The Seven Kingdoms

seven kingdoms map

Chapter One

Hildy was in a foul mood and her words fought their way out past clenched teeth. “I don’t want to marry Prince Nardis Skull, Papa.” She emphasized her displeasure by swinging her staff at the side of his head. Despite the fact that this was a lighter training weapon and not her heavier rockwood staff used for war, if the strike had connected, as she half hoped it would, her father would have been laid low.

Fortunately, considering his size and age, her father was fast on his feet and a cagey warrior as well. He ducked his head, tipping it to the side, and his leather helmet absorbed most of the blow. “Hildread Starrgarrd Halfmoon,” the battle-scared veteran began, even as he sent his staff swinging at her left shin, “would you have us go to war with the kingdom of Skull?

Hildy leapt deftly over the low, sweeping attack, whirling her own weapon up and over to rap her father squarely but not too viciously on the top of his leather-bound head. She knew that the best way to beat him was to get him rattled, annoy him to the point where he lost his concentration for even a mere moment. The fact that she really didn’t want to marry the loathsome prince just proved a convenient topic to use for this ploy. However, as she landed lightly back on her feet, she suddenly became aware of the fact that her father was nowhere near as distracted as she might have wished, despite his using her full name.

Bentar Starrgild Halfmoon, ruler of the kingdom of Halfmoon, had never intended the sweep of his staff to catch his daughter off guard. There had been no power behind the swing, no follow-through, and he stopped his extended weapon precisely where he had planned to. He grinned mischievously at his daughter.

Hildy looked down and saw his staff tip between her ankles, thrust into the dust of the courtyard training field. Having just landed she had yet to regain her balance, and she had no time to counter his next move as he twisted at the hips and pivoted his staff to the left. Hildy felt her feet going out from under her. She landed hard in the dirt. Even as she fell she took one last swing at her father, getting no small amount of satisfaction out of giving him one last, resounding whap on the huge bicep of his right arm.

Her father reached down a massive hand to help her up, but the sparring wasn’t over by any means. “Why can’t you just ask the other kings for help if the Skulls want to bully us?” she asked reasonably. “They all like you. Nobody likes old Nornan Skull.”

“Your duty is clear enough, dear daughter,” her father replied morosely. “I am no happier about this than you are.”

She glared at him from under lowered brow. “Then you marry him,” she shot back, pausing only long enough to stick her tongue out at him before spinning and stalking rapidly away. She crossed the courtyard at a brisk pace and headed into the hallway that undercut one of the inner keep’s walls. So preoccupied was she with her anger that she nearly ran headlong into an approaching figure in the dim recesses of the hall. She stopped abruptly and found herself staring up into the face of the very man who was responsible for that anger. No, she corrected herself, not a man… that pasty, pallid face framed by the long, lank, black hair shared by all the Skull family, belonged to a boy… a spoiled, petulant little boy.

“Ah, Princess, I was hoping I might run into you,” he began with a smug smile.

Dressed as he was in the traditional black and white garb of his people matching the black and white of the parts of him she could see, he made for a confusing vision in the poor lighting. “I suppose you think that’s frightfully clever,” she countered.

“Now now, my dear,” he said in a placating tone, holding up both his hands defensively.

His hands looked to her like two pale, floating wraiths. “I’m not your dear,” she spat.

“Perhaps not yet,” he continued in an oozing whisper that set her teeth on edge and sent a chill up her spine. “But you soon will be. Perhaps you aren’t thrilled by this match, but have you considered the possibility that my father’s choice of a bride for me might not be my own first choice either? You are by no means the most beautiful princess in the seven kingdoms, in case you were unaware of that fact. Too many muscles for my taste, to be honest. A little too manly for most men, since you do seem to value forthright honesty. But I am willing to make the best of a bad situation.”

At that moment, the fact that they were alone together for the first time and in near darkness as well, seemed to get the better of him. His hands fell suddenly forward to roughly grasp her shoulders. Before she could frame a suitably outraged reply, he leaned forward and pressed his mouth to hers. She struggled to pull back and his grip tightened. She smelled his sour breath and felt his thin, worm-like lips writhing upon hers.

Her simmering anger exploded in a volcanic eruption. Without giving it a thought, she brought her right knee up hard into his groin. The black and white prince let out a stifled groan and collapsed in a black and white heap. She stood over him, quivering with rage, and for a brief moment she considered slamming the tip of her training staff into his face over and over again until he was dead, but his pathetic whimpering caused her stop even as she raised her weapon off the ground. The white-hot flame of her anger cooled, to be replaced with a growing horror.

She turned and ran, stopping for nothing, until she arrived at her private apartments. She threw some traveling clothes and a few personal things in a travel pack, grabbed her rockwood war staff from where it stood leaning in the corner, and threw on a hooded cloak. Pausing only long enough to grab her jewelry box and a small sack of coins and throw them in the pack on top of everything else, she bolted out the door.

Taking the least-used corridors and hallways, she left the castle through a door near the kitchens and, keeping her head ducked so that the hood of her cloak concealed her face, she passed out of the side gate. The guards didn’t even glance at her. Ten minutes later she was scouring the docks at the harbor, looking for any ship to take her anywhere. A quick bargain was made with the captain of a trading ship from Smilingman, and soon enough she was ensconced within a small cabin on the small ship. Less than an hour after that, from where she huddled on a tattered blanket on a small and uncomfortable bunk listening to the sounds of a ship getting prepared for sea, she felt the vessel tilt as the wind took her sails, and they were on their way to the open sea.

It was a short, one-day sail from the island kingdom of Halfmoon to the island kingdom of Middle, however, the capital city was located on the far side of the largest of the seven kingdoms. Hildy stood on the deck for hours, watching as the green plains and hills and jagged coastline passed them by. In the hazy distance she could see tall peaks covered in snow and cocooned in massive cloud formations. Windriders cast forth their mournful cries from above, and she delighted in watching their occasional swoops and dives as they hunted various sea creatures.

Her joy in the sights and sounds and smells of her journey were tempered with worry. She knew she had let her parents down and left them in a terrible predicament. She tried to console herself with the fact that her attack on her betrothed had been entirely spontaneous and well-warranted.

At last, long after darkness had fallen, she returned to her small cabin and, laying down on the uncomfortable bunk, she sought sleep that came only fitfully. She was awakened by the sound of the anchor chain slithering and rattling into the depths. She gathered her meager belongings and went up on deck. The short, stocky trader captain was preparing to go ashore to begin bargaining with the locals. He offered to share the small boat that his men were lowering into the water.

Hildy enjoyed the short voyage through the bustling harbor to the docks. The steady splash and pull as the four crewmen worked their oars, the plaintive calls of the windriders. Boats of all sizes with sails of all colors swung at anchor or scurried to and fro on various errands. She watched as Middletown grew ever larger. She had visited this place many times in her 17 years. The town, with its castle and keep looming above it on a small hill, was not unlike Halfmoontown. They were of like size, and both were busy ports built in a large, protective bay. In both places, large, stone warehouses and open-air trading markets clustered around the docks and piers, narrow streets between leading to the residential districts full of wood and stone houses rising two and even three stories in height.

The trader captain shot Hildy a cagey look. “The people of Middle look forward to the wedding of their princess in a few weeks time to one of the Skull princes,” he ventured noncommittally.

Hildy gave him an equally-noncommittal smile.

“The people of Halfmoon, it would seem,” the squat sailor continued, “will have to forgo the nuptials of their princess, that were to have taken place tomorrow.”

“Is that so?” asked Hildy, beginning to feel afraid.

“Rumors were flying around the docks like windriders,” the captain said with a wicked grin, “that the young princess put her knee to the prince’s bits and pieces when he attempted to express his… uh… feelings for her in, perhaps, too forward of a manner.”

Hildy looked down at the bottom of the little boat. “That hardly seems like a proper thing for a lady, whether princess or not, to do.”

The captain gave out a bellow of a laugh and slapped both his bare thighs. “It’s nothing less than I would expect from any of my six daughters in the same situation, by the old sea gods!”

Hildy glanced back up into the seafarer’s eyes but said nothing.

The captain fingered the orange border of his short tunic that signified, like the orange sails of his ship, that he and his crew were from the kingdom of Smilingman. “Our people have no love for those arrogant Skull princes that their father seems able to produce in endless supply, my Lady,” the man said quietly and seriously. “I wish you all the luck in the world on your journeys.”

And with that, the bow of the little craft touched gently against the dock.

**********

Chapter Two

Lawrancia Thurmundia Middle, princess of the kingdom of Middle, opened the door and immediately recognized her friend despite her plain apparel. Her eyes went wide and a smile lit her face. “Hildy, what are you doing here? You’re supposed to be getting married tomorrow.”

She pulled her into the room and sat her down even as Hildy began to blurt out her tale. She sat across from Hildy, listening in stunned silence to the story of the encounter in the passageway, and when Hildy described how the meeting had ended, Lawry couldn’t help herself. She burst out in hysterical laughter. Hildy looked surprised and a little angry, but then she too started to laugh.

“What happened after you kicked him?” Lawry finally managed to ask.

“He fell in a heap and started moaning like a baby,” Hildy answered. The two fell into helpless laughter once more, but soon Hildy’s laughter trailed off, and she looked into her friend’s eyes and tears rolled down her cheeks. “I grabbed a few things and ran. I caught a ship and here I am, and I have no idea what I am going to do now.”

Lawry got up from her chair and knelt in front of Hildy, wrapping her arms around her. She held her for a few minutes without saying a word, then whispered, “You’ll stay with me, for now, of course. We can figure something out.”

“I’ve put my parents in a terrible situation.” Hildy’s voice was muffled inside Lawry’s long hair.

“It will all work out,” said Lawry, with all the self-assurance of youth.

For the next three days, Hildy stayed in Lawry’s rooms, helping her with her chores of keeping the rooms neat. Lawry brought Hildy food from the kitchens. “The cooks can’t figure out why I am eating so much all of a sudden,” Lawry joked at one point, as Hildy went to work on a platter of fish and bread and fruit. “I suppose they think I am trying to put on weight, which certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea. I mean, I would if I could.”

Hildy glanced up. Lawry had always been tall and thin, since they were both children. “Would you rather be short and muscular? That’s how the man who was to have married me described me.”

“You aren’t short, you are an average height,” countered Lawry. “You look fit and healthy and strong. And you can fight. My parents never so much as let me try that. I am trained in the noble arts of sewing and being polite. And as tall and thin as I am, if I ever did try to learn how to fight, someone would confuse me with a staff and would accidentally pick me up and try to use me to hit someone else with.”

Hildy smiled with her mouth, but not with her eyes. “You are beautiful! Tall and poised and elegant. And you know how to talk to people, make them like you. You are just about the only person besides my parents who likes me.”

“I am too tall and too thin,” Lawry claimed, “and people like you just fine. You just don’t know that because you have to talk to them find out what they think of you.”

“My face is too plain, and too wide,” Hildy insisted. “I look like a boy.”

“My hair is too straight, and so pale-blond that it looks like a sheet hanging on a laundry line,” Lawry countered.

The two friends looked at one another in astonishment and burst out laughing.

“Is that truly what you think of yourself?” Hildy asked.

“And what about you?” Lawry asked. “We must be a hideous pair of crones, to hear us speak. You are beautiful. You know that, don’t you? I’ve always thought so. And your face has such character. Those green eyes of yours are stunning, and they go so well with your thick brown hair.”

“Well, your grey eyes and light hair work marvelously with your light complexion. You sometimes remind me of those statues of the old queens we have in our gardens. I don’t mean that in a bad way. You aren’t cold and remote like them, you just have their stately beauty. Also, you are the smartest person I ever met, and your eyes are so open and inviting. I’ve seen the way the boys have always looked at you. You have nothing to be concerned about as far as your figure is concerned. ”

Hildy sounded so insistent that Lawry had to laugh again. “Same to you. You might be stronger than a lot of girls, but I seem to recall plenty of boys lining up to dance with you at more than one festival.”

Hildy fought to keep a serious expression on her face. “Well, if we are both so pretty, why do we have such low opinions of ourselves?”

Lawry laughed, but gave the question due consideration. “I think that it is just a trick that nature plays on women, and a cruel trick at that. We always look at other women and compare ourselves to them. Of course many women are going to be more attractive than us, at least in some way, but we seldom bother to look deeper than that. Very few people are perfect in every way. We might do ourselves a favor and start comparing ourselves to other women in ways that actually matter. I mean, obviously we are both smarter than all the other women in the seven kingdoms.”

They fell into laughter once more.

“And kinder and faster and better at doing sums,” Hildy added.

“You never see men comparing their looks to other men.” Lawry fought to contain another burst of laughter. “That’s because nature has already played too many cruel tricks on men, and couldn’t bring herself to play one more!”

They fell into each other’s arms and gales of helpless laughter.

The next day dawned, and as they ate breakfast, Lawry reminded Hildy that this was the day she was supposed to meet her own husband-to-be.

“I hope it works out better for you than it did for me,” Hildy said.

“Well, it could hardly work out worse,” Lawry answered. She gave her friend a lopsided grin, and they both laughed.

That afternoon Hildy helped Lawry prepare for the official reception dinner. They both agreed that Lawry looked lovely in her dark-green gown. “Maybe it really will work out,” Hildy considered. “You might take one look at each other and fall hopelessly in love.”

“Or,” Lawry said thoughtfully, “I might take one look at him and just kick him right in the… face!”

Hildy bit back a laugh.

“I’m tall enough to do it,” Lawry insisted.

Hildy lost her struggle to contain the laughter. “You really think you’re funny, don’t you?”

“I do. And beautiful too. You said so yourself.”

At last it was time for Lawry to go and see what her future held in store for her. She had hoped to make a grand entrance, sweeping in at the last moment, but as it turned out, her soon-to-be husband and his retinue were late. She walked around the great hall, exchanging a word or two with members of the household staff and with some of the townspeople where they snacked on food set out for them on long tables on one side of the hall.

She went and sat beside her younger sister at the banquet table. Her mother was next to her on the other side, and her father just beyond her. Her sister, who all said looked just like her, was excited almost beyond words. Lowry loved the 15-year-old, but couldn’t help thinking that her 18 years of experience gave her the wisdom and worldliness to be much less swept up in the whole affair. Still, she admitted to herself, it was all pretty exciting.

There was a sudden flurry of activity at the door to the great hall and the prince of Skull and his party swept in. The prince himself led the group of twenty or so advisors and attendants. Lawry was not at all impressed by her first glimpse of the man she was supposed to marry, and the closer he got, the less impressed she was.

Cronan Vardigo Skull, she thought to herself, remembering that all the Skulls still carried their ancestral family name as a middle name, was not only much shorter than her, but was shorter than most of the people in the great hall, including a fair number of the children. On top of that, he was also even more pale than her, which only served to highlight the clusters of angry-red pimples that dotted his face. His hair was black and long and lank and lifeless, but not nearly so lifeless as his eyes. He was well-dressed, she admitted to herself, in a flowing black cloak and a fancy outfit in the black and white colors of the kingdom of Skull, but he wore the clothes poorly, and they hung strangely on his scrawny body as he shuffled along with what she could only consider to be great reluctance. The prince stopped in front of the table and performed an awkward bow to the royal family he would soon be joining. He began to introduce himself.

Her father interrupted him almost before he began. “I would like to know what has transpired on Halfmoon.” Her father wasn’t shouting, but his voice was loud enough to drown out the prince’s words.

The prince was caught entirely off guard by this question. “I don’t understand, Lord, having just arrived here from Skull.”

“So you know nothing of the events taking place in Halfmoon?” the king demanded.

“I know my father was greatly displeased by the treatment of my brother. I know he sent some troop ships there to demand an accounting.”

“Then let me give you a little more information,” Lawry’s father went on when it became clear that the prince had no intention of continuing. “My ships, and indeed the ships of all the kingdoms, have been turned away from the ports of Halfmoon. Turned away by Skull ships, mind you. They have been told that all trade has been suspended. Now, word has been trickling in from people who managed to escape from Halfmoon in small boats during the hours of darkness, that Skull troops hold Halfmoontown. Yet I have received no official word of these events from your emissaries in my court. And I have no idea how such a thing is even possible, let alone happening so quickly. Never in all our history has one kingdom invaded and taken over another. That isn’t the way we fight wars.”

The prince seemed to dislike the treatment he was receiving. “I am supposed to be an honored guest, yet you question me as if I were guilty of some crime. What my father does, he does without consulting his sons. And if our army is stronger than the army of Halfmoon, that is their concern.”

“Perhaps I let my emotions get the better of me,” Lawry’s father replied, “as King Bentar has always been a friend to me. Please, forgive my rudeness and join us for supper.”

Lawry had sat through this exchange in stunned silence. Her own emotions were in turmoil. It was bad enough that her parents had consented to this arranged marriage between her and this pale little fish of a man without ever having laid eyes on him, but the fact that her father had known that Halfmoon had been invaded, the home of her best friend since childhood, and hadn’t even thought to so much as say a word to her about it struck her as horribly cruel.

It came to her in that moment that her parents had never treated her as being as smart and capable as she knew herself to be. They never talked to her as an equal. They had never bothered to teach her anything about helping to rule a kingdom as the queen that she was one day to become. As long as she behaved herself and did as was expected of her, they were quite content to let her remain a child.

Even as the prince settled himself in a chair across from her, she stood. “I’m not feeling particularly well,” she said in a quavering voice, and without looking at anyone, she turned and walked swiftly our of the great hall.

Hildy was shocked to see her return after such a short time. “You didn’t really kick him in the face, did you?”

Lawry grasped her friend by the shoulders. “No, but I should have. Help me gather my things. We need to leave.”

Hildy didn’t ask any more questions, but began racing around the rooms, helping gather what they could while Lawry changed into a plain tunic and threw on an old cloak. Within minutes, they each had their belongings, and were out of the door, heading down dim hallways towards the rear of the castle.

**********

Chapter Three

 

As they began to descend the circular stairway in one of the back corner towers of the castle, Lawry grasped Hildy’s hand tightly. “I have some terrible news. It is about your family, your home. Skull troops have invaded Halfmoon. They hold Halfmoontown, and maybe most of the kingdom as well.”

Hildy stopped dead in her tracks, her feet on two stairs in the dimly-lit stairwell. “What of my parents?”

Lawry couldn’t even bring herself to face her friend. She kept moving, pulling Hildy along behind her. “I don’t know anything more than that. I only know about it now because my father confronted my soon-to-be husband about it. He didn’t think it was worth mentioning it to me beforehand.”

Hildy didn’t say a word, but allowed herself to be dragged down the stairs.

“I’m sure your parents are fine,” Lawry offered, trying to sound as positive as she possibly could be. “What would they gain by harming them? Once everyone calms down, I’m sure this can all be resolved.”

“Well, where exactly are we going while we wait for everyone to calm down?” Hildy wanted to know.

Lawry suddenly realized that she had absolutely no idea where they were going. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” she admitted. “I just know we need to get out of the castle without being stopped.”

“At least, when I ran away from my Skull prince, I had a plan to come here and live in your room for the rest of my life,” Hildy said.

Lawry stopped in shock, and Hildy bumped into her, almost sending both of them bouncing down the stairs. Lawry stared into her friend’s face and received a wan smile in return. Hildy’s strength moved her deeply, and she briefly but fiercely hugged her.

All at once, Hildy pushed Lawry away and then had to grasp her by the shoulders to keep her from tumbling backwards down the stairs. “I know where we are going. We are going to visit Zareena. We are going to Evergreen!”

Lawry felt a surge of excitement rising within her. “And I know exactly how we are going to get there!” With that, she once again grabbed Hildy’s hand and pulled her along behind her. No words were exchanged as they exited the tower and blended into the throngs of people eating and drinking and talking and dancing in the courtyard. It was no trouble at all for them to slip unnoticed, in that confusion of people coming and going, out of the main gates of the inner and outer walls.

They began to descend the hill towards the town, but Lawry suddenly veered off the main road to the right, heading down a smaller side road that threaded through small woods, farm fields, and low, rolling hills.

“Where are we going?” Hildy demanded.

“Do you remember, back when we were little,  those two red-headed boys that used to chase us all around the castle when you came to visit?”

“Oh, yes, what was it? Tully and Toll?” Hildy managed a smile at the memory of those bygone days.

“Tolly and Tull, the Caster brothers,” Lawry corrected.

“Right. And why are we going there?” Hildy wanted to know.

“Because they are the sons of a fisherman, and fishermen in their own right, now. I still see them, every now and then. They come by, just to see me, although they still do ask about you.”

“And they have a boat,” Hildy said, realizing the point. “But how is it that you know where their house is, exactly?”

Lawry cast a sidelong look at her friend. “Nothing so sordid as you seem to be implying. They happened to mention once that they live in the first house on the far side of the first village on this road. They said it was right beside the beach, in a little stand of trees.”

“Awfully good, that memory of yours,” Hildy teased.

Lawry flicked a dismissive hand. “Once again, you seem to be trying very hard to imply some interest in either of those two on my part. If anything, the opposite is true. I believe Tull might be more than a little interested in me.”

“Well, what did I tell you, then?” Hildy reminded her. “You are just plain irresistible to men.”

They topped a small rise, and beneath them lay a little village. Beyond it, they could the small grove of trees in which nestled a small house. Within a short amount of time they were hidden under those trees, and as the sun began to set, they put aside their few belongings and watched as a small sail boat approached the beach below them. They could clearly see three men. Hildy leaned her staff, which she had slung over her back with a cord, against a tree.

They watched the boat as it reached the shore. The older man climbed out, and, grabbing a large net bag full of fish, trudged up the beach towards the small house from which smoke rose from the chimney to waft away on the rising evening breezes. The two younger men pulled the small craft further up onto the beach and set themselves to securing it to a post and tidying up the nets and lines that were their trade. The two young women waited for the older man to go inside, then, picking up their meager belongings, they walked down to the seashore.

The two red-heads saw them approaching. In the failing light, and with both concealed in plain, hooded cloaks, they did not recognize them until they were very near. Astonishment fought with warm welcome on the faces of the two fishermen.

“Hello, Lawrancia,” said the older brother, “and look, it’s little Hildread, who isn’t so little anymore.” He suddenly realized that, perhaps, this was a bit too casual of a manner in which to address two princesses. “My ladies, what brings you here? Is something wrong?”

Lawry supplied the answer. “Yes, Tull, you could very well say that there is quite a bit that is wrong. She went on to quickly explain all that had happened.

The boys listened in growing disbelief, having the decency not to laugh at the way Hildy had ended her betrothal to the Skull prince.

“What can we do to help?” Tully asked when the story was finished.

“We need to get to Evergreen without anybody knowing,” replied Hildy.

Tull made a big show of looking all around and up and down before turning about. He gestured grandly at the small boat. “What a fantastic coincidence! Look what I just happened to find, right here, on this very beach. A small boat, completely unattended, just lying here as if waiting for two princesses in distress to happen along.”

“Can you ask your father if he would take us to Evergreen?” Lawry asked with a laugh at his antics.

“There is no way the old man is going to let us take the boat that far, especially not carrying the two of you,” Tull replied seriously.

“Not a chance,” confirmed his younger brother.

“We better not ask him, then,” Tull continued.

“Best not,” his brother concluded.

A short while later, the two brothers were pushing the small boat out past the small waves an into deeper water. The sea was calm, and the wind was gentle and in their favor, filling the sail and taking them swiftly across the water. The moon rose, full and bright, tingeing the sky with its pink glow, and seeming to lay down a shining road for them to follow.

They talked long into the night, remembering the happy times when they had chased one another around the castle and begged sweet treats from the castle cooks.

“You are both lucky, you ask me,” Tolly said at one point, after the conversation had trailed off. “You are both far too good to marry any of those Skull princes, with their lordly ways and their skin as white as the belly of a flatfish.”

“Have you ever even met a Skull prince?” Hildy asked.

“I’ve never so much as seen one,” Tolly replied, “but I have seen more flatfish than I ever need to.”

They all laughed at that, and went on to see who could insult the Skull family in the most inventive manner. The sun began to brighten the sky behind them without them even noticing. Before much longer, the warmth of the sun combined with the gentle rocking of the boat and pure exhaustion, caught up with the two princesses, and they fell asleep.

When Lawry awoke hours later, she was surprised to see land close at hand to the left. “Where are we?”

“Rounding the headland into the great bay,” Tull told her. “We should be in Evergreentown well before nightfall.”

Lawry saw that the sun was already lowering towards the sea before them. She shook Hildy awake.

“I have to use the toilet,” Hildy said in a sleepy voice.

The boys exchanged uncomfortable glances.

“What?” Hildy demanded.

“There really isn’t any toilet on this tiny boat,” Tolly informed her. He gestured grandly towards the sea all around them. “You have to… uh… hang your… ummm… self… over the side.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Hildy replied sourly.

After some discussion, it was decided that the princesses would assist each other in this delicate procedure in the stern of the boat while the two brothers, after tying the tiller off to keep the boat on course, would remain in the bow, facing forwards. The entire event was accompanied by much nervous laughter, but in the end, no one ended up falling overboard.

When they had all settled back into the chosen positions once more, Tull made a surprising announcement. “We,” he said, casting a glance at his brother, “have decided not to go back home. We are staying with you.”

Lawry and Hildy also exchanged glances. “But we don’t even know what we are going to do, other than pay a visit to our friend, Princess Zareena. We have no idea what is going to happen after that.”

“Oh, well, that is more of a plan than we thought you had,” smirked Tull.

“Is she the one who was a fisherman’s daughter, and saved the prince of Evergreen from drowning?” Tolly asked.

“Yes, a wave swept him from a rock one day while he was walking beside the shore. He hit his head and was barely conscious. She leapt into the sea from her father’s boat and kept his head above water until her father could get the boat close enough to pull them into it,” replied Hildy. “They fell in love right then and there.”

“Then she oughtn’t to object to us, what with us being fisher folk as well,” Tull said reasonably.

“But won’t your father need you?” asked Lawry.

“We have two younger brothers, both stout lads, and good with the nets and hooks,” was the reply. “What he will miss is the boat. We need to send it back somehow.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” said Hildy.

“And you need the two of us,” said Tolly. “I mean,” he continued with a blush, “unless you are planning on staying in Evergreen castle forever. You’ve never been on your own. You can’t sail a boat or catch a fish. I doubt you can light a fire or cook a meal over one, and you can’t be carrying enough coins to stay in an inn forever.”

Once again the princesses exchanged glances.

“Very well, it is settled then,” said Lawry firmly. “You will be our protectors and companions. Thank you very much for kindness.”

“Well, it can’t be worse than fishing every day,” said Tull with a laugh.

**********

Chapter Four

 

Zareena Shoal Evergreen, princess of the kingdom of Evergreen, sat before a fire in one of the large fireplaces set around the great hall. She was embroidering a border of green leaves and vines on the hem of a cloak for her mother-in-law, the queen. She glanced to her right and saw that her husband had fallen into a doze in the chair beside her, and she smiled at the way that his mouth had fallen open. She knew that he would begin snoring at any moment.

A flurry of activity and movement caught her attention, and she turned her head to see two young men and two young women approach and stop before her. She was about to ask the plainly-dressed young people what it was that they wanted, when she suddenly recognized the two girls. She set aside her sewing and stood to embrace Hildy and Lawry, then motioned for the four visitors to follow her to a smaller room off the great hall. She shut the doors behind her, then turned to Hildy.

“My dear child, wherever have you been?” she asked in a rush.

Hildy had to smile. “I’m 17 and you are barely 20, and I have done a lot of growing up in the last week, so I will thank you not to call me a child.”

Zareena hastened to apologize, but Hildy waved it away. “I am just making a joke, Zar. I have found that humor makes a strong weapon against tragedy.”

“We were preparing to board ship to come to your wedding when one of our trade vessels sailed into the bay with word that you had fled after inflicting a somewhat indelicate injury upon your future husband,” Zareena told them. “We didn’t know what to do. We came back to the castle to await further word. Then, a few days later, more of our traders began to arrive back home, telling us of an invasion of Halfmoon by Skull soldiers.”

“You must know more about it than we do,” Hildy said quickly. “Please, tell me all that you can. I was hiding in Lawry’s rooms, and we had to leave in a rush right after she first heard word of the invasion.”

“I am so sorry, Hildy,” Zareena replied, grabbing Hildy’s hands in hers. “All we know is that many of your father’s soldiers were killed in the fighting.”

Hildy was shocked. “That makes no sense! Soldiers rarely die in battle. Broken bones and cracked heads are common enough from the slingers’ wooden projectiles or a well-struck blow from a staff. But this is unheard of!”

“We have been questioning our people who fled from Halfmoon, but so far we haven’t found any who actually witnessed the fighting.” Zareena turned to Lawry. “And what of you? We were planning to come to your wedding soon.”

Hildy interrupted her. “Her prince turned out to be no better a prize than mine. What news have you heard of my parents?”

Again Zareena turned to Hildy and again gripped her hands. “Of course we asked all the refugees about that, but no one could tell us anything. I am so sorry, truly I am. I’m sure they are alive and well. The Skulls wouldn’t dare risk angering all the other kingdoms by harming them.”

“I need to sit down,” Hildy said quietly.

Zareena set herself to making her guests comfortable. She called for the palace staff to prepare rooms for them to stay in, and sent for food to be brought from the kitchens. Then she settled them into the room that the princesses would share, and got them seated at a table. While the four travelers ate, she questioned them gently, learning everything she could about all that had transpired.

“You can all stay here for as long as you wish or need to,” she assured them. “I will have one of our trade ships take the boat back to Middle, and deliver it to your father,” she said to Tull and Tolly. “I suggest you send a note telling him that you are safe. I will send some coins to compensate him for the loss of his two assistants. And thank you both for helping my friends.”

The boys assured her that it was their pleasure, and thanked her for her thoughtfulness.

The doors opened, and the king and queen swept into the room. Vorner Tagg Evergreen was a tall, thin man with long, gray hair. His wife, Tiva, once a princess of Flame, was short, plump, and bosomy. Hildy had always liked the unlikely pair, thinking of them as an aunt and uncle, and had to hide a smile as she was once again reminded of the fact that their son was also tall and thin, while Zar was, indeed, short and very full figured.

The queen rushed over to Hildy and crouched down to embrace her, even as she began to stroke her hair and coo into her ear. “There there, child, all will be well. You are safe now.”

The king had always been an energetic sort, and he began pacing back and forth across the room. “Quite right, my dear, you are always more than welcome here. We are very glad to know that you are safe and well. I was planning on sending my emissaries to Halfmoon in a day or two to find out the intentions of those Skull brigands. I shall send them now, and instruct them to ascertain the condition and whereabouts of your parents. This will not stand, I can assure you of that. The civilized world will unite against this outrageous act of vile treachery!”

“Hush now, my love,” the queen interjected. “Don’t upset the child. Can’t you see that she is exhausted?”

Prince Evvord Stanet Evergreen chose that moment to stride into the room. “I seem to have slept right through all the excitement,” he said in a bleary tone, gazing around the room in befuddlement.

For some strange reason, this brought everyone in the room to laughter, which the prince good-naturedly joined in. Things were very busy for a while as the visitors were fussed over. The queen made sure the girls had everything they needed, and that the boys had comfortable rooms in another part of the castle,  a point that the queen went to some pains to make clear. The king sputtered about for a bit, then left to make sure his emissaries were well prepared for their mission. The prince made himself useful in any way that his wife suggested. Zareena, for her part, made sure the visitors ate their fill, then sent the two young fishermen off to their rooms, escorted by one of the palace staff. Then she shooed everyone, including herself, out, so that the princesses could get some sleep.

 

Time passed while they waited for the return of the emissaries. At last, early on the fifth day, the ship carrying the delegation returned to the harbor. They all gathered in the great hall to hear the report.

The leader of the delegation was a gray-bearded and wise-looking old man. He also had a kind heart. Before even addressing the king, he turned to Hildy. “Your parents are alive and in good health, Princess. I was allowed to speak briefly with them. They are confined to their rooms, but I assure you, they are not being mistreated.”

“But what of the Skulls?” demanded the king. “What are their plans? What do they want?”

The emissary turned towards the king. “Prince Nardis was very clear on that point. He demands that Princess Hildread be returned to Halfmoon immediately. He says that the wedding will take place, and only then will the king and queen be released and the Skull soldiers sail back to Skull.”

“That impudent wretch!” bellowed King Vorner. “To make such a demand of us. Does he think that we won’t protect the child? Why, we have watched her grow from a tiny babe in her mother’s arms. My wife was there, in the room, and helped deliver her. I myself held her when she was mere minutes old!”

“That isn’t all, I’m afraid,” the emissary continued. “He came right out and said that if she isn’t returned within five days, that Skull troops would be sent to take her by force. He said, in fact, that he would lead those troops himself.”

The room fell silent. The king rose from his chair, his face red. “Call my captains!” He shouted. He turned to Hildy. “I know not how the Skull rabble managed to subdue your father, a notable warrior, and his troops so quickly. No doubt through some treachery or betrayal. But know this, dear child. You shall be safe here, upon my honor and my life.”

“Hear hear!” shouted his son.

The queen kissed her husband’s cheek.

“Now, ladies,” the king said, “leave us, if you would be so kind. We have a war to prepare for.”

As the women left the great hall, Hildy sidled close to Lawry. “Seeing as how this war is mostly about me, don’t you think that they ought to let us stay and help with the planning?” she whispered.

“You know, I was thinking exactly the same thing myself,” Lawry replied.

 

Two days later, the king summoned the princesses to his side in the great hall once again. This time, he addressed Lawry. “I fear I have foul news from Middle, Princess. Word has reached us that Prince Cronan, who was to have been your husband, has married your sister.”

“What?” Lawry raged. “But she is a child. Narya has only just turned 15.”

“Yes, well, as it turns out, your parents objected on those very grounds as well. But, during the night, more Skull soldiers arrived by ship, and, after disembarking in the predawn hours, forced their way into the castle.”

Lawry was so stunned that she couldn’t reply.

“There is good news to go with the bad,” the king hastened to assure her. “Because the surprise was so complete, there was no loss of life at all. A few injuries, to be sure, but no one died.”

“The world has gone insane,” was all Lawry could think to say.

“I have sent word to the other kingdoms,” the king went on to say. “It is obvious that we must band together to stop the Skulls, lest they subdue us each individually. Their own actions have insured their defeat.”

Hildy walked Lawry back to their rooms with an arm around her shoulder. She whispered words of encouragement, words that, even to her, rang hollow.

 

Four days after that, a fleet of more than a hundred ships sailed into the great bay and anchored off Evergreentown. The ships bore the black and white sails of the kingdom of Skull.

**********

Chapter Five

 

Hildy and Lawry rushed to the great hall as soon as word of the fleet arriving had been brought to them by one of the palace staff along with their lunch. The king had his captains and his son gathered around him, and as soon as the princesses entered the hall, all conversation stopped, and the men all turned to face this unwanted interruption.

“Fear not, young ladies,” said the king grandly. “You will be quite safe here while we teach those Skulls some manners, I assure you.”

“I have no interest in remaining safely behind walls while others fight my battles for me,” Hildy returned.

The king graced her with a condescending smile while his captains nodded in approval- a very amused approval, it must be said.

Hildy felt anger growing inside her, and not all of it was focused on the Skull fleet streaming into the bay. “My father taught me to fight. I could hold my own against him. How many of you can say the same?”

“It is good that your father gave you such a well-rounded education, my dear,” said the king, but you would be taking the place of one of my trained fighting men if I were to let you accompany us.”

“Your trained fighting men are farmers and fishermen and traders who practice with the staff or sling once or twice a month,” Hildy said, struggling to remain calm. “Their duties consist of a few dozen hours a year trying to look handsome and fierce in their armor when it is their turn to stand the guard watch, and that mostly entails flirting with the girls who work in the castle or come to visit from town. I trained with my father and his best captains on a daily basis.”

“Fighting with a staff requires a certain amount of bodily strength, with all due respect, my lady,” one of the captains made the mistake of saying.

“It also requires speed, balance, and intelligence, any of which qualities I will pit against yours here and now,” Hildy spat. She removed her staff from her shoulder. “Would you care to test me?”

“This is most unseemly,” the king interjected. “Our rules, laid down by our forebears, are clear enough. Two hosts shall meet on the field of battle, five hundred men bearing the staff, and one hundred with the sling, on each side of the field. Each side shall let their slingers send three featherwood projectile volleys at the other before the hosts advance and battle is joined. They shall trade blows until one side yields or until honor is satisfied. It plainly does not allow for four hundred and ninety nine men and one young girl.”

“But we already know that the Skulls care nothing for the rules of civilized warfare,” Hildy said forcefully. “They took the stronghold on Middle by surprise. And obviously they used some trickery against my father and his forces to defeat them with great loss of life.”

“And that is exactly why we have been laying some plans of our own,” the king replied. “We have trained two hundred more men, and they will be hidden in the woods surrounding the field of battle. Should the Skulls attempt to ignore the rules of war, we shall be able to call for reinforcements.”

“Two hundred men who have been training for only a few days?” Hildy asked in shocked disbelief. “But what if they bring one thousand men to the field?”

“Then we will stay within the castle walls, and they can sit outside and rot,” the king said smugly.

“And who, exactly, will begin to rot first?” Hildy wanted to know. “Did you bring in enough food to feed all of us for as long as the Skulls decide to remain? Because it seems to me that they will be outside the walls, and that is where your farms and fishing fleets will also be.”

The king and his captains exchanged uncomfortable glances. It was at this moment that a soldier entered the great hall. “The enemy host is landing, Lord,” he told the king. “We can see them clearly from the tower.”

“And how many men are there?” asked the king.

“Not more than six hundred,” was the expected answer.

“There you have it!” the king said, sounding both pleased with himself and vastly relieved simultaneously. “Assemble the host!”

As his captains scrambled to carry out his orders, Hildy pulled Lawry out of the great hall. “Where are we going?” asked Lawry, sounding nervous as she realized they weren’t heading back to their rooms.

“I’m not missing the battle,” Hildy declared.

Lawry stopped dead in her tracks. “You can’t be serious, Hildy!”

“Did you think I was joking with the king?” Hildy asked her friend.

“What’s happening?” came a voice from behind them, and they turned to see Zareena descending the stairs, followed by Tull and Tolly. They quickly told them about the coming battle.

“And where do you think you are going?” Zareena wanted to know.

“I have to go steal some armor,” Hildy replied. With that, she turned and began walking purposefully towards the nearest exit once more. Her friends hurried after her. They left the castle grounds through the side gate, the two teenage guards gawking at the procession of princesses and fishermen. Hildy led them at a steady pace, ignoring all their questions. She slowed suddenly as the column of marching Evergreen soldiers appeared on the road ahead of them. They were following the dirt road through a thick wood, and as they topped a small rise they could see, beyond the closest soldiers, the head of the column beginning to spread out to deploy in the large, open space of the field of battle.

Hildy veered off the road. She was following some of the two hundred reserve soldiers who had been ordered into the woods to await any trickery on the part of the Skull army. She waited until the men had spread out near the edge of the field, then approached a pair of them. The two newly-trained soldiers looked very young and very nervous.

Hildy strode confidently up to the two young soldiers. They looked to be not much older than her. She looked them up and down and focused on the one closest to her size. She stepped right in front of him. “Give me your helmet, breastplate, and gloves,” she demanded.

The young soldier was confused and more than a little terrified. He looked to his own princess for help, but Zareena merely shrugged. He turned to his fellow soldier, but he seemed to have found something interesting to look at in the tops of the trees. The boy mirrored Zareena’s shrug and began to strip off his leather breastplate after handing Hildy his gloves and leather helmet.

“I’m going to need your shirt and boots as well,” Hildy pointed out.

Again the soldier couldn’t find it within himself to disobey.

“And the pants.” Hildy was finding it hard not to laugh at the poor fellow.

The boy looked down at his trembling legs and the sturdy green canvas pants that covered them. “I’m not wearing anything underneath,” he stammered.

“Then I suggest you step behind that clump of brush,” Hildy suggested.

By the time the last of the column of Evergreen troops had left the road and joined the ranks on the field of battle, they had picked up one unexpected recruit.

 

As the Evergreen soldiers formed up into long lines, five ranks deep with a sixth rank of slingers slightly in advance, Hildy made her way to the center where the king and prince stood, They were in the front rank of soldiers, with the slingers ten feet ahead of them. The captains were spread throughout the front rank of soldiers to pass orders and steady the men.

Across the field of battle the enemy formed their lines similarly. According to the rules of war, no words were to be spoken. The time for words was deemed to be passed. When each side was in place, the commanders raised their arms for a count of ten. When they lowered their arms, the slingers would send their three volleys of featherwood projectiles then move off to the side, and the ranks of soldiers would advance and battle would be joined.

The king raised his hand once all on the field had settled into their appointed places. Across the field, in the center of the enemy line, Hildy could see prince Nardis in a fancy set of black armor decorated with white flourishes. She had to stand on tiptoe and lean a little to the left to get a good view past soldiers and slingers. Her once-to-be husband held his hand aloft. Next to him, also in decorated armor, stood another Skull that she assumed was one of his many brothers. The two lines of slingers had loaded their projectiles and waited for the hands to drop.

The hands did drop, and the slingers swung their slings and let their projectiles fly. Hildy watched the wooden balls of the enemy sailing towards her and the Evergreen lines. Troopers hunched their shoulders and lowered their heads, to let the thick leather armor absorb the worst of the shock. As the projectiles began to rain down on them it was instantly clear that something was horribly wrong.

Men around her began screaming in agony and falling to the ground. She heard loud thuds as the missiles hit, and a horrid crunching sound that could only have been bones breaking. She stooped and picked up one of the round balls, It was heavy rockwood, not the softer, lighter featherwood required by the rules of war. She also saw large, heavy river stones scattered about.

The second volley was coming in. “Get down on the ground,” she screamed at the soldiers around her. “Lay down and cover your heads.” Some obeyed her, but most did not. More fell to the ground due to injury.

