“Leave us,” said the General. The men on either side of him turned and walked out without a word. Changran stayed where he was, looking askance at the tent wall, his fists, his teeth, and probably his buttocks, all clenched. If he was collecting himself to say something, he thought better of it and followed the others out.
The General leaned forward, crushing a small village under one hand and a copse of miniature trees under the other. “Frangan was one of my best men, a true warrior, but if you hadn’t killed him I’d have done it myself. We make no allowances for failure in this army.” He fixed me with his one eye. “I saw what you did, little man. You sacrificed yourself to allow your comrade to make the kill. Impressive. I’ve never seen anyone take a hit of ruuf sap and live, and you took two. You’re small, but you’re brave and hard to kill. Good qualities in any soldier.”
Hard to kill I might be, stupid I’m not. If I had known my usual immunity would fail me, I’d never have thrown myself into the line of fire.
“Ruuf sap?” I asked.
“The ruuf tree produces a milky substance. Deadly. Although not to you, apparently.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. It doesn’t grow this side of the mountains.”
It took a moment for me to grasp what he was saying. “This side? You mean you’re from—”
“What you call the Fairy Lands.”
Allard’s mouth fell open like a broken drawbridge. “You’re fairies?”
No one had ever crossed the Unbearables. The mountains stretched across the southern rim of the world, rising to snowy peaks. Myth and legend told of supernatural folk living in magical lands on the other side; stories loved by children. Children and Allard.
The General gave Allard a withering look. “Despite the tales you people have been taught, there aren’t any magical kingdoms over the mountains.”
“No unicorns?” Allard was positively bereft.
“No,” said the General. “For a thousand years, we of the Blood Royale have ruled an empire stretching from sea to sea. Without us, the peoples of the seventy-two nations would still be living in huts, happily eating berries and fruit. We combined the nations by force, organised the people and ushered in a period of prosperity and progress. Unity, strength, discipline and brutal subjugation — these are the qualities we of the Blood Royale rule by, and through them we are able to achieve wondrous feats. What you call your Four Great Cities are mere hovels compared to the stupendous majesty of what we have built. An infinite city oozing life; rolling towers that crawl across the plains crushing all in their path; war machines able to kill a hundred men in one blow. We are the Blood Royale, and it is our destiny to be masters of the world.”
“No flying monkeys?” Allard asked with obvious disappointment.
“No,” said General Petrangan.
“No cloud castles?” Allard persisted.
“No. Clouds are unable to support stone structures,” the General answered with greater civility than the question deserved. “We are here to overthrow your pathetic leaders and assume control of their armies, starting with these lands. The boy Duke only ascended to the ducal throne a year ago. He is young and inexperienced. We estimate no more than a week before total victory.”
The General spoke with supreme confidence, like a son insisting on the superiority of his mother’s cooking. Which is all well and good until he tries to force you to eat it.
“From what I’ve seen of your men, General, I’m sure you’ll be successful in taking all the tax money you want, but taking over the region is going to take more than a couple of hundred men.”
“We take his money in order to weaken his position. Without money he can’t pay his soldiers. He can’t feed his horses. Morale will fall and men will desert. The Blood Royale has no need for money. We take what we want — we command and we are obeyed. Once we have established our position here, we shall strike out. Within a generation we will have conquered every corner of your lands. Strength, discipline, unity. This is our way.”
“And brutal subjugation,” I reminded him.
“Yes.” The General crouched forward, spitting his words out. “Without that, men begin to entertain ridiculous ideas. They think to rule themselves and form their own destinies. That path leads only to chaos.” He levelled an arrogant one-eyed stare at me. “If six men say the sky is green, and four say it’s blue, is the sky green? What difference does it make if more people think one way than another? How does that affect the truth? It does not. Fortunately, there is no sign of such foolishness over here. Because that’s what it is, pure foolishness.”
Listening to our host rant at length about the politics of his homeland — without prompting — was enough to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Few are the chances of reaching an understanding with a fanatic, in my experience. When a man believes in a cause passionately, there’s no point trying to play the uninvolved bystander, you’re either friend or foe. However, you can use his passion against him — if he doesn’t get you killed first, that is.
The General stepped back, brushing the broken homes off his hands. “Our ranks can always use warriors of exceptional ability. The rewards will be great. The choice is yours.”
The other choice being death, no doubt.
“Question.” Allard had his hand raised. “Will we have to dress in those mud outfits your men wear? Because my skin really needs to breathe.”
