Copyright 2015 by Michael O’Gara
First Release 2018
All Rights Reserved.
This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher Heartland Indie Publishing LLC. This e-book is licensed only for the personal enjoyment of visitors to this site.
It’s a Freebie 4 u.
General Azar was informed there was a ship on the horizon. He ordered the signal fires set. When the ship was close to shore, Azar went to watch its approach. The ship did not beach but sent a small boat ashore with six sailors rowing and one soldier sitting at the back. The small boat beached and the officer got out. To Azar’s surprise the sailors shoved the boat off and started rowing back to the ship.
Azar watched as the officer made his way up the steep slope. The junior officer marched to where Azar stood and saluted.
Azar asked, “How far behind are the other ships?”
The junior officer said, “Sir, I am afraid there are no other ships coming.” He handed a message to Azar. It had the seal of the Lord High Chancellor.
Azar went to his tent and opened the letter. He ignored the preamble and got to the heart of the message.
“His Most Illustrious Majesty has received the report from the ship’s captain who escaped the pillage of the port. His Divine Majesty is appalled at the scope of your failure. Your cowardice and incompetence in the face of the savages you were sent to conquer is an embarrassment to the Empire and to the Emperor. Your army is disbanded and you and your men are banished. Your fate is in your own hands.”
Azar put the letter down. Azar was surprised. He had expected that the emperor might hold him accountable, but he never dreamed his men would be abandoned here. There was more to this than met the eye.
Azar called for the officer who brought the message to come. The officer came into the tent and saluted.
Azar said, “Take a seat. What are you called?”
“Tell me, Jista, what was happening when you left and why were you in particular sent?”
Jista sighed, “There is civil war in the empire. Some generals rose up against the emperor. I was sent because I am expendable and my uncle serves in one of the armies that rebelled.”
Azar said, “Tell me which generals rebelled.”
Jista recited the names and Azar now knew why he and his men had been abandoned. His mentor was the general leading the rebellion.
Azar asked, “Why did the rebellion start?”
Jista said, “It is rumored the emperor is mad. He is said to have carried out mass executions and torture for pleasure and raped the wives of prominent individuals.”
Azar said, “Is it true or rumored?”
Jista said, “As I will die here, I have no reason to mislead. It is true. My sister was among those taken to the emperor. Her abused body was dumped outside the city and relatives found it. I have no doubt.”
Azar sighed. He called for his second.
Mir received the messenger. He had been brought blindfolded after having come under a truce. When the blindfold was removed, the man took a knee.
He said, “Majesty. General Azar requests an audience under truce with the Queen of the Forests.”
Mir said, “For what purpose?”
The soldier said, “He did not tell me, Majesty.”
Mir asked, “Where does he propose we meet?”
The soldier said, “He will come with one man to a place of your choosing, if you give your word that he will be given safe passage there and back.”
Mir said, “We will meet here and I give my word General Azar will be given safe passage. You will be taken back to where you entered the forest. Five days after you leave the forest, a guide will come for the general if he is with but one man. You will stay with us and you will be taken back to the forest’s edge in the morning”
The soldier said, “Thank you, Majesty.”
Mir said, “You may rise and leave us.”
Two guards took the soldier away.
Mir looked at Mysha and Lex, “I doubt it will be the general who will come. It will likely be a substitute who comes.”
Lex said, “I agree. It is unlikely the general will come.”
It was two days later when the soldier was brought into Azar’s presence. He gave a salute.
Azar asked, “Well?”
“She will meet with you, General. She said to come five days after I leave the forest. It has been two.”
Azar smiled, “She knows how long it would take on horse. She leaves no time for planning or moving a large force. I expected as much. You have done well. You may go get some rest.”
“Yes, sir.” The soldier gave a head bow and left.
Azar left the next morning with one of the army’s best fighters and another man. It was not General Azar but one of his namesake officers. They arrived at the edge of the forest early. The third man took the horses and left. Azar and his man Kleb waited. The man with the horses no sooner got out of sight than a woman came from the forest.
Azar appraised the woman. She was obviously a warrior and was dressed as such but her female endowments were obvious in spite of the armor she wore. It was armor taken from one of Azar’s dead soldiers. The woman bore several wound scars on her arms. She also carried a spear, a bow and arrows, as well as a sword.
The woman walked up and asked, “Which of you is Azar?”
Azar said, “I am.”
Mysha noted he spoke her language well but with a strange accent.
“I am Mysha. Follow me.”
The woman turned and Azar motioned to Kleb and they followed. They travelled for hours at a blistering pace. Azar noted that Mysha was probably stronger and in better shape than most of his soldiers. They did not stop to eat or drink. Azar and Kleb followed Mysha’s lead and ate and drank as they travelled. It was near dark when Mysha finally stopped. She turned to Azar and spoke for the first time.
