This is the Eleventh round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.
The Round 11 Title — Ode to… — was chosen by Gary. Perry will choose the title for the next round.
The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
I explained it in the previous round (HERE) that I’m writing a novel and shoe-horning it into this challenge.
This submission is a continuation of the novel I started in Round 10.
No synopsis because you’re either interested and have already read the first part, in which case you’ll likely read this one as well, or you weren’t interested and also won’t read this part.
Here’s the blurb for this
story section of the novel:
Embracing the role of Queen.
One final note. . . 7K words are a lot. Don’t feel you have to read it, and certainly don’t vote for it unless you’re actually looking forward to subsequent chapters.
Ode To The Queen
Copyright 2022 — E. J. D’Alise
(7,370 words – approx. reading time: about 27 minutes based on 265 WPM)
A short while later, they were all back in the tent, but this time without the elders, and it was clear this was Serel’s meeting. The Queen’s meeting.
“We’ll be leaving in two days’ time or as soon as Eagen of the Plains Clan and his scouts can join us,” Serel said. “Galen vouches for him,” she added to the unspoken questions of some.
She then directly addressed Aden, Ran, and the other scouts.
“Your elders offered your services for as long as I desire. However, I’d prefer if that decision is yours. Have they spoken with you?”
“Only that we’re to accompany and serve you,” Aden said, “but no specifics about where and for how long.”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Serel said. “I require a loyalty oath, forsaking fielty to the Clans and accompanying me to the Center to become the Queen’s Guards. Anything less might cause issues at The Center. If you have personal ties with anyone, are in relationships, or have immediate family, you are welcome to bring them along.
“And, if you have reservations about leaving your clans and serving me, you are free to decline.”
“What is it we would be signing onto?” Ran asked. “The elders were vague about it.”
“Initially, you would be my security detail. As the name implies, my personal guards. You would answer only to Galen and me and not be subservient to anyone else. Subsequent duties might include information gathering. Beyond that, I can’t say because I don’t yet know.”
“Spying?” one of the scouts asked.
“Think of yourselves as the connection between citizens of The Center and myself. My ears and eyes, if you will. You’ll hear and see things that I won’t.”
“Don’t Clippers already do that?” Ran asked as he glanced toward Meya.
Serel avoided looking at Meya as she answered.
“Clippers serve the Council, and they have more of an enforcement role,” she said, leaving it at that.
She scrutinized their faces as she continued.
“Think carefully about your decision as it will be irrevocable due to the nature of information you will be privy to. Think about what that implies, confer among yourselves, confer with your families. You have two days to decide,” Serel said.
“Some of us have more than a day’s ride to our families,” one scout said.
Galen answered the unspoken question.
“We leave in two days,” he said. “If you decide to join, travel to the Center.
“One other thing, if I may,” Galen said, then continued as Serel nodded. “Queen Serel’s existence will soon be common knowledge, but it would be best to keep that knowledge from spreading until we get to the Center. Be careful of whom you take counsel from, and don’t provide more information than necessary.”
“That won’t be difficult,” Aden said, “as we don’t know much.”
Serel focused on the young man and tried to imagine herself in his place.
“Fair enough,” she replied, looking around at the faces focused on her. “In part, that’s because there’s much I don’t know, and in part, because there are things I can’t yet speak to. What I can say is that there is some danger involved. How much danger won’t be clear until things unfold.”
Ran raised a hand, and Serel nodded.
“What kind of Queen will you be? What are your goals?” Ran asked.
“Mind your tone!” Meya said. “You’re speaking to the Queen.”
“Not our Queen,” Ran answered, sweeping her hand to include the other scouts. “At least, not yet. If we are to pledge loyalty to you,” Ran continued, addressing Serel, “we should at least know your goals, what you envision, but more than that, the kind of person you are.”
Serel paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. She was new at this, yet she’d been indirectly trained for it, both by her mother while she still lived and by her father. Among others, one thing she learned was honesty.
“I don’t know what sort of queen I will be,” she said. “It wasn’t my ambition to be Queen, and it still isn’t. I agreed to it out of a sense of responsibility and duty. I find myself in a position to affect things for the better when no other can step up, and in doing so, hopefully, impact future events for the better.”
Leor spoke up, addressing Galen.
“A threat to the Center?” Leor asked.
“A threat to everyone,” Galen said.
“… a threat from within, then,” Leor said.
“Among others,” Serel added, cutting the discussion short. “As to your question,” she continued, addressing Ran, “I don’t ask for blind loyalty, but neither can I make promises about an unknown future. I suggest you and the others confer with your respective elders. They chose you for specific reasons, and while they can’t speak to the future, they might tell you more about why they chose you. You might also ponder why the chiefs of your clans aren’t represented here.”
