Lyrna saw Lord Verniers raise his head at that. He was a deliberately obscure presence in the army, keen to avoid conversation with any save herself and Vaelin, though she made it plain he was welcome at all meetings and free to record all words spoken. The Shield had made something of a fuss of him in the aftermath of the battle, proclaiming him “The scribe who killed a general!” with a hearty laugh echoed by his crew. Verniers, however, seemed to shun any rewards his heroism might offer, though he had persisted in requests for a private interview.
“Your Emperor seems better disposed to our Realm, my lord,” she told him.
The chronicler squirmed a little as the captains turned to regard him, voicing only a short response. “So it seems, Highness.”
“Do you think he knows of the Volarians’ great scheme? Could that be the reason for this change of heart?”
“The Emperor’s mind is never easily gauged, Highness. But anything that might injure the Volarian Empire is likely to please him greatly. They have been our enemy far longer than yours.”
“We should send an ambassador,” Vaelin said. “Forge an alliance, if possible.”
“All in good time, my lord,” Lyrna said, turning again to Al Bera. “I’ll pen a letter for Lady Al Bera giving assurance that any debts incurred in purchasing more supplies will be settled in full at the close of hostilities, she is free to agree suitable terms of interest with any and all merchants. In the meantime, half her available supplies will be shipped to Alltor to succour the Cumbraelin people through the winter. The other half will come to us”—her finger traced across the map to a town on the Renfaelin coast—“at Warnsclave, where we rendezvous with our Meldenean allies in fifteen days. As for now, my lord, please get some rest.”
• • •
She spent the journey to Warnsclave travelling with a different contingent each day. One with Lady Reva’s Cumbraelins, the next with a regiment of miners from the Reaches, the third with the South Guard. Every face displayed either awe, fascination or, in the case of Lord Nortah’s Free Company, a fierce and unhesitant loyalty.
“The Departed have blessed you, my Queen!” one man called out to her as she drew up alongside Lord Nortah, the shout soon taken up by his fellow fighters.
“Silence in the ranks!” the company sergeant barked, an athletic young man with long hair and a sword strapped across his back in the manner of the Sixth Order.
“Apologies, Highness,” Lord Nortah offered as they set off. “They’re not easy to control at the best of times. And it’s not like I can flog any.”
“No, my lord,” Lyrna replied. “You certainly cannot.” She found it strange that they rode in silence for much of the morning; the boy she remembered as the son of her father’s First Minister had rarely been quiet, a braggart and sometimes a bully, quick to taunt and even quicker to cry when his taunts were returned. She saw none of that boy in the bearded warrior at her side, a small smile playing on his lips as he watched his great cat bounding alongside.
“I intended to offer you restoration of your father’s lands and titles,” she told him when the silence became trying. “However, Lord Vaelin advised you had no interest in such honours.”
“Never did my father much good, did they, Highness?” he replied, affably enough but with a slight edge to his tone.
“I was not privy to the King’s decision in that matter,” she said. “I believe it to have been . . . regrettable.”
“I harbour no bitterness, Highness. Time has dimmed my memory of a man I recall I loved almost as much as I hated. In any case, without his death I would not have been set on the course that led me to my wife, my children and the home I hunger for. And the Faith teaches us to accept the gifts brought by fate.”
“You still hold to the Faith?”
“I left the Order, Highness, not the Faith. My brother may have lost his in the desert somewhere but mine still lingers on. Though my wife longs for me to abandon it in favour of the sun and the moon.” He gave a soft laugh and she could hear his homesickness in it. “The only thing we ever quarrel about, in truth.”
They rested at midday, Lyrna climbing down from Arrow’s back and drawing up in alarm as a woman rushed from the ranks of the Free Company with a dagger in both hands. Iltis’s sword came free of its scabbard in a blur but, rather than launching herself at Lyrna, the woman sank to her knees, head bowed with her twin daggers raised high.
“My Queen!” she said in a tremulous gasp. “I beg you to bless these blades so they might do your work.”