“We will camp here tonight.”
Azar nodded agreement. Mysha started to cut wood for a fire and Kleb left to find food. Azar cut some pine boughs to use for bedding. He laid them out around the fire, a safe distance away. Kleb brought back a helmet full of berries. Mysha started the fire as the evening was getting cool. They sat by the fire and Azar took jerky from his bag. He offered some to Mysha and Kleb, who took some. Kleb passed the berries.
As they ate, Azar asked, “Have you always lived in the forest?”
Mysha looked at Azar, “I have always hunted here.”
Azar now suspected that the people he fought had lived in the open until he had come with emperor’s army.
Mysha asked, “Why did you come to our land?”
Azar sighed, “My King ordered it. I obeyed.”
Mysha said, “Your King is greedy.”
Azar said, “Yes.”
Mysha looked at Azar at it was apparent she was surprised at the answer. Mysha took out a wineskin and said, “Wine.”
Azar said, “I hope it is just drugged to make us sleep and not poisoned.”
Mysha smiled. She handed it to Azar who drank of it. It was good. Mysha motioned to Kleb and Azar handed him the wine.
When they had finished eating, Mysha said, “I will take first watch. The fire will keep predators away as long as it is kept burning.”
Azar knew that if the queen wanted them dead they would die. He nodded to Kleb and they lay down but they kept their swords by their sides. Azar went to sleep almost immediately.
Azar woke to the sounds of people about. He looked up and realized he was in a small building. He knew then for certain he had been drugged. He looked around and found his sword was by the sleeping pallet he rested on. His armor was also there. His clothes had been removed and he was naked. Mysha came into the room with his clothes.
Mysha smiled and said, “Your clothes have been cleaned.” She put them on his pallet and left.
Azar dressed, but he did not put on his armor or sword. His purse had not been taken and he scooped it up. He went outside where Kleb was waiting. Azar noted that they were in a large town that was situated in a broad wooded valley. He knew he had been drugged only as a way of keeping him from knowing the way.
Kleb said, “My Lord.”
Azar said, “I think we have arrived.”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“They did not want us to know the way.”
Kleb said, “They were wise to take precautions until they know our intentions.”
“Yes.” Azar started walking and Kleb followed. Azar had no idea where they were. He didn’t even know how long they had been drugged. Had it been one night or more? He supposed it didn’t matter. One way or the other, their fates were in the queen’s hands. If the queen wanted them dead, they would be.
They walked the streets of the town and the activity was what a person would expect in a large town. They found a market and inspected goods in the stalls. They spent the morning exploring and returned to their temporary quarters. Mysha was waiting outside for them.
Azar said, “Greetings.”
Mysha asked, “Did you enjoy your exploration?”
“The queen will grant you an audience.”
Azar asked, “When?”
Azar said, “As her majesty commands.”
Mysha looked at Azar, “It was an invitation not a command. If it were a command, I would be accompanied by a number of warriors.”
Azar said, “I meant no disrespect but to show I recognize your queen rules here.”
Mysha nodded, “I meant no offense to you. I’m a warrior and not an emissary.”
Kleb smiled and said, “I understand.”
Mysha realized that Kleb understood their language. She looked at him and said, “I suppose you do. I also think you must be a warrior of great skill to be body guard to the general.”
Kleb did not reply.
Mysha said, “I will come for you when the time is near.”
Azar nodded, “We’ll be ready.”
Mysha no sooner left than a woman brought food and drink. Azar and Kleb ate it and waited. When Mysha returned, they had cleaned themselves and were ready to go meet the queen. They left their weapons and armor in their quarters.
Azar and Kleb followed Mysha to a large open area. In the center was a structure with a stone floor and a roof but no walls. Large poles held the roof up. In the middle of the structure was a throne and a woman sat on it.
They were still some distance away when Azar asked, “Mysha, is that the queen?”
They stopped at the edge of the structure and the queen motioned them forward. Azar followed Mysha with Kleb hanging back. Azar went and knelt on one knee before the queen and bowed his head. He knew this was required, but as a man he wanted to look at the queen. She was extremely attractive.
Mir said, “Interesting. You may rise.”
Azar stood but did not speak.
Mir asked, “Are you Azar?”
Azar nodded, “Yes, Majesty.”
“Why did you come?”
Azar said, “It was necessary, Majesty.”
Azar said, “There is rebellion in my former homeland. Because the army’s immediate superior was part of the rebellion and because we did not bring riches from this land nor conquer it, the army has been abandoned and banished. I have been released from my allegiance to the king.”
Mir said, “Your king is not very wise. You are a good leader and your men are brave warriors.”
“Thank you, Majesty.”