She didn’t wait for responses before continuing.
“I now need to speak with my father in private and then with you, Meya, also in private. Please wait outside until I’m done with my father.
“As for the rest of you, I’ll be available to speak individually or in small groups and answer your questions and concerns as best as possible. As Ran said, if you are to join me, we should get to know each other.”
With that, Serel rose, indicating an end to the meeting.
As soon as she was alone with Leor, Serel transformed into his daughter.
“I’m scared,” she said in a voice lacking the sureness and directness of a few moments ago.
“You’re doing fine,” he said.
“You could have always refused,” he then added.
“I think I have to see this through,” she said. “Ronek needs a strong Queen on the throne, and she can’t be it because she’s needed on the Council. I don’t know if I’m that person.”
“I’ll help in any way I can,” Leor said.
“That’s what I want to speak to you about. You can’t be there; it would complicate things.”
“Remember what I said about the reasons I left the Center? Nothing has changed,” he said, “so I understand.”
“The Tavern is a hub,” Serel said without adding anything.
“Hmm… I see. Information gathering.”
“Be careful, dad.”
“I still have some of the old gang in the area,” he said. “It’ll be no problem slipping back into old habits. I’ll be fine.”
They hugged, and each wiped their eyes when they broke their embrace.
“Must be dusty in here,” Leor said.
“Yes, it must be,” Serel replied and kissed him on the cheek.
Leor left, and Meya walked in shortly after.
“Do you like being a Clipper?” Serel asked, catching Meya off-guard.
Serel didn’t wait for a response.
“I ask because I would like you to leave your post and become a part of the Queen’s Guards.”
“Under Galen’s leadership?” she asked.
Serel considered how much of her vulnerability she should share and with how many people. Her father, Galen, both knew but how many more? This was new to her, yet she instinctively knew the importance of close connections.
She poured each a goblet of wine, handed one to Meya, sat, and took a sip before answering.
“You don’t yet see me as the Queen,” Serel said, raising her hand to stop Meya’s protests. “That’s fair since I’ve yet to grasp the concept fully.”
Meya also sat, sipped the wine, and waited, wondering where this was heading.
“Even if I grow into the role, I can’t be the Queen all the time,” Serel said. “I’ll need people with whom to let my guard down and be myself. Given the time and opportunity, I’d find them and develop those relationships.
“But, for the foreseeable future, no matter where I go, I’ll be surrounded by strangers. I’m asking if you could see yourself stepping into that role,” Serel said.
Serel’s voice changed, losing some of the self-assured and confident tone.
“Our age difference is an obstacle, as it is with Galen. I don’t know much about him, but he’s the kind of person who garners immediate trust.”
“That he is,” Meya answered.
“Are you and Galen close?” Serel asked and saw the fleeting flash of anger or annoyance. It quickly passed, and Meya sighed and drank a bit of wine as she considered her answer.
“Apparently, others see things I don’t,” she said. “But to answer your question, I don’t know where I stand with Galen.”
Serel said nothing. Her father had taught her that sometimes the best way to get someone to talk was not to speak.
“We were all pretty close when we re younger: Galen, Leor, Ronek, my brother, and a few others. The Strife broke us apart, with Galen going to fight with the Nomads. My brother and father died during the last Winter campaign fighting Nomads led by Galen. For many years, I blamed him for their deaths.”
“And now?” Serel asked.
“Now, I don’t know,” Meya said as she reached for the bottle and refilled their goblets. “According to Leor, Galen cares for me deeply, and that knowledge has awakened old feelings, but Galen speaks and acts as if it’s too late.”
“Do you wish it weren’t too late?” Serel asked.
Meya looked up and studied the girl. The Queen, but still a girl, and yet in some respect mature beyond her years.
“It changes things, knowing someone cares for you,” Meya answered, “but not so much that it compels you. Whatever feelings I might have for Galen are only in small part due to knowing he has feelings for me. The greater part is the history we had before The Strife. We were close then, but we were kids.”
“My father warned me to be aware of my reaction to learning someone likes me. He says most people want that connection with others, but it can also be a trap,” Serel said.
“It can trigger false feelings of dependency and obligation,” Serel explained. “On an emotional level, if someone says they like you, you might feel obliged to reciprocate.”
Meya sipped her wine, suddenly aware of how far the conversation had wandered from the main topic, and sought to return it to less personal matters.
“You have your father,” Meya said, seeking a return to less personal topics. “Surely you can be yourself with him.”
