Having an entire city, near enough an entire nation giving him the silent treatment must have been odd for General Linus Lumin. Being from the Empire of the Holy Proclamation, he probably wasn’t surprised. His red and gold armour glittered in the bright midday sun.
Danielle remembered similar armour from battles with elite soldiers of the empire called Nephilim Knights. Lumin’s armour had a symbol of the sun across the breastplate.
The people of Leonor City had given Sir Danielle ‘The Puppet of Fate’ Longbow a rousing cheer. They had roared for Sir Aled ‘Afon’s Revenge’ Cadogan. Generous applause had greeted Sir Uallas ‘The Blade of Sliabh’ Molloyi. Espadan’s champion, Faustino Casto was his own applause with his hands clapping and a roar to wake stone. Prince Ozan Bayar from Vagral was greeted by offers of marriage from half of the women in the crowd and blushes from many more. The Sea Dragon of Nisials, Brontes Drakos smirked at the weak clap of hands that greeted him. Pirates weren’t used to applause.
Thousands cheered for Lord Fabian ‘The Sword of Leonor’ Castel, loud enough to part the heavens.
Sword and shield in hand, Danielle faced General Linus. She wore the heaviest armour Crann Kingdom had to offer.
Advancing with her shield raised, she let him waste his strength testing his sword against her defence.
Lumin’s shield was the imperial standard, a giant rectangle of wood braced with metal. She kicked it, sending him backwards. The crowd gave a roar of approval.
His little sword swung down in a crisp arc. Danielle met the swing with her sword, using her strength to send the sword spinning out of the man’s hand.
She backed off, not wanting to let him off easy. He’d been invited to Crann for one reason. He was there to be humiliated. He grabbed his sword from the dirt of the stadium. Peasants jeered him.
He danced around her, looking for holes in her armour that weren’t there. His sword, equal to hers, clashed against her shield. The metal-on-metal ringing noise was hideous. Sir Longbow was used to it. General Linus winced a little every time his blade trembled on impact. Her shield was solid steel, one reason she was built like a castle wall.
His helmet had the smallest slit for vision, not like the cheap crap she’d thrust her sword through countless times in battle. He wore imperial armour that the peons never had access to.
When he came too close, she slammed him with the shield. He fell on his back. Instead of placing her blade on his neck and finishing the bout she waited for him.
Imperial red was brown and grey with dust and muck.
He came at her roaring, swinging wildly. She deflected a horizontal swipe and side stepped a vertical slice. He met the full force of her shield. She heard the wind driven from his lungs as he staggered sideways off his feet into the dust.
“Won’t you end this fight?” General Linus Lumin asked. He wheezed with every word.
“I will. In time.” She was smiling. Danielle hated battle, hated war, but humiliating an imperial without staining her conscience was beautiful.
“I see. Let’s give them a show then.” He threw down his shield. With his free hand he beckoned her to come for him. Shrugging she threw down the heater shield she had taken from her father’s dead fingers and held her sword with two hands.
“This is why I’m here isn’t it? To show the empire that attacking Crann was a mistake?”
“No.” Danielle shook her head. “Us killing or converting every soldier you sent to kill us was that sign. This is just fun.” Her smile was in her voice.
Linus tore off his helmet and threw it aside. It was a moronic move. Or brave. She suspected that he was a mixture of the two. Soldiers had to be.
“Want to see my smile?” She asked.
“Of course.” He nodded.
Danielle laid her helmet on her shield and took a wide stance.
He rushed at her. Their steel met. Vibrations spread through her body. He grunted as he pushed his blade towards her.
Her arms tensed. Shoving him back she slapped his blade aside and tapped his head with the flat of her sword.
The crowd, thinking for a moment that she’d struck a deadly blow erupted with cheering.
“They’ll be disappointed,” he said.
“Will they?” She asked. He was staggering, holding his head. Punch drunk he fell sideways. Laying a foot on his chest she put the point of her sword to his throat.
“Thank God for that,” he exhaled. He relaxed, lying on the ground of the arena for a moment.
“Thank the gods,” she said. Danielle held out her hand to him.
“You help me up?” His blue eyes were confused.
“I won already,” she said. Her brown eyes met his.
He nodded. “True. Can I buy you a drink?”
“Because our nations are no longer at war, and I want to show that I don’t hold a grudge for my humiliating defeat.”
“You’re paying then.”
“Deal.” He smiled.
Sitting in a Leonor tavern with an imperial general was the best way in the world to draw looks of hatred.
“General Linus Lumin of the empire has generously offered to buy you all a drink,” she said at the top of her voice. There was no applause, but every patron made their way to the bar. “I hope you brought a lot of coin.”
“Are you buying their friendship for me?” He asked, sitting back in his creaking chair. A purple bruise was appearing across his forehead.
“No, but they might not stab you now.” Danielle supped her beer. “No promises there. Everyone here lost family and friends to imperial attacks.” She looked at him in his red imperial armour. Why was she sitting with him?
“I lost some friends in those attacks as well you know.” Linus sipped his beer and raised eyebrows in approval. “It must be easy for you to forget here that most imperials aren’t that fond of the emperor either. If you could assure the safety of our families, half of the empire would defect.”
“Is that so?”
