'd stuck close to Kel throughout. He pulled out a scrying mirror from within his jacket. 'Ah ha'.
'What?' asked Kel urgently.
'It seems Maggur's pet mage has been killed; his protecting spells have disappeared, I can see him.'
'I can't place his location, my Lady, I've never been in the garrison before, but he's with a fair number of his soldiers.'
This gave Kel hope; Maggur, like Alex had hoped he would, had stayed with his personal guard.
'We'll head toward the fighting.' Said Kel decisively.
On their way they came across several groups of Maggur's fleeing men. It was a hard decision, but Kel couldn't risk the fact that they might rejoin the fight later. All died quickly. They moved forward, blood dripping sluggishly from the ends of their weapons. Kel would agonise later about those men, and pray for forgiveness, for now she had more pressing concerns.
There was a great ruckus ahead. Red tunic clad soldiers vastly outnumbered the dark ones and had formed a ring around Alex's force in what seemed to be the mess hall. Kel surveyed the situation. If she didn't act quickly their group would be crushed; no one could fight pressed on every side.
'I need a distraction at the far end of the hall,' Kel yelled at the two mages, 'Anything you can.' She signalled to the rest of her fighters. They took up formation in flat 'v' shape and charged at the ring of red, at a point where it seemed thinnest. For three chaotic minutes, although it seemed much longer, Kel and her comrades were inundated by Maggur's soldiers. Whatever distraction the mages had come up with, Kel didn't know, too busy deflecting would-be fatal blows and slaughtering soldiers left, right and centre. It was a close call, and it had cost many of Kel's comrades lives, but they broke through to the main group.
Alex's men flooded through the channel they'd made, bolstering Kel's fighters. As a group the freedom fighters made a slow retreat from the mess hall. Some of the last soldiers, which included Tor, held Maggur's men back in the doorway whilst the rest of Alex's men ran for it. Alex was directing them down a corridor, it was the first time Kel had seen him in a fight for years and he'd not lost any of his impressive presence. She bought up the rear of the escaping soldier, tears escaping her eyes. For those left behind it was surely suicide; they'd sacrificed themselves to let the others get a minute's head start.
She pushed pain to the back of her mind as she ran after the depleted freedom fighters. What were they going to do? They were still hugely outnumbered and she had no idea where Maggur was. Alex had led them back into the city hall. He caught Kel's wrist, more roughly than he'd probably intended, but his hazel eyes were wild, burning with determination. It bolstered Kel, maybe, just maybe they still had a chance.
'Maggur's with that force of soldiers.' He said roughly. 'They're coming Kel. We need to barricade those two doors at the back.' But even as he spoke the words, some of the experienced Tortallan fighters had acted of their own accord; in this mad situation a clear command was hard to come by.
Kel's attention quickly turned to the other end of the hall where near a hundred soldiers were advancing. Kel swallowed, looking around at the perhaps forty soldiers they had left. Forty could take on a hundred, it could be done. But if there were other soldiers around the garrison then they were screwed.
The red forces halted, facing the dark forces. A voice rang out.
'Before we execute you, I would like to enquire who it is that had invaded my kingdom. Did King Jonathan send you? Is this all part of the attack he launched yesterday?' Maggur stepped forward, his sword wet with blood. 'I'm impressed that you made it this far,' he said honestly, almost unconcernedly.
'No, I brought them here.' Alex too stepped forward, all eyes upon his unassuming frame. 'I, Alexei of Rathhausak, have come here to take what is mine by my birthright.'
The soldiers had stilled, even those nursing injuries were hanging on every word.
Surprise flitted across Maggur's usually impassive face. 'Alexei, little Alexei?' He stared at Alex, scrutinising him.
'It's been eleven years guardsman,' Alex's voice was even, but the hatred was barely disguised. 'I've watched you shaming my people. But no more. In the presence of these witnesses and the gods themselves, I challenge you! A duel, you against me; may the one worthy to lead the clan of Rathhausak win.'
Maggur was slow to reply. 'Why should I?' he asked. 'I could kill you all easily enough.'
'Have you no honour left? asked Alex with scorn. 'You expect your guard to respect you if you haven't the courage to fight a challenger?' Kel watched Maggur's men shift uncomfortably as Alex continued to goad Maggur.
'I can replace them easily enough,' Maggur shrugged. 'Why I might even convince them that crazy little Alexei, who murdered his family had come to finish the job.'
Now it was Alex's turn to tense with anger.
Come on Alex, thought Kel don't rise to it.
Alex schooled his face back to calmness before replying. 'It's common knowledge now that it was Jonai, encouraged by you of course, who did the murdering that night. Always getting someone else to fight your battles for you Maggur...Not that murdering people in their beds is a battle, but you couldn't even face that. Fight me, guardsman.'
