By JJ Rushmore
General Alyssa stepped toward the throne. Tucking her helmet under one arm, she lowered her head and bowed on one knee.
“Your Highness, the Mangorians have arrived.” Her voice echoed through the throne room.
“So soon? Did we not just run those barbarians off?”
Alyssa stood and faced the King. “It is one year gone since they defiled our land. The last time…”
“I need no reminder! They bring death and destruction with every visit. If only Galon—”
“—Galon is gone.” She raised her head, tossing her long auburn hair. “Let me gather the army and I shall deal with these savages. I will instill the fear of our gods into their heartless spirits.”
“As King, it is I who must lead the army.”
“As King, you must stay here. The tribes are restless. They would see a vacant throne as a sign of weakness, and an opportunity for revolt.”
The King rubbed his chin as he stared at the young woman. “We have lost many soldiers. Is our army strong enough? Should we seek aid from the tribes?”
“The tribes are rebellious rabble. To request their help would only embolden them. We need to show strength and meet this challenge on our own.”
“And you, Alyssa? Are you prepared to lead men into battle? Will they follow you?”
“I have shown my mettle in the Krollen wars. The men will follow me—as much for my courage as to gawk at my breastplate.”
The King’s twisted smile matched her own. “Your armor is unique.” He paused, staring at the alabaster icon of Prolus, the god of war. “You must take Thoren with you.”
Alyssa scowled and shook her head. “He is too young, your Highness.”
“He is a man of sixteen summers, and swings a sword as well as any.”
“—Enough! Your brother needs the hardening of combat, as steel needs tempering in oil. Take him with you—and Alyssa…”
“Yes, your Highness?”
The King’s eyes bore into her, but he did not speak. Alyssa nodded as if she understood, and departed.
He doesn’t trust me. Ever since Galon…The King wants Thoren there to spy on me. I must watch him. The boy is power-hungry and a hothead.
General Alyssa ordered the army to assemble. Two thousand strong, the soldiers marched out the castle gate at dawn in full battle gear, trailed by the army’s support wagons. The procession snaked across the countryside for a half a league in length. A squadron of scouts ran ahead, while Alyssa and Thoren rode side by side, leading the cadre of cavalry.
“This should be my campaign,” groused Thoren. “I can wipe our land clean of Mangorians without the aid of a woman.” He spit the last word onto the roadside.
“And how many men have you killed, dear Brother?”
“I lack only the chance to wash my sword in the blood of our enemies.”
“Rein in your passion, Thoren. You shall have your chance at bloodletting, and you shall command soon enough.”
Thoren’s knuckles turned pale as he gripped the pommel on his saddle. “You would not be in charge—”
“—if not for Galon. So you say—but your brother and I fought side by side in many campaigns. He suffered a warrior’s death at the hands of the Mangorians. Now the army’s command has fallen to me, and to me you shall answer. I may be a woman, but I am a warrior first.”
They traveled the remainder of the journey in stony silence.
The mass of cavalry and infantry arrived at the Bluff of Twelve Tears, where a dozen rivulets of water cascaded over its edge. Allyssa and Thoren studied the river below as the army pitched camp. The enemy encampment smothered the opposite bank, a black stain upon the landscape.
“They breed like rabbits,” he said.
“And fight like wolverines,” she replied. “They have doubled their numbers since last we met.”
“They are only ruffians. They are no match for our warriors. We shall take them in the morning.”
“Spoken by one who has never sacrificed men in combat. They outnumber us three to one. We cannot risk decimating our army. We shall use stealth and cunning to win the day.”
Thoren scoffed. “Is that what killed Galon—your cowardice? Your fear of battle?”
“Enough! Speak not of things you do not know! Galon died as all warriors do—before their natural time. Now gather the captains—we plot our strategy at dusk.”
The captains’ faces flickered in the firelight. “The moon wanes,” she said, “and the night is short. I need four parties, each with a dozen men. I will lead one—who will lead the others?”
Without hesitation, every man thrust his sword into the flames.
She picked two leaders with nods of her head. “Borak—you take the right flank, Pakar, you the left, and I shall take the center.”
“And the fourth?” one voice asked.
She ignored the question. “Pick your men for their strength and agility. Strip to your tunics and sandals—no clanking armor. Bring only knives. Rub your bodies with mud and ashes to blend with the darkness.” The men grumbled. “Quiet! We infiltrate from the rear where their defenses are weakest. Kill the sentries and proceed to the largest tents. Slit the leaders’ throats and begone. Our mission is one of silence and fear.”
She gazed at the men surrounding her. “Chop off the snake’s head and it writhes and dies. Thoren—” She turned to her brother, stiff by her side. “Take the fourth group, cut the picket lines, and release their horses. Without leaders or cavalry they will be no match for us.”
“Give me the left flank,” he said, “or the right. I am no stable lackey.”
“Do not fight me, Brother,” she snapped. “Yours is the most difficult. You must release the horses and steal as many as you can without detection. There will be plenty of blood for you to spill.”
The next morning Alyssa and her captains gathered on the bluff. The war parties had succeeded in their mission without casualties and without discovery.
“Shall we prepare our attack?” Thoren asked.
“Look at them,” Allyssa replied, pointing at the Mangorians’ camp. “We kicked over their anthill and they mill about in panic. They are leaderless. Soon they will leave.”
“And we let them? Are we cowards?”
Alyssa turned to her brother. “Your bloodlust blinds you, brother. There is no glory in slaughter. They will not return for many years. Borak!”
“Double the perimeter guards tonight in case the savages acquire a thirst for revenge. By morning they should be gone, and we can return home.”
That night Allyssa took the slave girl to bed. She had captured the frightened creature in the Mangorian leader’s tent the night before. Allyssa had knocked her out to prevent the girl from screaming when the general slit the chieftain’s throat. She had carried the limp waif’s body back to camp with ease.
That night Allyssa plied the girl with strong wine and a soporific, and soon the slave girl fell into a dreamless sleep. The general placed the sleeping form in her own bed, leaving the girl’s auburn tresses to flow over the covers. Alyssa retired to a dark corner, obscured under a fur blanket. The dim glow from the campfires filtered in through the tent’s canvass.
Hours later the tent flap moved, and a skulking form entered. The figure stepped to Allyssa’s bed. He raised his sword, and repeatedly hacked at the sleeping woman, blood spraying on the bed, on the walls, and on himself. The unconscious woman made no sound. The man paused, his breathing labored.
“Killing is hard work, isn’t it, Brother?”
Thoren spun around, croaking, “What? How did you…”
“How did I know?” she asked. “I didn’t. I set a trap and you took the bait.”
“You said if I chopped off the snake’s head…”
“Nice to know what you think of me,” she said. “You’re just like your brother. Ambitious, and afraid of strong women.”
“You—you killed Galon?” he gasped.
“Of course. Galon was afraid Father would chose me as his successor, and he would have. I am the eldest, and the best warrior. He made a move, like you, and I was waiting for him.”
“So, what happens now? Will you shame me in front of Father? In front of the entire court?”
“That’s the trouble with boys,” she said. “You fail to see the obvious.”
She thrust her sword clean through Thoren’s midsection, causing him to sharply inhale. She quickly withdrew the blade and he collapsed. She waited for the final sound, a long hollow death rattle escaping his lifeless form.
Her father the King would not be pleased. But she had warned him. She told him Thoren was too young.
And the King is too old. Like his sons, he fails to see the obvious.
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