The General turned away from Allard. This had been Allard’s goal, irritating him so much with idiotic questions, he’d be forced into offering up his more vulnerable side. Or at least that’s what I’d prefer to believe.
I leaned over the map and tried to look like I couldn’t wait to have peasants do my every bidding (although, I‘ve always found it quicker to do it myself; avoids everything smelling of peasant, too).
“With the mountains at your back and the river forming a natural barrier crossable only in two places, it’s relatively easy to defend against outside attackers. Of course, the Duke won’t be facing outside attackers.”
The General nodded. “Exactly. The Duke has a total of a thousand men. Many are spread across his lands. Realistically, he can draw from around five hundred. Once we’ve taken over his castle and have a base, we can build from there. We have seen the kind of fighting men you have over here. They are weak and poorly trained. We may only number two hundred, but we can outfight ten times our number.”
I didn’t doubt him. “It’s all very well dressing up as shrubbery and attacking small groups of unsuspecting soldiers,” I said, “but you won’t be able to rely on the element of surprise for very long. Eventually, you’ll be discovered, and the Duke will ask his allies for reinforcements. Your men may be able to take on odds of ten to one, but can they match a hundred to one? You can’t fight from the shadows on a battlefield.”
I took a fistful of loose dirt out of my pocket and flung it at the tent wall Changran had been staring at earlier. The dirt struck a short, skinny soldier hidden there. I thought it might be a child until she removed her cowl to reveal long yellow hair and a very attractive face.
“Drasuga!” called out the General. In that moment the General’s poise and imperious demeanour deserted him. “What are you doing?”
“Father, please,” said the young woman, brushing dirt off herself. “I’m fine.”
The General’s face turned red. “Of course you’re fine, you impudent girl. Why are you here?”
We were all but forgotten as this family dispute took place.
“Father, I too am of the Blood Royale. I should—”
“You should do as you’re told and speak when you’re spoken to. Go to your quarters immediately!”
Drasuga stood there, eyes ablaze, going nowhere.
“Excuse me? Hello?”
They both turned to glare at me, him only barely holding onto his composure, her displaying the down-turned grimace of a spoiled little madam.
“Could I make a suggestion? What if you allow us to leave, go back to the Duke and tell him you attacked us?”
The General pursed his lips in preparation for what I guessed would not be a stream of platitudes.
“Wait, hear me out. Then we’ll come back at the head of two hundred of his best trained men and attack you.”
“You don’t seem to understand your position,” said the General. “This is not a negotiation.”
The girl cocked her head to the side and peered at me, her slate-grey eyes brimming with witchery. “Father, let him speak. I sense he is not as simple as he looks.”
The General just stared at her, quaking like he was about to erupt.
I continued, “If you can defeat a large, reasonably prepared force without any of these now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t tricks, then not only will we join you, we will help you recruit the best mercenaries this side of the Unbearables. And, of course, it will also mean Castle Krunski will have two hundred fewer soldiers guarding it. If you really do mean to usurp our lands, surely your warriors can defeat a few hundred poorly trained men.”
The General paused a moment and looked down at the land he intended making his own. “I will think on your proposition.”
We were escorted back to our cave and left to wait for the decision. Our fire had burned down to embers.
“Do you really want to join them?” Allard asked.
“Of course not. As soon as they let us out of here I’m going as far North as I can get. These people are crazy.”
“You would do well to keep your thoughts a little more private,” said a soft voice behind me. I turned sharply to find the young woman, Drasuga, standing there.
“I wish you people wouldn’t keep doing that.”
She walked up to Allard, circled him, inspecting each well defined muscle which, I can assure you, he enjoyed no end.
“You may think once you leave here, you will be able to escape my father’s reach. Such will not be the case. He doesn’t trust you. He doesn’t trust anyone. You will be followed every step and your actions reported back to him. If you attempt to betray him, you will be killed.”
“And you’re telling us this because...?”
She was petite, a head shorter than me, and she moved with a bewitching elegance, gliding around the rocky floor. “What my father told you about why we are here left out a few details. The Blood Royale’s rule stretches back over a thousand years, but that rule has come to an end. We have ever been a small group, numbering a few thousand at most, but we ruled through terror and fear. Never knowing when you’re being watched, when an assassin might be waiting in your bed chamber, it makes for nervous but compliant subjects.”
She smiled at the fond memory.