It seemed that the "guardsman" comment was finally what made Maggur snap and take a step forward. 'Alright, Alexei, I'll fight you. We'll see if the student can best the teacher at last.' Maggur's eyes glittered dangerously. 'Once you're out of the way, and your-' he sneered 'men are dead, we'll finish the Tortallans who've so foolishly invaded and the might of my Kingdom will know no end.'
Kel could hear the mad, power-craziness in Maggur's voice but was more shocked by the revelation that Maggur had been Alex's instructor in swordplay. She'd know Maggur had been in the Rathausak personal guard, but more than that he'd been Alex's teacher, undoubtably his mentor in the same way that Alex had taught her...
'Kel's my second,' she started at the sound of her name echoing round the great hall. Maggur scoffed at the sight of the lady warrior and selected a burly looking soldier to be his. By Scanran tradition the seconds would step in and fight in the unlikely event that both parties were fatally injured.
Alex stripped off his scabbard, so that it wasn't swing around his legs and wiped his hands. His eyes met Kel's for a fraction of a second and then they were back focussing on Maggur, the reason for his eleven-year campaign.
As the two fighters stepped together, Kel couldn't quite believe it was happening. They'd actually survived long enough to orchestrate a fight between Maggur and Alex. Now that her turn in the proceedings was over, fear washed over Kel. There was nothing she could do other than watch, and pray to every god she knew that Alex would win this fight.
At the first clash of metal Kel jumped, and half wished she could bury her face in her hands until it was all over. She felt sick to the very core and was starting to feel dizzy with blood loss. The fight was starting slowly, Kel supposed she should try and bandage her wounds in case she was required to fight afterwards and set about doing so. This was made difficult by the fact that she could not tear her gaze away from the fight.
Maggur's sword was slightly longer than Alex's and crashed into the Kethlun-forged blade with a fearful power. Despite not known for leading his troops into battle, Maggur was obviously an extremely talented fencer, probably explaining why he'd been selected to train the Rathhausak children all those years ago.
She was so nervous Kel could barely remember to breathe, let alone think straight. Wild thoughts rushed through her head. What would happen if she simply ran over and killed Maggur, or created a huge distraction? No a sensible part of her mind whispered, this was a fight Alex had to win on his own.
She wondered dimly if Rhonda was watching from the realms of the dead, or Jacqui, or even Tor as that's undoubtedly where their friend now was. What about the thousands, hundreds of thousands of nameless others who'd never lived to see this day...
Both fighters were now bleeding slowly from nicks and gashes and the floor looked slippery with blood. Kel barely stifled a cry as the tip of Maggur's sword slashed Alex's calf. The fight couldn't go on much longer, both men looked fair exhausted; would this turn into a contest of who could resist passing out from blood loss first?
Alex attacked in a whirlwind, although Kel could see how much his damaged leg was troubling him; his footwork looked slow and laboured in comparison to the darting blade in his right hand. Alex's sword grazed Maggur's left hand side, and dark blossomed through the expensive red tunic.
He struck high, and low, a butterfly sweep, they locked swords, Alex spun away, feinted right, he was giving it everything he had. In one last, desperate move Alex lunged forward, ignoring the blade that bit into his left arm, he bought his sword into an opening left by Maggur and smashed the blade away with such force that Maggur was knocked off balance. The king lost his footing for but half a second on the blood-wet floor and Alex heaved his sword around to cleave Maggur's head clean off it's body.
It was a messy death, the body slumping to the floor, gushing lifeblood, whilst the blood head, a look of surprise on its imperious features landed with a horrible thump, some metres to the right.
Alex's sword clattered to the floor, and he and the rest of those present stood immobile, as though time had simply frozen. There was no thunderclap, the gods didn't appear in a blaze of light and the earth didn't shake. And yet they stood, stunned by the enormity of what had happened.
'Long...live...the...King,' someone called, their deep voice ringing out across the chamber.
One by one, the men and women fell to their knees, and raised their fists in a familiar salute.
Alex remained frozen, blood trickling from his various injuries, staring at the kneeling warriors and the decapitated corpse in astonishment. Kel, who had not kneeled, stumbled forward, sheathing Courage and broke into a heavy run. Whilst an emphatic hug somewhat broke the decorum of the moment, she sensed it was what Alex needed right now. He didn't return Kel's embrace, his arms were still hanging limply by his side. When Kel pulled back, Alex's face wore an expression of almost bewilderment.
