Title: The Good Witch
Chapter: Three Armies Marching
Warnings: Mortars, and bullets, and bayonets- oh my!
Summary: The Witch is gone, but that doesn't mean the war is over. More battles for the Queen's Army.
Disclaimer: Yeah. It's not mine.
The Viewer, Raw, was playing with the children when Azkadellia came out from the palace. She watched him lead them on a chase through the tall grasses, and she wondered if he was doing it because DG had done it, or because he could sense how happy they were when they were at play. There was so little happiness in Finaqua otherwise. The fate of the Queen's Army, and of her father- and she tried not to flinch at the thought of him- were too uncertain.
She would have gladly watched the game a while longer, but the familiar scrape of Shiloh's crutches on what remained of a cobblestone walkway made her turn. She moved to meet him, acknowledging his awkward bow with the best smile as she could manage. He always saw the Princess when he looked at her, never the Witch, and she cherished that.
"Your Highness," he said warmly, "I'd hoped I would find you, and here you are. My timing is fortunate."
"My mother is taking audiences," Azkadellia answered, stopping before she added how often, as of late, the Queen had done so, or how much she couldn't stand to listen. Because Longcoats had her father, the war kept raging on, and no one could say anything of consequence.
Shiloh gave her a knowing look. "The people are afraid, Your Highness. They want to know our army is well and marching toward victory."
"And my mother must tell them that our army marches in search of friends it may not have." Azkadellia forced herself not to think on it further, to find something else to focus on. "Why did you hope to find me?"
"I- oh, yes. To ask a favor, Your Highness." Carefully, so as not to upset his balance, Shiloh drew a worn, battered book from his beneath jacket and held it out to her. "Lord Ambrose found this for me in the library, thinking it undamaged, but I'm afraid it's missing several pages."
"The Firebringer," Az murmured, smoothing her hands over the cover. "My father used to tell us this story-" she waited while the fear for his life flared up and slowly subsided- "every year after the first snowfall. He wanted to remind us that even though the O.Z. was growing dark and cold, we'd been given warmth and light to sustain us."
Shiloh smiled as he took the thin volume back from her. "I thought I would pass that lesson on to my students, Your Highness, but I need someone to recall the parts that have been lost. Am I right in thinking you can do it?"
"There's so much," Az said, thinking beyond the book's pages. "But perhaps Cecily can help, as well." She knew that would please the teacher and make the task of remembering the old story easier. Cecily's memory was less cluttered. Less sullied.
Shiloh said, "I would welcome her help, of course, Your Highness. Shall we look for her together?" He shifted his grip on his crutches so she could put her hand in the crook of his arm.
With her at his side, he deftly navigated the stairs that led back into the palace. In the main hall the guards informed them that Cecily was in her chamber, mending garments for the Queen. Azkadellia thought- as she often did- how wise Cecily's mother had been to insist her daughter learn practical skills alongside courtly ones at an early age. There had been no learning after the Witch came.
She heard the crying long before she and Shiloh reached Cecily's door, and it scared her because there should not have been anything new to cry for. She immediately rushed forward, hearing Shiloh's crutches scrabble on the floor as he hurried to keep up. Somehow, he reached the door just after she did and was the one who pushed it open.
Near the windowsill, Cecily bolted to her feet, trying to wipe off more tears than her hands could handle. "Oh! Your Highness, forgive me, I didn't know you were-" but she got no further before Shiloh had an arm around her, pulling her towards him.
"Let me see the report," Azkadellia said, certain that more news from the army had come.
But Cecily only looked at her in confusion. "There is no report, Your Highness, save the one you've seen already." She turned her face into Shiloh's shoulder so that her next words came out muffled, "I wish I could tell you otherwise."
For a moment Az was sure she had misheard. "Why?" she demanded. "Why would you wish for more ill news?"
"Your Highness, it's her brother writing the reports," Shiloh chided. "It's the only way she knows he lives."
Cecily stepped back from his embrace and tried to dry her eyes again. "Gods forgive me- and you, as well, Your Highness- I will rejoice no matter what he writes if only for that reason."
"Oh," Az breathed. "Oh, Cecily, of course he lives. Jeb would make it his duty to write if it wasn't so."