The third, and by the rules of war, final, volley fell, but somehow Hildy knew this wouldn’t be the last, and she was right. From where she lay she saw their own slingers begin to retire from the field, having finished their three volleys, but many were laid out on the ground, and more were struck down as the deadly rain continued to fall. She happened to glance at the king and his son at the exact moment that a large stone struck the prince on his left knee and she saw him collapse. Moments later a rockwood ball hit the king high on the center of his forehead. The thick leather saved him from some of the force of the blow as the ball rebounded high into the air. The king fell to his knees.

At last deadly rain ceased to fall. The Evergreen lines were in complete disarray. Men lay still or writhed in the dirt moaning in pain. Those that were uninjured remained rooted in place, unsure of what to do next. With the king and prince incapacitated and many of the captains wounded, killed, or just unable to overcome the shock of such a blatant disregard for the rules of war, none of the Evergreen troops moved forward.

Hildy leaped up and ran to the king and the prince. The king looked up, dazed and confused, blood trickling down his face from under his helmet. “You!” he said, recognition coming slowly. Hildy knelt between the king and his son. The prince held his shattered knee, his face gray, his lips set in agony. Hildy heard shouted commands from across the field and looked up to see the enemy advancing towards them in line.

**********

Chapter Six

 

Hildy stood once more and turned to the Evergreen soldiers around her. “Stand to battle!” she shouted. “Form lines! Protect your king and prince!” The men were so relieved to receive orders of any sort that they gave no thought to who had issued them. Hildy turned again to face the enemy as men formed up on either side of her.

She was surprised when the enemy lines halted at shouted commands only thirty feet away from the Evergreen lines, now thinned to only two or three ranks. She glared across the open ground at the enemy commander. Nardis stared back, and his mouth dropped open when he realized who it was that stood so defiantly before him. “Princess, what a pleasant surprise to find you here. I am glad I won’t have to haul you kicking and screaming from behind castle walls.”

“This battle isn’t over yet, in case you hadn’t noticed,” she yelled back at him.

He graced her with a self-satisfied smirk. “What a fine queen you will make me,” he said with real relish. “We will just keep your parents locked in the tower and rule Halfmoon together. Of course, once we are married, you will have to give up all this nonsense of donning armor and wielding a staff. You will be much too busy giving me many sons and making me my favorite meals to have time for such manly pursuits.”

Hildy took her rockwood staff off her shoulder and removed the leather thong, hanging it from her belt. She grasped the staff firmly and set her feet. “If this is to be my last battle, I suppose I better enjoy it, so my plan is to knock your teeth out and make you swallow them,” she said in deadly earnest.

The Skull prince laughed. “What a woman!” he shouted. “Hear me, my fine soldiers. No one lays a hand on my intended bride. I will kill the man who harms her in any way.” He paused to give Hildy one last smug smile, then yelled, “Set blades!”

Set blades, Hildy wondered, what kind of an order was that? It didn’t take long to get an answer.

The halted Skull troops grasped their staves with one hand, setting one end to the ground. With their free hands, they all reached to their belts, and from leather sheaths, they pulled long, iron blades. The blades were six inches long, double edged, and, instead of a knife handle, they had a hollow base. The Skull soldiers lifted these blades to the upended tips of their staves and fitted the hollow handles over them, turning the staves into deadly spears.

“Lower blades!” shouted the man who wanted Hildy as his wife, and the lines of soldiers raised their weapons from the ground and thrust them forward, points towards the soldiers of Evergreen. Hildy glanced left then right. The greatly depleted ranks, filled with young, terrified men and boys, grasped their own staves and held their ground. Very few of them had ever fought in a battle at all, and none knew what to expect in this new and horrifying situation.

Hildy looked back across at the enemy. Very few of them had been taken out of the fight by the slingers who had followed the old rules of war. She looked at Nardis once again. He gave her another mirthless and merciless smile.

“Forward!” he bellowed.

The lines of deadly blades began to advance, the spears of the second rank thrust forward between the soldiers of the first rank, the last three ranks holding their spears aloft. The wall of death came closer at a relentless pace. Hildy spared another glance in each direction, down the thinned lines of Evergreen soldiers, and she was proud to see that not a man had left his place. She thought desperately of a way to counter the spears, but nothing came to her.

“Swing at the blades,” she screamed, hoping that strong enough blows would knock the blades off the staves and at least even the odds a bit. As the lines crashed together she saw that it did indeed work in some instances, but too few- far too few. The iron blades thrust forward, driven into flesh. Men screamed in agony and terror. Men fell to lay still or thrash about.

Hildy took full advantage of the fact that the enemy had orders not to harm her. She saw Nardis stop a few paces in front of her, allowing his men to advance ahead of him. “Coward!” she shrieked at him. He hadn’t even put a blade on the staff he was carrying, she noticed. She laid about her with her own staff. The Skull troops in front of her split up to pass around her. When they turned their spears away from her, the iron blades made perfect targets for her. She knocked more than one blade off and onto the ground, and knocked a few men down as well. This gave the Evergreen soldiers clustered around her a chance to hold their ground.

Hildy now saw that the rest of the Evergreen lines were being forced back. Some of the men had had enough and were turning to flee, all too often to be stabbed in the back as they did so. The carnage was terrible. She realized that the king, the prince, and the small group of men around her would soon be surrounded.

She shouted over her shoulder to the men behind her, “save the king and prince!” But even as men lifted the king to his feet and began to pull him off the field, she saw a Skull soldier standing over the prince. He thrust his spear into the prince’s chest as he lay helpless in the dirt. Hildy went into a rage.

“Attack!” she screamed, spittle flying from her mouth. “Forward, soldiers of Evergreen!” She felt tears come to her eyes, tears of rage, tears of sadness for her friend’s loss, and tears of pride as the few men about her followed her into the enemy lines. She struck about her with her staff, feeling bones shatter. The enemy was still hampered by their orders not to endanger her, and they fell back before her or moved out of her way. With only a few long strides she found herself face to face with the enemy commander. She wasted no words on him. Before he could even bring his staff up to parry the blow, she thrust her staff forward as if it were a spear. The rockwood tip smashed into the prince’s mouth.

“What, no smile for me now?” she asked him in a cold voice. He stood before her, even more pale than usual, one hand to his mouth, blood leaking between his fingers. His other hand moved as if to swing the staff it held at her. The rage still burned white-hot within her. Without even knowing she was going to do it, she thrust her staff forward yet again, right into his throat.

She watched calmly as he fell to his knees. He looked into her eyes for a moment, and she could see disbelief and pain, and then he fell over onto his side and lay still. She turned to the figure that stood over the body on the ground. It was the other Skull prince, in his too-fancy armor. She thought for a moment that she might kill him too, but when she looked at his face, it was the face of a terrified boy. She lowered her staff.

A hand fell on her shoulder, and she became aware once more of the battle going on around her. “We must retreat, princess,” a man said to her. It was one of the Evergreen captains. She let him pull her back, the soldiers around them moving back pace by pace even as more of them fell. There were very few of them left by the time they reached the edge of the forest. The enemy did not pursue them into the woods where their line would have been broken up by the trees. The two hundred freshly-trained Evergreen soldiers who were meant to have come to the rescue if needed had obviously fled when the survivors of the battle began to stream back into the woods. They were nowhere to be seen.

They made their way back to the road that led towards the castle, and then Zareena and the others were there. Tears streaked Zareena’s face. “I saw them kill Evvord,” she sobbed. “I saw it with my own eyes.”

Hildy had no words to comfort her. She was still trembling with anger and fear and perhaps even some guilt over killing a man. She looked around at the twenty or so men who had fought side by side with her, and at her small group of friends. “We have to keep moving,” she said with no emotion. “We have to get to the castle and set up some kind of defense.”

But when they came to the top of the rise and the castle came into view, they could see Skull troops in black and white were already streaming into the castle through the two gates visible to them. Beyond the castle, smoke rose from a few burning buildings in Evergreentown, and beyond that, in the harbor, Skull ships were tied up to the docks all around the town. More Skull troops were disembarking and filing into the streets.

“Evergreen is lost,” Hildy said, a bitter taste in her mouth.

“Princess,” one of the soldiers exclaimed, “Skull troops are on the road behind us!”

“Into the woods, quickly,” Hildy ordered, and led the way at a rapid pace. They all followed unquestioningly.

As they passed through the woods, they found other survivors of the battle and gathered them up. By the time they reached the far side of the forest, they had nearly fifty men with them. Hildy went and stood beside the young captain. “What is your name?”

“Tar, Nius Tar, my Lady,” he answered.

“It might be best if you were to take charge,” she told him. “The men might not be willing to take orders from a mere girl.”

The captain looked at her in surprise. “My Lady, the men are already talking about your bravery in the battle. Some of them began taking your orders when you told them to lay down and thus saved them from the enemy slingers.” He smiled at her. “And those of us who followed you in that charge into the enemy lines, we are your men, now and forever.”

“The king, what has become of the king?” Hildy was horrified to have forgotten all about him until that moment.

“I fear he was captured as he reached the castle with some of his soldiers,” he said sadly. “They arrived at the gate at the same time the Skull soldiers from the ships did. One of the men we picked up in the woods saw it happen.”

Hildy looked around and saw every pair of eyes looking at her. Every face carried a look of expectation as they all waited for her to tell them what to do. “We need to leave Evergreen,” she said firmly. She was stalling for time while she tried to come up with a plan. “We can’t stay here. They will be looking for us.”

“We can go to Flame,” Lawry said from where she was comforting Zareena.

“We need a ship,” Hildy added. “And it needs to be big enough to hold us all. And that means we need to get to the harbor. And to do that we need to sneak through the town first. After that, stealing a ship should be easy. How many sailors do we have here?”

Ten or twelve men raised their hands, including Tolly and Tull.

“It will be getting dark in another two hours or so. I suggest we retrace our steps and then cross the road. We should be able to get right to the edge of town down in the valley without leaving the cover of the trees.” With that, Hildy began leading them back the way they had just come. Before they reached the road they had added six more men to the group, bringing the number to more than fifty.

**********

Chapter Seven

 

As they drew near the dirt road, Hildy motioned for the group to stop so she and the captain could go forward to scout. They heard voices on the road before they could see the road itself. When she parted the leaves on a thick shrub she was surprised by the sight of a funerary procession. Six Skull soldiers carried on their shoulders a bier made of staves. On it lay a body covered in a black cloak with a white border. She had no doubt whose body it was.

Trailing behind the men bearing the dead prince were two dozen or so Skull soldiers, all of whom appeared to have received some type of injury during the battle. Some where limping along using their staves as crutches while others had arms in slings or bandage-wrapped heads. Walking with the battered soldiers, still wearing his overly-decorated armor, she spotted the young Skull prince whose life she had spared.

This was too good an opportunity to pass up. She motioned the captain to follow her, and they quickly and quietly rejoined their group. She told them her plan in hushed tones, then led them at an angle back towards the road so that they would be ahead of the Skull procession.

The ambush was almost too easy. The Skull soldiers had no time to even consider putting blades on their staves before they were completely surrounded by a greater number of enemy soldiers- soldiers that looked as if they would be all too happy to meet out a little revenge for their recent defeat. Hildy went to stand before the young Skull prince. She was quite surprised by his reaction. He gave her a wide smile and looked for all the world as if he was quite happy to see her.

“It’s you!” the prince said excitedly. “You were magnificent in the battle. I’ve never seen anything like it, but of course, it was my very first battle ever. Thank you for not knocking out my teeth, or, you know, killing me, or anything.”

Hildy couldn’t keep from smiling back at him. His enthusiasm was infectious. “Who are you?”

“I am Nujeem, but everybody calls me Nudge,” he answered, still beaming at her.

“How old are you?” she couldn’t help asking.

“I am twelve, but only for a few more weeks.”

Hildy had been studying him. He was small and thin, and his skin was actually tan, especially when compared to his brother. His long hair was also dark brown rather than black. She asked him about that.

“Oh, my father, the king, likes to have… uh… dalliances with many women. He tends to prefer his own cousins for marriage, but now and then, another lady catches his eye. That’s why he has so many children, you know. There are so many of us spread about the kingdom that I don’t think I have even met all of them yet.” He seemed ready to go on speaking for some time, but she cut him off to make sure her plans were being carried out.

Her men had stripped the armor and uniforms from the Skull troops, and they had enjoyed doing it. The prisoners, now wearing just their underclothes, were all tied to trees not too far from the road, where eventually someone would hear their cries. The corpse of prince Nardis lay beside them on his bier, still covered in his cloak.

Twenty nine of her men, slightly more than half, were now uniformed as Skull soldiers, complete with the iron spear blades at their belts. For the first time, prince Nujeem looked a little nervous. “So, what happens now?” he wanted to know.

“You are going to help us steal one of your father’s ships,” Hildy explained.

“Ooh, that sound like fun.” The prince was back to his usual enthusiastic self.

“You don’t seem too upset by the fact that I killed your brother,” Hildy pointed out.

“He wasn’t very nice to me,” the prince confided.

The sun was lowering itself to the sea as they descended the hills, staying under the cover of the trees. By the time they reached the outskirts of Evergreentown, the sun was just dipping below the horizon. “Remember,” Hildy announced to those gathered around her, “we are just a column of Skull troops escorting some prisoners to one of the ships. If anybody stops us, our new friend here,” she gestured at Nudge, “will talk us through. We aren’t going to have to worry about you betraying us, are we?” she finished to the young prince.

Nudge eyed captain Tar, in his Skull uniform, who stood by his side. The captain placed a hand on the sharp iron blade at his belt. “No, don’t worry about me. This is the first time I ever got to go anywhere interesting. I want to see more of the world.”

With that they formed into a column with those dressed as Skulls appearing to be guarding those that weren’t. The march through town was accomplished with no trouble. All the Skull soldiers and sailors that they saw looked to be drunk. The taverns were doing a booming business, and many of the enemy were just wandering the streets in small groups, holding jugs of wine or beer. There was a lot of off-key singing.

“At least they put out the fires before the party started,” Hildy heard captain Tar mutter.

The first sober Skull troops they encountered were a surly pair at the head of the closest pier, where they hoped to find a ship. Two Skull ships were tied at the dock. The two Skull guards didn’t say a word to them as they trooped by. They seemed to be too busy sulking over having a job to do while their fellows were all busy carousing.

They continued on to the end of the dock. Hildy randomly picked the ship on the left. Discipline was a little tighter on the ship. A sailor at the bottom of the boarding ramp demanded they state their business before proceeding.

Prince Nudge stepped forward to confront the man. “Move aside, or I will have you chopped up for bait,” he said in a bored voice. He began walking up the ramp without waiting for a reply, while the horrified sailor sputtered an apology for not recognizing him sooner in the dim light. Word of the prince’s arrival moved faster than the prince himself. By the time he reached the top of the ramp, the captain of the ship was there to welcome him aboard.

“How may I be of service?” the captain asked.

“Get this scow ready to sail. See that we are moving before I get settled into your cabin, or I will find someone who can, and make them captain.” Once again, the prince didn’t wait for an answer but brushed past the man as though he had already forgotten that he even existed. “Bring the prisoners,” the prince commanded captain Tar, still without slowing down.

Captain Tar pretended to herd the tree princesses towards the ship’s superstructure. As she followed, Hildy spotted Tull, dressed in his captured Skull uniform, roughly shoving his brother into the group of pretend prisoners. He was enjoying his role all too much.

The ship’s captain was bellowing orders and crewmen were swarming about the deck or scrambling aloft into the rigging to set the sails. Once the small group of royalty and captain Tar were in the cabin, Hildy spared Nudge a real smile. “Don’t you think you might have been overdoing it just a bit?”

Nudge seemed confused by the question. “Are you joking? I was far more polite than most of my family would have been. If I was any nicer, the captain would have suspected something was wrong. That’s one of the things I hate about my kingdom. I can never be nice to anybody. Nobody can. It’s just all so stupid.”

There was a knock at the door. It was the ship’s captain, telling Nudge that the ship was now under way, and asking where he should set a course to. Nudge had been told what to do. “Order the crew to assemble on deck. I have an announcement to make to you all.” The captain left to carry out these orders. The rest of them followed him out on deck and waited for the crew to gather. None of the sailors or their captain noticed the way the newly-arrived soldiers and their prisoners were spread out around them all along the ship’s rail.

Hildy looked back at the dock disappearing behind them in the darkness. It wasn’t all that far away. She gave Nudge a nod.

“I have wonderful news,” Nudge announced grandly. “You are all going to go for a lovely evening swim.”

The captain and crew began exchanging uncomfortable glances.

“The longer you wait, the further you will have to swim,” said Nudge reasonably.

Still none of the crew moved. Around them, the newly-created Skull soldiers pulled the blades from their sheaths and mounted them on their staves. Soon, a circle of iron points surrounded the sailors. The rest of the prisoners also armed themselves with any handy weapons and joined the circle. Only one small opening was left, to give the crew a path to the ship’s rail.

“I won’t give you another chance!” screamed Nudge, sounding altogether terrifying.

Sailors began to dart towards the railing and leap into the water. The captain led the charge. Two men remained rooted in place in the center of the circle. Hildy wondered if perhaps they didn’t know how to swim, but then she realized there was something familiar about one of the men, even in the dim glow of the ship’s lanterns and pale moonlight.

“Princess,” the man began, and hearing his voice was all it took to bring recognition. Hildy ran over and gave the man a hug while captain Tar looked on in bewilderment.

Hildy turned back to captain Tar. “Captain, allow me to introduce you to captain Nire Reef. Despite the fact that he is wearing the black border of the Skulls on his tunic, he is, in fact, my father’s most trusted trade ship captain, and the only one he trusts to carry his family to any and all of the seven kingdoms.” She suddenly realized two things. They needed to keep the ship moving, but on top of that, she now had two captains and no idea who to put in charge of the ship.

Captain Tar immediately saw the problem. “My Lady, I told you that I am an experienced sailor, and I am. I was raised on my father’s single-masted fishing boat. But I am a captain of soldiers now, and as such, have lived in the castle these last few years  training men to fight. I could certainly sail this three-masted vessel. but I would much rather have a real sailing captain at the helm.

That was all the prompting captain Reef needed. “All of you who know a rigging line from a wine bottle, get aloft and get those sails trimmed. Steer the ship, Leed.” This last was directed at the young man who had remained standing beside him. “The rest of you, make yourselves handy or stay out of the way.”

Hildy watched the old sailor smiling happily. It was so good to see a familiar face from home. The captain was still trim and fit, and his neatly trimmed beard and stubble of hair was no grayer than when she had last seen a handful of months before.

“That is my nephew, Leed,” he told her proudly, watching the young man angle the ship to best catch the wind. “Where away, my Lady? What port do we make for?”

“We’re going to Flame, unless we can think of anyplace better to go,” she replied. “But how did you end up on a Skull ship? And what of your ship, the Wavebounder? Did they take her from you?”

“In a manner of speaking, my Lady,” he said with a laugh. “They did indeed confiscate her, and took crewmen from their other ships to man her, but they were shorthanded, and asked if any of us wanted to sign on as crewmen. I volunteered to stay aboard, figuring it would be my best chance to steal her back.”

“I don’t understand,” said Hildy in some confusion.

“If you look around a little more closely, and ignore the fresh coat of black paint and white trim, you will see your old friend right beneath your very feet.” Captain Reef let out a bellow of a laugh. “I never thought stealing her back would be so easy! And trust me, princess, no Skull ship is ever going to catch the Wavebounder.”

Hildy smiled back at her old friend. “That does explain the strange feeling I’ve been having that I have been here before.”

“Indeed it does, princess,” the captain agreed. “Now, perhaps you can tell me how you got here, why you are wearing an Evergreen uniform and armor, who all these people are, and what in the… bilge water is going on, exactly?”

**********

Chapter Eight

 

Sanara Trist held tightly to her father’s hand as they made their way through the crowd. She was very excited to be away from the daily farm chores and come to Dancertown to see the Skull king on his official visit to the island. She had seen her own king a number of times, but this was something new. She was a little confused by the mood of the crowd. She was expecting people to be happy and excited about this unusual occurrence, and a chance to do something different than they normally did.

But instead, the people seemed angry. They stood about in groups, talking very seriously, and no one looked happy at all. She heard people mentioning the Skulls quite a bit. She also heard more bad words than she heard the time her father had accidentally stuck his pitchfork into some breadgrass and the big toe of his left foot had gotten in the way.

Her father was as baffled as she was. “I know where we can find out what is happening,” he told her as he led her to a shop that sold farm tools.

The very large and very jolly proprietor greeted her father like an old friend. “Toman Trist, don’t tell me you broke another scythe. Or are you just here to get a look at our royal visitor?”

“I promised Sanara she could see him,” her father told him. “What do I care about a king who has never set foot on our soil and most likely never will again? But why is everyone so worked up about the Skulls?”

“I guess you don’t get much news out your way,” the shop owner said with a smile. “The Skulls have been up to no good.” He went on to tell the tale of princess Hildread’s confrontation with a Skull prince, her flight from the kingdom, and the subsequent invasion of Halfmoon. He also shared the rumors of the princess of Middle fleeing her own marriage, only to have it passed on to her younger sister. “It seems the young girl’s parents were none too happy about it, and the Skulls more or less took the whole place over, one way or another,” the proprietor finished.

“Well, it’s no business of mine,” Sanara’s father replied. “I’d like to see them try something like that here, though. Our boys would give them a thumping, that’s for certain.”

Sanara was growing bored with all this talking. “Let’s go up to the castle and see if we can get a spot in the great hall, Papa. I want to see the Skull king. He sounds perfectly horrible.”

“Yes, well, a child should see a few kings in their lifetime,” her father said to the shop owner, smiling indulgently at his daughter. “A royal visit is a rare enough thing, no matter who that royalty turns out to be.” And with that, he led Sanara back out onto the street, and they threaded their way through the crowd and up the hill to the castle. It wasn’t easy to squeeze their way into the great hall, but her father was a large man, and they managed it.

They had just found a spot in front of one of the fireplaces that were spaced along the walls of the hall when the crowd all at once ceased their babble and silence descended. Sanara’s father reached down and picked her up, placing her on his shoulders so she could see the Skull procession entering.

King Nornan Vardigo Skull was a huge man in every way. He was taller than average and rounder than anybody she had ever seen in her life. He had a pale face that was also round, and Sanara giggled when it occurred to her that his huge, white, hairless head, perched on top of his huge, round, black-clad body, looked a little like a moon rising over a night-shrouded planet.

Trailing behind the king was a very tall, very thin man, completely covered in a long, black cloak with a hood. The long, black cloak and hood were completely covered with thin, white markings that looked like words written in an unknown language. Behind the mysterious thin man were thirty Skull soldiers led by a huge and very ferocious-looking captain.

The king of the kingdom of Skull stopped a few paces from the king of the kingdom of Dancer. The mysterious thin man stopped a pace behind him. The soldiers arrayed themselves in three lines with the captain off to one side. The king of Dancer, a widower, had his only son beside him. He stepped forward to greet his royal visitor.

Before either king had so much as spoken a word, a Dancer soldier burst into the great hall and rushed towards his king. He couldn’t get past the Skull soldiers because of the crowd of onlookers packed on either side. He was forced to stop behind the Skull soldiers. He obviously had something he wanted to tell the king, but there was no way he could do it without telling everyone in the great hall at the same time.

Oluff Halvard Dancer, the king to whom the man wished so badly to speak, was a kindly old soul with long, snow-white hair and a long, snow-white beard. He blinked in embarrassment at the interruption. “Yes, young man, what is it that you have to say that is so important that it can’t wait until I have properly greeted our important guests?”

“Sir,” the soldier stammered over the shoulders of the Skull soldiers between him and his king, “there is a fleet of Skull ships sailing into the bay.”

King Oluff was confused and shocked by this unexpected development. His eyes flicked to king Nornan. King Oluff was even more confused and shocked by what he saw in king Nornan’s eyes. This was no longer the same man he had met when they had both been young princes, chatting at various royal gatherings and weddings. This man had no compassion or mercy left in him. His eyes were the eyes of a predator. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded in a voice that did not at all match his kindly features and friendly blue eyes.

King Nornan had a voice that perfectly matched his countenance, a deep, gravelly growl. “You don’t have a daughter for any of my sons to marry, so I have decided to forego subtlety, and just take your kingdom by force.” He made a gesture with one hand and the thirty Skull soldiers grabbed their blades and mounted them on their staves in quick, well-rehearsed movements. Likewise they lowered their spears and began to spread out into a crescent, passing around their king and the mysterious thin man, to advance on the king of Dancer and his son.

The crowd in the hall began to seethe. The men pushed the women and children back, herding them out through the various doors around the hall, but many of the men then turned back to aide their king. Some of them pulled knives from their own belts, used on fishing boats or around their farms, while others picked up cutlery from the long dining tables set for the royal banquet that was to have followed. Still others picked up chairs and other small bits of furniture, anything with which to do battle with the Skull soldiers.

King Oluff suddenly shouted, “soldiers, to me!” And from all the doors around the great hall appeared dozens of men, all carrying their staves and dressed in their armor. “Did you think me a complete fool?” he shouted at the Skull king. “Word of your misdeeds has come to us. I had hoped that you could be reasoned with, but I did not leave it solely to fate.”

The Skull troops found themselves heavily outnumbered and surrounded by both soldiers and an angry mob. They ceased advancing on the Dancer king and formed a circle around their own king and the thin man in black. King Nornan Skull realized that he had underestimated his opponent. “Back to the harbor,” he ordered his men, and they began to retreat back the way they had come, a shuffling knot of deadly iron spear points. None in the hall dared rush that ring of death.

When it had all begun to get out of hand, Sanara’s father had set her down and pushed her towards closest door, telling her to flee and not stop until she had reached the farm. Then he had turned back to join the mob of outraged citizens. But Sanara had not fled. She had stopped by the door, enthralled by this series of events. She watched as someone in the crowd threw a stool, which struck one of the Skull soldiers full in the face, knocking his leather helmet off and knocking him to the floor. This victory emboldened the crowd, and soon other objects were lofting through the air, crashing into the circle of soldiers.

Things were not looking good for the king of the Skulls and his men. The angry men of Dancer began edging closer, sensing that there might be an opportunity to rush their enemies. Then a most unexpected thing happened. Through the open doors towards which the cluster of Skulls were slowly making their way leaped a shadowclaw.

Everyone in the hall froze. No, that wasn’t quite true, Sanara realized. The Skulls continued their slow march towards the exit even as the ferocious beast passed around them in a slow, sinuous slink. Everyone was familiar with this now rare creature, the largest and fiercest hunter of the old forests. But this one was far larger than any that had ever been seen in living memory, fully as long as two men lying end to end, from the tip of its twitching tail to its fang-filled mouth. The long, thin body, covered in sleek gray fur with black splotches, rippled with coiled strength. The short but powerful legs moved the animal in an undulating glide. Black eyes glittered a challenge.

Sanara couldn’t understand how the Skulls could keep moving and not be terrified into stillness. Was this some trained beast that they had brought with them? But then she noticed a peculiar thing. She happened to glance at the mysterious thin man. He looked to be muttering to himself, and he was moving his hands about in strange patterns before him. Was he somehow controlling the shadowclaw?

The lithe forest-dweller made no move to attack any of the people in the hall, not did it make a single sound. It merely slunk back and forth in front of the slowly retreating ring of Skulls. Without thought, Sanara reached to the rope belt on her tunic and pulled her sling from it. With her other hand she reached into the cloth pouch that also hung there, and removed a stone. She was a deadly shot with the sling. She killed many hoppers on the farm, to keep the bouncy little varmints from the breadgrass. Her father’s bed as well her own each had a blanket made from the green and brown fur of hoppers, and many a meal on the farm included hopper stew. Once she had even killed a rooter that had strayed too near the farm, and even professional hunters who went into the forest after that prey, prized for its thick leather hides, found them to be hard to bring down. The rooter had fed her and her father for quite a while.

Sanara waited until the shadowclaw began to turn back on itself in its pacing, then, with a single swing, she let the stone fly. She knew before it hit that it was a good throw. But the stone passed right through the eye of the great beast and continued on to hit one of the Skull soldiers in the knee, dropping him in a sitting position to the floor. Sanara was stunned. The stone hadn’t slowed at all in its journey through what should have been the dense bone of the shadowclaw’s skull. And the shadowclaw gave no indication that it had even been aware of the stone.

The shadowclaw wasn’t real, Sanara realized. And then she wondered if perhaps the mysterious thin man was indeed controlling the creature, but in a much more mysterious manner than a man commanding a trained pet. And with that, she knew what she had to do. She placed another stone in her sling, swinging it once, at let the stone fly. It sailed right where she sent it, between the heads of two of the Skull soldiers and right into the side of the hood-covered head of the mysterious thin man. There was a loud thunk, audible to all even over the other noises in the great hall, and the thin man stopped, then dropped like a sack of grain.

The shadowclaw vanished without a sound.

**********

Chapter Nine

 

Sanara stood alone by one of the sets of doors in the great hall, the sling still dangling from her hand, as she realized that most everyone in the hall was now staring at her. Then the men of Dancer began cheering as they went back to bombarding the Skulls with anything they could find to throw, while the Skulls, having reached the main doors, gave up all pretense of a slow retreat. The Skull king growled an order, and two men reached down to drag the unconscious thin man along with them as they scurried through the wide, double doors and out into the courtyard. A few of the Skull soldiers continued to stumble backwards, keeping their spears leveled at the crowd of Dancer soldiers and civilians that were making ready to come after them.

“Hold!” shouted king Oluff. “Let them go. We must prepare an organized defense of the town. The Skull fleet is the real danger here.”

Sanara watched as the kindly old king she had known all her life as a gentle, grandfatherly figure, snapped out rapid and concise orders. Runners were sent to call all the kingdom’s soldiers to the castle. Those already on duty were mustered in the courtyard. The king also sent all the civilians off to rally the people and gather any men who wished to join the fight, and to scour the town for anything that might be used as weapons, or to get the women and children to safety. “These Skulls have abandoned the old ways of war, and replaced the honorable matching of skills with pure viciousness,” the king pronounced to his people, “and we must lower ourselves to their level or be destroyed.”

As captains and soldiers and the working men of his kingdom scattered to obey his commands, the king turned towards Hildy, lifted his hand, and beckoned her. Hildy went to him. Her father, who had been walking towards her and had not seen the king’s gesture, was confused, stopping to watch as his daughter strode past him to stand in front of the king.

“Child, how old are you?” the king asked, once again the kind-hearted man she remembered from the few times she and her father had visited the castle for some state occasion.

“Fifteen, sir,” she replied.

The king set a hand on each of her shoulders. “That was an admirable shot, my brave young lady. Is that your father?” he asked, tipping his chin at the only man in the hall that didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Sanara simply nodded.

The king waved her father over to join them. “You have raised a fine young woman. She will be remembered as a hero of our kingdom, no matter how the rest of this day plays out.”

Her father replied only with a nod, but she noticed that he stood straighter than she ever remembered seeing him stand before.

“I have a favor to ask you, as one father to another,” the king continued. “You saw those evil blades the Skull soldiers had. They will not hesitate to use them. No doubt they have far more trained soldiers than we do. I have no intention of surrendering without putting up a fight, but I see no way that this will end well for us. I see from your hands and your sun-browned skin that you are no craftsman or shopkeeper. You carry no knife, so I assume you are a farmer and not a fisherman or sailor?”

Sanara’s father nodded his agreement.

“Take my son with you when you return your daughter to your farm.” The king’s voice was more pleading than commanding.

“Father!” said the prince in outrage.

Sanara glanced at the boy. She wasn’t any more thrilled about this than he was.

“I stay to fight with you to protect the kingdom,” Sanara’s father said firmly.

“Father!” blurted Sanara, knowing there was no point in finishing the thought.

“My daughter is quite capable of returning home on her own, as you well might imagine,” her father said proudly, “and your son is welcome to accompany her. But you should know that the girl’s mother died years ago, and there will be no one there to watch over them.”

Sanara eyed the prince again. He was about her height. She knew that he was fifteen years of age, the same age as her, but she had never seen him up close before. He was heavyset and had buck teeth. His hair was somewhere between blond and brown, and hung to his shoulders. His pale, watery, blue eyes had none of the sparkle of his father’s eyes to go with the matching color. She was almost as horrified by the notion of spending a prolonged period of time with this boy, who seemed to have all the personality of a fish, as by the fact that her father would be risking his life in battle.

The king noticed her studying his son and misread her interest. “Perhaps, when all is settled, and a few years have passed, there will be a royal wedding. You would make a fine princess to this kingdom, my dear,” he said hopefully.

The prince seemed to like the idea well enough, and gave her a smile. The very thought of kissing that mouth nearly caused her to tell the king exactly what she thought of this plan. Her father knew her well enough not to give her that opportunity. “Let’s save the kingdom first, and take the rest as it comes,” he suggested carefully.

The king agreed, and sent his son to change into his plainest tunic and boots, in the hopes that he could pass for just another farmer’s lad. And then the king was gone, to lead his people in a fight for their very survival.

Sanara’s father knelt before her and grasped her almost painfully by the shoulders. “Stay safe, my love, and I will be home almost before you know it.” And then, he too was gone.

Sanara kept herself from crying by pure strength of will. When the prince returned, she led him out through the side gate of the castle without a word. On the long walk back to the farm, the prince tried relentlessly to engage her in conversation. She answered his direct questions in the fewest words possible. He asked all about her life and likes. She, on the other hand, had no interest in learning anything about him at all.

When they reached the farm, the prince sat and watched her as she prepared them a simple meal, but made no offer to help. Instead, he talked incessantly about himself, almost as though he were answering all the questions she had never bothered to ask on the long walk home. At last, she had had enough. She set a plate of food before him and then took her own plate back out onto the little covered porch. Prince Aluff was getting on her nerves.

He came out a little while later and sat on the only other chair on the porch, the chair that her father sat in when they had those rare moments to relax. This time, the prince didn’t say a word to interrupt her thoughts. They sat in silence for over an hour. She began to wonder if perhaps the prince was not as bad as she had begun to think he was, and that her worries for her father’s safety and the very survival of the kingdom hadn’t made her judge him too harshly.

“That bread was pretty bad,” the prince said suddenly. He waved a hand vaguely at the green fields all around. “I mean, isn’t that the stuff you make bread out of? Seems like you should be able to make some pretty good bread.”

She looked at him in astonishment. The level of stupidity, rudeness and self-absorption inherent in those statements was such that she couldn’t even bring herself to be angry. Men were risking death to save his kingdom, his own father among them, and he was annoyed that his meal had been less than satisfactory. She decided to test the level of his stupidity. “I made that bread, just so you know. It’s a few days old. We are too busy on a farm to have fresh bread every day.”

He considered this for a moment, and appeared to be thinking deeply. “When we get married, the palace cooks can teach you how to make good bread, and lots of other things that I like to eat.”

There were many ways she could have chosen to reply to his statement, but she went with the one that just felt right. “Shut up, Aluff.” Then she walked off to do her chores, leaving him sitting on the porch.

Later, as she brought a load of firewood into the house, he was still sitting there. “I don’t think that is a fitting way for my future wife to…”

“Shut up,” she said as she walked by without slowing.

When she went back past him to get another load of firewood, he opened his mouth again. She just pointed at him and scowled. He closed his mouth again. When she came back with the next load, dropped it off, and headed back to the woodpile, he got up and followed her in silence. When she picked up more wood, he grabbed an armful and followed her back to the house. They didn’t really need that last bit, but she wasn’t going to spoil her progress by saying so.

As she stepped back onto the porch, deciding what to do next, she glanced at the setting sun to determine how much daylight they had left. That is when she saw the four men approaching. No, she realized, it was five men. The four she could see clearly were soldiers, wearing the purple armor of the kingdom, and they were carrying the fifth man on a stretcher made of staves and a cloak. Her heart leapt into her throat. She ran to meet them as they turned down the lane that led between the fields to the house.

Her father lay on the stretcher, but he was alive, and he smiled and waved as she ran up. “Don’t worry, don’t worry. I just got stuck in the leg,” he assured her as the men carried him into the house, and, under her direction, got him settled into his bed. She looked at the wound after removing the sodden bandage, and it didn’t look too bad. She cleaned it and put on a fresh bandage.

“Sanara,” he said seriously as she finished the task, “I have to tell you something important. The king is dead, and there is something you need to do.”

She heard a sharp intake of breath, and turned to where the prince stood in the corner of the room. He looked pale, but showed no emotion whatsoever. She turned back to her father.

“You have to go with these soldiers and take the prince safely to Flame,” her father told her. “The kingdom is lost, at least for now. The Skulls will be looking for the prince.”

“But, Papa, I need to stay, to help with the farm and take care of you!” She clasped his hand tightly.

“Dear daughter, don’t you see? The Skulls will be looking for you as well. Their king saw you when you struck down his wizard, and so did his soldiers. I doubt very much that they will let that insult go unanswered. I have plenty of neighbors to give me a hand. And you know Widow Raker has been trying to figure out a way to get herself invited over, to fatten me up with her cooking like she did her first two husbands.” Sanara noticed that her father didn’t seem too distressed by this notion.

One of the Dancer soldiers stepped closer. “My name is Bram, Bram Crest. My father is a fisherman, and my uncle captains a trading ship. My uncle is due to arrive in the morning. We are going to sail out to meet him at sea in my father’s boat, to save my uncle’s ship from being seized like all our other ships that were in port. We can be in Flame by tomorrow night.”

Sanara suddenly realized that the boy standing in her house was now the king, her king. She went and stood in front of him. “I am sorry about your father,” she said simply.

He nodded wordlessly.

**********

Chapter Ten

 

Sanara prepared food for the four soldiers and her father, then ran to their closest neighbor’s farm to tell them to check in on her father in the morning, giving them the news that the Skulls had invaded the kingdom and that the king was dead. She new this information would spread like a wildfire, but she didn’t know what anybody could do about any of it. She returned home and packed a small travel bag. She was a little surprised to find that almost all of her belongings would fit in such a small space. She wrapped up a little extra food and stuffed it in on top of her things. Then she threw on her only cloak, checked to make sure her sling and the bag of stones were still in her belt, and went to say goodbye to her father.

He reached up and laid his hand along the side of her face. “I have always been proud of you,” he said, his eyes glistening, “but never more than today. I swear, if that shadowclaw had been real, you would have put its eye out, and maybe even sent it on its way.”

“That she would have!” exclaimed one of the soldiers who had been in the great hall.

“True enough,” added the young king.

And with that, they were off. It was a long walk to the coast in darkness, and then a long sail in the dark to the mouth of the bay. Bram’s father landed them on the beach on one of the tips of land that enclosed the bay, and they pulled the small boat up the beach and covered it with sea grass. They shared the food she had brought without lighting a fire.

Sanara dozed against a tree, wrapped in her cloak. The first rays of the rising sun woke her, and she went off into the trees to take care of her personal needs. Minutes after returning to the beach, Bram’s father announced, “that’s my brother’s ship, sure enough.” They sailed out and cut off the ship before it entered the bay. The captain was surprised to see his brother and his nephew, and more surprised to hear the rest of the news they brought with them. He greeted his new king and got him settled into his own cabin.

“There’s a black ship sailing out of the bay to intercept us!” shouted the lookout from the top of the main mast.

“Good luck to them,” the captain muttered, and then began bellowing orders. The ship, called the Shooting Star, was soon outpacing the black ship with little trouble.

Bram’s father was not happy to have had to abandon his fishing boat, but he saw the logic. He realized that the Skull ship would have turned and given chase to him as soon as it became obvious that they weren’t going to catch the Shooting Star. “But I don’t know what your mother is going to think,” he said to his son. “Good thing she has your three brothers to look after her, but I am going to catch the scolding of a lifetime if I ever manage to make it back.”

“Best thing to happen to that poor woman since you married her!” said the captain with a hearty laugh. But he stopped teasing his younger brother when the black ship gave up the chase and began towing his fishing boat back into the bay.

“They will pay for that,” the fisherman said, adding a few other choice words under his breath.

The Shooting Star sailed on, and by evening, Flame was visible, rising out of the waves. They entered the bay soon after a beautiful sunset, and anchored in the harbor. Sanara was fast asleep by this time, curled in a looped pile of rope on deck in the bow of the ship, wrapped in her cloak, and lulled by the gentle rocking of the sea. She awakened as the sun rose, and lay still for a moment, eyes still closed, listening to the cries of the windriders sailing the currents of the air above her, enjoying the tangy, salty taste and smell of the ocean. She at last decided to stand and face the day, and as she did, as her eyes rose above the level of the deck railing, her heart went cold.

Anchored not more than 200 feet away, in the still dim light of the new day, was a black-painted Skull ship. Sanara looked around, expecting to see the crew of the Shooting Star making preparations to flee, but the few crewmen she saw were casually going about routine tasks. Captain Crest stood at the rail not far from her, and he was looking at the Skull ship, but with a decidedly happy expression on his face. She went up to him, intending to ask him about it, but he noticed the worried look on her face and forestalled her.

“Not to worry, missy, that is no Skull-built ship, that. Even in the star-lit darkness I recognized her sleek lines. That is the Wavebounder, captained by none other than my old friend, captain Reef. He showed himself in lantern light, to let me know all was well. I have no idea why she is done up in Skull colors, but we will have an answer to that soon enough,” and he poked his chin out towards the other ship to direct her attention that way.

Sure enough, a small ship’s boat was being lowered into the water beside the other ship, and soon, the little boat was making its way towards the Shooting Star. Sanara watched as an older man with a neatly-trimmed beard climbed nimbly aboard the Shooting Star and then fell into a hug with captain Crest, involving much backslapping and loud laughter. Then the two men lowered their voices and began to speak back and forth, very quickly and very earnestly. A short while later, captain Crest sent one of his crewmen to his cabin. The man returned in short order with young king Aluff, who looked very unkingly in his plain garb, yawning and stretching and scratching himself. The two captains conversed with the king, and then the king went back into to the captain’s cabin.

