Chapter Three: The Hell's Gate Pass



by

Josie Beaudoin







Three horses stood on a rise, their riders looking out at the sprawling army camped below them. Dusk and a protective spell shielded them from watchful eyes.

“We’ve never taken the fight to him before, he won’t be expecting it,” Cearul said.

“We don’t have the strength,” said General Tethion, “we need to wait for reinforcements.”

“He’s not waiting,” Cearul shot back. “Killara is getting reinforcements daily. We have to strike before his army simply outnumbers us.”

“They outnumber us now.”

“All the more reason to strike now. He won’t expect us to.”

“Because he expects us to be rational. There’s no way we can-”

“We can, and we will,” Princess Fionnualla broke in, silencing her advisors. “We send the foxes in tonight. They’ll be disoriented and in disarray by morning, and that’s when the main army will attack.”

General Tethion gave a curt nod to his commanding officer, and turned his horse back to the Lyridon camp to prepare his soldiers. He would give advice, but if the discussion was over, he would obey orders.

“Well, uncle, you’ve a long night ahead of you,” Fionnualla said.

“I have confidence in this plan, Fi,” Cearul replied. “Tethion doesn’t approve, and Killara will expect us to feel the same. Being unconventional is going to do the trick.”

“I hope you’re right,” the princess said. “We’re gambling a lot on your intuition.”

“I’ve known Killara longer than you’ve been alive,” Cearul said. “He fully expects us to be stoically honourable. Let’s surprise him.”

She returned his impish grin and he winked at her. They both turned their horses back to camp.

#

The foxes set out by midnight, moving quietly in the near-perfect dark of a moonless night. They carried no torches. They wore no armour. Each fox carried only a dagger to protect themselves and carry out their assigned tasks.

“I can keep you from casual view,” Cearul had told them at the briefing earlier. “But if someone is really looking, they will see you, so beware those on guard. Those of you with magic, you’re responsible for keeping your own self hidden. I can’t cover everyone. Once you’ve dealt with your target, don’t try to do anything else – get out and get back here as fast as you can. Only kill sentries if you have no choice. Remember: every dead body increases the chances that all of you will be found. May the Gods bless you, and good luck.”

They had left without another word, melting into the shadows like the professionals they were. Cearul accompanied them as far as the rise, the better to keep the protection spell in place. He had done all he could to give each of them the best possible chance at success; the rest was now up to them. He watched from his vantage point, but saw no one. The hours began to pass, and Cearul waited for sunrise.

One by one, the foxes trickled back to the Lyridon camp. The Shield would sense someone nearby, then he would see the flash of a smile in the darkness. Not one word of congratulations was spoken in those moments of triumph. Nothing needed to be said. They came back alive or they did not come back. When dawn touched the eastern horizon, every fox was safely back at camp, and the Lyridon army stood ready to move. Cearul watched Killara’s army begin to stir in the crisp morning light. He could almost hear the consternation as one pavilion after another was entered and just as quickly exited, soldiery looking frantically for someone to issue orders. There was no one. Everyone above the rank of a decyon lay where they had slept, their throats slit to keep their deaths silent. As one, the troops looked to Killara’s pavilion, but it was obvious no one was willing to wake him.

Then Cearul gave the signal. Through the gap in the mountains the Lyridon army poured down into the valley below. When they were in range, the archers stopped and rained a withering hail of arrows on the unsuspecting heads of soldiers just awakening, and a volley of fire arrows followed that to set alight the tents of those still inside. The cavalry thundered around the north side of the camp to encircle the enemy from the west. Panicked defenders tried to fall into battle positions, but most were without armour, and all were without leadership.

At last, Killara came striding out of his pavilion in a rage. It appeared he had been apprised of the situation before emerging, as he immediately began barking orders, trying to get some semblance of order out of his troops. It quickly became obvious that he could not hope to succeed. Panicked and demoralized, Killara’s troops fled in the only direction the Lyridon army left open to them – they turned and ran for the southern mountain pass, back to their Erlayan homes.

