“You’re weak.” Agnark’s father, Lord Valdkin Yamat stares down at us from his high horse. He didn’t even come into the mansion to get us himself, he had some of his soldiers come inside as Kit, Agnark, and I were planning our evacuation, just in case one of the mobs came here. There was no alarm, no time to resist. Agnark tried to fight them off and protect me even though his body is still in terrible shape from the rune he cast. But of course it was useless. Kit tried, I tried, but the two of us, even though Kit turned out to be very good with a rapier, were no match for five heavily armed and armored men.
They dumped us out here, in front of Agnark’s father, who’s now berating him.
“You should have just had your fun with that girl and left her. But no, you had to go and get attached! She was your weak point, so I used her, trying to get you to realize that she was a liability. But you ignored my lessons!” He threw his hands up in the air. His dappled grey horse snorts, emphasizing his point.
“Then,” He continues coldly. “You betray me, ignore all the generosity I’ve shown you, and go and publish this nonsense–” He holds up one of our flyers, “Forcing my hand early! The men weren’t ready! The Priests could only send ten sorcerers!” Agnark is silent, staring at his father. Lord Yamat stares back at his son coldly, evaluating him. “Maddrelk?” He calls to one of his retainers.
“Yes, My Lord?” The retainer asks. He’s the one carrying the house crest, the Unending Eyes.
“Remind me what happens to hounds that can’t understand the most basic lessons.”
The retainer gulps, obviously understanding the implications. From somewhere off in the distance I hear Kit’s shouting increase. I glance over my shoulder. She’s fighting harder, kicking at one of the guards. Then I realize that it’s not just that, she’s trying to direct my attention somewhere.
I follow her gaze and see two peasants, quickly approaching, worried looks on their familiar faces. One of them is too tall. Wait, it’s the elf Prince! And– is that Blix? They were coming to warn us! But they’re too late. What can they do when we’re already surrounded by over fifty of Lord Yamat’s men? Not to mention the sorcerers I’ve spotted amongst them.
“The hound gets put down, Sir.” Maddrelk replies to Lord Yamat’s question. “We write it off as a lost cause, and put it down.”
“Would you suggest I put down this disobedient mut?”
Maddrelk looks absolutely frantic, like he doesn’t know the right answer. “Ummm… I wouldn’t be able to say, Sir. He is Your son after all. I wouldn’t want to overstep my boundaries persay–”
“Oh shut up.”
“Shutting up.” The man says gratefully.
“Do you remember,” Lord Yamat says, now addressing Agnark again “The phrase ‘When Poison fills the Skies, the Reign of Worlds will fall to the Eyes?’”
Agnark blinks, startled and confused. “You told me that prophecy was madness, that the monk who spoke it was high on Murdenblum!” He exclaims. I glance at him. My first instinct is to be upset, another thing he didn’t tell me about! But I guess I can see why he didn’t tell me, if he thought it was insanity. Still–
“Things change,” Lord Yamat interrupts my thoughts, smiling severely. “Once one of the priests on our team made a breakthrough on a neutralizing agent for the poisonous gas, I realized that we’d been wrong all along. The prophecy was real. There could be a life after the Scourger has done it’s work, and I will rule over it. Because we’re of the same blood, I will give you one last chance. Abandon your sweetheart and join me. You can inherit the empire I form, and your sons can take it after you. If you refuse me, I’ll simply have to create a new heir. It won’t be too difficult, but it will be annoying.”
The horse steps in place, as if it too is nervous of Agnark’s response. He stares at me, face hardening, and turns to look at his father.
“I made my decision when I spilled my blood to cast that spell.” He says coldly. “I stand with my paramour, my prince, and my kingdom’s neighbors. I do not stand with you, father.”
I smile at Agnark, delighted by his open rebellion. His father doesn’t share my opinion. “Idiot.” He says coolly. “You shall die alongside everyone you stand with.”
Turning his horse away from us, he makes an abrupt slicing motion to the guards, and I realize what’s about to happen. “Wait!” I shout, desperate to delay our deaths even by a second. But what can I do? What can I offer that will make him hesitate? It won’t even help in the long run, a few more seconds won’t matter, there’s no way Blix and Prince Faladel can reach us in that time.
As my thoughts race, Lord Yamat turns towards us, unaware of the chaos in my head. He raises an eyebrow at me, expectantly. “You have something of importance to admit to before you die?” He asks, his upper crust accent impeccable.
