(Author’s commentary): I love this chapter. We get to see Hildy really stepping into her role as commander of the resistance army. Yeah, she is just making it up as she goes along. I don’t write her in a way that gives her all the answers, she just does the best she can. But she isn’t afraid to make the tough calls… and I really enjoy watching her slap down yet another of the evil princes.
The Seven Kingdoms
Chapter Thirty Three
Narya glared at this strange person in a uniform and armor of many shades of green who carried a spear and spoke in such a commanding tone. The voice was very familiar. She suddenly realized exactly who this person was. “Hildy!” she squealed. “It’s so good to see you! You can straighten all this mess out. I hear my husband talking about you all the time. You are a very important person. Tell them. Tell them I’m the queen now, and they have to listen to me!”
“Did you know that your mother and father have been locked up in a storage room in one of the towers?” Hildy asked the girl.
“No!” Narya exclaimed, shaking her head. “They have been staying in a fancy house out in the countryside, that’s what Cronan said.”
“We’ve been sleeping on the floor on a pile of blankets, dear,” Narya’s mother explained.
“Did you know that a fleet of ships left here not many days ago, full of Skull troops, and that they tried to invade Smilingman?” Hildy asked.
“Ships come and go all the time,” Narya said, casting a quick glance at her husband as he was led out of the room.
“Did you know that many of your own people are being held in camps under horrible conditions, just because they objected to something the Skulls were doing here?” Hildy continued.
“That can’t be true,” Narya said flatly, “but even if it is, how would I know? The only people I talk to are my husband and some of his friends. I never go out. I never get to do anything.”
“Well then, dear, you haven’t really been much of a queen, have you?” said her mother, somewhat snidely.
That was too much for Lawry, who leapt to her sister’s defense. “What could she know about being a queen, Mother? You never taught us to be anything but the wives of a prince or king. We learned nothing of ruling our people, nothing of governing properly.”
Narya looked gratefully at her sister.
Hildy didn’t have any more time to waste. She asked for the room to be cleared. The remaining civilians, some still holding their knives, exchanged embarrassed glances, and shuffled out of the door after the soldiers.
Narya sprang from the bed, looking so young in her long, white nightgown. “Thank you, brave people of Middle, for freeing my family,” she called to the departing crowd. The people stopped, every one of them, and turned back to her, smiling and nodding their heads, before continuing on their way.
“Well done, sister,” Lawry said, smiling and rushing to grasp the girl in her arms. Their parents followed her lead, and the family was soon locked in a large embrace.
Hildy just sighed and followed the procession out the door. She made her way down to the great hall. She went to the large table running down the center of the room and sat down in a chair beside the one in which sat Cronan Skull. Two of her men stood behind him. Two more stood on the other side of the table. Still more guarded the doors to the huge room.
“I would like,” she said quietly without so much as glancing at the man, “to complete the task of retaking this kingdom in the same way it has so far been accomplished. That is to say, without bloodshed.”
The man who still thought he was king of the kingdom under discussion laughed loudly. With a sneer, he turned to her. “I still have ten thousand soldiers out there.”
“You have perhaps four thousand soldiers, and we have already captured one thousand or so of those. Here is a map showing where the remaining troops are stationed, and how many of them are at each location.” She pulled the map that Tarry Oar had given her from her belt, unrolled it, and pushed it over in front of him. “I have more soldiers here already than you do, and on top of that, I can arm a large portion of the civilian population, including the conscripts you have been so thoughtfully training for us in these two camps.” She pointed to two spots on the map, still not meeting his gaze.
“You will lose many men,” he said, so sure of himself.
“Will we?” she asked, finally turning her head to peer into his eyes. “Have you found time yet to wonder why we arrived in the same ships that were sent to attack us not so many days ago? Have you wondered what happened to your two half-brothers or their army?
He looked uncertain, suddenly.
“We beat your army, though it was as big as ours was, and came unexpectedly. We beat your fleet without losing a single ship. All the men that weren’t killed are now our prisoners. All the ships that weren’t destroyed now belong to us. One prince was killed, the other captured. We landed here and took another thousand men prisoner without spilling blood.” She was relishing telling him all this. “I can march to each spot on that map and destroy each small force with very little trouble.”