It was not a retreat. It was a rout. In the end, even Killara had to admit defeat. Refusing to be captured, he joined the tattered remnants of his army in taking to the steep, narrow path back to their own country. The invasion was repelled.

#

“His overconfidence has been his downfall every time,” Cearul said. Killara had abandoned his own pavilion along with the rest of his camp, and Cearul and his nephew Arden were picking through the remains looking for anything helpful. “He attributes to us no cunning and no courage, and we can to use that to our advantage.”

“It feels like his age has altered his perceptions,” Arden speculated. “He no longer sees us as his equals, and therefore fails to see us as competent.”

“It cannot last forever, though,” his uncle said. “If Killara is anything, he is intelligent. You must be ready to be taken seriously when I am gone… one of these days he’s going to see our strength for what it is and plan accordingly. These are early days yet in the war. It will span more than my lifetime, even more than your own. As long as he lives, he is a threat to us.”

“But he’s immortal!”

“Yes, precisely. He will always be a threat to our people, Arden. There is no end to this, no time when we can say ‘finally he is defeated for good.’ He cannot be defeated, ultimately. Look here, I’ve found a map. What do you make of this?” The old man unrolled a parchment and laid it on a table. Both men looked at the lands stretched out before them.

“Why, it’s vast!” Arden said. “Look, Erlaya stretches beyond the borders of the page. Can this be to scale?”

“I believe it is,” Cearul said. “Everything on our side of the mountains is to scale. Look, he’s marked the island as “home.” I’d love to see his face next time he sees it!”

“You’d do better to pray it never happens,” Arden replied.

“Which I do, of course,” his mentor said, “but you and I both know that’s unlikely to be answered. He’ll be back, we just have to make sure it’s later rather than sooner.”

“Did he ever name the island?”

“Not on this map. I can’t see much of anything that he calls by a different name than what we’re already familiar with, honestly.”

“Magicians!” the call came from outside. Cearul and Arden went to the doorflaps and looked out. Tethion stood a score of paces from the pavilion, his arms crossed and fingers drumming.

“Yes?” Arden asked.

“Is it safe? Killara’s tent?”

“Oh, it’s safe. There’s not much here to go through. My guess is he has a more permanent base further down the river. This all looks very temporary, not his style in the least.”

“But we saw him retreat up the pass. We know he did not go down the river.”

“Not leaving, no. But he may have come from that way, and met up with the Erlayan troops here. It’s clear he had no intention of staying here long.”

“Nor did he.” Tethion said. “I’d like to get busy blocking that pass now, if you think it’s safe.”

“We didn’t detect any latent or active magics left behind as a trap,” Cearul said. “I cannot promise he has done nothing to trap the pass itself on his way. Go with caution if you must go.”

“Let us hope he was too busy retreating to poison his trail,” Tethion said with a nod. He turned and saw the princess Fionnualla coming up behind him. Her hair was dishevelled and she was covered in sweat and dust, and not a little blood.

“That was glorious!” Fionnualla exulted. “Did you see them run? No plan, no organization, just panic and chaos. Today is a good day to be alive!”

“How much of that blood is your own, little sister?” Arden asked.

“Very little, actually,” Fionnualla said. She swiped the back of one dirty hand across her forehead, leaving a smudge of dirt where sweat had been. “I’ve got a few scratches, but nothing serious. So: do we burn it all to the ground, or scavenge what was left behind?”

Arden and Cearul exchanged glances.

“Waste not, want not,” Cearul said. “I see no reason to disdain free gear. You’ve already burned down a lot of it, anyway. Why finish the job?”

“It was fun,” Fi said, “but you’re right, we may as well haul it back home for future campaigns. There are going to be future campaigns, aren’t there?”

“Indubitably,” Cearul assured her. “And with any luck, our armies will only continue to grow over time.”