“Ahh…” I hesitate, before brilliance strikes. “Wouldn’t you like to know how to get a double agent within Yaluda’s inner circle?”
Agnark shoots me an alarmed stare. I hesitate, waiting for Lord Yamat to take the bait. He does, trotting his grey steed in a neat circle so he’s facing us again. Everyone is watching us. I gulp. All my senses are screaming that this is dangerous, but I’ve never shirked danger before and I won’t start now.
“What exactly do you mean by that?” Each consonant is pronounced carefully, poised to strike.
“Exactly what it sounds like.” I say, feigning confidence as I can feel a sword pointed at my throat from behind me. Don’t worry. I imagine reassuring Agnark. I won’t betray Kit and Blix. Unfortunately, he doesn’t receive my feeble attempt at telepathy, and is still staring at me, completely shocked. The whole area has gone silent. I wince internally. I hope Kit didn’t overhear that and get all offended thinking I’m going to betray her. Maybe I should send her a mental apology as well. Once Lord Yamat stops freezing me in place with his ice blue eyes.
“How.” He says, and it’s not a question, it’s an order. Internally, I smile. I’ve got him, I’ve secured our lives for a couple more seconds. Now I just need a way to extend those seconds without ratting out my friends.
Externally, I tremble. I look scared. I look desperate. My etiquette teacher that finally gave up on me when I was ten would have tears in her eyes at how much I’ve taken in her ‘hiding your emotions lessons’.
Finally I stammer out “I– I want some reassurance. Promise me on your house name that you’ll let us go after I tell you. That you’ll let us live out our lives in peace without any interference.”
I’ve always been good at making deals. And at being infuriating to the grownups around me. Only one of those skills seems to have kicked in right now though.
Lord Yamat dismounts and stalks towards me. “Just like I would expect of a destitute noble house that has fallen so low as to embrace trade.” He spits the word, disgust apparent in everything from his voice to the way he draws his sword and puts it to my throat. “There is no deal here, girl. You and the mut die now. Or you tell me and then you die.” I’d love to give him a good scolding for referring to Agnark– His own son! –as a mut, but I resist the urge, gulping instead as I try to think of a way out.
A few more seconds. My heart thuds away. Just a few more seconds. I feel the cold of his all too sharp blade scratch at my neck, and then jerk away as something steals his attention.
“What the–” He says, still in the accent that comes from generations of entitlement.
It’s the servants. Kit has riled them all up, somehow gotten their hands on makeshift weapons– and some real weapons! Rakes, a shovel, Kitchen knives, a rolling pin, more than a couple of daggers, her own rapier– how did that not get confiscated by a guard? –along with a motley assortment of items from around the house and even a splintered whalebone corset. I know Kit was the one who showed me the usage of hoop skirts for concealment of random items, but how would one ever fit a shovel up there?
The servants, armed with whatever they have, attack the guards violently. They aren’t trained, aren’t aiming for weak points in the armor or any of the vital points, but they are enthusiastic! They strike, and then scamper back, avoiding the soldiers’ confused and uncoordinated response. The men had been able to handle Kit, she was just one girl with a rapier after all, but apparently they didn’t know how to respond to this motley cast of characters. Lethal force? Or did their master want the servants alive? They’d probably only been ordered to keep them contained.
That changes as Lord Yamat, realizing what the chaos is about, shouts “Get rid of them you idiots, they were never going to survive this anyway!”
The servants draw back, apparently fearful of lethal retaliation. Well, except for the cook, he keeps beating at soldiers’ heads with his gigantic rolling pin. Kit has to physically grab him and pull him back into line with the others. And then I realize it.
She’s commanding them. This isn’t a cowed group, it’s a tactical retreat!
As soon as the chanting begins, I realize why. The sorcerers! Lord Yamat said he had support from the church, that means he has sorcerers on his side. I watch in awe as Kit’s clever plan takes effect. Blood rises into the sky, collected for spells. But it isn’t just the sorcerer’s blood. The spell sings to the open wounds of Lord Yamat’s men as well. Open wounds caused by desperate attacks by the servants. Lord Yamat’s own men are consumed by his spells, collapsing in front of the servants and leaving room for them to charge at the now heavily diminished forces of our adversaries.
