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Topic Subject: The King's Own
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posted 20 May 2014 19:29 EDT (US)   
I know I've mentioned it a couple times before, but I think it's about time that I put up some of my writing (other than for Sepia jousts). Therefore, if anyone's interested, I'm going to start posting the first book I wrote on here in something of an episodic format. Hopefully it'll provide the impetus for me to finish editing it. There are large number of characters in this book, so I've included a list of the characters so far below (I'll expand it as I go).

The King’s Own

The Trap

14th of Grakuary, 599
Village of Tumbri, north of Menzobaria

Iron shod hoofs clattered on the cobblestone street, and the horses’ breath made plumes of white steam. Mail and weapons clanked, and the king’s flag snapped in the cold wind. Snow drifted down from pewter clouds, and gathered on the thatched roofs. When the company reached the town square, Captain Vladimir Kapov signaled a halt. Before them was a statue of Arbatros’s first king, William the Great, the top dusted with snow. All around them, the town was quiet, the only noise the snorts of their horses and the clack of hooves as the horses shifted their feet.

Vladimir looked over at his scout platoon commander. “Lieutenant Thompson, I want you to send your scouts through the village and see if you can flush any enemy out. Victoria, go with them; I’ll keep Octavia for support.”

“Yes sir,” the two women replied.

“Yes sir,” Lieutenant Thompson echoed. Then he turned to his sergeants, “Send out your troops in teams of five.”

“Yes sir,” his squad commanders replied, quickly divided the soldiers into teams, and moved out of the square.

Vladimir motioned for one of his squads to dismount, and swung off his own horse. “I want to set up a command post and possible wounded collection point in this tavern here.” Drawing his sword, the well-worn wire-wrapped leather handle fitting comfortably into his hand, he approached the door of the building cautiously. With his shield hand, he grasped the door handle, then glanced back at his troops. The indicated squad had dismounted and drawn swords, maces, and battle axes, and was waiting, ready. Vladimir listened closely, but all he could hear was the snapping of their cloaks and the flag in the bitterly cold wind that whistled through the narrow streets, the snorting of the horses, hooves pawing the ground, and the soldiers shifting on their horses, mail clinking. Vladimir looked at Octavia, and asked, “Anything?”

She squinted in concentration and replied, “Not anything active, but I’m picking up a few traces.”

“How old?”

“I’m not sure.” She drew a wand and muttered a few words. Then she said, “Either it was something pretty strong a while ago, or something weaker more recently, but definitely nothing active.”

“Good,” he nodded to his soldiers, “Ready?”

“Yes sir.”

Vladimir grasped the door handle more firmly, turned it, and opened the door. He heard a soft noise in the back of the common room, which was dimly illuminated by the weak light coming through the small windows. Vladimir brought his shield up, and braced himself for an attack. He heard the twang of a crossbow, then another, and he dived down, throwing his shield above him. The first bolt went wide, cracking into the doorframe above his head. The second skipped off his metal-coated shield with a clang. Vladimir was up and moving forward before the second bolt hit the ground.

Three men charged him, two with battleaxes, the third had a sword; all were wearing chain mail armor. Swinging his sword across, he caught the first axe-man in the stomach, opening up his belly. Blood spurted out, splattering Vladimir’s armored forearm, blemishing the bright steel of his vambrace. He could smell the iron tang of the blood, which steamed in the bitter cold. The man staggered and fell, dropping his weapon as he attempted to keep his entrails from spilling out onto the floor. The axe made a dull thump as it hit the rush covered wooden floor. Vladimir swung his shield across to the left to knock aside the swordsman’s swing. As he blocked the second axe-man’s strike with his sword, he could hear the crank of a crossbow being reloaded, the wood of the bow creaking as it took the tension.

Vladimir stabbed forward, the tip of his blade punching through his opponent’s armor and piercing his chest. Blood gushed out from the wound as he withdrew his sword and swung it across to parry another attack from the swordsman. Their swords met with a clang, sparks flying in the chill winter air. Their breath formed cloud of steam in front of them, and their boots scuffed the rushes on the floor. Hearing the thrum of a crossbow, he twirled away, and the bolt missed. Vladimir whipped his blade, now covered in bright scarlet blood, across and decapitated the swordsman. Blood jetted out of the man’s neck, painting the ceiling of the room crimson. Behind him, his troops charged into the room.

* * *

Private James Black gripped the leather handle of his short bow more tightly, and drew the arrow lying across it back a little more as he scanned the windows of the surrounding buildings. This was his first deployment, and he wanted to prove himself. He shivered a little as the cold wind stirred his cloak and cut through his scale mail and surcoat.

“You alright, Black?” The lieutenant called from across the street.

“Yes sir, I am.”

“See any movement?”

“No sir, all quiet.”

Lieutenant Jason Thompson turned to Victoria, “Any magic?”

“I’m picking up something, but I haven’t figured out exactly what it is,” the slender mage replied.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“That building up there, the Boar’s Head.”

Jason motioned for two of his men to check out the building. It was a two-story structure, stone for the first, the second’s white paint peeling off. A wooden sign with a painted boar’s head creaked in the wind where it hung from a metal bar protruding from the building. The lieutenant signaled for James and one of the other men to cover the building’s windows with their bows. James brought his bow up, drawing back the arrow. It’ll be just like practicing at the range, he told himself as he took aim at one of the windows, but this time the targets are for real. Two of the scouts approached the door. The first one tried it, but it was locked.

“Get ready,” the scout called, then stepped back and kicked the door, his heavy boot connecting solidly. The door flew open, and five crossbows twanged. Before he could move, four bolts hit the scout, throwing him back into the street, blood spraying out of his wounds. Windows banged open, and crossbowmen appeared.

A man emerged in the window James was covering, and he released the arrow on his bow. The missile flew straight out, and he watched his target fly backward. From another window, a fiery pea shot out towards the street. Victoria’s hands blurred, words poured from her lips, and the pea vanished. James heard his companions loose their arrows, and more crossbowmen dropped.

Then the crossbowmen opened fire. Quarrels sped out, a deadly steel tipped swarm that reached out to slash into horse and man, skip off the cobbles, and punch through the scale mail armor the scouts wore as if it were nothing. At a shout from Victoria, a bolt of crackling blue lightning shot out and blasted two crossbowmen back, leaving them lying scorched and charred on the ground.

Ionized air hissed around the bolt’s path, and the smell of burnt flesh permeated the air. All around, horses neighed and whinnied in pain and fear, and men lay on the ground, their lifeblood draining out onto the street as they gasped for their last breaths, which steamed in the air. Quarrels thumped into buildings, struck sparks off the cobbles, and dug into flesh.

Seeing the enemy slaughtering his troops, Jason yelled, “Ride! Ride! We need to break out of the ambush!” Then he drew his sword, put his heels to his horse’s flanks, and charged towards the Zhuravi infantry moving to encircle his command.

He galloped down the narrow cobble street, his horse’s hooves pounding on the stones. The stone and wood buildings leaned low over the street, the sky a pale grey in the space between them. Startled by his quick reaction, the infantry on the street turned, looks of surprise on their faces. His first blow cut one of the men open from shoulder to hip, and sent him whirling away.

James heard the lieutenant’s shout, and, dropping his bow into its sheath, he drew his sword and followed. Looking down, he saw a dead Zhuravi soldier, probably his own age, lying on the ground. There was a look of surprise and shock on the boy’s face, and blood still steamed as it seeped out of a stab wound in his chest. Fighting the urge to vomit, tasting bitter bile in his mouth, James looked around, trying to find the lieutenant. After a moment of searching, he saw the lieutenant, surrounded by enemies, with a pile of corpses scattered around his horse’s feet.

Putting his heels to his horse’s flanks, James charged towards the lieutenant, just as one of the soldiers hit the lieutenant’s elbow with a sword. The lieutenant’s shield arm went limp, but, twisting his whole body, he swung his shield back to smash the metal boss at the center of his shield into his attacker’s face, sending him flying. Around him, James could hear the sound of battle, swords clanging off shields, armor, and other weapons.

As James neared the lieutenant, one of the soldiers, hearing his horse’s hoof beats, turned to face him. Once again, he was startled to see that his enemy was little older than he was. He hesitated, then slashed down, cracking his enemy’s skull open, bone splintering under the hard steel of his longsword. The young Zhuravi soldier fell away, and James continued his charge, blood running down the fuller on his sword. Another of the Zhuravi soldiers around the lieutenant turned, thrusting a spear at James’s horse. It reared, almost throwing him off. Then his horse’s hooves lashed out, one catching his attacker in the chest, smashing ribs and throwing the man backwards. His horse came back down with a clatter of hooves as the lieutenant finished off the last of his opponents.

A lance of ice struck James in the shoulder, almost throwing him off his horse; he teetered for a moment before the lieutenant pushed him back upright. Even that simple movement sent pain shooting through him from where the crossbow bolt was embedded in his left shoulder. He could feel hot blood running down his back and soaking into his clothes.

The wind picked up again, carrying with it the stench of death- the smell of freshly spilled blood and the bitter reek of bowels voided in death- and working icy fingers through James’s clothes. The screams of the dying echoed off the town’s close-set buildings.

Jason called for what remained of the patrol to follow. Then he urged his horse forward, watching James to make sure he didn’t fall. His elbow throbbed, and his sword arm was covered in blood, now cooling and hardening in the biting cold.

* * *

As they approached the square, there came a shout, “Stop and identify yourselves.”

“Lieutenant Thompson and his patrol, returning from scouting.”

“Very good, you may pass.”

The survivors galloped into the square around the same time the rest of Jason’s unit was returning. He looked back to see who had made it. Victoria, James, and about a dozen others, most wounded, followed him. The captain walked out of the large tavern that faced out onto the square, his plate and mail clinking. He could tell that the captain had been fighting; blood splattered his cloak, discoloring the black fabric. Awkwardly, Jason swung down out of the saddle, trying to protect his injured arm.

“What happened?” The captain asked.

“We were ambushed sir. There were about eighty enemies; a whole mess of crossbowmen, some infantry, and a wizard,” Jason replied.

James was surprised that the lieutenant had been able to get a count on the enemy at all. He had been too busy trying to stay alive to even think about counting. Then he winced as the crossbow bolt in his back sent another throb of pain through him.

“Alright. Get your men into the tavern to see the medic. Try to get back out as soon as possible, though. I’m going to need all the soldiers I can get to hold the square. Victoria, I need you back with me,” the captain ordered.

The golden-haired mage nodded and walked over to him.

