(Authors commentary): Okay, that’s just evil… pushing a starving old lady into the sea to drown. Stupid prince! Stupid evil empire bent on world domination! Good thing there are some brave teenage princesses to stand up to these asshats! Also: magic!
The Seven Kingdoms
Chapter Thirty Five
Hildy was amazed at how fast things were coming together. Lawry and her family were throwing themselves into organizing the kingdom for war. Iron was being gathered, as well as the metal workers needed to make it into the weapons for the rapidly growing army. The fifty battle healers that had come to Middle, minus a few that had accompanied the forces freeing the rest of the kingdom, were training more men, and a few women, at their work. Spear shafts were being cut, hides were being made into slings, and dyes to make new uniforms and recolor the captured Skull uniforms, were being concocted. And everywhere, men trained in the arts of killing other men.
She had the prisoners moved from the castle courtyard to one of the camps that had been built by the Skulls themselves to house the conscripts they had been training to fight with them. These same conscripts now took turns guarding the prisoners between their training sessions with the resistance army. The camp was located in a large field not too far from Middletown. Another camp, a little way down the coast road on the other side of the city, was prepared for the prisoners being brought from Smilingman.
Hildy had now forgiven Lawry for disobeying her orders to remain back on Smilingman. She realized that she couldn’t keep her friends safe when other people were risking their lives. It was a part of being a commander that she just had to accept. No matter what decisions she made, people could die.
Martus Rudder waited only until they had left the surf behind and were pointing in the proper direction before he baited all the hooks he had brought with them and dropped the lines over the stern of the little boat. He wasn’t looking forward to eating raw fish, but it would keep he and his mother alive. He was so tired that he didn’t see the ship coming until it was too late, even to flee back to the shallows. There was no chance that they could outrun a trade ship. He cursed himself for not waiting for darkness to fall.
Martus had no choice but to drop the sail and wait as the ship sailed up to them and lowered its sails, coming to rest nearby. He obeyed the shouted orders of the ship’s captain that they board, and helped his mother climb the netting to the deck. They barely had the strength to do so. When he saw the captain in his fancy armor, he knew it was one of the king’s sons. There would be no mercy shown.
“What do we have here?” the well-dressed prince demanded.
“We are just trying to catch some fish,” Martus began to say.
“Don’t insult me with your lies!” screamed the rather short prince. He was losing his hair at the front, but made up for it by growing it long in back and sporting a luxuriant mustache. “Do you think you are the first soldier to try to run away from his duty?”
The unfairness of it all overwhelmed Martus, and he was too tired and hungry to think clearly. “I have served in the army for a year,” he said quietly. “My father and my brother serve as well. And while we have done so, my young son has died. My wife has been taken away. My mother here is starving. What more can my family give?”
The prince’s face turned purple. He stepped forward and grabbed Martus’s mother roughly by the arm, then dragged her back to the ship’s railing, pushing her back against it until she was bent backwards out over the water. “My family has also suffered in service to my father,” he rasped through clenched teeth, turning his head over his shoulder to glare back at Martus. “You owe all you have, all you are, to the king.”
Martus stood frozen, afraid to say a word.
“And where exactly did you think you were going?” the prince asked in a conversational tone. “By now, the last of the seven kingdoms has been conquered.”
Martus saw the fear in his mother’s eyes. He had only one chance to strike a deal to save her. “That isn’t so, great one,” he said desperately. “The invasion of Smilingman was defeated.”
The prince now looked amused. “What makes you say such a thing?”
“Because I just came from Middle, where I was stationed, and the enemy has landed there in force. I stole a boat and sailed home, intending to report all I know. I made landfall, by pure coincidence, within sight of my family home, and I thought to see my family before I continued on to the town garrison to report to the commander there. It wasn’t until I heard about my wife and son that I decided to leave. My mother is starving. There is no food in the house, no one to care for her.”
“So,” the prince replied, “you just thought you would stop off at home, get a bite to eat, and catch up on old times before relaying this important news to the proper authorities?” His voice dripped sarcasm.
Again, Martus was at a loss for words.
“You really ought to be ashamed of yourself,” the prince said, and pushed Martus’s mother backwards over the rail and into the sea. Turning to some nearby soldiers, the prince command, “lock him in chains below deck. We need to go see my father.
The fleet arrived the following day. Hildy and Lawry walked down to the port to greet their friends and supervise the unloading. Weapons and equipment came off the ships directly onto the large dock, to be distributed where needed. The prisoners were rowed ashore in longboats, and herded off to the nearby camp. All except for the two princes. Carmak and Dezlore joined prince Naffi, the newest prisoner, in the small room where the king and queen had been held. Prince Cronan would join them there, once he was done helping to convince all the garrisons to surrender.