“Eventually they rose up and fought back. Many died, but they were prepared to die for their liberty. They overwhelmed us by sheer dint of numbers. In the final battle, the Emperor, my grandfather, led a last offensive to allow a small number of us to flee. We had a map to a long forgotten cave, high in the mountains. The cave turned into a tunnel, and after many days it brought us here. Here to rebuild our forces and train new fighters. It may take many years, but it is well within our capabilities to take over these lands and then return to reclaim our empire.”
“So,” said Allard, “you’re a fairy princess.”
Her delicate eyebrows crashed together in mute consternation. She had no blind side to present to him, so make of his question what you will.
“But if brutal subjugation failed over there,” I said, “what makes you think it will be any more successful over here?”
“My father believes the brutality of the subjugation was where we made our mistake. He believes we were nowhere near brutal enough! Once he has a foothold in this tiny corner of your world, he will unleash a relentless barrage of horror on your people. The Blood Royale has a thousand years of experience in these matters. Torture is an art form for us, and we like to display our art publicly.”
“You don’t seem very keen,” I said. “Isn’t world domination to your liking?”
“There is an old saying among my people — a woman should not be seen nor heard. We are little more than breeding stock. I have seen how different it is over here. You allow your women to speak freely.”
“Yes, of course,” I said, like we had some say in the matter.
“And you have queens who rule as well as any king.”
“Certainly,” I said. “Incompetence and poor judgement tend to be at the same level no matter who’s in charge.”
“I am the last female of the royal line. I alone can breed the next generation of emperors, and only with those who are also of the Blood Royale. The only such male left is my father.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Wait,” said Allard. “What do you mean? Oh... Oh no! What kind of fairies are you?”
She turned her back on Allard, so you see his methods worked once again. It’s probably best you just go with me on this, the alternative is too appalling to even contemplate.
“The methods my people use to subdue entire nations are diabolical in the extreme. I assume you don’t wish to see your lands under our yoke.”
“One yoke is about the same as another,” I said. “What is it you want from us, exactly?”
“Help me and you will have your freedom. And all the gold taken from the Duke. I know where it is hidden.”
“Help you do what?”
“Kill my father.”
I took a moment to absorb her request. “And how do you propose we do that?”
“He will accept your suggestion to fight the Duke’s soldiers. He never turns down a chance to prove himself, no matter the odds; it is a failing common to all the men of the Blood Royale. He will wish to speak to you before you are allowed to leave — he likes to give speeches — and that is when I will strike. He is a great warrior, but he has a blind spot where I am concerned. All I ask of you is to kill anyone who tries to intervene. His lieutenants are old and not the fighters they once were.”
“They may be old,” I said, “but they’ll still probably be able to defeat us four to two.”
“When you return to his tent, you will be armed. Normally, no one is allowed in my father’s presence with weapons, but nobody considers you a threat. You need only hold them off for a few moments. Once I have taken care of him, I will take care of everyone else.”
“How are you going to take care of everyone else?” Allard asked.
Drasuga slowly turned around and looked Allard dead in the eyes. She took one of his large hands in one of her tiny ones, grabbed him by the elbow, and spun him head over heel like an acrobat; only not many acrobats aim to land on their face.
Allard turned over so he was flat on his back. “Doesn’t prove anything.”
“Aid me and I will be in your debt. Refuse me and I will become your mortal enemy.” Her words were as chilly as morning mist in a cemetery.
Changran came hustling through the opening. He was carrying Allard’s swords and my daggers wrapped in my belt.
“The General has agreed to your terms. He wants to see you now.”
I looked around, but Drasuga had vanished.
Changran handed over our weapons with not even the slightest look of apprehension. It was enough to make you stab someone just to make a point. On closer inspection I noticed my daggers had been cleaned and polished, and the pouches on my belt were all empty.
Changran stared past us. “Drasuga, what are you doing here?”
Drasuga reappeared, seemingly stepping out of the rock wall. “Doing what I must, my love. He will die, and together we shall lead these brave men.”
Changran looked disgusted by the idea. “Even if you were to succeed, the men would never follow you.”
“And what of you? Will you follow me?”
“No,” said Changran. “There is no honour in this.” Despite his protestations, it was clear she had him entirely ensorcelled.
“Then stay out of my way.”
Changran looked from Allard to me, desperation in his eyes. “What has she promised you? Do you really believe she will lead you anywhere but to your deaths?”
“I have promised them their lives and their freedom. It is all any of us want, is it not?” With that, Drasuga disappeared.
We walked back to the tent. No one paid us the slightest attention, even though we had our weapons on display. We were considered harmless. In the tent, the General was accompanied by his four lieutenants. Changran stood to one side.