“Of course sir,” Jason replied. He directed two of his soldiers to gently lift James out of the saddle. Despite their caution, James let out several gasps of pain as they helped him down. Then Jason led his troops into the tavern.

Opening the door, a wall of warm air met them. A bright fire crackled and popped in the fireplace, casting a flickering glow over the dark wood tables and chairs, the light reflecting off the time-polished surfaces. Heat suffused the room, forcing some of the chill out of their bones. The rushes on the floor had been cleared away, and the oak floorboards had several dark splotches marring the otherwise neat and tidy appearance of the tavern. A man and a woman with white armbands sat in chairs by the fire. Several scrolls lay on the table near them, next to some bandages and numerous potion bottles. The more senior of the two motioned for Jason and the men helping James to come over to him, and directed the rest to the other medic.

“Let me have a look at that elbow.” The senior medic took it gently in his hands, pulled a cross out from under his surcoat, and muttered a string of words and moved the cross in a complex pattern over Jason’s wound. Immediately after the medic finished, Jason could feel warmth spreading through his arm. The cut closed over and disappeared, forming a thin scar where it had been.

“Could you give me a hand getting this young man up onto that table, then help me take out the bolt, sir?”

Jason grabbed James’s legs and helped the two other scouts swing him up onto the table, facedown. He could see James grit his teeth as the quarrel shifted in his shoulder. Jason held James’s hand as the medic reached for the shaft of the quarrel. “You did good son, now we’re going to fix you up. Just a little more pain, then you’ll be good as new,” Jason said, trying to talk him through it. “You were really brave, and probably saved my life today.”

“I did?”

“Yeah, if I’d been attacked by all of them at once, I’d likely be dead right now."

“Ready?” the medic asked, tightening his hold on the bolt with one hand and putting his other against James’s back.

“Yes,” James managed to get out between clenched teeth as he braced himself against the pain, tightening his grip on the lieutenant’s hand. The lieutenant returned some of the pressure.

The medic pulled on the quarrel, hard, and it came out of his back, tearing flesh. Blood spurted up, adding to the blood that already spattered his back. He slumped on the table, gritting his teeth against the pain. The medic moved over to a bowl of water, rinsed his hands, dried them on a cloth, and grabbed a scroll off the table. The thick parchment crackled as he unrolled it, and the dark ink reflected the light from the fire. He walked over to James, put one hand on the still-bleeding wound then began to chant, reading off the scroll, making gestures with his hand on James’s back. When he finished, the wound closed and formed a small white dot here the bolt had stuck.

In the silence that followed, they could hear shouts and the sound of battle- the clash of sword on sword and the blast of a fireball- coming from outside. A moment later, the captain’s cry of “Charge!” followed by the thunder of hooves and further clashes of steel reached their ears.

The junior medic was bandaging some of the soldiers and giving a few potions on her side of the room. A short while later, everybody was ready to go. The scouts were preparing themselves to go back outside into the cold and the fighting when the door opened and several soldiers stumbled in, all wounded. Following them was a cold draft of air and the sound of combat close to the tavern. Jason looked at his troops, checking to see if they were ready. Receiving nods and eager looks, he motioned for them to follow him, and strode out the door into the biting cold. Once outside, he stopped, trying to assess the battle.

Snow was falling more heavily now, big white flakes coming down from heavy clouds. The sky was growing dark, making it difficult to see. Even so, he could make out the battle well enough, as it unfolded right in front of him.

All across the square, Zhuravi soldiers and the captain’s men fought, and bodies covered the ground. The company was holding its own, making the enemy fight for every foot they advanced across the plaza. The majority of their contingent was now on foot, most having lost their horses in the initial charge or in the subsequent hand-to-hand combat. Seeing his scouts’ horses still tied up near the tavern, he called for his men to mount up. Leather creaked and metal clinked as they climbed onto their horses. Grabbing their spears and bows, they formed up behind him.

Jason looked around the square, trying to gauge where the fighting was the heaviest. He spotted the captain right in the thick of it, sword darting left and right, parrying, blocking, and cutting down his opponents.

“To the captain!” Jason yelled, then put his heels to his horse’s sides and charged, sword held high. Across the square they charged, hooves thundering on the cobbles, pennants flapping in the chill wind. Upon seeing them, a number of the enemy broke and ran. As they neared the line, some of his men began to fire their bows, heralding their approach with steel tipped death. His little wedge formation crashed into the enemy line like a sledgehammer.

Opposing soldiers were thrown backwards, skewered on spear points, slashed by swords, or simply knocked down by the horses and then trampled. Jason’s sword slashed back and forth, hacking at enemy as fast as they appeared. The wind whistled in his ears, blew through his hair, and made his cloak fly out behind him. Those enemies around him cried out and fell away, blood spraying up with each blow of his sword.

By the time Jason reached the captain, over a third of the remaining enemy had taken flight, running back into the surrounding streets and buildings. Several structures had been set on fire, probably by a stray fireball or other spell. Close behind the captain stood Victoria, holding a bloody sword in one hand and a wand in the other. She had only suffered a few small cuts and wounds, but the dark circles under her eyes showed the strain casting numerous spells had had on her. The captain cut down the three enemies closest to him then turned to Jason. Flickering flames from the burning buildings illuminated half of his face, casting the other half in shadow. Dark blood ran down his sword, covered his gauntleted hand, and splattered him from head to toe. All around him, the corpses were piled several men deep.

“Privates,” he motioned to two of Jason’s scouts. “Give Victoria and me your horses,” he ordered.

“Yes sir,” the privates chorused, and swung off their horses. The captain and Victoria mounted up.

Vladimir winced as he swung up onto the horse, a cut on his leg opening up again and his tired arms complaining as he forced them to keep working. He looked back at Victoria, and saw that she was in little better shape than he was. She had watched his back, kept him alive, and paid a heavy price for it.

“Alright, let’s chase these bastards back to where they belong,” he said. Then he touched his heels to the horse’s flanks and charged towards the nearest clump of enemy soldiers. He cursed to himself for having led his men into a trap like this, but vowed to get them out of it.

* * *

Several hours later, with night fully upon them, the survivors of Vladimir’s company gathered in the common room of the tavern. The medics worked on the wounded as he gathered his surviving platoon commanders to figure out how many of his troops had survived.

“Alright, how many of us are still combat-ready?”

“Sir, we’ve down to about ten from first platoon, sixteen from second, a dozen from third, and eight from my scout platoon. We’ve lost Denko and Iron Staff, and Octavia is wounded pretty badly, sir,” Lieutenant Thompson replied.

“We lost Lieutenants Atwell and Nekan as well,” Lieutenant Kallov added.

“Well, it’s a good thing that we seem to have killed most of them and run off the rest.” He paused, “I had Victoria send a message to headquarters. They said that they should have reinforcements out here by tomorrow morning.”

“That’s good. Are they sending more medics, sir?”

“Yes they are; we shouldn’t have to worry about losing anyone else.” He stood, “I’m going to do a walk around, see what our perimeter looks like.”

Vladimir limped out, tightening his cloak around him to keep out the frigid night air. Outside, the snow had stopped, and the moon and stars shone down from the heavens, shedding a pale light over the bodies in the square, now covered by a thin layer of snow. He walked over to where a soldier was keeping watch from a nearby building’s doorway, bow in hand. As he approached, he could tell that it was James, one of the new soldiers from Jason’s platoon. Gone was the uncertainty and nervousness of the morning; before him stood a quieter, more confident young man.

“How are you, lad?”

“Alright, I guess, sir.” James hesitated, then asked, “Are we going to see more action soon?”

“Yes, I expect we will,” the captain replied, clapping the young man on the shoulder. “And I’m sure you’ll be ready for it.”

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The King’s Own Legion

First Company, First Regiment
Captain Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25

First Platoon
Lieutenant Vincent Nekan-Age 27

Second Platoon
Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26
Platoon Sergeant Brian Jennings-Age 29

Third Platoon
Lieutenant Wilson Atwell-Age 24

Scout Platoon
Lieutenant Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 05 December 2014 16:47 EDT (US)     51 / 54  
And the final chapter. For anyone who's still with me, thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.

The King’s Own

25nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

Vladimir rode along the street slowly, Jeremy plodding wearily over the paving stones. He slumped in the saddle, the long hours of fighting finally catching up with him. Rayelle and Victoria, riding on either side of him, were in little better shape. Even Beatriz seemed fatigued, and she had dark circles under her eyes. “Who’s for a bath, a meal, and then a few days of sleep?” The Guardswoman asked.

“Sounds like an excellent plan,” Tristanne replied from behind her, where she was talking to Jenna and Evelyn.

After a short while, they reached the castle. Riding around to the main gate, they came upon a field of carnage. Thousands of corpses filled the streets and choked the alleyways before the castle’s main gate. The massive steel-bound oak portal stood open, but both leaves of the gate showed extensive damage. Vladimir saw a pair of logs fashioned into battering rams and capped with steel heads lying in the dry moat. The Arbatrosians passed over a wall of shimmering amber force serving as a temporary bridge and into the courtyard.

Once inside, dozens of grooms greeted them, coming out to take their horses. The group dismounted, some helping each other out of the saddle, and gave their horses to the attendants. Vladimir, Cassielle, and the other paladins dismissed their steeds, sending them to get some much-needed rest. Lady Voln came out to meet them, followed by Allison, Kate, Colonel Whitaker, Emma, Natalie, and several others. Vladimir bowed to Lady Voln and nodded to the others.

Lady Voln smiled at them, “I’ve had the bathing rooms prepared for your use.” She gestured to two servants, “Madeline and Alex will show the men and women where to go.”

“Thank you very much, my lady,” Vladimir said, bowing to her once again.

“You are all most welcome,” she replied, smiling. “I will also have a meal set and chambers prepared for when you are done getting clean.”

All of them bowed to her and followed the two servants. William fell in beside Vladimir. “With the medics Lady Berger brought, we’ve seen to the wounded at the wall and in the square. The rest of the troops are being quartered in inns, the barracks, or townsfolk who have opened their homes. Lady Voln has opened up the castle’s stores, and there is more food coming in by train even now.”

Vladimir nodded, “Good. Thank you for taking care of that for me, William.”

The Regimental Sergeant Major grinned, “All in a day’s work, sir.”

Vladimir shook his head and clapped the older man on the pauldron. “I’m glad I’ve got you to effortlessly deal with all of that for me.”

Jason moved up beside them, “And I’m glad I’m not taking care of that for you anymore, sir.”

The three laughed at that. “Senior Non-coms; overworked and underappreciated,” Vladimir added with a grin.

“Ain’t that the truth,” William said.

