THE BATTLE OF MERGESS HILL
Once upon a time the nights in the city of Donelan had been filled with light and music, the roads crowded with people, people going about their business, strolling around the city, visiting the taverns, seeing the sights. Even late into the night the shops had been open, the Inns filled to overflowing with crowds from near and far. Donelan had been a growing city then, a thriving city.
All that had changed three years ago, when the Witch War had started.
Now all was quiet. The streets were dark, deserted. The shops were all closed. No one ventured out at night except heavily armed men, or thieves and cutthroats taking advantage of the night to ply their own kind of wares in the darkness that now consumed the city.
Through this darkness two figures now moved. A man and a woman. Shrouded in dark cloaks, they made their way furtively through the streets. Any thieves that approached them thought better of it and turned away when they saw the glint of armor from beneath the man’s cloak, and even more quickly when they noticed the fearless and hypnotic look in the eyes of the woman.
Even so the pair made their way through the darkness quickly, as if they had greater concerns than a few robbers in the night. And so they did. Eventually they halted in front of one of the many homes that lined the street in this particular area of the city. The man stepped forward, and with a quick look around rapped sharply on the door.
The windows were shuttered and barred. The door securely locked. Inside a young man looked up at the sound of the rapping on his door. He turned to look at his wife, sitting in a chair, surrounded by the warm glow of the hearth, their newborn infant child in her hands.
“They’re here,” he said solemnly.
The woman said not a word, just held her baby tighter.
The man made no move to get the door, just stood there, a nervous look on his face, looking down at his wife and child.
“You know this was foretold the moment Lady Malloren died,” he said. “You know she will be better off with them.”
His wife slowly lifted her head.
“Do I?” she questioned. “A few years ago I might have agreed with you. But now…”
She left the rest of the sentence unsaid. Not that she had to continue. He felt his own misgivings. Things had changed in the last few years, since the war had started. Before the war this would have been a great honor, he would have been proud to have his daughter become one of the Maidens, would have wanted her to be one, no matter what he and his wife’s own personal sacrifice. Now, however… now he was just as unsure as his spouse about what the future held.
The rapping came again at the door.
He turned away from his wife, looking at the entranceway in front of him. No matter how they may feel about it, there was nothing for it. No one refused when the Maidens came calling. It just wasn’t done. It was a tradition going back for as long as anyone could remember.
Steeling himself he walked over to the door and opened it.
The two who had been standing outside entered.
The man turned toward the woman who had come in and bowed low.
“Welcome to my humble abode, Lady Lisanna” he said reverently.
Lisanna pulled back the hood of her cloak, revealing long blonde hair that curled about her shoulders. She had icy blue eyes set in an angular face. She had the look of someone young, perhaps no more than twenty summers, and yet there was a feeling of maturity about her that spoke of much longer years. It was like that with all the Maidens, he had noticed, or at least, the few he had ever seen.
“Good eve,” she replied, inclining her head in greeting. “Sorry to disturb you so late at night, but unfortunately the circumstances preclude us from coming at a more reasonable time.”
She slipped off her cloak and her companion stepped up and took it in his hand. She noticed his other hovering around the hilt of the sword that protruded from the fold in his cloak. Lisanna gave a short shake of her head. She hated this. Hated having to come here with a swordsman by her side, hated sneaking into the house of these good folk in the dead of night.
It hadn’t always been this way. It used to be that the taking in of another infant girl into the Order had been a time of celebration. The whole city used to turn out. It was a day long gala. People used to pray that their child would be selected, would be the one who would become another of the Maidens of Donelan.
It had always been that way. The maidens had always been here. Whenever one of them died, the next female born in the city was taken into the order. The Maiden’s had once been revered, still were by a lot of people. Being selected to be one of them was a great honor. A child that was selected to join the Maidens had everything provided for her, would get a good education, would grow up safe and cared for, respected by everyone. She would have had every advantage.
Now, for the first time since she could remember, people were reluctant to have their child chosen.
And with good eason, she thought. With King Gultane having declared them witches, having turned most of the Kingdom against them, having started a war to destroy them all, no one knew what would happen. No one knew if their child would be safe anymore with the Maidens. Was it any wonder that people were reluctant?
Even so, the Maidens had been around for longer than the Kingdom had existed. They had been through many difficult times and had always survived. Perhaps never as bad as this but they were far from helpless. The King was their enemy but they still had many friends in the Kingdom, many they had helped who didn’t believe the King’s foul lies about them. Though the King’s troops greatly outnumbered their own they had held out for three long years now, with no end in sight. If the King thought he was going to get rid of them on a whim, he had long since been disappointed. They would not fall so easily even to the King of Mandaria himself.
Still, she had other things to do here than ponder the course of the war.
She lifted her gaze to the woman sitting in the chair in front of her, the woman with the infant in her hands.
“This is the child,” she said, not really a question, as she stepped forward.
The woman nodded.
Lisanna looked down at the small infant the woman held.
“She is very beautiful,” she said.
The mother gave her a wane smile.
Lisanna reached down and lightly touched the child’s forehead. The child, but only a day old, seemed to look up at her.
“What is her name?” Lisanna asked.
“Merigan,” her mother replied.
“Merigan,” Lisanna repeated, then she smiled. “It is a good name. She will make a fine addition to our family.”
“Lady Lisanna we must not tarry.”
Lisanna turned and looked at her companion as he spoke for the first time. He was a young lieutenant of the Sacred Knights, one Ktan Hammerlane by name. His face held a serious expression, as it usually did. She had known him for some time now, from before the war started, since he had become a Sacred Knight, the sworn protectors of the Maiden’s of Donelan. He had always been like that, so serious. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him smile. Admittedly they didn’t have all that much to smile about these days but still. It would be nice to see him smile, or even laugh once in a while. Even so, the ability to smile was not one of the requirements necessary to become a Sacred Knight. Skill in battle, honor, allegiance and bravery were the talents that were looked for, and she had to admit the young man had plenty of all of those. She knew she was safe with him here, as safe as she could be outside the wall of their fortress.
“Peace Ktan,” she said. “These people must be given the proper time to say farewell to their daughter.”
