I wonder how to make a proper disclaimer for what I’m about to compose. I guess I’ll cover the basics and hope to address anything that crops up later if and when necessary.
This is a writing exercise. It could also be a teaser for the third book. It could also be full of spoilers, yet without any guarantee that I’ll keep a single word of the text once I actually get around to the overhaul job of the third book. The first draft does exist, but large sections need to be rewritten; nothing new to me, considering what I had to do to The Gift-Knight’s Quest and at least 50% of The Crown Princess’ Voyage.
Every book in this series is rated young adult and up due to violence and some mature themes.
“…the group of Frontier riders returned to the city, ragged and diminished in number…”
The people of the Free Plains were known as alternately stoic or violent, or both, depending on what they needed to be in given situations. Contending with two historical foes got them used to a cyclical existence. They had to sow seed and reap lives. They had to thrash enemies for dark times, then thresh grain in between.
Then the Wancyeks lost power, were humbled, and knelt to the same existence as their former serfs. The people had to look within their own borders to find their worst enemies, but only briefly; the Frontier broke off the kingdom to fight a seemingly endless war in the north, and it seemed like the Free Plains got the peaceful agrarian side of the coin. There were always people who wondered when the next inevitable fight would happen, but as whole lifetimes elapsed in between the darkest of times and the present, there were more people who forgot.
Chairman Elek had no choice but to consider such truths. He could feel it happening when the Wancyek boy–fairly a man by now–arrived with tidings of the next war, and a strange alliance formed with both the enemies from antiquity: Kensrik and Etrouk. But he had hope that such a massing of forces could keep the violence away from the Plains, or away from its inhabited parts. He knew the last battle was to happen amidst ruins, as if that place didn’t have enough ghosts.
When the group of Frontier riders returned to the city, ragged and diminished in number, Elek knew his hopes were dashed. He knew before the unusually rough looking Kensrikan rider among the Frontiersmen spoke a word.
“You there, old man. Wise man, hopefully. Where can I gain the ear of someone in authority?” The Kensrikan sputtered out in gasps of Common-South.
“You’re addressing one right now. I am the Chairman of the Council of the Free Plains.” Elek said patiently, but with the dull and tired tone of someone who could feel bad news coming.
“Oh. Great Sky…” The Kensrikan dragged himself off the horse in a precarious way that should have ended in a face-plant, but miraculously didn’t; he then knelt.
“I am not royalty. You do not kneel for me. Get up and say what it is you have to say.” Elek corrected.
Elek offered a hand to the Kensrikan whose saddle sore legs could conceivably have made it difficult to get up from a kneel once he was already down. The stranger graciously accepted.
The Kensrikan blinked a few times as it suddenly occurred to him that there was no perfect way to say what needed to be said. Especially not after the loss he had personally suffered. His world had gone from anthill to mountain and back to anthill within a mere two weeks. Once he stood on his own, Elek let go of his hand.
“I know this is difficult. I can see it. I can’t do anything for you if you don’t try.” Elek reassured.
“They’ve regrouped.” The Kensrikan spat out. “They, them with the fire spitters, the ones we fought before and we won but there’s more of them. You have to get your people ready.”
Elek nodded. “I’m sorry to hear that. Is your leader arriving late? I don’t see him among your riders.”
The Kensrikan frantically shook his head. “No, no leaders, we can’t count on any of them. We’re wasting time talking about it.”
“You’re wasting time every moment you withhold information, because I’m not acting without it. Why can’t we count on them?” Elek asked insistently.
Formerly idle soldiers in the Plains camp were increasingly taking interest in this conversation. Some of them had tried to question other Frontier riders but only got defeated silence in return.
The Kensrikan breathed out harshly with frustration. “He’s dead, Chairman. Our leader is dead. Yours, by now, must be, and her excellency, busy mourning him or something; do you see any other Kensrikans around this camp? We are left alone. Do you not have some sort of defensive wall, a fortress, anything we should prepare right now?”
Elek’s expression shifted from tired to solemn, a subtle difference if you weren’t looking for it.
“We have a castle. I think you might have been there not too long ago; does it still have a roof? Look around you, stranger. We hardly have anything built out of stone around here.” Elek said.
But the factual rejoinder was a misdirect that Elek needed for himself as he processed the unbelievable news.
Elek continued: “We last got word that they had won the battle. I don’t believe our young man rode with you, so what changed?”
The Kensrikan looked around at the growing crowd of onlookers.
“Organize your people for a meeting, Chairman. Let’s have everyone get the news at once so nobody has to repeat themselves. It’s a long enough story.” He said.
Elek nodded. “We do make decisions as a community. Help get the word out, if you and your horse aren’t both about to fall over. Or is there time? You do act as if we have hardly any.”