Mir said, “How do I know what you say is true?”
Azar said, “Majesty, you know it is true because no ships have come but one which sent the king’s letter. That ship did not land but put a small boat ashore before sailing off.”
Mir knew what Azar said was true.
Mir nodded and asked, “Do you have the king’s letter with you?”
The request had been anticipated and Azar took it out. An older man came and retrieved it. He read it and looked at the queen and nodded.
Mir said, “What do you want of me?”
“Majesty, we have no sovereign nor homeland. On my own behalf, and that of the men with me, I bring the offer to give you our allegiance if we may settle here.”
Mir said, “What if I refuse?”
Azar said, “Majesty, we will be in a desperate position. We will try to settle part of the land and war will go on for some time. Many on both sides will die and both sides will lose but one side will lose more; probably my side for you have the stronger position. It makes more sense for me to give you my allegiance so all may live. We may do this as we no longer have a sovereign.”
Mir asked, “What is in it for my people?”
It did not escape Azar’s notice that Mir had been concerned about what was in it for her people and not herself. It seemed to him that this queen thought they were one in the same.
“You gain an army, men to work the land, men to wed the widows, and peace.”
Mir said, “And you survive.”
Azar said, “There is mutual benefit, Majesty.”
Mir said, “You would have to earn our trust.”
Azar looked at Mir and said, “I understand, Majesty. I would offer myself willingly to be hostage to the good behavior of the men.”
Mir was not blind. She recognized that Azar was ogling her though he did it respectfully. Truth was, she found him quite handsome. Still, he was a dangerous man and she would have to be careful with him. She did not know who he was but he wasn’t the general.
Mir said, “I will consider the matter. You will attend me for the evening meal. You may leave.”
Azar bowed deeply and left.
As they walked, Kleb said, “That went better than I expected.”
Azar said, “This queen is no fool.”
Kleb said, “She will want us to disarm.”
“For a time and until we are in so far we cannot escape the clutches of a new life.”
Kleb said, “The life here may be better than the one we left.”
Azar said, “I have no doubt of it. However, for the general and his inner circle, it will be another matter. Their riches and estates are gone. I fear the general’s greed may color his actions. I am concerned that he plays a dangerous game with his men’s lives.”
The men returned to their quarters and talked until Mysha came to get them for the evening meal.
Azar greeted her, “Hail, Mysha.”
Mysha smiled and said, “Honored guest.” Mysha turned to Kleb, “Greetings.”
Kleb bowed his head slightly in acknowledgment.
Mysha said, “It is time to go to the meeting place.” She set out and Azar walked by her side with Kleb following.
Azar asked, “Is this your queen’s normal place of residence?”
Mysha said, “No.”
Azar said, “I see.”
Mysha said, “I’m sure you do.”
Azar said, “It is wise not to let the enemy know too much.”
Mysha asked, “So, we are still enemies?”
“That will be up to the queen. It is my hope we will not be.”
Mysha replied, “It takes two parties to make peace.”
Azar nodded his head, “True. For our part, the matter is decided.”
Azar was surprised to find that tables had been set out under the open roofed area. Nearby, meat was cooking on spits over open fires. Azar noted that there were more women than men in attendance. He had expected that. Azar noted that there were women who were obviously warriors and some who were not. Those women who were not warriors were cooking, serving, and doing those duties he was used to seeing women do.
Azar followed Mysha to a table which was obviously the queen’s table for it had a chair at it. The rest of the seating at the tables consisted of benches of varying lengths. Most of the tables were already occupied. Mysha motioned to places and they sat down in the seats at the queen’s table but furthest from queen’s chair. A woman brought drinks.
Mysha took a sip. Kleb followed her lead.
Kleb said, “This is good. What is it?”
Mysha said, “A fermented drink made from honey.”
Azar took a drink and said, “It is very good.”
Mysha said, “I like your wine better.”
Azar sighed, “But we no longer will have access to that and you do not have vineyards here.”
Mysha said, “There is opportunity in that. Would the fruit grow here?”
Azar said, “I think so.”
Mysha said, “I might arrange it once there is peace.”
The queen came and everyone rose and bowed.
Mir sat and the man beside her said, “You may all be seated.”
Everyone sat. Mysha rose and introduced the guests. “Friends, I present Azar.” Mysha motioned and Azar stood. Mysha added, “And his warrior companion, Kleb.” She motioned to Kleb and he stood. Mysha added, “They are guests of the queen.”
Mysha sat and Azar and Kleb followed her lead.
Mir motioned and the servers brought food. It was a feast and Azar’s mouth watered for he had not eaten so well since he’d arrived in this land.
Azar asked the man across the table, “What are you called?”
“I am Bange.”
Mysha added, “He commanded troops that attacked your army in the open plain.”