The rest of the freed fighters immediately dropped to their knees, all drawing weapons and holding them aloft. This was clearly a ceremony planned on the march, one she judged Lord Nortah knew nothing of from his weary and slightly disgusted expression.
Never be afraid of a little theatre. Lyrna took a breath and placed a kindly smile on her lips as she moved to the kneeling woman, recognising her as the slight figure who had been first to take up the cry at Alltor. “What is your name?” she asked her.
“F-Furelah, my Queen,” the woman stammered, not looking up.
Lyrna gently took hold of the woman’s trembling hands. “Lower your blades, sister,” she told her. “Stand up, look at me.”
Furelah slowly looked up, eyes wide as they drank in the sight of her face, coming to her feet as Lyrna kept hold of her hands. “Who did you lose?” she asked her.
“M-my daughter,” the slight woman breathed, tears flowing from her eyes. “Born out of wedlock, shunned and called a bastard her whole life, but always so sweet. They d-dashed her brains out with a rock.” She sagged as the sobs took her, sinking to her knees. Lyrna pulled her close as she wept, her daggers still gripped tight.
“I cannot bless this woman’s blades,” she told the fighters, many now weeping openly. “For she blesses me. You all do. I am your blade, and you are mine.” She raised the still-sobbing Furelah to her feet, leading her back to the company’s ranks. “Accordingly I hereby name you as the Realm Guard’s Sixtieth Regiment of Foot, to be known hereafter as the Queen’s Daggers.” They parted before her as she released Furelah, the woman instantly falling to her knees once more, her comrades all reaching out to touch tentative hands to Lyrna’s gown as she moved among them, fierce devotion on every face. I cannot become drunk on this, she thought, smiling and touching her hands to heads lowered in supplication. The lure of it is too great.
“Toil, blood and justice!” the cry began unbidden, a spontaneous shout from a faceless voice in the kneeling ranks, repeated over and over as they stabbed the air with their assorted weapons. “Toil! Blood! And justice!”
Lyrna felt the seduction of it sweep through her, the power of it, the knowledge that these few hundred wounded souls would die for her in an instant. She was on the verge of surrendering to it completely when something gave her pause, a single face not stricken in adoration. Lord Nortah stood beside his horse, running a hand over the head of the great cat crouched at his side, his faint look of disgust now replaced with one of deep and obvious disapproval.
• • •
She met with Brother Caenis in the evening, alone since Vaelin seemed keen to avoid his former brother, an attitude shared by many in the army’s ranks. Even Orena, who struck Lyrna as a woman of great practicality, had begged leave for an early night rather than remain to greet the brother’s arrival. Fear of the Dark does not fade in an instant, Lyrna concluded.
The newly revealed brother of the Seventh Order sat at stiff attention on a camp-stool, refusing the offer of refreshment with a polite shake of his head. For all his evident hardiness and renown as a warrior there was a definite timidity to this compact, war-hardened man, a shift in his eyes as if wary of attack at any moment. So long living in the shadows, she thought. The light of day can be as frightening as the Dark.
“My brothers and sisters ask me to offer thanks, Highness,” he said. “For your consideration.”
“A queen has care for all her subjects, my lord.”
“If it please you, Highness. My preference is to be addressed as ‘brother.’ I am a man of the Faith in all things.”
“As you wish.” Lyrna reached for the scroll he had handed her on arrival, a complete list of his Order’s members and their various gifts. “You have a brother who can see the past?”
“Brother Lucin’s gift is limited, Highness. His vision confined only to whatever location he finds himself in.”
Lyrna nodded, frowning at the next description on the list. “And this Sister Merial can truly pull lightning from the air?”
“Not exactly, Highness. She can exude a power, an energy from her hands. In darkness or shadow it can seem like lightning. The gift is very draining, fatal if over-used.”
“Can she kill with it?”
He hesitated then gave a short nod.
“Then she and her gift are greatly welcome in this army.” Lyrna read through the rest of the list, glancing up at him with a raised eyebrow. “I find there is one name missing, brother.”
His discomfort visibly deepened but his gaze remained steady and his tone held no note of compromise. “My gift cannot be revealed, Highness. By strict order of my Aspect.”