“So we’ll need more tents,” the princess said. “I hear you, uncle. Alright, tear it down and pack it up!” she bellowed to her soldiery. “If you’re not working on the blockade, I want every stick of furniture and stitch of canvas you can salvage. Get busy, people!”

#

“I want messengers sent to every clan in Leland,” Vonya said. She sat the throne of the young kingdom with confidence and authority. Cearul sat next to her on his own throne lending weight to her words. “Killara has gone beyond the mountains, and anyone in the north who aids him again is a traitor, and will be held accountable for Killara’s crimes. This includes sheltering him and supplying him as well as marching behind his banner. You are of the North or you are the enemy. Make sure it’s clear as daylight exactly what I mean. His presence in the North will simply not be tolerated.”

“Understood, my regent.” The courier bowed and left.

“All of Leland is a lot to patrol,” Cearul murmured to the queen mother.

“Do you think the others will not support this decision?” she asked him.

“No, I’m confident they will. But we’re also going to need Leland’s trade if we’re going to make a nation that lasts. We cannot lose their cooperation through heavy-handedness.”

“What does Leland have that we do not apart from the sea trade?” the queen mother asked.

“Not a thing. If you think we can do without the Ria, by all means, break off contact with them. I would just be hesitant to burn that bridge if I did not have to.”

“Do you think perhaps that the Ria would come up the river to us here?” Vonya picked up Colm, her youngest son, who was toddling around the throne room. He cooed and giggled in his mother’s arms. “We could designate a side of town for docking.”

“They probably have some craft that would make it this far upriver,” Cearul mused. “They’re known to go to great lengths to secure trade. I think we could accommodate them, if they could be convinced to make the journey here. I’ll look into it for you. But remember, the Ria would have to come through hostile territory if we anger Leland.”

“I’m not setting out to deliberately anger them, only to set and enforce the policy Lyridon was founded on. We’re here to keep Killara out of the North, and I intend to do that by whatever means I have at my disposal. If Leland is sympathetic to Killara’s cause, we will have a battle with or without him.”

“Agreed, my Regent. Like I said, let me find out for you. I’ll let you know. For now, I think it’s someone’s naptime.” Cearul took Colm from his mother and led him out of the throne room by means of a will o’ the wisp which danced just out of the boy’s reach. Once they arrived at the nursery, the wisp disappeared, much to Colm’s dismay.

#

Voices chattered in a dozen different languages, none of which Clancy recognized.

Don’t worry, he heard his husband’s voice in his mind. Arden was at the other end of the docks, also looking for someone to talk to. Someone here has to speak Avysh or they wouldn’t have come. If they want to trade, they have to speak to us.

Not necessarily, Clancy answered. You hold up a thing, you point to what you want in exchange… no need to speak the same language.

True, but listen to the babble. Why learn all those tongues and not ours? Keep looking, someone will talk to us.

“Priest?” a young woman called from the crowd and beckoned him closer. Hesitant, Clancy drew near to her. The woman, nearly black of skin, bizarrely dressed in outlandish fabrics and speaking her broken Avysh, drew him to her pile of wares spread out on a blanket on the dock. Her smile was dazzlingly white against her dark skin.

“I’m not a priest,” he said. “I’m –”

“Magician,” she interrupted. Clancy nodded. “To Ria, all magicians priests.”

“Oh? I wasn’t aware of that,” Clancy said.

“I hear you talk in head, know magicians. What you want for trade? What you look for?”

“Someone in authority, actually,” he said. “You priest?” When she nodded, he continued, encouraged. “Looking for leader – boss, clan-chief –”

“Captain!” the woman bellowed over her shoulder.

“Yes, a captain would probably do fine for starters,” Clancy said. Just then, Arden came up beside him.

“You found someone,” he said, not asking.