Cecily nodded. "I keep telling myself so, Your Highness, and try to remember I'm not the only one who waits for news. This is no harder for me than anyone else."
Shiloh said, "We must all pray that the east will give us the means for victory."
And Azkadellia couldn't help giving voice to her doubts. "The masters of the eastern cities were slaughtered. It happened so quickly." She remembered every grisly death, even though the memories were the Witch's and she didn't want them. "Their successors paid for the peace in platinum and arms rather than fighting on." She glanced at Cecily again as a new thought occurred to her. "What will your brother say to them? Will it gall him to make such friends?"
Cecily shook her head. "It matters more what Jeb Cain will say, Your Highness, but my brother knows men seldom live up to the oaths they swear."
And Az remembered- again, because the Witch did- that the men who'd sworn to protect the Ayalo family had scattered after Lord Devon's death, leaving his widow and children defenseless. Only Cecily and Jacob had survived, separated from one another, hiding their noble birth with their mother's name.
One day she would ask them how they had managed it.
Shiloh spoke again, "Whatever choices the easterners made in the past, I think that they will agree to join the war, Your Highness, especially if the guildfighters do the same. And our army must take them. They cannot afford to do otherwise."
"No," Az agreed. "But the past always matters to someone."
"Hail Dorothy, Princess of the O.Z.!"
"Princess of the O.Z.! Princess of the O.Z.!"
DG listened to guildfighters cheer her entry into their territory, a far cry from the way they'd treated her during their first encounter. But this time she wasn't a stranger who'd just been blown in from The Other Side; she was a princess- cold, tired, and covered in weeks-worth of mud and rain- but still a princess, and arriving in the midst of an army.
She wasn't sure which the guildfighters respected more, but she guessed it didn't matter.
The chieftain, a fierce little man who called himself Black Spear, put his hands up so that she could place hers palm to palm with his. "Long Journeyed Princess," he greeted her - "and Slayer of the Sorceress."
She started to contradict him- to explain how the Witch's machine had backfired- but Jeb looked her way and gave his head a subtle shake. Black Spear, unaware of their quick exchange, kept calling out various titles as he ushered her toward a cluster of feather-bedecked guildfighter women. They were all his wives, he told her proudly, before turning to inspect the army she'd come in with.
At that point, barely half of the soldiers had arrived; the rest were still making their way across the O.Z.'s grassy midlands, spread out to lessen the chance of their detection because Jacob had been certain the Longcoats would be looking for them. DG was listening to Jeb explain as much when Black Spear's wives began tugging her hands, trying to get her to move.
"Wait," she said, digging in her heels. "I want to stay and talk to your chieftain."
"You will talk, but not in this state," said one of the women, patting her arm as if to reassure her. "Come now, your men and ours will wait."
DG realized that Black Spear intended to speak with her in public- like the audiences her mother held before the throne in Finaqua- and she knew she didn't look very regal. She let the women lead her away, hoping they would transform her into a proper princess, and hoping she could keep her chilled, exhausted brain working a while longer.
They didn't give her a chance to wash up or change clothes- they actually seemed to approve of her rain-soaked state- but they did tie feathers in her hair and take the beaded bracelets from their own arms to put on hers. She tried to tell them she couldn't take their jewelry, but they were insistent.
One explained, "If we each give a gift to you the gods will reward us with future gifts, too."
Once they had decorated her to their approval they led her back into the circle of open space between their huts. Most of the guildfighters had dispersed and were helping the soldiers sling tents and get the cook fires going. Only about two dozen or so remained- clan leaders, she thought, remembering the hasty cultural lessons she'd gotten from Jacob during the march. They all bent a knee as she passed them, and pressed their fists against their chests.
Black Spear was seated on a wooden dais, flanked by two men who might have been his brothers or his servants; it was difficult to tell. Meanwhile Jeb, Jacob, Lou, and Will Arie- the young captain of Tenth Company- were seated on low benches around a growing bonfire. DG would have happily joined them to get warm, but because of her status- and, perhaps, because they were trying to make amends for how she'd been treated before- the guildfighters brought out a carved chair similar to Black Spear's and set it on the dais. She stepped up to join him, trying to move in the calm, straight-backed way that her mother and Az did so effortlessly.
"Three armies," Black Spear announced once she'd seated herself. "Three armies marching we have seen. Longcoats, Lords, and those for the Queen."
