Saturday, 5 March 2011
#SampleSunday – 6th March 2011
This is a short chunk from Prison of Power, until recently a free ebook in all the normal places. Now at $0.99
I like Abbethia a great deal. This is how she is introduced.
Abbethia knew there was trouble on the way long before anything happened. She always did.
Three dozen mules and nine men at arms on horseback made a constant rattle of harness, creak of leather, and clatter of hooves on the trail of hard-packed earth as they passed through the shadowed woodland, cold sun to the south.
Nearly home, Abbethia thought. And there will be trouble soon.
Abbethia was ready, as ever, for any conflict. Clad in travel armor, a horse between her legs and a short hafted, square bladed halberd to hand, Abbethia rode with her train, protecting her goods. Goods which would provide three months’ living expenses for her and hers.
Abbethia. Black hair going gray. Powerful body beginning to run to fat. Black eyes that twinkled like sequined velvet when merry and glittered like worked flint when angry. Abbethia. As enduring as a mountain. As implacable as a river. Her self-belief long gone. Her soul eroded by neglect. Yet none who knew or met her guessed that habit was all that held her together. All her life had been spent at war. For thirty years she had fought to hold the Ibarak together, fought in endless defensive campaigns against the Unbound Enchanters, who tore the Kingdom apart, each seeking dominion over his own lands, lands that had once belonged to the empire. She had led armies against them until an uneasy stability had been achieved; as much her doing as the Yhar’sharem Enchanters for whom she had fought. In truth she had fought with them, not for them. She had fought for civilization and peace and stability. And she had won. Abbethia. A legend. The sword and the staff. The general and her lover. The warrior and the Enchanter. Abbethia and Alandas.
And what am I now, love? she asked. But Alandas, long since dead, did not answer. So she answered for him. A fat, frumpy, lonely old merchant who calls herself Bethindra so she can hide from the world.
Bitter tears filled her eyes, but she did not shed them. She never had. Even when Alandas had died, half her soul gone with him. Eight years, three months, four days, she thought automatically. Gods, but I miss you. My heart. My love. My strength. She knew his death had broken her. Her warrior-mage. Her perfect friend. Her perfect lover. Nothing could ever heal the wound.
Thirty years of battlefields. Twenty years of honor and glory. And you choose to end your days a commoner. A merchant. And alone. She knew that if she wept she might not stop. So, rather than weep she laughed, driving away the demons of self-doubt, grief and longing. Hiding them away for one more day.
“What are you laughing at?”
She did not look at Durval, who rode at her side. She did not need to. She knew how he looked, what his expression would be. Older and more grizzled than she, pale eyes calm and cool, horizontal scar crossing his top lip and both front teeth missing; this from a spear thrust that had nearly killed him. She knew him better than she knew herself. They had been friends for close to fifty years, since they were children. She knew he loved her. And she loved him, with that deep and abiding love that develops over years between friends and brothers of the blade. They had been lovers once. But that didn’t matter. Her laugh faded to a smile. Hell, she had been everyone’s lover once. After every battle she had taken another lover, briefly. None of them were worth more. Until Alandas. After him, no one. And there would never be anyone again.
“Nothing important,” she told Durval.
“Life,” he said with a shrug.
“You know me too well.”
“A lifetime,” he reflected.
“Not yet,” she told him dryly. “Not a lifetime yet.”
Durval shrugged shoulders that were no broader than hers and carried less muscle. He is getting thin, she thought, glancing that way. Old. An abrupt intuition drove the matter from her mind. She reined back and pulled her mount to a halt. “We’ll walk the horses for a while.”
“Expecting trouble?” Durval knew from long experience that she preferred to fight on foot and the horses were already well enough rested.
Behind them the whole mule-train came to an ordered halt. Her people, trained in her ways - none knowing who she had been but all were sure of her military background. She left no doubt of that in the minds of those who served her.
“I’ll pass the word,” Durval said, calmly. He had seen as many battles as she had and at their age what was another fight? Not much more than a chore, the prospect of which was as exciting as the need to piss.
Abbethia didn’t answer as he turned his horse, a dark-haired animal full of vim, and began to move back down the line. He knew what he was doing. Without haste she slid from her own gray mare, taking care to let most of her weight come down on her left leg, the one without the stiff knee. While on the ground she checked her mount’s hooves and legs, just in case a run was needed. Certain that the gray was in good shape, she ducked under its neck to be on the right side, the same side as her weapon, and began to walk, leading the mare by the reins. She didn’t look back. She didn’t need to. All her people knew what was expected of them. She wouldn’t keep them on if they didn’t and there were no new faces in this bunch.
She wondered what kind of trouble lay ahead. There was war in the north; the fool Castal had allowed his people to build temples and openly worship the old gods. The old, dead gods, she reminded herself. In her own town of Laventha there stood a new temple, completed last year despite her protests and what opposition she could muster. When one of the Unbound came to pull it down she would advocate capitulation. The age of war was over for them. In any case, there would be deserters and if a battle had been fought there would be refugees, all armed and desperate men, heading south to safety. They would have weapons but they wouldn’t have food, she thought. She had experience of that kind before. It all depended on the size of the band. Usually they would be few, she had found - one moderately charismatic man can lead a dozen or two under those circumstances but not more.
As she walked her stiffness eased, though not the pain. She didn’t mind the pain. In some ways, she admitted, she even liked it. Like having an old friend to hand, comforting and reassuring. An ambush, then, she thought. Yes, I would bet on an ambush. Her people would be leading their animals in pairs, each man taking cover from two horses or mules. Presenting small targets for missiles to find. She wouldn’t lose a man in the first moments. Then it would be a matter of which way to charge, left or right. That would be a decision for the moment. She would assess the first attack and react accordingly. Always charge though, always attack hard when the enemy thinks you must defend. Ruin their plan; put them on the defensive.
The road ahead turned into a long bend, the right side of the road rising into a shallow sloped bank thick with trees and bushes, the left sharper and then becoming level. Not here, she thought, but not far away either. She remembered the terrain from many journeys this way. Yes, she thought, where the road takes a sudden dip. The slope to the right is the same but to the left it drops into a bank over which men can appear suddenly. Behind the bank there is an open space for twenty yards and there men can gather. So, missile fire from the right and a charge from the left. No one would fire at her, she knew. A fat old woman posed no threat. Without realizing it her mouth twisted into a grim, bitter smile as she walked into the heart of the ambush. Never knowing why and never caring, she’d always known when danger threatened and she’d always known what her enemy would do. It was why she’d never lost a battle. She had always had a way with war, a way with death.