Ktan nodded his head, though in truth he was far from pleased. He understood what these people were doing was difficult; he understood they were giving up their child, and he felt for them, but he had his own priorities to be concerned with. Lisanna wasn’t the only one who didn’t like what they were doing, but Ktan was unhappy because it was his sworn duty to protect the Maidens and he considered what Lisanna was doing now to be extremely foolhardy. The King had spies everywhere. He was well aware of the Maiden’s traditions. Variman Vashay, the man who had been the leader of the Sacred Knight’s before the war was now the King’s most trusted general, was leading the war against the Maidens. Each Sacred Knight had made a vow to protect the Maiden’s with their very lives when they had been initiated into the order. However, all knights of the Kingdom were also required to swear an oath of fealty to the King. When the King had turned against the Maidens, had declared them witches and demanded their surrender and appearance before an inquisition from the church, the Sacred Knights had had to make the difficult choice of remaining loyal to the Maidens or the King. Variman Vashay, the head of their order up to that time, had sided with the King.
Variman was well aware of their rituals, knew just what they would do when one of Maiden’s died. The King’s men far outnumbered the Maiden’s followers. Outside the defensive walls of their fortress the Maiden’s were vulnerable. It seemed folly to him for the two of them to come here, knowing the King’s men controlled the city, knowing that one of the Maiden’s had passed away, that the order would be looking for the firstborn girl.
It seemed to him it would have been much wiser and safer for this family to bring their child to the Maiden’s fortress. But in spite of the war there were traditions to uphold. The Maiden’s always came to the house of the child they were inducting into the order. It was considered a blessing for them to come, was said the people of the home would have great luck for years to come. It would have been an insult to suggest anything otherwise.
So Ktan held his tongue, impatient as he might be to be off, and waited impassively while the parents said their goodbyes to the child. Finally, with tears in her eyes now, the mother lifted the infant up and handed her to Lisanna.
“You’ll take good care of her,” she managed to get out through her tears. “You’ll keep her safe.”
Her voice choked off.
“I, and the other Sacred Knights, will protect her with our lives,” Ktan spoke up.
The child’s parents turned to him when he said this. No matter what they may have felt about the situation they could hear the confidence in his voice, could tell that the words were not an idle boast, or just said as words of comfort. They could tell, somehow, that he meant every word he said.
Lisanna looked at him as well and for a moment he wondered if he should have spoken at all but she felt no need to rebuke him again. Indeed she could tell that his words, so proudly spoken, had given the child’s parents some comfort, had made them more confident about what they were doing than anything she could have said herself.
Lisanna cradled the child gently in her hands and turned toward the door.
“God be with you,” the infant’s father said.
“May the blessings of the Maiden’s long endure within these walls,” Lisanna replied, the traditional Maiden’s farewell.
Ktan stepped forward and wrapped Lisanna’s cloak around her once more. Without another word they departed the house, leaving the child’s parents behind, with tears in both their eyes.
Pulling his cloak closer about him Ktan started down the road without delay, walking so fast that Lisanna had difficulty keeping up with him. He did this deliberately. He wanted to get her moving as fast as he could. Now that they had the child they were especially vulnerable. On their way here, if they had been spotted by any of the King’s knights, they might have been mistaken for common folk, or even perhaps thieves that might have been beneath the men’s interest. If any of the King’s men saw them now, however, the child would give away immediately just who they were and what they were doing. They had to get back to the safety of the fortress as quickly as possible.
The city of Donelan, along with its sister city Dramon to the south, stood on the neck of the Galian peninsula, and had originally been built as forts to protect the fledgling Kingdom of Mandaria from the barbarian forces to the north and east. In the intervening years the Kingdom of Mandaria had expanded to include most of those very barbarian lands the forts were designed to protect against. Donelan had long since ceased to be a frontier outpost, and was now a growing part of the core of Mandaria, but the fortress that had been erected there so long ago still stood on a hilltop on the outskirts of the city. The fortress had been ceded to the Maiden’s during the rule of the third king of Mandaria when the Maiden’s helped him fend off an invasion from one of the eastern kingdoms. Though the Maidens were a religious order and not a fighting force, they had found the fortress useful as a base of operations, and the structure had been kept in good repair and even expanded. It was said now that the fortress was unassailable; that it could not be taken by force of arms as long the Maiden’s defended it.
Whatever the origin of that particular tale, it seemed to be true enough. At the very start of the war the King had tried for a quick victory, sending his forces against the fortress before the Maidens could prepare, or so he hoped. By the same token, however, his own forces had not been prepared either. The Maidens had always been known to help those of the kingdom who were less fortunate than themselves. They distributed food among the poor from the offerings they received, and cared for the sick. Many of the common folk did not believe the tales of their being witches, of their plotting against the King, and many people from the countryside came to the Maidens aid in their hour of need. The Kings forces had been thrown back, and his quick attack turned to the advantage of the Maidens. The losses the King’s army suffered in the initial attack made it that much longer before he could marshal his army to attack again, for he now had to call men from far across Mandaria to join in the cause. This gave the Maidens time, time to gather their own forces and plot their own strategy. The King next tried to lay siege to the fortress, surrounding it, hoping to starve the Maidens and their followers into submission. This plan also failed, and again it was because of the loyalty of the peasants they had helped for so long. They would slip through the lines of the King’s men, or travel through dark passageways, bringing supplies to the Maidens in secret. After months of waiting the Maidens out, it had become clear to King Gultane that this strategy would not work either, and what he had thought would be a quick victory had turned into a draining and protracted war of attrition.
And that was how things stood at the moment. A few skirmishes had taken place between the King’s forces and the Maidens, but no major battle had taken place in months now. The King controlled the countryside, but his hold on the land was porous and tenuous, and he could not break their hold on the fortress itself. They had battled to a stalemate.
The fortunes of war, however, could turn in an instant. Of this Ktan was well aware. The King had not made a move in months, but that didn’t mean he was going to give up. If he had to wait, if he had to kill the Maidens one by one as they emerged from their hiding place, then Ktan was certain that was exactly what he would do, which was why he felt what they were doing now was such a risk.
In spite of Ktan’s misgivings, however, the streets around them remained deserted. Eventually they reached the outskirts of town and the Maidens fortress came into view on a hill in front of them.
The King had given up the siege of the fortress when he realized it was a fruitless endeavor. The King’s knights still guarded the paths leading to the stronghold, but all was quiet these days. The guards were bored and far from home, and no one had emerged from the fortress in weeks, that they had seen anyway. Given those circumstances, their vigilance was lax, and Ktan and Lisanna, knowing every nook and cranny of the land around them, knowing every ravine and hillock, had little trouble slipping past them. To Ktan’s great relief, they soon found themselves and their charge safely inside the fort once more.
If Ktan thought his duties were over with the safe return of Lisanna and Merigan, he soon found out differently as he was summoned to a meeting up in the tower with Talamar Tromone, the current leader of the Sacred Knights, soon after he had entered the fortress.