“He is a mentor, a friend, but first of all, a father,” Serel answered. “Plus, he won’t be coming with us.”
“The Tavern,” Meya said, realizing the implication. “Could be an outpost.”
Serel didn’t reply, watching Meya and gauging her reaction to the request.
Meya sat, searching for the right words.
“I… I have no experience being a mentor,” she said, “and I’ve not been especially close to anyone since before I was your age.”
“Well, I think I’m set for mentors, and I’m my age, and I’m not especially close to anyone,” Serel replied.
“Never had anyone in your life?” Meya answered.
“Life at the Tavern isn’t conducive to making many friends, and most of my father’s friends don’t have families. Anyone my age that I’ve met was usually passing through.
“Plus, being so near the Outlands means a rougher crowd is the norm, hence why my father had me train since I was very young. Let’s just say most boys are intimidated by a girl who might best then in armed and unarmed combat.”
Serel took a sip of wine and let her eyes wander without focusing on anything specific.
“I suspect my sudden elevation to Queen will only worsen matters.”
She snapped back in focus and made an encompassing motion with her free hand.
“But, this is what I’m referring to. My conversations with my father, with Galen, and, if you choose, you, aren’t constrained by the station I hold.”
“Kell,” Meya said.
“You’ll meet him,” Meya explained. “Kell is Ronek’s personal guard. I’ve never seen them apart from each other.”
“Are they involved?”
“There are rumors,” Meya said, “but nothing for certain. In public, they follow the same protocol as everyone else. She is the Head Regent, and he is her personal guard. In their speech and mannerism, there’s no familiarity, yet I’ve seen hints of a deep personal bond, be it emotional, physical, or both.”
“I wondered about that,” Serel said. “Galen spoke to me differently in private than he did in public. Not condescendingly, but with more familiarity, as a niece instead of a queen.”
“I’m friendly with my commander,” Meya said, “and knew him before I entered the academy and joined the Clippers. We joke and banter, but never when on duty. He’s never shown any favoritism toward me. The opposite, even, going out of his way and holding me to a higher standard.”
Serel drained the last of the wine, put the goblet down, and stood, Meya following suit.
“Think about what I said,” Serel said. “If you’re more comfortable remaining with the Clippers, that’s fine, especially given your current situation with Galen. For me, he’s the equivalent of Kell without, obviously, a potential romantic involvement; he’ll almost always be close by.”
The Forest Scouts
Serel pointed across the table where she was sitting and waited until Ran and her squad, two men and two women, situated themselves. As she had suspected, the squad preferred group meetings. She poured herself some water, then offered the pitcher to the group. All but one declined.
“Have you decided?” Serel asked.
“We have a few questions,” Ran replied.
“I’ll do my best to answer them,” Serel replied.
“Your comment about the clan chiefs implies a potential future where we might have to fight members of our clans.”
“That is what it implies,” Serel answered.
“We don’t think we can do that,” Ran said.
Serel looked at the scouts for a few seconds before rising.
“Well, we are done then,” she said. “Thank you for your time and consideration, and please send in the next group.”
“That’s it?” one of the other females asked.
“May I know your name?” Serel asked.
“Tamsin,” she replied.
“Yes, Tamsin, that is it.”
“I’m Efrem,” one of the men said. “You’re not going to try and convince us?”
Serel sat back down and considered the group before her. Years of working at the Tavern had taught her how to read people, and Serel put that knowledge to good use without being aware of it.
The scouts’ body language told her that wasn’t the answer they thought they would get. They expected a counter, so they wanted information, a special consideration, or this was a test. Instead, four of the scouts seemed uncomfortable, shooting the occasional glance toward Ran, who, in turn, kept looking at Serel.
A test; this was likely a test, but two could play this game.
“No,” Serel replied. “I can see it would be of no use trying to dissuade you. Besides, it’s obvious that your elders were greatly mistaken in their choice of candidates.” Serel then decided to push back even harder.
“I’m sure they will be disappointed about the Forest Clan not being represented, but perhaps the other clans can make up the shortfall,” she added.
“Again, please send in the next group when you leave.”
The four scouts looked at their leader, Ran, who, in turn, kept looking at Serel. Serel returned her stare until Ran broke into a smile.
“You gave it away,” Ran said, addressing her companions.
“When did you know?” she asked, addressing Serel.
“It wasn’t them,” Serel replied. “It was you. You didn’t get up to leave when I dismissed you. But, yes,” Serel added, “their reaction confirmed it. They looked to you for what to do next.”
“What did you think we were doing?” Ran asked.
“Looking for information, leveraging for some advantage under the assumption I might be desperate, or you were testing me.”