The group made its way through the castle to a circular chamber with several doors off it. The servants indicated that the women should go through a door on one side and the men the other.

Vladimir, William, Jason, James, and Robert entered a cubby-lined room with benches in the center. There was another door on the other side, into the baths. The five men divested themselves of their soaked clothes and weapons, putting the former into the alcoves along with all but their sword belts. Carrying their swords, they entered the next room, walking into a large steamy room filled with sunken circular baths.

A number of other soldiers were already there, talking amongst themselves or just quietly soaking. As the officers passed, several of the men started to rise, but Vladimir waved for them to remain as they were.

After passing several full baths, they came to an empty one. They gratefully entered the bath, the hot water running over their aching, dirt and blood encrusted bodies. Setting his sword on the ledge next to the bath, Vladimir leaned back and relaxed, allowing the slowly moving water to run across his body, soothing his aches.

* * *

On the other side, the two-dozen women and girls entered a similar changing room. Spreading out, they quickly undressed and, taking only a weapon or two, entered the bath chamber.

When the Guardswomen had removed their clothes, several of the others let out startled exclamations. All four of them sported several large, intricate tattoos. Beatriz, next to Natalie, turned around, showing the captain the knots tattooed down her left shoulder blade and on the inside of her right thigh.

The other three Guardswomen had more extensive body art. Twyla had a crossed warhammer and a longsword inked on her lower back, above the standard Guard sunburst. All along her right arm were tattooed twisting orange and silver flames, starting at her shoulder blade and running all the way to her wrist. On the inside of her left forearm, she had an open knot running from wrist to elbow, and another twisting its way from her ankle up to her upper thigh.

Kristina had a pair of bloody battle-axes tattooed on her back, along each of her shoulder blades. A rose vine, green with blood red flowers, wound its way up the front of her body. It started on her right foot, worked its way up her leg, across her stomach and breast, and ended on her shoulder. She had a similar tattoo that started on the inside of her left wrist and stretched all the way up to that shoulder.

However, Grace had the most tattoos of the four. Like Kristina, several of hers were rose vines, but hers were silver vines with black blossoms. One made its way from the top of her right buttock up her back to curve up to her neck. Another was inked from the top of her left foot to her upper thigh. She had a third that twisted its way up her right arm, from wrist to the middle part of her upper arm. Opposing that tattoo, she had a silver and green knot inked on the inside of her left forearm. She had another knot on the inside of her right thigh. A single, small, silver and black rose blossom on her left cheek completed her collection.

Victoria ran her hand across the last rose on Kristina’s shoulder. “When did you get that one, Kristi?”

“A couple months ago. Do you like it V?” She asked, batting her eyelashes at the mage.

“Of course.” Victoria let her fingertips trail a bit lower, then dropped her hand. Leaning close, she whispered, “I’ve always thought you looked lovely in just your tattoos Kristi.”

“Do you now?” Kristina murmured. “Well then.” Sliding her arm around the mage, she led the way into the baths.

Making their way through the steamy bath chamber, past some already full baths, they came to a group of empty ones.

Kristina, Victoria, and Hannah went into one. Stephanie, Laura, and Jillian joined them. The three women placed their swords on the edge of the bath, hilts within easy reach. Noticing this, the three girls followed suit. Kristina saw that they all had colored leather and wire wrapped sword hilts. “I see you girls don’t stint on your equipment.”

“My father gave these to us on my thirteenth birthday,” Laura said. “He said that we’d need a good sword to rely on.”

“I trust you found your father’s advice to be true?”

“Yes my lady,” she replied. Reaching up, she ran her hand over the hilt and pommel of her sword.

“Just Kristi is fine, lass, especially since we’re in such a formal situation.” Glancing over at the girls’ weapons, “Did you get to pick out the color of the grips?”

Laura blushed a little, “Yes my- Kristi,” she stammered.

Victoria snorted, “That’s mighty forward of you, lass. Claiming the affections of the Lady Enforcer takes time.”

Laura blushed fiercely and mumbled something. Hannah came to her rescue, “You two should stop teasing her. It’s not fair when she’s just a private.”

“Yeah, pick a fight with someone your own size,” Jillian said, tone slightly combative.

Victoria shook her head with a smile and elbowed Kristina. “Yeah, stop being such a bully Kristi,” she said lightly.

“Ouch, I’ve got a bruise there,” Kristina exclaimed, then she elbowed the mage back. The two of them wrestled back and forth for a moment before Kristina dunked Victoria in the bath.

The mage came up shaking her head back and forth, spraying water from her long hair. She pushed her wet blonde hair, now darkened by the water, out of her face. “No fair Kristi! You’re in Guard and I’m just a little mage.” She pouted at Kristina.

“Oh, come here V,” the Guardswoman waved for Victoria to retake her place next to her.

Victoria moved over and sat next to Kristina, leaning against her. The Guardswoman put her arm around the mage’s shoulders. Looking over at the girls, Victoria smiled. “So what did you girls think about your first siege?”

Jillian shuddered, “The gate was pretty horrible. All of the people burning in the tunnel. I’ve seen some pretty awful things, but that may be the worst.” Laura put her arm around Jillian.

“These Zhuravi seem undeterred by losses, however horrific,” Hannah commented.

Kristina nodded, “That will happen when soldiers are more afraid of their masters’ wrath than their enemies’ blades. In addition, one of the Uplifted was here to lead them. Or, rather, to command them while he stayed back.”

“I didn’t see him or detect much of his magic during the battle,” Victoria said.

Kristina nodded, “Alys says he was more concerned with keeping up his storm and helping to summon demons. I get the feeling that he’s not as inclined to get into it as some of the other Uplifted.”

“I haven’t dealt with him before.”

The three girls and Hannah looked at the mage in astonishment. Jillian recovered first, “How many of them have you dealt with?”

Victoria frowned, “Let me think about that. I helped Vladimir kill the Creator a couple days ago, and he killed Beast Man the previous night. Before that, when we were attacked in the camp, we killed the Destroyer with General Voln’s help. Earlier this year, our unit encountered either the Master of Death or the Master of Bones. I’m not sure; they’re both Lich necromancers. A few years back, Vladimir and I fought the Charmer when we were on vacation.”

She thought for a moment more, “And I’m pretty sure that I got into it with Shape Changer a few years before that. So I’ve dealt with six of the current ones.”

Kristina whistled softly, “I knew you’d encountered a lot of them, but I didn’t realize it was that many.”

“Vladimir has dealt with at least four more of them, including killing one of the old ones.”

“Damn. That man must have God on his side to still be alive,” Kristina commented.

“No, just me,” Beatriz said from the next bath over. She had her arm around Natalie’s shoulders, and Grace sat on her other side. Cassielle, Fiona, and Rayelle were soaking across from them.

Kristina arched an eyebrow at the other Guardswoman. “Oh, is that true? How many have you faced, B?”

“All of the current ones. And a least six of the old ones, three of which I killed. Marie, Leanne, Alys, and Kristi obviously helped,” she replied with a smile.

“I guess it’s good he’s got you and V on his side. I’d hate to see such a handsome man die,” Kristina said.

“Kristi!” Victoria scolded.

The Guardswoman grinned and shrugged, “I’m just stating facts.”

Beatriz turned back. The three girls across from her were wide-eyed and staring. She grinned, “I guess I’m tougher than I look?”

“When did you fight the Seer?” Grace asked.

“Marie and I were investigating that incident in Kimor four years back. He was running their spy ring up there.”

“Oh yes, I remember that now.”

“I can’t recall, how many of the last round did you finish off, Gracie?”

The senior Guardswoman wrinkled her brow. “It was seven, if memory serves. And one of the group before that as well.”

“Who are you?” Rayelle asked, incredulous.

“I’m just a poor farmer’s daughter,” Grace said with a laugh. “Who happened to pick up a few tricks for killing and has risen far above her station.”

Examining each of the three closely enough to make them blush, she asked, “Where are you three from? You all seem to be able to wield a blade handily enough.”

“I’m from Menzobaria, my lady,” Fiona said. “I grew up in the town where General Kapov’s father used to be the knight.”

Grace nodded, “Ah, I seem to recall B mentioning something about that.”

Cassielle smiled, “My father is Lord Archalus.”

“Oh yes, you’re one of the many noble scions under his command,” Grace said, smiling in return. “And where are you from Rayelle?”

“Indar. I came to Arbatros four years ago,” she responded.

“Now that you mention it, you look a bit Indari. That’s a nice country; good for horses.”

“It is. My father was a horse trainer for one of the warlords,” Rayelle said with a yawn. She leaned her head on Cassielle’s shoulder.

Twyla slipped into a bath next to Beatriz’s, setting her sword with its hilt next to her head. Leaning back, she waved for Tristanne to join her. The lieutenant hesitated for a moment, then slipped into the water next to the Guardswoman.

Danika, Monique, Renee, and Petra joined them. Danika and Monique sat to one side, Renee and Petra together around the other. The two lieutenants leaned on each other, clearly weary.

Twyla looked over at Renee, “How are you doing, lass?”

“Well enough, ma’am,” the mage said. “But I’m exhausted; I’ve cast far too many spells these last couple days.”

Tristanne nodded sympathetically, “You need sleep, Renee.”

“Don’t we all,” Monique commented. She slid lower into the water, until it was up to her neck. Letting out a sigh, she rested her head against Danika’s shoulder. The young woman rested her head on top of Monique’s and ran a hand through her wet hair.

“How are you holding up, Petra?” Tristanne asked softly, looking over at the lieutenant.

“I think I’ll be okay, Tris.” Petra smiled a little at her. Renee reached over and took Petra’s hand. The lieutenant squeezed it and gave her a smile.

Danielle, Emma, Jenna, and Evelyn had taken another of the baths. Cassandra and Hazel, seeing that the other three groups had already filled theirs, came over. “Mind if we join you, ma’am?” Cassandra asked Jenna.

“Not at all Sandra.” She gestured for the two to enter the other side of the bath.

Hazel and Cassandra set their swords down on the edge of the bath and slid into the water. Cassandra sighed as the steaming water washed over her aching body.

Emma smiled at the two. “How did you girls fare?”

Cassandra shrugged, “Well enough. I only nearly died a couple times.”

“I guess that puts you a near-death ahead of me,” Hazel chuckled.

Jenna looked the two up and down, noting the many pale lines and raised scars that covered their bodies. “You two don’t look like strangers to injury and pain.”

The two young women shrugged. “From the looks of it, you’re not either, ma’am,” Hazel said.

