The Battle of Meadow Hall
Two guards dragged the young ex-ranger into the square and dropped him on the ground before Evaline. His hands had been bound and his tatty leather armour had been stripped, leaving him in only his breeches and shirt.
Defiant to the last, he scrambled to his feet as the Fenner was dumped beside him.
The guards retreated, but only a yard or so, ready to take down either prisoner if it came to it.
Evaline, seated upon her throne placed in the square under a green silk canopy, did not enjoy having so many armoured guards on duty. She hated being surrounded by soldiers at all times. Even when she slept there were two at the door and two at each window. Then each day she would face accusations of wasting resources even from those same councillors who had sent assassins. Not that she could ever prove it.
She looked around at the curious townspeople pressing up against one another, some attempting to clamber over the wooden barrier in search of a better view of the prisoners. The councillors too, craned their necks although none wasted their energies in standing from their pews to observe the spectacle.
Out of all the people in Meadow Hall that day, Evaline felt certain there was likely only one truly loyal Elf left in her Queendom. And he was standing before her awaiting his sentence.
She stood, wavering slightly as she walked toward him. His beard had grown in the days he had been away and something else in his eyes told her he had grown as a man also.
This sentencing should have been in private. It should have been after a hearing in which his testimony could be presented and three elves, who had known him since his youth, could testify to his character.
But she would have to expect him to make one last sacrifice for the continuing peace of Meadowvale.
“This council,” as soon as she finally started to speak a whispered hush descended over the crowd, “finds that you are guilty of abducting Princess Laetitia, First Daughter of the House of Atheling, and of concealing her mortal remains.”
Echoes of ‘Hear, hear,’ burst from the seats of the councillors and dozens of feet banged against the flagstones in a sinister drumroll. Evaline couldn’t look at them, but she found comfort in the steady moss green eyes of the ex-ranger who stared up at her in a look of defiance that reminded her starkly of a young Wealderling who had stood before her not too long before.
She longed to speak to Cassian. To talk to him and discover the truth, what had really happened to Leasha, what mad campaign had she taken up? Was she safe? Was she taking care of herself? Who would take care of her now he had returned? And what kind of selfish accursed game was she playing?
But even one moment alone with the accused murderer of her niece would only confirm the worst accusations she had faced this last half-moon.
So she waited for the council to finish bleating its sinister joy, before asking Cassian, “What say you?”
“I beg of you,” he started and she was momentarily taken aback, they were not the words she had expected to hear from his mouth. “Not for my life,” he continued, “But for yours. The Druids grow their army. They will march upon us and we must be ready for them when they come.”
She shook her head. He shouldn’t be using his last moments for this. She glanced at the councillors, even at a distance she could see them shaking their heads muttering to one another. They wanted a clean and simple resolution to this. She knew it wouldn’t be the end of it. She knew there were manoeuvrings to oust her as soon as they could. But if she had a little while longer… just a few more weeks, she may be able to find Leasha or at least manipulate the right candidate into succeeding her.
But before she had a chance to reply, a familiar sound rang out. It took her a moment to recognise it.
It was the city gong.
As the call came from guard to guard across the rooftops, she already knew the words they were exchanging. “The beacons are lit.”
That could only mean one thing.
Meadowvale was being invaded.
The guards were well-trained. The gates closed and rangers and soldiers went straight to patrol, manning the walls. There were dozens of archers in their place quickly and it had roused many others from their slumber to prepare.
The square had been cleared. Not much encouragement had been needed for the councillors and townsfolk to scuttle home or into the temple for sanctuary. The prayer fires had been lit and Evaline had changed into her battle armour.
To the annoyance of her bodyguard, Evaline insisted on pacing at the balcony of the gatehouse overlooking the vales of her homeland, waiting with a sickening dread for either the invaders to arrive or her contingent of soldiers to return victorious.
Meadow Hall could withstand a siege. They had water, food, soldiers, weapons, and they could escape to the harbour or receive reinforcements from Vingeld within weeks. Winter would be upon them soon. No invading army could withstand a winter siege.
So why did she feel so nervous?
“Fetch Cassian, the Ranger,” she demanded, turning to one of the Elves who guarded her.
“Ma’am?” he asked, looking to another guard as if for confirmation.
“It is my orders you follow, soldier, not his, Now go.”
He nodded quickly then left the balcony. But Evaline could do nothing but wring her hands and peer out to the horizon desperately searching for her squadron’s return. Even if not with victory, then surely with news?
But what she saw did not comfort her. She leaned on the railings, peering out as if those few feet would close the gap enough for her to understand what shadows loomed toward the city form the horizon.
“They’re coming,” she whispered, then louder, to her guards she shouted, “Prepare yourselves.”
There was a scurrying to attention as men and women around her rushed to their posts or to peer over the wall and make it out for themselves.
“Are they ours?” a young woman whispered to another guard.
“They are not,” Evaline replied. She turned away. She couldn’t bear to watch her city marched upon and there were defences that needed to be checked and stores that needed to be secured.
“Ma’am?” It was the guard she had sent to find Cassian, he had brought both the ranger and the Fenner to her.
She stopped. She didn’t know what to ask first, there seemed so much she needed to know and she seemed to see in his eyes the same feeling of certain dread she felt in the pit of her own stomach. “Is there anything we can do?” she asked.
“Run,” Cassian said.
“That does not sound, like the Cassian I know.” What had happened to him in those few short days he had been gone from the Queendom?
He shook his head. “We cannot hope to defeat them on our own. But if we join forces with others-“
“The Fen Water Marshes?” she asked looking to the Fenner.
“You would have us fight by your side,” the Fenner said with a bow of their head.
It was then that a shadow passed across the sun. At first, it looked like a raincloud, but it seemed to move too quickly.
“Sycorax,” Cassian muttered.
“It cannot be,” Evaline replied. But as the cloud drew closer it had form, several forms, like a swarm. This was the real army, this was the real source of the power.
Evaline looked to Cassian, then to the guard with him. The council had run, she could deal with their complaints another day. “Do as he says.” The guard opened their mouth as if to protest, an occurrence that was growing all too common in recent days. “Now,” she added firmly.
When the Sycorax fell upon the city, there was chaos.
Archers cut down dozens, trying to hold their ground at the walls. But there were simply too many. They swarmed over the city, bringing firebombs and swooping onto rooves.
The city had been built to withstand a ground assault. An assault from the air had never been imagined. And the Meadow Dragon had always patrolled their skies. But where was the Meadow Dragon today?
The Sycorax dived and screeched. Corpses littered the ground of enemies and fallen allies.
Meadow Hall was being destroyed. It was only then that they heard the battering ram at the gates. There was the dull sound of the battlements shaking as the ram pounded again and again against the wooden fortifications.
Only half a dozen guards were left at the walls and the Sycorax turned their full attention to them.
Evaline stood her ground, but Cassian pulled her away.
“We must retreat,” he urged.
She shook her head. “Meadowhall will fall if I retreat.”
Cassian turned to the chaos and then looked back at her. “Meadow Hall has already fallen.”