Vaelin had placed a tall uncovered wagon outside the tent, moving to it and holding out a hand as she approached. She clasped the hand and climbed onto the wagon, the cloak bunched in her free hand so as to prevent her tripping over it. The prospect of falling flat on her face at such a moment provoked a girlish giggle, suppressed before it could reach her lips. Every word must be chosen.
She kept hold of Vaelin’s hand as she stood surveying her new army. The plump brother from the Reaches had informed her, between stealing wide-eyed glances at her face, that the current complement of the Army of the North consisted of sixty thousand men and women, plus somewhere in the region of thirty thousand Seordah and Eorhil warriors. The regiments were arrayed in ranks, mostly untidy and lacking the polished cohesion displayed by the Realm Guard during those interminable parades in Varinshold. In truth the few Realm Guard present made a distinct contrast to their comrades, a tight, disciplined knot of denuded companies arrayed behind Brother Caenis in the centre of the line. But the majority of her new army consisted of Count Marven’s Nilsaelins, the conscripts Vaelin had marched from the Reaches, and the recruits gathered along the way. She saw little uniformity in their ranks; mismatched armour and weapons, much of it looted from the copious Volarian dead, makeshift flags lacking the colour and clarity of the Realm Guard’s regimental banners.
The Seordah had placed themselves on the right flank, a great throng of warriors standing in silence, curiosity the only apparent emotion. Behind them the Eorhil waited, most mounted on their fine tall horses, equally silent. Lady Reva had responded to Lyrna’s polite request for attendance with the full complement of her House Guard, reduced to no more than thirty men, and seemingly all of her surviving archers. They stood in two long rows behind their Lady Governess, stocky hard-eyed men with longbows slung across their backs. Lady Reva herself was flanked by her Lady Counsellor, Lord Archer Antesh and the old bewhiskered guard commander, none of whom betrayed the slightest awe at Lyrna’s presence. Off to the left, the Shield had brought the captains of the Meldenean Fleet, Ship Lord Ell-Nurin deliberately standing a few feet in front of the Shield, who stood with his arms crossed, inclining his head at her, habitual smile blazing as bright as ever. It was a pity, as she expected it to fade before long.
Behind them all the still-smoking city of Alltor rose from its island, the twin spires of the cathedral partly obscured by the dusty snow that continued to fall.
Lyrna paused atop the wagon, her eyes picking out the diminutive but distinct form of Lady Dahrena, standing in the front rank alongside Captain Adal and the North Guard. Unlike every other pair of eyes on this field, Lady Dahrena’s were fixed not on Lyrna, but Vaelin. Her gaze unblinking and unnerving in its intensity, making Lyrna conscious of the warmth of his hand in hers. She released it and faced the army, reaching up to draw back her hood.
It rippled through them like a cresting wave, a mingling of awed gasps, oaths, prayers, and outright shock, the already untidy ranks losing yet more cohesion as soldiers turned to their comrades in disbelief or amazement. However, she noted that the Seordah and the Eorhil remained silent, although their stance was now profoundly more alert. Lyrna allowed the army’s babble to build into a cacophony before holding up her hand. For a moment it continued unabated and she worried she might have to ask Vaelin to quiet them, but Captain Adal barked a command to his men which was soon taken up by the officers and sergeants, silence descending on the ranks on swift wings.
Lyrna surveyed them, picking out faces, meeting their eyes, finding some unable to match her gaze, stirring in discomfort and lowering their heads, others staring back in blank astonishment.
“I have not yet had chance to address you,” she called to them, her voice strong and carrying well in the cold air. “For those that may be ignorant of my name, my list of titles is long and I’ll not bore you with it. Suffice to say that I am your queen, hailed as such by Tower Lord Al Sorna and Lady Governess Reva of Cumbrael. Many of you saw me yesterday, and you will have seen a woman with a burnt face. Now you see a woman healed. I make you this promise as your queen, I will never lie to you. And so I tell you honestly that my face was healed by use of the Dark. I claim no blessing from the Departed, no favour from any god. I stand before you restored by the hand of a man with a gift I do not pretend to understand. This was done without my bidding or contrivance. However, I see no cause to regret it or punish the man who did me this service. Many of you will no doubt be aware that there are others within the ranks of this army with similar abilities, good and brave people who, by the strictures of our laws, are condemned to death for the gifts bestowed upon them by nature alone. Accordingly, all laws prohibiting use of the gifts once known as the Dark are hereby rescinded under the Queen’s Word.”