Jenna’s smile was sad and somewhat bitter. “Injury and pain are old friends. We’ve known each other for a long time.”

“As have we all,” Evelyn added darkly, motioning to Danielle and Emma as well. Tone lightening, “Where are you two from?”

“I’m from the Whispering Woods. My father was a farmer. As the youngest of four daughters, I didn’t have very good prospects,” Cassandra said with a smile.

“So you joined up to get off the farm?”

“Yep. Joined up early when my older sister got married off to an old merchant.”

Hazel was nodding, “Same story here, just different local. I’m from Alaemania.”

“I take it you two joined extra young then?” Emma asked.

Cassandra nodded, “Joined when I was thirteen, training for a year, and I’ve served for three now.”

“Joined up at twelve, year of training, and four years now,” Hazel said. The other five looked at her incredulously. “I’ve always been small. By the time I was eleven, I was almost fully-grown. When I joined up, I knew I wasn’t going to get any taller.”

“And you chose the heavy cavalry? That doesn’t seem to be the most logical choice,” Emma said.

“I’ve always been good with horses. Besides, I would think it’s better for a short person to be up on a big horse than running around amongst bigger, taller people.” She gave Emma a look.

The captain smiled, “When you fight for several months in gladiatorial arenas at fourteen against full-grown men, you tend to get pretty good at it, if you live.”

Cassandra and Hazel stared at her in amazement. “You were a gladiator at fourteen?” Hazel finally managed to get out.

Emma nodded, “Yep. Dani and I were gladiators in Frefenia and Zhurav. Vivian Flowers, who’s a colonel in the Steel Legion now, sponsored us.” She shook her head, “It’s a wonder we survived, young and inexperienced as we were.” With a shrug, “But we did, and here we are, these few years later.”

Jenna sighed, “We should probably get to that meal and our beds.” Standing, she extended her arms into the air above her, letting the water run off her body in sheets. Bending down, she grabbed her sword and stepped out of the pool.

The rest of the women stood and followed her.

26nd of Grakuary, 599
City of Ereth Chul, Menzobaria, Arbatros

Victoria awoke slowly to find light streaming through the high windows of her room. Stretching languidly, reveling in the feel of a real bed, her arm brushed against another person. Turning quickly, she smiled when she realized it was Kristina.

The Guardswoman, already awake, returned the smile. “Good afternoon, sleepyhead.”

“Afternoon?” Victoria asked.

Kristina nodded, “Only just, though. The church bells rang noon half an hour ago. I was going to wake you up myself soon.”

“I guess I saved you the trouble,” the mage said, smiling. “Now, I think lunch is needed before I can attend to anything else.” Swinging her legs out of bed, she realized that she was only wearing a thin slip.

Kristina raised an eyebrow, “Perhaps some clothes first, V?”

“Perhaps.” She rose and moved across the room to the wardrobe, shedding her slip as she went. Standing naked in front of the closet, she looked back at Kristina, “When is the king planning to hand out awards?”

“I think he has the ceremony set for this evening, but I’m sure you’ll busy until then. Probably best to get dressed up now.”

Victoria nodded and pulled a light undergarment out. Sliding it on, she look at the dresses neatly hung in the closet. She glanced back at Kristina, “What do you think I should wear?”

“Something black. Always a good color to pick,” Kristina said with a grin.

The mage nodded and pulled out a short, simple black dress with panels of blood red lace around the bodice. Putting it on, she walk back to the bed. Turning around, she asked, “Will you lace me up, Kristi?”

“Of course.” Still sitting on the bed, the Guardswoman quickly did the laces running up the back of the dress.

Once Kristi was done, Victoria took her sword belt and fastened it around her slender waist. Passing the nightstand, she picked up her bracers and slid them onto her arms. Stepping into her boots, she paused. “Aren’t you coming too, Kristi?”

The Guardswoman threw back the covers and stood up in one smooth motion. She was already fully clad and armored. Grabbing her weapons harness, she shrugged it on with an easy, practiced motion. Securing a couple buckles, she rolled her shoulders to make sure it was seated right. Striding up to Victoria, she smiled and opened the door. “After you, V.” The two women moved out into the corridor and made their way to the castle’s Great Hall.

Tall, soaring arches and high windows full of sunlight met them. The hall was full of people running to and fro carrying casks and sacks, barrels and linens. In the midst of it was Lord Voln’s major domo, shouting orders.

Across the hall, Victoria spotted Vladimir. He had a surcoat over his chainmail, and wore his silver chased belt. Michael and Beatriz were standing next to him, along with the king and General Voln. Taking Kristina’s hand, Victoria made her way through the press, nimbly dodging hurrying servants and soldiers. Stopping before the king, she curtsied perfectly. Beside her, Kristina bowed a little. “Good day, your majesty.”

“Good day, Victoria. How are you feeling today?” He asked politely. “Eleesa tells me that you were sorely wounded.”

“I’m quite well today, your majesty. Tell Lady Berger that her concern is appreciated, but unnecessary in this case.”

“Unnecessary? I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.” Eleesa had moved over to them while they talked. She nodded to the king and gave her fellow Guard members a grin. “I take it you’re well rested and healed.”

“Well enough, my lady,” Victoria said with a nod. She reached for the ring Eleesa had given her, but the diminutive Guardswoman shook her head and took her hand.

“Keep it,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll find it rather useful.” With a quick grin, “You can consider it a present if you like.”

“A present? For what?” Victoria looked confused.

“For being promoted V. You’re a regimental mage now, and I was too busy to get you a present. So I had Eleesa make you a ring,” Kristina said.

Victoria smiled at her, “Thanks so much Kristi. I love it.”

“So that’s what you ladies spend your time doing; making magic rings for all and sundry.” The king grinned at Eleesa, then at Victoria, “Although I would say that you’re a good candidate for it, Miss Senjar.”

Victoria curtsied slightly, “I see your majesty has more than a passing knowledge of his commanders and their mages.”

“I’ve had dealings with your family for many years. After all, they have produced several of the more powerful evokers in this kingdom’s history. I can see that you’ve inherited their talents in full.”

“You flatter me, your majesty,” Victoria said.

The king shrugged, “If you say so. Now, I’m sure you and Vladimir have much to do. I’ll leave you to it. Beatriz, if you’d like to help, you may.”

The Guardswoman nodded slightly to him.

William walked up, wearing the standard surcoat of the King’s Own over his chainmail. Turning first to the king, he bowed deeply, “Your majesty.”

The king smiled, “Sergeant Major William Morell. How have you been?”

“Well enough, your majesty.”

The king nodded, “That’s good. I’ll leave you three to see to your troops. Alexa, if you could meet with me after you speak with Vladimir, I’ve some things we need to talk over.”

“Of course, your majesty,” the general said, curtsying slightly. She wore a fairly short black dress under her Mithral shirt.

With that, the king nodded to all of them and left, Michael leading the way. Eleesa and Kristina followed, both scanning the room as they left.

Alexa turned to Vladimir and embraced him briefly. “Well done, you.”

“Thank you, ma’am. You arrived just in time to avert disaster.”

She shrugged, “I think you could have forestalled it quite a bit longer. But you didn’t have to,” she smiled.

He frowned, “How did you get here so quickly? I was under the impression that you weren’t going to show up until today or even tomorrow.”

“Ah, yes. Well, many people, especially our enemies, underestimate the speed of transit possible using trains. I left Lieutenant General Ramone and Colonel Haberson with most of the support elements and did a forced march to the railhead at Valdret. From there, it’s only a few hours by train to here. It took us a number of trips to get the entire Legion here, but we had four or five engines running.” Leaning closer to him, “This is still restricted information, but the Legion is being rotated back to the capital along with the Steel Legion and the First and Second Legions.”

“I assume that Assistant Lady Enforcer Gallows will be taking command of the Silver, Obsidian, Third, and Eighteenth Legions to protect Menzobaria?”

“You would assume correctly.” Glancing over at Beatriz, Alexa seemed to suppress another smile. “Since we’re going to have some down time, I may put off giving you the rest of your troops. Once we get back to the capital, I’ve got another mission for you, but that can wait. For now, just relax, recover, and prepare.”

Vladimir came to attention, “Yes ma’am.”

“That’s all for now. I’ll see you at the awards ceremony.”

With that, Alexa briefly clasped his forearm and departed the room, leaving Vladimir standing there with Victoria, William, and Beatriz. Vladimir turned to the sergeant major, “William, do you have a casualty count?”

William frowned, “I don’t have an exact number yet, but we’ve already accounted for over eight hundred of the regiment dead. At least half that wounded.”

Beatriz winced and put her hand on Vladimir’s arm.

“How many casualties among the officers?” Vladimir asked.

William thought for a moment. “Benjamin is the only captain that was killed. We also lost Lieutenant Harper and his platoon sergeant from Ben’s company. Rochelle from Anna’s company and Lieutenant Rossford from Clarissa’s. Also, Lieutenant Burke from Jules’ troops is dead. We’re still missing Lieutenant Paulis from Emma’s company, and Bradley Lennin from Alisa’s. The majority of the officers were wounded, but most have been healed or are recovering.”

Vladimir nodded, “Is everyone going to be able to attend the ceremony this evening?”

“I would think so, sir.”

“Good; Michael said that the king has a number of medals, promotions, and knighthoods to give out.”

William nodded, “I expect so.” He stroked his moustache thoughtfully, “We’re going to need someone to replace Ben.”

Vladimir glanced at him a bit sharply, “I know, William.”

“Were you looking to get someone new or promote from within?” Beatriz asked gently.

Vladimir looked around at the other three. “I was thinking to make Tristanne the new captain of Eighth. She’s got as much experience as most of the other young captains, and she’s definitely a competent fighter.”

Beatriz nodded, “It’s obviously your decision, but I couldn’t agree more. And she assuredly deserves a promotion if what I’ve seen the past two days is any indication of her true quality.”

William and Victoria indicated their assent as well. Vladimir nodded, “I’ll talk to General Voln about it. I think I’ll check with Jenna and Evelyn first, just to get their opinion.”

Beatriz laughed lightly, “Do you think it’ll be anything other than positive?”

“It’s unlikely that it won’t be, but better to check now.” With a smile, “Besides, I should get those two lovebirds out of bed anyway.”

Beatriz’s eyebrows shot up, then she nodded. “I should have known. After all, how many officers don’t sleep with their mage?”

Victoria grinned, “It’s a bit more common when they’re not both girls.”

Vladimir shrugged, “What would I know about that. I’ve to talk to the general and those two, among others.” Now speaking to William and Victoria, “I want to see you two before the ceremony.” To Beatriz, “If you’d like to join us, you may.”