Sanara took the opportunity to prepare herself for the day ahead. She wasn’t all that surprised to be back on deck before Aluff reappeared, but he wasn’t that far behind her. She watched as the captain of the other ship scramble back down into the small boat. Aluff peered uncertainly over the rail at the boat bobbing in the water below. Then he tried to imitate the captain’s descent. It took a while, and it wasn’t graceful, but it didn’t end in disaster either. Sanara had to smile as she watched, but was more than a little shocked when Aluff looked up at her and beckoned her to follow. She did, and as she did, she was less than thrilled by the thought of the view of her undershorts the king must be getting from below as she hung above him in her short tunic. She took a seat on the bench across from him, and saw Aluff smiling at her in a way that let her know that he hadn’t been enough of a gentleman to avert his eyes.

The captain of the other ship, on the other hand, was nothing if not a gentleman. He leaned forward from his bench and offered his hand and his name, adding, “young lady, it is an honor to meet you. My friend, captain Crest, told me the tale of your of your bravery in defense of your homeland. I have some passengers on my ship that I think you will be interested in meeting, and I know they will be pleased to make your acquaintance.”

By the time this introduction was complete, they were already reaching the side of the other ship, thanks to the skill of the four crewmen manning the oars. Sanara made a point of waiting until after Aluff had made his ungainly way up and over the railing before, with the help of the captain, she followed. Not long after, Sanara found herself seated at a small table in the captain’s cabin with three princesses, a Skull prince, a king, and the captain whose cabin it was. The captain introduced her to those around the table, and told the tale of her involvement in the fight in the great hall, as told to him by the captain of the Shooting Star. The story didn’t lose anything in the retelling. In fact, she felt that, if anything, his version made her sound much more heroic than she had felt while it was happening to her. She was prepared to downplay her role, but she never got the chance.

Everyone around the table began congratulating her and asking her questions and making a fuss over her, and she just got swept up in the excitement. No strangers had ever treated her so nicely, let alone a table full of royalty. She was thrilled to be made to feel so welcome. She settled by saying, once she got the chance, that all she had done was sling a couple of rocks, but no one would hear a word of it, and they all insisted that she had struck a real blow against the enemy while showing that what might have seemed to be one of the enemy’s most powerful weapons was really just an illusion.

“Oh, I could have told you about Rasp,” said the skinny boy in black across from her. “He is my father’s wizard. He can’t really make anything that can hurt you. He just makes things out of the dust in the air, or something like that. They look real enough, but you can walk right through them.”

Sanara was fascinated by the young Skull prince. She found herself studying him as the conversation moved on to king Aluff. The princesses had all met him previously, and now they all expressed their condolences on the death of his father.

I always loved your father,” said Hildy. “He was a kind man. He used to play with me when I was little, whenever our families got together.”

Sanara took a moment to study princess Hildread. She was dressed in what looked to Sanara to be a soldier’s uniform, without the armor, of pants and shirt made from sturdy green canvas. She was also wearing black boots. This was all surprising enough by all normal, modern conventions, but it didn’t end there. Hildread also had very short hair, which Sanara had never before seen on a female. On top of that, it wasn’t a neat haircut. If Sanara had to guess, she would have said that the princess had hacked her own hair off with a very sharp knife.

After everyone had told Aluff how sorry they were about the loss of both his father and his kingdom, they quickly filled him and Sanara in on all that had transpired to lead them all to where they now were. Sanara listened to the incredible series of events in astonishment. On hearing of the ghastly murder of princess Zareena’s husband, she at last understood why the princess had contributed so little to the conversation. Sanara had sensed a deep sadness in her, and she felt her anger at the Skulls burning higher.

When the table fell silent for a moment, king Aluff asked the obvious question. “So, what are we going to do now?”

Sanara glanced at him. Yes, the question was obvious, but it wasn’t a stupid question by any means. She began to hope that he was gaining some measure of maturity and wisdom from the tribulations life had thrown at him… until he spoke again.

“I, for one, am going to ask the king of Flame to let me live in the castle.”

Sanara was, once again, at a complete loss. How could the boy be so stupid? Didn’t he see the simple truth staring him in the face? The Skulls now ruled five of the seven kingdoms. They weren’t going to stop until they ruled them all. A fleet might be on its way to Flame even as they spoke. This was the time for action, for planning. They had to take a stand against this spreading evil.

Aluff opened his mouth to speak again.

Sanara did what needed to be done. “Shut up, Aluff,” she told him.

His mouth slammed shut with an audible noise.

Everyone around the table did the best job they could of trying not to smile.

**********

Chapter Eleven

 

An hour later Sanara found herself walking through Flametown in the company of royalty. It had been decided that their only real option at this point was to inform the king of Flame that, sooner or later, the Skulls would be coming in force to take over his kingdom. Nudge had freely admitted that his father had every intention of ruling the entire world. The Skull king’s original plan had been to move into most of the kingdoms by marrying his sons to princesses and then putting pressure on the various kings to step down and let his sons take over the responsibilities. Hildy’s refusal to marry and her subsequent actions had served to initiate a more proactive policy. Nudge had even admitted, however reluctantly, that it had always been part of the hastily concocted plan for the invasion of Evergreen that prince Evvord be killed, and for princess Zareena to eventually be forced to marry a Skull prince, to give the conquest an air of legitimacy.

Since this admission, princess Zar had returned to a level of depression that left her in a daze. She hadn’t said more than a few words as they finished deciding what it was they were going to do or on the short trip in the ship’s longboat to the dock. Now, she walked with eyes downcast, still in stony silence, as they passed through the bustling town.

A short walk up a gently sloping hill led them to the main gates of the castle, and soon they were in the great hall. They were greeted by loud squeals of joy and a tornado of enthusiastic energy in the form of three identical girls. Miri, Tam Tam, and Andita Flame, thirteen-year-old triplets, were thrilled by this unexpected visit from old friends. They greeted the other princesses and king Aluff with many hugs and much high-pitched shrieking.

Hildy finally interrupted the reunion. “We need to speak with your father.”

“But we need to hear all about how you kicked that Skull prince that you were supposed to marry,” objected one of the triplets.

“And we must know where you went when you ran away,” asserted another.

“And however did you end up here with everyone else?” the third wanted to know.

“And who, exactly, is that?” the first triplet asked, pointing at Nudge. “And, dear Hildy, why are you dressed like a man?”

Hildy saw that these questions would continue to circle endlessly around if she didn’t take matters firmly in hand. “Quite!” she said in her most commanding princess voice. “There are important matters we need to discuss with your father, and time is of the essence.”

“Tell us what’s happening,” begged one of the girls.

“We never hear anything at all on boring old Flame,” complained the second.

Before the third triplet could add her part to the chorus, their father and mother swept into the great hall. Word of their visitors had obviously reached them, and they were prepared to greet then and offer their hospitality. King Tamin Flame, and his wife, Tawn, who also happened to be his distant cousin, were so similar in appearance that they might well have been twins rather than husband and wife. They were both tall, thin and pale, with long, pale-blond hair, traits they shared with their daughters. The family also shared pale-blue eyes.

“Now now, girls,” said the king, “let’s get our guests settled down with some food and drink before we overwhelm them with questions.”

“Father!” said all three of the triplets in the same annoyed tone.

“We haven’t heard the story of why they are here,” Tam Tam pointed out.

“Or how they got here, and how long they are staying,” objected Miri.

“Or who the Skull prince is,” added Andita, throwing Nudge a coquettish smile.

King Tamin Flame was a good man, a kind man, but it was said about him that he had never won an argument with any of the women in his family. It was quite obvious to anybody who saw him with his wife and daughters that he doted on his wife and spoiled the triplets. He smiled at his children but made no attempt to quiet them.

His wife, however, merely had to lock eyes with each of the girls in turn, and they got the message quite clearly. “Now, everyone, please tell us what you wish to eat, and we will have it prepared for you,” the queen assured their guests.

“We have no time or need for food, Lady Flame,” Hildy said. “We have important news and much to discuss with yourself and the king.”

The queen took this in stride, and sent the girls off to do their chores. Then she led their unexpected visitors to a quiet corner of the great hall where there were comfortable seats and couches. After everyone was seated, she motioned Hildy to proceed.

As quickly and succinctly as possible, Hildy told the king and queen all that had transpired. The king and queen listened, growing more and more alarmed as the stories were told. When she had finished, Hildy introduced Sanara and let her tell of the events in her kingdom. If king Aluff was perturbed at not being chosen for this task, he didn’t show it in any way.

At last, when all had been said about what had led them all to this place, Hildy introduced Prince Nujeem. Nudge told the king and queen all about his father’s plans to rule the world. He did not paint a pretty picture of the man at all. To finish his speech, Nudge came right out and said, “My father is an evil man, and he will come to this kingdom with his soldiers and their new weapons. And he has been training a lot of soldiers, and building a lot of ships.”

The queen understood that it was not her place to speak before the king in this instance. She turned her head and looked at her husband expectantly.

“Well, I really don’t think we have anything to worry about,” the king said, after clearing his throat several times. “Our daughters are already promised in marriage to three Skull princes, one they reach the proper age of seventeen.”

Everyone else exchanged looks of surprise.

“Sir,” said Nudge evenly, “I am one of the princes that are supposed to marry one of your daughters. But I seriously doubt that my father will wait. He has found that warfare and conquest are a much faster and more direct path to his goals.”

“Then what would you have me do?” asked the king. “I don’t have any more trained soldiers than any of the other kingdoms had, and he didn’t have any trouble, according to what you have all told me, taking them over by force.”

Hildy couldn’t contain herself. “We have to train more troops. We have to start forging weapons like those of the enemy. We need to contact queen Shylar on Smilingman and warn her, join forces with her. We have to act while there is still time!”

“I have known king Nornan Skull for many years, and I have a hard time believing he is as bad as you are all making him out to be,” the king insisted.

“Something changed in my father when his first and favorite wife, Shatima, died,” said Nudge. “And then Rasp, his pet wizard, showed up. He came from the poorest town in the kingdom, and somehow talked his way into my father’s inner circle, preying on his depression over the death of his wife. He has twisted my father’s thinking over the years. Our kingdom used to be a good place to live, but not now. It is a dark place, where people turn their neighbors over to the authorities for voicing displeasure and sons and daughters denounce their own parents.”

“We have already reached an agreement,” the king said with great conviction. “Once his sons and my daughters are married, we will all be family.”

“Well, he has had four of his own sons executed for supposedly plotting against him, although there was scant proof brought forward,” Nudge informed the king. “As I said, I doubt he will wait patiently for the weddings to take place. But even if he does, I guarantee that soon afterwards, something unfortunate will happen to you and your wife, in order to place the Skull family firmly in control of your kingdom.”

“I just can’t believe that Nornan has changed all that much,” the king said, but whether to convince those around him or himself, it was impossible to say.

“He ordered my husband to be killed in cold blood,” said princess Zareena in a voice as cold as a headstone in winter.

The king seemed unable to reply to that remark. The queen realized there was no point in pushing her husband to make a decision right away. “You have given my husband much to think about,” she said into the hanging silence. “Please, let us show you our hospitality while he takes a while to decide what is best to do, for both our people and our daughters. I’m sure we have room to put you all up in comfort.”

“We will stay on the ship,” replied Hildy, not at all happy about this lack of action. “That way, if a fleet of Skull ships arrives, at least we will have some small chance at escape before your kingdom becomes yet another of their holdings.” And with that, the group bid their goodbyes and departed.

When they got back to the Wavebounder, they were greeted at the rail by captain Reef and captain Crest of the Shooting Star. They each had huge grins on their faces. Captain Reef gave Hildy an elaborate bow. When he straightened, he stepped back, turning as he did so, and raising his hand, he made a sweeping gesture.

Hildy looked past the captain, following the sweeping hand. A large group of men were gathered on the deck of the Wavebounder. Hildy saw, on the hems of their tunics, the green borders of Evergreen, the gold of Middle, the red of Flame, the purple of Dancer, and the orange of Smilingman. She also saw the blue borders of Halfmoon, her own kingdom. She looked questioningly at the captain.

“While you lot have been being given the royal treatment you no doubt deserve, captain Crest and I have been visiting a few old friends,” said the captain, still grinning widely. “There are eighteen other ships in port, my Lady, besides the two already sworn to your service. As of now, all those other ships take their orders from you as well.”

The gathered captains all gave a cheer, and Hildy felt tears come to her eyes. “But, how, why, why would they all take orders from me?”

“Well, we sailors are a strange lot,” explained captain Reef. “We have all known the freedom of the open ocean. We might call one kingdom home, but we live on, by and with the sea. That is more our true home, when it comes right down to it. We wouldn’t do well under the Skulls. We don’t like to be told where to go or what to do, at least not by those for whom we have no respect. They took my ship once. They won’t do it again. None of these men will give up their ships without a fight. Those that were lucky enough to be at sea when their kingdoms fell, they have nowhere else to go, and the rest, well, they can see the way the tide is running, clear enough.”

Hildy was so moved she couldn’t speak.

“My Lady,” captain Reef continued, “you may not have much of an army yet, but by the wind and waves, you have a navy now!”

The gathered captains cheered once more, loudly, and for a long while.

**********

Chapter Twelve

 

Hildy leaned against the deck railing of the Wavebounder, gazing out over the water at her fleet of ships. Twenty ships, all under her command, the sails in the various colors of all the kingdoms, gave the entire bay the air of some sort of festival, but her heart was heavy. Her mood more closely matched the black sails of the Wavebounder that hung above her. The morning was wearing on, and though they had gone to speak to the king at about the same time the day before, still no word had come to them from the palace.

Hildy felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to find Sanara standing there. The girl had fire in her eyes. “We are wasting too much time,” Sanara said, “but I have an idea. I just need some money.”

Hildy was intrigued, and asked what the money was to be used for.

“I want to go into town and buy some leather,” Sanara explained, “some rooter hides to cut up to make slings. I am going to make them for everyone, and then I am going to teach everybody how to use them.”

She sounded so determined, and the plan was so simple, so obvious, that Hildy found herself ashamed. She had been standing around and feeling sorry for herself, waiting for things to happen instead of making them happen. She impulsively threw her arms around Sanara and hugged her tightly. “Thank you,” she told the young farm girl sincerely, then led her by the hand across the deck to where captain Reef was talking to his nephew.

“Captain,” Hildy said to him, “I need to know how many sailors we have on all twenty ships.”

The captain considered this for a moment. “There are, on average, thirty men on each ship, princess. A few more on the larger, a few less on the smaller, but I can find out the exact number if you give me an hour or two.”

Hildy told him that was unnecessary, then did some quick math in her head. She had brought slightly more than fifty soldiers from Evergreen, Sanara had brought four more. When she included the small band of royalty, and the sailors from all the ships, she was shocked to realize that there were over six hundred and fifty people waiting around doing absolutely nothing, all because she had been doing absolutely nothing.

Hildy decided that the time for doing nothing was at an end. “Captain, I need the longboat to take Sanara, Tull and Tolly ashore. Your men should accompany them when they go into town to do some shopping. I also need to find out how much money we have. I plan to gather all of it together, and then divide it up amongst several of the ships, so that we won’t lose it all if something happens to split up the fleet. And I am going to need some tools. Knives, axes, whatever we can find in the ship’s carpenter shop.”

“I will take the other longboat around, and speak to all the captains, and return with all the coins we have,” said the captain. “We have no carpenter on the Wavebounder now, but the tools are still here, and I am sure that my nephew won’t mind going and getting them.” He cast his eyes on his nephew, who left to fulfill this task. The captain went of to get the longboats ready.

Hildy, still followed by Sanara, went over to the stern rail of the ship, where Tull and Tolly Caster were dangling fishing lines into the water. Hildy explained to them that they were to accompany Sanara into Flametown and help her purchase and carry rooter hides back to the ship.

“Well, the fish aren’t biting, so we might as well go shopping,” Tolly said. “The fish never bite when Tull is around.”

“I’ve caught more fish in my life than you have,” Tull shot back.

“Fish hate you,” his brother responded.

“Maybe they like you better because they know you are no smarter than they are,” his brother suggested.

“Maybe we can settle this at another time,” Hildy said in some exasperation. Within a short while, Sanara, the brothers, and four of the soldiers who now crewed the Wavebounder, were rowing towards the docks with all of the money that Hildy had brought with her when she left home just a little over twenty days earlier.

Before the captain left in the other longboat, Hildy asked them to row over and bring back the four Dancer soldiers from the Shooting Star, along with their staves. By the time the boat was back, Hildy had captain Nius Tar and the soldiers from Evergreen gathered on the deck of the Wavebounder, also with their staves. Before her lay two small axes and some knives, chisels, and a saw.

Hildy addressed captain Tar and the men gathered around her. “I have decided that we are going to sharpen our staves to a point on one end. It won’t be quite as effective as the iron points the Skulls use, but it should even the odds a little, until we can make some blades of our own.”

The captain gave Hildy an impressed smile, and there was a wicked gleam in his eyes. “A brilliant idea, princess! We can harden the points in the cooking fire in the galley. That will make then even stronger. They should be able to pierce armor.”

Hildy had gone to fetch her own staff, and, picking up a knife, she set to work on it. As the men formed lines around the tools, Hildy went on to explain some of her ideas. “Eventually, I want to get staves for all the sailors on all the ships, sharpen them, and then train the sailors how to use them. Soon, thanks to Sanara, we will all have slings, and we will need to start learning how to use them too. But until then, captain, I want you and your men to start developing a fighting technique that incorporates stabbing and thrusting and not just hitting. Can you do that?”

“Yes, my Lady, I think that sounds like it might be fun,” said the captain with a malicious grin. However, I would once again remind you that these men are your men, not mine.” Around them, the soldiers were nodding in agreement with the captain’s statement. They also began to speak amongst themselves, excited over the prospect that they were preparing to strike back at the Skulls with a chance to beat them at their own game. The rockwood staves were not easy to sharpen, but they set to the task with a will.

As she finished putting the point on her staff, Hildy happened to glance over the railing, and she saw the ship’s longboat returning, followed by two more longboats loaded with sailors. Captain Reef was in the lead boat. She went to greet him as he climbed over the rail.

“My Lady, I had no doubt that my fellow captains would see the merit of your plan to collect and tally all our finances in order to fund our mission,” the captain said. “But I thought that perhaps the sailors might try to hold on to a little spending money, just out of habit, you might say.”

Hildy was surprised by this announcement. “I didn’t actually expect them to give up their own coins. I just wanted the money the ships used for trade.”

“Princess Hildy,” the captain replied, “the ships have very little money, and that mostly to pay the crews and for emergencies. Traders trade in goods, not coin, taking a share of the cargo they transport. Eventually, the captains do sell the extra goods, but most of the money goes back into repairing and outfitting the ships, paying the crew, and paying off personal debts to keep their houses running. There are very few rich captain running around out there. I explained, and each captain explained, that the men don’t need any money of their own. You will make sure they are all fed, and to do that, you do need money. We, the captains, also pointed out that nobody was going to have any time to go ashore and go drinking and carousing at the taverns, so the money wasn’t going to do them any good anyway, and there is no way they can send any money they had left over home right now.”

While she listened, Hildy watched as the sailors on the longboats hoisted four large chests aboard the ship. She noticed that most of the sailors who had come on the longboats remained on the Wavebounder when the other longboats returned to their own ships. Captain Reef explained this too. “I asked for some crewmen to sign onto our ship, to free up your soldiers for training and fighting. They can’t very well sail the ship and do that at the same time, if we run into trouble.”

Hildy thanked the captain, and then they set about opening the four chests and began counting the coins. All the soldiers on deck, seeing what was happening, walked over and dropped whatever coins they had into the chests as well. Hildy was, once again, deeply moved. As she continued to count and pile coins, Sanara and the two argumentative brothers returned in the other longboat. Tull, Tolly and the four soldiers began to unload a large stack of hides onto the deck. Hildy had a few of the new Wavebounder crewmen take over from this task so the four soldiers could join their fellows and sharpen their staves.

Sanara wasted no time at all. She laid one of the hides on the deck and then borrowed a knife from one of the sailors unloading the rest of the hides. She began to cut long, thin strips from the hide. Tull and Tolly watched her for a while, asked a few questions, and then also borrowed knives and began to copy her. A few of the soldiers who had been slingers, and had finished sharpening their staves, also joined in, and so did Lawry and Zar. Sanara then began to cut small, rectangular pieces of hide, using the knife to make a hole at each end. These would serve as the pouch to hold the stone. She tied a thong to each hole in one of the small pieces she had cut, completing the sling. Soon, a pile of slings was growing on the deck.

As Hildy finished her counting, the other princesses came over to her and handed her their small bags of coins, and then went back to helping make more slings. King Aluff, who had been lounging on the ship’s rail, upon seeing this, followed their lead, and even joined in the work of making even more slings. Hildy counted the rest the new coins and divided them evenly into the four chests. Hildy felt a warm glow filling her. To have so many people trusting her, counting on her, it was beyond anything she had ever experienced before in her life.

“Captain,” Hildy said to captain Reef, “will you have three of these chests taken to whichever of the ships whose captains you trust the most?” Then, we are going ashore with the last chest, you and I, and a few of your sailors. I have some more shopping to do.”

As the sun set, Hildy was seated on top of a very uncomfortable pile of tools in one of the longboats, heading back to the Wavebounder. Captain Reef sat perched on a similar pile in the other boat that followed along behind the first. Hildy was surprised to see a small armada of longboats ahead of them, all in a neat row, and all heavily-laden, also heading towards the ship. When her boat caught up to the last of the other boats, she saw Tolly perched on something that left him so high in the air that he was almost above the gunnels of the boat, which was riding so low in the water that it seemed in danger of sinking at any moment.

“What have you got there?” Hildy called across to Tolly, as her boat came abreast of the other boat.

“River rocks,” Tolly called back at her. The four sailors were barely able to move the craft through the water.

Tull sat on the pile in the next boat. As Hildy’s boat caught up to it, she asked, “more river rocks?”

“Yup,” replied Tull, who, like his brother, was very dirty and seemed in no mood for small talk.

The next two boats they passed had only sailors and stones, but the next boat, the lead boat in the line, contained Sanara, looking dirty and tired but oh so proud of herself. “I am very impressed,” Hildy said as they slowly pulled by the other boat.

“Don’t be yet,” Sanara told her. “To be honest, it takes years of practice to be accurate with a sling. All we can hope for now is to get everybody sending the stones in more or less the right direction. And we are going to need a lot more stones just to get to that point. What have you got in your boats?”

“Every knife, axe, pitchfork, scythe, hoe, rake and wooden pole from every tool shop in Flametown,” Hildy said with a grim grin.

**********

Chapter Thirteen

 

Hildy didn’t sleep well that night. There were too many plans and worries bouncing around in her head. She woke late and immediately felt guilty about letting everyone down on top of the guilt she had always felt about sleeping in captain Reef’s bed, the largest and most comfortable bed on the ship. The captain, on their first night at sea after they had retaken his ship, had pointed out that his cabin was the only place on the ship that the princesses would be able to have any privacy, not only for sleeping but for making plans as well. He had also pointed out that, since the Skulls had commandeered his vessel, he had been sleeping in a small bunk below decks with the Skull crewmen, and saw no reason why he couldn’t continue sleeping there.

As her eyes came open, Hildy became aware of exactly what it was that had awakened her from her prolonged slumber. There was quite a bit of noise out on deck. People were talking, and there was a lot of thumping and bumping and stamping about, as well as a number of peculiar splashing sounds that seemed to be emanating from somewhere close to the Wavebounder.

She prepared herself quickly for the day and then opened the cabin door and stepped outside, and the sights that greeted her were quite astounding. Dozens of men, both soldiers and sailors, lined the railing on one side of the ship. They were all busily engaged in slinging stones, and, as soon as they let one stone fly, they would each turn, stoop, and pick up another stone from large piles behind them. She went to the rail and stepped carefully between two of the men. A hundred or so feet from the ship, someone had anchored a row of small water casks that bobbed in the gentle swells. She watched as rocks plopped into the bay all around these floating targets. Occasionally, there was a resounding thunk as one of the men scored a hit, and all the rest redoubled their efforts to match this shot. Sanara was walking behind the slingers, giving them pointers and encouragement.

Hildy greeted Sanara with a huge smile, telling her how impressive this all seemed. Sanara returned the smile. “Princess, if you look around, you will see that there are men practicing on some of the other ships as well. I sent the few slingers from Evergreen over to give them lessons. Also, I have brought more sailors over to the Wavebounder to continue making more slings, and I sent more boats to gather more river stones.”

When Hildy turned to admire the work being done manufacturing more slings, she spotted captain Tar and some of his soldiers busy practicing with their new spears. She decided to join them. Captain Tar showed her the new fighting style they were developing, and she spent some time, after going to fetch her own staff, standing in line with the soldiers, following the bellowed orders of the captain.

It occurred to her that, as useful as having a line of men all able to thrust and jab in unison might be, that, in real combat, the fighting would often rapidly break down into individual combat. She had the men stop what they were doing. She instructed the soldiers to pair off and spar with each other, using the blunt ends of their spears as if they were the sharpened ends.

“Above!” shouted a voice from over near the railing, and everyone on deck stopped what they were doing to scan the sky above them. A large river stone thumped down on the deck not far from Hildy.

“Sorry!” yelled one of the novice slingers, a chagrined look on his face. “Not as easy as it looks.”

Twice more, while Hildy sparred with captain Tar, whom she easily beat most of the time thanks to her father’s training, the call of “above” rang out, forcing everyone to cease whatever they were doing in order to avoid being brained by falling rocks. After a while, captain Tar sent that group of soldiers to the railing to practice with the slings, while another group, many of them sailors, took their turn at spear work. Hildy also took her first turn at using a sling. Her very first throw went wild, forcing her to yell “above” as so many had before her. Sanara gave her a few tips, and the next stone at least went in the right direction, though it landed nowhere near the barrel she was aiming at. Sanara went off to try her hand at learning to fight with a spear, while another of the Evergreen slingers took over as instructor.    “How are we supposed to get any work done when we have to keep stopping and dodging rocks?” Tolly Caster yelled from where he and his brother were helping Lawry, Zar, Aluff and a group of sailors make even more slings.

“Yes, it really is most inconsiderate,” his brother agreed with a loud laugh.

Near them, another group of men were removing the heads from hoes and rakes, then sharpening the handles on one end, adding them to their growing collection of improvised spears. Still others were attempting to figure out the best, most effective way to use the large woodsman axes in combat against other soldiers, who tried to keep them at a distance with their own spears. A few men had even carved rough wooden copies of the large knives Hildy had purchased a supply of, so they could practice fighting with those.

Hildy and the others learning to use slings had to cease their slinging as more longboats arrived from shore carrying more river rocks to the ships that had received finished slings. Hildy practiced until she could send stones more or less at the barrel she was trying to hit most of the time. While she was drinking water from the dipper of one of the large casks of water near the ship’s wheel, princess Zareena approached her.

“How are you, Zar?” Hildy asked, still deeply concerned over her friend’s depression. Zar looked into her eyes and began to cry. Hildy took her in her arms and held her.

After a while, Zar pulled back. There were still tears in her eyes, but her voice was steady. “The first boy I ever liked was a woodsman’s son. I don’t know why I didn’t think to mention this sooner, but rockwood staves are actually quite easy to gather. The rockwood trees grow their branches evenly spaced, and they are very straight. It is just a question of climbing the trees with saws or axes and chopping off the branches that are the right thickness.”

Hildy was more amused than angry. “I don’t know why nobody else thought to mention it either, or why I didn’t already know it.” They both burst out laughing.

“Oh, and I should probably tell you one other thing,” said Zar quietly. “I’m pregnant.” They hugged and cried and laughed for a long while, garnering some speculative glances from the people around them.

Afterwards, Hildy went and talked once more with captain Reef, explaining about the rockwood trees. Within the hour, six ships were sent forth from the bay, carrying all the saws and the big axes used by woodsmen. “Leave it them,” captain Reef assured Hildy. “Sailors might not be woodsmen, but they know how to climb.”

The day went by, still with no word from the king, and the next day as well. Hildy was angered to be left waiting like this, when every moment counted, but she felt that, at least, they were making some real headway. By the end of the next day, seven days after the Shooting Star had arrived, every single crewman and soldier on all the ships had a spear and a sling, and were learning how to use them. More hides had been purchased to make large pouches to hold rocks for the slings. These satchels had straps so they could be slung over the shoulder. This would give everyone a good supply of ammunition to use in battle. Longboats were constantly shuttling back and forth between the mouths of the two closest rivers, bringing back loads of river stones to be loaded below decks on each and every ship, and so that the men could continue their pracitce.

Hildy stood on deck, surrounded by men practicing with slings and spears. She watched king Aluff, Lawry, Zar, Nudge and the two Caster brothers, poking and swinging at one another with the blunt, padded ends of their spears. She rubbed a bruise on her shoulder where captain Tar had got past her guard and thumped his spear into her. She was discussing with captain Reef whether or not it made sense to paint the Wavebounder back to her normal colors.

“We could do that, princess,” captain Reef told her, “but we can’t put the old blue sails back on her. They took the sails away, no doubt to dye them black and put them on some other ship they captured at a future time. They had spare black sails on a supply ship, all ready to use on any ship they commandeered. We haven’t got any dye or near enough paint to set her right. Besides, I have a feeling that someday, it might come in handy to have a ship done up in Skull colors. We might…” He didn’t finish the thought, but put up a hand to shade his eyes.

Hildy turned to see what he was staring at so intently. She didn’t see anything unusual, just the empty mouth of the bay. The captain let out a shrill whistle, and a sailor ran to the main mast, pausing to grab a white flag attached to a short pole, and, sticking the pole through his belt, he scrambled up the rigging to the lookout nest at the top of the mast.

The captain began to bellow orders. “Clear the decks. All weapons away, but keep them handy. Sailors, to your stations. Prepare the ship to get under way on my command.” He then went back to staring at the mouth of the bay while the sailors moved swiftly to their appointed duties and the soldiers got out of their way.

“Belay that,” the captain suddenly yelled, still peering into the distance. “Stay at your stations, and be ready to hoist the anchor and set the sails. And keep the deck clear.”

Hildy was completely mystified. She had watched the sailor in the lookout nest waving his flag in complicated patterns, and she could see, on the nearer ships, that men were scrambling to do the same things that the men on the Wavebounder were doing, but she had no idea what had set all this in motion. “Captain, what is it?”

“One moment, princess,” the captain said, then yelled to the sailor up above, “signal all ships to be ready to raise anchors and set sail on my order.” Then the captain turned back to stare out towards the open sea once more. “I have been having men take turns climbing that tall tree on the hill above the mouth of the bay. They have signal flags. I wanted to have some warning should a Skull fleet suddenly appear.”

“The Skulls are here?” Hildy asked, horrified. “Why aren’t we making ready to flee?”

“That is the strange thing, my Lady,” the captain said to her. “The Skulls are indeed here, but there is only one Skull ship, as far as the lookouts can see.”

**********

Chapter Fourteen

 

By the time the black ship entered the bay, there was nothing happening on the decks of any of the ships in the harbor that would give even the slightest hint of their preparations for war. An expected number of sailors on each ship were relaxing or going about routine chores. A few were fishing, a handful were, supposedly, dozing. The black ship seemed to studiously ignore all the other ships, most especially the black ship that was already in port, as it anchored close to the docks.

Hildy and her commanders, as she had come to think of her royal friends, were in the captain’s cabin with captain Reef, watching the Skull ship through the windows and the half-opened door. The black ship had anchored too far away for them to see the faces of the crew, but they watched and discussed their options.

“I think that fellow pacing the deck waiting for the longboat to be launched is my half-brother, prince Dezlore,” said Nudge.

“My lookouts still aren’t reporting any other Skull ships approaching, princess,” the captain informed her.

“Well, if the Skull prince is going ashore to speak to the king, then maybe I should try to see if I can attend the meeting as well,” suggested Hildy.

“Our boats are already in the water,” the captain reminded her. “You can beat the Skulls to the castle if you hurry.”

As the Skull sailors were still hoisting a longboat off the deck and into the water, Hildy and Nudge were climbing into one of the Wavebounder’s boats and being rowed rapidly to shore. They arrived at a dock before the Skull party had climbed into their own longboat, and they beat the Skulls to the castle even though they had farther to walk.

Hildy and Nudge, wearing plain white tunics, found a corner of the great hall beside one of the huge fireplaces, where they could remain inconspicuous in the shadows. They kept their backs to the room while pretending to admire a small statue set in a niche. The statue was carved of rockwood and was of a king who had lived long ago. It was exactly the sort of thing that two young people from a farm or fishing village on the other side of the kingdom and had never been to the castle before might well stop and gawk at. Other visitors were wandering about, taking in the sights of the castle as well, and enhancing their camouflage.

The Skull prince and his escort of four soldiers entered the great hall simultaneously with the king and queen, though from opposite ends. “Yes, that’s my half-brother, prince Dezlore, alright,” Nudge confirmed, casting a quick glance over his shoulder. “He is also one of the princes who is supposed to marry one of the triplets once they come of age.”

“Will he recognize you?” Hildy asked, concerned.

“Not a chance,” Nudge answered. “We have been in the same room once or twice, but have never so much as said a word to each other. I doubt he would even remember it.”

“Greetings, prince,” the king was saying to his visitor. “We were just informed that your ship had sailed into our bay, and that you were on your way to the castle. And which Skull prince, exactly, do I have the honor of addressing?”

“I am Dezlore Vardigo Skull,” the prince answered. “It is to be my honor to marry one of your daughters.”

The king pretended to make a joke of this assertion. “Well, young Sir, you are a little early for the ceremony, I’m afraid. Three-and-a-half-years too early, to be precise.”

“Yes, most amusing, but things have changed, you see,” the prince said, sounding not at all amused. “My father has decided that, with all the troubles in the world, it would be better to move the dates of the weddings up a little.”

The king looked flustered by this pronouncement. “Moved up to when, exactly, young man?”

“There is a fleet of ships preparing to set sail from our homeland even as we speak, carrying two of my brothers. We seem to have, uh, misplaced one of the princes that was to have taken part in this historic alliance, but, not to worry, we found a suitable replacement. There is no shortage of Skull princes, you can be sure of that. I expect they will arrive the day after tomorrow.” The prince was a sour-faced individual, with the sallow complexion and dark hair of so many of his kin. He had a tendency to smirk. He also looked to be approaching middle age.

“This is preposterous!” complained the king. “My daughters are children. They are far too young to begin married life.”

“Yes, well, I assure you that they will be treated with all due respect,” the prince replied, sounding as if he wasn’t really sure that he believed his own words. “This isn’t at all an unusual occurrence in our kingdom, young ladies being married at this age, I mean. And, as I have said, the world is changing. These are troubling times. It would be best for you and your daughters, and indeed your entire kingdom, if you fell under the protection of our empire.”

“Protection?” asked the king in some confusion, “Protection from whom, exactly?”

“Protection from the vagaries and unforeseen difficulties of these tumultuous times,” replied the prince, his smirk now bordering on a sneer.

“I need time to consider this,” the king objected.

“Certainly, that is most reasonable,” the prince conceded. “You have until the day after tomorrow.” And with that, and a smile that definitely crossed the line into the territory of a sneer, the prince turned and swept out of the great hall followed by his four soldiers.

The king and queen spoke earnestly to each other for a while in tones too low for Hildy and Nudge to overhear from where they still pretended to be engrossed in the study of the small statue. At last, the king left the hall, looking not only lost in thought but lost in every sense of the word. As soon as the king was gone, the queen came over to stand behind Hildy and Nudge.

“It’s a lovely carving, isn’t it, Hildy?” the queen began. “It is of king Harlopp. It was said about him that, though he was over fond of his wine, he was a great king and loved to spend hours talking about anything at all with any farmer, fisherman, trader or craftsman that came to the castle.”

“We meant no disrespect by our eavesdropping, my Lady,” Hildy told the queen, “but we had to know what the Skulls have in mind. How long have you known we were here, if I might ask?”

“Hildy, I’ve known you since you were a baby,” the queen told her. “I spotted you the moment I came into the hall. I, too, wanted you to hear what the Skull prince had to say. And I am sorry that my husband hasn’t yet made a decision regarding all this. He is not a strong man. A good man, yes, but he is no fighter. I couldn’t, out of love and loyalty, push him any further than I did. Nor could I take it upon myself to initiate anything. But that time is past. The Skull prince said it best himself. These are troubling times. Word has reached me of your preparations to stand up to these Skull vermin… uh… no offense intended, young prince,” the queen amended, reaching out a hand to touch Nudge lightly on the shoulder.

“None taken, I assure you, my Lady,” Nudge said hastily.

“Now,” the queen continued, however reluctantly, “my husband is still unable to come to grips with this crisis. He cannot bring himself to commit his people to a war he does not think they can win. He is overwhelmed. He is adrift, and the storm will either drive him before it, or it will sink him. But my daughters will not sink with him. You must sail before the Skull fleet arrives, and you must take my precious children with you.”

“Certainly, my Lady,” Hildy agreed.

“I will bring them tonight,” the queen went on. “I don’t know where you can go, other than Smilingman. Perhaps queen Shylar will heed your words and be more willing to take up arms. I don’t see how victory is possible. I may only be buying my daughters a few weeks or months of freedom, and I may even be dooming my own kingdom to worse treatment at the hands of our enemies, but I will not hand them over while there is still a chance for something better. I will also bring you what I can to help in your struggle.” And with that, the queen embraced them each in turn, and then strode purposefully from the great hall.

Hildy and Nudge returned to the Wavebounder. Hildy was anxious, and more than that, she felt she had, without meaning to, set in motion the events that had led to so much misery being loosed upon the world. After brooding for a time, she reconsidered. She hadn’t caused the world’s troubles. Sped them up, perhaps, but not caused them. This was all the doings of the Skulls. And in a way, she decided, it might all be for the best. An enemy in the open was easier to fight against than one who crept into your kingdom through marriage, plot and intrigue, and then began to spread its poisonous rot from the inside. She steeled herself, knowing that she would give her last breath if need be to rid the world of this scourge.

The fleet was quieter than it had been in some time, playing the part of trading ships with nowhere to trade. No training could be done with the other black ship anchored close by. She wondered what prince Dezlore thought when he looked across the water and saw the Wavebounder, still in her black and white paint, with her black sails furled. Did he wonder if his half-brother was still aboard? She met with her commanders, told them what had occurred, and they once again discussed options while waiting for the queen to contact them.

The day dragged by, and the sun set. Hildy, once again in the uniform of an Evergreen soldier, paced the deck in the darkness. Her leather armor was hanging by the door of the captain’s cabin. She had a strange feeling she was going to be needing it soon. Not long after the sun set, a sailor on watch at the ship’s railing called her over.

“There is a boat approaching,” he informed her. “It carries no lanterns.”

“Good man,” Hildy responded. She was about to tell him to go fetch the captain, but the captain appeared, passing through a small puddle of light from one of the ship’s dim lanterns, and joining them at the railing. The captain peered intently into the darkness, lit only by a thin moon and a myriad of stars.

“That would be the company you are expecting,” the captain said with absolute certainty. “Four women in hooded cloaks, three of them very young, four sailors manning the oars, and four soldiers.”

Hildy once again marveled at the captain’s incredible eyesight as she waited for the queen and her daughters to climb up to the Wavebounder’s deck, joined and aided by the four Flame soldiers as well as by captain Reef. The three princesses immediately began chatting and asking questions, but their mother shushed them.

“I have much news, Hildy,” the queen said, once the girls had quieted and been shown the way to the captain’s cabin by the captain himself. “I have made some arrangements. Since my husband has no intention of using his soldiers, I have decided to send most of them with you. I love my husband dearly, but I love this kingdom just as much. Did you know that, before I became queen, I was the daughter of a shopkeeper in Flametown? That is where my husband first met me.”

“I had not heard that story, my lady,” Hildy admitted.

“My husband will forgive me. He will know that I have done what I am doing for our children and our people. I have cousins in the army. My older brother is a captain in the royal guard. I met with them, and they talked to the men. Almost all of them have volunteered to follow you, to fight the Skulls, even if they will not fight them here, at least for now. We all know this is our best chance. Hold Smilingman, Hildy, build an army, and then come back and liberate us. Liberate all the kingdoms. There is no other way.” The queen grasped Hildy’s hands as she spoke.

“I will do all that I can,” Hildy vowed, once more moved by the trust placed in her.

“There is more, the queen continued. “To make sure there is room for the 340 soldiers and 76 slingers, I am going to have my boat take me to all the Flame ships in the harbor, and ask the trader captain’s and crewmen to join you.”

Hildy gave an embarrassed cough. “My Lady, to be frank, your ships have already sworn loyalty to me, captain and crew.”

The queen gave a laugh of pure joy and hugged Hildy to her. “I knew I had placed my faith in the right person,” she said into Hildy’s ear. “My soldiers are also loading a large chest of coins and some other valuables onto your ship. Use them as you see fit.”

Hildy made a spontaneous decision. “My Lady,” she explained to the queen, “I will send boats to pick up your soldiers, so if you can have them all ready on the docks as soon as possible, I will need some of them for a little surprise I am planning for your unwanted guests on that Skull ship over there.”

“My men… your men… await your commands on the docks even now,” the queen said, “but what are you planning, my crafty young friend?”

“Have your soldiers that are staying here spread themselves out around the docks and beaches closest to the Skull ship,” Hildy replied, grinning into the darkness. “Because I am going to add one more ship to my fleet before we sail, and the crew that is on it now will be swimming ashore.”