Jeb leaned in at that- in part, DG thought, to cover the way Jacob had visibly tensed beside him. "We weren't aware the Lords' Army had traveled this way," he said. "We thank you for the valuable news."
Black Spear nodded graciously, and the two men beside him thumped the ground with their staffs.
"The last I saw of the Lords' Army, they were massed just north of Central City," said Will, glancing around like he expected someone to scold him for speaking out of turn. DG guessed he still felt a little out of his depth, being new to command and away from his men.
Black Spear said, "This Lords' Army fights for the city, too, but three days past we saw them come through." He gestured off into the woods with one arm, tracing what was presumably the other army's path.
"Guess they're sending men east, too, sir," Lou said to Jeb. To Black Spear, he asked, "How many of them did you see?"
"Less than you. They look like you, too, but their arms were dark blue."
"They have blue arms?" DG asked skeptically.
"He means they were wearing armbands, Your Highness," Jacob answered. "Dark blue is the traditional color of the Ozian nobility." His voice was oddly tight, but DG knew it would attract unwanted questions if she reached out to him, so she forced herself to ignore it.
Black Spear was already looking wary. "There is one thing that must be known. Will you fight both armies to defend the throne?"
"We will," Jeb said immediately- and DG let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding when the other captains, including Jacob, nodded their agreement. Jeb continued, "We hope you'll honor us by joining our fight, and allowing us to continue eastward to gather more men and arms."
One of the guildfighters on the periphery said, "For that you must go to Esterlee, the only city left beside the sea. This is where your men and arms will be."
Another spit at the ground, saying, "There are no men in Esterlee. They paid the Sorceress to let them go free!"
DG started to ask what they were talking about, but Jeb spoke over her, "We'll judge them for ourselves, so long as we have permission to cross these lands to do so."
Black Spear rubbed his chin as if it was a difficult matter to consider. "You may cross," he said eventually, "because the Gale Princess is in your command. Leave Lords and Longcoats to us till you come back to our land."
The clan leaders stomped the ground and Jeb shook hands with all of them. DG stood, uncertain if she should do the same to show her gratitude- but as soon as she was on her feet they all bowed to her as if they wanted to thank her for inviting them to the war. She allowed Black Spear to take her hands and raise them as high as he was able, listening to the cheer that went up as he did so. Beneath the bracelets she'd been given, her arms prickled with gooseflesh, and she hoped that no one would notice.
"Now," Black Spear said, loud enough for his voice to carry throughout the village, "this talk is done. Eat, drank, sing, dance-" each word was punctuated by more stomping and cheering- "until the next morning's sun!"
The sound of drums reached Wyatt's ears just as the sun was setting. From his position atop the ridge that overlooked the guildfighter lands, he could see smoke rising from the bonfires where the warriors would be dancing, asking for the gods' favor as was their tradition.
"That's a welcome sight," said Micah Frase, the new captain of Ninth Company. The marching had worn him down, but Wyatt knew that he and the other- Will Arie, in Tenth- had been given captaincies for their minds, not for mileage under their feet. The young man took a moment to catch his breath, then continued, "I grew up in a town not far from this place. My father brought me out to hear the drums and see the fires just after the war began. He swore it would be over quickly."
Wyatt remembered doing the same with Jeb, but he hadn't made the same promise. He'd been about to ride out to defend Central City, even though every tin man knew it couldn't be defended, not against the army the Witch had raised. He'd shown Jeb the fires so his boy would know there'd be others who'd fight even if he fell. "Been a long time since then," he said.
"That's surely so." Micah turned and beckoned to a younger soldier who was struggling up to join them. "Listen, boy, the guildfighters are calling down the gods to bless our war. Do you hear them?"
The boy titled his head and nodded eagerly. "Does that mean we're almost there, sir?"
"No more than two more miles. Go on, pass the word through the ranks-"
But before the boy could run off, there was a roar and a flash of light- and in the moment before the mortar shell exploded in front of them, Wyatt saw unfamiliar soldiers rushing through the woods. Then he was forced to the ground by the blast, rolling to avoid the shower of shrapnel and blood.
"Ambush!" he shouted as soon as he had breath enough. "Ambush! Don't let them drive you back!" Out of the corner of his eye he saw Micah vault to his feet and take off toward his own men. The boy they'd been speaking to lay still on the ground, body twisted and torn.