“We’ll see,” she said with a grin. “I’ll let you go and talk to the general and the girls.”

With that, the four split up, all going different directions.

* * *

A light tap on the door woke Jenna. Sitting up slowly, she called out, “Come in.”

The door opened, and Vladimir walked in. His eyebrows rose when he saw the two young women still lying in bed. “Good afternoon ladies.”

Jenna glanced over at Evelyn, who was also sitting up. The mage threw back the covers and swung her legs onto the floor. Standing, she walked across the room naked to the wardrobe. Flinging wide its doors, she pulled out a black dress with some light embroidery in red and gold around the neckline and tossed it and a slip to Jenna.

Turning back to the closet, Evelyn pulled a dress out and shrugged it on. It was short, black, and slit down the front all the way to her naval. Light silk cords ran back and forth across the slit to just below her breasts. The dress’s back was cut low, stopping below her shoulder blades, revealing a rose with aqua petals tattooed on her shoulder with the stem stretching to her lower back. Settling the garment onto her slim frame, Evelyn strode back to the bed and grabbed her sword belt off the bedpost.

Jenna watched Evelyn for a moment, then rose herself. Dressing quickly, she presented her back to Evelyn. The mage swiftly fastened the lacings that ran up the back of Jenna’s bodice. The archer fastened her sword and short sword around her waist. Picking up her longknives from the nightstand, she passed them to Evelyn. The mage slid the weapons into specially made pockets in the back of the dress and secured them. Jenna reached back and brushed her hands across the weapon’s hilts.

Evelyn took her two longknives and passed them to Jenna, who did the same for the mage. Once she had checked their placement, crossed over her lower back, Evelyn turned to Vladimir. “I do believe we’re ready, sir. Did you want to talk to us?”

Vladimir smiled at the two, “I did. It’s about Tristanne.”

Jenna looked a little concerned, “Is there something wrong?”

“Oh no, not at all. I was thinking to promote her to captain to take Ben’s place. But I wanted to check with you two first to see what you thought.”

Both young women grinned. “She’ll make a wonderful captain,” Jenna said.

“Tris is an inspiring leader and truly cares about everyone under her command,” Evelyn added.

“So a little like Jenna?” Vladimir asked with a grin.

“A lot like her actually, if a bit more socially self-assured,” Evelyn replied, smiling as well.

Jenna blushed and glanced down. Then, looking back, up, she said, “I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t want to promote her. At least she’ll get a fresh company to make an impression on. What’s the current count, by the way?”

Vladimir’s smile vanished, “Over eight hundred. And you’re right about her getting a fresh unit. Even if she had worked with Ben’s company, I don’t think more than ten of the soldiers we marched out of the camp with are still alive.”

Jenna and Evelyn both winced when they heard the number. Reaching out, the mage took Jenna’s hand and held it tight. “And yet we’re still here,” Jenna said.

“That we are.” Vladimir sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “In eighteen years in the army, I’ve lost more comrades than I can count, but I’ve survived it all.” Almost to himself, “Why am I the one who lived?”

“I’ve asked myself the same thing many times,” Jenna said. “And I always come back to what my father told me when my mother died. I was six when Geltur raiders killed her while she was out hunting. He told me that when those we love die, the only thing we can do is carry on living as they would have wanted us to.”

Vladimir nodded, “Your father is a very wise man. And he knows as much of loss as any of us. After all, he served in the army for many years. It wasn’t until your mother died that he fully retired.”

Jenna looked surprised, “Did you know him?”

“Yes. Very well; he was the one who recommended that I be promoted to captain.” He looked at her closely, “He once confided to me that while he sometimes wished you might have been a boy, he was glad that you might still follow in his footsteps.” Stepping close to her, he reached out and put his hand gently on her bare shoulder. “I know that he’s very proud of you, Jenna.”

Jenna looked down and gripped Evelyn’s hand more tightly. After a moment, she straightened and let go, brushing tears from her eyes. Running her hands back through her hair, “Thank you, sir.”

“No need to be formal with me here, lass.”

A knock on the door startled them. “I’ll get it,” Evelyn said and crossed the room. One hand resting lightly on the handle of a longknife, she opened the door.

“Lis!” Vladimir exclaimed. His sister stood in the doorway in a short black dress, simple with a little silver and gold embroidery on the bodice. She had her sword at her hip and, as Evelyn let her into the room, he saw that she wore her two longknives kept in a similar manner to Jenna. Her hair was braided down her back.

Once inside, Alisa ran across the room and hugged her brother tightly. He returned the embrace, bending his head to kiss the top of hers. Drawing back, he looked her over. “You okay, sis?”

“Always Vlad. You?”

“I should be.” Turning to Jenna and Evelyn, “I take it you know my sister?”

Jenna shrugged, “We’ve met, but didn’t have much chance to talk.”

Alisa looked them over, “You two look nice. I hope you’re not going to wear your hair like that, however.”

Jenna shook her head, “We were going to braid it, but we just got up and dressed.”

His sister nodded, “Do you want me to help? I’ll do yours and Vlad can take care of Evelyn’s.”

The archer smiled, “Sure.” Glancing over at Vladimir, “I didn’t know that you were good at braiding hair.”

Alisa looked up at her brother, “I made him do mine every day for years.” Grabbing two chairs, she set them in front of the bed and sat down on top of the covers, deftly adjusting her sword. Vladimir took a spot next to her.

Jenna turned her chair sideways, and presented her hair to Alisa. Evelyn spun her chair around before sitting. Leaning forward, she rested her chin on its back.

Vladimir ran his fingers through her thick, wavy black hair. “How do you want your hair done, lass?” He asked.

Evelyn passed an aqua ribbon to him. “Do you know how to do a five strand guilloche? Use the ribbon for the middle one.”

“I do.” Taking the ribbon, he parted her hair into four strands and began to braid it tightly. His fingers flashed back and forth, as he wove the intricate plait.

Next to him, Alisa was working on putting Jenna’s hair into a four-strand braid. She glanced over at him, fingers still flying. “When was the last time you braided someone’s hair, Vlad?”

He frowned, “I think it was yours before your promotion ceremony. I know Victoria likes to do her own, and she’s way too good at it for me to want to try to do it for her.”

“My mother used to do mine, before I went to the Royal Magical Academy,” Evelyn said. “At least when she was home. Which wasn’t much.”

“Why was she away so often?” Alisa asked.

“She was a traveling bard. You might have heard of her; her name was Irina Santores.”

Vladimir’s eyebrows shot up. “I do know her; my family hosted her in the castle for a week many years ago. You’ve inherited much of her beauty and poise, lass.”

Evelyn looked slightly embarrassed. “Thank you sir.”

Alisa frowned, “I don’t recall us hosting any singers.”

“You were just a baby when she came. I hadn’t even gone to school to become a paladin.” Vladimir grinned, “I was rather infatuated with her, but I was only fourteen, so that’s to be expected.” He looked at the back of Evelyn’s head, “You’re speaking of her in the past tense lass. Did she pass away?”

“Yes. It was just after I graduated from the Royal Magical Academy. My father, in one of his drunken rages, killed her.” The mage’s voice was flat, emotionless, and she reached out for Jenna’s hand.

“I’m sorry for you loss.”

“Thank you,” she said in a small voice.

Taking the end of the ribbon and tying off the braid, Vladimir let her hair drop. “All done, lass.” Standing, he reached down and gave her shoulder a squeeze.

Evelyn patted his hand and stood. Moving over to the room’s mirror, she examined his work. “It’s very well done, thank you. Who would have thought that a general would be such a master at braiding hair?”

Alisa finished with Jenna’s and tied it off with a black ribbon. “You two look good.”

Jenna rose and twirled around in front of them. “How long til the ceremony?”

Vladimir glanced at the position of the sun through the window. “Only an hour or two now. The king said that it would start at sundown.”

Jenna nodded, “We should find something to eat beforehand. We’ll see you at the ceremony.” Smiling brightly at the siblings, “Thanks for doing our hair,” she said.

Vladimir smiled in return, “No problem lass.” He held the door for them, then followed them out into the corridor.

* * *

William walked into the antechamber to the Great Hall to find Vladimir and Victoria already waiting for him. He briefly came to attention, then joined them.

“Why did you want to see us, Vladimir?” Victoria asked.

He started to speak, but a voice interrupted him. “He’s uncomfortable with accepting praise and recognition.”

The three spun around, hands going to weapons before they realized that the king had entered the room silently. Michael and Eleesa stood a pace behind him on either side with Grace and Beatriz fanning out to their sides. The three bowed or curtsied briefly.

The king walked up to Vladimir. “Vladimir, I’ve given you four medals and two promotions as a knight and you’ve fought me every time.”

“Your majesty, I have only ever done my duty to you and the kingdom,” Vladimir protested.

“Truly, you have. But some acts go beyond the bounds of duty.”

Vladimir straightened, “’I, Vladimir Kapov, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King William the Twelfth, His Heirs and Successors, that I will observe and obey all orders of His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, and of the officers set over me, and that I will, as duty bound, defend His Majesty, His Heirs, Successors, and Subjects, in Person, Crown, and Dignity, against all enemies, foreign and domestic, while life is still in me. So help me God. That is the oath I swore when I entered the army.”

“Indeed it is. I should know, as I personally received your oath upon your graduation from the Academy of St. Heironeous. Since then, you have never failed to live up to that oath. However, some do their duty to my person and this kingdom better than others. That is why we give out medals and other such honors; to recognize individuals and units for their exemplary service to the crown,” the king said. He looked at Vladimir intently, “Do I have to order you to accept this recognition of such service, General Kapov?”

Vladimir looked down, “No, you majesty. I will accept them with honor.”

The king smiled, “Very good. Now, let us proceed.” With that, he turned and left, two of his Guard preceding him, two following.

William shook his head, “Sir, arguing with the king is a bad idea. If you’ll forgive my bluntness, sir, you need to learn to take credit where it’s due.”

Vladimir frowned, “It’s something I struggle with, William. As paladins, we are taught humility, service, and bravery. Medals and honors seem to go against that.”

“Not many commanders could have done what you did, sir. If someone else had commanded the defensive force, there might well be some Zhuravi bastards standing here right now,” William said.

Vladimir let out a little laugh, “You may well be right.” He offered his arm to Victoria, “Shall we get this over with?”

“Lead on, our fearless general,” she said with a smile and put her hand on his elbow.