“We expect you to convince the Duke to come at us with everything he has,” said the General. “Two hundred, four hundred, no matter. It will be a good test for the men.”
“Father, I would tell you something.” Drasuga materialised out of thin air and walked past me, towards the General.
The General looked a little exasperated to be interrupted just as he was getting into his stride. “What is it Drasuga?”
She stood in front of him and raised herself up on her toes to plant a kiss on his lips. He looked surprised, even more so when she stepped back and he had the hilt of a dagger, one of mine, sticking out of his chest. I hadn’t even noticed her lift it off me.
The General fell to the floor.
Drasuga turned to the others. “I have assumed the throne. Are you with me or against me?”
The shock wore off, and the men lunged at Drasuga. Changran leapt into the fray and attacked the two at the back. Having said he wouldn’t help her, he showed no hesitation leaping to her aid.
“Should we ...?” asked Allard.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure they need our help.”
Drasuga was a sight to behold, moving fast and smooth, dodging kicks and redirecting punches while her opponents showed little signs of their age.
Their movements all flowed together, an elaborate dance, punctuated by an occasional chop to the throat. The first man she fought was down in seconds, gasping for breath. The second grabbed for her hair, but she ducked and brought a foot arching over her own back to kick him in the face.
Changran battled the other two, exchanging kicks and slaps, barely managing to fend them off.
Drasuga came up behind one and leapt up to land sitting on his shoulders. She crossed her legs and backflipped off him, snapping his neck.
Changran took the opportunity to place kicks in his opponent’s stomach and chest in rapid succession. Drasuga joined in, her kicks aiming lower, at feet and shins. With both of them attacking him, he soon crumpled into a heap.
The General lay sprawled across the map of his intended victims, blood spreading around his corpse.
The four lieutenants lay on the ground, either unconscious or struggling to breathe.
Drasuga rolled her father onto his back. His open eyes stared up at the roof of the tent seeing nothing. She plucked the dagger from his chest like she was taking a kitchen knife from its rack and proceeded to slit the throat of each lieutenant.
“Well done,” I said. “Very efficient. We would have joined in, but we didn’t want to get in your way.”
“You did fine,” said Drasuga, smiling. “Now all we have to do is inform the men of what you’ve done. Once I’ve disposed of you, of course.”
“Drasuga!” said Changran. “You gave them your word.”
“It is the only way, my love. The men will not follow me if they think I killed their beloved leader. But if these two are responsible, their deaths by my hand will give me the authority to lead. They will do as I command in honour of my father and I shall conquer these lands and raise an army. I shall be queen of two worlds!”
“Nice plan,” I said, “but it won’t work.”
“Pray tell why not?”
“Allard, show her why.”
Allard punched her in the face.
Allard might be big but he’s quick, and he’s got a right hook you’ll never see coming. He’s punched men standing right in front of him, and they’ve never even known who hit them.
Drasuga was also quick, but she had her guard down and had assumed she had the measure of him. She had knocked him on his backside with ease, but only because he had let her.
Drasuga fell backwards, out cold. The thing about people like the fairy princess, who are expert at not getting hit, is that when they do get clocked, they aren’t well equipped to handle it.
Changran leapt to catch her, and she lay there in the crook of his arm. He glared at Allard, his face a furious scowl, but he was unwilling to let go of the girl.
“She’s just unconscious,” I said. “There’s no need to get upset about it.”
“She is with child. My child. If you’ve—” He choked on his words. Any moment he would decide to lay his lover down and attack and not stop until we were both dead. I figured we could take him between us, but I didn’t really want to get into the whole slapping and kicking and somersaulting for no reason. It looked exhausting.
“Listen to me,” I said in as reasonable a voice as I could muster. “Is this really where you want to raise your child? Do you think she’ll be a good mother with the kind of women we have over here? Did you know there are women who gather in groups and go to taverns and drink them dry? Then they vomit in the gutters and scream obscenities at any poor man who happens to be walking by.”
“It’s true,” Allard confirmed. “True and terrifying.”
Changran looked suitably appalled.
“What good will it do to rebuild your empire if you lose all the things you hold sacred? Don’t you think it would be better to take her home, somewhere secluded, somewhere civilised, and raise your child the correct way?”
The indecision going through his mind was writ large across his face. I frowned and forced it into a smile — the grimace of the sincere — and laid a hand on his shoulder. “For the Blood Royale.”