With a parting nod to Lisanna he wearily made his way up to the tower. Talamar was already there when he entered, along with the other Captains of the Sacred Knights.
The Maidens fortress was high on a hill. From the tower windows the entire city could be seen to the west. Most of the city was dark now, with only a few watchfires burning. All was quiet at the moment.
Ktan had not time to admire the view, however. He walked over to a large table in the center of the room that Talamar and the others had gathered around, and sat down beside them.
“Irissa has informed me that a supply caravan will be passing close to Donelan tomorrow morning carrying supplies from Teklos to Galias,” Talamar said without preamble. Irissa Cardone was the High Priestess of the Maidens, had been since Ktan had joined the Sacred Knights. Ktan had seen her many times but didn’t really know her very well. She seemed to keep herself, a little more aloof than some of the other Maidens such as Lisanna. Ktan wasn’t quite sure how Irissa had been chosen as their High Priestess. Like just about everything else the Maidens did, the process was shrouded in mystery. It seemed to him that the task would have fallen to one of the older woman. It was hard to judge the age of the Maidens, even the obviously older ones seemed to have a youthful air about them. And none of them showed signs of old age, not even the Lady Malloren, who had passed away, of old age from what Ktan could gather, just yesterday. Still, it was obvious that some of the Maidens were more elderly than Irissa, who didn’t seem much older to him than his own twenty two years.
“Irissa has told me that our spies have assured her there are no large concentrations of the King’s troops in the area at the moment.” Talamar continued. “We can desperately use the supplies the caravan carries. The King’s men still watch the roads, and though we have ways around them it is still difficult to bring large quantities of supplies into the fortress. Thus we are always in need of more. Not only will this caravan replenish our supplies, but it will deny them to the enemy, which will make the attack doubly effective.”
“The caravan is supposed to pass just south of here shortly after dawn. I’ll lead the first, third, fourth and sixth regiments out to attack. Manion, you’ll be on the right flank, Henrik, the left. Benna, you’ll bring your men up behind mine. Ktan, you’ll stay here, in charge of the defense of the fortress.”
Though remaining in charge of the defense was a significant responsibility it still did not sit well with Ktan. The expression on his face made this obvious though he said nothing. Though he did not seek out battle for the glory of it, if battle came to them he wanted to be a part of it. Unfortunately there was not much he could do about it and he knew it. He as not one of the senior commanders. He did not have the authority to challenge Talamar’s commands, or even to argue his case. He would be a good soldier; he would do as he was told, though he would not like it.
“The caravan is lightly defended. Even so we must strike quickly. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you how outnumbered we are. We can’t afford to get caught out in the open by a large enemy force. We must get the supplies back into the fortress as quickly as possible.”
“Why is that?” Henrik spoke up. “Why is this caravan so lightly defended? Why would the King send supplies right under our very noses? Surely it could go farther south, through Dramon, avoiding Donelan altogether. This smells of a trap.”
“I have suspicions myself, but Irissa has assured me there is no concentration of the King’s men within a days ride. Yes, the supplies could go through Dramon, but that is the longer way. The King is just as desperate for supplies as we are and he does not want to delay. All has been quiet for over a month now and perhaps we have lulled him into a false sense of security.”
Henrik had nothing more to say to this, though he appeared unconvinced.
“It is a risk, I will agree,” Talamar went on. “But what is war if not risk? I think in this, however, we can trust our intelligence. Irissa tells me the King has other plans for his troops.”
“And what might that be?” Manion asked.
“He is gathering a great host in Dramon. Every man he can get from the whole of Mandaria, and when he is done he will launch an all out assault on the fortress.”
This was news to Ktan. He hadn’t’ heard anything about this before. Even so, it didn’t worry him much. He had confidence they would be able to fend off any attack the King might care to make on the fortress itself. It was only outside its walls he considered them vulnerable.
The others, perhaps, were not quite as confident.
“How many men?” Henrik questioned.
Talamar turned toward him. Henrik was the oldest of the Sacred Knights, and the most battle worn. He had served with distinction in the wars King Gultane’s father, Federic, had waged against the Kingdoms to the south. He had a keen mind and great weight was given to his words and advice.
“There is no way to know, but it is certain at least twenty thousand,” he replied.
There was some muttering at that, and with good reason. Most of the men here knew they could not hope to field more than a quarter of that amount, and most of those would be ill trained peasants or farmers with no skill at all in warfare.
“This is ill news,” Henrik said. Though he was well aware of the legends surrounding the Maidens and their fortress he was the ultimate pragmatist. He would take a man with a sword in his hand any day over myths and legends. Even considering the defensive nature of their position, it was unlikely they could stand against such a force.
“How certain are we of this?” Benna questioned.
“This comes directly from Irissa,” Talamar replied.
The King was not the only one who had spies everywhere. The Maidens played the same game. There were many people loyal to them, and the intelligence Irissa had given them had always been unerringly accurate, had in fact turned the tide of more than one battle. The ability to collect accurate information about the enemy was one of the Maidens greatest strengths.
The rumor was that Irissa could see things far away, things that no one else could see, that she could read the minds of those around her, that she could walk unseen into the very camp of the enemy to divine what their intentions were.
There were many rumors and legends about the Maidens, about their secret powers. Ktan had heard all kinds of strange tales over the years, some benign, some so far fetched that only a fool would believe them. The one thing that Ktan did know for certain was that the Maidens were a secretive lot. Their rituals were held in private, and no one who was not of the order was allowed to witness them, not even members of the Sacred Knights. Ktan suspected that the reason for this was precisely because the Maidens wanted to have an aura of mystery about them, wanted that kind of mystique. The perception of power was almost as important as power itself. If people believed the more far fetched things about them so much the better, for that could only help in furthering the Maidens cause. Still, in this case Ktan thought perhaps that strategy had backfired. If they hadn’t been so mysterious, if they hadn’t been surrounded by this aura of mystery, it wouldn’t have been so easy for the King to turn most of his subjects against them, would have been more difficult to declare them witches.
One other thing Ktan knew, and that was, in spite of all the rumors he had heard, he had never once himself witnessed the manifestation of any unusual abilities by any of the Maidens the entire time he had been here.
“We have some time,” Talamar said. “Another month at least before they launch their assault. That’s one of the reasons why these supplies are so critical. An army lives on its stomach, and if we cut off some of their supplies, it could lead to more delays. By attacking now we could be putting off that much longer their own assault, which will give us more time to gather forces of our own.”
Talamar looked around the table, at each man in turn.
“Does anyone have any more questions?”
No one spoke.