She paused, expecting some upsurge of murmuring, some voices raised in discontent. Instead there was only silence, each and every face now rapt, those that had shunned her gaze seemingly unable to look away. Something stirs here, she realised. Something . . . useful.
“There are none here who have not suffered,” she spoke on. “There are none here who cannot lay claim to a murdered wife, husband, child, friend, or parent. Many of you have tasted the whip, as I have. Many of you have suffered the mauling of filthy hands, as I have. Many of you have burned, as I have.”
There was a growl building in the ranks now, a low rumble of stoked fury. She saw one woman in the middle of Captain Nortah’s company of freed slaves, slight and small but festooned with multiple daggers, her teeth bared in a burgeoning grimace of rage. “This land was named in honour of its unity,” Lyrna continued. “But only a fool would claim we have ever been truly united, always we have shed our own blood in senseless feud after senseless feud. As of now that ends. Our enemy came to these shores bringing slavery, torment, and death, but they also brought us a gift, one they’ll regret for an eternity. They forged us into the unity that has eluded us for so long. They made us a single blade of unbreakable steel aimed straight for their black heart and with you at my side I’ll see it bleed!”
The growl erupted into a fierce shout, faces distorted in hate and anger, fists, swords, and halberds raised, the tumult washing over her, intoxicating in its power . . . Power. You have to hate it as much as you love it.
She raised a hand and they fell quiet once more, though there remained the low hum of simmering heat. “I promise no easy victories,” she told them. “Our enemy is fierce and full of cunning. They will not die easily. So I can promise only three things: toil, blood and justice. None who follow me on this path should imagine there will be any other reward.”
It was the small woman with the daggers who began the chant, stabbing the air with a blade in each hand, head thrown back. “Toil, blood and justice!” It spread in an instant, the shout rising from one end of the army to the other. “Toil, blood and justice! Toil, blood and justice!”
“In five days we march for Varinshold!” Lyrna called as the chant continued, the pitch of its volume increasing yet further. She pointed towards the north. Never be afraid of a little theatre, the old schemer had said during one of the ceremonies where he handed out swords to ever-less-deserving recipients. Royalty is always a performance, daughter. The tumult doubled as she called again, her words lost in the rage-filled cheers. “TO VARINSHOLD!”
She stood for a few moments, arms spread wide in the centre of their adoring rage. Did you ever have this, Father? Did they ever love you?
The noise continued as she descended from the wagon, reaching for Vaelin’s hand again, but pausing at the sight of the Shield. As expected his smile was gone, replaced by a sombre frown making her wonder if he still intended to follow her anywhere.
• • •
“Varinshold lies over two hundred miles distant, Highness,” Count Marven told her. “And we have barely enough grain to sustain the horses for fifty. Our Cumbraelin friends were most efficient in denuding this land of supplies.”
“Better burnt than in the belly of our enemies,” Lady Reva pointed out from across the table.
They were arrayed around a large map table in Vaelin’s tent, all the principal captains of the army along with Lady Reva and the war chiefs from the Eorhil and Seordah. The Eorhil was a wiry rider somewhere past his fiftieth year by her reckoning. The Seordah was slightly younger, taller than most of his people, lean as a wolf with a hawk face. They seemed to understand every word spoken but said little themselves, and she noted how their gaze flitted constantly between her and Vaelin. Is it suspicion? she thought. Or just wonder?
Count Marven had spent the better part of an hour explaining their strategic situation. Never having had much use for the tedium of military history she was obliged to pick out the pertinent details from the morass of jargon. From what she could gather it seemed their position was not as favourable as a queen might expect after winning so great a victory.
“Quite so, my lady,” the count told Reva. “But it does leave us perilously short of supplies, with winter only two months away into the bargain.”
“Am I to understand, my lord,” Lyrna said. “We have a mighty army but no means to move it anywhere?”