“So it would appear,” Clancy replied. After a moment, they were joined by a man whose skin was lighter than the priest’s, but whose eyes slanted markedly with a long, thick black braid draped over one shoulder. He was dressed in bright, flamboyant colors like the woman. He looked at Arden and Clancy while the woman spoke to him in some foreign tongue.

“Magicians,” he said, his Avysh flawless, “welcome! I am Liang, Captain of the Moimiron. How can I be of service?”

“We’re looking for someone to conduct negotiations with for trade,” Arden said. “Is there anyone in authority here that can speak for all your people?”

“Not here, not today,” the captain said. “Not to speak for everyone, at least. What are you looking to negotiate, exactly?”

“We were hoping to open our land to trade with the Ria, though we have no seaport. Our capital city sits on this river, but some ways inland. It is the nearest our lands come to the sea. We would like to invite the Ria to sail directly to the city, rather than buy here and portage the goods upriver. Would you be interested in such an idea?”

“How far?” Liang asked.

“By ship, I do not know,” Arden answered. “It is a nine-day journey on foot or wagon.”

“Are there rapids?”

“No, the river is wide and smooth,” Clancy said. “At least as far as we can tell.”

At this, the captain laughed and slapped Clancy on the shoulder. “Yes, you wouldn’t really know, would you? Good, this is a point in your favour, that kind of honesty! Here is what I can tell you: I can pass the word from ship to ship that your people would welcome trade with us, and where you can be found. There is no need to involve our queen on such a matter, it is not formal. We do not make treaties with Landers. Your politics do not interest us. Individual captains may choose to come upriver or not. At no time will any Rian permit passengers aboard our ships.”

“Oh. No, we’re not asking to be taken anywhere, just inviting you to come to Lyridon. Uh, that’s our country.” Arden supplied. He had opened his Vada wide to the ship’s captain and the priest who seemed to have dismissed them, but sensed neither concern nor deceit.

“Don’t care,” Liang repeated. “I know where you are, I can find you. What do your people have to offer in trade? Anything besides money? Not that there’s anything wrong with money, of course.”

“Yes, money and also goods. The usual wares, I suppose. Cloth, tools, sundries.”

“Excellent! I will pass word to everyone here, and every ship I meet in my travels, that the Avysh have opened a new port. Now as for today, is there anything you need that I can provide?”

The two magicians assured him there was nothing they had immediate need of, and with a few more cordial thumps on the back, they parted ways with the captain and his priest.

“Well, I think that went well, don’t you?” Arden asked his husband as they made their way to the small port’s only inn. “I mean, no formal treaty, but it sounds like no one gets one of those, so if I had to guess, I’d say it went well.”

“They both felt perfectly open and honest to me, beloved,” Clancy answered. “In fact, the worst thing I felt was merchants haggling for dominance, and you’ll find that in any market. I think our regent will be pleased.”

“I hope so. I don’t know what more we could have done. Let’s get home.”

#

“Magicians!”

The call came from the marketplace, but beyond that was anyone’s guess who said it.

“Magicians! Over here!”

Clancy spotted the caller before Arden did. It was Liang, the very ship’s captain they had spoken to at the shore five years earlier. He was waving at them eagerly, so, tugging on his husband’s sleeve, Clancy made his way over to the Rian man.

“Ah, magicians, I thought that was you. What a marvellous marketplace you have here in your new city! I want to thank you for inviting us. Come, join me for a drink. You have an excellent local wine selection. I especially like the Glendan Red, will you have some? I just opened a cask. Please, join me.”

Just as friendly as last time, Arden sent.

And with just as much malice – none, Clancy replied. And it would be bad form to refuse, after we invited him here.

You just want a free glass of Glendan, his husband said.

Like you don’t?

Fair enough.

Clancy smiled, and sat down. Arden also sat, and though he tried to smile, it did not quite reach his eyes. Liang noticed immediately, and poured him a very large drink.

“Something is amiss?” he asked, and his face pinched in worry.