The more he thought about it, the more the Kensrikan realized it might not matter how early they prepared for what was marching their way. He had no idea what they were going to do. They might reasonably have a day and a half, or two days, unless their enemy wanted to risk hard-marching and sending exhausted warriors into battle. No, their enemy probably knew the Plains’ dire situation, and would take their time.
“A day and a half, perhaps two.” The Kensrikan admitted.
Elek patted him on the shoulder. “It was probably a frantic situation you just escaped from. We have fresh horses here, and plenty of idle people who can ride. We can get horses to the outlying villages quickly. Let me get you a bed to fall into for a while. Maybe you can start by telling me how you ended up riding with the Frontier, it must be some story…”
“The soldiers, whether women of the Frontier or men of the Plains, looked on with flat expressions; they had already been through worse than a speech.”
The Kensrikan didn’t know how long he slept before they awoke him for the meeting, but it had been long enough to clean and dry his clothes. Nothing but pure exhaustion had kept him laying there and he did not dream, or did not remember any dreams, which was most likely a blessing.
They were equally blessed with calm winds and no rain on this day, because no building around was large enough to shelter so many onlookers at once. The schools were merely large enough to hold students; the Council chamber was large enough to hold a handful of oligarchs, one or two people they might address privately, and one person required to bring them tea.
It looked to him like the whole country was there. He wasn’t sure the entire structure of the Kenderley Palace, every hall and every room, could hold such a number. There would probably be a lot of whispering-around between those who could hear and those who could not. He would at least hear everything right from the source, and not have to suffer miscommunication from strangers.
A couple of soldiers escorted him to the meeting, separating the crowd so he could get in. No one mocked his attire this time, or questioned whether he was a man. Perhaps he carried it in his demeanor, his expression, what he had been through to apparently be initiated into their respect.
He would have been perfectly fine not to have gone through any of that. Not at such a price, for such a questionable reward. It was too late now.
Chairman Elek began his address. “I have been brought the worst possible news. We will have to decide what to do about it; first, what we as a group will act upon, and then, all of you as individual persons must reconcile yourselves to a role. Given the nature of the news, the first part doesn’t have to take long, but I want you all to think very carefully about the second.”
Elek already spoke slowly to let people circulate their whispers to the back, but he paused for a time to make sure the old whispers were done before he created the necessity for new ones.
Then Elek continued: “Our ally, the leader of the Frontier riders, has perished in battle while trying to keep the invaders in disarray. And our appointed Master of War is most likely to have fallen as well; and none of his erstwhile allies seem likely to come to our aid now. We must remember that our Master served us as best he could during his fleeting tenure, drawing the fight away from our houses and toward the ruins sacred to his family, but our enemies have no reason to go there again. They are headed straight for us. It makes sense to me, personally, that we should not make this fight easy for them, no matter who we are or what we think we’re capable of, but this is something we must decide as a group. Keeping in mind that there are no surrender terms offered, nor can we reasonably expect them to do anything else but attempt to raze all our towns and villages and kill every last one of us.”
He paused, a little longer, because the whispers took time to form. The whisperers were, at first, unsure they had heard anything correctly. Then they wished they were wrong, but couldn’t wish away the facts of the matter. Some broke into tears and held their young children closely. The soldiers, whether women of the Frontier or men of the Plains, looked on with flat expressions; they had already been through worse than a speech.
There was some dull roar coming from far to the back, but it was not enough to disrupt the address at first.
“Here is my first proposal for everyone. Those who know they can fight, they may as well. Those who for practical reasons should not, we need someone to leave with the children and to maintain authority. This group will make haste toward Kensrik. We don’t know what will happen to them after we are gone, but I insist that every week they survive is one more week longer than they would have lived if they stayed, and our continued survival as a people is worth every moment we can wring out of an unforgiving world. Your choice as an individual person is to determine what you honestly feel in your heart you can do, and prepare to do that. If there is any practical consideration I have overlooked…” Elek concluded.
By this point, the source of the dull roar had fought his way to the heart of the meeting. It didn’t take much, because everyone knew who he was and why he fought. They might have done the same if they were him.
“He fell? Fell, like a drunk to the street? I demand you tell me why this really happened.” The man bellowed.
“Emeric. You deserve a personal address separate from this meeting. I’m so sorry.” Elek replied.
Emeric wagged a scolding finger. “That’s not an answer. No, I’ll tell you what happened to him.”
Then Emeric pointed at the Kensrikan he suddenly noticed, and continued his rant.
“You, I’ll wager you were there. You know, don’t you?”
The Kensrikan looked doubtfully at the older Plainsman.
Emeric continued: “You have to know. She stole my boy with Kenderley witchcraft, then we all heard the news: they won the battle, and they went to Etrouk. Right into the den of our other old enemy. A place up high with some walls left, probably. And the first thing she did was hand him over to Etroukans in return for safety. She’s probably marrying one of them right now. Do you see a single plate of brass armor on a man or a horse around here when we need one? No, you didn’t see them in the battle, not any spoken of. They’re up there waiting for us to die before they do anything else about this war.”