**********

Chapter Fifteen

 

A short time later, Hildy sat in the bow of one of the Wavebounder’s longboats. Sanara sat beside her, sling ready, a rock in the sling’s pouch, and a bag full of rocks slung over her shoulder. Around them in the darkness, thirty longboats, packed with soldiers and sailors, plied the darkness of the bay. The boats broke up and moved to form a circle around the black ship, moving ever closer, making almost no sound.

As her boat neared the side of the ship, Hildy, looking up at the railings, spotted a head appear in the dim light of a watch lantern. The man opened his mouth to shout the alarm. Hildy heard a whirring sound and felt her hair stir in the breeze whipped up by Sanara’s whirling sling. The stone flew true, catching the man squarely in the throat. He fell back out of sight with a thump but no more noise than that.

Hildy had brought all of her Evergreen soldiers with her, and captain Nius Tar and thirty or so of the men were carrying staves tipped with the iron points they had captured after the battle of Evergreen. The rest had staves sharpened to deadly points. There were also a few sailors from the fleet who had proven adept at the new spear fighting techniques they were developing. All the men were carrying slings and bags of stones as well. The rest of the almost two hundred men of the boarding party were soldiers of Flame. They hadn’t been trained to fight in the new manner, and their staves weren’t sharpened yet, but captain Reef had assured her that the black ship would have a crew of no more than thirty sailors. He had also informed her that he had been watching the ship since it had arrived, and that he was certain there weren’t more than thirty soldiers aboard. Two hundred men against sixty had seemed like good odds to Hildy, especially if they kept the element of surprise.

Taking over the ship turned out to be remarkably easy. The few sleepy sailors on deck were taken prisoner quickly and quietly. Below decks, most of the men were asleep or playing games of chance. They looked up at the sound of doors opening to find armed men spilling through them. There was no time to put up a struggle.

Hildy knelt down and touched the man that Sanara had hit with the stone. He was dead. She looked up at Sanara and shook her head. The farmer’s daughter simply shrugged. When soldiers broke into the captain’s cabin, Hildy, Sanara and Nudge were right behind them. As they had expected, Nudge’s half-brother had appropriated the cabin for his own use. He was still sound asleep when the door was thrown open. There were two empty wine jugs on a small table by the bunk, and another lay on the sheets by the prince’s side. There was a large stain beside him, where the jug had spilled part of its contents. The prince did not wake up easily. Nudge had to shake him several times. When he did wake up, he wasn’t in the best of shape. He was completely unable to grasp what was happening.

“You are our prisoner,” Hildy told him, as he struggled to untangle himself from the sheets and sit up. He was completely naked, and didn’t seem to care at all.

“I’ve spilled my wine,” the prince whined. “Get me some more.”

Hildy exchanged an amused glance with Nudge. Nudge took it upon himself to try to enlighten his half-brother as to his new situation. “You don’t give orders here, you are our prisoner.”

The Skull prince blinked furiously a few times, and wiped at his eyes. He scratched at his stubble-covered, not-so-closely-shaven head. He was sweating profusely. He was paunchy, pale and extremely hairy, as Hildy was all too uncomfortably aware in his present state of undress. “I need more wine,” the prince stated firmly.

Hildy tossed him a black tunic with a white hem that she spotted on the floor by the bunk. “You will have plenty to drink in just a short while,” she told him with a smile. “Unfortunately, you will have to settle for salt water.”

“I don’t like water,” the prince mumbled. “I need more wine.”

“Get him out of bed and out on deck,” Hildy said, “and don’t bother being too gentle about it if he gives you cause.” With that, she led Sanara back out of the cabin, while several soldiers advanced on the drunken prince.

Not long after, the prince, twenty four Skull sailors, and twenty Skull soldiers stood clustered on the deck, surrounded by the much larger boarding party. Leed Reef, nephew of the captain of the Wavebounder, had been chosen to captain the captured vessel, and already had sailors preparing the ship for sea.

“So, who are you, exactly?” asked a still bleary-eyed prince Dezlore, whose eyes were actually closed when he asked the question.

“I am…” began Hildy, but was cut off by the captive prince.

“Oh, I have no doubt who you are,” the prince assured her. “I am speaking to the boy in the fancy Skull armor there.” He pointed at Nudge, then addressed him. “I assume you must be, uh, what did they call you? Nugs? Nubs? Whatever. My half-brother. We were told that you had been captured. We also assumed they would have killed you by now.”

“Well they aren’t at all like us, or they no doubt would have,” Nudge replied.

Hildy couldn’t stop herself from asking the obvious question. “Look, how is it that you two have never even spoken to one another in your entire lives?”

“You have to understand how strange things have become in our kingdom,” Nudge explained. “Our father, unlike the kings before him, has always had a multitude of wives, even back when his favorite was still alive. He has palaces in every city and town in the land. Often more than one, depending on how big the city or town is. Whenever he visits anyplace, young women, girls, really, are brought and presented to him by his sons or anyone else who wishes to curry favor. He marries them in a quick ceremony, and they spend one night together. Often, he never lays eyes on them again after that. They are only kept around the raise any male children, while the female children are sent back to their families.”

“They live like the queens they are,” objected prince Dezlore.

“Yes, while the people live like animals,” Nudge countered. There was some mumbling among the Skull soldiers and sailors at this exchange. “And things are getting worse,” Nudge continued. “New palaces are built while our people live in hovels or nowhere at all. The food goes to our ever-expanding royal family and its loyal retainers, while the people starve.”

Prince Dezlore scratched his stubble of black hair, first on his head, then on his cheek. The obvious had finally seeped into his wine-besotted head. “Wait, why are you wearing armor? Why are you carrying a pointy stick? And why are you arguing with me? You aren’t a prisoner at all, are you?”

“He isn’t our prisoner, not anymore,” Hildy confirmed. “He is our friend.”

Prince Dezlore looked suitably perturbed to be supplied with this information. In point of fact, he looked as though he had swallowed something unpleasant. He glowered at Nudge. “You traitor!” he shouted, spraying spittle.

“I showed as much loyalty as my king, our father, deserved,” said Nudge in a low, cold voice.

“We don’t have time for this now,” Hildy broke in. “You men are going to go for a nice little swim, and then you will be guests of the kingdom of Flame. No doubt you will be well treated, and released when your fleet arrives.”

A man stepped forward from the group of prisoners. Several of Hildy’s men swung their spear points in his direction, but Hildy immediately saw that this man, this boy, was no threat. He looked to be about her age, and he was pitifully thin and painfully filthy. “Prince Nujeem,” the boy said tremulously, “I am from your home town. Take me with you.” Several other of the Skull prisoners immediately joined him, crying out to be brought along.

Hildy hadn’t expected this at all. She was at a momentary loss for words. Prince Dezlore was also stunned by this mutiny on a ship he was no longer in command of, but he didn’t have to waste time searching for words. He was indoctrinated in repression and steeped in cruelty. “I will order the families of any man who stays to be put to death in the slowest and most painful manner I can come up with!” he screamed, more spittle catching the dim light of the watch lanterns.

Quiet fell over the dark deck of the dark ship. That was all Hildy needed to goad her into formulating a plan on the spot. She went and stood very close in front of the drunken prince. “I can’t leave you here to cause trouble, so I suppose I will have to take you with us.”

The prince had no reply to that.

Hildy began giving orders. “Captain Tar, tie this wretch up securely. Don’t spare the rope. You may have to use more rope to lower him into a longboat like a cask of water. Get some men to help you. If you drop him, I don’t much care, as long as you don’t damage the boat.”

There was nervous laughter among the other Skull prisoners as Hildy turned back to them. “As for the rest of you lot, you are now under my command. I took this ship, and, as you happened to be on it at the time, that means I took you, too. Call yourselves prisoners, call yourselves unwilling recruits, or call yourselves the newest members of the resistance, but call yourself lucky as well. I am going to divide you up among the ships of my fleet. Serve me well, and I will treat you as well as I do any of my men. Cause me any trouble, and I will lock you up with prince Dezlore.”

“But what of our families?” asked the young lad from Nudge’s home town.

“I swear that if we are ever in danger of being captured by your former masters, I will kill prince Dezlore before he has a chance to say that you were ever anything other than our prisoners.” She said this loudly and clearly, so that the drunken prince, from where he was being tied up, would hear and understand her words. Nudge suddenly gave a very loud and slightly maniacal laugh. Hildy turned towards him to see what he found to be so amusing.

“Hildy, I think you just became the first pirate captain to sail the sea in five hundred years!”

Hildy smiled but didn’t join in the general laughter, even though she enjoyed the jest as much or more than any of them. Another thought had popped into her mind, and she voiced the thought aloud. “I don’t know if I am the first female pirate, but I do believe that I am the very first princess pirate that there ever was.”

And not a man there could disagree with her.

**********

Chapter Sixteen

 

Hildy went back to snapping orders. A boat was sent to inform the soldiers on Flame that they wouldn’t be receiving a pack of wet, angry and unwanted visitors. Another boat was sent to retrieve captain Reef’s lookouts from the headland above the entrance to the bay. More longboats went scurrying off to deliver the twenty four Skull sailors and twenty Skull soldiers to various ships, as well as returning all the members of the boarding party to their own ships. These boats also took the new soldiers from Flame to be distributed among the vessels of the fleet.

Hildy returned to the Wavebounder, along with Sanara and Nudge, in the same boat carrying prince Dezlore. The man complained quite a bit, between demands for more wine, until Hildy threatened to have him gagged. Well before the sun began to lighten the sky, the fleet began to sail out of the bay. They would, captain Reef assured Hildy, reach Smilingman before darkness fell on the following day.

Hildy slept for a few hours, then donned her Evergreen soldier’s uniform, and stepped out on deck to start her day. It turned out that others had started it for her. The deck was awash with activity. The new Flame recruits, along with the handful of Skull prisoners that had ended up on the Wavebounder, were already busy, even though they hadn’t slept as long as she had. The soldiers and sailors already assigned to the ship were busy too.

Hildy watched as Flame soldiers sharpened points on their staves, the ones who had already finished that task were being put through spear drills by captain Tar, or were at the rail, slinging stones into the sea under direction of Sanara. The Skull prisoners were cleaning the deck, mending frayed ropes, and other assorted mundane chores.

Hildy spotted the young lad from the town where Nudge had grown up, helping a few other men, cutting new bits of hide to make more slings for the newest members of the resistance army. She also spotted captain Reef by the ship’s wheel. She went over to him. “I would like the Skull recruits trained in spear and sling when they finish their other duties.” She carefully did not use the word prisoner when referring to the men.

“Certainly, my Lady,” the captain replied. “I have gotten signals from the other ships. All the new men from Flame are being trained and reequipped, although we will run out of hides before we have slings for everyone. Also, the Skull sailor that was killed was buried at sea.”

Hildy nodded and glanced once more at Sanara. The girl seemed to be fine, but Hildy worried for her. She knew all too well that killing a man, no matter how good the cause, stayed with you. But if Sanara didn’t want to talk, Hildy wouldn’t press the issue. She hadn’t yet unburdened herself to anyone yet, either.

Hildy took a turn with the men, practicing the spear drills. She sparred individually with a few of them, giving them pointers and not going too hard on them. The Caster brothers came sauntering over to watch, taking a break from cutting hides for slings. After a few of their snide comments and bad jokes, Hildy became annoyed. “I’ve only seen you two practicing a couple of times. Since you are so confident in your abilities, why don’t you show us how good you are?”

The brothers took up the challenge. They dressed in some of the spare leather armor and helmets that the men took turns using. Then they squared off against each other. After they halfheartedly poked at one another with the blunt ends of a pair of staves, Hildy was even more annoyed. She stepped between them. “Look, if you aren’t even going to take this seriously, you are no good to us at all, because you will both be dead moments after our first real battle begins. So now, to make sure you do take this seriously, you are going to spar with me.”

The brothers exchanged amused glances. “Who do you want to lose to first?” asked Tolly.

“I have other things to do, so let’s make this a short lesson. I will take you both on at the same time.” Hildy gave them a pitying smile.

First, she had them attack her side by side. Three times they tried, and each time, all they got for their trouble were bruises and the chance to pick themselves back up off the deck. To even the odds, she let them come at her from opposite sides. Three more times they found themselves knocked down, still without so much as touching her with their staves.

Hildy felt that she had made her point, but she still drove the lesson home. “Practice more, and do it for real, or every time I have a minute to spare, I will make you my sparring partners. Pretend your life depends on it, because it probably will one of these days.” With that, she handed the staff and armor to another man to use, and walked towards the cabin. Every man on deck who had stopped to watch cheered.

Hildy washed the sweat off her face with a wet rag, enjoying the cool darkness of the captain’s cabin. Her mind, as it always did when she had a moment of peace, turned to war. She searched her thoughts, or let them run wild, trying to think of anything that could give them the slightest advantage over their enemies, of anything that was being left undone or perhaps something that could be done better. There was a knock on the door. It opened, and Sanara appeared as a silhouette framed by golden light.

Hildy smiled. She had been half expecting Sanara to come to her, to talk, to unburden herself. “You know, you sleep in here with the rest of us girls. It’s your room too. You don’t really have to knock.”

Sanara returned the smile. “I didn’t know if you were busy with something, or maybe just needed some time to yourself.”

“The Caster brothers can be a bit much, but they mean well. They have been almost like brothers to Lawry and I.” Hildy wasn’t going to push the girl.

“But all of this,” Sanara said, waving her hands about in an all encompassing manner, “nobody has ever done anything remotely like this, ever. We are all trying our best to help, but it all falls on you.”

“Really? Does it? Because I seem to recall a day not so long ago when I was just waiting to see what a king would say. Waiting and doing nothing at all. That is until a brave girl from a small farm woke me from my trance.” Hildy meant every word of what she said.

“I just knew I could help teach people how to use a sling. And that got me thinking that we should all have slings, and some stones to put in them. Because, really, slings are all I know, unless you need some breadgrass grown.” Sanara was looking down and scuffing one toe on a rug on the floor.

“Is there something you want to talk to me about?” Hildy prompted.

“Yes, there is,” Sanara said, and then paused before going on. “When we get to Smilingman, we are going to need to buy more leather. There isn’t enough to make slings for all the new men, or the bags for carrying the stones. And we will need more stones, too, no doubt, but I hate to lay more work on you.” She said all this in a rush, hands clenched into fists at her side, eyes glistening.

“I killed a man too, Sanara, in the battle of Evergreen. I may even have killed more than one, but that one, I looked into his eyes as I did it, in broad daylight, standing in front of him. He was a man I had met before. In fact, he was to have been my husband. I watched him die. And, even though he was an evil man, and I don’t regret doing what I did, I wish it had never happened. I wish the Skulls weren’t forcing us into these situations where anyone has to die.” Hildy’s voice quaked with emotion.

Sanara’s voice was breaking as she sought to put her feelings into words. “I don’t even know if the man I killed was a good man or a bad one. I still don’t know anything about him. I just saw his face appear. He was going to shout. I had to stop him from shouting. I didn’t even stop to think about what I was doing.”

Hildy stepped closer and grabbed Sanara tightly in a hug. She whispered in the girl’s ear. “I don’t know if he was a good man either. But I do know this. He was standing with evil men in this struggle. If you hadn’t stopped him from giving the alarm, we might have had to fight our way onto that ship with the enemy holding the better position, stabbing down at us with those spears of theirs. And if that had happened, good men would have died. Good men that we have come to know and care about.”

And they held each other in the cool dimness, both crying without making a sound, for a good long while. At last, Hildy pulled away. “How much leather do we have left?”

“We still have a good sized pile of hides on this ship. I’m not sure about the others, but not enough to equip all the new men,” Sanara replied.

“There is only one way to keep from dwelling on the past,” Hildy said. “That is to keep your hands and your head busy. As you are our resident expert on slings, I have three new students for you. Teach them to make them and to use them. I promise you, for the time it takes you to do both those things, you will not have room in your head for anything else.”

It took them a while to track down the triplets. A sailor said that he had seen them exploring below decks, but by the time they had searched the ship and returned to the deck, the three sisters were surrounding captain Reef by the wheel, bombarding him with questions and comments. The captain looked bemused, but when he saw Hildy and Sanara approaching, the look he gave them contained a clear plea to be saved.

“But isn’t it confusing to have two black ships, each with a captain named Reef?” Miri was asking.

“Perhaps, but the Skulls don’t name their ships as the rest of us do, so it is really the black ship and the Wavebounder,” the captain explained.

“Well, we should name the black ship!” squealed Tam Tam.

“Ooh, that would be fun,” agreed Andita.

“What if we call it the Reef?” suggested Miri.

“That would be hilarious,” added Tam Tam.

“Can I try steering the boat? Andita wanted to know.

“It’s a ship, not a boat, and it isn’t quite as easy as it might appear,” the captain replied, a note of exasperation creeping into his voice.

In all the time she had known him, Hildy had never known the captain to become exasperated. She took the opportunity to step in. “Girls, I have very important tasks for you. Sanara is going to teach you how to make slings. We need quite a lot of them. When you get tired of working on them, you can all start learning how to use them.”

“That sounds like fun,” said Tam Tam enthusiastically.

“How many do we need to make, exactly?” asked Andita.

“Are we going to be able to use them to throw rocks at the Skulls in a real battle?” Andita wondered.

Unfortunately, they all spoke at the same time. Not only that, but they all launched immediately into more questions and opinions without waiting for any answers or comments. Sanara gave Hildy a look that might almost have been panic. Hildy smiled brightly at her. “If you need any more help, just ask the Caster brothers.” And, feeling rather proud of herself, she walked off to find herself a snack.

**********

Chapter Seventeen

 

Hildy was almost at the stairs going down to the galley when Nudge cut her off. In his wake was the young boy from his home town. “Princess Hildy, I would like to introduce Farn Reaper, the young fellow who was, as you may recall, willing to join us voluntarily, at no small risk.” Nudge gestured at the lad, who bowed clumsily, but with true respect. “He has been telling me about home, and in particular, about my father’s preparations for war. It seems my father is taking the threat you represent very seriously.”

“Let’s all go get something to eat, and you can tell me about it,” she said, smiling at the boy. They sat down at one of the long benches at the long table with some bread, cheese and fish. The boy was painfully shy, but warmed to his subject quickly.

“My Lady,” he began, gathering speed as he went, “the kingdom is going mad. It is like a nest of cutter-bugs. Every man and boy who is strong and able enough is being put in the army, or sent to man the fleets of ships that are being built. The very young boys and the old men are all building more ships, or making weapons and armor. With all the men gone or busy, the women and girls are working the farms, although most of the food they grow goes to the army or the ships too. Anyone seen to not be working hard enough is taken away and never seen again.”

Hildy interrupted him. “What is happening in the kingdoms that have fallen?” She had been so busy that she hadn’t been thinking about her parents or her own people, she realized, feeling ashamed.

“I have no way of knowing, princess,” said the boy sadly. “But if the Black Robes can come and take anyone away and make them disappear in our own homeland, you can imagine that it is worse in other places.”

“Black Robes?” Hildy asked.

“The name is misleading,” explained the young Skull sailor. “They are the secret security forces of the king. They wear long, black robes with silver runes on them for regular duties. They wear them when they go out to make arrests, when someone is suspected of not being quite enthusiastic enough, or when someone denounces them. But they also dress in the tunics of peasants and workers and sailors, or the uniforms of regular soldiers. They join the workers building the ships, or making the weapons, or go to sea on the ships, or pose as soldiers in the army. You never know, unless the person working beside you is someone you knew from before, whether the man beside you is a black robe or not.”

Hildy was horrified. “That sounds like a horrible way to live.”

“That isn’t the worst,” Farn assured her. “People are turning in their neighbors or even their own family members. Sometimes it is out of a true sense of duty, but more often than not, they want to get rid of an old enemy, or repay some slight, or just to get the extra food that is offered for turning traitors in. Will a father punish a child for wickedness if that child can have his revenge with a word? Even the very meaning of wickedness has become lost to us, as long as it is done in the name of patriotism.”

“This means that there is most likely a Black Robe spy among the men from your ship,” Hildy considered aloud. The boy agreed that this was true, but said that he had no idea who this man might be. She thanked him, then told him that he was going to begin training as a full-fledged member of the resistance army. He thanked her for her time, her kindness, and the delicious food, and went back up on deck. Hildy and Nudge sat in silence for a while.

“I’m sorry I didn’t know about most of this, or I could have given you more warning,” Nudge said at last. “We princes in our royal households led a rather sheltered and secluded life. I knew things were bad, and getting worse, but that was all.”

I’m not sure how knowing this now is going to help us,” Hildy replied heavily. “Hopefully queen Shylar will believe us, and her reaction will be more helpful than that of the king of Flame.”

“Do you know queen Shylar well?” Nudge asked.

“I knew her when I was little,” Hildy answered. “She used to come and visit us, and I have been to Smilingman. But she was old, even back then, and a little strange, to be honest.” Nudge had no response to that.

Time flew by, with Hildy having none to spare. When she wasn’t sleeping, which she did seldom and never for long enough, her life was a whirlwind. At one point she broke up an argument between king Aluff and the triplets. Hildy was working on her fighting moves. One good thing to have come up was the fact that one of the Skull soldiers taken from the black ship, an older man, was something of an expert when it came to fighting with a spear. Hildy had sparred with him a few times, after he had bested captain Tar. The man was good. He could beat her as often as not. His name was Arch Storm. He had been in the Skull army since before the troubles started. They were taking a breather, discussing the finer points of their last bout.

“Princess,” Arch told her, “I only beat you that last time because you still think of your spear mostly as a staff. Your instincts and training tell you to swing it, to try to hit me with it, instead of trying to poke me. But this is not all bad. You also use your staff to block many of my thrusts. Skull soldiers have forgotten that a spear can still be used as a staff too. We need to combine these methods into one fighting style.”

Hildy smiled at the older man. “I want you to help captain Tar train the men. Forget your other duties. You are too valuable to scrub decks. I will talk to captain Tar and captain Reef and set it up.”

Even as he was thanking her, Hildy became aware of voices raised in an altercation. She turned to see king Aluff and the triplets, who had been making slings together, engaged in a loud and heated argument.

“You take that back!” screamed Tam Tam.

“I won’t,” king Aluff yelled back.

As Hildy began walking towards the angry group of youngsters, all three triplets stood up and surrounded Aluff, who suddenly looked more than a little nervous.

“He might be right, you know,” Andita said, though her fists were balled up at her sides, and she looked as though she might very well be considering using them on the young king.

“No he isn’t, you know he isn’t,” wailed Tam Tam, bursting into tears.

“It doesn’t matter if he’s right or wrong, he can’t talk about him that way,” snarled Miri.

“What’s this all about?” Hildy demanded.

“He called our father a coward,” Andita said through clenched teeth.

Hildy turned on the boy. “Is that true? Did you say that to them?”

“I didn’t just say it for no reason,” Aluff tried to explain. “We were talking about how we are all fighting back against the Skulls. I just meant that king Tamin didn’t even try. I never called him a coward.”

Hildy looked into his eyes and spoke very quietly. “The last time someone made me this angry, I kicked him between the legs.” She left unsaid that she had later killed him.

Aluff turned pale, but he felt he had to say something. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

Hildy took a page from Sanara’s book on how to deal with obnoxious young kings. “Shut up, Aluff,” she told him, adding the pointing finger that Sanara put to such good use. But she couldn’t leave it at that. “My father fought back. He is the bravest warrior and the best man with a staff in the seven kingdoms. His soldiers were the best trained soldiers anywhere. He, and all our people, are now ruled by the Skulls. The king of Evergreen fought back. I was at that battle. We lost. Your own father stood up to them, and he was killed. Your kingdom is now another part of the Skull empire. Before this, there hasn’t been a war or even a battle fought in five hundred years. The Skulls changed all the rules. We weren’t ready for that. We weren’t ready for them. King Tamin did what he thought was right for his people.”

Aluff was silent for a moment. Then, he put down the piece of hide he was cutting strips from and stood to face the triplets. He bowed deeply. “My Ladies, I apologize for my cruel words. I am truly sorry.”

The triplets exchanged glances but didn’t say anything.

Hildy put a hand on the young king’s shoulder. “That was well said and heartfelt. Now go and introduce yourself to Arch Storm. Tell him I said that he should tutor you in the spear. It is time you took your place in the army of the resistance.”

Aluff bowed to her, and went to obey her command. Hildy turned to the three girls. The girls smiled at her and sat back down to make more slings.

“You know, we are getting pretty good at that spear fighting, Hildy,” Tam Tam said.

“I think I’m the best,” claimed Andita.

“I’m the best with the sling, even though, since we are moving, we have no targets to aim at except the waves, and they keep moving too,” Miri chimed in.

Hildy just smiled, shook her head, and went to the cabin. She washed the sweat off her face. She took a long drink of cool water. She looked at the map of the seven kingdoms that was stuck to the wall. They should be getting almost close enough to see Smilingman rising out of the waves, she considered.

She studied the map more closely. It struck her how silly it was that sometime, far in the past, men had looked at a map like this one and imagined that the shapes of some of the seven kingdoms looked like things they recognized. Yes, Halfmoon was roughly shaped like a moon, although not half a moon. Flame was pointy and ragged on top, and might look like flames to some people. Smilingman did indeed look just a little like the face of a smiling man turned to the side. She had never been able to figure out how anyone saw Dancer as a person dancing. Most of all, she had never understood how the names of the kingdoms had come to reflect these shapes. They must have all had names before anyone had ever made a map, before people in each kingdom even knew that the other kingdoms were there.

She looked closely at the kingdom of Skull. It did look like a skull, but not a human skull. The skull of some evil beast, perhaps, with the drip of Venom Island falling from one of its fangs. It looked sinister and malevolent, sitting there in the blue sea, and the very name sounded evil. And now, true evil had come into being there. This seemed, somehow, to be a sort of destiny, a cruel trick of fate that was meant to be. Hildy found herself hoping that fate also had a plan to do away with this evil, and she was going to do everything in her power to help fate in any way she could.

**********

Chapter Eighteen

 

The Wavebounder led the fleet of twenty one ships into the bay that was the main port of Smilingman. Hildy stood at the bow with captain Reef. As they passed the headlands that sheltered the bay, the masts of many ships came into view. Captain Reef let out a bellow of a laugh. “There must be at least fifty ships her, princess. I was hoping that would be the case, but I was worried that it wouldn’t be.”

Hildy laid a hand on his arm. “Does this let you make a guess as to how many ships have fallen into the hands of the Skulls?”

Far fewer than I feared, my Lady,” the captain said, still grinning from ear to ear. “Between the ships here and those that sail with us, I think the Skulls only managed to commandeer twenty or so. They obviously didn’t set it as a priority to capture the trade ships first when they moved on the other kingdoms, and most of them slipped away while they were landing their troops. We will make them regret their mistake.”

Lawry, Zar and Sanara came up to join them as the fleet began to drop their anchors. Hildy turned to them, anxious to meet with the queen and see how she would react to all the startling news they had to share. “We will all go and pay our respects to queen Shylar. She can’t very well discount such a collection of royalty as this, can she?”

“I will take some boats and start buying hides, and send some more for stones, too,” Sanara said.

“No, you are coming with us,” Hildy contradicted her.

“I’m of more use doing what I know how to do.” Sanara insisted. “Besides, I’m a farm girl. My voice won’t help sway the queen one way or another.”

Lawry reached over and tousled Sanara’s hair. “You are an honorary princess. I hereby decree it. In fact, since Aluff claims, every chance he gets, that he intends to make you his wife some day, you can even be an honorary queen. There, you now outrank us all.”

Zar chimed in. “And you are on the command staff, as Hildy likes to call us. On top of that, I recall that queen Shylar likes straight talk, and isn’t impressed by anything else. She detests fancy clothes and courtly manners.”

“Are you saying I don’t have good manners?” Sanara asked, trying for a serious expression that was completely undermined by her snickering.

“Your manners are better than Aluff’s, that’s for sure,” Lawry added, almost having to double over as a fit of laughter took her.

Hildy hated to break the spell of camaraderie, but time was of the essence. She sent them all off to find the triplets, king Aluff, and prince Nudge, while she and captain Reef went to get a longboat readied and lowered from the deck. A short time, a short row, and a short walk later, they were passing through the last houses and shops of Smilingmantown and climbing the short hill towards the gate of the castle. As they neared them, a tiny little old woman wearing a wrinkled orange cloak came out of the gates to meet them on the road. She carried with her a short staff, with which she felt the ground before her feet.

Her gray hair, which was cut in a straight line above her brow and then dipped down to her shoulders on either side of her face, was noticeably thinning. Her skin was browned by the sun and incredibly wrinkled. Her eyes, which were a foggy gray and smoky with cataracts, were heavily lidded to the point where they almost could not be seen. She was stooped and thin and frail looking, and so short that there was not a person of any age in the group approaching her that had to look up at her, and yet there was a strength, a vitality, that was apparent to each of them.

Queen Shylar Dubins Smilingman stopped in the road in front of her castle gates and leaned on her stick, waiting until the group of visitors had reached her. She gazed directly ahead without looking at any of them. “Hello, Hildread, dear, I must say, when I heard about you kicking that Skull prince in his wineberries rather than marrying him, I had the best laugh I’d had in years. Then, I heard you killed him, and I laughed even harder. You’ve been a busy girl.”

Hildy opened her mouth to speak, but the queen wasn’t finished yet. “Lawrancia, you chose wisely to run off with your friend. Zareena, sorry about your husband, he was a nice young man. Aluff, I will miss your father. I hope you end up being half the man he was, but I’m not placing any wagers on that yet. Miri, Tam Tam, Andita, haven’t seen you since you were babies, but you were all handfuls then, as I recall. Young Sanara, I think I am going to like you, if half of what I have heard is true. And prince Nujeem, well, I’m sorry to say that I have no use for any member of your family that I have ever met so far. I didn’t like or trust your father from the time I first met him. I tried to tell people he was going to bring us all trouble, but nobody listens to an old woman, queen or not. I am, however, willing to reserve judgment on you, boy, but don’t make me regret it.”

Again Hildy opened her mouth to speak, and again the queen beat her to it. “Hildy, I am putting all my forces under your command. And you might be surprised when I tell you what that means, because I have been busy too. I only wish this had all happened when I was your age, so I could fight the Skulls myself. Now stop standing around with your mouths opening and closing like a bunch of fish, and let’s go inside and start making some plans.” Without waiting for an answer, the queen turned and started walking spryly back into her castle, tapping with her stick, leaving the rest of them to scurry after her.

Hildy found herself walking beside Nudge. He looked at her and gave a huge grin. “I like her. I think we came to the right place. I mean, I know there was no place else we could go, but still, I have a good feeling about this.”

Hildy returned the grin. She had been thinking the same thing.

Not long after they were all seated at a table in the great hall, food and drink being set before them. The plates and cups had not even touched the table before the queen was off again. “I’m too smart, that’s the problem. I spent years trying to tell everyone that someday we would all end up fighting the Skulls. I could see it in Nornan’s eyes. There was always something wrong in there, something dark. Oh, they all used to smile, tell me not to worry, that even if it ever came to that, things would be settled in the old way, a few broken bones, some knocked-out teeth, a cracked skull or two, and that would be that. Then nothing happened for so long that they stopped even pretending to listen to me. So I stopped trying to tell them.”

Hildy tried to break in to tell the queen just how right she had been, but once more she was forestalled. “I suppose by now you all know just how bad things are?” the queen half asked, then went on to supply her own answer. “Well, maybe you think you do, but you don’t know. I know. You know why I know? Because, when my trader ships go anywhere, my men go to town, they go to taverns. They meet people, and buy them drinks, and talk to them, and ask cagey questions. My boys walk around and look at things. They take note of things. They spread gold around. And they make nice with the pretty girls, and learn things that way too. And we have been doing this for a long time. And my boys ask questions of the other traders too, just to make sure there isn’t anything we missed.”

Hildy didn’t even try to say anything when the queen paused.

“Well, why don’t you say something?” the queen demanded. “You’re all smarter than fish, so why don’t you act like it?”

“We captured a Skull ship in Flame, and have just learned a little of what life is like under Skull rule,” Hildy ventured.

“Speak up, child, I can’t abide mumbling,” the queen complained.

Hildy had been speaking rather loudly, or so she thought. She repeated herself at a higher volume.

The queen scowled in Hildy’s general direction. Suddenly, she turned and yelled at one of her attendants. “Fetch my ears, Silman, we aren’t getting anywhere like this.” The man ran off and returned with two thin, metal, half-moon-shaped dishes, each with a small wooden handle protruding from one of the pointy ends. The queen grasped one wooden handle in each hand and held the metal bowls up to the sides of her head, positioning them behind her ears. She now had two much larger ears.

Hildy repeated herself once more. The queen wasn’t impressed and let Hildy know it. “I don’t care a loaf of bread what it’s like on Skull. Thanks to my people poking around, I know all too well what it’s like in the captured kingdoms. I had people there, in all the kingdoms, reporting back to me. I had to bring most of them home, though. Too dangerous to stay. But a lot of them are still trapped where they were. I have no way to get in touch with them now.”

Hildy made ready to speak once more, but didn’t get the chance, leaving her wondering why the queen even needed her big ears, if she never gave anyone a chance to say anything.

“So,” the queen said, speaking loudly as many people with poor hearing tend to do, “we know the Skulls are bad. We know they are trying to take over the world. We know we have to stop them.”

Hildy briefly explained about the size of the growing Skull army, and the ship and weapon production.

The queen smiled a conspiratorial smile. “I figured as much, just because of the ease with which they took over all the other kingdoms. While you lot have been skulking around, taking your time coming here, I have been preparing for war. Preparing like all the other kingdoms should have been but weren’t. I’m building more ships. And every man and boy on this big island is either learning how to fight, or soon will be. I’ve been stockpiling staves and slings, and ever since I learned about those nasty blades the Skulls have, I have had every tool maker and metal smith making those, too. We have almost eight hundred, last I heard, and five hundred slings. I have four thousand men training to use them. On top of that, there were fifty four ships in the harbor before yours showed up. What do you think of that?”

Hildy was astounded. She told the queen so, as loudly as she could.

The queen had more to say. “I have training camps set up in the valley behind the castle, and more going up all over the kingdom. More men are coming in all the time, but we can only train, arm and equip them so fast. I’m hoping you can help speed things along.”

Hildy wasn’t even sure that the queen had heard her last comment, but she shouted, “I will do what I can.”

**********

Chapter Nineteen

 

The queen introduced them to Kellum Bloom, the commander of the army, reminding the man that Hildy and all her commanders now outranked him, and that he had better listen to them. “He means well,” the queen said at the end of the introductions, “but none of my people have ever so much as spat at an enemy in a real battle.” And with that, she was off to take a nap.

As soon as the queen had left the great hall, Hildy asked the soldier to sit with them. She wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. “I am sure you are as surprised by all this as I am, good sir. I want you to know that you will be a valuable member of the command staff, and that in no way do I consider my own experience to make me any kind of expert in military matters. Your council and advice will be sorely needed.”

The soldier, well into middle age if not slightly past it, looked mildly amused, but also grateful. He shook his head. “My Lady, the queen is absolutely correct. I have been in her army since I was a youth fresh off the farm, and I can honestly say that I still know more about growing crops than I do about fighting. I am vastly relieved that you are here, and even more so that you are taking over running things. The queen has a tendency to let you get started doing something, then telling you you are doing it wrong, then taking over and doing it herself, undoing most of what you did, before she moves on to something else and forgets all about what it was you were doing. I think we need you to bring order to the chaos, and I look forward to serving under you.”

Hildy studied the man, his close-cropped, gray hair and beard, the firm set of his mouth and strong jaw, and decided she liked him. She reached over and shook his hand once more. “Thank you, commander, for your kind words. Now, perhaps, we should all go and see this army, and start figuring out what we are going to do with it.”

It wasn’t a very long walk from the rear gate of the castle, up a gently-climbing road that ran through a wood, before the road began to descend again and the trees began to thin out. A long valley stretched away before them, forested ridges on either side. Down in the valley, row upon row of canvas tents stood in the unplanted farm fields. Wooden huts and a few larger buildings had been thrown up. and more were under construction. The sun was sinking, and fires were springing up all along the valley floor.

Commander Bloom led them further down the road, between tents planted where beergrass and breadgrass and wineberries should have been sprouting. They reached a turnoff that led to a farmhouse. The house had been added to, enlarged by the addition of extra rooms made of raw, unpainted lumber. Outbuildings of similar construction surrounded the farmhouse.

“This will be your command headquarters,” commander Bloom explained. “You are welcome to sleep in the castle if you so choose.”

There was a hint of a challenge in that last bit, Hildy decided. “No, we will all be sleeping here, with the troops, where we can keep an eye on things and be easier to find.”

Commander Bloom nodded, a satisfied grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. “The owners of all the farms in this valley are now either in the army, or were too old and have moved to town. The families of the men who joined have also moved, so we could use their buildings and land. New houses are being built around the town to house all these people. To be honest, princess, the kingdom is in a confused mess. As more and more men are put under arms, less food is grown, and more jobs go undone. We are trying to have the women take up the slack, but it isn’t easy. The old men and young boys are doing what they can, but we can’t all be in the army and still function as a society. And not every man wants to leave his family to fight a war we might not win.”

“That,” Hildy told him, “is where the Skulls have an advantage over us. They don’t care if their people agree with their orders, as long as they obey them. I take it that no one here is being forced to join the army?”

“No, my Lady,” the commander answered. “So far, we are relying on volunteers, and we still have more of them than we have arms and armor to give them.”

“Well, we will most likely need to make some drastic changes along those lines before long, as well as figuring out what to do about not running out of food,” Hildy replied.

The commander led them into the sprawling building that had once been a large farmhouse. As they entered, he explained the layout, leading them through various rooms as he spoke. “There are quarters for all of you, a private room each, though none are overly large. Princess Hildread, we took the liberty of giving you the master bedroom of the original farmhouse for your personal use.” After showing each of them where they would stay, he finished his tour in the farmhouse kitchen, which must have belonged to a very large family if the size was any indication. Laid out on the long table were maps, one very large one of all the seven kingdoms and the sea between them, and one smaller one of each individual kingdom.

The commander drew the map of Smilingman closer as they all gathered around him. He pointed out where other training camps were being set up near other towns, and where the spear points and staves, armor and uniforms were being made. “I have assigned four captains here, each in charge of one thousand men. They are quartered in some of the smaller buildings we put up nearby. There are junior captains, each in charge of one hundred men. They live in tents with their soldiers. Of course, you are free to change any of this in any way that you please. We just wanted to have as good of a start as we could while we waited for you to arrive.”

Hildy assured the man how impressed they all were. As it was now dark outside, they decided to start fresh in the morning. Hildy asked the commander to send word to the ships that the command staff was spending the night ashore, and that they wanted their clothes to be brought to them. They all shared a meal at the large table, cooked and served by several soldiers. The food wasn’t exciting and there wasn’t an abundance, but it was filling. They sat in front of the large fireplace talking until their gear arrived, then went off to their rooms.

Hildy was pleased with her accommodations, which contained not only a large, comfortable bed, but another fireplace as well. She didn’t bother to put away any of her things in the hand-carved dresser, but undressed and fell into bed. It seemed like no time at all before she awoke, and the sun, behind the curtained window, was just tinting the sky. She prepared for the day, donned her soldier’s uniform, wondering briefly once again what had happened to the boy from whom she had acquired it, and went out into the kitchen. A new group of soldiers were preparing breakfast, but none of her friends were up yet.

She ate a leisurely breakfast, greeting each member of her command staff as they found their way to the kitchen. Hildy was curious as to where commander Bloom had slept, wondering if perhaps he had a sumptuous room in the castle, and at that very moment he walked into the room. One glance at his red, baggy eyes told her that he hadn’t been sleeping in any great comfort or for any considerable length of time either.

He seemed to sense her train of thought. “The room you are staying in was my room until yesterday, my Lady,” he said with a smile and a slight bow. “I am now sleeping in one of the small outbuildings we put up near by. I have been up and down the valley this morning, making sure that the troops will be ready for your inspection.”

A short while later, commander Bloom was leading the rest of the command staff briskly down the valley. He asked if there was anything in particular that Hildy wanted to see. “I am very interested in what sort of combat training your men are getting,” Hildy told him. It didn’t take long to find out. The fields on either side of the road, despite the early hour, were full of men in orange uniforms, standing in long lines, swinging and thrusting their staves in unison to shouted commands.

They walked quite a long way, stopping to watch various units of men drilling, meeting some of the officers and talking to some of the soldiers. Hildy had seen what she had needed to see before they ever got close to the men. It was what she had feared. The training they were doing was almost a complete waste of time. She knew what she had to do. She cut short the inspection as quickly as she could without it seeming to be an insult. As they walked back to the headquarters complex, she expressed her worries to commander Bloom. “You have done a marvelous job, commander. It is little short of a miracle. But we have seen the Skull’s battle tactics, and learned even more about it from our prisoners. Your men have a strong foundation of basic training, but now we need to spread my soldiers and sailors out amongst the rest of the troops here, to begin teaching them the best ways to fight the enemy.”

Commander Bloom said that he understood completely. “We did what we could, without ever having encountered the enemy, so that you wouldn’t have to start from scratch.”

“You have done more than that,” Hildy assured him. “You have provided us with what we didn’t have. You have given us an army.”

**********

Chapter Twenty

 

Hildy and Lawry walked together, back up the road towards the castle. The rest of the command staff stayed at headquarters to begin getting things in order. Sanara was already hard at work, watching the troops who had been equipped with slings. The rest of the staff were trying to figure out how best to balance increasing the size of the army without decreasing the amount of food being produced. More camps would be needed, and they had already figured out that putting them in the farm fields, although they offered a nice, flat area in which to train and house large numbers of men, was counterproductive. They had the men moving their tents out of the fields and onto the verges of the valley and even under the trees. The soldiers could take some time off from training to plant, tend and harvest crops. Princess Zar, along with the triplets, was going to go on a tour of all the manufacturing installations, to get an idea of how the tents and armor and weapons and uniforms were being made, and to see if it would be possible to increase the speed at which they were being produced.