“All right then, that’s it. Get some rest. We attack at first light”
The sun rose red in the morn, an occurrence that boded ill for the days events, or so it was said. Ktan did not believe in such superstitions. He stood on the roof of a high tower at the western end of the fortress, the very tower, in fact, where their war council had taken place the night before. To the west he could see the city of Donelan, just now coming awake in the still morning air. To the south lay rolling plains that were the dominant feature of the landscape in this part of the Kingdom. It was high summer; even now with the sun barely above the horizon Ktan could feel the heat. The grass on the plains was a uniform brown from lack of water. They had not had any rain to speak of in the last month, and though that had not caused any problems yet Ktan knew it would if it went on much longer. The crops that had been planted in the spring were even now germinating, pushing up stalks in the fertile soil of the Galian peninsula. The farmers would be anxiously looking for clouds in the skies above.
Right now, however, the sky did not interest Ktan. Instead he looked down at the courtyard of the fortress to his right, and the men who had been mustering there since before dawn and were now almost ready to ride out.
He was not happy at all to not be among them.
He turned to see Lisanna and another woman approaching. Or perhaps girl might have been more appropriate, for the female that was accompanying Lisanna was barely eighteen years old. Her hair was the color of flame and, Ktan knew, she had a spirit to match. This was not, however, the thing that stood out the most about her. No, the most unusual thing about her by far was that she was clad not in the long flowing dresses of the Maidens but instead the silver and blue armor of a Sacred Knight.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” the girl said, stopping in front of him.
“Lady Lisaana, Jenya,” he said politely with a bow to the Maiden.
“I wasn’t hiding,” he continued, turning to Jenya now. “I’m up here observing.”
“Oh is that what it is?” Jenya retorted.
“Yes,” Ktan replied dryly. “One can see far out over the plains from up here. I thought perhaps I might be able to get a glimpse of the battle.”
Lisanna stood beside them, her white dress blowing in the wind that gusted up from the east, looking out over the battlement as they spoke.
“Indeed,” she said. “You may get just that. Is not the said supply convoy now before us on yonder plain?”
Ktan turned to look, staring off into the distance. Far away, nearly at the edge of vision, he could see a long line of horsemen and wagons wending their way through a sea of tawny grass.
“Indeed it is,” Ktan said. “Jenya, you better get down there and join the others. If they have to leave without you…”
He didn’t have to finish that thought. Jenya was in Manion’s regiment and as such would be taking part in the battle That she should go while he remained behind was another thing that Ktan was not too pleased about yet there were some who would be much more unhappy about it than he. In fact, there were some who were unhappy about her being with them at all. A woman becoming a knight was a thing unheard of. Jenya had suffered a tremendous amount of resistance when she had joined them, and still did from some of the men, nay, most of the men, Ktan had to admit. Some of the knights just could not accept having a woman fighting beside them in battle, would never accept it.
As a result, a lot of them made life very hard for her, a lot of them were more than willing to see her fail, or to help her down that road any way they could. If one of the men faltered in his training or made a mistake, it was because he was untrained or lazy or just plain stupid. If Jenya failed in any way, it was because she was a woman.
Even some of the Maidens frowned on what Jenya was doing, which had kind of surprised Ktan. A few of them had suggested she consider pursuing a craft more fitting her station in life.
She hadn’t listened and Ktan for one did not mind at all. He didn’t give a damn if she was a woman, didn’t give a damn about her gender, color, race or creed. All he cared about was whether she had any skill with a sword, and she had shown that from their very first time he had seen her wield one.
At any rate, if she didn’t get down there soon, if she delayed their departure, they both knew it would just feed more ammunition to the men who opposed her doing this.
“I know,” she said. “I was just on my way down. Just wanted to find you and say that I was sorry you weren’t coming along with us and… well, good luck.”
Ktan had not tried to hide his acceptance of her. Because of that, he was one of the few people here that she could call a friend.
“Good luck to you too,” he replied. “You will need it more than I.”
“Perhaps,” she answered, and then, with one last nod toward him, turned and hurried off.
Lisanna gave him a long look.
“You wish to go with them?” she asked.
“Of course,” Ktan replied.
The Lady gave him a rueful smile.
“I would expect no less of you,” she said. She lifted her head again, looking out over the plain, a far away look in her eyes. “But brave deeds might be done by those who stay behind today as well.”
He wasn’t sure what she meant by that, if she meant anything more than to try to make him feel a little better. It hadn’t, though he was thankful for the words nevertheless.
They stood there in silence for some time, looking down at the men below. Eventually Ktan turned an eye toward her again.
“How did it go last night?” he questioned.
“With the initiation?”
“All went well. Merigan is now one of us.”
Ktan fell silent. He didn’t ask any more details, and he knew she would provide none. Ktan had no idea what the girls initiation consisted of, since only the Maidens could attend such a ritual. For all he knew, it could be as simple as all the other Maidens gathering and saying hello. He suspected there was more to it than that, of course. He had to admit all this secrecy bothered him sometimes. No one liked to be left out, feel like they were being excluded. He had to admit to feeling a little disappointed that he would be willing to pledge his life to protect these women when they didn’t even trust him enough to observe any of their rituals.
That wasn’t the way it was of course. It wasn’t a matter of trusting him; it was a matter of tradition. This was the way it had always been done, handed down from Maiden to Maiden throughout the years. To have an outsider observe one of these rituals would have rendered it impotent and useless.
That’s what he had been told anyway, and he supposed he could understand. He supposed also, that sometimes it was only natural for it to bother him a little.
He had tried to sneak in, to observe some of the rituals without permission a few times when he had first come here. He had never been able to do it though. Somehow the Maidens always detected him. He never got in trouble for it, they would just shoo him away. It was funny though, no matter how clever he thought he was in hiding from them, they always seemed to have no trouble finding him.
Movement below suddenly caught his attention. He looked down to see the gates of the fortress were being thrown open. The attack was about to begin.
Ktan watched closely as the regiments thundered out the gate and down the hill, all thoughts of the Maiden’s ritual falling from his mind. The Sacred Knights led the regiments, but most of the men below were not knights, were commoners who had just come at the call of the Maidens. Talamar and the other knights had been training them, trying to whip them into an effective fighting force and for the most part had done well, but they would never be as potent as fully trained knights. Ktan immediately saw a stirring in the King’s soldiers that guarded the entranceways to the castle. As soon as the men rode out they became a beehive of activity, running here and there, calling to others, racing to their horses. Talamar led his men right down the road, straight toward one of the camps that stood in their way. The men that were stationed there now were there to guard the fortress, to prevent anyone from entering or leaving, but there were not enough of them to stand against so large a force. The main army had drawn back to Dramon, as Irissa had foretold. They could not stand against such a force that now issued from the gates of the stronghold. Most of them mounted their horses and quickly rode off to the south or west, blowing their horns as they went. The few unfortunates who were slow, who were not quick enough to rise from their slumber, were ridden down as Talamar’s men broke upon the camp, broke upon it and then swept past it, riding out now on the open plain, racing toward their real target as fast as their horses could take them.