His eyes lit up with patriotic fervour. He nodded. The decision was made.
“Now,” I said, “how do we get out of here?”
“There is no way out for you,” said Changran. “The men have orders to leave you alone unless you try to leave. You head for either exit, and they’ll rip you to shreds. They know nothing of the plans to let you go.”
It seemed my only choice was to do something unpleasant. Luckily, unpleasantness was something with which I had more than a little experience.
“You might want to sit this one out,” I said to Allard.
He sighed and lay down on the ground. “I can’t remember the last time I spent so much time on my back. Actually, I can. There’s this Second City brothel—”
“What are you going to do?” asked Changran.
“I’m going to deal with your men.”
“You, alone, against two hundred of the finest fighters in existence?” He looked at me like I was mad.
“Yes,” I said. “Shouldn’t take long.”
All my daggers had been stripped of their poisonous coatings and I didn’t have any of my pouches, but I did have my belt which had been woven out of dried dando weed. I sliced off thin strips with one of my nice clean daggers and left the tent.
I walked up to the first group of men huddled around a fire and asked them, “Have you seen Changran?”
They looked me over, registered I was armed, but didn’t appear at all bothered by the fact. One of them said, “He be with the General.”
“No, I was just in there.” As I spoke I tossed a piece of the dried dando weed into the fire. “They sent me out here. Maybe someone else knows.”
I worked my way across the cavern, asking for Changran, raising no suspicions and dropping dried dando weed into each fire. Soon the air was thick with a flowery smell, but the men were too drowsy to do anything about it by then.
At this point, I could have dragged Allard outside and we would have been across the River Krunski before anyone woke up. We would continue our lives and the crazy invasion army would continue theirs. Or so you would think. But people, especially crazy people, find it hard to call it quits. Death or glory! is their idiotic cry.
I took a page out of Drasuga’s book, only in my case it was more like a couple of chapters. I went around the sleeping men and slit two hundred throats. It was a laborious task, made doubly so by having to check carefully I hadn’t missed anyone who had fallen asleep while disguised as a rock or part of a wall.
Did they deserve to die? I couldn’t tell you, but I do know mercy would just be seen as an invitation to have another go.
When I returned to the tent, Changran and Drasuga were asleep in each other’s arms, and Allard was snoring loud enough to shake the tent walls. I could have taken care of the last two of the invading enemy, but murdering two hundred sleeping men had been about my limit for the day, and killing a pregnant woman is enough to turn even my stomach.
A couple of hours later we stood at the entrance to the tunnel leading back to the Fairy Lands, as Allard still insisted on calling them. Drasuga was bound and gagged and sitting on Marvynne’s little pony. Changran had it by the bridle.
“You people aren’t quite as weak as we had thought,” he said, his eyes on the piles of dead bodies behind me.
“Take care of the princess,” I said. She glared at me and mumbled through the gag. I had tried asking her where the Duke’s gold had been hidden, but every time I removed the gag all I got was a flurry of obscenities.
“Where will you go?” I asked Changran.
“There are places we can hide, raise our child in peace. One day the empire will rise again.” He led the little horse into the tunnel.
“Good luck then.” I waved them off, back to their homeland, most likely to be killed as soon as they were recognised.
Once his torch light was a small glimmer in the distance I said, “Do you think he’s really the father of that child?”
“What do you mean?” said Allard. “Who else would...? Oh. You mean her... Oh no. Those people couldn’t be any less like fairies if they tried.”
He grabbed the rope hanging from the platform over the opening and yanked it.
The rocks precariously positioned over the entrance fell with a thunderous roar, sealing off the opening to the Fairy Lands. Followed by a second thunderous roar as the rocks above the other tunnel, our only way out, also fell. Apparently they were both operated by the one rope.
“That’s your fault,” I said.
“You should have stopped me. I only just woke up. I’m still half asleep.”
The way home was blocked by a mountain of rubble and we were trapped with two hundred corpses.
“You know, you’re getting a bit flabby,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” Allard looked horrified.
“When was the last time you did any exercise?”
“We’ve been in here, haven’t we? When was I supposed to do any exercise?”
“I’m just saying, you could use a workout.”
It took three days for Allard to move enough rocks for us to crawl out into the open air. We had no horses, a long walk ahead of us and a good chance the Duke wouldn’t believe a word of what we had to tell him. We had one of their invisible outfits, but now it seemed no more than an ordinary garment.
All Allard said was, “I can’t believe it’s still raining.”