Hildy was thrilled to see Tull limping down the boarding ramp, favoring his rapidly healing leg. She hugged him and told him that his brother was off helping to free the kingdom and would be returning shortly. She greeted King Aluff with a quick hug. The triplets came racing down the ramp, squealing and swarming around Hildy and Lawry, hugging them from all sides at once. Zar came next, smiling and waving, and Hildy thought that her belly was beginning to bulge a little, showing the life that nestled within.
And there was Seevan, the brave little captain of messengers. “I have an important message from the queen,” Seevan told her, looking as though he were about to cry. “She made Sanara her heir.”
Hildy knelt before the boy. She didn’t understand the emotion in his voice. She assumed that he was just overjoyed for Sanara. “She is out with the army, and will be back soon. I knew the queen liked Sanara, but I didn’t know she planned to make her a princess.”
Seevan’s lower lip quavered. “You don’t understand.” A tear rolled down his cheek. She made the announcement to the people, then, the next day, she stayed in bed all day. She said she wasn’t feeling well. They found her the next morning. She died in her sleep.”
Hildy grabbed the boy and held him. She would miss the queen. None of this would have been possible without her. And then it struck her. Sanara was now the queen of Smilingman. When she stood back up, her hand still on the young messenger’s shoulder, she noticed the triplets were practically dancing with excitement. She raised a questioning eyebrow.
“We have to show you something,” said Miri.
“But it’s a secret,” said Tam Tam.
“A really big secret,” said Andita, throwing in a wink.
“Let’s all go up to the castle and have some food,” Hildy proposed. “We have a lot to do, getting Middle ready. We have gotten a good start, but we need all of you to help.”
The whole way through the city and the entire way up the hill to the castle, the triplets kept up a constant stream of hints about how important their news was, so when they arrived at the great hall, Hildy told everyone to start eating, promising to rejoin them soon. Then she led the triplets to her rooms on the second floor, just above the great hall. As soon as she closed the door, the triplets all began to speak at once.
“We’ve been practicing, and we are getting pretty good,” said Andita.
“We’ve only tried it outdoors a few times, but it is amazing,” said Tam Tam.
“Fire is really hard, but we found something we can do much better,” said Miri.
“I am getting pretty good at hearing all three of you talk at once,” Hildy said with a grin, “but perhaps one of you could do most of the talking for a change, or at least you could try taking turns.”
The girls all giggled, and then began speaking all together again once more. This cause all four of them to burst into laughter. “As your commander, I order Miri to tell me this important news, and you other two, bite your tongues.” She glared at the two in question with as much seriousness as she could fake. They all laughed again.
Miri began speaking in a rush. “We can make fog! Fire is too hard. We can only fake a small fire, but we are getting really good at fog. We think we are doing it with little particles in the air, maybe. Like dust and stuff like that. It doesn’t just come from nowhere. But fog is easy, and we are getting better all the time.”
Hildy was a little disappointed. Fire would be more use stopping enemy troops in battle, or if they could make lots of soldiers magically appear to confuse the enemy. Fog might still come in handy for hiding her army or her ships, but that would require a very large fog bank. “Maybe you better show me.”
The triplets held hands and began to murmur indistinct sounds. They began to sway back and forth. In the blink of an eye, the room went from a normal room, sunlit by the large windows, to a gray nothingness. Hildy was shocked. She held up a hand just in front of her face and she couldn’t see it all. The room didn’t feel different. The air hadn’t grown damp or cold or heavy. But it looked like fog, even if it didn’t feel like it. She heard the murmuring stop, and just like that, the fog faded away to wisps and then to nothing, all within a single moment. The three young girls were smiling at her.
“It works really well inside,” Miri explained.
“What about outside?” Hildy wanted to know. “How big can you make it? Does it get thinner near the edges? Does it look like regular fog from a distance? Does the wind blow it away? Can you make it go where you want it to?”
The girls laughed in delight and all started talking at once again.
“We could only sneak away a few times, off into the woods,” Miri said.
“We can’t see the outside of it, silly, because we are inside of it,” said Tam Tam.
“We can feel it, inside our heads, so we can sort of tell how big it is,” said Andita.
Hildy held up her hands, then pointed at Miri.
“We filled up a whole big chunk of forest on Smilingman,” the girl explained. “We didn’t push it further out, because we didn’t want anyone to see it. But we think we could have made it bigger. And we are getting better all the time. When we do it outside, it is a little thinner. You can see for twenty or thirty feet. And we can make it move. Make it go where we want, or not go where we don’t want it to go.”
“Young ladies,” Hildy said, her eyes gleaming, “you have all just been promoted to battle wizards. You just can’t tell anybody about it.”
They all broke out in laughter once more.