But Wyatt couldn't dwell on that.
"Micah, come around!" he shouted. "Flank the bastards!" Whether the younger captain heard or not, he didn't know. He didn't have time to look. Instead he forced himself into the rhythm of battle: aim, fire, ignore the weariness, forget the cold, aim, fire.
A man lunged toward him, striking his arm with enough force to jar the rifle from his grasp. He twisted away, got his knife out, and raked the blade across his attacker's torso. "Hold this ground!" he yelled to his men. "Hold this ground!"
It took three minutes for Jeb and the other captains to call their men to arms, and another twelve for them to reach the battlefield. Too long, he kept thinking, too long. There were bodies littering the forest floor and men fighting hand to hand, and knew he shouldn't have relaxed, shouldn't have let himself think that making it across the plains meant safety.
He fixed the bayonet to his rifle as he ran and flung himself into the battle.
He almost didn't see the fist that flew towards head, but at the last minute he rolled to get away from it. He fired one shot from his knees, then used the gun as a crutch to haul himself back upright. Two more men charged towards him, and two shots took them down in quick succession. He could see they weren't Longcoats, could see their blue armbands-
"Jeb!" his father shouted to him. "Get your men up! They're making a run south!"
He risked a glance up, saw the move, saw Jacob leading Second to counter it- and he felt more than saw the blast of magical energy that protected them from enemy fire. Then a rifle came swinging towards him like a club, and he brought his own up to parry the blow, feeling the force of it all the way down to his wrists. He shifted his grip, got a finger on the trigger, and put a round into his attacker's chest.
He looked around for his father, couldn't see him in the smoke and fading daylight. Couldn't see much of anything through stinging eyes.
Mortar fire exploded to his right, splintering the trees, the ground, the men in the way- and Jeb wondered who'd risk using such a weapon with the men fighting in close quarters. He covered his head to shield himself from the shrapnel, grimacing when a twisted piece of something hit his arm.
Then, unexpectedly, a series of shrill whistles cut through the noise of the battle, and someone shouted, "Cease fire! By all the gods, cease fire!"
The enemy soldiers were confused, but they immediately started to lower their rifles. Jeb echoed the order to his own men, forcibly parting those who remained combatant. When he was sure the peace would hold, he said in a loud voice, "This is Jeb Cain of the Queen's Army. Who speaks for all of you?"
"Captain Renn Farina, Army of the Lords In Exile. Your second has me at his mercy."
"Damnit, Jacob," Jeb muttered under his breath. He could see the enemy soldiers tensing, wondering if their captain was going to need a hasty rescue. Not knowing if that would be so or not, Jeb hurriedly made his was across the lines, praying all the while that the men around him stayed in their places.
He found his second on the far side of the battlefield, stock still with his pistol pointed at another man's head. DG was on the ground behind him, and it was obvious that he'd been trying to shield her- and would have failed- but this man who would have been their deaths had dropped his weapons and surrendered.
"Sir," Jacob said in a taut voice, "Renn Farina commands this battalion, sent to gather support for the Lords In Exile. He's had a bad shock having seen who he's just led his men against."
"Gods, Jacob, if I'd known you were-"
"Shut up," Jeb said. He bent and helped DG to her feet, murmuring, "You okay, Princess?"
"I'm fine," she whispered, even though he could feel her trembling. She squeezed the hand he had on her arm and added, "Think we can go to back to the guildfighters now?"
He gave her a quick grin before turning back to the situation at hand. "Jacob, put your gun away. You won't get cause to use it-" the enemy captain looked as stricken as his second did- "And, Captain Farina, your men will disarm and accompany us to the guildfighter village at once. You have my word none will be harmed in our custody."
"Yes, of course." The man's eyes were still on Jacob. "Please," he began, "you have to know I- I thought you were- I'd have never-"
Jacob shook his head. "Don't, Renn. Not here where men have died at our command." He turned to Jeb almost pleadingly. "Sir, with your permission, I'll see to the weapons and the prisoners. Night's falling fast now."
"Go." Jeb waited until Jacob was out of sight, counted ten more seconds in his head, then put his own weapon on the enemy captain. "Start talking. Now."