'Alex you did it,' Kel clutched his face with bloody hands. Alex nodded, his eyes still wide and staring. 'Yes,' he said slowly. 'We did it.' And he turned slowly on the spot, surveying the fighters present. Some of Maggur's men, perhaps fearing Alex's wrath stood up and fled. Everyone else remained kneeling.
Alex slowly limped over to Maggur's head, and rolled it over with his foot. He was becoming more and more animate by the second. Kel was relieved, she'd been worried that Alex was going into shock. She beckoned for one of the gifted men, who she knew to have a healing gift. The new King of Scanra allowed the worst of his wounds to be healed, before striding over to Maggur's men.
'I won't demand your service,' Alex had found his voice. 'But I will demand your loyalty. We have a chance here, for Scanra to rise out of the ruin it's become. When the sun rises, the Tortallans will withdraw from our soil and our great country will be at peace once more. We will rebuild our homeland, our clans, our culture. There will be healers and hospitals for the sick, education for the young, if our southern brothers have enough to teach at a university then so do we. There'll be easy trade with our neighbours, farms and fisheries reinstated to feed our growing nation. Families and villages will be reunited. Mothers and wives will mourn no more the loss of their men on the southern battle fields. And I swear before you now, in the name of blessed Yahzed that I will lead Scanra to a better future.' The men present hung on his every word, hardly able to believe such a place could exist and yet longing with all their might for it to become a reality. 'I need your help,' Alex finished simply. 'Help me rebuild our land.'
It took a while for Maggur's men to swear blood oaths of fealty to Alex and to remove their red shirts. Alex's new warriors would wear their white shirts, a single blood red hand printed on the front.
Kel was exhausted and more injured than she'd previously realised. In addition to the gashes that were slowly stopping bleeding, she was aching all over where her mail had protected her from swings and blows of enemy swords. However it didn't stop her leaping up to join the volunteers who'd sweep the castle for any remnants of Maggur's forces or those who were injured but alive. With Maggur's head on a spike ahead of them, like some grizzly pennant, they set off through the castle.
It was strangely deserted, men had either fled or followed Maggur to the great hall. Some corridors were as untouched as if there hadn't been an invasion of the garrison that night, whilst others floors were littered with bodies.
It was always a grim task, searching through bodies; easing those who were beyond help to the Black God's realm and transporting the lucky few back to Alex's healers. To Kel's astonishment Tor was still alive, barely. His neck and leg both had nasty wounds but Kel presumed, by some luck of the gods themselves, major arteries had been missed. Kel wanted to accompany the men that carrier the large Scanran to the healers, but she couldn't, she still had a task to do.
The garrison was dark, lit by torches and braziers and the metallic smell of blood was thick in the air. In one room they came across a band of terrified guardsmen, who leapt forward and began to fight in earnest. Kel battered their swords away as best she could without killing any of them. It took Maggur's head and a lot of persuading before the men would lay down their weapons and allow themselves to be escorted into the presence of their new King.
Terrified slaves were also discovered, cowering in kitchens and store cupboards. Kel's men convinced them to join the assembly gathering in the hall.
Once the garrison was clear, they widened their searches, combing through the whole district to root out stragglers. There were several skirmishes and to Kel's horror, one of her men was badly stabbed. She prayed that he wouldn't die, not now they'd got this far.
The sun rose over a very different Hamrkeng. Alex's fighting force, now dressed in white and numbering nearly two hundred men, processed down into the very heart of the capital. Word spread rapidly spread through the sleepy city and people emerged from their houses, places of work and taverns. Women and men alike were openly weeping. Some knelt to Alex, some jumped and sang with joy. Some were foolish enough to think they could attack Alex whilst he was out in the open.
In the largest square Hamrkeng had to offer, Alex climbed atop a fountain, soaking his breeches in the process. Protected from archers by invisible mage-shields he delivered a similar address to that which he'd given to Maggur's personal guard. He couldn't possibly swear all the cities-people to loyalty, but he felt it was important to show his face, to engage with his populace. He wasn't going to rule from afar, but from right amongst them.
Alex swore to fealty the guards of the city, tasking them with the protection of the people. Alex despite being vulnerable to attack, felt that he didn't need a personal two-hundred strong guard and outlined plans for the soldiers to become the city's guards, watchmen and law-enforcers.
One of the first pressing matters would be to stop the fighting that would imminently be starting up on the southern border. It would take several days to reach the armies, meaning that for now Alex had to rely on mages. Where Alex had found powerful mages, Kel didn't know and she was even more clueless about how he'd managed to persuade them to work for him, but most of Alex's network of mages had convened upon Hamrkeng. From an office in the garrison, they had the daunting task of contacting not only the armies on the border, but other central posts of command in Scanra.