The three entered through a side door into the Great Hall and took their place beside Alexa, Allasra, and Josephine. The general smiled at them as they fell in. Across from them were the commanders of the Silver, Obsidian, Third, and Eighteenth Legions, with some of their officers arrayed behind them. On Alexa’s side of the room were also the Lessando sisters, commanding the Steel Legion, along with the commanders of the First and Second Legions. Their selected officers formed up in neat rows behind them. At the other end of the hall were a number of civilians, some noble, some clearly commoners.

At the head of the room, on a raised dais, were Lord and Lady Voln, standing to one side. Colonel Turek and ten of the lord’s personal guard stood around them.

On either corner of the dais was a member of the King’s Guard, in adamantine full plate. Both bore kite shields and had longswords on their hip. They wore full helms and their visors were down, concealing their features. Kristen and another woman, wearing a black dress embroidered in purple, stood behind the single, heavy chair on the podium.

After a few minutes, the massive doors to the hall swung open soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. A herald called out, “His Majesty, King William Azvar, the Twelfth of his name, King of Arbatros, Lord of The Rock, and Lord of the Steel Belt.”

The king strode into the hall, his boots clicking on the bare stone. He wore a black surcoat embroidered with ten bronze daggers surrounded by ten gold coins and ten silver stars in another ring, the coat-of-arms of House Azvar, over Mithral chain mail. Engraved adamantine vambraces covered his forearms, and his two bastard swords hung from the gold-chased belt at his waist. Following him were Michael and Eleesa, then Kristina and the Guardswoman Victoria recognized as Sarah, who had been put in charge of the wall’s defenses. Next came Twyla and a younger looking Guardswoman with curly blonde hair. Last in the group was an older man with grey hair in the standard segmented plate of the infantry.

As he made his way into the hall, everybody in the hall save for the King’s Guard bowed or curtsied. Reaching the top of the dais, he turned and motioned for everyone to rise. Turning to the Volns, he clasped hands with Lord Voln and kissed Lady Voln’s hand. Then he said, “Lord and Lady Voln, thank you for your generous hospitality to my soldiers and myself.”

Lord Voln bowed slightly, “You are most welcome, your majesty.”

“We do not begrudge providing hospitality to the very soldiers who saved our city,” Lady Voln added.

The king nodded and turned back the hall. “Today we are gathered to recognize the achievements of some of the soldiers gathered here and to remember those we have lost. At this point, I would like to award a number of medals.”

Several pages came forward, bearing stacks of boxes.

“First, to all of the members of the King’s Own and Steel Legions who fought at the fort, a campaign ribbon shall be awarded. Next, to all of the soldiers and militia that fought in the Second Battle of Ereth Chul, a siege medal shall be awarded. These shall be given to unit commanders to distribute to their troops.

“Next, I have some specific medals to hand out for deeds done by members of the King’s Own and Steel Legions to halt one prong of the Zhuravi assault.” The king proceeded to call a number of names of officers and enlisted personnel from the two units. When each person came up, either Alexa or Azrielle Lessando presented him or her with a cross on a colored ribbon.

In the Arbatrosian military, there were six decorations for gallantry and heroic deeds. The most prestigious, awarded only for particularly spectacular acts or accomplishments was King William’s Cross, or the Sable Cross. Then, in decreasing order of honor were Queen Grace’s Cross, or the Gold Cross, King’s Azriel’s Cross, or the White Cross, Queen Kristine’s Cross, or the Silver Cross, King Michael’s Cross, or the Purpure Cross, and Queen Michelle’s Cross, or the Bronze Cross. There were also two medals awarded for injury in battle. The Sanguine Cross was awarded only for grievous wounds. More common was the Gules Cross.

Once he had finished with those medals, he turned to Vladimir’s side of the hall. “Now, to recognize those who fought in the siege itself. First, to Colonel Elaine Nichols, for her defense of the West Gate, I present Queen Kristine’s Cross.” She came forward and he placed a sliver cross on a grey ribbon around her neck. “Next, to Colonel Robert Whitaker, for his defense of the North Gate and castle, I present King Michael’s Cross.” He took a bronze cross on a purple ribbon. “For her valiant defense of the East Gate, I present Queen Kristine’s Cross to Colonel Kate Henna.”

Once he had handed those out, the king paused for a moment. “Next, if not for the efforts of the members of the first regiment of the King’s Own Legion, this city might well have been lost. Therefore, I have a number of medals to award to them. First, to Captain Benjamin Halest, I present King Azriel’s Cross, posthumously, for his bravery in offering to command the unit that blocked the South Gate long enough to evacuate the wounded to a safer location.” A number of people drew in their breath sharply; this was the highest award to be given out yet. Benjamin’s widow, a shorter, greying woman, made her way up the aisle to the king. He presented her with the medal in a box: a silver cross on a white ribbon. As she bowed, he bent down and whispered something to her. Looking up, she nodded and wiped away the tears that ran down her cheeks.

“Next, to Captain Hannah Rockwell, Queen Kristine’s Cross for her deeds and the Sanguine Cross for her wounds. To Evelyn Graham, Queen Kristine’s Cross. To Captain Jenna Miskovitz, King Azriel’s Cross and the Sanguine Cross. To Lieutenant Danika Hughes, Queen Kristine’s Cross and the Sanguine Cross. To Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman, Queen Kristine’s Cross and the Sanguine Cross. To Rachel Hawk, Queen Kristine’s Cross. To Captain Emma Athney, Queen Kristine’s Cross. To Lieutenant Monique Oleron, Queen Kristine’s Cross and the Sanguine Cross. To Katrina Rose, Queen Kristine’s Cross.” Several of the soldiers looked around, then looked surprised when Rose moved to receive the medal. “To Captain Natalie Sanchez, King Azriel’s Cross. To Major Danielle Cantor, Queen Kristine’s Cross. Now, to a number of young women who played an important role in the battle: General Kapov’s bodyguard. First, to Renee Owen, Sergeant Cassandra Roseti, Private Jillian Olsen, Private Stephanie Allen, Private Laura Thompson,
and Sergeant Hazel Riss, I present Queen Michelle’s Cross and the Sanguine Cross.” They each came up and took their medals, a bronze cross on a brown ribbon and a silver cross on a blood red ribbon. “Next, to Corporals Rayelle Harper and Fiona Perez and Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus, Queen Kristine’s Cross and the Sanguine Cross.”

Once the three had received their medals, he waited for them to return to the formation. “Finally, it has come time to recognize the three most important individuals in the defense of this city. Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell, I present to you King Azriel’s Cross. To Victoria Senjar, Queen Grace’s Cross and the Sanguine Cross.” The mage stepped forward and the king placed a gold cross on a yellow ribbon over her head along with the silver on a blood red ribbon. “And now, to the most pivotal figure in this siege, Lieutenant General Vladimir Kapov, I present to you King William’s Cross, for your excellence in leadership and tactical maneuvers.”

Vladimir froze for a moment, stunned, before William nudged him slightly. Walking up to the king, he knelt and allowed the king to put a gold cross on a pure black ribbon over his head. As he rose, the hall burst into cheering and clapping. Returning to his place, he joined in.

After a few moments, the king motioned for silence. “In addition to medals, I would like to give out a few knighthoods for exemplary valor and gallantry shown on the battlefield. Today, we happen to have the Grand Masters of four of the orders of knighthood and the Assistant Grand Master for the fifth here.” He motioned for them to step forward. “For the Order of the Knights of Arbatros, Grand Master Lady Grace Litel. For the Order of the Knights of the Roc, Grand Master Beatriz Danelli and Assistant Grandmaster Dame Grand Cross Sarah Deering.” The Guardswoman who had had command of the wall stepped forward. “For the Order of the Knights of St. Michael, Grand Master Allison Reed and Assistant Grand Master Knight Grand Cross Suriel Langtree.” One of the two Guardsmen at the corners of the dais moved up beside Allison, removing his helmet. “For the Order of the Knights of St. Heironeous, Assistant Grand Master Knight Grand Cross Raziel Langtree.” The other Guardsman stepped forward. When he removed his helm, Victoria could see that they were rather handsome twins. “For the Order of the Knights of the Eagle, Grand Master Cassidy Lake.” The youthful blonde Guardswoman who had walked in next to Twyla moved into the line.

“For our candidates for knighthood, we first have Captain Jason Thompson and Corporal Fiona Perez, to become members of the Knights of the Eagle.” Jason stepped forward and knelt before Cassidy. She had him repeat the oath of knighthood then drew her sword and tapped him on both shoulders. Fiona followed suit. “Next, Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus to become a member of the Knights of St. Heironeous. To become a member of the Knights of St. Michael, Corporal Rayelle Harper.” Allison smiled at Rayelle when she knelt for her oath.

The king continued, “A posthumous award of knighthood in the order of the Knights of the Roc to Captain Benjamin Halest. Next, I present Evelyn Graham, Lieutenant Monique Oleron, Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman, and Sergeant Major William Morell, to become members of the Knights of the Roc.” The four stepped forward and took their vows.

Once they had stepped back, the king said, “For membership in the Knights of Arbatros, Captain Natalie Sanchez and Victoria Senjar.” They stepped up, Grace smiling at the two as she administered their vows.

“Now, some of these soldiers are already knights. Therefore, to receive promotions within their knightly order are the following. First, Lieutenant Dame Danika Hughes, to become a Commander in the Knights of the Eagle. Next, Captain Dame Hannah Rockwell, to become a Lieutenant in the Knights of St. Heironeous. To become a Lieutenant in the Knights of the Roc, I present Captain Dame Jenna Miskovitz.” She stepped up to Beatriz, who grinned at her.

“Next, Dame Katrina Rose, to be promoted to Commander in the Knight of Arbatros. Finally, I present Lieutenant General Sir Vladimir Kapov, to be promoted to the rank of Knight Grand Cross in the Order of the Knights of Arbatros.” Vladimir stepped forward to Grace. Kneeling, he repeated the oath he took when he was first knighted. Then Grace and the other Grand Masters stepped back, and the king walked forward. Drawing one of his bastard swords, he lightly tapped Vladimir twice on each shoulder. “Rise, Sir Vladimir, hero of the Second Battle of Ereth Chul,” the king said, offering Vladimir his hand.

Vladimir rose, but before the clapping and cheering could start, the king raised his hand. Turning to Vladimir, he smiled, “I believe you have a promotion of your own to award General Kapov?”

“Yes, I do your majesty. Tristanne Bergman, step forward,” he said. Behind him, Beatriz pulled a pair of Mithral pauldrons from her pouch. He took them and turned to Tristanne. “Tristanne, I now award you the rank of Captain and place you in command of the eighth company, first regiment of the King’s Own Legion.” He handed her the pauldrons engraved with the three stars of a captain. “May you serve king and country well,” he said quietly to her.

