When I awoke the room was awash with soft sunlight. I wondered on which end of the day I was waking. I rolled to my feet and looked down at myself. If I had been civilized, I would have shed my dirty clothes before sleeping. I shed them now, and finding a basin and pitcher of water on the little table by the bed, washed up in the chilly water. There was a pair of dark billowy trousers and a pale blue shirt waiting at the end of the bed. The cloth was a good thick cotton and some simple embroidery adorned the waistband of the pants. Nothing too fancy but well-made and worlds above the rags I had been wearing, I pulled them on gratefully. The trousers were slim through the hips and upper leg, then plumed out before coming back to wide cuffs at the ankles. The cut was more typical of summer, but this fabric was definitely suited for winter and I liked the way it fell. My daggers belted on much better over this ensemble and I felt pretty—it was nice. I pulled my sad shoes on and ventured out into the hallway and headed back the way we’d come the night before.
Ironsides’s home was uncomplicated, and I had no difficulty finding the central room with the fireplace. The fire was going and I saw Quill and Ironsides standing by the mantle looking quite serious. I approached and discovered they were arguing.
“It is too soon. The sting of her victory is too fresh,” said Ironsides.
“Shouldn’t that make the people all the more willing to rebel? They still remember what it was like before the Nether Queen!” replied Quill. “Wouldn’t it be better to stop her before she gets even stronger?”
“She is already too strong,” Ironsides countered, frustration in his voice, “Or have you forgotten what happened to Dalyn’s armies?
Quill paused, “I have not forgotten.” Each word stood by itself like candles in the night.
Ironsides softened then. “Then keep doing what you’re doing—be a thorn in her side—be a wound that festers. Be hope.”
Just then Quill noticed me. He turned, “Lady Zare,” and their serious air dropped to the ground like a magician’s cape.
“Good morning,” I said, stepping closer and resting my hands on the back of a big chair. “It is morning, isn’t it?”
“It is, indeed,” Ironsides smiled kindly, “I am surprised to see you up, you are the first.”
“Thank you for the clothes,” I dipped in a little curtsy, lifting the flowy sides of my trousers.
“You’re welcome, they become you,” Ironsides bowed in return and then turned toward the kitchen door, “I will let them know we’ve got one more for breakfast.”
I looked at Quill. He was watching me closely–but with a neutral expression which would make diplomats envious. “Ironsides doesn’t approve of Dalyn’s rebellion?” I asked, quietly.
Quill’s eyes sparked then, and he shifted, “You heard.”
I nodded. “What do you think?”
Quill met my gaze. His eyes were a deep brown and I was startled how unguarded they were. I felt like our souls were staring at each other. At first it was unsettling, but then I realized that I liked what I saw.
“Do you know how the wars started?” he asked, breaking the spell.
Of course I did, I was royalty. I recited, “Laird Wynn of Shyr Valla declared war on Narya Magnific of Hirhel because of repeated assassination attempts on the life of the crown princess, A’rora Wynn.”
“Do you also know how Shyr Valla fell? Or Dalyn?”
My heart jumped. Would he tell me? “Not really,” I said slowly, “Everything about battle is rumor: Convoluted tales told by spies and peddlers who insist that Shyr Valla is gone without a trace.”
Quill looked into the fire, “Dalyn, as you know, was Shyr Valla’s strongest ally. Due in large part to the engagement between our crown prince, Trinh Kegan, and A’rora Wynn. The day Shyr Valla fell Trinh Kegan was defending her with a large contingent of Dalyn’s army. My father was an officer among them.
“There was a mighty wind on the mountains that day, and then Narya Magnific and her army marched out of the hills and fell upon Dalyn. Dalyn, of course, was not so well defended as she ought to have been—with the bulk of her armies in the mountains. But the city also assumed that she was being attacked instead of Shyr Valla, and that Trinh Kegan would discover this and come to her aid. But days turned to weeks and no rescue came. Our fears grew wild and weakened the cities’ already tottering defenses so Dalyn fell to Narya’s horde. The king was executed, with many of his guard, and his younger son, Tar Kegan, who was only fourteen, was set up as a puppet king in his stead.” Quill paused.
I said nothing. This might have been my story if Galhara had fallen without burning to the ground.
“Later, when things were more settled under Narya’s thumb, our new king secretly sent scouts to Shyr Valla to find out what had happened. Except there was no Shyr Valla to find.” A bitter edge crept into his voice, “The city is gone. Gone as if she had never been. And whatever horror befell her also befell her armies. There were no bones, no bodies, no scorched funeral pyres, no burial mounds. No hint of a great battle of any sort. Just an eerie feeling and grass.”
I stared at him. I had been around overblown rumors so long I wasn’t surprised by the story, and was accustomed to wondering if the rumors were real. I had no doubt that Quill was one of the scouts who’d gone to Shyr Valla, and that he was telling the truth. This forced me from the comfort of uncertainty into a terrifying reality. What devilry simply wiped a city and army out of existence?
Quill tore his gaze from the fire and looked at me again.
I swallowed. “So she is a sorceress.”
He nodded. “But, she has not used magic like that since Shyr Valla. Its rumor goes before her and makes all her other conquests easier. Some cities have surrendered upon receiving her declaration of war. Magic is costly to her, I think, and she uses it shrewdly.”
“Oh, that makes it much easier to cope with,” I said.
“It does,” Quill laughed and I smiled in spite of myself. “My lady, we have hope now. My king desires to throw off her yoke and avenge his kin, and I serve my king. The Nether Queen hasn’t conquered all yet.”
Before I could ask Quill what hope he was referring to, Ironsides came striding back into the room carrying a pitcher and three mugs. I guessed that story-time with Quill was over.