“And I accept your pledge, with gratitude, Knight; be welcome. I do try to greet new recruits, especially those of your reputation, but I seldom have much time for talk. So while you’re here: have you any questions?”
The Knight paused a moment, waiting for a formal command to unbend his knee; but the General simply lifted her hand in a “get up” motion: a polite but most informal gesture. This suggested she cared more for practicalities than niceties, which was a very hopeful sign. That much, at least, matched what the Knight had heard, when he first set out for this place. He shrugged internally (why telegraph the language of your body if you don’t have need?) and made up his mind. Now was as good a time as any to find out if the other rumours were true; she’d invited inquiry, and if she didn’t really mean it, best to learn that now, with a sword at his side. As usual, his thoughtstream divided things into strategic possibilities: if this Court were as touchy about lèse-majesté as most he’d known, he’d find no happiness here. He’d have another price on his head for insult—which is to say, honesty—towards another crown.
And there were no other Kingdoms left; this was a last resort. So if what he was about to do was idiotic, it was, at least, logical; better to do it armed and ready than let it happen at some less-chosen moment. Who wants to die like a fool in the middle of some pointless social function, dressed idiotically in the finery of the ballroom, naught but a little ceremonial knife at your side? Right now he wore armour; right now, he was near a foe of meaning, and if there was a clash, it would be of arms, not of the colors of courtly attire. And at least this way, his life would be sold, not taken.
His peripheral vision was not excellent, but it was, like any part of him which had to do with matters of combat, both trained and disciplined. He used it for a final look at the guards (why let them know you’re looking at them? If they’re not smart enough to guess, that’s on them.) He approved: they were alert, and in sufficient numbers to take him, which was appropriate, since he’d not yet earned real trust. The combatants he saw were clearly strong enough to do the job, but he was fairly strong himself. If he was about to commit treason, he’d stand no chance; but he reckoned he’d take one or two with him. That was good enough.
He shrugged again, but this time, he let his shoulders move. He wouldn’t be able to keep the uncertainty out of his voice regardless; let them think it might be a symptom of fear, which was a weakness, rather than knowing his actual weakness—namely, that he was permitting himself to hope.
He took a quiet, very even breath, readying his voice for speech and his limbs, should they be needed, for motion. He looked up at the tall figure, past the telltale brand on her neck, and met her gaze.
“General, everyone has told me that you’re reluctant to speak of your own past. And so I won’t ask it. But I have a question that’s close enough, and I apologize for what I realize is a breach in protocol.”
He didn’t have to look, not even with the corners of his eyes, to feel the fighters around him tense up. But the General’s tone was neutral and controlled; he couldn’t read it. “Go on.”
There are entire arts of war built around simply drawing a sword with more rapidity and decision than an opponent; and they are most practical. Unsheathe too slowly, or with too much hesitation, and you likely die. But draw and cut unwisely, roll the wrong head, and, again, you will die, and perhaps those you protect will perish with you. Speed, decisiveness, proper action; those are hallmarks of one who could survive more than one battle. And this made him even more aware of the long silence in which he stood, like a statue of a warrior, unsure how to frame the next (his last?) words.
Finally, he just opened his mouth and let the words tumble where they would. “General—Commander—I know why I came here. I was cast out by those I served, and I’m grateful to be accepted. But…” He felt his face grow hot. Why hadn’t he paused a little in his training to study diplomacy? …oh, he knew why. He’d had contempt for those whose tongues formed poison and honey in the same breath. He’d thought them incapable of real action, right up to the point where they tumbled him from his place. And landed him here.
He took a step forward. Her closest guards put hands on hilts; he heard the familiar click of a blade unshipped, but not yet pulled. Didn’t matter; he no longer cared.
“I’m sorry, General. I’ve just heard too much. I will be serving with these beings, and I must know who’s to be at my side. Some say they’re formed from Dragon smoke; some say they’re Demons; some say they’re warriors possessed, or…or even the Dead, brought back through arts beyond my understanding. General! I do not accuse you of any impropriety. All have some idea of what it cost you to be here; and I have already sworn you my life. Whatever strange arts brought you this army, it is my army now. I care not what manner of things they are, I swear; I am a simple man, and the ethics of the battlefield are enough for me. Just tell me—” and it was good that emotion had taken him now, as, had he been thinking clearly, he would have been ashamed at the way his voice broke, something it had not done since he was a literal child. Now it became a whisper. “Tell me, my General and my Liege…with what sort of creatures have I cast my lot?”