“Emeric, this is not how you want to look in public. Everyone knows your loss must be terrible, but we don’t have any time for–” Elek tried to interrupt.
“Shut up, you old ninny. You weren’t there. That Kensrikan, that stone faced dandy, ask him what happened. Make him answer. He was there.” Emeric shouted.
A couple of Frontier riders stepped to the aid of the Kensrikan, whether he asked for them or not.
“He rode with us, old man. Don’t you dare address him like a typical Kenderley lackey.” They said.
The Kensrikan frowned, and put up his hands to shoo both the Frontier riders back.
“Don’t either of you tell me who I am. And you, old man, Emeric, don’t pretend you’re the only one who’s lost someone you loved. Those ‘Kenderley lackeys’ were right at the front lines getting blown apart and don’t deserve any less respect than anyone in this alliance. I am proud to be one of them. I don’t know where the others are, but until we hear from them, it’s safest to plan like they’ll never get here in time. Because time is something we’ve wasted enough, and I don’t have any more for a limping sack of potatoes making wild accusations.”
Emeric laughed bitterly. “Not bad. You picked up some of our insults. You want me to stop, just answer me. What happened to my son?”
“Last word we received, his wound had spoiled in the worst way and he was fighting for his life, and it would take a miracle. That was days ago. If her excellency didn’t care about him, she might already be here with my fellows.”
“You assume.” Emeric said bitterly, regarding the last part. “Spoiled wound, is that any way for a Wancyek to die… but from a battle, a real battle. My boy.”
The Kensrikan was rather impressed with how quickly the older man could turn from seething rage to the verge of tears. Elek, on the other hand, had clued in to the first assumption made by the Kensrikan. It was a completely reasonable one to make. When a wound spoiled badly, it was usually just a matter of time; he might still be alive, but in no condition to help them.
Irena had been waiting at the edge of the meeting’s center, having followed the husband she was unable to hold back, but not ready to interfere until then. Fearing Emeric would faint in his finally accepted grief, she then rushed to his side. It was difficult to say how helpful this would be once her grief sank in, and she was in fainting danger herself.
No one voiced a better idea than the Chairman’s simple one. Some of the older boys needed to be talked away from joining the men, as they were in no way prepared for battle.
As most of those gathered gradually vacated the square to prepare themselves for what was to come, the other Council members approached Elek to consider where they might go.
“None of us are warriors, but I have to remain here in solidarity with the people. Though you’re welcome to join me, I don’t bind any of you to the same choice. We aren’t even in charge of planning this stand.” Elek explained.
Said the first to respond, “As much as you spoke of wringing out time from an unforgiving world, I’m not the only one who’s been wringing for far too long. Call me impatient, but it’s just as well that I stay.”
Elek nodded. “Very well, Impatient. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. We can share that relief as a group.”
Said the second to respond, “Besides which, it’s children we’re sending away, and the infirm. I’m far from a child, yet still can’t think of myself as infirm. I also like the reasons shared so far, so I stay.”
“The more, the merrier. The youth have probably heard enough from us for a lifetime.” They all tended to agree, and none would flee.
“I’m going to make sure there’s someone around to remember.”
The Kensrikan was a successor of Frontier leadership, despite his insistence on continued allegiance to a Kenderley Army that was nowhere to be found. They would need him to organize and rally what would likely be their last defense; but Chairman Elek, having nothing else to do rather than wait, hoped the stranger would have time to answer one last question.
“I caught your response to Emeric. You say you lost a loved one.” Elek said, cautiously.
The Kensrikan turned toward the familiar voice. He knew he let that slip during the meeting, but so far no one else had shown any sign of picking that up.
“Yes, Chairman, I have.”
“Comrades in arms, you meant?”
The Kensrikan cracked the slightest smile, but it couldn’t stay.
“Something much more than that.”
Elek looked at the ground, nodded, and resumed looking at the one he addressed.
“Our most celebrated hero died rather than risk losing his love. You live with a pain not even he could imagine, and you still fight. You should be remembered.”
The Kensrikan looked impatient to return to his planning, or perhaps to shrug off an uncomfortable discussion. Most likely both.
“I’m going to make sure there’s someone around to remember. Because I believe that you’re wrong, and there’s no reason we can’t win. These invaders have proven themselves foolish before, relying too much on brute force and intimidating numbers, but we know we have beaten them. Perhaps if it takes long enough, we’ll finally see we haven’t been abandoned after all.”
Elek feigned a smile. Well, if that’s what the man needed to believe to keep going, the Chairman was not about to get in the way. He left the Kensrikan alone and returned to a quieter, more meditative waiting.