“What did you decide on?”
“Likely a test.”
“Do you know what we were testing?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Serel answered, “but I suspect a character test. A test you didn’t think I would pass.”
“I’m Olena,” the other female of the group said. “Why do you think that?”
“Nice to meet you, Olena,” Serel replied. “And you are?” she asked, directing her attention to the group’s last member.
“I am Kern,” he replied. “It’s because we had no contingency if you accepted our objection, right?”
“The bigger concern is that you decided to test me,” Serel said.
“How so?” Ran asked.
Serel stood and walked to the entrance of the tent as she replied.
“We’re in the same position,” she said as the scouts also stood, “because we don’t know each other. I have no reason to trust any of you other than on the recommendation of your elders and to trust their judgment based on Galen’s and my father’s trust in the honor of the Nomad clans.”
Serel stopped before the flap covering the entrance to the tent and pulled it back.
“If that trust isn’t reciprocated, it raises serious doubts about any loyalty oat you might offer. As I said, thank you for your consideration, and please send in the next group,” Serel said as she waved the scouts toward the open flap with her free hand.
There was an uncomfortable moment before the scouts hesitantly moved toward the exit. They were almost there when Serel dropped the flap and moved to bar them from exiting and ending up standing face-to-face with Ran.
“Now that we both had our fun,” Serel said, “can we sit down and start over?”
It took only a few moments for the realization to dawn on the scouts, releasing all the tension that had built up.
“I suppose we deserved that,” Kern said.
The rest of the meeting was more about forming a closer bond between them than answering questions. A few details were worked out, such as Kern and Olena both having close relationships and discussing how their respective partners might join them after things settled down. Ran had a younger sister who was very close to her, and they spoke of potentially having her visit or even stay for extended visits. Tamsin and Efrem had no strong ties other than their parents, which they would periodically visit.
The meeting ended with an informal loyalty pledge. The formal oath would occur at the Center and with witnesses from the Council.
The Marsh Scouts
Serel was more apprehensive about the meeting with the Marsh scouts than she had been about Ran’s band. Whereas Ran was casual, Aden and his squad were serious, almost somber.
This was in part explained by having lost some comrades to the bandits they had casually dispatched on the bridge, but Serel had the impression their current demeanor wasn’t far from their normal mannerisms.
The sole woman, Vania, entered first, followed by Atwell, Oaks, with Aden bringing up the rear. Much as they had been when traveling together, they only exchanged the briefest of nods acknowledging Serel.
As soon as they were seated, Aden spoke.
“Oaks and Vania will leave after this meeting to meet with their families. They will join us at the Center,” he said.
“You’re all signing on for the Queen’s Guard?” Serel asked.
“It was requested of us.”
“What if your families object?” Serel asked, addressing Vania and Oaks.
“They won’t,” Aden answered.
Serel reached for her water as she considered the scouts.
“Are we done?” Aden asked.
Serel said nothing as she looked from one scout to the other, finally ending back at Aden.
“No, we are not,” Serel said. “I’m uncomfortable with people who don’t speak for themselves, as I am with people who speak for others.”
“You want us to each repeat individually what Aden already said?” Vania asked.
Good question, Serel thought. “What do I want?”
“I want to know a bit about the people I’ll trust with my safety,” Serel said.
“You have our loyalty oath,” Aden said. “We will keep that oath until dismissed or dead. What else do you need to know?”
“How do you feel about joining the Queen’s Guard?”
Aden looked at Serel for what seemed a long time before answering.
“How do you feel about becoming Queen?” he finally asked.
Serel considered his question. Truthfully, she hadn’t stopped to think about feelings. How did she feel about it? Was she even allowed feelings about it, or were they superseded by duty? Was there even the necessity of a motive beyond duty?
“Is joining the Guards just another duty? Is there nothing more than that?” Serel asked.
“May I ask you a question?” Aden asked.
“Of course. It’s what we’re here for,” Serel replied.
“What would you have been if none of this had happened?”
Serel pondered the question. She was an adult but had never had to think about what she wanted to be or what she might want to accomplish.
“I don’t know. I suppose I might have worked at the Tavern or met someone or something else.”
“We were raised to be scouts,” Atwell said. “It’s all we know and what we would have been until we could do it no more. Being in the Queen’s Guard is not a far cry from keeping the clan safe.”
Serel looked at the four, poured water into their goblets, and raised her goblet.
“A toast, then, to doing what must be done, whether it be our desire or not,” she said.
The four picked up their goblets and toasted.
“To what must be done,” they said and drank.