Azar said, “You fought valiantly.”
Bange said, “Winning is what we sought.”
Azar said, “In a way you did?”
Bange looked at Azar and asked, “How do you reckon that?”
“We are here seeking peace and you are not at our camp seeking a truce.”
Bange nodded and started back at his meal.
Mysha said, “Bange was never one for talk.” Mysha caught Kleb looking at her lustfully. She said, “You had best find easier prey, Kleb. The warrior women have seen the work of your troops against defenseless women.”
Azar said, “There have been harsh deeds done by both sides.”
Mysha said, “True. The difference is you kicked in the door to our home to do it.”
Azar nodded, “Also true. The question is are we at a point where it is in the interest of both parties to move forward and let go of past hurts?”
Mysha said, “You talk more like a peacemaker than a general.”
Azar shrugged, “There is a time for war and a time for peace making.”
It was a pleasant dinner and Azar enjoyed it. He also enjoyed a little too much drink and was feeling no pain when he and Kleb returned to their quarters. Kleb was with a female companion who had served at the banquet.
In the middle of the night, Mir woke with a start and bolted up into a sitting position. She knew it had been a dream vision. She swung her legs off her sleeping pallet and sat thinking. She thought about the meaning of the dream. In the dream, a large bear was on its rear legs, its claws out, and moving to attack. Mir avoided it and a small bear jumped off the large bear making the large bear smaller in the process. This was repeated several times until what had been the large bear was just slightly larger than a cub. Mir grabbed the bear in one hand and strangled it.
Mir thought about her last vision. The bear had been following a honey trail. The bear was obviously the enemy general Azar and his army. So the ferocious bear of this dream must be the same. So who was the first small bear? It occurred to Mir that her guest was not General Azar. Mir smiled and went back to sleep.
The queen rose early and with some of her trusted warriors went into the mountains where they hunted and killed a ram. They took it to the top of the mountain and made a burnt offering in thanksgiving for the dream warning. It was midday when they returned.
About the same time that Mir returned from the mountain, Azar was bathing. He had slept late because he had drunk too much last evening. He knew he would not make that mistake again. It was not in keeping with how a general would act, or was it?
A messenger came and said, “The queen requires you to meet with her.”
Azar said, “I’ll get Kleb.”
“You are to come alone.”
Azar nodded and said, “Lead on.”
When Azar arrived at the usual place he found only the queen and Mysha waiting. Azar found that strange. Mir motioned Azar forward and he went to her and bowed, “Majesty.”
Mir reached out with her mind and found Azar resisted. He had a wall around his mind. Mir had never encountered such a thing before and it was strong. She knew she could break down the wall but it would damage the man; she had given her word not to harm him.
Azar, for his part, was stunned. He knew what this queen had done. He had a little gift that he had used seldom but he had never been attacked in that manner. The attack had been fierce but he could tell it had been done with little effort. Azar knew this queen was not one to fool with.
Mir said, “On your honor and your life, what is your true name?”
“Azarit, but my fellow warriors call me Azar.”
Mir could tell he was telling the truth so asked, “And your rank.”
Azarit said, “Captain.”
Mir said, “Your namesake, the general, considers you expendable. I extended the safe passage to him and not to you.”
Azarit said, “Yes, Majesty.”
Mir asked, “Then why did you come? Your king has released his men, or is that a deception too?”
Azarit said, “I am released, but in a hostile land what choice do I have? If I did not obey, I would have no camp and be surrounded by enemies. On one side would be your people and the other the general with both sides seeking my life.”
Mir asked, “Will your general honor any treaty he makes with me?”
Azarit hesitated before saying, “I doubt it. He is a prideful and ambitious man. I suspect his pride will not allow him to serve a woman and his ambition will drive him to overcome you by any means.”
Azarit said, “I judge a person by character and deeds. I have no ambition to be a king. I know what I am.”
“What is that?”
Azarit answered, “A warrior by training and a man of modest ambition.”
Mir asked, “Why are you in the army?”
“Majesty, I was conscripted.”
Mir said, “I do not understand conscripted.”
Azarit said, “I was forced into military service.”
“How were you forced?”
“I was taken as a lad and given a choice; I could fight for the emperor or be executed. When I was taken far from my homeland, the army became my family and I was tied to it for survival.”
Mir said, “Interesting. I give you a choice.”
“Majesty, what is that?”
“You may give oath not to take up arms against me or my people, and you will be free to go. You will no longer be an enemy of our people. Alternately, you may return to the general.”
Azarit said, “Majesty, I choose not to return.”
Mir asked, “Will you join my army?”
Azarit said, “I have no stomach to slay my former fellow warriors. I do not wish to fight against them though I would take up arms against others who come.”
Mir said, “That is agreeable.”