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Steel And Stone

Part I


Dressos

Flames burned across the battlefield, winds howled and the earth shook, effects conjured by techniques--a word which could be used both for the weapons of Orakian cyborgs and the strange powers of Layans and their monsters. Amidst the elemental havoc, men and women fought and died, cyborgs were smashed to pieces, and monsters were cut down.

The armies of Lune had hurled themselves against the manor of Dressos with violent impunity. The manor didn't have the defenses of Landen's castle, or even the walled towns of Iluk and Yaata. Its walls were strong, but they were the walls of a home, not a fortress. Sari had been forced to meet the assault with a larger force than she'd have liked.

The problem was, she admitted, that Lune's forces were better than hers. The humans matched up well enough; the Layans had their techniques but weren't quite as capable in a straight fight. It was the nonhuman soldiers that were the problem. When the war had begun, Sari had studied everything her mother had learned about the Layan monsters used in Aquatica and the end result was that Lune's "foot troops," the lizrds and oozes that served as the bulk of his attacking infantry, rivaled the elite units of Aquatica. Landen's cyborgs, its Whistlebots, Hummers, and Striders, simply couldn't compare.

Just at the base of the wall, Sari saw a unit of lizrds under the command of a Layan witch tear into a squad of soldiers. The Orakian troops fought valiantly, but by the time the last monster fell, only three of them were standing and one of those sorely wounded. The Layan captain and the soldiers stared hard at one another, then veered off to seek other opponents. A surge of relief passed through Sari.

It was hypocricy, she knew, and yet she couldn't get herself past it. Laya and Orakio's last commands to their people a thousand years ago had been eerily similar. The exact wording varied depending upon whom you asked, but it all boiled down to one thing: don't kill each other. So they didn't. Layans sent their monsters to ravage Orakian towns and butcher the population within, and Orakians returned the favor with their cyborgs, but the human soldiers never fought one another directly.

That was why Sari had not used her knife against the thief that had invaded her bedchamber in Landen two weeks ago. She hadn't been able to do it, to lash out in killing violence against her enemy.

Sophistry, she thought bitterly as she surveyed the carnage. What did it matter to the dead if they faced their killer directly or were executed by mindless minions acting on human orders? And yet, she still couldn't help but feel relieved at seeing evidence that Orakio's Law and Laya's Law were being observed. Something, at least, hadn't yet been crushed by this war.

From the battlefield conditions, she judged that the time was right. The defenders were being pushed back, but the progress of the Layans was irregular and there were gaps in their lines because of it. Sari drew her knives.

"Let's do this."

In response, the unit's herald raised a horn to her lips and blew. A battery of Gunbots opened up with their long-range Foi cannons, striking with fire and death into the Layan lines. Then, Sari charged. Her unit, the Queensguard (they'd named themselves; to Sari they would always be Second Battalion, Unit Six) following in her wake like she was the point of an arrow. Monsters struck at them, but when they came near Sari, they died. Two lizrds sprang at her, claws and fangs sparkling in the sun, and she bisected them both in midair with sweeps of her blades. The soldiers immediately behind her kept her back and rear flanks covered from attack, and she took care of the rest.

In surprisingly little time Landen's elite reserve had punched a hole in the Layan lines, and Sari turned, grinding up one wing of the enemy force. The Layan leader, realizing that half her troops had been caught in a pincer, signaled a retreat before it was fully enveloped. In less than an hour, the battlefield belonged to the Orakians.

The queen strode back to Dressos amid the cheers of her troops. She didn't begrudge them their enthusiasm, these men and women who'd successfully stood off an attack on their home, but she didn't share it. The price of victory had been too dear. She walked into the manor and pulled off her crown--not an ornament of rule but the name for the helmets worn by Orakian females--leaving her brown hair plastered to her face with sweat. Sari wanted a bath, not just to cleanse herself but to sink into the hot water and let her mind drift free from war and violence, but she wasn't going to get it. She'd barely have time for a quick splash of water on her face and clean clothes. In war, there was never time for luxury. Especially when your side was losing.