“One last thing,” Serel said. “Loyalty goes both ways. While your primary contact will be Galen, feel free to speak to me directly if you ever feel the need to do so.”
After they left, Galen entered the tent.
“How did it go?”
“As well as can be expected,” Serel answered. “What do you know about Aden and his group?”
“Why, is there a problem?”
“No, but they are so different from Ran’s squad. Reserved. Difficult to read.”
“I don’t know if it’s the reason, but they are all orphans. The clan had a clash with a gang, and they lost their parents when they were small. The clan raised them, and they wanted to become scouts when they got older.”
“Are they related?”
“No, separate families.”
“Atwell said they were raised for it,” Serel said. “It almost sounded as if it wasn’t their choice.”
“Becoming scouts allowed them to stay together as a group. It was their choice.”
“Do you think they’ll have difficulty integrating with the others?”
“Possibly,” Galen replied. “If not now, when we are at the Center, we’ll have to determine a structure for the Guard. Probably create new squads.”
“That might cause some issues. I wish I’d known about this beforehand. I would have broached the subject.”
“We need everyone we can get,” Galen said. “As it is, the Queen’s Guard is too small a force.”
“It almost feels like we’re not being honest with them. At least, that’s how they might see it,” Serel said.
“Is it wise to break up a close-knit squad?” she added.
“Close-knit groups within the ranks could cause more problems than breaking them up,” Galen said. “I intended to mix the members of the three Clans. The goal is to have a cohesive unit, not a unit composed of multiple groups.”
“Is there no way to integrate the three groups without breaking them apart?” Serel asked.
“I’ll give it some thought,” Galen said.
“One more thing,” Serel said. “I asked Meya to consider leaving the Clippers and joining the Guard and personally assigned to me.”
Galen looked pensive.
“You need someone besides me to be close with,” he said.
“In addition to, not beside,” Serel said. “But yes, there are times and situations when I would be more comfortable with a female than a male.”
“The age differential might be an issue, but it might work.”
“I have to ask,” Serel said, “What’s the situation between you two?”
“I’d prefer not to answer that question.”
“And yet, you expect me to be open about things, especially things that bother me.”
“It’s not the same,” Galen said.
“It is the same,” Serel said. “I have to trust you and have made decisions based on what you have told me. If Meya joins the Guard, I would like some assurance that the people I’m closest to don’t have some issue that might affect them in negative ways.”
Galen considered Serel for a few moments before answering.
“You may not have been born and trained to be Queen, but you’re showing all the signs of being a serious and thoughtful one.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Galen sat, and it seemed like a weight settled on his shoulders. He avoided looking at Serel as he answered the question.
“I’ve had… feelings for Meya since we were young and still do, but I’ve resolved not to act on them.”
“Any particular reason?”
Galen looked up and met Serel’s gaze and held it.
“I cannot be certain,” he said, “but I might have killed her father or brother . . . or both.”
Serel sat next to Galen, putting her hand on his arm.
“Because you commanded the Nomads?”
“It might have been more direct than that. I was on the battlefield, fighting. Specifically, in the general area where we found them.”
“But you can’t be sure,” Serel said.
“No, but if there’s even a chance, I can’t bear to think of it.”
“Does she know?”
“At one time, she blamed me because I commanded the Nomads, but that was an indirect blame that faded with time. Imagine how she might feel if she knew I possibly killed her father and brother.”
“…but she doesn’t know…” Serel said, letting the statement hang there for Galen to contemplate.
“I can’t lie to her, even if it’s a lie of omission.”
“But you’re already doing that.”
“Yes… but not as someone involved in her life. I lost her on that field of battle, and if I rekindle our feelings, I don’t know if I could stand to lose her again. Worse, to have her hate me.”
Serel poured some wine for both of them and offered one of the goblets to Galen. They sat in silence, sipping wine.
“To answer your question,” Galen said, “it won’t affect carrying out my duties, and eventually, Meya will get tired of wondering how I feel.”
“I think you might be wrong about that,” Serel said, “and to prove it, all you have to do is put yourself in her place.
“If you can’t imagine what that might be like, let me tell you that I would have difficulty letting it pass in her place,” Serel said. “But that’s your decision to make.”
“However,” she continued, “it may put me in an uncomfortable situation, especially if she asks for my advice about you two. Perhaps it would be best if I rescind my request. Or, she can still join the Guard as your equal or second-in-command, but I keep her at a distance and not encourage a close relationship.”
“You could just avoid the topic,” Galen said.
“I asked her the same question,” Serel said, “and no, don’t ask me for details.”
Galen looked at Serel, his expression as inscrutable as always.
“Are you mad?” She asked.
