We had just enough time to catch our breath before we were under attack again. Fortunately, there were no wizards this time, just lots of soldiers. We spent the next hour or so throwing up wards and barricades from whatever we could find, and shooting blindly at the next wave of attackers. (We hit, more often than not. I don’t know how. With all due respect, none of us are exactly sharp-shooters. Then again, there were a lot of soldiers: it would have been hard for us to miss.)
Finally, our allies showed up, having taken control of the harbor. Captain Smith apologized, but we didn’t have time to properly rest. We still didn’t have the Duchess – and without her, all of this would be for nothing. So we were healed, and either given Sgt. Glassman and his small collection of soldiers, or given into Glassman’s care, with one soldier each following us around like very stoic puppy dogs, or very odd-looking ducklings. Not that we were allowed to keep them, much to Betty’s disappointment.
We had just headed for the citadel, when it happened.
One of the ships, out in the harbor – one of our ships – suddenly went up in flames. A human-sized figure appeared on the wall, as if by magic, wreathed in fire. He made a sweeping gesture with his sword, and every single lamp around us abruptly went out. Then he bounded on his way, toward the citadel, with great impossible leaps. He cleared the outer wall with a single bound, slew those of the Duchess’s forces that were still fighting there, and then headed on.
We followed his general direction, though obviously much more slowly as none of us, with the possible exception of Pantera, is capable of leaping over walls like that. Pantera was not inclined to hurry in any case. She said that the human-sized figure resembled, uncomfortably closely, an Eladrin warrior from the Yerasol war – the first Yerasol War, 200 years ago. Other reports said that the sword we had seen could turn into a flail, and that the Eladrin had been wounded, somehow, by someone.
Someone would have to go after him, whoever he was. But fortunately, we were told to go over and assess what to do about the Danorian non-combatants, still imprisoned. I, at least, hoped to find Nathan Jierre, so we would have one less problem to worry about.
No such luck. Not only was Nathan Jierre not there, the highest ranked Danorian was inclined to be uncooperative. He’d declined to help one sort of Risori, he said, and he didn’t see why they should help another. Perhaps if we gave them all their weapons back. Pantera persuaded him – I don’t know how, beyond a lot of fast talking and her native charm – to settle for one sword each.
So far, so good. The Danorian (a Lt. Hester Marcine) assured us that we could sneak into the citadel via the sewers. (Thava stepped on my foot to keep me from protesting. She is twice my size, so really, she could simply have put an elbow on my head and accomplished the same thing without leaving me limping for the next several minutes. Then again, she puts her elbow on my head anyway.) They had a key that would let us in.
An excellent plan! Alas, that damn Eladrin invader messed it up. I had thought he had gone directly for the citadel, but apparently not: apparently he had been roaming around the walls, investigating. He ran right past us, as if he didn’t even see we were there, then paused by the garden maze to pull out…something, I don’t know what. Whatever it was, I could feel gravity flex under my feet, and saw a wavering hole appear in the hedge that barred us from the maze. Around the edges of the hole were that strange landscape of yellow swamp and blue sun.
None of us stopped to think. The Eladrin dove through the hole, and we dove right after him. We got to our feet, and found the Eladrin nowhere in sight. We were stuck.
Fortunately (or not), Gillye-Dhu, the creator of the garden, was right there, beating on the fire that the Eladrin had left in his wake. He wheeled on us as soon as Pantera cleared her throat. “Oh, no – your fiery friend may have got through, but you won’t!”
Pantera tried to reason with him, but he only vanished into the maze, apparently bent on abandoning us to the uncertain mercies of his maze. Fortunately, Thava’s icy wind proved better at putting out the flames than Gillye-Dhu’s beating on them. He reappeared, somewhat less crabby, and this time Pantera persuaded him that we came in peace, or at least not intending to set his garden on fire, which amounted to the same thing. More importantly, we didn’t come here to kill the Duchess. Imprison her, yes. Kill her, no. Not deliberately.