The manor's dining room had been co-opted by Sari and her staff for a planning room. The huge oak table was covered with maps, sketches, and plans. Armorial trophies had been stripped from their places on the high stone walls and used to equip soldiers, but the heads of tsveidons, nayls, and moos glared down balefully. Sari didn't sit at the head of the table; no one sat anywhere, most of the time, but milled around from place to place as they needed. The queen had gone there at once after changing.

"Queen Sari!" Lord Ashton Mercier all but cheered. "Architect of another victory!" She could have done without the applause, but she supposed he had the right. Dressos was his home, after all, that they'd just saved.

For the third time.

"A victory, yes," agreed Jared Di Morni, Grand Master of the Knights of the Mountain, before switching over to his oft-heard refrain, "but my lady Queen, you took too many risks in the battle. You must not throw yourself heedlessly into the fray; you are too important to Landen."

She fixed him with a cold-iron stare.

"How?"

"Your Majesty?"

"How am I important?"

"You are our Queen, the example we all look to! If you were to fall in battle, the hope would go out of our people in an instant!"

I certainly hope not.

"Why?"

Her one-word questions were obviously giving Sir Jared trouble; he looked like he'd been poleaxed.

"She means, why do the people look up to her?" asked Gero Ra Tallant, knight-captain of the contingent of the Knights of the Forest that had accompanied the army. He glanced at Sari. "Is that correct, your Majesty?"

"It is," she affirmed with a nod. Sari liked Gero; he came directly to the point without unnecessary formality or concern for what other people would think. There was a longstanding tradition of friendly rivalry between Landen's orders of knighthood, and Gero tended to tweak Jared's sense of propriety.

"Why...because you are the queen, a leader we all can look up to."

"Wrong," she informed him. "People don't respect me because I'm the queen, especially not the average trooper out there with his life on the line. They respect me because I take the chances I ask them to take, and because, if you'll forgive me, I'm one of the best fighters in this army. Soldiers don't care about bloodlines and noble families. They want a leader that treats them fairly and who knows her way around the battlefield." She turned to the other female in the room. "Isn't that right, Valya?"

Valya Crest, captain of a squad of mercenary warriors who'd made their living rousting monsters in southern Landen and escorting caravans through the Landen-Aquatica passage before the outbreak of war, nodded firmly.

"Exactly. There's no client we didn't hate more than a pampered noble or merchant who stayed snug and safe at home while sending us out to fight and die. Those were always the ones who would try to spend our lives like coins, because they didn't understand the realities of battle and death."

"Sir Jared has one point well worth mentioning, though," observed the last member of the council of war. His name was Colonel Troy, and he was the commander of the non-knightly troops: the guards, the militia, and the citizen levies. "You are our best fighter, and that makes you a weapon we can't afford to lose on the field."

"If I don't take the field, what good am I as a weapon?" the queen countered. Sari walked down the table until she reached a strategic map of the world of Landen. "Look here: Lune already controls the entire western half of this world, which used to be the kingdom of Satera. He also controls the central island, keeping us from setting sail in boats." She traced the red lines marking Lune's control with her fingertip. "We still hold Landen, Yaata, and Iluk proper, but Lune's monsters roam freely in the countryside between them. The northeastern forests are completely under his control, and he's managed to station a battalion here in the passage to Aquatica to prevent us from escaping or seeking aid. The only part of Landen he hasn't overrun is the southern half of the kingdom, and there's not much down there, a few farming hamlets and a manor or two. No castles, no major towns, no resource centers."

"At least," Jared pointed out, "if we can keep the south we'll have enough food to take care of the whole population--though getting it to them is another problem entirely."

He was right about that; despite his excessive regard for propriety and status, Jared did have a good military mind.