“No, but you’re too young and inexperienced to involve yourself in this,” he said.
Serel felt a sudden welling of irritation but held back a biting retort. Instead, she poured them more wine, sat back, and spoke calmly, if reserved.
“I’m also too young and inexperienced to be Queen, yet here I am, asked to step into a role I’m not prepared for.”
Galen sat quietly, slowly swirling his wine in the goblet.
“Asked to step into matters I don’t fully understand, do so blindly, and hope that I can grow into a role as ill-defined as it’s treacherous.
“I could sit here and ponder all manners of scenarios, all of them ending with my death,” Serel said. “Or, I can try to navigate the path taking things as they come, taking risks, and, with the help of people around me, handle each obstacle as best as I can.”
“Again,” Galen said, “Your situation and mine are not comparable.”
Serel rose, emptied her goblet, and set it down on the table before speaking.
“Not in the details, but not dissimilar in other respects. Faced with an obstacle, all you imagine is the worse possible outcome. In doing so, you are ensuring the realization of the worse of your fears.
“What would you tell me if I did the same? If I spoke of the path I’m embarking on as only ending in failure and, ultimately, my death?”
Before Galen could answer, voices outside the tent called out, some in alarm.
Exiting the tent, they saw the reason for the commotion; the camp was under attack, with the people in the outlying tents already engaged in battle and children running toward the main tent as more men and women ran toward the fighting.
Serel drew her swords and made to join the fight, but Galen stopped her.
“You stay here,” he said. “I’ll send someone over.”
He grabbed Serel by the shoulders and forced her to focus on him.
“You do not move from here,” he said. “This is not a random attack. They are here for you.”
Serel was still trying to pull away, but he shook her.
“If you go into the fight, others will have to protect you,” he explained. “Let them fight unencumbered. Do you understand?”
Serel looked at Galen for a few moments and nodded.
“Get the children into the tent,” he said.
Again, Serel nodded, and Galen, returning her nod, let go of her, drew his sword and battle ax, and ran to join the developing fight.
Serel sheathed her swords and started directing the kids into the tent as she stole glances at the action. Whoever they were, there were enough attackers to challenge the clan fighters. She saw Ran, Aden, and the others being pressed back just before Galen broke into the fight, changing its dynamic. Other clan fighters were forming into impromptu lines protecting the flanks, and it looked as if the attackers were being pushed back.
Serel stopped. From a distance, it looked as if the attackers were purposefully drawing back. It looked like a stalling tactic. Just then, she heard a scream from the tent and, drawing her swords, ran in.
Without hesitation, as soon as she was in the tent, she charged the two men coming through an opening cut into the back of the tent. She briefly worried about the scouts guarding the rear before switching to her practiced fighting patterns. Two attackers meant more defensive than offensive fighting, but her defensive techniques were also geared to inflict damage.
She managed to cut the arm of one of the attackers, and the amount of blood meant she’d hit a major blood vessel. He wouldn’t be a factor for much longer.
Unfortunately, two more people entered the tent, a man and a woman, and the woman carried a small crossbow. Without hesitation, Serel launched her short sword at the woman who had focused on loading the crossbow. The short blade did one complete turn before striking the woman in the abdomen.
“Stop,” one of the men yelled, “or I will kill the kids.”
Serel stopped but held her sword at the ready.
“Drop the sword,” he commanded.
“No,” Serel said. “You’ll just kill me.”
“We want you alive. Come with us, and we’ll spare the kids,” the man said as he grabbed a young girl and raised his sword.
The tent’s flap flew open and one of Meya’s throwing knives embedded itself in the man’s neck. The other knife found its mark a moment later in the other man’s chest, Meya following close behind. Her sword nearly decapitated the man who had threatened the little girl and then made short work of the attacker staring in confusion at the knife stuck in his chest. The wounded crossbow wielder made a pleading motion, but Meya’s continued to finish off both her and the man Serel had wounded.
Serel and Meya turned, sword at the ready, as someone pushed open the cut at the back of the tent, but it was Aden who came through along with Oaks.
“Are you hurt?” Aden asked.
“We’re fine,” Serel replied. She then sheathed her sword and turned to the kids, reassuring them and, with Meya’s help, ushering them out of the tent.
Outside, the relative calm after the battle seemed surreal to Serel. She saw several wounded and at least a few dead, with likely a few more in the back of the tent.
The aftermath of the fighting hit her all at once, and she fought to calm herself.
This had been her first real fight, and she now understood the reason for all those long practice sessions and mock battles. They served to train her body and allowed her to fight almost without conscious thought, without considering the danger and the possibility of death.