He tried to will himself to wait for the answer, but both mind and body disbelieved. No-one would tolerate this level of impudence; if he were going to ask, he should have asked another way; he half-drew his own sword, expecting to hear the weapons of his almost-companions clearing with two dozen metallic rasps—
All he heard was laughter.
Laughter from the General; and though the regimentation of the soldiers (he noted, with professional approval) remained perfectly in place, he’d been a fighter far too long not to recognize crinkles in the eyes of even the sternest battle mask. The laughter felt good; felt like what you’d hear around a campfire, at the end of a long day, when no-one thought too much of rank or title, they just cared they’d survived. And the General’s mirth had a particular ringing quality; he’d never heard it before, but he thought he could identify it. It was a sound a throat might make if once, it had been cinched to a tight iron collar. It was the laughter of someone who had burnt off her shackles; and then made sure that those who shackled her would never, ever do so again.
And she smiled.
“They came as you did, good Sir Knight. Cast out. As you were. As I was.” She paused, then looked about the room. “As we all were.”
At this, he lost control.
There was no excuse. He knew he was no smooth-talker, no diplomat, but he was supposed to have a damned grip on his ten-times damnable tongue. And yet, the words tore lose, far too quickly for him to muzzle himself. It was barely communication, it was sheer disbelief. It was also suicide; what he’d done already was very, very risky, but this was outright madness. It requires no expertise in etiquette to know: You don’t call a ruler a liar in her own throne room.
Didn’t matter; the outburst pried itself out from his mouth before he could move to hold it in:
What flashes before a true warrior’s eyes, at the moment of death should not be, as popular myth would have it, his life, but rather, a clear view of the flurry of blades which are about to cut him down. For even in its final instant, the strategist’s mind should not be absorbed by fear or self-pity or even the pain; it should marshal every fragment of resources, and seek a way to inflict one final, terrible wound on the remaining foe.
None of that happened here. The atmosphere in the room had changed, but it wasn’t hostile; if anything, it felt…sympathetic. He was suddenly unsure what to do with himself; a man of perfect balance now seemed ill at ease even standing still. In search of something, anything to do, he took a few steps in the direction of the north wall, near a window. The Keep was tall, with its viewpoints carved sensibly high, well beyond easy range of most missile weapons. He looked through the nearest arrowslit, through which his practiced glance could take in the Army beneath. As he’d ridden in, his mind had quietly catalogued weapons, armour, estimated numbers, and, most of all, taken some measure of the creatures he saw. They’d looked oddly human; apparently, that’s because it’s what they were. They also looked tougher than most with whom he’d ridden in the past. These were blooded veterans, forged rough and hard like the iron nails of a Faerie coffin. And they were vast in number, so vast; they covered the land as ice covers a demon’s heart.
The Knight turned his head back, once more, to the General. ‘But—but who would cast out so many of their number, thus freeing them, hardened by the gauntlet of banishment, to create an implacable foe where there’s hitherto been none?’
The General smiled. Contrary to legend, her teeth were not fangs; but if she’d had them, they’d have been right at home in the expression her face now bore.
“Fools,” she said quietly. “Fools who are likely to die.”
The highest window in the room held, at the periphery of what it made visible, the faraway lights of another force, an even larger one than their own, perhaps two days’ ride away. And getting a little nearer by the moment.
“All those souls,” he mused. “All of them ready to fight whatever we might be—hellspawn, lizard magic, corpses, anything.”
“Yes,” she said. “Now that they see who we are, they’ll throw anything at us to keep us from coming back.”
Again, he looked up at the tall woman, not thin, not old or young, whom he
now served. “And will we?”
“Come back?” she replied, her face to the window. She turned. “I’ll make that decision from a vantage point atop a wall of the corpses of those who tried to make that decision for me.”
The Knight smiled. For the first time in his life, he was home.