“A death in the family,” Clancy supplied quickly, hoping to gloss over the details.

“My friend, I am so sorry,” the Rian captain said. “Let us drink to their memory and recall only the joyful moments of their life.”

Arden was already halfway through his cup, so Liang obligingly re-filled it.

“To Cearul,” Clancy said, raising his glass.

“To Cearul,” Liang echoed.

“To Uncle,” Arden whispered. The three men drained their cups in unison.

“So,” the Rian said after a moment of silence, “tell me about your beloved uncle. What pleasant memories can you share with me so that I will love him as you did?”

“He was… the greatest hero of his age,” Arden said.

“A mighty warrior?”

“In his way, I suppose. He was a magician. He fought directly against Killara, magic for magic.”

Liang gasped.

“Not the Shield?” he asked. When his companions nodded, he continued. “Your uncle was the Shield all the marketplace is mourning? I had no idea I was speaking with royalty! Then I am truly sorry, for your loss is everyone’s loss, and the world is diminished without him.” After another silence, Liang spoke again. “What can be done to replace such a man?”

“You’re looking at him,” Clancy said. “My husband is the new Shield. Cearul has been training him since before the Great War. He is more than capable, I assure you.”

“Your esteemed uncle was renowned, even among my people,” Liang said. “I did not know he had an apprentice. This puts my heart at ease. He may be lost, but his work lives on.”

“I thought you said you didn’t care about other peoples’ politics,” Arden said. “Yet for someone who does not care, you seem to know a lot.”

“It is my job to know,” the captain said. “And despite being a Lander, your uncle was held in high esteem by my queen. I was not pleased to learn of his death, nor did I relish the report I was going to have to give, but this news brightens the loss some. My priest tells me you are a good man, and I trust her. I am sure Lyridon is in good hands. Tell me something, Shield: do you have an apprentice of your own?”

“I do. She is my brother’s daughter, a strong magician in her own right, and she will take on my uncle’s duties when I am gone.”

“Good! Excellent! You can never plan too far ahead! Is she ready for your death now, or will she require more time?”

“She is but nine years old. She has power, but I have only begun training her. As the Shield did with me, I imagine I will continue training her for the rest of my life.”

“Then I will pray to God for your longevity, my friend.”

“Oh? Which god?”

Liang chuckled.

“Aah, Lander, there is only one God. I will pray to Her on your behalf.”

“Well, thank you, I suppose.”

#

“How come Ciara doesn’t have to get married?” Quinn asked.

“Because you are,” his mother said. She was overseeing the making of their beds with freshly-washed linens, and had little time for the complaints of eight-year-olds. “You are going to marry, have children, and continue the family line. If your sister chooses to marry, she certainly may, but it’s hardly required of the Shield. What is required is that she study and practise her magic. Only if she has time after her duties can she look at boys.”

“There’s no rule that says that,” her son objected. “You’re making these rules up. I don’t want to get married.”

“You will. By the time you’re old enough to marry, you’ll be interested in girls.”

“I’ll marry you,” Ciara piped up from across the room. She was sitting at a small table by the window, and was supposed to be reading her lessons.

“You can’t marry your brother,” Vonya said.

“Why not?”

“For one thing, you’re too busy. A Shield’s first duty is to protect the North. You have to study. For another thing, you’re not allowed to marry family members. It is not done. Thirdly, you two are inseparable as it is, if you were to marry, you’d be beyond impossible to deal with.” Vonya kissed her clever daughter on the head and Ciara giggled. Quinn sighed in annoyance.

“It’s just not fair, that’s all,” he said. “Why should I have to if she doesn’t?”

“Because you are the king, my son, and that is just one of the responsibilities that comes with the throne. You need to provide heirs to maintain the stability of the throne. Trust me,” she said, seeing the stubborn look on his young face, “someday, you’ll be begging me for permission to marry the prettiest maid in the castle. I will, of course, refuse. You will be furious, but I will not be swayed. You’re going to marry who you’re told to marry.”