"I can't argue with that," Gero said. "Most of the farmland around Iluk is still ours, since Lune doesn't have a foothold on the island, but Yaata and Landen are isolated."

"Lune's not actively besieging those towns though, is he?" asked Lord Mercier. "I mean, you were able to travel out of Landen to come here, your Majesty."

Sari nodded.

"No, he's not. There are squads here and there, and roving packs of monsters loose in the countryside. A military force could punch its way through, as we did, or a small group slip by, but a slow-moving caravan of wagons would be a sitting duck."

"There's always the sea," Valya said. "A boat could leave Midian or Hartnor"--She tapped the location of the tiny fishing villages she'd named.--"and sail to Yaata."

Sari shook her head.

"Lune's sea monsters make that all but suicidal. We'll have to forcibly clear a lane, either by land or by sea, in order to get food through, or their stores will run out in approximately four months."

"Do we have the strength for that?" asked the colonel. "If Lune put a defensive ring around each city, he could keep us at bay, or at least make us grind up a lot of our strength breaking the seige."

"If he really wanted to," Sari noted grimly, "he could crack either town like an eggshell. We're ready for him in a way Satera wasn't, so we'd hurt his army, but he'd succeed. Just like here. If the Layans would just throw waves of monsters and troops at us, they could take Dressos. The only reason we're able to hold out is that Lune's generals care about conserving their resources, and because we have a tactical edge."

"We do?" the local lord asked.

"Human troops," Velya told him. "Their side is almost all monsters, with Layan officers to direct them. Our soldiers can follow complex plans and act as a group much better than theirs. If our cyborgs weren't so weak compared to their monsters, we might be in a position to show them something about Orakian resolve."

"Strategically I believe we have the edge, too," Jared noted.

The colonel grunted.

"You can say that again. Half the time, I can't figure out what they're up to. Like this place, for example. This is the third big push they've made on Dressos--but why? What makes this manor more important than taking, say, Yaata?"

Sari had wondered that herself. They'd defended the manor on the theory that any even partially fortified holding was worth keeping as Lune stripped Landen of its resources, but had no special reason themselves for valuing it.

Apparently, Lune felt differently.

Gero suggested that it could be a trap, an attempt to get Landen to exhaust its troop strength and resources, but Sari vetoed that idea.

"I don't believe that. This is a basically defensible location, with the mountains and woods acting as an effective natural barrier to prevent a flanking attack. If they wanted to provoke a war of attrition, they'd pick terrain that was a little more forgiving to their side. No, Dressos is important to Lune."

"But why?" Mercier asked. "It's not as if we control key natural resources or strategic positioning. Dressos isn't even an obstacle to Lune's advancement; we're at the mouth of a dead-end valley. It's nice, arable farmland, but there's nothing there except a couple of peasant villages."

"There has to be something," Jared argued. "Even if it's just the extermination of the Orakian people, Lune has to have a goal."

Colonel Troy's eyes narrowed.

"It sounds like there's something Lune or his generals know--or think they know--that we do not."

"I'd have to agree," Jared stated.

"In which case," Sari decided, "we'd better figure out exactly what that is, and just how badly we don't want Lune to get his hands on it. We need to investigate the valley."

"Shall I prepare a detachment of knights?"

Sari shook her head.

"No. This is a job for a small group. We need to keep our forces here strong, because if we divide them it means Lune can take us out bit by bit. I'll want a small team to go with me."

"With you, your Majesty?" This time it was Gero.

"That's right. If we find something, I want to be on hand to make a decision then. We don't have the luxury of making slow, carefully analyzed choices."

"But what if Lune attacks while you do not have the army to defend you?"

"Lune's army isn't in the valley. He'll have to fight his way in or learn to fly if he wants to get to me." She smiled wryly at the Grand Master. "Look at it this way, Jared. In a way you'll get your wish about keeping me safe. If Lune's army attacks Dressos again, he'll have to go through all of you in order to reach me. The odds aren't going to get any better than that."

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