“I had a dream you died,” Pam said. She’d dreamed of a leaping assassin posing as a barmaid, dagger in Elisa’s throat before Pam could feel her limbs. Elisa dead, the invincible light she shed snuffed out.
“What, old friend. You look like you’re going to give me bad news or let me down. Are you?” Elisa was beautiful, even with the scars on her face, and still fetching in her forties.
“Well, it’s just that if you died, even though it seems like you can’t—for now at least; it wasn’t always so—we’d be totally fucked without you. The Drakelis would own us in a fortnight.”
“I’m not going anywhere for a long time.”
“… And we’ll die hard for what we’ve put them through in front of the world, in front of each other, for ten years. That’s nine year’s longer than Drakelis has ever fought.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Empress Thia has the hearts of the military. She’s a warrior, unlike any bankers’ Empress they’ve had before. She’s coming this time to do it right. One hundred to one against us. Hope you keep shining, Sunshine. They hate us for embarrassing them. They’ll have artists put our bodies on pulleys to dance out little stories in the market square.”
Elisa smiled. The corners of her mouth rising, almost politely, a little at a time, one at a time. She was trying so hard not to mock her. Treat her as less than prophetic, on matters of common sense at least.
“You’ve got more on your mind than usual. Almost as much as you should, since becoming your lordship, Pam of Derria. Congratulations, old friend, the papers arrived at my townhouse this morning. The fief is yours. A day may come when you outgrow home, you know. I see it coming. A larger fief still.”
Veterans said when she was much younger that her lord was a woman who changed. Who wanted you to change. Believed that hope and faith lay in change. Pam was an orphan, thief, on the run from the law in Londie, a town in Derria and escaped to the infantry of Lord Elisa Marsa of the Fief that Fought. The first duchy to beat an Imperial army.
Elisa had watched Pam on the battlefield and at campfire, in surgery tents, and made her First Sword of her forces. At the end of twenty years of service, Pam would come into her fief, a domain of her own to rule. Derria. Her home. Great wine, temple choirs, two small little trading towns with some good pubs run by friendly women she knew, had been forgiven by, been housed and fed by.
Elisa had titled it to her today, a year after she had become First Sword, the second year of her term of service. Elisa of Change had not made her wait the twenty years term of service before becoming vassal to her lord and commander and a lord herself.
After she finished her beautiful smiling, so pleased with herself, the clever shit, her black curls dancing on her forehead as she laughed, she slapped Pam on the side of the arm.
“Nothing to say!”
“What, do you expect me to lick your boots forever now? Oh, I see, this is you changing me. Right. You making something out of nothing. The way you do.”
“You changed. You became a lord. I just had the new idea that you should not have to wait the twenty years to receive your title and lands. You make my women do my will, make them believe in themselves. Every woman.”
“You did that. Made them believe in themselves. You’re the fucking high priestess of light! Janis’s Champion.”
“That’s blasphemy against our Holiness Mother Suna. And against Janis herself. You know I don’t like blasphemy, Pam.”
Riga came back from the stalls, her axe in a new bright tan sheathe. She took a pint of muddy-coloured ale from the silver-haired old bartender with breasts as fat as her buttocks, put a lot of coins on the bar and smiled. She was buying everyone a round, looked like.
“And you like being offended now and then, if its by the right people, in the right way. Especially if it comes to a fight. That’s why you like me so close all the time. I’m the enemy that’s really your friend. Who better to protect you?”
Riga sat back down with them. She did much of the commanding of Thrane’s forces in battle and was slowly learning to read at Elisa’s insistence.
“I keep you for your fighting stories. They’re all perfect drunk or even sober. They’re twice as glorious as mine.”
Riga smiled at Pam and Pam smirked and shook her head gently enough to escape Elisa’s notice.
“How is the reading coming?” Elisa asked Riga.
“You seemed to have ninety percent of the letter I wrote summarized nicely and gave valuable thoughts on how it might be heard. You’ll be wanting to learn to write yourself soon. I see it coming. In fact, I think I’ll have you read a poem I’m writing about the war to encourage the people.”
“I thought the war had … died, years ago. Hasn’t it? The War That Waned, right?” Riga asked.
A young, masked woman in black roughspun cloth ran up to their table with a nocked crossbow. She came from nowhere. Everyone began yelling “No!”
Elisa. Faster than Pam by a heartbeat, Riga dived at the shooter. Pam dived in front of Elisa. Too late.
She heard the breath go out of Elisa. A bolt trembled in the wall it had struck, surrounded by tiny dots of blood. A red circle and then another formed in Elisa’s white shirt–merged, grew. Elisa slapped her hand onto the wound and held it. “Fuck,” she hissed.
The assassin cut Riga’s face with a blade and dashed out the door.
“Get the surgeons to the townhouse. Get yourself a bodyguard and send Elisa’s Third Army to the townhouse. Get me scribes from every part of this army by morning. Go!”
Riga nodded, wiping a stream of blood gushing from a long, deep cut over her eye.