Ktan stood on the battlement, looking down, realizing that the battle was going to unfold right in front of him. He would have a better view than even those we were riding out toward the enemy at this very moment. He still wished he were riding with them, but this was at least the next best thing.
The riders slowly faded into the distance as they approached their target. He saw the caravan halt, then move again, but not in a long line, one after the other, but instead suddenly scattering in all directions. It was obvious they had seen the doom bearing down on them.
Ktan watched as the first riders broke upon the caravan, further disrupting the wagons, and striking down anyone who opposed them. He could see the defenders trying to draw their lines together, trying to direct the wagons into an organized defense but it seemed too little too late. The attack had been too sudden, had caught them by surprise. So far, things seemed to be going exactly as the Sacred Knights had hoped.
Lisanna saw it first. Ktan had keen eyes, but the eyes of the Maidens seemed to rival those of eagles. She lifted her arm, pointing more to the east.
“More riders approach!” she exclaimed.
Ktan followed her gaze. Now that he looked he saw there was something there. Small black dots crawled along the plain below. He squinted, leaning forward until he stood at the very edge of the battlement. The black dots were horseman, and they weren’t crawling across the plain. Oh no, at this distance, to see them moving at all they must have been traveling very fast, very fast indeed. From the northeast they came, up behind Talamar’s forces. From that direction it seemed unlikely that the Sacred Knights commander would be aware of them.
No one had mentioned such a force in the war council last night. No one had said anything about any reinforcements. It obviously wasn’t their own troops that he now saw riding into battle. And if it wasn’t their troops then it had to be the enemies.
It was a trap.
They had been told the caravan was lightly guarded. They had been told the enemy had no other strength of troops in the area. The intelligence Irissa had given them had always been accurate. Throughout the war she had shown an uncanny knack of knowing just where the enemy troops were and what they were doing. It almost made him believe the stories they told about her and was a major reason they had survived for so long, had been able to fend off the King’s troops. She had never once been wrong.
But, looking down at the converging forces below it was obvious she had been wrong this time.
“How can this be?” he heard Lisanna mutter beside him.
Ktran didn’t reply, had no reply. It was obvious that this was as much a surprise to Lisanna as it was to him.
The two opposing forces drew closer together. It was easy to see that Talamar’s troops were now seriously outnumbered. Ktan held his breath, hoping that the Sacred Knight commander would notice the approach of this new force, would see in time that it was a trap, would break and turn back for the protection of the fort before it was too late.
And soon it became obvious that no matter how much Ktan willed it, that wasn’t going to happen.
“They cannot stand against such a force,’ he heard Lisanna say
They were going to be wiped out. Ktan could see it coming, yet there was nothing he could do, there was no way to warn them of their impending doom. All he could do was stand here and watch helplessly.
He twisted round and looked down at the courtyard below. He could see men on the walls down there as well, looking out onto the plain as well. The walls were still defended; there were more than enough men here to stand up against any assault. He lifted his head again, looking around but could see no sign of any other enemy troops, no sign that the fort itself was a target for this assault. The enemy troops seemed to be concentrating their attack solely on those outside the fort.
If that were the case, there were more than enough men here to hold the fort.
“I have to do something.”
Lisanna wasn’t sure if those words were meant for her or Ktan was just talking to himself, he said them so softly. Nevertheless she turned toward him and knew right away what his intentions were.
“Go,” she said. “Hurry.”
It was a risk. If he rode out he would leave the fortress dangerously undermanned. On the other hand, leaving Talamar’s men to their fate would be almost as disastrous as the loss of the fortress itself. What Ktan had in mind seemed like they only chance their troops in the field had.
Without another word Ktan turned and ran inside, Lisanna’s simple words removing the last of his doubts. She stood there for a moment longer, looking out at the battle below. Talamar’s troops had finally noticed the newcomers. She could see them now, trying to reform the lines that had broken up when they had reached the caravan, and then she could look no more. She turned away, walking quickly inside herself. She had to talk to Irissa, she had to find out how the High Priestess could not have known about this, could not have known it was a trap. Their intelligence had never been faulty before, it couldn’t be. Lisanna was well aware of the rumors the common people spread about Irisaa and her abilities, about why their intelligence was never wrong. A lot of them would be surprised at just how close to the truth some of those rumors were.
Lisanna quickly made her way down the stairs, her feet pitter-pattering on the cold flagstones. As she reached the bottom the sound of her footsteps faded, washed away by the sound of other running feet, of men shouting, horses neighing as they gathered. By the time Lisanna stepped into the courtyard, the gates were already being thrown open.
She caught a glimpse of Ktan, leading them out the gate. He glanced back at her, and she caught his eye, but there was no time for anything to pass between them before he was gone, out the gate, and the courtyard filled with the thunder of the hooves as the horses rode out.
Lisanna passed on, through the courtyard and under a wide arch that led to another inner courtyard. The men were all housed in the outer bailey, in the buildings surrounding the outer courtyard. The stables were there, a training ground for the men; the buildings where all the supplies were stored. All the day-to-day activities took place out there. Now she stood in the inner sanctum, in the area only the Maidens were allowed to tred. A garden filled most of this courtyard, the sweet scent of primrose and lilacs replacing the smell of sawdust and horse dung. A fountain stood in the center of the courtyard, surrounded by four white stone benches. She walked rapidly down the pathway that led up to the central tower of the fortress, passing some of the other Maidens, who gave her a curious glance but she didn’t stop, didn’t have time to chat. She had to talk to Irissa, had to find out what was going on. Now that she thought about it, it seemed odd she hadn’t seen the High Priestess already. One would think she would be as curious as anyone else about how the battle progressed. One would think she would have been up on the battlements too, watching.
She glanced up as she approached the tower in front of her. The central tower rose up nearly as high as the four guard towers that stood at the corners of the fortress. Irissa could probably see almost as well from her room up there as Lisanna could from where she had been stationed. Even so, it was not like Irissa to hide in her room whilst an attack was underway. She had expected the High Priestess would want to be with them, unless she had very pressing matters of her own to attend to.