They stopped at the top of the hill, looking back at the scurrying clusters of orange-clad troops. “They certainly are colorful, aren’t they?” Lawry observed.

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Hildy replied, smiling at her friend. “I had been toying with the idea of getting some dyes, and splashing splotches of the colors of all the kingdoms on everybody’s uniforms. We would look like an army of rainbows, but I thought it would show that we are all in this together. But now I am thinking back to right after the battle of Evergreen, when we were wandering through the woods, gathering up the survivors. The Evergreen soldiers in their green uniforms were hard to spot in the woods.”

Lawry saw immediately where this was going. “Yes, we all need green uniforms!”

“Yes, exactly right,” Hildy said, excited by this idea. “Because I don’t plan to fight the Skulls in big lines in open fields any more than I have to. I foresee ambushes and raids and hit-and-run attacks. So it would be better to be able to blend in. I am putting you in charge of finding all the green dye you can, and figuring out how to make more. We are going to need a lot of it.”

“Oh, we can use different shades of green dye, make the uniforms splotchy, just like you were talking about, but they will look like leaves in shade and shadow. We will be like walking bushes!” Lawry was positively aglow with excitement.

“I knew you were the person for this job,” Hildy said with a laugh. “It is your artistic nature. And you always did like clothes.” They turned and continued their walk to the port. They found a boat to row them out to the Wavebounder. Before they had even finished climbing up to and over the rail, the Caster brothers were shouting excitedly down at them.

“We had the best idea,” bellowed Tolly.

“It was my idea,” yelled Tull.

“Well, he got it because of me,” roared Tolly.

“You can both stop yelling in my face,” Hildy said quietly, from where she hung just below the railing, her head only a short distance from theirs.

“We were training with the spears, just like you told us to,” Tull said to her, reaching out to help her over the rail.

“And I can’t beat him often, because he is bigger than me,” broke in Tolly, helping Lawry aboard. “So I pretended to throw my spear at him.”

“And then I remembered when we were little,” Tull continued, “before our dad let us go out on the boat with him. We used to fish near shore by throwing small, pointed sticks. We would split the ends of the sticks with a knife, and carve little barbs on the points. We tied strings to the sticks so we could pull the fish back to us when we stuck them.”

“You know our spears are too big and heavy to throw well, and even if we did, then we wouldn’t have them to fight with anymore,” Tolly tried to explain.

Tull wasn’t giving him the chance. “But the slings are sort of hard to use when you are close to other people. You have to spread out. And they are really bad for using on the ships, with all the ropes and masts and so little room.”

Tolly leaped back into the verbal onslaught once again. “And in the woods, with branches and bushes and things, or in narrow city streets, little spears would be better.”

Tull sent his next volley. “Each of us could carry three or four little metal-tipped, barbed spears, and use them when the enemy is close, like when they charge us, or right before we charge them.”

Tolly finished off the barrage. “They might not kill anybody most of the time, being light, but imagine having one stuck in you. You wouldn’t want to fight anymore. You would have to stop and pull it out. And the barbs would make that really hard to do.”

Hildy just shook her head and smiled broadly at these two boys who had been the very first recruits in her army. “I think this is the best idea the two of you have ever had. I am making you both captains, and putting you in charge of the throwing spears. Gather up your gear and get ready to come with us back to headquarters.”

The two boys ran excitedly off to do just that. Captain Reef approached, nodding his greeting to the princesses. He, too, had much to tell. “I have had all the ship’s captains row over so we could begin to discuss things. I hope you don’t mind, but I sent most of the sailors from our original fleet off to the other ships, and had sailors from those ships replace them in case we need to sail. Our sailors are now fairly well trained with spear and sling, so I thought they should begin passing those skills on to the rest of your fleet.”

Hildy thanked him profusely for his forethought.

The captain continued. “I sent the local fishing boats out deeper than they usually go. They are to act as our scouts, to give us early warning of any approaching ships. They will still be able to bring us back some fish to help feed that army of yours.”

Hildy just smiled and nodded, happy to have this man at her side.

“I also sent a crew of carpenters from the ships ashore to gather lumber, tools, and more men, to construct two wood and earthen forts on the headlands on either side of the mouth of the bay. And we may want to think about moving the fleet to another bay on the far side of the kingdom. We could defend this bay, if it comes to that, especially once the forts are built. We don’t want to end up penned in here, but on the other hand, if the first fleet the enemy sends at us isn’t too big, this might be the perfect spot to lure them into an ambush.”

Hildy felt a tear come to her eye, and briefly but firmly hugged this man that she had known and trusted since she was a child. The captain hugged her back, and she was only a little surprised to see a tear glint in his eye as they broke apart. She told him to send all the soldiers they had brought with them ashore, to help train the army that was camped there, and to send the Skull prince who was being held prisoner on the ship to the castle to be locked up.

“It might be better to leave him here as a bargaining piece, in case we end up getting cornered,” the captain suggested.

Hildy smiled at him again. “Whatever the commander of the fleet thinks is best.”

The newly-promoted commander winked at her. “One last thing, princess,” he said seriously. “Tell Sanara this. Fire is the enemy of all ships. I’m sure she will know what to do with that message.”

A short while later, Hildy and Lawry, along with the Caster brothers and Arch Storm, the Skull spear fighting expert, were on their way back to the war camps. The rest of the day passed by in a blur. The soldiers they had brought with them to Smilingman arrived and were spread out amongst the camps, and some were sent off to the new camps that were springing up around the kingdom, bearing the orders to move the camps off the farm fields, even if it required them to clear new ground or move some distance. Arch Storm would act as a roving trainer, wandering through the camps, giving advice and fine-tuning the fighting skills of the men.

At dinner that night, Hildy passed on the captain’s message about fire to Sanara as soon as she came into the kitchen. The farm girl perked up immediately, and Hildy thought she saw fire in the girl’s eyes. Sanara mumbled something about the baskets she used to weave when she was very small, and ran off without eating more than a few bites. The Caster brothers, after setting up a pair of small tents for themselves in the yard by the headquarters complex, had disappeared for most of the day. As Hildy finished her meal, they burst into the room.

“We’ve been talking to the local soldiers, finding men who know about trees and wood,” began Tolly.

“Turns out that the smaller branches on the same trees we use to make the staves are perfect for the throwing spears,” added Tull.

“They are at the very top of the trees,” Tolly said gravely.

“It is really scary to climb way up there,” admitted Tull.

Hildy began to lecture them about safety, but Tolly just gave her a big, lopsided grin and held up a hand. “We only did it once. The men showed us how to use ropes to secure ourselves. Now we have about twenty of them getting all the branches they can find.”

Hildy felt herself relax a little.

“We are going to start making some spears to test tomorrow,” Tull informed her. “We will go into town and find a blacksmith to help us make some barbed tips.”

The brothers went off to get some food, and at that moment, a messenger arrived from the castle. “Princess,” the young boy stammered, “I have word from princess Zareena and…” the boy paused, unable to remember the names of the triplets, but gamely gathered himself and plunged ahead, “… the three sister princesses. They asked me to tell you that they went to all the places where things are being made, and then they sent out word to gather a lot of women and children and old men, to take over making slings and to help with a lot of the other work, and that a lot of men will be coming to the camp tomorrow because they don’t need to work anymore. Also, the princesses are sleeping in the castle tonight, and tomorrow they are going on a ship to visit all the other towns and do the same things there, and they might be gone for a week or more.”

Hildy thanked the boy, and asked him if he would like some food. He said he would, and smiled shyly at her. By the time he had eaten, it was dark outside, and she asked if his parents would worry about him if he spent the night on the couch by the fire.

“No, my Lady,” the boy said in a low voice. “I have no parents. That is why the queen lets me sleep in the kitchen in the castle.”

Hildy hugged the child, and set him up with a comfortable nest of blankets and pillows. She tucked him in, nice and snug.

The boy looked up at her, his eyes already looking as if they were growing heavy. “I am going to help make slings, starting tomorrow, when the queen doesn’t need me to take messages,” he told her in a sleepy voice. “When I am older, I will learn how to make spear points from the blacksmiths. And when I am big enough, I want to join the army and fight by your side.”

Hildy hugged him again, and whispered in his ear. “You would make a fine, brave soldier, but I hope the war is over before you need to prove it.”

Then she went into her room and closed the door, so no one would see her cry.

**********

Chapter Twenty One

 

The next morning, Hildy was awakened by knocking on her door. She opened it, and Sanara brushed past her, holding something in her hand. She was wildly excited about it, whatever it was. She didn’t leave Hildy in suspense, but turned and thrust the object towards her. Hildy took the thing and examined it. It was round, and nestled easily in the palm of her open hand. It was a hollow sphere, woven from thin, flexible, green sticks. The inside was packed with dried wildgrass mixed with something dark. It wasn’t very heavy at all.

Sanara explained her invention. “I used to weave little baskets when I was small. My dad and I used them for gathering berries and nuts. He still has the first one I ever made, on the mantle place in our house. I mixed wildgrass with tree sap that I know burns well. We will need to make some slings with bigger pouches for these, pouches that won’t catch fire. And that means we will have to train special troops to use them, I suppose. We can make handcarts to carry hundreds of these, a cart for every twenty or thirty men. And we can put the jars of oil in the carts too, to pour over the flameballs just before we light them. And a supply of torches, too. We can stick a lit torch every few feet behind the men, or have men run up and down the line with lit torches, pouring the oil and lighting the flameballs. I still have to work all that out, but I tested some of them. They are incredible. They burst when they hit anything, and the insides scatter all over the place, and it sticks to whatever it lands on. The fire is hard to put out. If you stomp on it, the sap just sticks to your feet. Even water doesn’t put it out easily, and I doubt a Skull army will be carrying a lot of water with them.” Sanara gave a decidedly vicious laugh.

“That sounds positively ghastly!” Hildy exclaimed.

“Just imagine what it will be like when dozens of them hit a Skull ship,” Sanara replied, sounding way too pleased with the notion.

“I think I will wait until after I eat breakfast to imagine such a thing,” Hildy said quietly. She went out into the kitchen with Sanara following behind. The little messenger boy was eating breakfast at the table with the Caster brothers. They were all laughing at something.

“We like this kid,” said Tull, still smiling, when he noticed Hildy.

“Can we keep him?” Tolly asked seriously.

Hildy fought to keep a serious look on her face. “What is your name, young messenger?”

“Seevan Tiller, my Lady,” the boy said quietly, looking down at his plate.

“Would you like to stay here with us and be the staff messenger?” Again Hildy struggled not to smile when the little lad leaped to his feet, bumping the table and almost knocking several cups over. He looked at her with such hope that her heart melted.

“Do you think the queen will let me stay?” he asked.

“Well, the queen put me in charge of the army,” Hildy told him, “and you are now in the army, so I don’t think she has a say in the matter.”

The boy rushed at her and grabbed her in a fierce hug, then, realizing that this might not be the proper manner in which to accept his new responsibilities, he stepped back and stood very straight. “What are your orders, my Lady?”

Hildy didn’t know whether to laugh or start crying again. This brave little fellow moved her to her soul. “How old are you, Seevan?”

“I am seven,” the boy proclaimed, still standing at attention.

“Very well, noble messenger. Finish your meal. You can return to the castle with these two misfits when they go to town, and collect your things.” She turned to the two brothers. “Before you get back to your throwing spear project, take him to the castle and make sure the queen knows that her former messenger is now part of my staff. If there are any problems, tell her to send me a message. She can use my new messenger if she so whishes.”

The brothers exchanged glances. “How can we tell the queen anything at all?” Tolly wanted to know.

“Yes,” agreed Tull, “she won’t be able to hear a word that we are saying.”

Hildy silenced them with a glance, then said to her new messenger, “come back as soon as you can. I want you, right here, where I can find you when I need you. You can continue to sleep on the couch, if that is to your liking.”

The boy just nodded, his mouth hanging open. Hildy patted him on the head and went off to get herself some food. She stopped suddenly, and turned back to the brothers. “Where are Lawry, Nudge and Aluff?”

“They left some time ago,” Tolly told her.

“They are in town, getting dyes and checking on the people who are making the uniforms. They said to tell you they might be there for a few days.” Tolly had the sense to look sorry to have forgotten to pass this information on.

Hildy shook her head and went to get her breakfast. Sanara called to her, “I already ate. I am going to town too. I want to get started on making more of my new toys. A lot more. I might stay in town too, if I can find a place to sleep.”

Hildy waved vaguely at Sanara’s back, piling bread and fish onto her plate. She was famished. By the time she got back to the table, there was no one there. Everyone was off doing important work for the war. Most of the people around her had never so much as seen the enemy, let alone fought in a battle, and yet their lives were all focused on war. It was changing them all, in ways she couldn’t yet comprehend. She was a little worried about Sanara. She was becoming positively bloodthirsty. But then again, Hildy considered, after killing a man, there were only two ways to deal with it. Either decide that you would never, could never, do it again, or accept it as a thing you might be called upon to do again.

She didn’t want those to be the choices that so many good people would be forced to pick between, but she didn’t see that she had any choice.    Three days went by without Hildy seeing any of her friends. All that she got from them were reports on the progress they were making, delivered by new soldiers coming to the camps. She received other reports too, from various people whom she had never met, giving her details on countless subjects. In fact, she spent more time every day just reading reports and going over figures.

She also spent a lot of time walking through the camps with commander Bloom, watching her army grow and train. She talked to the men, saw that they were getting enough food and were happy with the way things were progressing.

On the fourth day, Sanara dropped by, to change clothes and give Hildy a brief update on the slings and fireballs. “It turns out that kids are really good at making slings and fireballs, and they absolutely love to gather stones,” she finished, on her way back out the door.

Later that day, Nudge and Aluff also stopped by for fresh tunics. It was easy to see why they needed them. Theirs were now stained and splashed in all shades of green. Their forearms and hands were also stained green. They gave her big smiles and waved their green hands, but wouldn’t tell her a thing about what they had been up to.

Late in the afternoon of that day, the queen paid a surprise visit. She came with no fanfare, escort or warning. Hildy looked up from the pile of reports spread out on the kitchen table, and there she was, walking stick in one hand and her big, fake, metal ear in the other. Seevan, the messenger boy, who was helping Hildy sort and stack the reports, ran to the queen and hugged her. The queen returned the hug as well as she was able to with both hands full. “Now, now, Seevan,” the queen said to him, in a remarkably quiet voice, for a change. “Don’t carry on so. I miss you more than I can say, but you are doing important work, or so I hear. The other boys are taking up the slack, and they all send their love.”

Hildy watched them, still holding each other, and suddenly realized that the queen obviously went to great pains to take care of any orphans in her kingdom, and that she did it out of love. And Hildy could see why the people of Smilingman loved this old woman in return. It struck her that there would be many more orphans in the future, and she felt a shudder run through her body.

The queen turned to Hildy. “Let’s you and I take a walk together, commander.”

Hildy put down the reports she was holding, detailing the newest numbers of iron spear points that were finished and being sent to the camps. as well as changes in the production process that were allowing more to be finished every day than the day before. It crossed her mind, as she set the report on a pile of other reports, that at this rate, all the wordtrees in the kingdom would be stripped of their bark before too much longer, and that there would then be nothing left on which to write new reports.

The queen led her outside and began to cross one of the recently-planted fields. The queen was careful not to step on any of the breadgrass sprouts, causing Hildy to once more ponder just how bad the queen’s eyesight actually was. “I know my people think I meddle too much, that I have to be involved in everything,” the queen began.

Hildy didn’t bother to say anything.

“I have kept out of all this army business since you arrived. I know when to leave well enough alone. I am quite impressed with the progress you and your people have made. I don’t think there is a person in this kingdom who can walk and talk that isn’t doing something useful. I knew you were the right person for the job.” The queen stepped over another row of tiny green plants.

Still Hildy remained silent.

“I will send you a few people to help with all those reports. Maybe some large cabinets to sort them into,” the queen continued.

Hildy couldn’t help but wonder if there was anything the queen didn’t know about.

“I brought a man with me,” said the queen, stopping in a furrow between two rows of breadgrass. “His name is Tarry Oar. Comes from a long line of fishermen. He was a trader captain, too. As much as he knows about boats and the sea, he knows more about people. He has been my spy master for years.”

Hildy kept quiet.

The queen had more to say. “I don’t know what you two will decide to do, if anything, but I promise to stay out of it.”

However the conversation turned out, Hildy had no doubt the queen would know about it soon enough.

“But,” the queen was saying, “I do still have people in most of the kingdoms, as I may have mentioned, who couldn’t get out in time, or who have resettled and couldn’t bear to leave their new homes and families. There are also locals who owe me favors or perhaps need to be reminded that they have been accepting my coins for many years. And I would imagine that there are many others who are learning to hate the Skulls. It seems a shame to waste them.” The queen’s eyes were aimed more or less at Hildy’s face.

Hildy just nodded.

The queen smiled. “I’m glad we had this little talk, my dear.” Then she turned and began to trudge back towards her castle, the unused metal ear clutched firmly in her left hand. As she walked, she lifted her walking stick and waggled it back and forth, and it seemed to Hildy that the stick was not as important for either seeing or walking as the queen would have people believe. Obviously, the gesture was a signal, for a man stepped out from under the trees at the edge of the field and began walking towards her.

**********

Chapter Twenty Two

 

Hildy walked toward the man who was approaching her. They met in a corner of the field, and Hildy appraised the fellow. He was short and slender and well into middle age. His long hair, however, had no trace of gray to mar its sleek blackness. He had a thin, black mustache that hung down on either side of his mouth. He also had a tan as dark as any Hildy had ever seen, and his dark skin combined with his seamed and weathered face to give him the appearance of a carving made of some dark wood. He wore a dirty, wrinkled, white tunic and a pair of old sandals, and looked so ordinary that no one would focus on him in a crowd.

“I have looked forward to meeting you for some time, commander,” the man said.

Hildy was almost getting used to being called that. She nodded and waited for the man to continue.

He did. “I know the queen likes to call me her spy master, but I never think of myself that way. I just like people, I like to meet them, to talk to them. I’ve been that way since I was a little boy. I started as a fisherman, then worked on trade ships, and ended up owning one. I loved travelling. It gave me a chance to meet more people.”

Hildy smiled, prompting him to go on.

“The queen has always been interested in knowing everything that happens, anywhere at all. And I’m sure you know about her obsession with the Skulls. It was natural that she would seek out the traders, as a useful source of information. She would meet the ships at the docks when we returned form our voyages, and ask captains and crew all sorts of questions. After talking to me on numerous occasions, she just sort of decided I was the one best suited for feeding her need to know things. She asked me to continue to make new friends. But she wanted me to focus on particular people.”

Hildy nodded encouragingly.

He was encouraged. “She wanted me to befriend anyone who might be in a position to know anything about the kingdom of Skull. Traders who went there, or people who met Skulls when they were visiting their kingdoms, tavern owners and serving girls, craftsmen, shopkeepers and innkeepers. There were also people from this kingdom that have married into families in other kingdoms, but are still loyal to us. But she was most interested in any Skulls who had left the kingdom to live elsewhere, especially the ones who did not hold the kingdom in high regard. On top of all that, she gave me bags of coins, and told me to spread them around, to be extra generous to anyone who was having financial difficulties. She wanted long-term relationships, and she wanted people to feel indebted to us.”

“It sounds like it would be difficult to remember who all those friends of yours were, and where they lived and what they had told you,” Hildy observed.

“Oh, it is,” the man agreed. “I used to keep it all in my head, but it got to be too complicated for that. I have a set of rooms in the castle, kept locked and guarded at all times. There are chests and desks and walls of shelves and drawers. There are piles of reports and stacks of ledgers saying who was paid what and when. I used to come back from my travels and just tell her what I had heard. Eventually, I was asking my friends to write down important information, and I would pick it up the next time I visited them. I would get bundles of reports at every stop. The queen liked to spend hours every day, sitting in my offices, reading every last word. But the flow of information has dried up.”

“And most of your friends are still there, wanting to be, uh, friendly, so to speak, as the queen just reminded me.” Hildy was trying to think of ways to take advantage of this resource.

“Precisely, commander,” the spy master replied. “I even have friends in the kingdom of Skull that I would trust with my life. The difficulty is in getting in touch with them.”

Before she could reply, the spy master had more to say. “My ability to make friends does not only apply when I am away from home. Over the years, I have gotten to know many people here, people who were citizens of other kingdoms, but fell in love with someone here and decided to stay. Also, I have many new friends, friends who managed to find a trade ship or a fishing boat and flee their lands when the Skulls invaded them. And there are also old friends, from before the troubles began, who managed to slip away and ended up here. Many of these people, and not only men, but women as well, mind you, would be willing to return home. They would risk their lives to provide us information, if we could deliver them safely.”

“The black ships!” Hildy exclaimed, suddenly seeing what the spy master was hinting at.

The man smiled widely. “Yes, commander, black ships with black sails and black longboats, sailing through the darkness. We just need to paint over the white trim. Even if they were somehow spotted by the enemy, they might be assumed to be just another Skull ship, might they not?”

“I will not risk the Wavebounder, or the commander of my fleet,” Hildy countered, “but the Black Ship, which is what we have been calling our captured prize, would be perfect for testing this scheme of yours.”

“As you wish, commander,” Tarry Oar agreed, “but I had another thought as well. Perhaps, instead of just sending people to gather information, we might also send people to start setting up small groups of locals, and training them to be ready to aid us when we begin taking the kingdoms back from the Skulls. We could send weapons, to be hidden until the time of need.”

Hildy held out her hand, and the man took it solemnly. “I find myself liking you, spy master.”

The spy master bowed deeply, still clasping her hand. “I consider that to be a great honor, commander.”

The following day, at midmorning, Hildy was going through yet more reports, but now she had help. Right as she was finishing her breakfast, a group of men had arrived, carrying open-faced cabinets full of shelves, and chests with sturdy locks, each with a set of keys dangling from them. There was also a large desk that took four men to carry, that was full of cubbyholes and drawers with locks and keys.

Accompanying this procession of men and furniture were three middle-aged women. It was these three ladies, the names of whom she had already forgotten, that were now helping her sort the endless reports into some semblance of order. Hildy was not in the best of moods. At some time during the night, someone had crept into her room and made off with her uniform. She was reduced to wearing one of her plain, white tunics. It just felt wrong. She was sure there was a logical explanation, but no one had come forward with it yet.

“Do you think,” Hildy asked any of the three women who felt like answering, from where they were spread out around the walls of the room, cramming reports on top of other reports on similar subjects, “that we should make copies of all these reports for the queen?”

Two of the ladies exchanged bemused looks, while the third turned to Hildy with a smile. “I can assure you, my Lady, that the queen receives a copy of each and every one of these, usually before these have been delivered here.” She returned to the task at hand.

Hildy barely had time to consider that this didn’t surprise her at all before another strange procession trooped into the room. Lawry, Aluff and Nudge paraded to a halt in a line in front of Hildy, where she sat behind the huge new desk, and came to attention. They were all dressed in green soldier’s uniforms. And the uniforms were not uniform in color, but were splotched and mottled in various shades of green. They all also wore a helmet and breastplate of leather, and these too had been splashed with green dye or paint. Hildy was more than a little impressed.

“We have a present for you,” said Lawry, suppressing a grin.

Seevan came marching into the room, carrying a bundle of green clothing, and looking very pleased with himself. Hildy had wondered where the little messenger boy had gone. He presented her with her own uniform and armor, now transformed with new shades of green.

“And how exactly did you end up with my clothes?” she asked in mock seriousness.

The boy looked worried. “I crept in last night when you were asleep, so we could surprise you.”

“Well, you did,” she said, ruffling the boy’s hair.

“You can’t wear them quite yet,” Nudge said.

“Some parts are still a little damp,” Aluff informed her.

“It turned out that making the uniforms green was the easiest part,” Lawry explained, as Hildy unfolded her shirt to admire it. “The tunicgrass from which cloth is made is already green. We have been learning all about how the grass is pounded and flattened and then soaked in big vats of cold water in order to remove the green color. When it is white, they make cloth out of it by twisting the long fibers together and then weaving it. Then they dye it the desired color, or leave it white, before it is made into tunics or uniforms, table cloths or curtains or whatever.”

Nudge took up the story. “We found out that by soaking the pounded grass for just a little while, it takes just enough of the green out to give us a good, lighter shade of green for the uniforms. But we save the water from each big batch, and as we boil it down it gives us darker dyes to splash on the cloth later, after it is woven into big sheets. No two uniforms will ever come out exactly the same, they are each a work of art.”

Aluff leaped into the narrative. “Once we have the large sheets of woven cloth, all dyed in different shades of green, we throw them into huge vats of boiling water, and this sets the color into the cloth.”

Hildy found all this to be very interesting.

“We do have one problem,” Lawry pointed out. “The tunicgrass grows wild and very fast, too. We will never have trouble getting material for uniforms. But the armor is another story. I’m afraid there aren’t enough rooters in all the world to make enough leather armor for all the soldiers we are going to train.”

“I was just reading a report about that very thing this morning, sent to me by Zar,” Hildy replied.

“We are working on an idea,” Lawry told Hildy. “The cloth is made into long sheets, as we said, and the fibers of the grass run in one direction. We found, that by sewing together a few layers of cloth, with the fibers running in different directions, you can make chest pieces that will stop a spear point… most of the time… if the person thrusting the spear isn’t to big and strong.”

“Well, regular leather armor won’t stop a spear point every time,” Hildy observed.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” Lawry replied, “because we have begun making the new cloth armor already, and it works for the helmets too. And the best thing is that the cloth armor is faster to make. All the women know how to sew, but there are not that many armor makers around.”

“You know I trust your judgment, Lawry,” Hildy assured her. “We need to balance a lot of factors, how much can we make, how fast, with what we have. I know you are all doing your best.”

“I just figured it would be better for everybody to have some kind of armor than for only a few of us to have the slightly better armor,” Lawry said. “But take a good look at your new uniform shirt. You missed one little detail.”

Hildy did as she was told, and noticed there were small, round patches of red-dyed cloth sewn on both shoulders of the shirt, as well as one on the left side of the front at chest level, and another, at the same height, centered on the back. The patches were about as big around as a large coin, or if she formed a circle with her thumb and longest finger. In the center of each of the red circles was a black dot the size of a thumbprint, and crossing through that dot, a black X extended to the edges of the circle.

“It occurred to me, as I watched the piles of uniforms growing in the sewing rooms,” Lawry said, “that, in the old days, all the soldiers knew who their captains and commanders were. But with an army the size that we will soon have, with soldiers from all over, that will no longer be the case. We came up with the idea of putting these rank insignia patches on all the officers’ uniforms. They will be on the front and back of the armor too, and the helmets.”

“We make them in different colors, so you can tell what the officer does, as well as his rank,” Nudge added.

“Yes,” continued Aluff, “we used red for the army, and blue for the navy. And we just started making yellow ones when we heard what Sanara was up to, for her fire troops.” The look of love on his face when he mentioned Sanara almost caused Hildy to break out laughing.

“We had to change commander Bloom’s system of rank,” Lawry explained. “We are growing too fast. We use black X’s for army troop commanders of one thousand men, a black dot for troop captains of one hundred men, and plain red patches for junior troop captains of ten men. Fleet captains of ten ships get a blue circle with an X, and the captain of a single ship gets the black dot. Junior ship captains, the second in command of a ship, get the plain circle. We are still working on the flame troop insignia. We probably will use a yellow circle with a black dot for fire troop captains of one hundred men, and a plain yellow circle for junior fire troop captains of ten men. We aren’t sure how many fire troops we will end up with, and we can always change it later. But the best part of this is that you can just sew a new patch on when anyone gets promoted, and people will know who they have to take orders from.”

“And you get the red circle with the X and the dot, because you are the commander of all of us,” said Seevan proudly.

**********

Chapter Twenty Three

 

The next morning, Hildy was taking a break from the constant reading of reports, as well as the streams of orders and suggestions and clarifications that she was constantly sending out, which she had taken to dictating to whichever of her three new helpers that seemed the least busy at the time. Milla, Tora and Flek were the names of her three new assistants, and she had to admit, they were taking quit a lot of the load off her shoulders. In truth, she would be swamped completely if it weren’t for them.

She was in the yard outside the headquarters building, wearing her new uniform and practicing with her spear. She thought it was important that she be at least as good as most if not all of the men in her army. She was imagining sets of enemy soldiers coming at her. She was parrying their thrusts and striking out in return. It felt good to work up a sweat and forget about everything else, if only for a while. She remembered practicing with her father, and his endless patience when it came to teaching his daughter to use a staff, and she wondered briefly if her mother and father were still alive and well.

She saw movement from the corner of her eye, and was surprised to see Nire Reef, her commander of the fleet, walking down the lane. He too was wearing one of the new uniforms. When he drew nearer, she saw that his uniform had blue patches on it, each with a black dot and an X. He stopped in front of her, stood very straight, and brushed some dust off his sleeve.

She has never seen him in anything other than a white tunic with the blue-bordered hem of their kingdom. “You look very… military,” she told him with a smile.

He returned her smile. “I hate to admit it, but I like this uniform. Makes me feel important and useful.”

“You are both of those things, old friend,” Hildy told him. “It makes you look very handsome as well.” She was pretty sure he actually blushed, somewhere under his sailor’s tan.

“I would love to say I came just to chat, but I have some bad news. Some fishing boats came in, just a while ago, fleeing from Flame. The Skulls have landed there.” His smile was gone now. “But I have encouraging news as well. The forts are finished. I have had them disguised by planting young trees in front of them, and tying larger, cut trees to the walls, which will be replaced as they dry out. I also used some of princess Lawry’s green dye to splash on the walls. From the sea, the forts are more or less invisible.”

“That is encouraging,” Hildy admitted.

“You will recall,” the fleet commander continued, “that I told you I was undecided as to whether or not we should leave the fleet in the main port where it could be bottled up. But I have come to a decision. I think we should stay there, and try to lure the enemy fleet into the bay when it comes. I know it is a calculated risk, but really, all that we are doing falls into that category. I doubt they know just how many ships we now have, and we might not get another chance to try something like this.”

Hildy was curious. “What is it that makes you think this is our best bet now?”

“Sanara’s new ‘toys’, as she so quaintly calls them,” he explained. “I have my sailors rotating shifts manning the forts, but I was hoping you would see fit to start sending some of her new flame troops to do watches there as well. And to perhaps send some if not most of the new fire slings to the fleet as they are made. I believe that if we can get the enemy to sail into the bay, we can give them a warm welcome, if you will forgive the poor joke.”

“Talk to Sanara,” Hildy told him. “Ask for whatever you need, and I will take whatever I can get once you are satisfied. Without your fleet, my army is of little use, except to stay here and guard this kingdom. But if you can destroy their fleet before they land their troops, we won’t have to fight them on land at all, at least not yet.”

“Thank you, commander,” he said with great sincerity. “One other thing, if I may. I presume you have met a man named Oar, Tarry Oar?”

“Indeed I have,” Hildy said.

“He is cooking something up with my nephew, and the other black ship, which has now been painted completely black. My nephew says he can’t tell anyone what is being planned, including me.” The fleet commander didn’t sound thrilled about this.

“Mr. Oar deals in secrets, but you can trust him. That’s all I can say. If there is something more you need to know, I will make sure you do. But for now,” Hildy said, sort of enjoying sounding so mysterious,” you should consider the Black Ship to be sailing under separate orders.”

“It makes complete sense. The less people who know anything, the less people will be talking about it, and who ever knows who might be listening? And there is a very real possibility that some of us might be captured one of these days, and I have no doubt at all that the Skulls are not above using torture to make prisoners talk.”

Hildy was horrified to realize that this was something that she had no trouble believing was absolutely true.

The fleet commander thanked her for her time, and excused himself.

Later that day, as Hildy read a report from Zar telling her that she and the triplets should be returning the following day, Hildy heard the Caster brothers shouting her name from outside the old farmhouse. She went outside to see what they were up to, and spotted them standing nearby, facing a pair of dummies made from bundles of dry grass tied with string. The dummies had been tied to a pair of wooden posts pounded into the dirt.

The brothers were each wearing the new uniforms, and those uniforms displayed the plain red patches of an army junior troop captain. Tully saw her eyeing the patches. “We told Lawry that you said we could be captains,” he proclaimed grandly.

Hildy nodded, conceding the point.

Over their shoulders, the two boys wore strange contraptions. They were hollow tubes made of some kind of rolled tree bark, with ropes tied to them to allow them to be slung across a shoulder. Protruding from the tops of these tubes, and sticking up well past the shoulders of each of the brothers, was a bundle of wooden rods.

The brothers exchanged grins, and each reached an arm back, grasped one of these rods, and withdrew them from their carrying case. They were spears, but like none that Hildy had ever seen before. They were only a little more than four feet in length, and nearly half that length was made up of the metal tips. The tips had a widened, flared base where they fit over the wooden shaft, but then tapered quickly into just a long, round bar that came to a sharp point near the business end. Along the bar, which was about as thick as a large man’s finger, were many wicked-looking barbs that angled back towards the wooden part of the spear.

“It took us a while to get the balance right for throwing,” Tull told her.

“We tried a lot of different lengths and thicknesses of wood and metal, but these fly just fine,” said Tolly happily. “Let us show you.”

They each took a stance and threw the spears at the two targets. They each hit the mark, and each spear sank into its target all the way to the wooden shaft.

The boys each let out a yell. “Now go try to pull one out of the dummy,” Tull dared her. They followed her over and laughed as she tried tugging on the wooden part of one of the spears. She pulled it out of the dummy, but it wasn’t easy. The backwards-pointing barbs, each half as long as her little finger, grabbed and caught at the dried grass, and dragged long strands out with it. She shuddered as she imagined what it would be like to pull one of the spears out of a human body.

“The spears are pretty easy to make, and the carrying baskets are really easy. We already have two shops starting to make everything, and more will be set up soon,” Tolly told her proudly.

“And the best part is that these spears are easy to use. No training required at all. Here, you try throwing a few,” Tull insisted, taking his basket off his shoulder and handing it to her.

She returned to where they had stood to throw their spears and gave it a try. She threw the whole basketful. She hit the target she was aiming at almost every time. The spears were light and the balance was good.

“And it doesn’t matter where you hit someone,” Tull said, when her last throw ended up sticking in the lower leg of one of the dummies. “That guy isn’t going to be fighting anymore. Not for quite a while.”

“And the only way to get them out of a person without ripping them up, is to push it right through and out the back,” Tolly said, sounding almost gleeful about it.

Hildy thanked them, and told them to get back to work and get her as many of the new weapons as they could manage, as fast as it was possible to do so. Then she went back into the headquarters building feeling cold inside and out.

**********

Chapter Twenty Four

 

The following day, Hildy was eating bread and reading yet more reports. The report she held in her hand was cheering her up immensely. She almost couldn’t believe what it was telling her, although she had certainly seen plenty of other reports that had given details leading in this direction. Her army… their army… was growing at an incredible rate.

The four thousand local troops that had been training when they arrived on Smilingman had leaped to seven thousand, spread out across the kingdom. The almost five hundred soldiers she had brought with her were out there now, training the newest members of the resistance army. The eight hundred spear blades made by local craftsmen had now risen to an astonishing two thousand, thanks to the rapidly expanding production capabilities. The five hundred slings had expanded to four thousand, thanks to the women and children being put to work, and children all over the kingdom were hard at work gathering stones. The twenty one ships they had arrived in had joined with the fifty four ships in port, giving them a fleet of seventy five ships.

Sanara was also making great strides in the production of her new toys. Children were making the flame balls, of which there were now thousands. The regular type of slings were now being made with cloth pouches to hold the stones, and the carrying bags for this ammunition was being made of cloth as well, to save leather for the new fire slings, which required a larger pouch to throw the fire balls. Over four hundred of the new slings were ready, and were already distributed to the two forts and to the fleet. It would take a while for the army to get any, but building the wheeled carts to carry the ammunition and oil jars and torches was just getting started. Sanara had found warehouses full of tall, thin, clay jars used to store wine, and was having these emptied. They were being refilled with lamp oil, which fortunately came from a nut that grew wild and was quite common.

So far, only a few hundred of the new throwing spears were finished, and to speed up the production of those might require slowing down the production of the big spear blades. There just weren’t enough skilled metal workers, but more young teens, both male and female, were being trained in these arts, and things would pick up before too much longer. The quivers for the throwing spears, and the new cloth armor and helmets were being made by any women and children not busy doing something else, and all these things were making their way to the army in ever increasing numbers.

Now that they had figured out a simple way to keep the farms going, using the soldiers themselves, who now camped close to the fields and tended the crops in their spare time, food was still in short supply, but large harvests were expected. The troops were even managing to till new fields. As long as they could make the remaining food last until the harvest, the crises would be averted. It occurred to her that less than forty days had past since she had fled her home and family, and that they had only been in this kingdom for ten days. She couldn’t believe how much the entire world had changed in so short a time.

Hildy’s reading was interrupted by the slamming of a door and loud squeals. She barely had time to brace herself in her chair as the triplets ran into the room, around the huge desk, and swarmed all over her. Their high-pitched delight warmed her even as it almost deafened her.

“We missed you so much!” said Miri, in a voice so high as to be almost inaudible.

“We heard about Flame. Are mommy and daddy okay, do you think?” asked Tam Tam, in the same strangely hard to hear yet still somehow earsplitting tone.

“Did you miss us as much as we missed you?” Andita was curious to know, in an octave most humans can’t reach.

“We should take the army and save our kingdom,” suggested Miri directly into Hildy’s ear, as the three climbed all over her in order to all hug her at the same time.

Hildy was laughing too hard to answer any questions, while trying to grab each of the girls in turn in order to plant a kiss on each forehead. From her place in the center of the squirming pile of humanity, she managed to catch a glimpse of Zar, standing and watching in bemused patience. She is going to make a great mother, Hildy thought to herself.

After the triples settled down and she had assured them that they would do all they could, as soon as they could, to free their parents and their people, she sent them off to get some food. Then she went to Zar and hugged her. “You are working wonders out there, Zar.”

“It was smart of you to keep sending me reports on all the new developments, and the pictures you drew really helped,” Zar replied. “I started switching people around, putting some of them on the new projects. I didn’t find out about the new throwing spears until I got back to Smilingmantown, but I will write to some of the local people that I put in charge in the other towns. Once they have the specifics, they can start working on those too. But you will have to do the pictures. I can’t draw at all.”

“We really are making progress, aren’t we?” Hildy wondered aloud.

“I had another little idea that I have been playing around with,” Zar informed her. “A woman working in one of the uniform shops was injured. She had a nasty cut from one of the big blades they use to cut the long strips of cloth as they come off the looms. We had to call for a healer to sew up the side of her hand. One of the other women joked that she could sew at least as well as the healer. And it struck me, all of a sudden, that a lot of men are going to be needing sewing up before too much longer.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Hildy said somberly.

“Well, it takes years to train a healer, because they have to know all about every kind of medicine, each herb and berry and root, and how to deliver a baby or remove a bad appendix, or get rid of warts. But what if we had healers who just learned the basic stuff to keep someone injured in battle alive until they could be carried to a real healer. You know, bandage wounds, stop the bleeding, put a splint on a broken bone, and even sew up a really bad wound. I got all the healers I could find in every town, and had them start training all the volunteer soldiers I could gather up. A lot of men are just better suited for helping people than killing them. Before we came down the hill, I started the same thing in motion in Smilingmantown.”

“You are a genius!” Hildy declared.

“The men have been practicing by sewing up dead fish,” Zar told her with a laugh. And there are plenty of women volunteering too.”    “Incredible, just incredible,” Hildy said, shaking her head.

“Well, one healer told me that the most important thing off all when people are hurt, is to start working on them as soon as possible. Stop the bleeding, give them medicine for the pain, keep them warm, and keep them from going into shock. So I figured, why not have the army healers right behind the battle lines, where they can get to work on the wounded right away? And why not have other men with stretchers, who can move the badly injured troops to the real healers as soon as they can be moved? And then I had my craziest idea of all. What if we set up tents not too far from where a battle is being fought, and we have the real healers there, ready to work on the wounded men as soon as they are brought in? You would be surprised how many of the healers have volunteered for this. Some of them were so old I had to politely figure out a way to turn them down. It was really quite moving. I pointed out that we would still need healers in all the towns, to take care of the badly wounded soldiers while they were recuperating.”

Hildy was about to say something else complimentary to her friend, when suddenly, a young boy rushed into the room. Hildy recognized him as one of the queen’s young, orphan messenger boys. One look at his pale, sweaty face, and the way he was panting from obviously running all the way there from the castle, told her that the news was not good.

“A Skull fleet is landing troops on the beach not far from the mouth of Smilingman Bay, commander,” the boy gasped, after coming to attention before her. “And there are an awful lot of them.”

**********

Chapter Twenty Five

 

Hildy had a brief moment of panic. They weren’t ready for this, and the Skulls weren’t landing troops in the harbor as they had expected them to. They were landing them on a beach outside the bay. She took a deep breath.

“Girls, put your food down,” she yelled to the triplets. “Run to the nearest camps, and tell every man you see that the Skulls are landing. Tell them to spread the word to get all the troops ready and lined up for battle.”

The girls did as they were told without a word.

Hildy turned back to the messenger boy. “Has the fleet been notified?”

“Yes, commander,” the boy assured her. “All of us were sent out, all the messenger boys, I mean. Not only to the fleet, but to all the nearest towns. They are telling the soldiers to start marching towards Smilingmantown, and for the townspeople to take all the military gear they can move and hide it and themselves in the woods.”

Hildy wasn’t sure if having troops rushing towards Smilingman town was a good idea or not. “Which side of the bay are they landing their troops on?”

“This side, commander,” he answered, after pausing to get a mental picture of the area. “The very first beach on this side of the mouth of the bay.”

