My initial reaction was to laugh at the contents of the letter and then scrunch it up and use it as kindling for my fire. If Alexia, the God-Queen of Realh Dorn was desperate enough to ask for my help, then either she was mad, or she was angling for revenge. Although I lived for fighting, I was enjoying the solitude of the mountains and I had no wish to end my sojourn to entertain some fancy of that insolent, wicked girl. I had once made the mistake of honesty with her, and I had no wish to make that mistake again. She knew the truth of my wanderings and my endless quest for blood. She knew it was a thirst I could not slake. Her mother had been the first person I had ever killed (by my own hand that is – I had ordered the killing of many from afar, bodies thrown on the pyre for their thoughts and words). I realised though that my refusal to abide by her request was not born out of arrogance, but from fear. And that is what excited me. That angry, sullen, tear-stained girl was what I feared most. Her grief erupting like a raw wound from the earth had sent shivers down me and turned my boiling rage to ice. I had fled when she came into her mother’s chamber and saw me standing over the body the bloody knife in my hand.
And now here I was sitting opposite her in a comfortable chair on a balcony overlooking the Madden valley, holding a golden wine cup that I clutched with white-knuckled hand, and a sweet cake becoming sticky in my other. At least I had something to hold, if I didn’t I might have either strangled her, or clutched at the balcony railing and vaulted out into space to be dashed hundreds of paces below on the rocks of the valley.
I had been sitting there for several minutes before she arrived. She came flanked by only a notary, who sat at a small bench and table just inside the chamber behind a curtain, but near enough to hear and record her words and commands. She glanced at me as she entered, but although I stood quickly and made to put down my drink and the cake, she did not acknowledge my efforts, but instead, sweeping her skirts to one side to sit more comfortably, sat herself, and crossed her bare legs. Beautiful legs they were, smooth and lightly tanned, with a freckle or mole or two to show that she was wonderfully human. She was her mother’s daughter in looks at least, although no more timid than a tiger compared to the mouse that her mother was.
I stuttered, but nothing came, and I sat again. She looked at me, but said nothing. She looked pleased with herself. She helped herself to a sip of wine from a cup, which a servant, appearing from nowhere, poured for her as soon as she reached for it, and then she took a bite from one of the cakes, cream and a red berry jam pushing themselves from the cake sandwich. She licked the residue from her lips. Her tongue taking its time to clean her red glossed lips.
‘You needed get excited, I haven’t brought you here to punish you,’ she said.
I didn’t have an answer for that. In a way I wish she had. A way to end the horror with honour was what I secretly hoped for.
‘My letter told you of my predicament and in general terms explained why I need you. I know I can rely on your loyalty, as you are the one who ultimately betrayed me, but also set me on my path to power. You have nothing to lose and nothing to gain, except the hope for redemption by serving me. No-one else in Realh Dorn has the same motivation of loyalty.’
I nodded at this, and I think I may have grunted something, but whether or not words could have been discerned I do not know.
‘Good. We understand each other. I won’t waste your time, and I can see that you fear to be in my presence greatly, or …’ and at this she leaned forward, the cut of her dress was revealing and when she put her hand on my upper thigh I could not help but …’Yes good, and you lust after me as well. Perfect.’
She withdrew swiftly into her chair and wrapped her skirt around the bare length of her legs, covering what I desired.
‘I have two simple tasks for you. One,’ and at this I could hear the notary start scribbling hurriedly from behind the curtain, ‘to form a cadre of men to lead my men. Not to act as officers, but I need an elite force that will inspire the others, that can break through the enemies lines, or seize a breakthrough in a siege. Men who will put their lives on the line to protect me. Men as much like you as it is possible to find.’
I uttered my first real words of our meeting. ‘I am no general, I am only a soldier, a sword for hire.’
‘Precisely. That is what I need, strong swords and the will to use them. Let me worry about the strategy.’
A woman leading an army, I had never heard of such a thing. My expression must have betrayed my thoughts. ‘You doubt my ability do you?’
‘I know only too well how able you are, Dorachi Sen. Your ability to kill and lay waste is legendary. But my aim is not simply to lay waste and destroy. I need power, and, I will be honest with you, you and the men you gather together will be but one part of my plan. Important though. You will show how determined I am to win at all costs. Men will follow me because of you. And who these men are, how many, and how you go about gathering them is up to you, only I require that have them assembled on the Sundering Plains by the waning of the next moon.’
I could not argue with her. She was right on all counts. I was a blunt instrument and once wielded I had only one purpose. ‘I have no pretensions of command. I made my last bad decision long ago now and I care not to repeat it. But exactly what do you want my men to do?’
‘You need not concern yourself with that now. Just gather them.’
‘But for nearly a month you will be without protection except for your household guard and the local militia, are you not concerned for your safety.
‘Men are not the great protectors that they always think they are!’ She half-sneered, half-laughed as she said that. Her face was ugly as it grimaced. My lust for her had finally died away. ‘You know what my mother taught me, that was partly how you justified killing her wasn’t it?’
I thought my heart was going to stop when she said those words. ‘You don’t mean …’ I spluttered.
‘Yes, and it is already begun so do not think that you can stop me. The old tribes of the mountains are already awakening. Down below in the valley, where a minute ago you thought of throwing yourself, the old Kra-Nog Orcs are birthing their yunguns, and from their they are being marched into the caves and fed on blood and gristle to strengthen them. The spawn take only a week to grow to adolescence, and that is as old as I need them.’
Orcs. The name was something of legend. How could she have done this? Even I thought it was impossible, and even though her mother and her grandmother had spoken of discovering the lore to do such things, no-one had thought they were serious. These creatures were of myth only. I shook my head at her. She could evidently read my thoughts so I did not bother speaking. My emotions must be like an open book to her, if she told the truth and had access to the Power.
‘I can see that you need a little convincing,’ she said staring straight at me. ‘Your incredulity is amusing, especially as the spawning of Orcs is only a beginning. But you will soon believe.’
My senses must have been distracted since I did not even hear the heavy tread of the creature until it’s paw was on my shoulder. My flesh crawled and I leapt aside. It didn’t let go and instead swung me until my back was against the balcony railing, and half of my body was hanging over the steep drop to the rocky valley floor below. I stared into that grey skinned slavering, huge-teethed maw, and shivered. I, who thought I had seen it all, began to shake. The Orc, for I presume that was what it was, stood eight foot tall, and was as wide as two well-built men, its biceps were the size of my waist. This was a killing machine if ever I saw one. And to think she still wanted me and a band of hired killers too?
At a nod the creature released me and trod slowly back into the chamber behind me from whence it came.
I took a few moments to regain my composure.