The look he gave her was hard to read.
“I’m telling you all this to save your men, not mine,” she said at last.
In the end, he relented. He came to realize that it didn’t matter one way or another anymore to him, personally. Whatever happened in the rest of the kingdom, he would still be a prisoner. His father did not accept failure from his sons. He gave no second chances. He had too many other sons eager to step in and take over from their disgraced half-brothers. The prince who had recently been a king was a realist. He agreed to lead a large force of Hildy’s troops around the kingdom, ordering his own men to surrender.
“I might make myself useful to you as some sort of administrator,” he suggested in an oily tone.
“Don’t press your luck,” Hildy replied contemptuously, grabbing the map and getting up. “Lock him in the room where the king and queen were kept,” she ordered her soldiers, and strode from the room.
The next day, a large portion of her army set forth to free the kingdom, one town and camp at a time. Prince Cronan walked with them, garbed in a plain white tunic and humble sandals. Prince Nudge walked beside him, chatting away about nothing and everything, still looking resplendent in his Skull finery.
Hildy watched them go from the castle gate. She had one thousand men with her still, her new personal bodyguard. Led by Nius Tar, it was made up of her original small band of survivors from the battle of Evergreen, the soldiers who had come with her from Flame, and the handful that had come from Dancer with Sanara. The rest were handpicked by troop commander Tar from the best Smilingman soldiers.
As Hildy watched her main force march off, she had one thought that was troubling her above all others. Taking Middle had proved far easier than she could ever have possibly hoped. But could she keep it? Was her army big enough to hold Smilingman and Middle both, once the enemy learned what had happened?
She crossed the courtyard, heading towards the castle. Once more, her soldiers were building a fenced enclosure beside a castle to hold Skull prisoners. She had a few days, while the rest of the enemy forces were being rounded up and brought back, in which to decide what to do. She entered the great hall, and a smile lit her face. Lawry and her family were seated at the long table, sharing food, while Lawry filled them in on all that had happened since last she had seen them. On seeing Hildy, the king and queen stood, and went together to embrace her.
We have been hearing about all you have done, child,” said the queen. “It is almost impossible to believe.”
“You have given us back our freedom, our kingdom, and our children,” the king said gruffly, and paused to blow his nose.
“To think the little girl we watched growing up would turn out to be such a soldier,” the queen went on.
Hildy took off her helmet and ran a hand through her short hair. She decided that she needed to be honest and forthright, preparing them for the hard decisions that she was going to have to make. “It is not at all certain that we can remain here and hold the kingdom,” she admitted sorrowfully.
All four of them looked at her in horror.
She continued in a rush. “To stay means dividing the army, weakening both Middle and Smilingman as well. We need Smilingman. That is where we are set up to make the arms needed for our army. And Middle, being where it is, can be attacked from all sides. I don’t know what to do.”
The king, she saw, understood her dilemma. The queen understood, but didn’t want to believe it. She turned to Lawry, her oldest friend. Lawry smiled at her, trusting her as always. Her younger sister looked ready to argue the point, but thought better of it.
At that moment, Hildy made her decision. Whether it was the simple trust and faith in the eyes of best friend, or just the stubborn streak handed down to her by her soldier father, she couldn’t say. Two of her soldiers stood guarding the door through which she had entered the great hall. She called one of them over. The man came and stood at attention before her, still dressed in the Skull uniform and armor.
“Find troop commander Tar and tell him that I need him here,” she said to the man. Then, before he could move to carry out her order, Hildy stopped him. She reached up and removed the iron blade from his spear, then sent him on his way in a somewhat confused state of mind.
She turned and handed the heavy blade to the king. “Send out the castle workers, and begin to gather all able-bodied men here in the courtyard. My men can help. As we free more men from around the kingdom, we will need to mobilize them all, and every woman and child too. Everyone who can’t join the army will have a job to do. Right now, we need the metalworkers, because we are going to need a lot of those blades.”
The king looked down at the deadly piece of metal in his hand. His face took on a very grim and kingly air, and without a word, he turned and strode through the great hall, to prepare his people for war.