She had nearly reached the tower when she heard the first screams.
She stopped dead in her tracks. Even this early in the morning it was still hot, and promised to get hotter still. The doors and windows to the tower stood open to let in whatever breeze there might be. Lisanna stood right before the tower now and it was plain the screams were coming from inside. And shocking as the screams might be, the next sound she heard was even more frightening. The shouting of men, coming from within the tower as well.
How could this be?
She stood there for a moment, unsure whether to rush into the tower or away. The sounds of the women’s screams told her something horrible was going on within. If she ran in, what would happen to her?
Before she could move the decision was made for her as a man came running out of the tower. He was a knight, wearing the purple and gold armor of the King’s guard, sword in his hand. She could see blood on it.
For a second time Lisanna was frozen in her tracks. Where had he come from? How had he gotten in? Why had there been no warning? She had little time to ponder this. She was standing right in front of the entrance he had emerged from. He had seen her immediately, and now was running straight toward her, straight toward her while pulling his sword back to strike. She didn’t scream, didn’t try to run, instead she bowed her head; her eyes became unfocused, as if concentrating on something deep within her.
She made no apparent move to defend herself as the sword thrust forward, piercing her chest.
She cried out, staggering backwards from the force of the blow, her eyes flying wide open, a look of shock and horror on her face but most of all, disbelief.
She cried out again as the knight pulled his sword free. He ran on, no longer concerned with her; fully aware the blow he had dealt her was mortal. She found herself on the ground, on her back. She heard more shouts, more screams. Men ran past her, a lot of them. The fortress had been breached somehow, at precisely the time it was most lightly guarded. The King’s men had gotten in, had come from within the tower, which meant they hadn’t come over the wall, or through the gate. There was only one way they could have gotten in, through the secret passages that the Maidens used to ferry supplies in and out of the castle, the dark tunnels that only a Maidens and a handful of their followers knew the existence of.
She tried to lift her head, but it would not obey her. She supposed it was just as well, she didn’t need to see, she could tell by the screams around her what was happening. All she could see was the sky above her, and, she couldn’t help but notice how blue it was, bluer than she could ever remember it. Just the sky, and part of the tower, its gray rock a sharp contrast to the azure around it. A movement caught her attention. A bird wheeling up there, high over the tower, unconcerned about all that was playing out below it, unconcerned about the great deeds of mortal men. And one thing else she saw before her world faded to black. At the very top of the tower she could see someone, from the balcony of the highest room, looking down at all that befell below. Irissa stood up there, staring down at the courtyard, at Lisanna,, at the Maidens now being slaughtered around her, looked down impassively at those below, and did nothing. It all made sense now, Lisanna thought. She knew why the intelligence had been faulty. She knew how the men had gotten in, knew now that the Maidens powers would be useless against this assault. She knew everything but now… now of course it was too late.
Irissa had betrayed them.
Ktan urged his horse onward, racing across the plain as fast as he could go. He couldn’t see Talamar or the other troops from down here, of course. He didn’t have the bird’s eye view he had from the tower of the fortress. He could not see how the battle turned, would not be able to until he was close upon them. He tried to look at this as an advantage. He couldn’t see the troops in front of him but neither could they see him. The enemy reinforcements had come from the northeast, riding past the fort heading south and by now they would be behind and between Talamar’s troops and the fort, which was their obvious intent. Ktan was coming from the fort as well, which meant he would be behind the enemy reinforcements in turn. They would expect the Sacred Knights to hold the fort; they wouldn’t be expecting his attack.
Or so he hoped.
The rolling hills prevented him from seeing very far ahead, but eventually he crested a hill and saw the battle before him.
Talamar had been pushed to the south, caught between the troops that accompanied the caravan and those that came upon him unawares, and was now using the enemy wagons as cover as best he could against the attack. It was difficult to tell exactly how the battle was going but Ktan could see Talamar was hard pressed to hold his men together while pincered between the two forces. The enemy saw Ktan and his men first, the troops who had been with the caravan were facing him, and he could see some of them gesturing in his direction. Some of Talamar’s men saw him at almost the same time, but the second enemy force, the one who he was coming up behind, the one he wanted to take by surprise, was engaged with Talamar’s troops, facing away from him. They didn’t see him and his men, until moments before he was upon them.
By then it was too late, and the Sacred Knights and their soldiers fell upon the Kings men like a crack of thunder, driving into the enemy lines, hewing them down from behind before they could turn upon this new doom. For long minutes the two forces battled fiercely, the King’s Knights turning as best they could, as their leaders tried to rally them to fight.
Dust and dirt filled the air, as well as the cries of men and horses. And soon the thought of grand strategy was forgotten, replaced by the simple struggle to survive. Massed movements of troops broke down into small groups or one on one fighting. Face to face with the enemy, the battle took on a more personal flavor and for quite some time it was became difficult to predict the outcome.
In the midst of this Ktan found himself and his troops face to face with a group of the King’s Knights that had held together. Now they were driving forward, straight towards Ktan, trying to reassert their command of the battlefield. Leading them was a bear of a man, wielding a large war axe, an axe that a normal man would need two hands just to hold, yet it seemed light as a feather grasped in but a single one of his. His helm covered most of his face, but Ktan knew him, had seen him before many times. He had seen the old leader of the Sacred Knights often enough in battle that he didn’t need to see the man’s face to know it was him.
Variman Vashay. The former commander of the Sacred Knights, the man who had turned against the Maidens when the King had pronounced them heretics. He was said to be the finest swordsman in all of Mandaria. He was driving forward, trying to rally his men around him. Ktan wasn’t about the let that happen.
He spurred his own horse forward, straight at his adversary. They met with a clash of steel, Variman’s axe slamming into Ktan’s shield with enough force to nearly unhorse him. Variman’s other hand held a long dagger, almost the length of a short sword. No shield for him, nothing defensive, his whole strategy was to attack, to hit his opponent harder, stronger, faster. If needed the dagger was used to parry, but that was not its main use. So far, no one had stood against him.
But on that day Ktan was up to the task. He wasn’t sure for how long they battled. It seemed like hours, but of course, that was not possible. Ktan had the advantage of speed, which saved him from the brunt of Variman’s vicious attacks but even so he found it impossible to penetrate the other man’s defense without risking his neck coming under Variman’s axe. Every time Ktan thought he had an opening his blade was parried by Variman’s dagger, or he had to pull back to avoid a viscous swipe from the man’s weapon. The fought on, fought for what seemed like ages, but neither one could find an advantage.