I hear a groan from next to me.
Agnark! His wound is open! We patched it up, but it isn’t enough! The spell, it could kill him if it takes enough blood! He’s already weakened! I lunge over to his side, seeing the trickle through the wraps on his hand. I place my palm over his, trying to apply pressure, to keep the blood in. But I can feel it pushing back at me. Slipping slowly through the lines on my palm. It won’t be enough. Desperately I jerk my head up and twist it around. Maybe, if I can stop whatever sorcerers are nearby–
My eyes settle on Lord Yamat. He looks torn. He obviously wants to kill me, to kill us, to get revenge for this chaos that it must look like we had some hand in. But his men are more important. Or maybe I’m being too kind, and it’s actually the information I promised that is just too tempting. Somewhere in the background I notice that Blix and Prince Faladel have joined the fighting, attacking from the rear.
Lord Yamat gets back on his horse, and shouts in a somehow enhanced voice “Stop the Spellcasting!”
It booms, vibrates over the field, and the effect is instant. The spells drop, but the damage, both on the battlefield and to Agnark is already done. He’s passed out again. Still alive, but for who knows how long?
Lord Yamat pays no attention to us, rounding up his men and renewing his attack on the tiny servant army. They start losing ground, retreating towards the manor, still defiant, but much more desperate. Kit shouts something over the noise to her brother, but I can’t hear it. The fighting has moved on, and it’s clear the tides have turned against us. Without the element of surprise, we’re nothing.
Prince Faladel and Blix approach. They were following Lord Yamat’s men, but had been caught dealing with some stragglers, and failed to follow the tide as it had shifted away from us.
“Are you okay?” Blix asks, quick and to the point.
I feel my eyes well up. “No.” I admit, “Agnark’s lost a lot of blood!” Tears begin dripping down my face, and I feel the sniffles coming on. “He’d already lost so much earlier, and then those sorcerers started up and–” My voice breaks and I can’t continue. Faladel kneels down next to me and quickly checks his pulse, and then does a few other things that I can’t identify. “Is he going to be alright?” I beg, desperate for some sort of assurance.
“Keep him out of the battlefield, away from those spell casters. As long as he doesn’t lose any more blood and gets plenty of rest and food later, he’ll be fine. The Elf Prince says steadily, gently. Although some part of me already knew all that, I’m still grateful to hear him say it.
“I wouldn’t normally say this,” He continues, unaware of my sudden gratitude. “But if you can, try to move him away from here. I’m sure you can see this, but things are starting to take a turn for the worst here. You don’t want to still be around if we lose.”
I nod, knowing that it will be practically impossible for me in my corset to lug his unconscious body around. Still, that won’t stop me from trying.
They leave me, going back into battle, and I start struggling to carry Agnark’s body behind a nearby house. Our lawn is huge though. Since land is cheaper on the edges of the city, Father had bought many of the houses near us, destroyed them, torn up the roads and alleys, and planted a nice lawn there, just so that people could see that although this was both our town and city manor, it was exceedingly serviceable as both. I’d never cursed his dumb decision more than I did in the span of the two minutes it took me to reach the main street.
I stopped for a break, panting. I can easily hear the clang and clamor and shouts of the battlefield not fifty feet behind me. I could even make out a few words! Pieces of chants, shouts of desperation, and Kit’s piercing “Retreat into the manor! Use the servants’ passages against them! Strike and then hide!” But above even that, I could hear the steady pounding of feet and shouts and raucous laughter of a mob approaching. I crouch, and drag Agnark’s body into the shadows of the low wall around our house as they crash through the main gate and rush towards the manor. A wave of over a hundred heavily armed and probably more than a little drunk dwarves rush past me. None of them even notice us. They just charge forward ready to cause chaos, pillage, and kill in a desperate attempt to take back power or just for the sake of chaos, pillaging, and killing.
They freeze halfway across the lawn, observing the battlefield spread out in front of them.
Then, I hear Prince Faladel’s voice cry out in a stroke of absolute genius “The private army of Lord Yamat is attacking us servants for no good reason! They intend to kill us all! Help us, please!” Although his voice doesn’t sound anything like a commoner, and if any of them bothered to look at him, they would probably realize that he’s too tall for a dwarf, he still manages to spur the mob to action.
