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The winged silhouettes of Sycorax blackened the sky.
Andra stood on the steps of Dragon Hold and watched them with a shake of her head. The creatures, with their long poisoned talons, and inhuman features, circled above or perched on roofs looking about for food to steal or cattle to worry. The people of Dragon Hold clutched their heads and ran from here to there as if in a rainstorm, so concerned were they that the half-beats would attack.
Andra clutched her sword hilt, her knuckles white. She hated the accursed things. Banished to the mountains, the creatures spoke and thought as people, but lived in caves, dismissed clothing, and ate their meat raw and preferably still squirming. Why Olwen had resorted to an alliance with these beasts, she would never comprehend. She wondered if it was too late to change their minds, to send the accursed creatures back to the mountains. How would they take the insult? Could her remaining soldiers fend the beasts off if need be?
“Damned sky rats.”
Andra spun around. It was Duncan who had spoken, one of her seconds. A slender young man with a light brown moustache who had been loyal to her since before the revolution. His lip curled in disgust and the young soldier with him nodded as they surveyed the infested fort. “We don’t need them. Are not Druids good enough for the mistress no more?”
White heat already simmered inside the General but as she listened to the two men whispering their dissent her bronze sword-hilt threatened to crack.
She strode over to them and the young soldier backed away from Duncan as soon as he caught her eye.
“Do you not have a duty to be at?” she demanded.
“Y-yes, sir,” the young man stammered.
“Then get to it.” She waved the young man away, and he scurried off while she turned her attention to the older Duncan.
“You are meant,” she hissed, “to be a Commander.”
He looked up at her and for the first time since she had known him; she detected the faintest hint of defiance in the way he lifted his chin. “And am I not?”
“How dare you speak out against the mistress?” Andra growled. “How dare you encourage insubordination in the ranks?”
But her words only made him double down, he lowered his voice looking down his long straight nose at her. “It was not more than a moon ago that you yourself were stirring up dissent. Recruiting to your cause. Whispering against the Master. Well,” he adjusted his stance and looked about before continuing in his hushed tone, “the Master may have been in thrall to the White Dragon but at least he did not pollute our skies with foul beasts.”
She struck him.
A hard backhand across his cheek. It was done. He was recoiling, staring up at her with the wide eyes and gaping jaw of a man in shock before she even realised she’d raised a hand.
Andra swallowed an instinct to apologise and explain away her anger. Instead, she clenched her jaw. “Who else thinks as you do?” She growled her words and noted that his manner changed. No longer defiant but not afraid, there was something else in his features. Something else in his manner and in the way his light blue eyes stared up at her with raised brows as the flesh on his right cheek reddened.
It was the disappointed countenance of a man betrayed.
He stood up straight, eye to eye with Andra, with his shoulders back and a sudden pride disguising his moment of weakness. “Many of the soldiers share my sentiment and-“
“Many?” That was too much. Andra turned away, cutting him off mid-flow as she marched to the guard-hall.
She hurried down the wooden steps of the Dragon Hold, and marched along the main trackway, cutting to the left she then strode into the large roundhouse set aside for the soldiers of the Dragon Army.
Most soldiers would either be on duty or taking their chance to sleep off the night shift but it mattered little. This issue had to be dealt with and it had to be dealt with definitively.
Duncan hurried behind her but she didn’t break her stride, she tore the hide that blocked the draft from the entrance and stormed into the hut.
The hearth was burning low. But the embers were hot and there was enough light for the faces of the seated gathering to turn and see her. It wasn’t usual for the General of the Dragon Army to make their way into the lowly quarters of mere foot soldiers and silence quickly fell over the relaxing crowd.
She looked at them all, their faces turned to her in expectation and confusion. How many of them would betray Olwen? How many already had? How many of these lowly women and men had whispered among themselves against the new Mistress of Dragon March?
The thought made her sick.
To stand among so many who were against Olwen, who hated the woman she loved, who stood against the woman who would sacrifice everything, who HAD sacrificed everything, to lead them to victory.