Tucking the pieces of armor under her left arm, Tristanne came to attention and saluted him. “Thank you sir.”

As the two of them returned to their formation, the king stepped to the front of the dais. Sweeping his hands out, he cried, “I give you the heroes of the Second Battle of Ereth Chul!”

With that, the hall erupted into shouts and cheers. Soldiers shook each other’s hands and hugged one another. The king let this go on for several minutes before he once again raised his hands for silence. “Lord and Lady Voln have very kindly set a feast to celebrate our victory and commemorate the dead. All honorees are invited to dine with the Lord, Lady, and myself. For the rest of you, tables have been set in the courtyard and more will be set up in this hall once we make room for them. Generals, you many dismiss your troops as you see fit.”

Alexa motioned to Josephine to dismiss the King’s Own. “Vladimir, any of those honored can join the generals and the king as they wish. I’d like at least you and Victoria to come up with us.”

“Of course, ma’am,” Vladimir replied, coming to attention. Turning to his bodyguard, he asked, “Do any of you ladies want to join me at the king’s table?”

Rayelle, Cassielle, and Fiona glanced at each other. “We’ll come, sir,” Cassielle said. Danika, Monique, Tristanne, Jenna, and Evelyn quickly joined them. “We’ll join you too, sir,” Tristanne said. Emma, Rachel, Rose, and Natalie also moved over to them. Along with Alexa, Allasra, and Josephine, they started to make their way towards the main doors.

A few other officers joined them, including a woman wearing a short red dress, engraved steel vambraces, and a longsword. Upon seeing her, Vladimir smiled broadly and called out, “Lena!”

Looking around, she spotted Vladimir and her face lit up. Rushing over to him, she embraced him tightly. “Vlad! It’s so good to see you,” she exclaimed. Jenna’s eyebrows rose, and she took a closer look at the woman. She was quite tall, perhaps a few inches shy of six feet, and had long brown hair braided down her back. The longsword that hung at her side had a hilt wrapped in red leather and Mithral wire.

Jenna, Rose, and Tristanne moved closer to Vladimir and the woman. Turning to the others, Vladimir introduced her. “Ladies, this is Flamewind. Her real name is Lena Volstok. She’s the mage for fourth regiment. Lena, these are Jenna, Rose, and Tristanne.” They shook hands, the three taking the newcomer’s measure.

“Lena’s family has long been friends with mine, and she and my sister are close. We’ve worked together in the past as well.”

Victoria, who rushed over to give Lena a hug, interrupted him. “Lena! How are you?” She kissed her on the cheek lightly.

Flamewind returned the gesture, “I’m doing alright, V. Better now that you’re here,” she said with a grin. “I’m glad to see that you’ve finally gotten the rank you deserve.”

“Thanks Lena,” Victoria replied. “Now you can’t order me around anymore.”

“As if I ever could.”

The Lessando sisters, along with a number of their officers joined the group.

“Viv!” Emma and Rachel cried out.

A taller woman in a deep purple low-cut dress with a longsword at her side turned. She was slender with blonde hair and had purple leather and steel wire wrapped around her sword’s hilt. Upon seeing the two, she quickly hurried over and gathered them up into a hug. “How are you girls?”

“Well enough,” Emma said. “How are you? I hear your regiment saw some heavy action at the pass.”

Vivian pulled down the sleeve of her dress, exposing her shoulder. A long white scar of the sort left by magical healing traced its way from her left shoulder to the top of her left breast. “An orc axe did this. I picked another one on my side too.”

Emma grinned and nudged her, “An orc managed to land a blow on you?”

Vivian laughed lightly, “Well, when you charge into a dozen of the buggers, getting hit is part of the bargain.”

“And here I thought you were invincible. You’re ruining my preconceived notions Viv,” Rachel said, laughing.

Vivian chuckled, “I’m not invincible; just hard to kill.”

“I take it you need not explain the difference to these rather experienced ladies?” Vladimir asked, walking over.

“Vladimir, it’s nice to see you again,” Vivian said. ”How have you been?”

“We won, so I guess I’m doing all right,” he said. “I see you’ve picked up a few new scars from your most recent action.”

She shrugged and grinned, “Occupational hazards. Did you get any particularly good ones today?”

“No, I didn’t get hit hard enough to be more than mightily bruised.”

“Lucky you.”

Vladimir grinned, “Perhaps it was skill, not luck.”

“Very funny, Vladimir,” General Lessando said. “You’re not that good. Alexa or I aren’t even that good.”

“Only we’re allowed to be that good,” Beatriz said. She and Grace walked over to them. Both Guardswomen were wearing dresses; Grace had on a green one heavy embroidered in silver. Beatriz’s was a rich cream more lightly dusted with black.

“My lady Litel, Dame Danelli,” Vivian said, nodding to the two.

“Colonel Flowers, a delight, as always,” Beatriz replied. “I can see four years in the king’s service has in no way diminished your skills.”

“If anything, you are more formidable than when we saw you laying low Zhuravi assassins in profusion,” Grace added.

Emma looked startled, “I didn’t realize that the Guard was involved with your extraction, Viv.”

“Not directly, but we helped smuggle her out of the country. One of Kasey’s friends helped us,” Beatriz said.

Vladimir glanced over at Kasey Lessando, Steel Legion’s archmage, “How do you have friends in Zhurav?”

The slender twin smiled slightly, “Azrielle and I were born and grew up in Marebes. We left a number of years back, but we still have friends and contacts there.”

“I wasn’t aware of that. I take it you didn’t leave on very good terms?”

Azrielle laughed lightly, “You could say that. We’ve been pursued out of the city by the armed men intent on killing us every time we’ve visited, if that gives any indication of their feelings for us.”

They all joined in her laughter.

“Perhaps it was something you did?” Asked Beatriz, chuckling.

“Must be; although I can’t think of what that might be.”

By then, they arrived at Lord Voln’s larger dining hall. The king, along with Michael and Kristina were already there, along with the Lord and Lady Voln. Alexis was next to her mother. They rose as the group entered the room. The king smiled, “Thank you all for joining us. May this, like the honors I bestowed upon you in the ceremony, be a small token of my gratitude for your efforts.”

“Our thanks, your majesty,” Alexa said.

William shook his head. “I am always thankful for the many men and women who choose to serve king and country.”

Once everybody was arrayed around the table, the king raised a simple steel goblet. “To the honored dead, and the victorious living!”

“To the living and the dead!” They all cried back. Then Lord Voln raised his cup, “Long live the king!”

“Long live the king!” They responded.

The king and the Lord and Lady Voln sat, the rest of them following suit. Vladimir found himself between Alexa and Lena, with Victoria next to the mage. As they began with the loaves of bread already set on the table, Alexa turned to Vladimir. “While I’m sure you’re looking forward to a little time to rest, and you’ll get some, I’d like you to start thinking about your next mission.”

“My next mission, ma’am?” Vladimir grinned, “Are you trying to make me suffer from my accomplishments?”

Alexa feigned offense, “Me? Make one of my subordinates suffer? Perish the thought.” She reached over and squeezed his shoulder. “I’m just trying to get the most out of my commanders. And you’re one of my best.”

“My thanks for your confidence in me, ma’am, but I doubt that I’m all that good.”

Lena attempted to elbow him. “Stop being so modest and take praise where it’s due.” She glanced over at Alexa, “You hinted that I might be involved in this mission?”

Alexa grinned, “Well, that’s up to Vladimir.” She looked up at the king, “Actually, I’ll let his majesty lay the groundwork for your mission.”

“Thank you Alexa.” Looking at each of the soldiers before him, he began, “As you well know, we have been at war with the Zhuravi for the better part of the past three decades. While the attacks had slackened off for a dozen years or so, for the past two or three, they have renewed their efforts. Through the valiant efforts of many soldiers, we have thus far been victorious and, with proper planning, I pray we shall continue to be. However, for all we have done, we have not vanquished all that many of their soldiers. Indeed, as their army is conscripted, they are assuredly replacing the units we destroyed in the past few days. Mages of the calibre required to become Uplifted are harder to come by, so the death of three of them is a major blow. Nevertheless, our intelligence has already discovered that they have been replaced.” At that, a number of those present uttered curses.

The king smiled, “Since the last time an Uplifted was killed in battle was over two years ago, the death of three is not a small achievement. However, in a war of attrition, we will not do as well, as the Zhuravi are more populous and willing to send soldiers to die. Therefore, I asked Alexa to formulate a plan to strike a harder blow. She has chosen to lead this mission herself, but she has yet to formulate its specifics.” He sat down and waved to her.

Standing, she smiled, “I won’t trouble most of you today, but take your rest now, as I may call upon individuals from many units to aid me.” With that, she returned to her seat. Turning to Vladimir, “However, I will trouble you and Victoria with this.” Leaning closer, she asked, “How would you get a small group of soldiers into Zhurav?”

Vladimir frowned, “Merely into the country, or to a specific place? And what sort of unit composition?”

“To Marebes, I think. Unit composition is up to you.”

“I’d have to think on the matter. A number of methods immediately present themselves, but require further consideration and refinement before I would care to present them to you, ma’am,” he said.

“Of course,” she replied. “I’ll be looking to discuss it with you once you get back from leave, but I want you to be thinking on it.”

“Yes ma’am. How many days of leave are you allowing us?”

Alexa frowned and glanced over at the king, then Josephine. “Two weeks, I think. Especially after such a major battle and the length of time it’s been since anyone last took leave.”

Vladimir looked slightly annoyed, but both Lena and Victoria grinned. “Finally, some time to relax,” Lena said.

Alexa glanced over at Vladimir and Victoria. “While I’m sure this would be an excellent opportunity to take a vacation, if you do decide to go somewhere, please don’t visit Zhurav, Neger, or Mez. We wouldn’t want to tip our hand to the Zhuravi, and we’ve already bad enough relations with the other two.”

Vladimir grinned, “As much as you might think I try to stir up trouble, I don’t.”

“Oh, I have no doubt that stirring up trouble is not your goal. However, it seems to be the outcome, regardless.”

Turning more serious, Vladimir said, “But I am ready for a real break. Perhaps somewhere nice like Valira or Pergina for a week, then back home for the second.”

“That sounds like an excellent plan. However, we’re returning to the capital as a unit, so you’ll have to leave from there.”

“Not a problem; in fact that makes it easier,” Vladimir replied. “There are many more ways to travel from the City of Stone than from even a large city like Ereth Chul.”

“Indeed. Just try not to get into too much trouble.”