Galen and Leor walked up, with Leor going to Serel and hugging her.
“Are you hurt?” they both asked nearly simultaneously, then hugged again.
Disengaging, she looked around the camp, this time with a calmer frame of mind.
“They were after me,” she said. “Not to kill me, but to capture me.
“I saw the stalling tactic of the attack just as the kids screamed from inside the tent.”
“Galen saw it too,” Meya said, “and had me run back to you.”
“What happened to the attackers?” Serel asked.
“They broke and ran,” Leor said. “I heard the sound of a horn, and they retreated. We didn’t give chase because we had wounded to tend to.”
“We saw someone riding off when we went around the tent,” Aden said. “One of the guards is badly wounded, and the other is dead.”
The large tent had been moved, repaired, and pitched in a new spot, and they now crowded inside as they considered the events; the elders, scouts, Galen, Meya, Leor, and Serel, a few of them sporting minor wounds but otherwise fine.
“Two things bother me about the attack,” Leor said. “Actually, many things bother me, but two in particular.”
“They knew where we were,” Galen said, “and they knew who Serel was. I don’t mean that she’s the Queen; I mean what she looked like. She was specifically targeted.”
“They meant to capture me alive, although they sure didn’t fight as if that was the case,” Serel said.
“You attacked them,” Meya said. “They would fight back as if their life depended on it, which it did.”
“Can we speak a moment about what this attack tells us?” Ran said, uncharacteristically somber in her demeanor.
“It was well organized,” she continued, “fairly well planned and executed and nearly would have succeeded if it weren’t for our Warrior Queen here,” she waved her hand in the direction of Serel. “I don’t think they expected she would put up such resistance, especially against four attackers.”
“Ran is right,” Galen said. “These weren’t bandits. For one, they retrieved their wounded before breaking off the attack. For another, this was planned even to the point of the retreat.”
Leor turned to the elders.
“Who knew the location of this camp?”
“We did not have any runners since leaving the main camp,” Kirsi said. “No one here left since we set camp other than the scout teams, and once they returned with you four, no one has ventured out other than for sentinel duties along the perimeter.”
“I don’t think anyone tracked Leor and Serel, or they would have acted sooner,” Aden said. “That leaves Galen and Meya.”
“If we were tracked, whoever tracked us is very good. I had no sense that anyone was following us,” Galen said. “But if that’s the case, they probably began tracking us when we left the Center.”
“I have a question,” Serel said, addressing Galen. “During our first meeting, you thanked the elders on behalf of Ronek. You thanked them for their assistance and discretion.”
Serel turned to face the elders.
“It is possible you were tracked from when your groups left your main camps?”
An uncomfortable silence settled on the group, which Kirsi broke.
“I appreciate your tact in not broaching the other possibility,” she said, “but, yes, it exists.
“It speaks to why Ronek’s envoys contacted the elders of the tribes instead of the chiefs and why they met in secret.”
As Kirsi spoke, she had the attention of those present, especially the scouts she addressed.
“Some chiefs speak of consolidating the different clans under a common rule. Rather than the current aggregate of multiple small Marsh Clans into a loose collective, they favor the idea of a single Marsh Clan under a central leadership. Similar talk is occurring within the Forest and Plains clans.
“You and the others outside weren’t randomly chosen,” she continued, still addressing the scouts. “We chose people with a strong sense of independence and a habit of resisting authority. It is, however, possible some may like and support the idea of unification.”
“How would kidnapping me aid that effort?” Serel asked.
“We don’t know,” Kirsi replied.
Leor spoke, almost as if talking to himself, “It could be they foresee forcing some of the clans into submission to a central rule. If so, they might seek alliances outside the clans.”
“The Center?” Ran asked, looking at Galen.
Galen, in turn, looked at Serel.
“You might as well tell them what you told me,” she said. “We either trust the people in this tent, or we’re already at a disadvantage, and voicing what we suspect won’t change anything.”
Galen spoke softly, lest his voice carried too far.
“Ronek suspects one or more of the Western Kingdoms to be working behind the scenes to weaken the Center, sowing dissent within the Council.
“At the same time, she believes they are courting receptive clan chiefs by offering material support in their bid to increase their power. They may be leveraging memory of The Strife and arguing that unified clans would be better positioned to resist the Center should a conflict arise.
“If they are successful, Ronek believes a conflict is inevitable if not already planned, and the Center would find itself fighting on two fronts.”
The group stood silent as they considered what they heard.
Aden broke the silence.
“Us joining the Queen’s Guard is a counter to that plan, potentially fostering an alliance between the Center and the clans,” he said.