In any battle a one on one fight cannot last forever. Eventually the two broke apart, both of them nearing exhaustion, taking a moment to catch their breath. They both looked around then, and realized the battle had become a rout. Ktan might not have beaten Variman, but he had tied the man up, had forced Variman to concentrate on their combat and not the battle itself, had taken the King’s Knights leader and strategist away from them. They both looked up now and saw the King’s men in full retreat.
Even now, a number of the Sacred Knights, with no other foe to face, were turning toward them. Variman looked around and saw none of his own men standing nearby. The Sacred Knights had taken the field. With a curse he turned his horse and started to gallop off. He was no fool. He knew even he could not stand for long against such odds.
Ktan rode after him, filled with anger and battle lust, determined that his enemy would not get away. He halted, however, as Talamar Tramone rode up beside him, his arm coming up, pointing behind them.
“Look!” he shouted.
The urgent tone in his voice could not be denied. Ktan turned to look behind him and it didn’t take him but a moment to see what Talamar was pointing at. Ktan brought his horse to a halt, then spun it around to face the north.
Far away billowing black smoke rose up into the air. Almost due north of them, from exactly the direction where the Maidens fortress lay. Ktan felt a sudden chill seeping into his bones, the anger and battle lust of before suddenly forgotten. All thought of pursuing Varamin fell from Ktan’s mind. He turned and along with Talamar and the others, raced back north towards the fortress. As they approached they saw that what they had feared was in fact the truth. Coming over a rise they could see the fortress clearly in front of them. The black billowing smoke rose from within it, and they could see the flicker of flames rising above the battlements.
Ktan’s throat went dry as tinder. What could have happened? What could have caused this disaster? He found himself hoping it was all some unlucky coincidence, that a fire had somehow started by chance at the very moment most of the defenders were far off in battle. That it was a simple fire gotten out of control. A terrible set back, perhaps, but something they could overcome with a bit of hard work. The outer walls and the main towers were made of stone; the fire could not destroy them. The fortress could still be defended. So he found himself hoping, but his hopes were dashed as they rode up to find the gates of the fortress flung open, and inside the bodies of the dead.
No fire had done this. The bodies that filled the courtyard had been slain by steel. The battle was over now, the bodies of a few of the King’s knights the only clue they had left behind. Now, except for the crackling of the burning timbers all was deathly silent. No one spoke as they dismounted, looking around, their faces pale, taking in the carnage all about them. Ktan followed Talamar as the man strode through the archway into the inner courtyard, a place Ktan had never been before, the home of the Maidens of Donelan. They looked around slowly and saw no one alive. Ktan stood there, feeling like he was dead himself. The castle was destroyed. The King’s men had been here while they were away. The caravan, the enemy reinforcements, it had all been a diversion, a way to get them to leave the fortress with little defense, and he had fallen for it. He had ridden out with most of the remaining defenders. This was his fault.
Near the foot of the main tower, he saw Lisanna’s body crumpled on the ground. He ran over and knelt down beside her. She had been the first Maiden he had met, the one who had vouched for him when he had petitioned to join the Sacred Knights. She had stood by him at every turn and he wasn’t even sure why. She had told him once she had seen something in him that she had only seen in others on very rare occasions. She hadn’t really explained what she meant, and had never said anything else about it. She had been his closest friend among the Maidens. She was on her back, looking up at the sky. Her wounds were horrible, yet her faced looked almost peaceful, as if in the end she had accepted the inevitable. For some reason this got to him more than anything else that had happened. He felt tears welling in his eyes, but he fought and held them back. Looking up he could see that some of the other men openly were crying. He saw no shame in it. They had all loved the Maidens dearly.
A shadow fell over him. He looked around to see Henrik standing next to him, having emerged from the central tower.
“There are none left alive,” he stated, his voice sounding hollow.
So they were gone, Ktan thought. All they had worked for, all their effort was for naught. They had made a vow to protect the Maidens with their lives.
It was Talamar, who was also standing nearby. Ktan turned again to see the man was looking straight at him.
“What happened?” he repeated. “You were left in charge of the defense. How did the enemy get in? How did this happen?”
His voice was biting, accusing. Ktan had been in charge of the defense. How had this happened? The gates could not have been broken in the short time they had been away. The castle had been under siege for months earlier in the war and had held against all assault. Even with as few men as he had left, it was impossible for the defenses to be breached in the short time they had been away.
“I don’t know.”
That was hardly an acceptable answer and he knew it but he didn’t know what else to say.
The voice was stern. Ktan looked at his commander. The fortress had fallen, however it had happened, and it was his fault. He had been in charge, he had been given the greatest responsibility that any Sacred Knight could have, to preserve the lives of the Maidens and he had failed. He wouldn’t turn away, wouldn’t shy from his responsibility. He was prepared to face whatever judgment Talamar thought fitting.
“The Sacred Knights are charged with the duty of protecting the lives of the Maidens of Donelan,” Talamar stated. “We have all failed in this charge, but you most of all. You were in command of the fortress, you rode out against orders, you abandoned your post and as a result the lives of the Maidens were lost. This transgression is unforgivable. I hereby cast you out of the Holy Order of the Sacred Knights and declare you disgraced, a man without honor. May you find no comfort from man or woman for as long as you walk this earth, and may this stain weigh upon your soul for all eternity.”
Silence fell at that, and no one could deny the harshness of this sentence. Ktan looked around and all the knights around him turned away. He was no longer one of them, was no longer a knight, no longer even a peasant in their eyes. No, it was worse than that, from now on, he didn’t even exist to them. He would never be acknowledged by them again. He was beneath their contempt. They all turned away, save one.
“That’s not fair!” Jenya exclaimed defiantly. “We won the battle out there because of Ktan. If he hadn’t come to our aid we would have been wiped out. It was because of his timely arrival that we are standing here now. He saved us!”
Talamar turned to face her.
“Saved us yes but at what cost?” he questioned. “You know as well as the rest of us our primary duty was to protect the Maidens. It didn’t matter what happened to us. If we had been wiped out in the field, would that have been too high a price to pay for the safety of the Maidens? Ktan was entrusted with the duty of protecting the Maidens. He failed in that duty, no matter what the extenuating circumstances.”
“He couldn’t have known this was going to happen!” Jenya retorted. “There was no sign of any other of the King’s troops around. There was no reason to believe the fortress wasn’t safe even without him here. The fortress couldn’t possibly have fallen so quickly while we were away save by treachery!”