That concerned Hildy immensely. The last thing she wanted was for small groups of her soldiers to stumble into a large force of enemy troops. “Seevan, I need you now!” she called out.

The boy was already standing right behind her.

“I have a job for you. The most important job you have ever been given.” She knelt down, grasped his shoulders, and looked into his eyes. “You need to run like the wind. Our men will be marching down the roads leading to Smilingman town. You need to stop them, tell them to cut through the woods and come here, to the camps. If we have left already, you can tell them to follow us towards the coast.” She grabbed his hands and led him to the big table. She took the big map of Smilingman from a shelf nearby and unrolled it, showing him where to go. “Can you do it, my loyal friend?”

“I can help, commander,” said the other young messenger.

She turned back to him. “What’s your name?”

“Tarn,” said the messenger.

“Very well, there should be three groups of our soldiers that are in the most danger, coming down these two roads from these three towns.” Once again, she pointed at the map. “There will be others following, but I doubt they will get here in time for the battle. After you stop the first groups, stay by the roads. Hide in the woods. Send any of our soldiers to the camps first, then to the beach.” She knew that she might have just delayed potentially valuable reinforcements who might well be needed at a critical moment, but she couldn’t have it both ways.

She walked quickly into her room as the boys ran off to carry out her orders, and began strapping on her newly-dyed leather armor. She put her helmet on her head. Zar had followed her to the door.

“What should I do?” Zar asked the commander of the army.

“You are going back to the castle, and taking my three staff assistants with you, along with any other women and children you see on the way there.” Hildy grabbed her spear and pushed past her.

“I want to fight with you!” Zar said through clenched teeth. “They killed my husband.”

Hildy turned and her face was stern. “Do you want them to kill you and his unborn child?”

Zar had no answer to that.

Hildy went on relentlessly. “A lot of my friends might die in this battle. We might not win it. If we don’t, you can decide to fight when they attack Smilingmantown and the castle. And if we do win, it won’t be because we had one more person in the battle lines.”

Zar didn’t argue. She gathered up the three ladies who were still sorting and filing reports, and began to herd them towards the door. She stopped and turned suddenly. “The triplets! You have to send them to safety too.”

“Of course I will, now go.” Moments later, Hildy followed them out the door. Zar and her helpers were hurrying away down the lane to the main road. Coming in the other direction was a large group of people. She saw Lawry and Sanara, king Aluff and prince Nudge, as well as the Caster brothers, and they were all in uniform and armor. There were also about forty men, some of whom were pushing three wooden carts. These men all wore the yellow patches of the fire troops. The carts were loaded with oil jars and flame balls.

“Thought you might like a few of these with you,” Sanara said with an ecstatic grin.

“You didn’t think you were going to fight without us, did you?” asked Tull mischievously.

“We are getting quite good with these little spears,” added Tolly, reaching around to pat the spear carrier on his back.

“We are ready to fight!” agreed Aluff, brandishing his own spear.

“We are with you, commander!” shouted Nudge, also thrusting his spear into the air. The rest of the men, men whom she had never met, and yet were trusting her to lead them into battle, all gave a cheer. Hildy felt their strength being added to her own.

“Well, let’s get to it, shall we?” she shouted back at them. She realized immediately that this was not exactly a rousing speech with which to send men off to war, but she figured she would do better next time.

They set off down the lane and back onto the main road, and soon they could see the army gathering in ranks beyond the fields of young breadgrass. They cut between two of the fields and made their way between rows of tents, and there was Kellum Bloom, getting the men into line. Hildy considered the fact that he still didn’t really have an official rank in the new army, and reminded herself once again to fix that as soon as she possibly could.

The sight of row upon row of soldiers, grim faces and nervous, but prepared to risk their lives along with her, was incredibly moving and more than a little terrifying. She knew all too well the price to be paid for failure. She went and stood beside commander Bloom in front of the center of the long ranks of men, as those that had just arrived with her took their own places in those lines.

Her army stood five ranks deep, and stretched quite a ways to either side of her. She new from the reports roughly how many men were in this, the main camp. Four and a half thousand, give or take. The rest were spread across the kingdom, and manning the forts and guarding the queen and her castle.

Some of the men before her wore the new uniforms, some were still in their old uniforms that hadn’t been dyed yet. A few of the newer troops wore only white tunics. Some men had leather armor, and she saw some in the new cloth armor, and quite a few with no armor at all. A number of the men had the iron spear blades affixed to their staves, and the rest didn’t, but, she was gratified to see that every man at least held a staff, and that the vast majority had a sling and a bag of stones slung to them. A very few of the men had quivers full of the new throwing spears as well. She had no way to know how much practice each man had had with the weapons that they held.

The men she had brought with her to Smilingman were spread out amongst the troops they had been training that very morning. She recognized the familiar faces that were close enough for her to make them out. She realized that this made sense. To separate them out now would cause delay, confusion, and perhaps, resentment.

She was again struck by the fact that she had absolutely no plan of battle. She had thought that there would be more time. She should have been walking the ground, looking for good places from which to fight. She should have made multiple contingency plans based on what the enemy might do. She had been naive to think that the enemy would just sail into port, giving her time to move troops to help the fleet fight in the bay.

Kellum Bloom, the former commander of the army, seemed to sense that Hildy was overwhelmed. He touched her arm, and she turned to him. He smiled at her, a very nice and very calm smile. “Commander, I just spoke with an elderly gentleman, a woodcutter, who saw the Skull fleet landing troops from the top of a hill where he was working. I’m sure they thought they were being very clever, but they really picked a very bad spot to land. That beach won’t allow them to bring their big ships close to the shore, and the waves on that beach are particularly bad. No doubt they are finding that out right about now as they try to get their men ashore in longboats. It is going to take them a while to build up a large force.”

“You know the beach well?” she asked hopefully.

“Indeed I do, commander. I wasn’t allowed to swim there. Too dangerous, as I said,” he replied lightly. “But my friends and I used to run wild all through the hills around that beach when we were young.” He paused and turned to a soldier standing behind him. “Jaff, give me number two,” he told the man.

The soldier reached into a large, wooden box he carried on a strap over one shoulder, and pulled out one of the many rolled pieces of paper inside, handing it over. Kellum Bloom unrolled the bark paper and turned it so that Hildy could see it too. It was a map of the area around Smilingmantown, done in tremendous detail. She held one of the edges so that he could use a free hand to point with.

“Here is the beach, commander,” he said, and then moved his finger directly inland. “And this is another reason why I said that they made a mistake picking that beach. The beach is the outlet for this valley, an old riverbed, actually, that cuts through a low range of hills that is directly beyond that range of hills.” He took his finger off the map to point at the hills behind him, that formed one side of the valley where the army was camped. “I assume that their plan is to land, and then march on Smilingman and the castle, using the road that runs right down the coast. But we will be in this valley above the beach,” he returned his finger to the map,” well before they can land a large force. They can’t very well ignore us, and let us come in behind them. They will have to fight us first.”

“We should send out scouts,” Hildy said, realizing she hadn’t even thought to have men assigned to this duty.

“I picked a small group of men who know this area well, and sent them to observe the enemy, and to send reports back as soon as they know anything useful. I took it upon myself, only because I was closer to the beach than you.” He sounded worried that she might think he was taking to much upon himself.

“That valley looks like a good place to fight,” she said. “If we get there before they finish landing all their troops, we can march right down and hit them while they are still disorganized and outnumbered. If not, we can lure them into an ambush farther up the valley.”

“My thoughts exactly, commander,” he replied.

“We will place our main force across the valley where they can be seen, but also put forces on the ridges to either side to sling rocks and flame balls at them from both sides as they advance to meet us. Is the valley narrow enough for that? Can our men climb the ridges, and are there enough trees or bushes on the ridges to conceal our men?” She could almost feel this spot on the map calling to her.

Commander Bloom had a look of excitement in his eyes. Without ever seeing the land in person, you have divined the perfect plan and the perfect place to carry it out.”

“Then let’s get the men moving, commander,” she said calmly. She turned to the ranks of soldiers awaiting her orders, and, raising her spear point high into the air, she shouted at the top of her lungs, “let’s go show the Skulls what we’ve learned!”

The men closest to her cheered and shouted and raised their weapons. Her words were repeated, moving off in each direction, the cheers and shouts following them. Some men tried to yell her words, turning them into a chant, and get the men around them to join in. Unfortunately, her words did not lend themselves to this attempt, and it died away in a somewhat anticlimactic manner.

I really need to come up with a short, simple, catchy phrase for the men to shout while going into battle, she considered to herself. She gave a mental shrug, turned, and pointing her spear towards the coast, began walking.

Behind her, the army followed.

**********

Chapter Twenty Six

 

They climbed the low ridge before them, the trees and brush breaking the army into pieces. They crested the ridge and began working their way down the other side. They came out of the trees and Hildy could see another valley running across their line of march. She could also see the gap in the hills on the other side of the valley towards which they were marching.

As they continued forward, it became obvious why there were no farms, at least in this part of the valley. The ground was scattered with rocks, from small, fist-sized stones to some as large as a small cottage. In places, the boulders clumped together as if seeking companionship. A soldier suddenly came scurrying out from between two of these larger rock piles. He spotted her and came her way.

“The enemy has landed a considerable force, commander,” he told her. “We think as many as three thousand men so far, with more coming. But they are having a terrible time. Many boats have flipped over, and a few have been smashed on the rocky shore. We think at least some of the landing troops have been drowned.”

So much for meeting them right on the beach, Hildy decided. They were already almost evenly matched, and the Skulls would all be armed with spears. Many were probably veterans with experience in at least some of their easy victories. She hoped they hadn’t started arming all their men with slings, too. She thanked the man, and told him to rejoin the other scouts.

Just as she began to raise her spear to urge the army forward again, another group of men caught up with her from behind, pushing through the halted troops. They wore no uniforms, but were clad in white tunics. There were about fifty of them. One man approached her. “We are here to help with the injured,” the man gasped. They had obviously been running to catch up.

Hildy saw that the men all had satchels slung over their shoulders, and a few were carrying what she took to be rolled up stretchers. “We are glad to have you. Make sure you all hang back enough to avoid being hit by their slingers.” With that, she got the army moving again. Despite the rocky terrain, it didn’t take them long to reach the crest of the next ridgeline at the low point where it had been worn away by a river that had long since disappeared. As she came over the rise, where dirt washed down by the rains had begun to refill the mouth of the valley, she caught her first glimpse of the sea, and a few steps later, she saw the black fleet spread out across the water. It looked as if there were at least eighty or one hundred ships out there. She wondered briefly whether she should send word to her fleet commander and have him come out of the bay to attack the enemy ships, but she realized at once that this would put their own ships at a disadvantage. She had to trust her fleet commander to do what he thought was right.

She forced herself back to the moment and examined the valley as her men formed up behind her. She took a few steps forward and she could see the mass of black-clad troops down by the beach. More were landing, and little, black longboats scuttled to and fro. She looked more closely at the valley itself and received a shock. It was just as she imagined it to be. Just narrow enough so that her men on either side could rain stones down into the center, and the ridges on both sides would be easy to climb from this end, and there were just enough trees and bushes for concealment. It was perfect for her plan.

She called forward her troop captains, the leaders of units of one hundred men. She quickly explained her plan. “I am sending three thousand men into the valley, and splitting the rest between the ridges. Put your best armored men with spears in the front lines. Spread out across the entire valley floor, and give everyone room to use their slings. You will have the uphill advantage so you should get a few free shots. The enemy don’t all have slings, or at least they didn’t the last time we fought them, so you should be able to hurt them badly before they get close enough for spears. And don’t forget to have the men with the new throwing spears use them before the lines come together. Oh, and don’t be surprised when our fire balls come sailing over your heads.”

The men laughed nervously.

“I will be with the troops on the ridge on this side of the valley,” she said, pointing to the rise on her left. “We will be hidden. I don’t know exactly when we will start slinging stones. We may hit them before they get close to you to slow them down, or wait until right before they charge. Either way, it ought to give them an unpleasant surprise.”

This time the men gave a more reassured laugh.

“Now, quickly, decide which of you are going into the valley and which will go up the sides,” she continued. “I want good slingers on the ridges, but they don’t need to be the best armed and armored troops. We want those in the front of the main force.”

They talked amongst themselves. Hildy saw Nius Tar, the captain who had followed her from Evergreen. She smiled at him, and he returned it with a confident grin. Before long, a small group of captains broke off from the main group and gathered around her while the rest went back to join their men.

“We are leading the units that will fight from the ridges,” announced a stout, long-haired fellow.

“Very well, half of you bring your men with me, and half take your men onto the other ridge,” she told them. “Don’t get too far ahead of the main force. We want to make a nice, three-sided box for the enemy to march into. Try to stay out of sight, and wait until you see my troops stand to deliver a volley before you begin.”

Not long after that, Hildy found herself scrambling up the slope, moving around rocks and through scattered trees and brush, leading about seven hundred and fifty soldiers. When she could take her eyes off the ground before her, she saw her main force moving down into the top of the valley. She looked toward the beach again and saw the enemy was forming into ranks and lining up to face her troops.

“Try to stay under cover,” she shouted to the men around her. “We don’t want them to see us until the last minute.”

She glanced into the valley again a short while later. Her main force, which was slightly ahead of her now, had picked a good spot to stop and defend. They settled themselves into deep ranks that stretched across the floor of the valley, each end anchored by troops that were on the lower slopes of the two ridges. The battle lines were on good ground that sloped gently towards the sea. The valley in front of them was broken by scattered piles of rock, not big enough to give the enemy much cover, but they would break up their lines as they drew near.

She started setting up her own line when she came even with her troops in the valley. She spread the men out, pointing out good spots to hide that still offered a view of the valley below. She finished placing the last of her men, spread out just enough to give each man room to use his sling, and glanced into the valley once more. She was shocked to see the Skulls had passed her by and were nearing her own forces below. She was just in time to watch the first barrage of deadly stones slamming into the enemy.

The screams drifted up to her from the valley floor. She turned and raced to the center of her line of hidden men. She was now just a little behind the last rank of enemy soldiers below. They had come to a halt when the first stones hit them, and stood leaning forward, as if into a stiff wind. She saw men falling. She saw the line of slingers in front of the ranks of spearmen, and realized that their training was causing them to pause in order to send some volleys before the spearmen advanced.

She could see how costly this mistake was. They had never fought an enemy that was using deadly stones instead of wooden balls to sling back at them. And they weren’t expecting an enemy with so many slings. Worst of all for them, their slingers were still out of range. Some officers in the enemy ranks must have realized they needed to do something new. She heard shouts mixed in with the screams, and the lines of spearmen moved forward to advance through the line of slingers even as the slingers tried to move forward into range of the enemy.

Now was the time, she saw at once, while they were all mixed together in a solid mass. She screamed out, “Now, men, forward and send your stones!” They followed her orders, those that were close enough to hear them, and they shouted for those farther along the lines to join them.

Hildy moved forward too, and when her view was clear, she stuck her spear point first into the ground and pulled her sling from her belt. She reached under the flap on her bag of stones and set one in the sling’s pouch, swung the sling a few times and let the stone go. As she reached for another stone, she looked across the valley. She could see men stepping into the open there as well, although the new uniforms made many of them very hard to see.

As she set the next stone in her sling, she happened to glance at the man to her right. She was surprised to see that it was the young boy from Nudge’s home town, one of the former Skull prisoners turned into a member of the resistance army. She couldn’t recall his name. She had a brief doubt about whether or not it was safe for her, the commander of the army, to be fighting so close to a former enemy.

The boy let loose a stone and reached for another. He glanced at her, and saw her looking at him. He smiled brightly and began twirling his sling, letting the stone sail into the crowd of his own people. Was it a coincidence that he had ended up right beside her, she couldn’t help wondering? Shouldn’t he still be on one of the ships? He was a sailor, after all. He glanced at her again. Why was he paying more attention to her than to the battle?

Suddenly his eyes went wide, and he shouted, “No!” He began running towards her. She was startled. Was he going to attack her empty handed? He didn’t even bother to use the sling he still held. But she saw that he was looking past her, and she pivoted around, reaching to grab her spear from where it was stuck into the ground.

Running towards her, only paces away, was another of the former Skull prisoners. It was the spear fighting expert, Arch Storm, and he had his spear pointed directly at her heart. She pulled her spear out of the ground, but it was with her left hand. She dropped the sling from her right hand, but knew, without any doubt at all, that she couldn’t get her spear up in time to sweep aside the thrust. She tied to twist herself sideways to minimize the target, hoping that the man’s speed over uneven footing would make his point miss her. She also began to drop to the ground in a crouching position, hoping to duck under the attack.

It was all happening in slow motion. The big, iron blade was coming at her relentlessly. She could see the gleam on the edges of the blade where he had recently sharpened it. And then, the boy was there, sailing through the air in a leap. His body made it into the ever-shrinking gap between the approaching blade and her own body, and she watched in horror as the blade sunk through the armor and into the flesh of the boy’s chest.

Time returned to normal speed. She finished her movement on one knee. The point of her own spear finished its sweeping ark even as the point of Arch Storm’s spear was dragged down by the weight of the boy’s body impaled upon its tip. She jabbed her spear up, under the ribcage of the man, and her blade found his heart. His eyes rolled back, and his knees went limp, and he fell backwards into a heap on the dusty ground.

She knelt forward, letting go of her spear, and put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. He lay on his side facing away from her, the spear still stuck in his chest. A pool of blood began to fill the hollow space around which his body was curled. He turned his face up to her and looked into her eyes.

“I never trusted him,” he said with the barest of exhalations. “I tried to stay close to you, so I could…”

And then he died.

**********

Chapter Twenty Seven

 

She knelt there for a moment, and put her hand on the boy’s pale cheek. He had come so far from his home to die in this place. He had felt protective of her, felt that her life was a life that needed to be preserved more than his own. She felt tears streaming down her cheeks. Then she heard the screams.

Only three people she knew could make those piercing shrieks. Her eyes lifted and there they were. The triplets, standing in a line under a nearby tree. They looked so tiny and frail, three little girls in white tunics, each in the same posture, standing stiffly, feet planted slightly apart. They all had their hands over their mouths.

She got up and ran to them. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, realizing she had forgotten her promise to Zar to send them to safety.

“He is such a nice boy!” wailed Tam Tam.

“Is he going to be alright?” Andita asked plaintively.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” cried Miri.

“Yes, he is,” said Hildy harshly. “I have a battle to fight. You three need to go back to the castle. Now!”

“Oh no!” Miri exclaimed.

Hildy thought she was arguing with her, and her eyes snapped to the girl in anger, but Miri wasn’t looking at her. She was looking over her shoulder. Hildy whirled around.

She saw some of her men running towards her, dodging around trees and rocks and brush. She suddenly realized that some of the screams and yells she was now hearing weren’t coming up from the valley below, but from further down the ridge top. They were close and coming closer. The first man ran right past her without saying a word. He never looked at her or the triplets.

The next two men shouted at her, but they didn’t stop either. “The Skulls are coming!” one yelled as he ran by. The other man just screamed, “run!”

Three more men came towards them. Two of them dragged the third man between them, a man whose uniform shirt was sodden with blood. She stepped in front of them. They stopped. The wounded man lifted his head and looked at her.

“Get him to safety, but yell for the rest of the men on the ridge to join me here as you pass them,” she said in her most commanding voice. “And come back when your friend is safe.”

All three men nodded wordlessly, and she stepped out of their way to let them pass.

“Form a line here, on me,” she shouted to any of her men who could hear her. More men came running through the woods. She held up her hands and shouted for them to stop and form a line. One man ran past, but the others stopped. When more men came out of the woods, they saw the line forming and also stopped to join it. Some of them didn’t have a staff or spear, but they stopped anyway.

More men were coming her way, but these men were moving backwards. Some held staves or spears, pointing back the way the way they had come, and some were slinging stones in that direction. Then the first Skull troops came into view. They were trying to march in ranks. The trees and underbrush were slowing them more than her own men were. She looked around her. There were maybe one hundred men in her line, with more trickling in from behind her as word reached them. How many men had she lost?

The men doing the fighting retreat fell into line also. There might be more that she couldn’t see through the trees, further over on the ridge top. That was her hope, that and those that were still coming up from behind. She looked behind her to see if more were coming, and she saw the triplets still standing there. She was about to scream for them to run, but realized that word might cause panicked flight among her troops. And then it was too late.

“Here they come!” she heard one of her men shout. She turned and yelled at her men to use their slings, but they were already doing that. A solid volley stopped the enemy momentarily, but they came on, spears lowered. Another volley dropped a good number of them. It was hard to tell how many of them there were, how many more were coming up behind them. Another volley of stones slammed into them. They reformed into a firmer line and moved forward again. To Hildy, it looked as if they already outnumbered her men by nearly three to one. At least they didn’t seem to have any slingers with them.

The flames came out of nowhere. At first, it was just a small ribbon of fire, reaching about the height of a man’s knee, and about as wide as it was tall. It sprang up out of the ground all at once, half way between her troops and the advancing Skulls. The Skulls stopped dead in their tracks. Within moments, the line of fire grew until it was almost as tall as a man.

Hildy had no idea what was going on, where these miraculous flames had come from, but she wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. “Keep those stones flying!” she screamed.

She could see the faces of the enemy soldiers over the wall of fire. They were confused and scared. They looked at one another, and she heard shouted orders, but a man will not run into the flames, no matter what his officers are yelling at him. The stones her troops were throwing kept raining into the packed lines of Skull soldiers. At this range, the stones were moving fast and hard, and it was hard to miss them. Hildy could actually hear the stones pounding into the enemy amidst the screams and shouting. It dawned on her that the fire wasn’t making any noise at all.

She moved closer to the flames and held out a hand. She moved it closer and closer to the fire. There was no heat at all. She touched the flames. They were the same temperature as the air. She was unnerved. She turned back to encourage her men and she happened to glance beyond them to where the triplets stood. They were still in a line. They were holding hands and swaying back and forth. Their eyes were closed, and they seemed to be mumbling to themselves.

Behind her, she heard the screams and the shouting begin to recede, and she turned again. Over the wall of fire she saw the enemy retreating back the way the had come. The fire still burned brightly.

Hildy ran over to the girls. She said each of their names. The girls didn’t respond. They just stood there, eyes closed, holding hands and swaying side to side. They were still muttering sounds in voices too low for her to make out any distinct words. She reached down and pulled Tam Tam and Miri’s hands apart. Tam Tam, now separated from the other two, opened her eyes and looked around in confusion. Hildy stepped over and pulled Miri’s hand from Andita’s. They too opened their eyes and looked at her as if they had no idea where they were.

“We were so frightened,” said Miri quietly.

“The Skulls were going to kill us all,” added Tam Tam with a quaver in her voice.

“We had to stop them,” Andita told her, but her voice was uncertain.

“So you did make the fire, didn’t you?” asked Hildy, still not sure what had happened. She thought back to the day she had first met Sanara, and the story the farm girl had told them about the Skull wizard and the shadowclaw. The way the wizard had been muttering to himself and making strange gestures, that was how Sanara had described it. How he had conjured up a fearsome beast that wasn’t really there at all.

“What fire?” asked Miri, sounding more confused than Hildy was.

“Where did the Skulls go?” Andita demanded.

“My head hurts,” Tam Tam complained.

Hildy looked back to where her men still stood in that thin line, talking excitedly amongst themselves. The wall of fire was gone as if it had never been. The leaves and grass weren’t scorched. No smoke hung in the air. “I don’t have time to figure this out right now,” Hildy snapped. “Follow me.”

She led them to the thin line of soldiers. “Half of you stay here and watch for the Skulls to come back,” she shouted. “Every other man, come with me. We still have a battle to win!”

She led off, trailed by the triplets. The men had a few moments of confusion over figuring out where the counting off should begin, but they sorted it. It didn’t take long for Hildy to reach the edge of the valley. She looked down and her heart sank. Her army was gone, and so was the Skull army. Had her lines been overrun? Bodies littered the ground Was the battle lost? She looked towards the top of the valley, off to her right, and her worst fears were realized. There was a fight going on at the upper end of the valley. Her forces had been pushed back.

Her men were in a thin and ragged line angled across the entrance to the valley, and Skull troops were forming for another attack. There were only a few hundred of her troops left, as near as she could tell, and they were outnumbered heavily by the Skull soldiers. So few of her brave men left alive! Hildy felt it like a blow to the chest. Her heart turned cold, but instantly, the cold was replaced by a glowing, molten rage. They could still turn the tide. Or they could at least die with the rest of her army.

**********

Chapter Twenty Eight

 

As she turned her head to order a man to go gather up the troops still holding the line in the event of the return of the Skull flanking force, Hildy stopped the movement to stare in amazement. At the other end of the valley, she saw a sight that sent her heart soaring. They hadn’t lost the battle. Far from it.

At the bottom of the valley, where it widened out to meet the beach, stood her army. They were in good order, many ranks deep. They were formed up into a half-moon shape, the center of the curved lines were closer to her, while the two ends, still anchored to the bottom slope of each ridge, had moved forward to where the ridges almost disappeared, dipping down to small rises right beside the coast road.

In front of her army, hemmed in against the sea, was the main body of the Skull army. Even as she watched, she could see small balls of fire trailing smoke as they arched up from behind her lines and into the mass of enemy troops. Sanara’s fire balls had a tightly-packed target they couldn’t miss. But she could see longboats bringing enemy reinforcements to the beach as well.

Hildy looked directly below her to the valley floor. On closer inspection she could see that the bodies littering the valley looked to be mostly dressed in black. She gave the order to bring the rest of the men at the run. She was fairly certain now that the fighting at the top of the valley must be her forces from the other ridge. The Skulls must have sent a flanking force up that ridge too, and had driven her men off of it. They needed help, and she was going to give it to them.

When her men were once more gathered together, she got another shock. There were less than three hundred of the more than seven hundred that had marched up the ridge with her. She would grieve for them later. She pointed to the top of the valley. “Our friends are dying, and they need our help!” she yelled.

Her men cheered wildly.

She turned and began running back along the top of the ridge, making sure that the triplets were staying close behind her. Her men followed, still cheering. She wanted to tell them to stop, that it would just tire them out faster, but it made her feel better.

When they neared the end of the ridge, she stopped them a little short of where they had climbed it such a short time before. She stood where she could survey the scene below. Her force from the other ridge had been pushed back to the base of the ridge she stood atop. They must have thrown most of their stones, because very few were using their slings anymore. It looked to her like there were three or four hundred of her men against well over twice that number of the enemy. Still, the men with her might be enough to tip the balance.

She formed her men into line, three ranks deep, and hastily told them her plan. It wasn’t much of one. It involved all of them charging down the slope in front of them, yelling and kicking up dust and trying to make it look like there were more of them than there actually were.

She went over to the triplets. “Stay close behind us, then stop and hide somewhere on the slope. Stay out of sight. If things go badly, stay hidden until you see the rest of the army coming up, or until the Skulls leave. I’m sorry, that’s the best I can do.”

With that, she raised her spear, and yelled for her men to charge. It wasn’t a graceful charge. The slope was steep, rocky, and patchy with vegetation. Some men were sliding down on their backsides. A few men tripped and rolled partway down, and one or two of those were injured. And they did look like a larger force because of all the dust they raised.

They reached the valley floor only a sling’s throw from the end of the line of men they were trying to save. The Skull lines stopped as the men in them watched the crazed scramble down the steep slope. As Hildy’s men found more level ground, they immediately began to reform their lines and pull their slings form their belts. Many were running short of stones, but they threw what they had. When their stones were gone, they picked up their spears or staves from where they had dropped them, and prepared to advance.

Hildy started the men forward, leading from the center of the first rank. She intended to march to the left of the Skull lines and then turn her lines sideways to face the end of their lines. Then she planned to charge the enemy. Right as her men swung their lines to face the Skulls, they were treated to another miracle. A new line appeared as if by magic, but this line was not a line of fire. It was a short, two-rank-deep line of new troops, wearing the familiar mixture of the new uniforms, the old-style uniforms of the Smilingman army, and plain white tunics. They carried a few spears, a lot of staves, and a sling for every man. They stopped and began pelting the enemy from behind.

This was too much for the Skull soldiers. They were surrounded on three sides and being bombarded once again with a deadly rain of stones. A few of them threw down their spears and began waving their hands above their heads. Some of the other Skull soldiers turned and used their own spears to menace those that wished to surrender, but more of them joined their comrades and dropped their weapons.

They must be aware that their main body of troops have been driven back to the beach, Hildy decided, because they still outnumbered the resistance army forces here by a good margin. She was close enough to observe the breakdown of morale. A few of the diehard Skulls wanted to keep fighting, and were willing to kill their own men to do so. These were quickly overwhelmed by those that saw no point in fighting anymore.

At this point, something bewildering occurred. Some of the Skull soldiers began to cheer and hug one another. They would have hugged some of the resistance army soldiers if these soldiers would have allowed them to do so. As she drew even nearer to the beaten mob of soldiers, she noticed that the ones who looked happy all had white collars around their throats.

One of these men saw Hildy approaching and began to run towards her. Instantly, a wall of lowered spear points were aimed at him. “Princess Hildread!” the man called to her, tears running down his face.

She waved aside the protective soldiers and went to the man. “I know you, don’t I?”

“Yes, princess. I own a shop in Halfmoontown. I sell candles and lamps. You have been in my shop a few times. My wife works in the castle kitchens.” The man was obviously moved to see her, but it was more than that. He continued, desperation in his voice. “Princess, the Skulls force us to fight for them. They hold our families in big camps, and threaten to kill them if we do not fight. And these,” he fingered the white collar on his neck, which Hildy could now see was made of thick metal that had been painted, and had a metal ring attached to the front of it, “they chain us together on the ships until we are needed for battle.”

Hildy put her hands on the man’s shoulders. “What is your name?”

“Owan Maker, my Lady,” he told her.

“We will do what we can for all the families, but it isn’t your fault if the Skulls lose the battle. We have to hope that will make the difference.” She didn’t know what else she could possibly say.

She heard a voice shouting her name, a familiar voice. It was Seevan, her messenger. “I brought them, commander!” the boy yelled as he ran to hug her. “I brought the men from the villages! We got here just in time to attack them from behind!”

She squeezed the boy tightly, unable to speak for a moment. She had seen him toss aside a spear, a spear he must have picked up to join in the fighting. “You are my brave soldier,” she said when she could.

She turned back to her troops. The Skull soldiers were being herded into a tight group well away from the weapons they had dropped. Hildy ordered the prisoners with the white collars separated out and explained to her men why they didn’t need to worry about them. The triplets came down the hill from their hiding place, and she told them to stay with Seevan and the men she was leaving to guard the prisoners. Then she took more than half the men with her to join the fight at the beach.

They moved quickly down the valley and soon reached the spot where the battle had first begun. Bodies lay piled in a line across the valley floor, her men and the enemy mixed and intertwined in the grisly intimacy of violent death. She was horrified by the number of dead. This was what even a victory in battle looked like.

The enemy had obviously managed to charge her line at least once, to come face to face in battle. Beyond the line of close combat carnage, the dead scattered down the valley were almost all Skull troops. A desperate charge, a clash, and the enemy had been driven back and pursued.

A voice called her name. Near by, one of the bodies raised itself on one arm and waved to her. It was Tull Caster. She ran to him. His left leg was wrapped in bloody bandages, but he had a big smile on his face.

“The healers are really great!” he exclaimed. “They sewed up my leg where I got stuck with a spear. And they gave me some pain bark to chew on. I actually feel pretty good right now.” His eyes were glassy and bright. “The throwing spears worked, Hildy. I think I killed a man or two.”

“I will be back to check on you soon,” Hildy assured him. “I have to go now. There is still fighting at the beach.”

He nodded. “Commander Bloom is dead,” he said in a calm voice. “I saw him die, right over there.” He waved his hand in a direction behind where he lay. “He stayed right in the front line.”

Hildy looked that way. She saw some of the healers working on wounded men, but she didn’t have the heart to look for one particular dead man among the fallen. She would miss the commander dearly. She waved to Tull and ran to catch up to her men. She stepped over and around the corpses of Skull soldiers, and a few that moved and moaned. The slings of the resistance army had done their work well. She would have to make certain that the healers helped the enemy wounded too.

She saw a dead Skull soldier, lying on his back. One of the new throwing spears was sticking up out of his chest. She wondered briefly if one of the Caster brothers had killed the man. Then she saw the white collar on the dead man’s throat, and she felt rage at the stupid, useless waste of this war.

She suddenly smelled the delicious aroma of cooked flesh, and felt her stomach growl. She stopped dead in her tracks. Before her, a Skull soldier smoked and smoldered, the victim of one of the fire balls. A shudder ran through her body and she ran faster until she caught up with her marching troops. By the time she did, they had reached the rear of the main force.

The survivors of the Skull army still stood defiantly on the beach. Behind them, she could see longboats full of more Skull soldiers, but they were no longer rowing reinforcements towards the beach. They were rowing back to their ships. Her army was no longer bombarding the enemy with stones and fire balls. Halfway between the two armies, she saw Nius Tar and Nudge, talking to a Skull officer.

She pushed through the ranks of her soldiers, who began to cheer her, and walked over the coast road and out onto the beach. She stepped between Nudge and captain Tar. The Skull officer wore a superbly made uniform, and his armor was covered with small studs of silver set into the leather.

“Allow me to introduce my half brother, prince Carmak,” Nudge said to her.

“I must admit…” the Skull prince began to say.

“Surrender now, or I will stone and burn every last one of you,” Hildy said coldly. She didn’t care in the least what it was he had to say. It took all of her willpower not to drive her spear into his chest.

The man was smart enough not to argue. He turned and shouted for his men to drop their weapons.

**********

Chapter Twenty Nine

 

Prince Carmak couldn’t keep himself from talking for very long. “You are a very impressive young lady, Princess,” he said languidly, holding up a hand and viewing his fingernails. “But I’m afraid your work is still far from finished. You see, we split our fleet and army into two halves. The other half sailed into the bay to attack Smilingmantown.” He waved the hand he had been scrutinizing towards something behind Hildy.

Hildy turned. Black smoke was rising over the gap where the coast road took advantage of a low point in the hills to save people from having to walk all the way around the peninsula that protected this side of the bay. She turned back to the prince with every intention of ramming the butt of her spear into the prince’s smug guts. She stopped herself. She wouldn’t set an example of mistreating prisoners to her troops. “We might have a surprise or two in store for that half of your fleet and army too,” she said to her prisoner in a low growl.

She set about separating out the prisoners who wore the white collars, explaining to her soldiers why they could be trusted, and picking out enough troops to guard the new Skull prisoners. She had the men she was bringing with her grab up the spears from the beach where the surrendering army had tossed them in piles. There was nothing she could do to replenish the ammunition for the slings or add to the few fire balls that remained.

In a short while, she was leading her greatly-diminished army down the coast road towards the pall of smoke that rose into the sky. She stopped where the road began to rise into the low gap in the hills, letting her army march past her. She smiled and shouted encouragement to the troops as they passed her, those grim, dirty, exhausted soldiers, many of them bearing wounds. She was so proud of them, and she shouted that to them, over and over.

She saw so many familiar faces, friends she had known for a long time or just a little while. She was so moved that she wept without being aware of it. Her army cheered her in return. At the end of the column, Sanara led her flame troops, pushing the carts which were now almost empty.

Sanara stopped beside her. “Did you notice their ships?”

Hildy turned and looked back out to sea. The Skull ships had finished loading the troops they had been unable to land, and tied the longboats to their sterns. They were setting sail, but not back to where they had come from. The lead ships were already rounding the headland and turning, preparing to sail into the bay.

Hildy felt panic rising within her. Whatever was happening in the bay, the odds were about to shift significantly. Then she heard her men in the front of the column begin to cheer wildly from the top of the cut. At the same time, she was treated to yet another miraculous sight. Ships bearing sails of the colors of most of the kingdoms were sailing out of the mouth of the bay. They swarmed around the leading Skull ships. Almost at once she could see bursts of fire on the enemy decks. A black sail went up in a sheet of flames. More black smoke began wafting into the sky.

The trailing Skull ships turned to run, but they didn’t stand a chance. They were much slower than the trade ships, just wallowing barges for the most part. Each black ship was chased down by one or more of the ships of the resistance army fleet. She saw most of the enemy ships lowering their sails in surrender.

She ran to the top of the rise and looked down into the bay. The sight before her was both beautiful and horrifying. Skull ships were burning. A few had burned down all the way to the waterline. She saw smoking masts sticking out of the water below the mass of trees and bushes that hid the fort nearby. Other ships had had their sails torched, but seemed otherwise undamaged. The crews must have managed to put out the fires before they spread further. Many more enemy ships sat undamaged, sails lowered, watched over by ships of her fleet. She didn’t dare think about how many men had died here, or were dying, especially the poor conscripts forced into the Skull army.

It was all over, as quickly as that. Not one Skull ship or soldier escaped to take the tale of their defeat back to their master.

As evening fell, Hildy held a meeting in the great hall of the castle. The queen was there, and the commander of her fleet, along with all her staff officers. She had included Nius Tar, Zar, Sanara, Lawry and Nudge as well. Little Seevan stood by her side.

The commander of the fleet gave a short report on the naval battle. “They never stood a chance, really. They had no way to protect themselves from the fire balls, and only a few soldiers with slings on each ship to fight back with. On top of that, they had only a few trader ships in their fleet, and even those weren’t as fast as most of our ships. Those troop barges were just pathetic. I almost felt sorry for them. We actually only sank a few of their ships, and captured the rest. We lost just a handful of men.”

Zar raised her hand at this point. Hildy waved her to speak. “I have had men looking into the equipment we captured, as you asked, Hildy, and we questioned the prisoners. The Skulls attacked us with a fleet of forty barges and three of their trade ships. The barges carried two hundred soldiers each, and the trade ships one hundred. All told, their army consisted of over eight thousand men. Two thousand of these were conscripts from other kingdoms.”

Hildy waited for the news she was dreading most from Zar.

“It isn’t as bad as you feared, Hildy,” Zar told them all. “They sent most of the conscripts ashore at the first landing on the beach, no doubt hoping they would take the losses if we attacked them while they were still landing. We burned seven barges and one trade ship, but the trade ship and two of the barges had been unloaded already. Out of the conscripts, only about one hundred and sixty died.”

A tragedy and a waste, Hildy considered, but not as bad as she had feared. And one more thing for which to hold the Skulls accountable.

Zar continued. “Some of the men on their ships in the bay managed to escape the fires and swim ashore. All told, the invading army lost a little over two thousand men. We have just over six thousand prisoners, but one thousand eight hundred and forty of those are conscripts, and all are eager to join us.”

Hildy was trying to take all this information in, but she was so tired. Many hundreds of men had died, trapped in the burning barges. She couldn’t think about that.

“We captured nearly seven thousand spears, and uniforms, sets of armor and boots, and just over four hundred slings. And we now have thirty three barges and two more trade ships to add to our fleet, bringing it up to one hundred and ten ships now.” Zar took her seat once more.

“That’s it, I am making you the official commander of supplies and equipment. And you can make yourself a patch,” Hildy said with a grin.

There was general laughter at this comment.

While I am on the topic of promotions, make a patch for Sanara as well. I am making her commander of the flame troops. We need a patch for that, and we need another new type of patch for the new scout units I intend to train. And while I am thinking about uniforms, Zar, can we dye the tunics of the battle healers red, so the blood won’t be so noticeable? The white tunics are just bad for morale.”

There was much head nodding amongst the assemblage.

“Back to the promotions,” Hildy went on. “Nius Tar, I am making you a troop commander. I have heard how you took over leading the army after commander Bloom fell. I would make you my second in command, but I am no longer going to allow whoever holds that position to fight in the front lines, and I have a feeling that staff meetings and paperwork would bore you.”    “You know me well, and I thank you commander,” Nius Tar said quickly, “but we have been discussing a similar issue that has us all concerned. You never should have left the army to lead a smaller command. You put yourself in too much danger. We want to form a special guard of one thousand men to keep you safe, troops armed and equipped with the best armor and weapons we have. Troops that would never be far from your side. I would consider it an honor to be placed in charge of that unit.”

Hildy smiled at him. “How can I say no to the man who led the charge down to the beach?” Talking about the battle on the ridges nearly plunged Hildy into despair. “I lost too many men, putting them where they were. Maybe I am not the best person to be…”

Nius Tar cut her off before she could continue the thought. “My Lady, you couldn’t be more wrong! Your ambush, the stones hitting them from the sides and rear, is what caused the main Skull force in the valley to begin doubting their victory.”

“I have heard the reports already,” Hildy said, on the verge of tears. “Of the one thousand men we lost, most were the men that I sent to those ridges. I know many of the men ran, and found their way back after the battle, but three hundred men that were with me, and almost five hundred on the other ridge died or were severely wounded. We only lost two hundred down in the valley.”

“Yes, and if it hadn’t been for you putting men on the ridges, the two Skull flanking forces would have gotten behind us and attacked us at the worst possible moment,” Nius Tar told her forcefully. “Men die in battle, commander, the way battles are now fought. We lost less than we could have, and we learn from our mistakes. No one here thinks they could have done better.”

Hildy paused to let that sink in. She glanced at the queen. The queen was studying her in return. She wasn’t using her big ear. Hildy wondered how much she was able to hear, and how much she already knew.

“A few more promotions before I get to the main topic.” Hildy wasn’t looking forward to this part of the meeting. Some of her friends were going to be angry. “Lawry, I am making you a troop commander of supplies and equipment. King Aluff and Nudge, you are now troop captains of the same. You all work under Zar, wherever she finds you most useful.”

All three of the newly promoted officers began to argue, complain and object. Hildy held up her hand. “Those are my orders,” she stated calmly. She had no intention of losing her friends when she put her next plan into operation. “And make the triplets junior troop captains as well, have them help you,” Hildy said to Zar. The matter was closed, though she could feel the glares aimed at her.