Andra swallowed hard. She didn’t want rage to cloud her words.
“Enjoying your food?” she asked. Her sudden entrance and banal question only furthered the confusion on their faces. A few of them munching on loaves or swallowing their stew nodded slowly but none quite had the courage to speak. Andra stepped forward and out of the doorway to walk amongst her army. “How many of you have gone without food in the past?” She waited no one spoke. “Ambrose?” she asked, picking out a tall but skinny boy. She had watched him grow up. His head had always seemed a little too large for his narrow shoulders but over the last few weeks his body had been bulking up to match. His eyes widened when she picked him out. He glanced at his comrades. “Your family?” she pushed, “did they suffer during the blight of the fifth season?” It was the blight that had bought the young man’s father to Dragon Hold.
He lowered his gaze. “A-Aye, ma’am.”
She placed a hand on his shoulder. “How many did you lose?”
“F-four brothers and me Ma.”
Andra nodded and turned to the others. “It’s good, is it not? To eat?” She raised a loaf of bread from a basket. “To keep this food for our own people, not hand it to the Elves in reparations, not give it to the temples in tax.” She spun slowly in the room ensuring she looked at them all. They were silent, but some were understanding and nudged one another. “We are fortunate to eat. Your families are fortunate to eat. This bread,” she broke the loaf in half, “this bread is just the start. The start of a new life. A new Dragon March. And do any of you know who gave this to you?”
There was no answer. Andra could feel the white heat of her rage returning. “Do you know who gave this to you?” she demanded, looking directly to a young woman who stammered a low mutter in reply. “What was that?” Andra asked edging closer.
“M-mistress Olwen.” The young woman’s voice was low and uncertain.
“Mistress Olwen,” Andra repeated for anyone who had not heard the woman’s low reply. “Mistress Olwen.” Andra nodded and turned slowly about the room. “No longer do priests take our food for themselves, for Mistress Olwen has torn down the temples. No longer do our hard-earned crops go to feed the Master and his Dragon, for Mistress Olwen cast him out.” She swept a pointed finger around the whole hut. “You are all safe because of Mistress Olwen. Your stomachs are full because of Mistress Olwen. Your mothers, and brothers, and sisters, and sons will not die this winter because Mistress Olwen has given your families the food they need to make it through the dark.” Her voice was rising, and the soldiers stared; some with pride but too many with apathy, “And this is how you repay her?” she tossed the two halves of bread into the laps of a pair of soldiers seated on a bench. “With talk of rebellion? Talk of dissent?”
She turned back to Duncan. He did not meet her gaze and her hand twitched once again at the hilt of her sword. “The Mistress will take back the Hunting Grounds from the Elves, she will reunite the Druids of Dragon March and Midwinter, she will take back the land of Moridan from the Dwarves, she will push the Orcs back in the North.” Her voice grew louder as her certainty increased, and some soldiers began to nod with enthusiasm. “These Edge Islands will belong to the Druids again! Before the longest night has ended, the Druids will stand on every shore of this land and claim it as is our right. And you doubt her?” She spoke with a ferocity that came from deep within her gut, she spoke with a rage that consumed her, lighting every inch of her on fire. “You doubt, even for a moment, that she does not know exactly what she is doing? You let the doubt creep across your mind. You let in the darkest thoughts, the belief that she is not right when she brings in the allies we so badly need? Do you doubt the woman who has saved your families? Has made your bellies full? How dare you? How dare you doubt her?” Andra’s fist slammed against a wooden pillar. Her breathing was ragged and her heart pounded. She forced herself to take a deep breath. She breathed hard and left the silence unattended for a long moment before she turned back to the breakfasting troops.
“If I hear the slightest dissent, so much as a single word against our Mistress, if I hear one word out of line…” she looked pointedly at Duncan, “I will kill you myself.”
With one last glance at the astonished faces of her inferiors, Andra turned and swept from the roundhouse. This time Duncan did not follow.