“Enough!” Talamar commanded. “The thought of treachery in this weighs heavy on my mind too but it matters not. Whether through deceit or open assault the fortress has fallen, the Maidens dead. Either way it was his responsibility to stay here, to defend the Maidens and to die in their defense if naught else. Now I will speak no more of it, and you will not either, unless you feel inclined to join him in this doom.”
“Join him?” Jenya said bitterly. “We are all going to join him. The Maidens are all dead. It was our sacred duty to protect them. With the Maidens gone, there are no more Sacred Knights!”
To this Talamar had no answer, for her words were the truth. He looked around and saw the men were all standing around with dazed expressions on their faces.
“What are we going to do Captain?” one of the men asked.
Talamar looked at him but said nothing. What could he tell them? What could he say? He was their commander still but had no more orders to give them. Jenya was right, without the Maidens there were no Sacred Knights.
“We’ll right north,” he said eventually. They had still fought for the Maidens. He didn’t think the King would be lenient with them if they were caught by the King’s men. The fortress was in ruins. It might be reparable but to what purpose? There were no more Maidens to defend. They had won the battle but lost the war. “We’ll head for Teklos. Once there we will discuss our strategy.”
He needed time to think. Right now recent events weighed on them too heavily. They would ride to Teklos and then decide on what further action they might take, if any. They would in all likelihood be hunted, even with the Maidens dead, though perhaps with not quite as much verve as before. Teklos was close to the boarder with the eastern Kingdom. If need be they could slip across and escape from Mandaria. It was the best he could come up with.
The men remounted, all of them except Ktan, who remained where he was. The others ignored him save for Jenya who now rode over beside him.
“It wasn’t your fault,” she said.
Some of the other knights looked at her disapprovingly, but she cared not.
“It was,” was all Ktan could bring himself to say.
Jenya looked at him for a moment.
“I’ll stay with you,” she suddenly offered.
“No,” Ktan replied immediately. “Go with them.”
He didn’t want company. He didn’t want comfort. Talamar was right to have done what he did. He had gotten exactly what he deserved. The truth was, no matter how harsh Talamars words or judgment, they could not make him feel worse than his own conscience did.
Jenya remained motionless on her horse, seemingly disinclined to listen to him. His looked up at her, his face an emotionless mask.
“Go!” he said harshly.
The dismissal stung, a little bit, Jenya had to admit. She had only tried to offer some comfort, after all. Still, she could forgive him, given the circumstances. She wasn’t sure she’d have acted any better in his position. The other knights were already leaving, their horses filing past her. She didn’t want to leave him alone, but it was obvious her company was unwanted.
Henrik rode up beside her. With nary a glance at Ktan he leaned over and spoke to her.
“Let us be off. Speak not to him anymore.”
Jenya glared at Henrik, but her horse remained motionless, still reluctant to leave. She gave Ktan one last long look, seeking some sign that he might want her to stay after all, the slightest hint that her company was desired, but he just returned her gaze stonily. Bowing to the finality of that she turned away and spurred her horse forward, the last one out though the gates. She did not look back.
For a long time Ktan remained there, standing as if turned to stone. He didn’t care what happened to himself anymore, didn’t care if all of Talamar’s pronouncements came true. If the King’s troops had ridden up at that very moment he would have made no move to defend himself, would have let them haul him off to whatever fate they would have wished on him. It didn’t matter to him anymore, nothing mattered. Everything he had ever thought important in the world was gone.
Eventually he found his feet moving, walking slowly through the ruin. He didn’t know where they were taking him, didn’t know why he was moving at all. He had no place to go anymore.
He walked slowly through the tower, or what was left of it. No one was there but the dead, but he no longer minded that. He preferred the company of the dead to the living. The dead asked no questions, gave no scornful looks. The tower was still afire, and sometimes he came so close to the flames that he felt the heat burning his face and hands and found himself choking on the smoke. He didn’t care, he still forced himself forward. If he was to die here, overcome by the heat and the smoke, then so be it.
The smoke cleared eventually, his coughing fading away. The tower was silent now except for the slow crackling of flames in the few timbers that remained. He paused for a moment then, remaining still, for now another faint sound came to his ears. Only for a moment, and even at that he thought his ears must be deceiving him, but then he heard it again.
Was that the crying of an infant her heard?
He lifted his head, looking around slowly. He was in the central tower. He had never been in here before. This area had always been off limits to all but the Maidens. He appeared now to be in some sort of conference room, from the large table and chairs that he saw there, or rather saw the smoldering remains of. The sound seemed to be coming from a doorway to his left.
He made his way to the door, the sound becoming clearer as he walked, until it was unmistakable. A child was crying, somewhere close by now.
He entered the next room. It might have been a nursery, from what he could see. Was that a basinet that stood before him now, beside the cabinets and tables that lined the walls? He wasn’t sure. The fire had burnt most everything so that it could no longer be recognized. The room was filled with smoke, making it difficult for him to see, and breathe. Still, he could hear the child clearly now.
He took a few more steps forward. The fire was close, and he could feel the heat. In one corner of the room, where the sound seemed to be coming from, he could see something on the floor. No, not something, he realized as he stepped closer, someone. One of the Maidens lay there, crumpled in the corner. The sound was coming from there.
The fire flared up beside him, the choking smoke forcing him back. He looked around until he found a soft cloth lying on the floor among a clutter of other debris. He lifted it to his face, then, on hands and knees, crawled the final distance between himself and his destination.
The child was swaddled in cloth, clutched tightly in the woman’s arms. It was apparent from the wound in her side that the Maiden hadn’t fallen victim to the fire. Ktan could see a trail of blood leading to this spot. Had the woman come in here from somewhere else, using the last of her strength to try to protect the child? There was no way for him to tell. Gently he pulled the infant from her fingers. The child wailed even louder, but Ktan did not mind, thinking that she couldn’t choke to death if she was crying. He unfolded the cloth, inspecting the little girl but, though the fire had almost surrounded her, she seemed miraculously unhurt.
Carefully he made his way out of the room, returning the way he had come, until once more he stood in the open courtyard. Here he stopped again, looking down at the small child in his arms.
Somehow she had survived, which meant that the Maidens weren’t gone, weren’t all destroyed. He had lost all hope but finding her alive renewed it. It didn’t matter that she was an infant, it didn’t matter that she knew nothing of what had happened here. All that mattered was that she was one of the Maidens, and she was alive.
“Merigan,” he said softly.
She could not have understood him of course. Perhaps it was just the sound of his voice, the realization somewhere in that small brain of hers that she was no longer alone. For whatever reason she grew quiet as he spoke her name.
The child in his arms, he walked slowly out of the ruins of the Maidens fortress, never to return.