“Finally, my young friend, Seevan,” Hildy said, putting her arm around the boy, “played a major role in turning the tide of the fight at the top of the valley, and saved some of our troops from walking into an ambush before that. I’m sure you all heard the story.” There was much applause and foot stomping. “He is now captain of messengers.”

She waited until the room had quieted again before making her final announcement. “It is going to be a long night. We have a lot to do, because tomorrow, I am taking a large part of our fleet and our army, and I am invading Middle.”

**********

Chapter Thirty

 

The room burst into an uproar bordering on pandemonium. Everyone had questions. Everyone had concerns.

“We have over four thousand Skull prisoners to guard, and we need enough troops to do that and keep this kingdom safe,” Nius Tar pointed out.

“We can use the freed conscripts and move the soldiers training in other towns here. They can keep the prisoners fenced off in part of the castle courtyard,” replied Hildy reasonably. “I have already sent out orders to the other towns. Men are on their way here as we speak. I doubt the Skulls have another army and fleet ready to invade this kingdom now. They have never failed in an invasion before.”

“We don’t have that many fire balls left,” Sanara warned.

“I sent Seevan out earlier to give orders to move people from other jobs to making more fire balls. The fleet and the two forts didn’t use all they had, either. By the time we leave tomorrow, we will have as many or more than we had today. We can take some of the fire slings off the ships when we land, so we will be pretty well off. Children are out gathering more stones, and we now have more than enough of the regular slings for every man I plan to take with me. We gathered up the throwing spears that were used, and more have been made, giving us five hundred now.” Hildy crossed her arms and sat back.

“We have roughly eight thousand men here, with another eight hundred or so scattered around the kingdom,” Zar reminded Hildy.

“I am leaving all the conscripts, and all the men with wounds who can still hold a spear. With the men who are coming now, we will have around three thousand men to guard a little over four thousand unarmed prisoners.” Hildy set her lips in a firm line. “Remember, most of the Skulls have no love for their king, and are happy to be out of the fight. Many would probably join us, if asked, but I have mixed feelings about that. One of our converts did try to kill me, after all. On the other hand, another young Skull gave his life to save mine. And the rest of the Skulls in our army fought bravely. We can talk about recruiting more at a later time.”

“Speaking of Skull prisoners,” Hildy continued quickly, “we should move prince Dezlore off your ship, fleet commander, and bring the chests of gold ashore too. Put them all in the castle. I had some rooms set aside for both. Dezlore can move in next door to our newest pet prince, Carmak.”

Commander Reef nodded. “How many ships do you want to send on this little adventure, commander?”

“That is where my plan is the most brilliant,” Hildy boasted with a broad smile. “We have roughly five thousand men to spare. I am dressing them all in Skull uniforms. We will use how ever many of the barges we need to carry us, one of the other newly-captured Skull trader ships, and your ship, which is still in Skull colors. When we sail into the bay, it is going to look like their own fleet returning.” She paused to let them appreciate her plan.

They obviously did. Hildy ended the meeting. She sent her new supplies and equipment staff to gather all the Skull uniforms and gear, and reminded them to focus production on the flame balls. Her commanders had orders to begin gathering the army and loading them on the ships. As everyone was leaving, Nudge stopped beside Hildy. “Did you know we killed another Skull prince during the fighting?” he asked her.

Hildy looked up at him from where she sat. “This is news to me.”

“Well, prince Carmak might not have known, assumed he was just hiding in the woods or something. It was prince Noory, not a bad fellow, actually. One of our men found him, halfway down the valley. He noticed the fancy armor when they were gathering up the equipment and looking for wounded enemy soldiers to help. Noory was a very plump individual, and I doubt he could move particularly fast. I identified the body. It looks like he was stabbed in the back. It was awfully confusing, that charge. Not always time to stop and properly take a prisoner.”

Hildy just nodded, feeling sleep creeping up on her.

“I understand why you are keeping some of us here, out of the next fight,” Nudge said in a lowered voice. “But why Middle? I mean, why not free your own kingdom, Hildy?

“It wouldn’t be fair,” Hildy told him. “It would look like I thought my own people were more important somehow. That’s part of it. But mostly, I just figure that Middle will be the least prepared. I learned from the men questioning the prisoners that the invasion was staged from Middle. There shouldn’t be too many soldiers there now. And I assume that is where their fleet would return to, win or lose.”

“Ah,” said Nudge, “that makes sense. Prince Cronan rules there now, married to Lawry’s sister. He is a real piece of work, that one. Just so you know, Carmak and Noory are the other two who were to have married the triplets. Besides me, I mean.” He turned and left the great hall.

Hildy hauled herself out of the chair. She had one more person to talk to before she could grab a few hours of sleep. A shadow detached itself from the wall by one of the fireplaces and glided silently towards her.

“I was just coming to find you,” Hildy said to the shadow.

Tarry Oar favored her with a smile. “I assume you wish to send the Black Ship to Middle, to get some information concerning the strength and positions of the enemy forces. I have many friends there, friends who would be delighted to see me again.”

Hildy was startled. “I wasn’t planning on sending you. You are far too valuable to risk.”

“I appreciate your concern, commander.” Tarry Oar considered how best to explain his reasoning. “I have been talking to your soldiers, and more recently, to the newly-freed conscripts. Making new friends, as it were. And, while I have a list of those who will be useful in their own kingdoms in the future, I fear that they need quite a bit of training. I sent a report to you just this morning, with a list of the names of soldiers I wish to borrow, but, of course, you have been rather busy.”

Hildy nodded for him to continue.

“What with how nervous people will be under Skull occupation, we can’t really expect any of my friends to just open their arms to someone they don’t know well. I have code phrases and hand signs and other ways to introduce one of my agents, but these haven’t been passed down the line to everyone in the occupied kingdoms yet.”

“But we can’t afford to let you be captured,” Hildy pointed out.

“I am really quite good at what I do, commander.” He sounded almost smug. “I have the ability to look and act like a fisherman or a shopkeeper, a farmer or a harmless old drunk. And I am, you must admit, most unremarkable. No one looks at me twice. Also, in the event that things do go wrong, I assure you that I will not be taken alive.” He pulled up the left sleeve of his tunic. A small, sheathed knife was strapped to his bicep, nestled into his armpit. He grinned happily. “It is incredibly sharp.”

“I’m still not convinced we can afford to lose you,” Hildy said.

“I already have my replacement well trained, and he will introduce himself to you, if needs be. And besides,” her spy master said with a sly wink, “you did put the Black Ship under my command. Let’s just say that I feel like taking her out for a little sail. I will be leaving as soon as we have finished this delightful conversation.”

Hildy couldn’t help but like this strange, little man. He led her to a small room on an upper level of the castle, where a table and some lamps were the only furniture. There wasn’t even a chair in the room. He went to a wall, and touched one of stone blocks. The block swung out from the wall, and he reached into a space behind where the block had sat, pulling out a rolled map.

“What is this place?” Hildy was quite bemused by all this skullduggery.

“This, my Lady, is the entrance room to my personal offices,” the spy master replied, speaking in a very melodramatically hushed voice, and finishing with a laugh. “Trust me when I say that I could leave you in this room for a thousand days, and you would never find the door that leads to them.” He unrolled the map, and they spent a short while discussing where and when they would next meet, off the coast of Middle.

Hildy caught a few hours of sleep, curled up on a couch in the great hall. She woke while it was still dark, and for a moment, she thought she was in the great hall back home, and that it had all been a dream. The fact that she had fallen asleep in a sweat and blood-stained uniform instead of a nightgown soon set her straight.

She climbed to the top of one of the castle towers, and watched her fleet preparing for the invasion. Longboats moved about the harbor, bringing troops and supplies to the various ships, their lanterns casting long reflections on the black water. More lanterns lit the decks of the ships where she could see men scurrying about. She marveled at the power that was hers to unleash, and the terrible responsibilities that represented.

She turned and walked to the other side of the tower and peered down into the courtyard. Skull prisoners were huddled in one side of the open space. Her men, by torchlight, were building a stout, wooden fence to contain them, while other soldiers held spears at the ready. Small groups of prisoners were being removed from the stockade. They were being forced to remove their uniforms, exchanging them for plain, white tunics. Each prisoner was then given a bowl of food, a cup of water, and a blanket, before being sent back into the enclosure.

She turned and descended the spiral staircase. It was time to set her plan into motion.

**********

Chapter Thirty One

 

The fleet set sail at midday. It would take less than a day to sail to Middle, but almost another day and a half to sail almost halfway around the kingdom with the barges slowing them down. They would arrive outside the main bay in the middle of the night, and rendezvous with Tarry Oar, who would sail out to meet them in a small fishing boat. The Black Ship would join them from where it was hiding far out at sea after dropping the spy master off on a deserted piece of coastline earlier. The troops kept busy, training with their spears and trading Skull uniforms amongst each other, trying to find ones that fit them better.

Hildy held a staff meeting on the Wavebounder in the fleet commander’s cabin, which she had once again taken over. Hildy had decided that it would take too long to unload the army on a beach in longboats. They might be spotted before they were done. She planned to sail right into the bay, and unload at the docks and along the shore there. Hopefully, the Skull uniforms would fool the enemy, at least until there were enough men ashore that it didn’t matter. Prince Nudge was going to play a major role in this deception. He would wear his fancy Skull prince armor and uniform. Another man, a soldier from Smilingman, would be wearing prince Carmak’s armor and uniform, and looked perfect for the part. He had black hair and a rather sallow complexion. Since most Skull soldiers had never seen more than a few of the many Skull princes, they thought they could pull it off.

The captured ships were being sailed by sailors from the fleet and some fisherman who had volunteered, helped by soldiers who knew their way around a ship. They hadn’t spotted a single ship on the voyage. During the second day they could see occupied Middle as they sailed around it. Night fell again as they sailed around the top of the island. Towards midnight they drew near the entrance of the bay, and lookouts scanned the sea for Tarry oar’s boat.

A lookout called from the masthead. A small boat was sailing towards the Wavebounder. Hildy went to the rail to watch it approach. It seemed to her that the boat was following a road paved with reflected light from the fat moon above. Tarry Oar climbed aboard, and turned to wave at the little fishing vessel. A dark shape returned the wave, and the boat veered off, heading back towards the dark shore. At the same moment, the lookout sighted the Black Ship coming in from the open ocean. No lanterns lit the fleet, and Tarry Oar’s teeth flashed in the moonlight. “Just like I promised. commander, no problems at all.”

They went to the cabin. Nius Tar was there, as were four of the officers who had helped raise the army on Smilingman under Kellum Bloom. The men had been made troop commanders of one thousand men under the new ranking system. Prince Nudge was there, as well as the soldier who was to play the part of a Skull prince.

The spy master wasted no time. “Your instincts, as always, were quite accurate, commander,” he said to Hildy. “The Skull invasion of Smilingman, as we discovered, was made up of troops stationed on Middle, and they have only brought a few barges of fresh troops to make up the difference. There are only about four thousand enemy troops in all of Middle, and most of those are spread around the kingdom, keeping order in the towns and guarding the camps where they have locked up all the potential trouble makers. There are only a little over a thousand enemy soldiers guarding Middletown and the castle, and so far, no word of their defeat in Smilingman has reached them.”

“It all hinges on how fast we can land a large enough force to fight our way to the castle,” Hildy reminded them all. “If they lock the gates, we will be in for a siege.” She turned back to her spy master. “What of the king and queen, and Lawry’s sister? Are they all still in the castle?”

“They are, my Lady, and I have taken steps to prevent such an occurrence,” the spy master assured her. “When I went ashore from the Black Ship, the longboat that carried me also carried a large supply of knives. Trusted friends who work in the castle have been smuggling the weapons inside. The Skulls keep the kitchen knives locked up, so it was the only way to assure that, at the proper time, the castle gates will be secured and the king, queen and princess will be protected.”

Hildy was astonished. She wasn’t at all sure if this was a good thing. She felt a moment of panic at the thought of untrained citizens going up against Skull soldiers. “What if we can’t fight our way through the town in time? They could kill Lawry’s family!”

Tarry Oar smiled his friendly smile. “Not a single knife will be seen until your troops near the gate, I promise you. There will merely be a few people, casually loitering near the gate, people whom the guards see all the time, people who have been coming to watch the sunrise for quite some time now. People will be strolling through the courtyard, chatting or getting ready for their normal duties. Other people will be performing everyday tasks, cleaning and moving things about near the royal chambers and near the room where the king and queen are being held. Still others will be well hidden in the woods near the main gate, unseen in the darkness, until such time as they are needed. Timing is everything, as they say, princess, and I have been preparing for this day for some time now.”

Once again, Hildy decided she trusted the man, and those that he trusted. They discussed eventualities and methods for dealing with them for a while, and then fleet commander Reef entered. “We are rounding the headland and turning into the bay, commander. The men are ready. Each ship knows where it has to be. And we still have time to begin the landings before the sun begins to rise.”

 

Lanus Cooker shuffled slowly along the pier. Lanus hated the pier. Middle was one of the few kingdoms that had a port deep enough to have a pier that trade ships could tie up directly to and unload their cargos. Was it a pier or a dock?, Lanus paused to wonder. What was the difference between a pier and a dock anyway? Or was it a wharf? Or a quay? Why did sailors need their own language? Whatever the thing he was walking back and forth on was called, Lanus Cooker hated it. This was the third night in a row guarding it, and he had only done half his shift so far. What was he guarding it for? Was someone going to steal it?

When he turned back around to face the water, he was surprised to see ships sailing into the bay, backlit by the sinking and nearly-full moon. It looked like the fleet was returning from Smilingman. That seemed strange, but then again, now that the last kingdom had fallen under Skull rule, what good were a bunch of troop barges? Maybe they were going to be sent back to Skull and broken up, so the timber could be used for other things.

He watched as the barges began to fan out and move close to shore before dropping anchor. Three of the larger, faster trade ships brought up the rear. One of them anchored out in the bay, while the other two moved slowly past the two trade ships and a few barges already anchored in the bay, and made their way slowly towards the dock.

Lanus noticed that the arriving barges, now anchored in a neat row just off shore, had lowered their longboats, and these were now rowing to the beaches in and around the town. They looked to be full. Those soldiers can’t wait to get to town, he smirked to himself. Did they think the taverns would be open at this time of the morning?

“What’s going on?” asked Tinner Marsh, another soldier from Lanus’s troop unlucky enough to draw guard duty during the long, dull night and early morning. He had ambled over to stand by Lanus and watch the two ships as they sailed up to the pier.

“How should I know, do I look like someone who gets told anything?” Lanus snapped. He was about to tell Tinner to go get an officer in case there was anyone important aboard the two ships, when his grouchy sarcasm was interrupted by a sailor on the largest ship shouting at him to grab the line he was about to toss down. Lanus grumbled under his breath, handed his spear to Tinner, and did as he was told, tying the heavy line around a cleat.

A boarding ramp was pushed out from the ship, and a section of railing removed. The first two men off the ship were obviously two of king Nornan Skull’s many offspring, Lanus quickly realized from their fancy armor with silver fittings that gleamed in the light of the pier’s few lanterns and the setting moon. That and the natural air of superiority that the smaller of the two projected. Lanus grabbed his spear back from his friend and sprang to attention, regretting that he hadn’t called an officer while he had the chance.

“Is this my welcoming committee?” screamed Nudge, walking up to the two soldiers and standing so close that he sprayed spittle in their faces when he yelled at them. “Is this how princes of the Skull empire are honored? Where is your commanding officer?”

There is some irony in the fact that the question was asked so loudly that it actually woke up the person in question. The captain of the guard for the pier and that section of the town had been sleeping, curled up on a blanket, just inside the door of a nearby warehouse. He came stumbling down the pier, still buckling the straps on his breastplate, even as Lanus was trying to explain that he wasn’t sure where the man was.

The captain leaped to attention in front of the two princes even as troops began to file off the ship behind them and the other ship began to tie up to the other side of the dock. Before the captain could even begin to formulate an excuse, Nudge was in his face screaming at him. “You? You think I want you? A captain? Where is the commander of the garrison of this town? Find him, drag him out of bed, and have a suitable contingent for an honor guard assembled on this spot before I decide to have all of you assigned to cleaning the bilges on all my barges, and maybe hauling them out of the water on your backs, so you can scrape whatever grows on the bottom of a ship off with your fingernails!”

Nudge was enjoying himself. He had worked himself up to the point where his face had turned purple. There followed a confusing series of events, as the sun began to tint the sky. The poor captain and his two soldiers went running off through the streets of the town, rounding up other troops who were on guard duty, and yelling outside every inn,  hostel and building being used to house Skull soldiers. They had no idea how many men would constitute a ‘suitable contingent for an honor guard’.

**********

Chapter Thirty Two

 

The commander of the town garrison was rousted from his bed. He quickly dressed and joined the stream of sleepy soldiers heading for the docks. He briefly wondered who all the soldiers were that were heading in the other direction, but that, he decided, would have to wait. He was happy to see, by the time he arrived at the pier, that it looked as though a good portion of his command was already formed up in long lines, standing at attention. They didn’t look too bad, given the circumstances.

He went and stood rigidly in front of the two princes, neither of whom he remembered ever seeing before. He began to introduce himself. The shorter prince held up a hand to silence him.

“Don’t care. Busy now,” Nudge said over his shoulder without turning to look at the man.

The garrison commander stood and waited. More of his men came streaming onto the pier, joining the three long ranks behind him. He watched as the last soldiers disembarked from the ship in front of him, and heard more soldiers leaving the ship on the other side of the pier behind him. He watched as longboats continued to row troops ashore from ships and barges in the bay. He couldn’t understand why there were so many of them. Had the invasion been defeated or cancelled, or were these troops from somewhere else? All he was sure of was that he wasn’t going to anger the two princes by asking any questions.

Suddenly, the younger of the two princes turned back to him. No, not to him, the garrison commander decided. The prince was looking past him. The prince gave a nod. The garrison commander could hear sounds behind him, men were moving, weapons and armor were clanking and rattling, there were astonished gasps and stifled mutterings. He longed to turn around, but he didn’t dare.

Then, strangest of all, a young woman appeared on the top of the boarding ramp, above and behind the two princes. She was wearing a strange uniform and armor, all dyed in shades of green. It must be her, the garrison commander realized! Hildread Halfmoon! The princess who had given them so much trouble! No wonder the two princes were eager to put on such a show. They had done it! They had captured the renegade princess!

Hildy walked down the ramp and passed between Nudge and the princely imposter. She stopped in front of the garrison commander. She smiled at him. He couldn’t help but smile back out of common courtesy, but his smile was a little lopsided. He had begun to sense that something was not quite right.

“Please tell your men to proceed in an orderly fashion to the big warehouse over there,” Hildy said politely, indicating the large building set beside the shore end of the dock. The garrison commander glanced at the warehouse. Then he glanced at the two Skull princes, hoping they would clarify the situation.

One of them did. “You heard the lady,” Nudge said lightly.

The commander turned to look at his men. They had all been disarmed. Their spears were piled up behind a fourth line of soldiers who must have come off the ship tied to the other side of the pier. Those men still held spears, and those spears were pointed at the backs of his own men. Other men with spears lined both sides of the pier closer to shore, marking a path to the warehouse. Thus is was that most of the eight hundred or so men guarding the port of Middletown found themselves locked in a building, under guard, without so much as a drop of blood being spilled. Most of the rest of those troops were rounded up as they reported for duty.

While all this had been going on, Tolly Caster had been running through the streets of the town. He was part of the first group to disembark. Their orders were to get swiftly to the castle before word of this strange invasion could reach the man who now ruled this kingdom, Cronan Vardigo Skull.

The guards at the gate of the castle looked on in amazement as hundreds of other Skull soldiers ran up the hill towards them. What was causing their comrades to flee in such a manner? Was there and uprising among the townspeople? Or a fire, perhaps? The guards began to grow nervous. Should they sound the alarm and wake the officers and the five hundred soldiers sleeping in tents spread around the castle?

Before they could make any decision, the first of the running soldiers reached them, surrounded them, and disarmed them. The twenty guards around the gate had never even noticed the local people who had been quietly gathering, fingering knives hidden under their clothing. These people, now that the gates were secured, quickly began to lead the first resistance army soldiers into the castle to secure the royal family.

Tolly was among these soldiers rushing inside, while most of those who were following behind began to spread out around the castle, joined by more locals who had been hiding in the woods, taking prisoner the Skull troops still peacefully sleeping in their tents in clearings around the old fortress.

As Tolly raced to the doors to the great hall, passing other civilians who held guards at knifepoint, he happened to glance at another soldier as they jostled each other in the rush to get inside. He nearly dropped his spear. There was Lawry, dressed in Skull armor and uniform, her hair hidden under a black helmet. She saw him recognize her, and cast him a big smile.

“Hildy is going to be really mad,” Tolly said, grinning back at her.

“Let’s go find my parents and my sister,” Lawry shot back at him, beating him to the steps by a single leap. She rushed up the flight of stairs, passing other soldiers in her excitement. Tolly stayed on her heels. She bolted through an archway and into a hall. She was surprised to see two Skull guards, unarmed, and being held at knife point by several citizens. She hurried past them and into her mother and father’s sleeping chambers, and came to a shocked halt.

Lying in the big bed were not her parents but rather her sister and the man Lawry was supposed to have married. They were being watched by a small group of locals, all carrying knives. Lawry was suddenly embarrassed. Why had she expected her parents, who were no longer the rulers of the kingdom, to be living in the royal bed chambers?

For their part, the couple in the large bed were not at all happy with the situation either. Cronan Skull was wise enough not to argue with the armed civilian intruders when they had entered the room a short while ago, but he perked up when he saw armed soldiers wearing the black uniforms and armor of his own forces begin to file in. “Arrest these people!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. He leapt out of the bed. The sight of his pale legs and knobby knees sticking out from under his black nightshirt caused Lawry and Tolly to burst out laughing.

Narya Skull suddenly sat up in bed, still clutching the blankets to her throat. She had recognized that laugh. “Lawry, what are you doing here? And why are you dressed like that? What’s going on?”

“We are here to rescue you,” Lawry proclaimed, going over to the side of the bed to stand by her sister.

“Rescue me?” Narya demanded. “I am in bed with my husband. I was sleeping soundly. Rescue me from what, exactly?”

Lawry stared down at her sister in shock. It had never occurred to her that her sister was anything other than a prisoner. “Where are mother and father?” she asked sternly.

Prince Cronan chose this moment to interject, finally realizing exactly who it was that was speaking to his wife. “I don’t know what you are doing…” he began to say to Lawry.

Lawry turned on him in a flash, and in her anger, she drowned out the rest of his words. “No, you don’t know anything, and if I were you, I wouldn’t make me mad right now.”

“You can’t speak to my husband that way, he’s the king now,” wailed Lawry’s little sister petulantly.

At that moment, more people burst into the already crowded room. Leading them was a small man with very brown skin and a long, black mustache, wearing a plain, white tunic that had seen better days. Behind him were more men dressed in Skull uniforms. For an absurd moment, Lawry and the men with her didn’t know if this was a force of real Skull soldiers come to rescue Cronan and her sister, or more resistance army troops come to help secure the prisoners.

The question was answered when the group proved to be escorting none other than the true king and queen of Middle. “They were quite safe, and being held in a small room in one of the towers, princess,” the very tan little man said.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are,” said Lawry, wanting the man to get out of the way so she could fling herself into her parents’ arms. Even so, she found herself wondering how the man knew who she was.

“Just as well,” replied the man cryptically, giving her a quick bow and a wink with one twinkling eye. And with that, the man turned and was out of the room as if he had never been there at all.

Even as Lawry grabbed her parents in a fierce, three-way hug, Hildy appeared at the door. She squeezed her way in and was swept up in a heated family argument of a nature and intensity seldom seen. She got so caught up in the unfolding drama that she forgot, for the moment, to be furious at Lawry for being here against her direct orders.

Lawry’s sister and her short, pimply husband began yelling demands. Lawry and her parents began yelling back at them, all at such a volume that very few individual words could be plucked from the air. All of this was being watched by a packed room full of spectators, soldier and civilian alike, who added to the din with comments and discussion.

Hildy closed her eyes for a moment. She was tired from running up the hill to make sure her friend’s family was safe. She had a slight headache. So far, no one had even noticed that she was in the room. She pushed her way closer to Lawry. As she passed her soldiers and they recognized her, they sprang to attention. Lawry saw this from the corner of her eye. She turned and also came to attention, facing her friend and commanding officer. The rest of the family stopped yelling, not quite sure what was happening.

Because none of the troopers were wearing rank insignia on their captured uniforms, Hildy couldn’t tell who was in charge. She simply addressed all the soldiers in the room. “Take the prisoner down to the great hall and hold him there. And make sure that all the Skull troops in and around the castle have been rounded up. Send them down to the docks, under strong guard, and put them in the warehouse. If it’s too crowded, commandeer a second one.”

Two of the soldiers grabbed Cronan Skull by the arms and started to take him from the room.

“You can’t treat my husband that way,” wailed Narya from the bed. “He is the king!”

“Not any more he isn’t,” Hildy said to her, not unkindly.

**********

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.

**********

Chapter Thirty Four

 

 

One of the reasons why Hildy had determined to stay and fight for Middle was the realization that she couldn’t evacuate the entire population, and she also couldn’t just leave them to the mercy of the Skulls. It had occurred to her, as she thought about it, that Smilingman was now so geared for turning out the things needed for war, that she could have most of the men and equipment there brought to Middle, and they would be replaced rather quickly. New men were already being trained, new equipment was already being made. And, to attack Smilingman, the enemy would have to make themselves vulnerable to an attack from the rear. What she needed to do now, was to make Middle into another Smilingman. To do that, she needed her staff, particularly the supplies and equipment people. Smilingman could run without them now.

She sent most of the barges back to Smilingman, to bring back not only more soldiers, but her staff people, all the uniforms and equipment, and the rest of the fleet. She also decided to move the Skull prisoners on Smilingman as well as the conscripts that were guarding them. It would be better to have all the prisoners in one place, and Middle already had camps, set up by the Skulls themselves, in which to put them all.

When they had sailed into the bay the previous morning, there were two Skull trade ships anchored there, both ships that had earlier been captured by the Skulls. These had been added to the fleet. Her spy master had returned to Smilingman in the Black Ship to continue his mysterious work, but Hildy now had with her the Wavebounder and three Skull trade ships, all in Skull colors. She sent them to patrol the waters around Middle. When the rest of the fleet arrived, she would increase these patrols.

She set herself to getting Middle ready for war as she waited for her army to gather. Two days went by, and then another. Men, and some women, began returning to Middletown from the camps where they had been kept. Groups of Skull prisoners were brought in by her soldiers, who immediately left again to help secure the entire kingdom. As the citizens returned, they were put to work in the already growing military production system, or, if young and healthy, were formed into units and began training under the soldiers of the resistance army. A few camps full of conscripts, already partially trained by the enemy, were freed of their collars and mixed into the new units.

The next day, there was an amusing development. A trade ship sailed into the bay. It sailed up to the large dock, and because the guards there were still wearing Skull uniforms, the ship discharged its important passenger, a Skull Prince named Naffi. The young prince immediately began to berate the soldiers guarding the dock for not calling an honor guard to escort him the castle. One of the soldiers, a furniture maker from Smilingman, smiled at the prince, and then informed him blandly that he, the crew and soldiers on the ship, and the ship itself, were now prisoners of the resistance army. With absolutely no fuss, a prince, twenty sailors, one hundred soldiers and their arms and equipment, and yet another trade ship, were all taken without the loss of a single life.

 

Martus Rudder was very sleepy. The gentle rocking of the small boat didn’t make it easy to stay awake, but the sharp hunger pangs in his stomach helped. He missed his own small boat, the boat he and his father had taken out fishing every morning, before he had been called into the army.

He had been sleeping in a small shed in Middletown when the invaders had arrived. He woke, sometime before dawn that morning, having to pee badly and a little hung over. It took him a while to realize that the patrols of troops in black uniforms and armor that were scouring the streets of the city were not Skull troops at all. The fact that everyone was wearing the same uniforms had been what had saved him. He had simply attached himself, in the darkness of an alley, to the back end of one of the patrols.

Later, he slipped away and managed to sneak out of the city without being stopped. He had walked down the coast road, and by midday he had found a small fishing village that was occupied only by women, children, and a few old men. Stealing the boat had been easy, once darkness had fallen, but the small sail and wayward winds had meant that he had spent the last four and a half days with very little water and no food at all. Now, at last, his voyage was nearing its end. Before him, he could see Skull rising out of the sea.

As he drew closer to shore, he couldn’t believe his luck. He recognized the sharp crag looming further own the coast. How many times had he seen that jagged hill from his father’s fishing boat as they checked the lines for fish or shared a joke to pass the time? He angled the boat towards the other side of the peak. He would visit his family before delivering the news of the enemy landing at Middle. He just wouldn’t mention that he had delayed delivering it.

Not long after, he was pulling the stolen boat up onto the rocky beach. He could see the small town near which his family lived, a little way down the coast, and inland, the grove of trees that hid his family’s house. He set off, overjoyed at the prospect of seeing his wife and son, his mother and father, and his younger brother too. It had been far too long since he had seen them.

He passed through the shady grove and up onto the porch, flinging the door open without pausing, anticipating the hugs and kisses he would receive. The house was dark and still. Only one person was inside, his mother, sitting still in the darkness at the big table that had been the scene of so many boisterous, happy meals. His mother said nothing, just stared at him. He felt something cold grip his heart. She looked so pale in the light that spilled through the open door, and so thin. So painfully thin. She looked into his eyes, and her own eyes were haunted. “They are all gone, my son,” she said in a hollow voice.

“Gone?” He didn’t know what she meant. He didn’t want to know what she meant. He went to her and knelt down, taking her hands in his. “Gone where?”

“Your son, my only grandchild, is dead, my darling.” She spoke with no emotion at all. “They took your young brother to be a soldier, and your father to be a sailor on a troop barge. They took our boat to catch fish for the army. We didn’t even have fish to eat or trade for bread. And there isn’t any bread, you know. Not with all the men gone. Your wife had to go to town every day, from sunrise to sunset, to sew uniforms. The baby grew sick. Your wife complained, and they came and took her away. I did all I could for the baby, but it wasn’t enough.”

He had had only a few weeks with his son, just after the boy was born. He didn’t even have the heart to ask her where the boy was buried. He got up and gathered some clothes for each of them. He found a few jugs of water and stopped to grab several fishing lines and a jar of dried bait.

Then he took his mother by the hand and led her back to the little boat. After setting her on a bench, he pushed the boat back into the gentle surf, climbed in, raised the little sail, and set course back towards Middle.

**********

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.

**********

Chapter Thirty Six

 

They had a lovely early dinner in the great hall, catching up on all that had transpired, and then the meal evolved slowly into a staff meeting. By now, everyone knew what was expected of them and how to go about doing it. The king and queen, acting as gracious hosts, were aware of the fact that they were not in charge, but were fully committed to lending their help and support in any way that was needed. Hildy was pleased with how smoothly everything went. Her staff were good at their jobs, and she was proud of them.

Zar spent some time detailing to Hildy the production numbers. Things had become ever more efficient back on Smilingman. People kept getting better at what they did, and were constantly coming up with new and better ways to do them. Zar ran down her lists of equipment and supplies that would be shipped to Middle over the following weeks and all the things they had brought with them. And all of this would be accomplished while Smilingman continued to grow stronger.

Lawry and her father filled the newcomers in on what had been done on Middle to get the war production up and running, the training of new men, and the number of conscripts that had been freed. They were suitably impressed. They wouldn’t be starting from nothing. When the flow of supplies and manpower from Smilingman was added to the burgeoning production that was beginning to appear on Middle, the numbers amazed everyone.

“It seems we will be in pretty good shape for the next invasion,” Hildy announced into the silence that followed Zar’s progress report.

No one said a word, watching her in anticipation.

“We are going to take Dancer back, and I want to do it soon, while they are still underestimating us, and don’t know about some of our weapons. We have momentum. We can try the same trick we used here. Sail in Skull ships, dress the landing troops in Skull uniforms. We should be able to get away with it one more time, but we have to hurry before word of our tactics make it back to Skull.” Hildy waited for comments or questions.

Near the other end of the table, king Aluff stood up. “I would like to go with the troops. I don’t care if I have to fight as a regular soldier, but I should be there when we free my kingdom and my people.”

Hildy studied the young king. He looked taller than she seemed to remember him, slimmer and more fit. He looked older and more serious too. She wondered briefly if it was just the lighting in the great hall, then reconsidered. He was growing up. They all were. The war had taken children and turned them old before their time. She nodded. “You should be there to help free your people.” She didn’t intend to put him in danger, any more than could be helped.

Hildy thanked them all, and sent them off to tour the production sites and settle themselves into their new quarters. She stopped Zar at the door. “I’m going to borrow the triplets for a special project, so they can stay with me in my rooms tonight,” she told her friend quietly.

Zar didn’t ask any questions, just nodded, and then cast a curious look at the three girls. “I will miss having them around,” she replied with a grin. “They can be quite helpful, but I must admit, they tend to exhaust me.” She patted her belly, winked at Hildy, and went off to oversee the preparations for war.

The next morning Hildy took the triplets far out of the city. They passed over a low range of hills, down into the valley beyond, and into the woods on the next ridge, not stopping until they had passed over the crest. They spent the rest of the day working with the fog magic. Hildy wasn’t convinced that it was magic, but it might as well be, and she had no better word with which to describe what the girls were doing.

By the time darkness began to fall, they had a good idea of what they could do with the fog. It was Hildy who suggested that the triplets try sending the fog out in front of them instead of making it appear all around them. The girls were delighted.

“We never tried doing it that way,” Andita said, clapping her hands.

“We can see what we are doing now,” Miri exclaimed.

“It’s a lot easier to control it when we can see what we are doing,” Tam Tam added.

“And you are getting quite good at taking turns when you speak,” Hildy teased.

Things fell into a chaotic rhythm. Everyone was busy. People grabbed meals they could eat while they continued working. Five days passed in a blur, and on the sixth day, the rest of the army returned from their circuitous journey of liberation around the kingdom. It was early afternoon when they marched down the coast road and into Middletown, surrounding a long procession of prisoners. These were shepherded into the camp with the prisoners caught earlier in the invasion. Then Hildy ordered all work to be stopped for the remainder of the day. There was a celebration to be had.

Food and beverages were distributed all over the city, and guard duty shifts were shortened, to allow as many soldiers as possible to join in at least some portion of the festivities. In the great hall, crowded with people, Sanara enjoyed the party, with absolutely no idea that she was the guest of honor. Hildy waited for longer than she might have before saying anything. She was going to have fun with her role in the night’s entertainment. Fires had been lit in the hearths all around the great hall, and candles and torches aided in fighting the falling darkness. People were broken into groups, sharing stories and companionship. More than a few people had enjoyed more than a few of the available drinks. Hildy judged the time was right.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an announcement,” she said in a voice well below a shout. One advantage of being the commander was that people tended to listen when she had something to say. People quieted other people, and the quiet spread, until it had engulfed the great hall. Hildy called Sanara to her side, from where she had been catching up on the news with Zar and the triplets. Sanara came to stand beside her, and all eyes were upon them. Very few of them had any idea what was about to occur.

“This is a little awkward,” Hildy began, struggling to appear solemn. “It seems, Sanara, that you are due for a promotion of a rather unexpected kind. It turns out that you now outrank everyone in this hall in one respect, other than king Aluff and the king and queen of this kingdom.”

Sanara was mystified and more than a little nervous.

Hildy turned from Sanara to scan the crowd. “We mourn the loss of queen Shylar Dubins Smilingman, a queen whose foresight, tenacity and bravery may well have saved the seven kingdoms. She passed away quietly in her sleep just days ago, but before she did, she appointed an heir. We now do honor to that heir, queen Sanara Tris Smilingman!” With that, Hildy turned back to Sanara, and bowed low. Everyone in the hall followed suit.

Sanara just stood there for a moment, a blank look on her face. Then she said, “I don’t want to be a queen.”

The silence in the great hall stretched until it was becoming uncomfortable. Hildy realized at that moment that she had been unfair to her friend, and perhaps even cruel, to spring this surprise on her in such a public setting. It had never occurred to her that Sanara wouldn’t be happy about it.

“I don’t know anything about being a queen,” Sanara continued. “I’m a farmer’s daughter. I have to help my father with the crops. And I’m not even from Smilingman.”

Hildy put her hands on her friend’s shoulders and locked eyes with her. “Zareena is a fisherman’s daughter. She saved a prince’s life and they fell in love. She is no less a princess because of that. Most of the children of the royal families marry someone who wasn’t born to royalty. And you fought for Smilingman, helped save it. You are fighting for all the kingdoms, all the people. That sounds like a true queen to me. The people of Smilingman will come to love you.”

Around the hall, the officers from Smilingman, and the soldiers on guard duty who were also from there, all cheered for their new queen.

“But why would she choose me?” Sanara demanded. “She barely knew me.”

“Obviously, she saw something special in you,” Hildy replied seriously. “And let me ask you this. If the queen were still alive, and here right now, telling you that she was making you her heir, do you think you could talk her out of it?”

Sanara smiled at that idea. “Wouldn’t have mattered how good my arguments were, she would have just pretended she couldn’t hear me.” They both shared a laugh at that.

“You will be a marvelous queen, my dear friend,” Hildy told her. “You are brave and strong and loyal, and you care about people. We will all be there to help you, whenever you need us. And you know that queen Shylar Dubins Smilingman was very good at telling who is good and who isn’t. I think she made a very wise choice for her people.”

“I guess I can get my dad a farm on Smilingman. He might be willing to move there, to get away from an annoying widow who lives near our farm” Sanara conceded. “Fine, I’ll give being a queen a try. I can always drop by the farm to help him harvest the crops. I suppose your offer to help will include a little work in the fields?”

The great hall erupted in cheering and celebration. It lasted far into the night. Much food was consumed, and much wine was drunk. Even Hildy, who didn’t really care for the taste of wine, had a few goblets, and was feeling a little unsteady on her feet. Many toasts were raised to the new queen, and many stories told of the old queen who was no longer with them. From somewhere, instruments were brought forth, and people were found who could play them, with various levels of skill. There was dancing. A fist fight was broken up, the participants of which were later seen, arms draped around one another’s shoulders, singing a song whose lyrics were never meant to accompany the song being played or to fall upon innocent ears.

Hildy observed the triplets, practicing their flirting upon king Aluff, who didn’t seem to notice, as he was busy practicing his on Sanara. She saw Zar, putting a blanket over one of the palace cooks, who had either fallen asleep or passed out underneath the long table. Off in one dark corner, Lawry and Tolly Caster were deep in conversation, never taking their eyes off each other.

And then she saw fleet commander Reef making his way through the throng towards her, for all the world like the Wavebounder fighting through high seas. The look on his face said he bore ill tidings.

“They’re here, commander,” he said, without preamble. “One of the extra ships we sent out was patrolling near the end of the kingdom closest to Skull, and spotted them. They barely escaped. The enemy is landing in force.”

**********

Chapter Thirty Seven

 

Hildy began snapping orders. It was pure chance that she already had her staff gathered around her. It was also pure chance that some of them were more than a little drunk. She ordered part of the large table cleared, and sent for a map of the kingdom to be brought from her rooms, which she had been using as her office, on the floor above the great hall. She sent runners out to rouse and gather the troops in the city and nearby towns, and to warn all the towns and cities in the kingdom. The room cleared of everyone but her staff in a remarkably short time.

Even as the people were leaving, commander Reef was telling her what little he knew. “It was early this morning that one of our ships spotted them. They were already landing troops.” He pointed to the map, to show her where, on the narrow tip of the kingdom closest to the kingdom of Skull, the enemy forces were coming ashore. “The captain couldn’t tell how many ships there were, but there were a lot of them. Even as he came about to come warn us, his lookout kept seeing more ships coming over the horizon. Some of them started to give chase. They couldn’t tell how many followed them, but there were dozens at the very least. That could mean that they are planning more landings closer to Middletown, or in the bay itself.” Commander Reef hadn’t bothered to sit, and kept glancing towards the big doors that led to the road back down to the city. “I alerted the fleet, and every soldier I saw on the way up here, but we aren’t as ready as we could be. I need to get back down there, and onto my ship.”

Once again, Hildy felt that she had failed as their leader. The bay that protected Middletown and her anchorage had a very wide mouth, and did not extend inland very far. She hadn’t ordered forts to be built on the headlands because they were so far apart that any enemy ship could pass into the bay without coming in range of any flame slingers stationed there. And now the Skulls had struck unexpectedly, and during a celebration, when the defenders were less than ready in every sense of the word. She could at least have had the men building forts around Middletown, she realized.

“At least the troops are back from liberating the kingdom, and we have all our forces from Smilingman here too,” Hildy said, trying to sound calm. “I doubt they will be expecting that, although, who knows how extensive their spy network is?”

“Commander, you better come look at this,” shouted one of the castle guards, rushing in from the courtyard. They all hurried to follow him outside and through the gate to where the road began to drop towards the city below. Out near the wide mouth of the bay ships burned in the night.

“Those must be enemy ships,” Hildy declared. “Our ships all have at least a few of the flame troops on board, and as far as we know, the Skulls have none.”

Commander Reef asked if she had any orders before he returned to the Wavebounder to join the battle.

“Protect the barges as best you can, and don’t take any unnecessary risks,” was all Hildy could think to say. He turned and ran off down the hill. Hildy spoke to all those gathered around her. “We don’t know enough about the enemy’s intentions to do much yet. Better to wait than to head off in the wrong direction. The first landings might be small, a feint designed to draw us away from Middletown. They might be landing more troops nearby as we speak. Gather all the troops in the city near the large dock. Those of you in charge of supplies, get your people ready to be evacuated with as much of their tools and finished equipment as can be safely moved. But don’t move until you get orders.”

