“The Druids are divided no more!” Olwen declared as she led the procession of armed soldiers through the gates of Midwinter Down. They repeated her mantra, and the sound of women and men chanting ‘no more’ echoed with the beating of their drums. Andra swelled with pride as she walked at the Mistresses’ right hand.
The Southern Druids had barely put up a fight.
The gates had closed. The bells had rung out. But the town itself could not withstand the dropping of those firebombs.
The Sycorax had been relentless, smashing oil jars then burning the huts and wooden palisade of Midwinter Down.
Her army had not risked a single Northern Druid soldier and now they walked through the charred gates of the settlement, knowing they could lay claim to the whole of Midwinter once the people in the surrounding villages heard of their capital’s downfall.
Andra was quick to notice that even those soldiers who had held dissenting voices yesterday, now shouted with joy at the ease of their victory. She knew from bitter experience what it was like to face fellow Druids in battle, and was delighted that the campaign, which had seemed like such a distant prospect, fell into their hands with such ease.
The Governor of Midwinter Down, a disheveled and weak-chinned young man, who would shortly be replaced, came forward and bowed obsequiously at the feet of the Mistress of Dragon March.
Andra looked around at the faces of the residents; older men and women, young fighters. There were very few children, and just weakened soldiers left to defend the town. They would make a rather sickly addition to the forces of her Dragon Army.
She wondered briefly how the families had escaped. It was of no great consequence, victory was to be enjoyed.
“Midwinter Down is at your service,” the Governor announced.
Olwen touched the man on the back of the head, he looked up gratefully to her. “Good,” her voice was low so that only those close to her could hear.
The townsfolk only stared, there was neither joy nor dissent.
Olwen turned to address her people. “We are all Druids,” her voice was regaining some strength, “for the first time in three generations, the Druids of the North and the South stand together. No longer divided. No longer at odds. We stand as one. We fight as one.”
The Dragon soldiers cheered at this. Their weapons raised, swords banged against shields. Feet hammered the earth. Joy swelled in Andra’s belly. Joy and relief. She had expected the worst. She had expected they were moving too fast. That in their haste mistakes would be made. That they had taken on too much and needed to consolidate their forces and resources before another campaign.
She had been wrong.
Olwen was mightier and more magnificent than anyone who stood in her way.
They were only at the beginning of their conquest.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught movement. An older woman, fierce of face and grey of hair. She elbowed her way through the crowd. Her countenance worried Andra, and she stepped forward to intercede.
Olwen didn’t notice her and continued, “The Druids are one people and as one we shall reclaim our home and reclaim the Edge Island for Druids-”
Despite her age, the woman was too quick for Andra; she spat at Olwen’s feet before the general of the Dragon Army could grab her bony shoulders and pull her back.
But the damage had been done.
Sudden voices cheered the rebel.
Voices of Druids who ought to have bowed to their new Mistress, now laughed at her humiliation.
Olwen stared down at the patch of dirt made wet by the insult. Then, slowly, she looked up at the woman struggling in Andra’s vice-like grip. Her ice-blue eyes glanced at Andra then gave a curt nod.
Andra knew that command.
Olwen had used it before. When they had stood together on the balcony of Dragon Hold overlooking the people of the hillfort, it had been the day they’d launched the revolution.
Only one man had died that day. It had only taken the blood of that one man for her to command the respect and loyalty of every Druid in Dragon March.
Olwen now demanded that same loyalty from Andra. The absolute, unflinching loyalty of the soldier who knew what it took to crush an enemy and had the strength to do it.
There was no escaping it.
The woman Andra held had insulted the Mistress. Any weakness now, when they held their newly conquered territory so tentatively in their hands, would be catastrophic.
She was quick.
The old woman barely moved. The sword sliced through her frail body with relative ease. Gasps from the people surrounding them told Andra everything she needed to know.
The criminal fell forward and hit the ground hard. She didn’t move again.
Andra wiped her sword clean. But she didn’t put it away.