“We’re in as much danger when the emperor changes his mind about God’s will. The difference is the walls keep us in with his zealots.” His eyes glazed as he spoke, staring at a point somewhere between the next table and infinity. “You never know.”
“Do your bodyguards outside agree?”
“Oh yes. That’s why I chose them. They’re strong and they’re loyal, to me, not the empire. They’d come as well if I asked them.” He gave Danielle a hard stare.
“If they’re that loyal they should be in here with you now in case I kill you.” She yawned, the excitement as much as the combat of the day had worn her out.
“Are you going to kill me?” He asked casually. “I doubt it. Your assassin didn’t go to all that effort of getting me promoted just so that you could kill me.”
“My assassin?” Danielle asked. “What assassin.”
“The yellow eyed demon that’s been slaughtering generals all over the empire. The greatest strategic minds have been dropping like flies. I’m just glad to be judged so incompetent. It’s been a career maker for me.” He smiled, foam from the beer formed a moustache on his upper lip. He set the wooden tankard down and wiped up the head of the drink and licked it off his finger.
“You know about Catherine?” Danielle asked, speaking of the woman she had mostly saved from becoming a harpy.
“I didn’t know her name but yes. She’s been a scourge among the empire’s finest. And a boon to people sneaking out of the empire as well I hear.”
“I can’t tell if you’re a moron and a shit spy or a genius and an excellent spy.” He winked. “Catherine clearly thinks the former. You’re too open about your disloyalty. Too loud.”
“Could you arrange help for me to get my family out?” He whispered, leaning towards her. “I’m about to be stationed in Afon Fos and I heard that Crann has its eyes set on it. I could let your soldiers into the city if you’ll guarantee the safety of my wife and children.” Blue eyes pleaded with an ocean of need.
Looking at suspicious faces all around them in the tavern Danielle considered. “You’ll be in command of Afon Fos? All of it?” It was the most fortified city in the southern kingdoms, taken by the empire during a bloody battle just years before.
“We should talk to the queen,” Sir Longbow said. “I can’t make this kind of deal on my own.” Another thought struck her as a smack to the back of the head. “Why aren’t your bodyguards Nephilim Nights?”
“Because they’ve all been sent into battle in the west. They can’t be spared as bodyguards anymore.” His face was grim but the thought of the empire being stretched put a grin on Danielle’s face. He finished his drink. “Another pint of this delicious beer if you please, barkeep.”
“And no pissing in it,” Danielle warned the man at the bar. “The happier these imps are, the longer we get to rest between battles with them.”
Queen Elspeth looked down at General Linus Lupin with a sour expression. She wore a Crann green dress and the sharpest hatred. Lupin’s red armour was a rag, and she was the bull, nostrils flaring.
“You want to trade Afon Fos for your family?” Asked the queen, voice stiff. Brown eyes narrowed, she tried to burn him to ash with a look.
“For the open gates when the time is right your highness. I have six men who want the same for their families. We would be enough to open the gate for you. We could even help you slip some agents into the city before the attack.” He fell to his knees, palms together.
“Your people killed my father,” said the queen. Her voice was the cold wind that blows over graves in the night. Her brown eyes were alight with the fires from the deepest pits of damnation. “Before that they slaughtered her entire homeland. Because we looked weak another kingdom tried to wipe us out. My sister was assassinated because the empire had already killed the king.” She coughed, covering a sound that might have been a bitter laugh. “You want me to save your family?”
“The empire killed my sister, your highness.” Lupin spoke to the stone twenty feet from the throne. “She bore an impure child. The girl had brown eyes. They burnt her in a fire for it, a baby. My sister was a good citizen. She was faithful to God. She had another daughter with brown eyes. She wouldn’t let them take the baby from her.” His words came in sobbing gasps. “She tried to fight them. She wanted to run away with the girl. The father killed her for heresy. Her husband killed my sister because she wouldn’t let strangers murder her child.
My sister was burnt at the stake with her baby on the pyre before her. People watched. People from the city who should have known better nodded and said she deserved it. Her husband just watched. The empire is cursed with religious zeal. Morality is second to the word of the emperor.
The same blood flows in my veins. I was lucky to have two blue eyed sons. Perhaps the next won’t be so fortunate. He or she might have brown eyes like you. My wife would have to hand over the baby to priests. I don’t want that life. Not for me, my wife, or my children.”
“Stand,” said Queen Elspeth.
He stood. His eyes were red and puffy already. He wiped them with a handkerchief.
“I will talk to my yellow eyed angel of death. Give me the names of the people you want smuggled out of the empire. When they are here, you will be told. Can your wife write?” Asked the queen.
General Linus looked at me. I was as confused. “I’m sorry, your highness?”
“Is she literate? If she is, I’ll have her write a letter to tell you she’s in Leonor under my protection.”
“My wife can write Queen of Crann.”
“Then you will have your proof, and you will open the gate to Afon Fos. If you don’t, my assassin will come for you.” She nodded to a servant, who ran off. “I hope you enjoy the rest of the tournament General Lumin. Sir Longbow will face Sir Cadogan tomorrow and Lord Castel will fight Prince Ozan. It’s sure to be a thrilling day.” Done talking, the queen was lost in thought. Her eyes were in other worlds, or other times, where she could be with her family again.
“How’s your head,” Danielle asked.
He felt the place where her sword had slapped him. “Lumpy.”