Ran joined the conversation, raising her previous concern about joining the Queen’s Guard.
“You mentioned the possibility of the Queen’s Guard fighting against members of our clans, but as it is right now, we’re few in numbers. Certainly not enough to go up against as large a conspiracy as spoken of here.”
“That’s true,” Serel replied. “There would also be some recruits from the ranks of the Clippers, but, yes, the initial number would be small and likely remain small because the hope is to avoid a full-scale conflict,” she concluded.
“Still, we may get to a point where actual fighting might occur,” Vania said. “I plan to bring my immediate family to the Center, but not every member. You’re saying there’s a possibility we’ll be asked to fight against family members.”
Serel nodded. “It wouldn’t be the first time such conflicts arise,” she said. “We have an example here. Leor and Galen fought on opposite sides of The Strife.
“But, this is also why I agreed to my role. The aim is to avoid getting to such a point, but, again, yes, the possibility exists.”
“Do we know which chiefs are involved?” Aden asked.
“Elders of the respective clans have suspicions,” Kirsi said, speaking for all, “but sorting out those driving the effort is difficult. Some see benefits to a central authority for reasons other than power, especially in the smaller clans. It would facilitate trade, offer protections from raiders, and offer additional benefits from pooling resources.
“However, many value the independence and Nomad lifestyle and would resist the effort to organize. Hence the conflict. The benefit comes only if a sufficient number agree to the premise.”
“We already have some of those benefits,” Aden said. “The clans banded together for mutual protection during The Strife, and even today, we support each other.”
“That is true,” Kirsi said, “but that’s part of the argument; more cooperation and central coordination would offer a better mutual support network.”
“So, what’s the issue, then?” Oaks asked.
“Power, greed, and status,” Kirsi replied. “A centralized structure would result in a pyramid structure and competitions for all three.”
“That’s what’s essentially at work at the Center and within the Council of Regents,” Galen said. “Someone isn’t happy with sharing power and influence and is working behind the scenes to affect a change for their benefit, going so far even to conspire against the Center with the Western Kingdoms, no doubt for some promised reward.”
The group fell silent, with many looking at Serel. Given the scope of what was at stake, many, no doubt, wondered about her ability to affect anything, let alone avert things already in motion. Serel guessed what was on their mind.
“If you’re wondering what I will do, I don’t yet know,” she said. “I will work closely with Ronek and, with her counsel, exercise my powers as Queen while she works to control the council.”
“How do we know Ronek isn’t the one that’s pulling all the strings?” Ran asked.
“Ronek is ambitious,” Galen said, “but she’s foremost interested in the stability of the Center and outlying areas. If she were pulling the strings, it would benefit her to have Serel killed and ascend to the throne as Queen. As things stand, a rogue Council would threaten both the throne and the Center.”
“That doesn’t negate her still doing that once she has firm control of the Council,” Ran said.
“That is true,” Leor said, “but that’s where Galen comes in, and that’s why an independent Queen’s Guard is important. But I don’t believe Ronek is behind this. Ultimately I believe her to be honorable, but also because she has nothing to gain by allying herself with the Western Kingdoms.”
“There’s a more immediate issue,” Serel said. “The attack proves that my presence is putting the camp in danger. Children in danger. We should move up our timetable and leave as soon as possible, taking an indirect route to the Center.”
“Won’t that make us more vulnerable?” Atwell asked. “With Oaks and Vania riding back to our clan for their families, it leaves just eleven of us. Worse, the Plains scouts won’t know where we are.”
“Hopefully, neither would whoever attacked us,” Leor said. “We could leave at dawn and ride until our horses get tired. Anyone following us would make themselves known.”
“A group of eleven would be easy to track,” Aden said, “but yes, not without exposing the trackers. Still, we could make it even more difficult by splitting up and joining at a predetermined location, especially if they don’t know in which group Serel is traveling.”
“I think some of us would be recognizable even from a distance,” Galen said. “No, we stay together, and I agree with Serel. Our presence here puts people in danger. We should get ready and leave as soon as possible because a coordinated night attack on the camp would be much harder to defend.”
“Why didn’t they wait for nightfall before attacking?” Serel asked. “Why a riskier daylight attack?”
“Can we assume they didn’t know when we would leave the camp?” Vania asked.
Before anyone could answer, one of the guards entered the tent, announcing Eagan of the Plains Clan had arrived in the camp.
“That could be another reason,” Ran said. “They attacked before reinforcement arrived.”
“Let’s resume this meeting after we update Eagan,” Serel said. “But I would still like to leave the camp as soon as possible.”
(NOT) THE END
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