Jourd’Aradia, 14th Trinnia
She knew something was wrong the moment she could see into the city. The north gate stood open, and too many fires burned within the city itself. She thought she saw tents. Her gut twisted, every nerve tingling as her battle-sense screamed in her ear, Atherton’s been invaded – run, you fool!
Instead she turned to face her aunt. “Thadea, you need to ride back to our last camp and wait for us. If a member of the regiment or myself doesn’t come back in five days, flee back to Atton.”
Thadea frowned and sat on her horse, unmovable. “Thadea stays with Yarrow. Protection.” She touched her hands to her blades.
Yarrow shook her head, feeling an intense need to get her aunt to safety. “Thadea, trust me – if I’m right about who’s invaded Atherton, you protect me more by being far away.” She implored the woman with her eyes. “Please, Aunt – keep yourself safe. You will not be able to help me where we’re riding.”
Thadea looked between Yarrow and Atherton, then nodded. “If you not back in five days, Thadea come help,” she said sternly, and Yarrow didn’t have the heart to correct the woman on her conviction or grammar.
“Ok,” she said. “Now go. Please.”
Thadea urged her horse away from the regiment, and then turned and rode it back down the road to Atton. Yarrow breathed a sigh of relief and turned back around to face the city.
“What was that about?” Jules asked.
“I think the castle’s under siege,” she murmured. “And there’s only one person I can think who would invade us now.”
Jules fell silent, catching her meaning.
They rode on to Atherton.
Before an hour had passed a rider approached them, and Yarrow saw her guess had been correct – the man was Vocan.
“Halt!” he cried, and she noticed that at his belt he carried a pistol similar to the one Lares owned. “An approaching army rides…do you ride to oust his lordship?” His hand rested on his pistol threateningly.
Yarrow made herself laugh. “Hardly. Tell his lordship the exiled Bellica Yarrow and her regiment ride to join him.” She gave the man a smile she’d learned from her sister.
The man frowned, fingers still resting on his sidearm. “Why should I believe you?”
Yarrow shrugged as if they were discussing the weather and not as if he held her life in his hands. “You shouldn’t. But I have information his lordship will want dearly.”
His curiosity piqued, the man urged his horse a bit closer. “Really? What is it?”
“Do I look so stupid as to tell you?” She glared at him, and he moved his horse a few steps back again. “Take me to his lordship, and he can decide whether or not I’m valuable.”
There was a pause during which the messenger considered her offer. “Very well,” he said at length, “you may ride in with me. Only you, mind – your army stays here. We’ll let his lordship decide what to do with you.” He said it with self-satisfaction, as if it had been his idea in the first place.
“Your offer is acceptable,” she said, knowing how to deal with his type. She turned to Jules. “Major, keep the regiment here until you hear from me or his lordship.” Their eyes met in the fading light, and she hoped he caught all the unspoken messages she was sending.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, and she was sure she saw the answering glint in his eyes.
She hoped she did.
Yarrow urged Pyrrhus to a walk, following the messenger back into her city. Behind her she heard Jules give the order to make camp.
They were not far from the city and soon they rode in through the North Gate. Yarrow could see she’d been right about the degree of occupation. Lord Exsil Vis’ army was spread throughout the town like a plague. The gate to the castle was secured, and she saw the walls hadn’t been breached. That was a blessing, for, if he’d gained the castle already, then Yarrow’s information, and by extension her life and Regiment, would be useless to him.
Looking up at the castle she wondered how everyone was faring – if the people she loved were even still alive. She could see movement among the battlements, and saw that soldiers with crossbows were stationed there. She looked hard for her dark-haired friend the admiral but did not see her.
Looking farther up, she saw a light was on in the Spire. Zardria, no doubt in her study.
She felt a rush of emotion, and prayed the Goddesses would give her and her twin a chance to make things right together.
Oh, sister. I never wanted to fight. Forgive me what I’m about to do, she thought, and then faced forward, banishing her feelings and keeping her face a careful blank.
They came upon the Town Square, which was no longer a busy marketplace. Every inch was taken up with tents, campfires, and eating places. One exceptionally large, tall tent stood near the back, further away from the castle, and she guessed, correctly, that it was the current residence of Lord Exsil Vis.
They rode along the edge of camp, between tents and the buildings that lined the Square. The windows were dark and lifeless, doors broken down on some. Yarrow wondered what had happened to the people – had they escaped? She was answered, in part, by movement on the south end of the camp. A woman was being led from another large tent, though it was not so tall as that of Lord Exsil Vis, and being sent to entertain the troops. A priestess, Yarrow could see from a glint of gold at her earlobe, yet the woman held no fear on her face – only a gentle compassion.
The bellica’s stomach lurched.
She noticed, too, that almost all of Lord Exsil Vis’ troops were men. Looking again, and more closely, she saw not a single female face among them, save those who were obviously from the seraglio.
She was not given more time to notice details for they came upon Exsil Vis’ tent. Her escort dismounted and told her to stay where she was while he himself entered the tent. A moment later he emerged, just as she remembered him. She fought back the rush of loathing that made her want to throw up and kept her face a mask of pleasantness.
He smiled up at her, arms akimbo. “Why, Bellica Yarrow – it’s been years. I never thought I’d see you ride into my camp with thoughts of an alliance.”
Yarrow dismounted and bowed low before him. “My lord. Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she said, praying that she’d made the right assessment of the man from Anala’s report.
Lord Exsil Vis laughed then, and Yarrow breathed out in abject relief. “Stand up, girl.” She obeyed, and did not bristle at his diminutive nor show how much hate she held for him.
I do this for you, she thought to her unborn daughter.
She looked him in the face – they were of a height – and noticed he was regarding her thoughtfully. “What are you thinking, my lord?”
He smiled. She wanted to punch him. “You look more like your father every day, Bellica.”
Yarrow stiffened. “You knew my father.” Of course he did; he served with mother in the regiments.
Lord Exsil Vis laughed again, long and loud, throwing his head back as he did. “Knew him! Why,” his laughter cut off abruptly as he looked at her shrewdly, and she steeled herself, “Why, girl, I killed him.”
She smiled at him. “Then it shows which of you was the stronger.”
Her smile was returned and he placed his arm around her shoulders. “Glad to hear you do not share his personality as well, girl,” he said, and she let herself be led into his tent. “Now, what is this information you think I’d like?”