Pam ran out the door in time to see the assassin disappear. Into the night and the people in the town square. Gone like that. Then, moving like a fox, she appeared again, made eye contact with Pam. Strange eyes. Saying nothing. No guilt, recognition, or fear. Only decision, direction, darting.
Pam launched after her. Burst through a party of merchants talking in a circle and seized the assassin. Pam tore her mask off instead of starting to cut on her. She was a young, tiny girl. No fear in her eyes. Only a blank will to act.
She was so fast. The dagger swiped hard along Pam’s throat, once and again. Pam froze for a moment. Pam had cut so many throats. Was the big moment, the rush of blood from her head, about to begin? Was she open?
Alive. Uncut by the hard blows to her naked throat, razor-sharp blade. Invincible? Without Elisa’s light to stop the blade?
She butted the woman’s face hard with her forehead, splitting it open on the cheek, stunning her. Pam broke the girl’s neck, losing the answers it would take time to cut out of her. Chose what got her back to Elisa soonest.
How had the bolt pierced Elisa? She’d turned a thousand bolts without a shield or armour in each of the last three battles. Always while she was glowing? Was she only invincible when she glowed?
She couldn’t run fast enough, get back to the table soon enough. What if there were more assassins? Fool.
No, she had done for the best. Elisa would live. The gods wouldn’t let her die. They kept her from death on the battlefield.
Don’t let her die, Pam thought. I can’t make the people have faith. I don’t have faith.
She started to cry. Was this dawning horror what made people pray to the gods?
Elisa brought her people light years before the last months of the War that Waned, before she shone on the battlefield, keeping safe from blade or bolt any friend on whom her light fell. She changed how they fought together, overcame the imperial armoured monster. People had almost lost hope. Pam almost did.
Elisa would not have it. Slapped her crying eight whiskies in. Told her to act like the great leader she was and trust herself. “Wear the clothes of a lord, for you have become one in here.” Elisa jabbed her finger hard into her friend’s chest, above her heart.
If Elisa died, what would happen? Was Elisa dead already? She ran hard, tears streaming hot down her face in the chilly wet night of the lush, green lowlands of Thrane. Her mind raced.
Secure Elisa in the townhouse. Elisa lived close to her fighters. Gods, she needed to be drunk. She would be putting words to scribes and sending couriers all night. The Drakelis Empire had had returned for vengeance.
War was probably upon them yesterday, Imperial couriers on their way bringing tidings from the beachhead duchies they had taken, the duchess’s couriers from the duchies that had won against the invaders. Would it be mostly Imperials arriving in the morning, hours away? The bottle of poison. Some warriors knew of it. Sleep death, it was called. One sip and you went to sleep and never woke, never suffered.
“Don’t you dare give up. Leave your people in need!”
Elisa’s voice. From her mind. Like a seed finally cracking open.
Elisa shone light that made you invincible. Pam was no one special. Just a good killer and teacher of killing. Should she lead if the army followed? She was no Elisa. Could she live the rest of her life fighting an unwinnable war that she would pass on to her children to fight?
The bottle of sleep death waited in her special black pouch of dangerous things, poisons mostly. Things warriors learned of. The pouch was in one of her travel crates of belongings at Elisa’s townhouse where she had been living forever. It was home. She kept the bottle of sleep death, as many warriors confessed they did, to escape a fate worse than death if you saw it coming. Like endless war for survival to pass on to her children.
She ran back into the dim light of the centre of town where, in the late night or early morning, the Drunken Lawyer abustle with townsfolk all speaking at once to her, desperate, ushering her. She waved away the hands and found Elisa. She lived, but not for long. Not from that wound, she knew the whole time. A drink.
“You’re a reader now. What words will convince the lords to follow me?”
Elisa gave birth to victory for Thrane and all the Three Realms it was part of. Had made herself ruler of the Realms. That power was never legal or written, only given her by powerful women in desperate fear. How could she get that power for herself? Ask? Demand? Tell the lords she was taking over with armed courier detachments? She needed them willing. To fight for her. For how long? Could they fight forever?
“Say the gods watched over Elisa and will watch over us still if Elisa’s will is honoured by the lords.”
Elisa, white-faced, looking so ill and weak, scarcely the woman who had killed often enough in front of her without needing a weapon, had told her to open her chest of papers. In it, she found the will that made her lord of all Thrane. Did that mean she could claim Elisa’s rulership of the entire Three Realms? It had to be so.
“Say this: The gods watched over us before Elisa and watch over us now. We won before the light of Elisa; we will win now that that light has gone out,” Pam said.
Riga shook her head. Looked anxious. “Sorry. If you say that. they’ll just hear that we don’t have Elisa and feel fear.”
The first couriers had arrived before dawn. Two Imperial courier detachments, one from Derry, the smallest fief on the coast. Another from Lissa, the fief where the last battle had been fought in the War That Waned. Heads of both Shalia of Derry and of Sarah of Lissa came with the imperial ultimatums, on gorgeous paper, written in black gold ink.
What needed to be said?
“Elisa always knew what to say to the lords.”
“You’re going to get the words right. Elisa always said, practice.”
What to say? The lords wanted power themselves, not to give it up. How to get them to follow her in war?