An elderly woman, who seemed to be in charge, pulled Alex and the bearer of Maggur's head to one side.
'Are you ready for this youngling?' she asked, her voice gravelly. Alex nodded.
It took a while to persuade Imar, the first commander that Alex spoke to, that Maggur was indeed dead.
'How do I know you're not a mage tricking me?' It was a fair question.
'Because, if you raise a white flag with a red hand print on,' replied Alex. 'Then the invading Tortallans will pack up their things and leave.' It was the signal that had been agreed between Alex and King Jonathan. 'We will bring Maggur's head down to you as soon as we can to prove beyond all doubt that I am the new King.'
Similar conversations happened with four separate commanders along the breadth of the border.
Imar, still suspicious, but willing to try almost anything to prevent another day of heavy losses on the battle field, personally raised the newly created flag and sat down to wait. It took about half an hour before there were signs from the Tortallan camp. Across the blood-spattered plain, tents and flags were being lowered, packed away.
'Well Yazhed bless me,' Imar breathed in amazement.
Raoul had not slept well. Bleary eyed, in want of a shave, with his black curly hair unruly from the amount of times he'd run his hands through it, he paced the camp.
'Sir!' At the shout he raced in a wholly undignified manner to the watch post, snatching up the spyglass. Sure enough, despite all the odds, a white flag with a red hand was being raised.
Raoul let out a whoop. Kel and Alex had done it, they'd actually done it. He checked again, raising the spyglass to his eye, just to be sure. The flag was still there.
The watchman looked confused. The knight clapped the man jovially on the shoulder and handed him back his spyglass.
'We're going home,' said Raoul simply.
By the time the sun had set on Alex's first day as King of Scanra, Kel was so exhausted that she could barely think straight. She sat on the steps that led out from the garrison, inhaling the smoke that drifted over from the funeral pyres and was vaguely aware of the sounds of exuberant partying and singing. The people had had precious little to dance about these past few years and seemed to be determined to make up for it.
Not everyone of course was happy with their new King. There'd been two attempts on Alex's life already, which a combination of his guards and mages had halted. Irrespective of the fact that they'd sworn a blood oath, the Guard seemed determined to protect and uphold their new King. That knowledge, coupled with her extreme tiredness, was the reason why Kel had let Alex out of her sight.
She peered up at the inky sky stretching for eons above her. The stars seemed especially bright tonight, welcoming what everyone hoped would be the start of a new era, of peace.
'There you are.'
Kel craned her neck tiredly to face the King of Scanra.
'S'everything alright?' she asked.
'Yes, the envoys and peace emissaries have just left. It's time to sleep.'
Sleep sounded wonderful to Kel, if only she could just doze here...
'Come on,' Alex gently lifted her to her feet. How he still had the energy, Kel didn't know.
Together they stumbled up into the private quarters of the garrison, Alex waving away anyone who offered to help them. Alex tried several doors, aiming to find somewhere that was not already occupied, and that didn't have blood pools on the floor.
'In here,' Alex took a torch from the corridor outside and used it to light the room's fireplace and braziers. 'There's some water here,' he investigated behind a wooden screen. 'Towels, and clean shirts. Perfect.'
Slowly, tiredly, Kel pulled off her filthy, battle-stained clothing, leaving it in a heap by the door. Wearing only her underthings, she padded over to the washbasin and used a sponge to start cleaning the sweat and blood from her body. Her worst injuries had been stitched earlier and now throbbed whenever the stitches tugged on them. Kel dunked her whole head in the bucket once she was done, and wrapped her sodden hair in a towel.
The person who'd once occupied the rooms was larger than she was; the green shirt was almost as big as a nightshirt and she had to tie the breeches at the sides so they didn't fall down. Not that Kel cared at that moment.
Feeling slightly more human now she was clean, although she was still extremely tired, Kel turned to watch Alex exchanging his shirt for a clean one. Their eyes met. Two pairs of red-rimmed, black-bagged hazel eyes.
There weren't words that could express the emotion that passed between the old friends, the siblings. Alex simply held out his arms and Kel all but fell into them. How far had they come since their fateful meeting on a Tortallan road? Who could've imagined that two damaged strangers could literally change the world...
There would be time later for celebrating their achievements, as well as for mourning those who'd been lost. There would be time for reminiscing, and for planning the future. But for now, they curled up together on a king-sized brocade-covered bed, and went to sleep.
-a/n- So there you have it! The long awaited departure of Maggur =D I hope that lived up to your expectations...
Only two chapters left to go my lovelies...
PS feedback of any sort would be SO appreciated. I need a big kick to drive me through the next chapter (there's a lot of loose ends to tie up!)