This was enough. Gillye-Dhu let us into the keep. The soldiers marched alongside us, as Betty rode in Pantera (who had switched to panther form, as being more flexible in general), and Thava carried me in as if I were a sack of flour, loosely in one hand with my shirt rucked up about my ears. It was very undignified.
The Eladrin had obviously already come through: the keep had not been undefended, but by the time we reached it, the defenders lay slumped on the ground, slashed and burned and dead. Thava chose to head up outside, with her great wings, aiming for the roof. The rest of us used the stairs. We reached the top floor, only to pause outside the door at the sound of voices.
Betty peeked through. There were only three people, she reported – well, three left alive: the Eladrin had clearly hacked his way through the Duchess’s last defenses as easily as he’d done the first. The Duchess knelt on the ground, hand over her bloodied stomach, warily eying the Eladrin, who paced around her in a circle. A man – Nathan Jierre, we hoped – cowered in a corner.
For obvious reasons, I did not have a notebook and pen with me at the time, and wrote down what I remembered in short form and in great haste, so I can only give a general sense of the conversation we overheard. The Eladrin was angry with the Duchess – extremely angry, because she had ‘displeased the court.’ The Duchess was trying to calm him, and persuade him not to “do anything you might regret.” I find I wrote something about being the ally of a kingslayer (presumably the Eladrin’s objection, as surely if the Coaltongue had sunk, then the King would have died), and devils, and a promise to pull away from somewhere or someone (Tiaflis, I believe).
The Eladrin did not calm, no matter what the Duchess promised, or promised that she would promise. He abruptly turned, and flung open the door behind which we were uncomfortably lurking. Pantera, talking even more rapidly than usual, talked him out of killing us immediately. Instead, he turned away.
“Leave, or I kill the Duchess,” he said bluntly. “Give this message to your masters: the Unseen Court did not endorse your Duchess’s actions, and they desire her execution as a traitor. I require a ship, prepared with an unarmed skeleton crew. I shall sail to the Risori mainlane, where I shall let go the crew. I shall keep the Duchess with me for now: she will be returned to you once I have the ship.”
As he listed off his demands, Betty snuck over to the Duchess without being noticed. Thava – who had been listening as well, from the roof – tossed down a rope, and Betty tied up the Duchess, before looping the rope around her bonds so Thava could raise the Duchess up the roof and relative amounts of safety.
“Can we send our minions instead?” Pantera asked. Smith, behind me, grumbled, but didn’t say anything.
“No! What are you looking at?”
I don’t know who looked. Not me – I couldn’t see Betty anyway, as I’m fairly sure she was using her newly-found invisibility. Perhaps Smith or Ruby. Certainly not Pantera. Regardless, he looked around, and finally noticed what Betty was doing, and that he was about to lose his hostage, so Pantera attacked.
We had two priorities: get the Duchess out of there (and healed, or else we would have a dead Duchess on our hands, and we wanted to avoid that if possible), and get Nathan Jierre out of there (without him dying either). Oh, yes, and none of us dying from an angry Eladrin either. Thava hoisted up the Duchess to the roof and safely healed her, while I trotted over and all but dragged Nathan Jierre out of the room and down the stairs. Unfortunately, this means that while Thava, Betty and Pantera assure me that the fight was gloriously dramatic, the stuff of all kinds of epics, I wasn’t actually in the room to see what happened, so all I can report for certain was that the Duchess survived, Nathan Jierre survived, and even the damn Eladrin survived.
I will not review the aftermath in too much detail. War was averted. Lya Jierre came on a Danorian warship, and assured us we had done well. Rumor from the sailors is that, if negotiations go well, she will marry our king – I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. Nathan Jierre certainly didn’t seem to want to see her nearly as much as she wanted to see him, afterwards. The Duchess was publicly stripped of both magic and title, then imprisoned. And according to those who study the stars at Axis Island’s observatory, there is indeed a blue star, that – who knows? – may, or may not, have a planet orbiting it, on which yellow swamps can be found.
The stars tell me nothing. Perhaps tonight.
- Magstein Astafyev