They charge in, eager to defeat the bourgeois in any form it might take, but especially forms with the code words: “Private Army” and “Lord Yamat” as those are the pinnacle of everything this mob stands against.
I watch, with stunned relief as the mob sweeps in and washes over the confused soldiers. It takes them from the back, and decimates their numbers in the first hit. Within minutes the battle is over, and we are somehow not just alive, but the victors. The servants are thrilled, the mob is slightly confused, but eventually decides not to burn the manor, and Faladel comes over to check on me.
“Are you and Agnark okay?” He asks, “Has he woken up yet?”
I straighten up a bit. I don’t want anyone, even a rather sweet elf Prince, to see me as weak. “I’m fine. Agnark hasn’t woken up yet. Is there a way you can help him?”
“Sorry,” Prince Faladel shakes his head, face twisting into a frown. “I can change his bandages for you, but not much else.” He offers.
I frown at him, remembering a day that feels so long ago now when Briareth and Faladel explained the differences between magic and sorcery to Agnark and I. “You don’t have magic? I thought you had said almost all elves did.”
“Well, they do.” Faladel says, getting on his knees and gently unwinding the bandages from Agnark’s hand. His face darkens a little, “And although most elves have it,” He raises his hands helplessly, bloody wrappings dangling from one of them. “I was never gifted with it.”
I sense it is a sore topic for him, and so just watch quietly as he rewraps Agnark’s hand up with strips torn from his shirt, like it is the most natural thing for a Prince to tear his shirt up for a citizen of a nation he’s at war with.
Although, not for much longer. I think to myself, surprised that it will all soon be over. Back at the house, I see the maids preparing a feast for the mob of dwarves, who attack it just as viciously as they did the soldiers whose corpses now litter the grounds.
A thought occurs to me as I watch them, another memory from that same day. “Did you mean what you said, Prince Faladel? About the foreign exchange program?”
Prince Faladel looks a little startled, but then he smiles. “Please, just call me Faladel, all my friends do. And of course I meant it, I wouldn’t have offered otherwise. Are you interested?”
“I’m considering it.” I say laying Agnark’s head on my lap and petting his dark hair, hoping he’ll wake up soon. “I’ll have to talk it over with Agnark and my parents, but I think it would be good for me. And besides, I don’t think I’m ready to run a merchant empire yet. I want more experience before I settle into one thing.”
Faladel smiles at me, and it feels like he understands me, almost as much as Agnark understands. “Of course. When this is all over, I’ll figure out a way we can stay in touch. That way we can figure out the details after you’ve confirmed it with your parents. Where are they by the way? I hope they weren’t in the manor this whole time.”
My eyes shoot wide open. Somehow, during all the chaos, I’d forgotten them! It takes me a full five seconds to realize that I don’t know where they are. I haven’t seen them in over a day. I thought they were gone at a party last night, when Agnark and I let the papers fly away, and then this morning, they had an interview in the paper, but– they could be anywhere!
I hear a polite “A-hem!” from behind me and flinch. That was the sound of my mother clearing her throat.
“Ludgera, you have a lot of explaining to do.” My dad says, still wearing a formal dinner suit, which I must admit is now sadly rumpled. “What is the Yamat boy doing on your lap? Who is this person who just bandaged his hand? And why are our servants throwing a party for what looks like a mob that came to burn down our house?”
My hand freezes in Agnark’s hair as I gulp, guiltily.
My mom elbows him in the ribs, shooting him a cold stair, with one raised eyebrow. Somehow she still looks immaculate, only the hem of her dress is stained from the long the walk through the city.
“And we’re really glad you’re safe.” He adds breaking into a smile. She nods at him approvingly, and then goes to hug me.
“Ma!” I protest, squirming. Why must my parents insist on hugging me in front of a foreign dignitary? I swear, Faladel is using his sudden coughing fit to hide his chuckles.
A sudden noise from where the mob is feasting makes us all look around. The crowd is chanting something, a few people shouting out things I can’t quite make out.
Faladel though, cocks his head and says, “I think they’re deciding what to do with Lord Yamat. We should probably make sure he doesn’t get gutted.”
“Why?” My mom asks. “I’m guessing he is the one I have to blame for all the dead men on my lawn. Those cadavers will take ages to clean up!”
“At least the gardeners will have fresh fertilizer?” My dad jokes. Mom giggles.