“It’s just not fair.”

“You’re quite right, it’s not. I never met your father before our wedding day. That wasn’t fair either. But I came to love him, and I’m sure you can love your bride as well.” Vonya made a mental note to introduce her son to his betrothed as soon as she was chosen.

#

“Impassible? How can that be?”

“My Regent, the spring floods will make all travel through the HellGate impossible. Give it some time, let her come in early summer instead. That’s plenty of time for them to meet. The wedding’s not until next year, after all.”

“Ambassador, I want that girl here the moment the roads are clear. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, madam. She will be here. If I may ask, why the sense of urgency? Do you not trust that she will be delivered at all?”

“No, it’s nothing like that. I had no chance to meet my late husband before our wedding, and I don’t want to put my own son through the same thing. I want both of them to know who they’re marrying before the ceremony. I was a frightened young bride once. I remember.”

“That’s very noble and kind of you, Regent. I assure you, Rysca will be here the instant the road allows. The alliance will be secure and all will be well.”

“I hope you’re right, Ambassador, I truly do.”

#

I know you’re down by The Tree, Arden said to his apprentice. You’d best get back here, your mother is fit to have kittens.

Ciara sighed. She closed her book and tucked it away in her satchel before beginning her descent to the ground. I’m on my way, she told her uncle, but it’d be fine by me if they started before I got back.

You know they won’t.

Yeah, I know.

Her aunt Fionnualla was waiting for her at the bridge.

“Come on, your mother’s practically spitting in frustration,” she said. The two women walked together back towards the castle. “You know, the day of your parents’ wedding, I did the exact same thing – I ran off to The Tree to play.”

“I wasn’t playing,” Ciara defended herself. “I was studying.”

“Yes, but today of all days, you knew better than to wander off and not be a part of all the excitement. You’re not even dressed up yet.” They passed through the garland-strewn great hall and made their way to Ciara’s room.

“I don’t see why I should have to dress up, nobody’s going to be looking at me,” the princess said, pulling off her everyday gown and letting Fi help her on with a brand-new, fancy one. “It’s not my wedding.”

“We are celebrating your brother’s marriage and welcoming a new member to the family,” Fionnualla said. She fussed over Ciara’s hair while the young woman tugged at her dress, trying to get a feel for the stiff, new fabric.

“She’s been here over a year now, she’s hardly ‘new,’” Ciara observed. “This is just a dumb ceremony, Rysca’s already part of the family.”

“Just play nice for today, could you?”

“I’m here, aren’t I? I’ll be nice. When am I not nice?”

“Come on, they’re going to start soon. We’d best get in place.”

“I’m coming.”

#

“Six children in six years – that’s really an accomplishment!” Ciara said.

“Well, it’s easy when you have twins,” Vonya said.

“But only one set of twins, mother. That’s still five pregnancies in six years. Rysca, you’re an amazing woman, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

The young queen of Leyland smiled through her exhaustion. She looked down at the two infant boys nestled in her arms.

“They are beautiful children, it’s true,” she said. “I blame their father for that.”

“Alright, we’ve seen them, now let’s get out of here and let Rysca rest, Mother,” Ciara said. She pretended awkwardness to cover her sister-in-law’s discomfort and exhaustion. “They all look the same at a day old, I don’t know why you had to see them right away.”

“Don’t be impertinent, they’re my grandchildren,” the queen mother replied.

“And you’ll have the rest of your life to enjoy them, let Rysca sleep. Don’t you remember how tired you were when you had twins?”

“All I can say is thank Quphic for the nurses!” Rysca said with a yawn. “I’m going to be off my feet for a while after today’s labour. There’s no way I could take care of the other four right now.”

“Come on, let’s leave the new mother alone,” the midwife said. “She needs to rest, she can chat with you tomorrow.”

The queen mother and princess were shown out and the door shut firmly behind them.














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