The Third Army had arrived and made safe the town. Soldiers with blades drawn patrolled the streets. Lords from three nearest duchies had arrived and were drinking at the Drunken Lawyer. They had come in person, not sent retainers. What would she say to them? She hadn’t slept. Hadn’t stopped drinking. The lords were here to tell her they were supporting her, not following her. They had to follow her. She could win. Could change in order to win, change the army.
“How do I make people believe in me, believe I can protect them from Drakelis? And for how many years before we lose hope?”
Riga looked at the floor. The whiskey wasn’t keeping up with Pam’s fear. She was failing. She wasn’t going to be accepted as ruler. She took another two bolts of whiskey that didn’t even burn on the way down. The sleep death. The final drink, and then sleep. There was a way out.
Couriers arriving almost every quarter hour.
If they could change, they could win. And Pam knew they could change.
“Lord Thrane, tell us what you need. What do you want to do?”
Twenty lords or more had come already. Many had been attacked at least a full day before Elisa was shot. Each lord brought as many as a dozen warriors. You could not take a step without treading on some lord or their bodyguards’ cloaks and packs. None of the women, some younger, some very old, were smiling.
Riga stood next to Pam. Pam got up from her whiskey to speak to the assembled lords and their best warriors. Riga put a hand on the hilt of her axe. She smiled at Pam.
“Lord Ellen, you honour me by asking. I hope you have an open mind. I need you all to follow me. The Three Realms need you to follow me. For as long as it takes to win this war.”
“Thought you’d say something like that,” the grey-haired old lord said. She had lost an eye at Derry, at the second last battle, a bloodbath to both sides. She had loved Elisa, travelling from the most distant of fiefs sharing borders with Thrane to visit her at Elisa’s famed townhouse at which so many famous people called. “Why shouldn’t you just fight the war for us? Why do we need to follow you for the Realms to win?”
Yes. Why, indeed? She wasn’t ready for this. Elisa would know what to say. She looked without meaning to at Riga. Riga looked away before Pam could make eye contact. Of course. She couldn’t look to her follower for help here and now of all times. What must that glance at her follower have told the lords in front of her? Weak. Impostor. Dangerous to follow. Do something.
“Because, my lords, it was Elisa’s will that I rule in her stead until the Realms are delivered from this great danger. And because if you will not swear and sign fealty to me for my lifetime I will insist you die right now.”
Five stout young women sitting about Lord Ellen drew steel. Riga smiled and clasped the hilt of her axe. She looked at Pam, nodding a little.
Lord Ellen’s eyes widened, as though a knife were at her throat as she spoke.
“Careful, Ellen. We are not friends. Sign and swear fealty. Or you can die right here.”
Every woman’s blade in the house that was still sheathed flew out, shining in the morning sunlight pouring into the public house.
Time slowed as it did in the long breathless moment before the first blow was struck in a battle and suspense yielded to the release of action. Blood. Exhilaration. Pam drew her sword as well, slowly. How she was failing. She needed willing support. She needed to inspire them, the way Elisa had; not terrify and declaw them. She was going to get a bloodbath of her allies.
Lord Shinder of the Farion county, a sharp-minded fighting lord in her forties, stood. “Go,” she said loudly, nearly unheard for the clamour of shouts from women yelling, waiting to strike or be struck, desperate to protect their lord. Four tall women wearing beautiful green leather armour of the same make dashed from Lord Shinder’s side and circled Pam, facing the rest of the women in the house, ready to strike anyone.
Lord Shinder followed her women, unhurried, as if walking to a podium to speak. She drew her sword. Smiled at Pam. A smile that lit her eyes but did not touch her lips.
“I didn’t inspire them. I said no poetic words; just drew my sword, the only thing I can do well. How long will they follow that?” She had a little time perhaps.
She had just left the Drunken Lawyer with a chest of papers full of fealty and was returning to what had become her townhouse overnight. Her duchy.
“They’re willing. They are,” said Riga, slapping her shoulder. Riga looked away after seeing something in Pam’s face. Trying to hide her disappointment. Worry.
Try something different. Cut off her doubts. Every time they sprout. Be strong for her women and they would believe in themselves.
“But I can change. Start using words with my deeds. I changed the army so it could win.”
Riga looked at her for a moment, speechless.
Pam seized her big friend. “Hey, it’s going to be all right. We’re going to find a way to free our people from this war. I’ll kill them all if I have to.”
Suddenly Riga started to cry.
“Riga…” Pam said.
“No, it’s just now. It sounded like Elisa was still here.”
Pam sounded like Elisa Marsa. Said Riga, who knew.
The gods spoke through Elisa: her words and light. Maybe Elisa spoke through her now. Something in her fell away. Something heavy, hard, and sharp. She didn’t need the poison anymore. She would rid herself of the choice when she got home.
“I miss her,” Pam said. “The gods are still watching, still with us.”
“You’ve never needed the gods.”
“Are you sure I’m the best person to imitate?”
Riga stopped listening, stopped walking. Her mouth opened. Then Pam looked at her hands. Realized it was her whole body. Glowing.