“I doubt your daughter’s boyfriend will appreciate his father being used to plant daisies.” Faladel says dryly.
I frown, my first instinct was to let the mob have its justice, but Faladel is right. We should probably go stop them before they do anything serious. I gently lay Agnark’s head on the ground. He moans, but doesn’t open his eyes. Dusting off my skirt, I get up, accepting Faladel’s proffered hand.
“You know,” My dad says, “The explanations can wait until dinner, but I should warn you that they’re not very likely to listen to you. The general public has lost a lot of trust in nobles and priests, and elves were never liked very much to begin with. If you’re seen siding with Lord Yamat or suggesting a lenient sentence, they may attempt to hurt you as well.” I glance at him, surprised he figured out Faladel’s identity so easily. He’s still wearing a fake beard, and was careful to hunch even when helping me up.
“Basically, be careful how you word it.” My mom translates, ignoring my surprised glance completely.
“I was going to get Kit to suggest it.” I say primly, pretending I’d already thought of that.
Mom nods approvingly, and dad says “Jolly good. I think we’re going to partake in the feast. I’m famished! We’ve been trying to get home all day, and none of the blasted food stalls were open because everyone is busy protesting!
“Wait, if you’re both going to the food, who’s going to take care of Agnark?” I say, suddenly worried.
“I can do that honey.” Mom says, smiling at me. “My corset would stop me from eating much anyways.”
I nod my thanks and as Faladel, I, and my dad start heading towards the feasting mob, I hear a Slap! Of skin on skin, and then a quick “Ouch!”
“Stop faking being passed out to get more headpats!” My mom scolds Agnark. “It won’t work on me. Now, how long have you been courting my daughter? Have you been treating her right? Not going out alone together and whatnot? I wouldn’t like to have to force a marriage of respectability on her, so I sure hope you’ve been discreet!”
Faladel and my father are both smiling again, probably amused at poor Agnark’s treatment. I know my interference will only make it worse, but I still have to fight the urge to go back and save him from mom’s wrath. Thankfully I win.
“You know,” My dad says, attempting to make some conversation. “It’s so strange how fast everything’s changing. Apparently some other soldiers and sorcerers in different parts of the city have assassinated major political players, along with a couple of generals who were in town. They’ve mostly been apprehended of course, but all those taken out were enemies of Lord Yamat. If he does go through the courts system, he’ll have a lot to answer for. I’m assuming you and Agnark were what brought him to our house?”
“Yes.” I admit, eager to hear his praise. “We were the ones who published the pamphlet that started all this mess.”
“Good on you!” Dad says approvingly. “Your mother may take a bit of convincing, especially since you decided to keep your courtship a secret from us, but I would have no problems adopting him into our family as a son-in-law.”
“Dad!” I feel my face flush into what I know is a blotchy pink.
My dad chuckles, “I know, I know, you’re still a bit young, but I just wanted to throw that out there.”
When we arrive more than a couple of people are calling for immediate decapitation, but surprisingly some are calling for just mutilation, which seems to frighten Lord Yamat far more than an honorable death. Faladel– although he’s stridently opposed to execution or destruction of limbs, suggests through Kit that each person with a grievance against him give him a tiny cut to satisfy their bloodthirst now, and hopefully scar him for life, but then turn him over to the courts system where people can scream for his death from the spectator’s section.
Surprisingly, this goes over a lot better than any of us expect. Perhaps it’s because they’re all happy and full now. Perhaps it’s because it has been a long morning and afternoon full of blood and fire. Perhaps it’s because my Dad just got up on a table and announced that this dude ordered the successful assassinations of multiple nobles and powerful officials, and the mob feels kinder to him now. Or perhaps it’s the fact that the lovely charismatic young lady who treated them all to a feast was the one to suggest the cutting.
We’ll probably never know, but it is eventually carried out, and then they carry Lord Yamat, trussed up like a suckling pig on their shoulders through the city streets. Kit leads the way with her brother, all the way to the courthouse. Faladel has gone back to the castle, apparently to talk things through with the Prince. Something about an important meeting, but I’m not listening anymore. Agnark and I follow the crowd, apparently he sorted things out satisfactorily with my mom, but he still looks a little traumatized by it all.
I beam at him, we almost blend in with our ragged clothes, dirty faces, and sleepless eyes, but I couldn’t care less about my attire right now. I’m just so happy we’re both still alive.