“I’ll try to stay out of trouble, ma’am.”

Alexa grinned and shook her head, “I’m sure you will. But trouble always seems to find you.”

* * *

The last in a long line of locomotives pulled up to the platform. Lined up by company were the remnants of Vladimir’s regiment. As the train ground to a halt, William stepped forward. “Load up!” He shouted.

With a clatter of armor and gear, the soldiers boarded the train, each company taking a car. After a few minutes, only Vladimir, his officers, and bodyguard remained.

Sir Viktor had joined them, and now turned to Vladimir. “It was good to see you, Vladimir. I hope you’ll take some more time to visit before your next deployment.”

Vladimir hugged his father, “Of course, father. Send mother my love.”

“I will.” He embraced Victoria briefly, clasped forearms with Beatriz, and left.

Alexa, Allasra, and Josephine walked up, trailed by a few of her bodyguard along with Beatriz and Allison.

Alexa gestured to the first car, still empty. “Shall we, ladies and gentlemen?”

“After you, ma’am,” Vladimir said.

Vladimir, Victoria, Beatriz, Natalie, and Tristanne paused on the platform for a moment. Vladimir looked back at the last half-dozen or so train cars. They were closed boxcars, with soldiers stationed on the front and back. Vladimir knew that they contained the ashes of all of the regiment’s dead.

“I pray that our next visit will be more pleasant,” Victoria said.

“As do we all,” Beatriz replied. With that, she and the other three women boarded the train. Vladimir took one last look at the city and followed them.

The train slowly chugged into motion, sending puffs of smoke into the cool morning air. As the city passed by, Vladimir could see signs of rebuilding and life resuming as normal. A few children ran alongside the tracks, and many of the townsfolk stopped to wave or salute the train.

Passing through the massive East Rail Gate, they passed into the countryside. Vladimir leaned back in his seat and watched the miles fly past.

Copyright © Scott Schaper, 2012

List of Characters

The Royal House of Azvar
King William Azvar (XII)-Age 42, King of Arbatros, Lord of The Rock, and Lord of the Steel Belt

Grand Masters
Dame Grace Litel-Age 27- Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Arbatros and Lady Assistant Commander of the King’s Guard
Dame Grand Cross Jessica Kisel-Age 27- Assistant Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of Arbatros
Dame Beatriz Danelli-Age 28- Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of the Roc
Dame Grand Cross Sarah Deering-Age 27- Assistant Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of the Roc
Dame Allison Reed-Age 29- Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. Michael
Knight Grand Cross Suriel Langtree-Age 30- Assistant Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. Michael
Dame Jillian Tarkew-Age 27- Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. Heironeous
Knight Grand Cross Raziel Langtree-Age 30- Assistant Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. Heironeous
Dame Cassidy Lake-Age 20- Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of the Eagle
Dame Grand Cross Christina Nethers-Age 28- Assistant Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of the Eagle

The King’s Guard
Lord Commander Michael Brass-Age 28
Assistant Lady Commander Eleesa Berger-Age 28
Assistant Lady Commander Grace Litel-Age 27
Jessica Kisel-Age 27
Beatriz Danelli-Age 28
Kristina Vespers-Age 28
Sarah Deering-Age 27
Nikki Gallows-Age 27
Allison Reed-Age 29
Kristen Placer-Age 27
Twyla Haminton-Age 26
Cassidy Lake-Age 20
Elizabeth Lindt-Age 28
Akshaya Buruchi-Age 24
Christina Nethers-Age 28
Jorie Kellerman-Age 26
Jaime Darakus-Age 28
Alys Morganne-Age 28
Elle Harris-Age 26
Ashley Downing-Age 25
Cait Yoris-Age 35
Jill Tarkew-Age 27
Leanne Doon-Age 27
Dana Sarowitz-Age 31
Marissa Sarowitz-Age 28
Stephanie Revel-Age 28
Cassandra Yarek-Age 28
Sara Thorew-Age 28
Marie Petrov-Age 28
Thomas Sanderson-Age 62
Ray Durant-Age 46
Joseph Tyler-Age 63
Samuel Garrison-Age 48
Nicholas Tunbridge-Age 41
Luke Hatridge-Age 38
Ken Bevel-Age 35
Dimitri Bryne-Age 34
Alistair Rhodes-Age 43
Raziel Langtree-Age 30
Suriel Langtree-Age 30

The House of Voln
Lord Wulfgar Voln-Age 56
Lady Jessica Voln-Age 54
Alexa Voln-Age 28
Alexis Voln-Age 25
Allison Voln-Age 22
Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Colonel Richter Turek-Age 56- Commander of Lord Voln’s personal guard
Lieutenant Richard Turek-Age 22- Lieutenant in Lord Voln’s personal guard
Sir Viktor Kapov-Age 63- Battle-master
Peter Yunvi-Age 46- Castle cook

The King’s Own Legion

General Alexa Voln-Age 28
Archmage Allasra Winters-Age 26
Legion Sergeant Major Josephine Herth-Age 27

First Regiment
Lieutenant General Vladimir Kapov-Age 36
Victoria-Age 25
Regimental Sergeant Major William Morell-Age 56

Regimental Bodyguard
Sergeant Hazel Riss-Age 17
Corporal Rayelle Harper-Age 16
Private Laura Thompson-Age 14
Private Stephanie Allen-Age 14
Private Jillian Olsen-Age 15
Sergeant Cassandra Roseti-Age 17
Corporal Fiona Perez-Age 15
Renee Owen-Age 15

Command Staff
Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Grendel-Age 28
Major Danielle Cantor-Age 21
Major Jessail Kilkel-Age 28
Major Rebecca Theska-Age 29

First Company
Captain Natalie Sanchez-Age 26
Rose-Age 23
Company Sergeant Major Franchesca Rivers-Age 24

Lieutenant Monique Oleron-Age 21
Lieutenant Melissa Turgon-Age 22
Lieutenant Nichole McIntyre-Age 25

Second Company
Captain Emma Athney-Age 20
Rachel Hawk-Age 19
Company Sergeant Major Anastasia Romanof-Age 16

Lieutenant Sarah Drommed-Age 19
Lieutenant Tristanne Bergman-Age 23
Lieutenant Hilary Paulis-Age 16

Third Company
Captain Victor Marsters-Age 45
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Third Company
Captain Alisa Kapov-Age 23
Ginerva Marks-Age 33

Fourth Company
Captain Justin Pierce-Age 29
Jenny Gilbert-Age 26

Lieutenant Demetri Kallov-Age 26

Fifth Company
Captain Vincent Hogan-Age 41
Nesheram-Age 41

Sixth Company
Captain Clarissa Walford-Age 28
Tamara-Age 28

Sergeant Cynthia Evans-Age 16

Seventh Company
Captain Hannah Rockwell-Age 23
Verity-Age 21

Eighth Company
Captain Benjamin Halest-Age 43
Ivo-Age 39
Company Sergeant Major Patrick McDougall-Age 40

Lieutenant Caeleigh Beranson-Age 17

Ninth Company
Captain Annabelle Diego-Age 22
Arkana-Age 21

Tenth Company
Captain Juliet Morell-Age 28
Devin Serget-Age 25

Twelfth Company
Captain Michelle Ford-Age 28
Elly Patricks-Age 26

Thirteenth Company
Captain Jenna Miskovitz-Age 20
Evelyn Graham-Age 20

Eighteenth Company
Captain Glenvara Lake-Age 24
Daphne-Age 20

Regimental Scout Company
Captain Jason Thompson-Age 32
Octavia-Age 29
Company Sergeant Major Christine Mede-Age 27

Sergeant James Black-Age 17
Corporal Grigori Kulikov-Age 23
Private Daniel Fitzpatrick-Age 16

Regimental Cavalry Company
Captain Elizabeth Martin-Age 32
Ariana-Age 23

Second Reigmental Ranger Company
Captain Kristine Douglas-Age 23
Willa Rowan-Age 19

Lieutenant Petra Michelli-Age 22

Regimental Medical Unit
First Lieutenant Cassielle Archalus-Age 15

Second Company, Menzobarian Rangers
Captain Grace Azvar-Age 17
Emily Athney-Age 18
Company Sergeant Major Alexandra Voln-Age 19

Lieutenant Danika Hughes-Age 16

Elite Legions

First Regiment
Colonel Kate Henna-Age 23
Raquel Moore-Age 21

Standard Legions

Fourth Regiment, First Legion
Colonel Robert Whitaker-Age 48
Garis-Age 45

First Regiment, Second Legion
Colonel Elaine Nichols-Age 31
Tiffany Brinson-Age 24


Eighty-ninth Elite Reserve Regiment
Colonel Charles DuHavel-Age 62

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 07 December 2014 06:13 EDT (US)     52 / 54  
Breath-taking epic there, Saj. Simply breath-taking.

Awesome in scope, detailed in the telling. Simply fantastic.

Praise aside, there was a nit bothering me- much of this last chapter was introductory material that should have come out much earlier if it applied to the character's actions and decisions, or could have been ignored and placed under the words "The girls gossiped and talked of things such as their origins and families while they bathed." Still the detail was incredible.

Extremely well-done!

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII

[This message has been edited by Terikel Grayhair (edited 12-08-2014 @ 01:07 AM).]

posted 07 December 2014 21:28 EDT (US)     53 / 54  
Thank you for all of your feedback, Terikel.

I wrote the first third to half of this book before I'd really decided to make it part of a series, which I'm sure creates some odd placement of information. While I agree that much of the character information presented in the last chapter isn't really important at that moment, it is important going forward in the series. I'm not sure where I'd end up putting it if I moved it out of there, since the next book doesn't pick up precisely at the end of this one. I guess it's just something I'll have to figure out in future edits.

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." - Ronald Reagan
"Judge them not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen." - Jeff Cooper
"I like my enemies like James Bond likes his martinis- shaken, not stirred."
My first book, The King's Own
posted 14 December 2014 06:29 EDT (US)     54 / 54  
It is a good tale, and you tell it extremely well, so I do hope you work on it and not neglect it. I would love to see this in print one day.

|||||||||||||||| A transplanted Viking, born a millennium too late. |||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Too many Awards to list in Signature, sorry lords...|||||||||||||||||
|||||||||||||||| Listed on my page for your convenience and envy.|||||||||||||||||
Somewhere over the EXCO Rainbow
Master Skald, Order of the Silver Quill, Guild of the Skalds
Champion of the Sepia Joust- Joust I, II, IV, VI, VII, VIII
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Total War Heaven » Forums » Bardic Circle - War Stories & AAR forum » The King's Own
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