They began to scatter, all except Aluff. “I want to fight,” he said.

“You are the king of your people and the last of your bloodline,” Hildy told him gently.

“You didn’t stop Sanara from going,” he pointed out.

Hildy couldn’t tell him that Sanara was a better fighter than him, or that she needed Sanara and her flame troops in a battle more than she needed him. “She fights from behind the main line, in a reasonable safe position.” He didn’t argue, just turned, and ran down the hill. Hildy turned to go back to her rooms to put her armor on, and saw the triplets standing there.

“We thought you might need us,” they all said in unison.

She smiled at them, told them to wait, and ran to get ready for battle. Before long, they were down by the main dock. Troops were lined up all around, the lines stretching down the main street and crowding the narrow alleys. This wasn’t going to work, she realized at once. Large units of men couldn’t fight in a city. She began visualizing the terrain outside the city. At least she had had the foresight to travel around the bay and scout out the lay of the land.

“Scout!” she said aloud, to no one in particular. How could she have forgotten? She and Lawry had interviewed dozens of the new local soldiers and freed conscripts, and organized the best of them into a scouting unit. As if on cue, or because he assumed she was calling for her scouts, a man, wearing one of the new camouflaged uniforms, stepped in front of her and came to attention. It was the man they had put in charge of the scout detail. Well, that worked out rather well, she thought wryly to herself.

“How many of your men are with you?” Hildy asked. She couldn’t even remember his name. Her thinking felt slow and fuzzy.

“Twenty eight, commander,” the man replied. “The other two should be here soon.”

“Send ten men to the far end of the kingdom, the end closest to Skull. The enemy is landing troops there. Your men should spread out in pairs, and not approach the enemy. Just get close enough to get an idea of where they are, what they are doing, and how fast they are moving. I doubt they will be able to get an accurate count. Then, one from each pair can come back with a report, while the other stays to keep an eye on the enemy movements. And send eight men to headlands on either side of Middletown Bay. Give them the same instructions, but tell them to get as close to the sea on both sides as is possible. If the enemy are landing more troops anywhere nearby, we need to know. Make sure they know to watch the sea as well, for any enemy vessels out there.” Hildy felt that she had covered the details well, but added, “and tell them to be careful. They are our eyes.”

“Yes, commander,” the man said, and went off to relay her orders.

Once more, Hildy tried to picture the world around her as if she were looking at a map. She walked out onto the long dock, her mind racing. Out near the mouth of the bay she could see three or four ships burning on the water. She was still assuming they were enemy ships, but she had no way to be sure. She couldn’t even tell if they were the same ships she had seen burning a short time ago. Each of her ships had a small contingent of slingers and flame troops. She should have put more of them on each ship.

How did it come to this, she cried out into the vastness and silence of her own mind? A teenage girl, a little drunk, wearing armor and leading men into battle. Out there, right now, men are dying on the dark sea, and more will die soon, no matter what I do. She shivered, alone in the darkness. But thinking of the men gave her strength. Yes, some of them would die, but if they won, the lives of everyone else would be so much better. Without knowing that she did it, she set her mouth in a thin, tight line, and anyone who knew her father would have seen the man in the young girl at that moment.

She had no idea what the enemy was up to, but she had a little over fourteen thousand men, all armed with the iron blades to turn their staves into spears, and all but two thousand equipped with armor. She had eight hundred fire troops and one hundred and thirteen ships. She would do what she had to do, and do it while trying to keep as many of those men alive as she possibly could. She would make the enemy regret this day.

She turned and walked purposefully back to her army. She called two of her most trusted troop commanders over to her. “You are now battle commanders. You are going to lead more than the one thousand men you are used to, because I am giving each of you half of the army, at least for a little while. Take your halves to either side of the city, and find the most defensible ground to hold. But stay close to the city. We must protect it at all cost.” They left to do her bidding.

“Nius Tar!” she said. “I see you there, skulking in the shadows, watching over me like an overprotective mother. You and the rest of my personal bodyguard are now the last reserves. Keep the men near, so we can reinforce either part of the army, if anything goes horribly wrong.”

Nius Tar smiled, but didn’t say anything. His one thousand men were already near at hand, ready to lay down their lives to keep the commander of the army safe. They would go anywhere she sent them, as long as she went too.

And that, Hildy decided, was the best she could do for now. The enemy troops landing at the far end of the kingdom wouldn’t be anywhere near the city for days. She had to wait to see what else the enemy had planned.

**********

Chapter Thirty Eight

 

The night dragged on. The Wavebounder returned to the dock and fleet commander Reef disembarked. His report was short and concise. “We burned four ships in the bay, and five more further out to sea. The rest scattered, and I ordered the fleet not to give chase. As far as I can tell, the enemy is not landing any troops anywhere near the city.”

Hildy kept her troops on alert, letting half the men sleep at a time. She had blankets brought to cover the triplets, who had fallen asleep, sitting with their backs to the warehouse that had housed the first Skull prisoners the night they  retook the city. Hildy paced and wracked her brain for ideas. Morning came with no new developments. Hildy was torn. To keep the army close to the city was the safest thing to do, but that would allow the enemy troops that had already landed to take over more of the kingdom and capture more towns and cities.

The scouts began to return from the headlands. There was no enemy landing that they could see, and no enemy ships out at sea. It struck Hildy that she had to do something. Anything. She gave orders to gather the army once more, this time, just outside the city, where the coast road began, that would take them towards the enemy they did know about. By midmorning, the army was on the move.

While she had waited for the army to get into position, she had made preparations. She had extra stocks of fireballs transferred to all the ships of the fleet, and large quantities of food, water, and blankets as well. She ordered fleet commander Reef to put to sea with the entire fleet, including the slower barges, and for the fleet to stay close to shore, keeping pace with the army as it marched. She knew she was taking a risk, but she left only a token force of two thousand men, mostly older men and young boys, to guard the more than eight thousand Skull prisoners. These guards had no armor, and most had no spear blades to put on their staves. She made up for it by arming them with knives and a few fire slings. If it was a risk, it was a calculated one, for so far, none of the Skull prisoners had shown any inclination to continue fighting for their former masters. In fact, many had been clamoring to be allowed to join the resistance army.

The army marched down the coast road until midday, when they stopped for a quick lunch. Hildy was glad she had thought to have food loaded onto the trade ships, which could be brought ashore quickly by using the longboats. Hildy had come up with an ingenious plan. She would signal the fleet by waving a white rag tied to the end of a long stick. The fleet would then pull closer to shore, a little way ahead of the army, and begin bringing food to the beach. When the army caught up, the food was waiting for them. It wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t fancy, but it would keep the army moving, and save the troops from having to carry their own provisions.

They used the same procedure that evening, as darkness drew near. The troops ate, and then slept, with only the blankets carried in the ships, to cover them. The next day was much the same, except that, when the army arrived at the beach where the food awaited them, an unexpected visitor was waiting for Hildy beside the stacks of boxes and casks of water. It was Tarry Oar, her spy master. He gave her his friendly grin, and suggested they take a stroll along the beach.

He led off with an apology. “I have failed you, commander, and for that, I am truly sorry. I am here, above all other reasons, for the purpose of warning you that the enemy plans to land troops on Middle. It would seem that this warning is a little tardy.”

Hildy couldn’t help but smile. He was such a strange and delightful little man.

“In my defense, I have only just returned from risking life and limb, sneaking around on the kingdom of Skull, and I couldn’t have gotten here any sooner without increasing that risk considerably. While my warning about the enemy landing might be late, I do have other information that might prove useful.” He paused, seeing that Hildy wanted to say something.

“You’ve been to the Skull kingdom?” Hildy was surprised. “I thought you went back to Smilingman.”

“I did, but only for as long as it took me to prepare for the mission in question. I have a few reliable contacts on Skull, but one I trust above all the others, and I thought it was time I try to contact her, a dangerous task for which we had no set procedure.”

“She?” Hildy prompted.

“Ah, yes, well, you see,” he began, “I was once engaged to be married to a lady of Skull, in my youth. Unfortunately, while I was off voyaging, in order to earn gold with which to support my bride, she, uh, caught the eye of king Nardis Skull.”

“What happened?” Hildy had to ask.

“He did what he does, young lady.” A faraway look came to his eyes as he peered towards the sun, setting over the sea. “He, um, enjoyed her company for a short while, and then had her locked away in one of his many palaces, never to be so much as seen by any man again, not even himself.”

“I am so sorry. I had no idea.” Hildy was horrified.

“Yes, well, I have kept busy with other things,” he said in return. “But I finally managed to contact her. That is why I had to go to Skull. She always had an ear for gossip. Another old friend has a daughter who works as a cook in the palace where she is kept with other women who have taken the king’s fancy. She managed to slip a few notes in and out. I have learned that king Nardis and his pet wizard are here, in Middle, with the Skull army. He means to crush you and your forces once and for all.”

Hildy nodded for him to continue, and he did.

“He has fifty thousand troops with him. They still don’t know about the flame sling weapons, as near as I can tell, although they might learn something of them if any of their ships that escaped from the sea battle off Middletown report to him. I don’t know exactly how many ships he brought here, but it is virtually all that remains of his fleet, just as the soldiers he brought are almost all the troops he had on Skull.”

“Then they outnumber us more than three to one,” Hildy pointed out.

“And you must defeat them quickly, before he decides to bring reinforcements from the other conquered kingdoms,” he reminded her. “For now, he doesn’t think that he needs any more troops to beat you, even though he isn’t sure exactly how many troops you have. And he does have one new trick to try out. He brought two thousand of his fanatical black robes with him. He is going to place them behind the three front ranks of his soldiers when they attack. The black robes have orders to kill any soldier who hesitates or tries to retreat, and they all know about those orders.”

“The man is a monster,” Hildy said, feeling a shiver run through her body that had nothing to with the chilly breeze blowing in off the sea.

“His people hate him almost as much as they fear him,” the spy master observed. “They are starving. They aren’t even growing enough crops or catching enough fish to feed the army well, and the rest of the people are even worse off. He left ten of his sons back on Skull, each with one thousand men, He doesn’t trust his sons, and he is right not to. He didn’t leave them enough men to challenge him when he returns, just enough to keep his people from revolting. Also, he thought that, with his sons evenly matched, they would be too wary of each other to join together and plot against him. He is probably right. They are a petty, jealous, and not overly-bright bunch of bullies.”

Hildy nodded, her mind already working on how to use this new information.

“I am going back to my ship, if there is nothing you need of me,” her spy master said quietly. “I haven’t slept in four days. We will sail with the fleet, so I will be close by. I know nothing of what is happening with the enemy army now, other than the fact that they are headed this way. Just wave your little flag in a circle if you wish to chat.” He waved vaguely at her as he moved off down the beach towards a small rowboat that was pulled up above the high tide line.

It began to rain, and the sea breeze grew stronger and colder.

Later, Hildy huddled under a soggy blanket by a fire, her back to a cold, wet rock. The rain had turned into a steady drizzle. She was almost asleep when a figure limped into the light of the struggling fire. Tull Caster dropped awkwardly to one knee, favoring his still-healing leg.

“It’s funny, but when the storytellers talk of great adventures, they never say anything about the heroes being cold and wet and sleepy and hungry. They skip to the good parts of the story and ignore the sore feet and runny noses.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “I just wanted to say that I love you. I have from the first time you threatened to punch me in the nose when I tried to tickle you, when we were very little.” He got back to his feet, gave her a grin, and limped off into the darkness.

Hildy smiled and shook her head. She was cold, but she had never felt so warm on the inside.

**********

Chapter Thirty Nine

 

The rain was gone the next morning. The army marched in brilliant sunshine. The day passed, and the following day, in the strange, new routine. On the morning that followed those days, as the army prepared to march once more, the first of the scouts sent to keep watch on the enemy came into camp. He reported to Hildy. “The enemy army is enormous, but we can’t get an accurate count. We can never see all of them at once.”

“I know how many of them there are,” Hildy told him. “What are they doing?”

“They sent a much smaller force down the coast road on the other side of the kingdom, but the main army is marching this way. You are headed right for them. They aren’t moving very fast, but they are burning the towns and farms behind them, and sending everyone they can catch back to their base. The good news is that most of the people fled into the wilds before the enemy could get their hands on them.”

“Their base? Where is that,” Hildy asked.

“One of the other scouts managed to get close a look at the two small cities right on the tip of the kingdom. The Skulls didn’t burn them, and they left a small contingent to guard them. The scout saw some of our people being rowed out to the Skull ships, men women and children.” The man gritted his teeth as he delivered this news.

“Hostages,” Hildy said, feeling her anger rise, “and more conscripts for their army. How long until we bump into the enemy?”

The scout pondered this for a moment. “I can’t really say, commander. I don’t know how fast you can move, and the Skulls move at different speeds, depending on what they find. But they do seem to be spending a lot of time scouring the countryside for any kind of food. And I can tell you this. When the roving units do find anything, they don’t send it back to the army most of the time. They eat it right there.”

Hildy thanked the man and told him to get some food before reporting to his unit commander. She went and found the leader of the scouts herself, and told him to send more of his men out. Three were to cross to the other coast and watch the smaller enemy force there, and the rest were to help the men watching the main army. It wouldn’t do to let the smaller force get behind her forces.

Soon after, the army began its morning march, they started seeing the first refugees streaming down the coast road towards them. The people were frightened. They had only been liberated by the resistance army a short time before, and now, once again, Skull troops had marched into their towns and onto their farms, and this time, it was worse than before. The people fled, carrying little or nothing with them, even as Skull troops began to ransack their homes behind them. Hildy felt terrible about it, but she kept her army on the road, forcing the refuges off to the sides. The faster the army moved, the less territory the enemy would take, and the less refugees there would be.

Some of the fleeing people had been warned by the runners Hildy had sent out. These people carried a few changes of clothes, a little food, and perhaps a blanket or two. But for the rest, Hildy felt she had to do something. She used her flag to signal the fleet. The fleet commander himself came ashore in one of the Wavebounder’s longboats, to see what was happening.

“Unload some of the army’s food for these people, right here,” Hildy told him. “And send a few of the fastest ships back to Middletown. Bring more food and blankets and clothes, and drop them off half a day’s march apart.”

He just nodded and ran back to the longboat.

Hildy stood on a large rock and shouted, to be heard by as many of the refugees as possible. She told them to keep moving towards Middletown, and that supplies would be waiting for them on their journey. Then she left to take her position in the center of the marching column.

Just as the army stopped for the midday meal, a pair of the runners she had sent out to warn the kingdom of the new invasion, found her, and gave their report. “We got to as many people as we could,” one told her. “We went until we saw the first Skull soldiers, the front of their army, then we started back, warning people as we went. We didn’t stop on the way, but we yelled at anybody we saw to get out of there. We figured that was the best way to do it, to warn the most people.”

The two men looked haggard. “When did you last sleep or eat?” she asked.

We brought a little bread, dried fish, and some water with us, and ate while we walked, then we started running again,” the other man replied. “I think we slept for a little while, the night before last, but I’m not sure exactly what day this is.”

Hildy looked down at their feet. One man’s sandals were held on his feet with bits of rag, ripped from the hem of his own tunic. The other man was barefooted. She could see blood drops in in his footprints, leading up to where he stood. She felt her eyes fill with tears, and, impulsively, she grabbed each man in turn and hugged him close. She asked their names, and told them that she would never forget them. Then she told them to eat and get some sleep before returning to Middletown.

“But we want to fight with the army,” the first man said, while the second man nodded and looked at her pleadingly.

Tears began to stream down her cheeks, and she just nodded, unable to speak. She put a hand on each man’s shoulder, and turned away.

The army marched through the afternoon. Marching near Hildy were the two runners, each wearing new sandals, donated by a pair of sailors from the fleet who had been manning the longboats bringing supplies ashore. The two runners had no armor and no weapons. They weren’t trained soldiers. They had told her that they would pick up what they needed from slain or captured Skull soldiers. She liked having them nearby. They gave her strength somehow.

Refugees continued to stream by in the other direction, in groups and alone, the old and the young, helping one another along. The soldiers cheered them, and told them there was food waiting for them on the way. In turn, the fleeing people cheered the army, thanking them, and telling them to stay safe.

The next day was very much the same, and the day after that. The next day was not at all the same. It started off much like the others, but as they began marching after the midday meal, they noticed that the stream of refugees became a trickle, and then dried up altogether. They marched for a long while without seeing anyone at all, and then an old man appeared, holding two little girls by the hands, and pulling them along behind him. Hildy stopped to speak with the old man, who had a long, white, pointed beard that stretched past his belt.

“Hello, grandfather,” Hildy began, smiling at the two young girls.

“Ha!” the spry old fellow bellowed. “These young ones can call me that, because I am their grandfather. I know who you are, in your fancy green armor. And you had better watch out. Those Skull soldiers are not far behind us.”

Hildy immediately called for the leader of the scouts, and sent three of them ahead. The road had turned a little inland where she stood, and she could see that is passed into a patch of forest and then rose, climbing the forested slopes of a ridge than ran across their line of march and down almost to the sea. She told the scouts to climb the ridge to where the road ran through a low cut, and see what was on the other side.

“Why didn’t you ride in the boats?” the old man asked.

Hildy turned back to him. “Excuse me?”

“The boats,” he repeated, pointing out so sea, where the fleet sailed slowly along with the marching army. “Why didn’t you and your soldiers just ride down here in them? Would’ve been faster, you ask me.”

Hildy was annoyed, but didn’t let it show. “I didn’t know exactly where the enemy was, or if they were landing troops at other points around the kingdom. And it isn’t easy to land troops from the sea onto a beach, even if the enemy isn’t slinging rocks at you while you land.”

“I’m sure you know best, missy,” the old man said. “Seems to me you are doing just fine, running the army and all.”

“Thanks,” Hildy replied, sounding a little more sarcastic than she meant to. The truth was that she had been agonizing over whether it had been wise to march the army all this way rather than using the fleet to move them. She was more annoyed with herself than with the old man. She watched her army trudging past her, all so sure she knew what she was doing. More sure than she was.

Her inner dialogue was cut short by the return of one of the scouts. “The front of the enemy army is on the other side of that ridge,” the scout reported, still panting from his run. “Lots of them are spreading out on the flat plain beyond the ridge, heading for the farms there. But a lot of them are staying on the road. They are making for that pass right there, and there are a lot more coming behind them.”

**********

Chapter Forty

 

Hildy turned from her self-doubt to the very real problems of fighting the biggest battle in the history of her world. She winked at the old man, and put a hand on each of the little girls’ heads. “Take them to safety in Middletown, and I will see what I can do about saving your kingdom.”

The old man gave her a grin that was more of a grimace. “Well, I appreciate that, young lady. They already burned my farm, and took away my daughter, who was out in the fields when they came, but let’s see how you do with the rest.”

Hildy couldn’t be angry. The old man was scared, missing his daughter, and worrying about what might happen to her, all while being in sole charge of two young children. “I will do what I can to get your daughter back to you,” she told him with great sincerity.

“I know you will,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I never meant to imply otherwise. I’m an irascible old so and so. Everybody says so.”

Hildy put a hand on his shoulder and winked at him again. She patted the girls on the head one more time, and hurried to join her army.

“I would come and fight with you, if I didn’t have the little ones to look after,” the old man shouted at her back.

“I know you would,” she yelled over her shoulder. She looked ahead to where the road passed through the cut in the ridge. A plan was beginning to form in her mind. She began to run, and as she ran, she shouted to the soldiers around her. “Follow me!” She raced along the road. She nearly laughed aloud as she continued to shout for her army to follow her, repeatedly. She never did come up with a catchy rallying cry, she considered ruefully. Follow me isn’t exactly inspirational.

Her soldiers ran, around and behind her. She passed the fire troops, pushing their twenty carts filled with jars of oil. They began pushing the carts faster, more of them grabbing hold to lend a hand. Sanara, leading them, waved at Hildy as she trotted past her, urging her slingers on to greater speed. Hildy noticed that Nius Tar and her bodyguard of one thousand soldiers had seamlessly formed a protective bubble around her as she ran. She soon overtook the front of her army, and still she ran, pulling them along with her like a great, billowing cloak.

The forest began on either side of her, young trees scattered about as the woods spread out over the plain. She stopped when she got the base of the ridge, where the ground started to rise, and the road started climbing towards the pass. The trees were thick here on both sides of the road. It was perfect for what she had in mind. She went further up the rise and stopped once more, her personal guard gathered around her. She spoke loudly, addressing all of them that could hear her. “Stop the men here. Find every troop commander and have them move their men into the trees, forming lines facing the road. But tell them to get far enough into the trees that they can’t be seen from the road. I want half the army on one side, and half on the other. And tell them I will let some of the Skull army go past us before I order the attack. When they hear shouting, they should send their troops forward, but nobody makes a sound before that.”

Her guard troops blocked the road and began passing on her orders. Hildy looked back down the hill at the road stretching away into the distance. It was a race now. Could her army hide before the first Skull troops crested the rise and spotted them? She turned back around and studied the road where it disappeared over the crest. She was happy to see one of her scouts running down the hill towards her.

“How much time do we have before they come over the top?” she asked, less politely than she might have.

The scout studied the army, seeing how fast they were moving. “It’s going to be close,” he decided.

“Get back up to the top, and signal me when they are near you,” she ordered. “And stay out of sight of them.” Then she sent runners down the hill to hurry her army along. The last of the stragglers had just slipped into the woods when Hildy glanced, for at least the hundredth time, back up at the top of the hill. The scout, standing beside a tree at the side of the road, and staying just below the crest and out of the enemies’ line of sight, was waving frantically. Hildy waved back at him, then turned the wave into a swatting motion, to remind him to get further back into the woods. Then she turned and darted into the thick forest herself, a predatory grin on her face. The time for worrying about what she could have done better was over. Now was the time to show the Skulls what her army could do.

Hildy was probably closer to the road than anyone else in her army, at least if they were all following her instructions.  Nius Tar and some of her personal guard were a little way behind her, watching over her. She crouched down behind a large tree, then turned her head and winked at Nius before turning back towards the road. Soon she heard the first Skull soldiers. They were talking loudly. A moment later, the first of them came into view. More followed, and more after that. Hildy began to do a rough count as they passed her.

Two things struck her about these troops. The first thing was how shabby they looked. They were poorly equipped. Some had no armor at all, or just bits and pieces, and the armor looked poorly made. The men were filthy and many were pathetically thin. They didn’t march in formation, just shambled along like sullen children on their way to do unwanted chores. They were talking, but it wasn’t the joking and playful insults and stories of past adventures and romance that she heard from her soldiers on the march. These men were grumbling and complaining, from all she could hear. There were no officers that she could see, either.

The other thing she noticed was how many old men and young boys that were mixed in with the rest. Why were these troops leading the army? Was this representative of the whole army, or did their king send them out ahead not caring if they ran into her army and were slaughtered? Either way, she could almost feel sorry for this rabble. But they carried spears, and fate had put them on the wrong side of this war.

She was glad that she had thought to have Zar load barrels of the various shades of green dyes onto the she ships of the fleet before they left Middletown. Each day, during the meal stops, one of the thousand-man units had spread their armor on the beach, and the men took turns, splashing and dribbling the dyes onto their equipment. They had made a game of it, and many a soldier had ended up more colorful than he had intended. It took a few days for the dyes to come off human skin. The idea of her troops, many of them dressed in black armor, running out of the woods from both sides to attack similarly dressed enemy soldiers, and the confusion that might have resulted, was chilling.

She waited until about two thousand of the enemy soldiers had passed her position. She didn’t want to let any of them get past her soldiers hiding in the woods lower down the slope. The time felt right. She stood, turning sideways, looked back at Nius Tar, and lifted her spear point towards the road. “Attack!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. The men who could hear her repeated her yell, and stood, grasping their spears, and rushing forward. Hildy wasn’t at all surprised when her guard troops advanced only until they surrounded her, but the rest of the army charged the road with wild abandon. Her soldiers continued to scream that single word as they moved forward, and it spread down the ridge as more men heard it and took it up. Then she heard it coming from the woods on the other side of the road, moving towards her and getting louder and louder. The sound of so many men yelling that one word was terrifying. Maybe it wasn’t a clever battle cry, Hildy decided, but it got the job done.

Hildy stepped closer to the road, just to see how things were going. The men of her personal guard clustered nearer around her as she got closer to potential danger. She took a few more steps, and the knot of men around her grew tighter. She loved them for wanting to keep her safe, but this was going to get old quickly. And they were blocking her view. By the time she pushed her way through to the road, the attack was over.

As far as she could see, looking down the road, were Skull soldiers, holding their empty hands up by their shoulders. Their spears lay scattered at their feet. A few of the prisoners had minor wounds, but only the few who had been so startled by the attack that they didn’t drop their weapons fast enough when ordered to do so. She looked up the road towards the cut and saw Skull soldiers streaming up the hill as fast as they could run. Most of them had dropped their spears as well.

“We can’t stop here!” she shouted to the troops around her. “Form up in your units and make for the top of the ridge.” She realized that she had to do something with the prisoners, even as her men began to trot past her.

She beckoned Nius Tar over to her. “Send half your men down the hill. Have them strip the prisoners of everything but their tunics. And I mean their sandals, too. Then tell them to start walking to Middletown, and when they get there, to turn themselves in at the camps. Tell them they will be easy to spot, in their black tunics, and if they stop and cause any trouble, or try to hide, we will find them and make them sorry. They can eat any food that was left by the refugees, but if they steal any from anywhere else, I will have them all killed. Slowly. And hide their armor and weapons in the woods. Make small piles and then throw some leaves over them.

Nius Tar grinned, and went to relay the orders. Hildy turned to the nearest prisoners. “Did you all hear what I just said?”

Those that had, nodded. One, an older man, spoke. “You don’t need to worry about us, great lady. We never wanted to be here in the first place.” He threw his helmet on the road and began to unstrap his leather chest piece. The others around him did the same. Soon, the prisoners were making their way down the slope, staying off the road as much as they could, to allow the resistance army troops to pass them in the other direction.

**********

Chapter Forty One

 

Hildy spotted one of the two men she had promoted to battle commander on the night the enemy fleet had been defeated off Middletown, once again leading his thousand-man unit. His name was Tor Plower. Hildy called him over to her. She wracked her brain, and remembered the other man’s name as well. “When you get to the top of the ridge, find Anso Root. Each of you take half the army and move down the ridge on either side of the road. If there is no enemy resistance, you can stay on the road. It will be harder to move the troops through the trees in formation. I want the army lined up, at the edge of the forest, facing the plain beyond, half on each side of the road. Keep them in the trees and out of sight. I will be up there soon, and we will decide whether to keep moving then.

Both he and Anso Root were men who had been with the army on Smilingman since it was first being expanded by the late queen. He didn’t ask any questions, but hurried to catch up to his men and carry out her orders.

Hildy stayed with Nius Tar until her army had passed, the prisoners were well on their way, and the road had been cleared of all the discarded equipment. But she did pick up two spears and two sets of armor that looked to be well-made and maintained, and set them aside. She beckoned to the two runners, who had never strayed far from her side. “Here is your armor, and your weapons. You are now part of my personal guard. Stay close to me. We don’t have any more of the green dye, and I don’t want you to be mistaken for enemy soldiers.”

The two men grinned like children being given sweets, and began to put the armor on. Hildy showed them how to use the straps and buckles so as not to leave a gap between the chest and back pieces. Then, she and her slightly-larger guard went up the hill.

When she got to the top, and could see the great plain below, Hildy saw precisely what she expected to see. On the road below her, the tail end of her army was leaving the road, where the forest began to thin out at the base of the ridge, filing off in either direction into the trees. Beyond them, Skull soldiers were still running like a black stream, but the stream stalled at a black dam of Skull units, spreading out on to the plain on both sides of the road, organizing into lines, ranks that stretched to the beach on her right, and far out into the grassland and farm fields on her left. Behind the growing dam, the road was dark with more soldiers coming up from the rear. The size of the enemy army, viewed from the ridgetop, struck her like a blow.

She realized it was getting colder, and she saw that the sun was low on the horizon out over the sea, where she could see the first ships of her fleet passing the tip of the ridge where it ran down almost to the beach. She doubted the enemy would attack before morning, when their numbers would be even greater. An attack in the dark would be a messy and confusing business. She knew her soldiers were in no shape to fight a major battle, as tempting as the idea of hitting the enemy before they were at full strength or well-organized was.

She sent her two runners down the ridge to the beach with her white rag, instructing them to tie it to one of their spears, and how to wave it to get the fleet to begin landing supplies. “Make sure they land the supplies by the tip of the ridge, where it ends, right before the beach,” she told them. “And tell the sailors to relay an order to the fleet commander. Tell him I want the triplets to be brought ashore. You will accompany the princesses back here, and wait with them if I am not here when you return.” She called a young troop captain over to her. “Take your troop, and accompany these two men. You will be escorting three young girls, and you will guard them as if they were your own daughters.”

Then, as dusk fell, followed by her protective escort, Hildy toured the ranks of her army. She made her way along the lines, chatting and joking with her soldiers as they made their camp fires, and telling them that food and blankets would be brought to them as soon as it was possible. She instructed the officers to have the men sleep in shifts, with half staying awake and ready all through the night. She ordered all the scouts to crawl out into the tall grass of the plain at wide intervals, to give warning if the enemy tried to surprise them. She told them to stay within shouting distance of their own lines, and to stay alert. When she reached the end of the ridge nearest the sea, she made sure that end of the line was reinforced, and that troops were placed on the beach itself, to make sure there was no chance that a night raid by the enemy could capture the provisions. She also had several troops of soldiers put in charge of making sure that the food, water, and blankets would be distributed all the way down the lines, so none of her troops would be cold and hungry throughout the long night.

By the time she had traversed the entire line, it was very dark, and the moon had not yet risen. Only the fires lit by her soldiers let her find her way through the thick forest. When she returned to the road, the two runners and the troop captain and his men were there, waiting with the triplets. The poor troop captain was nearly knocked over by the three blanket-clad figures that rushed past him, squealing excitedly, to swarm around Hildy.

Hildy tried to hug three squirming girls with only the two arms she had been born with. Inside, she was in turmoil. She was happy to see them, but fully aware that she had brought thirteen-year-old girls into an area where a big battle was going to be fought, a battle she wasn’t sure she could win, and there was the cruel irony. These sweet, innocent young girls might well have the ability to turn the tide in that battle. Yet again, Hildy was shocked at what she had become. The lives of all these people gathered around her in the dark woods depended on what she decided to do or not to do. She felt the weight of that responsibility, and was amazed that it didn’t crush her to the ground.

Nius Tar interrupted the moment, although he didn’t need to interrupt the triplets. For a change, not one of them was saying a word. “Commander, we have a fire lit for you. The princesses can sleep beside it. The grass is very soft and comfortable.”

Hildy smiled at him gratefully, and followed him into the forest, pulling the triplets along with her. She settled them down around the fire, and they fell asleep, still not having said a word. Hildy didn’t know if they were being sensitive to how much she had on her mind, or if they were exhausted from their adventures or just scared. She looked around her. Armed and armored men of her personal guard surrounded them, their faces serious and almost frightening in the light of the flickering fire. She sensed them all out there, forming a wall with their bodies and their hearts, a living fortress. There would be no warm fires, no blankets and soothing sleep for these men. She saw Nius Tar. He stood  beyond the fire and the three sleeping girls. He held his spear angled out from his body, the butt of the spear on the ground. He was watching the sleeping princesses. She saw the loyalty and strength in his face. He would give up his life for these girls, or for her, without hesitation. He sensed her watching him, and glanced at her, grinning. She silently mouthed the words ‘thank you’. He nodded, and went back to watching.

Hildy lay down beside Miri, put an arm around her, and fell asleep.

She was up before dawn, too worried to sleep well. She walked back out onto the road, and looked out across the dark plain. The fires of the enemy camps seemed to outnumber the stars in the sky. She heard her guardsmen moving to stay close to her. The moon was almost full, the reflection lighting a long highway out to sea, vanishing in the distance. She was hungry, but she wasn’t sure she could eat anything. When she turned to go back to the fire, she saw that the sky beyond the ridge was beginning to glow with the coming dawn.

“Spread the word down the line,” she said to the men around her. “Tell the men to get in formation. I want them to stay right at the edge of the tree line where the forest is still thick. Let’s keep the enemy guessing about how many of us there are. And have my battle commanders sent to me. We have a war to win.”

Her battle commanders arrived not long after. They talked, standing in the road, looking out over the enemy as the sun tinted the sky behind them. She explained that she wanted the army to stay out of sight, and that she intended to wait and see what the enemy did, but that she was certain they would attack soon.

“If they don’t, we will send a few troops forward to provoke them with some sling stones, but I’m not sending our army out onto the plain against a force three times our size. We will make them come to us. Make them march up hill, and make them pay for every bit of ground they take. And they will come. They will come because they are hungry, and there is no food behind them anymore. And they will come because their king wants to conquer the world, and we are all that stands in his way.”

The two men nodded.

“Each of you will command half the army, on either side of the road. I leave it up to you to decide how far to extend our lines on the left, where we can’t anchor it to the sea. Once the enemy is formed up and coming at us, you can shift your troops on that side, and extend the line. Don’t spread them too thin, but we can’t let them get around and behind us either. I can send some reinforcements if they try to move in that direction, but I don’t think they will. I think their king wants to crush us, and will mass his men and come straight on.” Hildy glanced over her shoulder. The sun was up, but still hidden behind then ridge. “I will be in the center, on the road. I will stay back from the front lines for at least a while, because being higher up, I will have a better view of the enemy movements. Report back to me when the enemy begins to move.”

The two men nodded once more, and went off to decide which would hold the left. Hildy stood still for a moment and looked out over the sleeping enemy, listening to the sounds of her army as they prepared for battle.  Then she turned and went back into the still-dark woods.

**********

Chapter Forty Two

 

Hildy went to wake up the triplets. She found them already awake, eating bread around the fire and chatting with Nius Tar and some of his guard troops. Suddenly, all three girls let out shrieks that made Hildy jump and had all the soldiers nearby lifting their spears and scanning the trees for some threat. The cause of all this excitement, however, was no threat at all. The girls had merely spotted Sanara coming out of the woods, and given their usual exuberant greeting. The princesses threw aside their blankets as they jumped up to hug their friend. Hildy sighed deeply and set to slowing her racing heart.

Sanara fought her way through the hug storm and approached Hildy. “I have some thoughts on how to use my fire troops, but I wanted to talk it over with you. There are only eight hundred or so of us. If we try to spread out over the entire line, we will be spread too thin. Also, we only have the twenty oil carts. We can carry jars with us by hand, but we use up the oil pretty fast. I don’t think that a few fire balls hitting their lines over a wide area will be as impressive as having them come down like a sudden rain shower.”

Hildy nodded. She had been thinking the same thing, and had been intending to find Sanara right after checking on the triplets. “We also have the advantage that most of our troops have slings, and the enemy has far less of them. The bad news is that the men are only carrying one bag of stones each, and they can go through that fairly quickly. This is not a good area to find more stones in.”

“I noticed that,” Sanara agreed.

Hildy told her about the black robes that would be following behind the front lines of enemy troops when they attacked. “I want to eliminate them. Maybe we should save your fire balls for that. The enemy slingers will probably come first, but that shouldn’t present a problem. We have the high ground, and our troops will have the cover of the smaller trees at the base of the ridge. The best thing is that I don’t think they even know about the fire slings yet. It should come as a very unpleasant surprise.”

Sanara grinned, and it wasn’t a warm grin. “You really do know what you are doing, don’t you? Which part of the line do you want my fire troops in? I figure we can go down to the beach, and with most of us there, we can punch through and curl up their line. Or, we can help hold the other end, where they might well extend past our lines.”

“Both good ideas, but I want you right in the center,” Hildy told her. “I think that is where their main strength will be. If we break them there, and then counterattack, I doubt the rest of the Skull army will keep going. They will be called back to protect their king, who is out there somewhere, and I assume he will command from behind the center. Spread your troops on either side of the road. I trust you to place them so they will do the most good. Just wait until the black robes come into range before you give away our best secret.”

Sanara nodded, and hugged Hildy.

“And be careful,” Hildy said into her friend’s ear. “You have a kingdom to rule, after this is all over.”

As Sanara left, Hildy’s battle commanders returned. “The enemy is forming up, commander,” Anso Root told her.

She led them out onto the road. The plain below them was covered in thick, black formations, and more black dots were filing into them as they watched. Hildy told them all she had discussed with Sanara. As she had expected, a thinner line was forming in front of the Skull army, two lines deep.

“They are going to send the slingers in first, as we expected. Our men can move out into the smaller, more widely-spread trees, two ranks at a time. Have them use half their sling stones, then move back into the forest, and have more troops replace them. That way, we don’t give away our numbers, and we should be able to drive off their slingers with few losses. When their spearmen come forward, repeat the process. But here is the important thing. Have the men aim for the black robes. They will be behind the first few ranks. I want them annihilated. I know they will be hard to hit, but the stones that miss them will still probably hit the regular troops, and that’s fine, but the black robes are our main priority. I will send runners if I have any new orders. If you see the center start to move forward, and you think you can too, then do it. But don’t let anybody get excited and start forward on their own, even if the enemy starts to break. We need to stay together.”

“I will be on the left,” Tor Plower told her. “They look to be extending their line well past the end of our line. If they start to get behind us, I will have to turn the end of our lines towards them, and that will mean shortening the line to do it.”

“If it starts to get bad down there, send a runner, and I will reinforce you somehow.” Hildy shook their hands and sent them on their way. Then she went and gathered up the triplets, leading them down the road, her guards enveloping them as they went.

As they neared the bottom of the hill, Hildy couldn’t take her eyes off the army spread before her. It was enormous. It was terrifying. In the front, the lines of slingers stretched across the plain, getting ready to move forward to soften up her army. Behind them, five ranks deep, was a great mass of spearmen. There was another gap behind them, and beyond that, a double row of more men. These, she supposed, were the black robes, set to kill any their own men if they faltered. Behind them were two huge blocks of infantry that must be the reserve. Their lines did not stretch out over the plain, but were formed in a solid mass on either side of the road. These blocks looked to be twenty ranks deep at least. Just behind them, on the right side of the road, was a small hill that Hildy had not noticed before. On top of the hill was a great, black tent, and in front of that, a cluster of men. That would be the king and his most loyal and trusted guards.

And then Hildy noticed something very strange. A lone figure in a long, black cloak had marched out in front of the Skull army. He stopped, midway between the two armies. He was close enough that she could see that he had the hood of the cloak pulled low over his face. Hildy remembered the story of the Skull wizard, and how Sanara had knocked him out cold with a stone from her sling. The man began to sway from side to side, and Hildy felt a cold knot form in her stomach.

She heard an exclamation from the troops around her as a huge beast rose out of the tall grass and began pacing agitatedly back and forth in front of the man. A shadowclaw! The animal was larger than any animal could be. It’s shoulders, when it passed close in front of the wizard, were higher by far than the tip of his cloak’s hood. Hildy hoped that his only new trick was that he could make the beast bigger than before. She knew it was a shadowclaw made of shadows, but her men didn’t. As the giant predator began to slink closer to the tree line, she turned to the triplets.

“We know what to do,” Miri said with a light laugh.

“Don’t worry, Hildy,” Tam Tam told her, grinning mischievously.

“He is going to look like such a fool,” chortled Andita.

For once, their penchant for talking all at once was useful, as it saved time. They gripped hands and began to mutter and murmur and mumble, swaying like small trees in a strong breeze.

A small patch of fog not much bigger than the shadowclaw blew up from the grass around the animal, swallowing it up. It leapt out of the fog, baring its teeth soundlessly, and the fog moved, shifting to encase the beat once more. The shadowclaw leapt in the other direction, a long leap that covered an amazing amount of ground. As soon as it landed, the fog rushed over to swallow it once more.

Most of the soldiers in either army had absolutely no idea what was going on. On both sides, the sight of an animal so rare, let alone one of such unbelievable size, had caused fear. But now, seeing this formidable creature being chased around by a patch of fog that defied the gentle sea breeze, struck them all as being rather funny. Laughter began to spread through both armies. Soldiers of the resistance army tried to move a little closer to the edge of the forest, and the Skull troops in the back lines stood on tip toe, all to see what was causing the laughter.

Without warning, the baby fog abandoned its new friend and sped across the grass to playfully greet the lone figure in black. It wrapped around him and began to dance and twirl. The wizard panicked. As soon as he began to focus on the fog, the shadowclaw vanished like fire smoke in a storm. The wizard began running around, swatting at the fog. The fog followed him, then rose above him and became as dark as a rain cloud. It began to swoop down at him, then rise, then dart back down again. The wizard ran faster, and the cloud shot ahead of him to block his way, forming into a wall. He turned and scurried in the other direction and the fog vanished, only to emerge right in front of him, rising from the ground. The wizard tripped over his long cloak and fell flat on his face. The fog surrounded him, and began to change its shape rapidly, a square box, a perfect sphere, a blooming flower, a swaying tree. Then it took the shape of a shadowclaw even bigger than the one that had disappeared, but this shadowclaw was pink and fluffy, with purple spots all over it. It was still just fog, and the details were indistinct, but there was no doubt as to what it was. It loomed over him as he rolled over to lay on his back, arms held up to ward the beast off, and then the ridiculous creature leaned its great head down over him, extended an absurdly long tongue, and began to try to lick him.

Laughter boomed from both sides of the field. Hildy actually felt sorry for the men who hadn’t been able to see what was happening, because they must be mightily confused, and for the rest of their lives, however long those might be, they would have to listen to the stories told by those who had witnessed it. And just like that, the fog was gone. The wizard picked himself up off the ground and ran back to his own lines, pushing through the lines of laughing troops and making his way to the small hill. Hildy doubted the king would give him a kind welcome.

The laughter slowly died away, to be replaced by shouted orders from the Skull lines, and the slingers began to advance, followed slowly by the long lines of infantry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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