Everson bent to his knee before the king with a flourish. Ansible managed a nod of his head. Karigan’s own obeisance looked so exhausted as to be painful.
“Welcome home, friends,” Zachary said. He had removed his king’s mask, Laren noted, not concealing his concern and genuine joy at their return.
“Glad to be out of that tangle of woods,” Everson said, his thumbs hooked in his belt. “Give me a good, clear field for a direct charge at full gallop any day.”
Laren fought the urge to wind the curlicues of his mustache around her fingers and yank. Her own Riders never, or at least hardly ever, complained about hard travel through Sacoridia’s thick forestlands. The light horse was just a bit too pampered to Laren’s mind, but it was, after all, the territory of the privileged. Few commoners filled its ranks; it consisted mostly of the offspring of nobles with no land to inherit. They sought to make their name in the military, and gravitated to the elite light horse. It took a special appointment by an important sponsor to get in, something far easier for a noble to obtain than a commoner.
Many years ago, during the reign of the Sealenders, the captain of the Green Riders answered to superiors in the light horse, but that had ended with King Smidhe’s reign, for which Laren was grateful. The king had reverted the Riders to an independent force, answerable only to him and his successors, just as the First Rider had originally intended when she founded the messenger service.
Rider tradition rejected the chain of command above and beyond the authority of captain—except for the king, of course, who was their ultimate authority—and they possessed more independence than members of the other branches of the military. Considering the covert nature of some of the work Zachary required of his messengers, it was a good thing.
“Please sit,” Zachary said. “I know how weary you must be from your travels.” He clapped and servants moved the table and chairs before the throne. Wine was poured and meat brought forth. Even Laren got to sit finally, but her appetite was considerably diminished by the appearance of Ansible and Karigan.
Karigan nibbled a little at her food, but the effort seemed too much for her. Everson speared a slab of roast for himself and ate with relish. Between mouthfuls, he spoke of how he and his troops intercepted the delegation several miles beyond the North Road.
“As sorry a group as you could expect,” he said. “Two hundred diminished to forty-three. Half or more injured, and half again so injured they could not walk or ride. Ten more perished with the traveling. I find it remarkable they got so far on their own.
“We set up camp so our menders could look to the wounded. Rider G’ladheon here showed me and some scouts to the clearing where the battle had been fought.” Everson shook his head. “Terrible. Our folk had been placed in a mass grave, but the area was alive with carrion birds feasting on groundmites and horses. Other beasts had been at them, too, and these snarled from the shadows of the forest at our intrusion.”
Karigan pushed her food away, eyes downcast as Everson described the scene. It was the most unanimated Laren had ever seen her, as if she weren’t even there at all. Little wonder after what she’d been through, and now Everson was bringing it all back to life as he described the scene of death.
“Eletians aided us with our dead,” Captain Ansible said, speaking up for the first time. “They helped us with the burying, among other things in the aftermath of the battle. If not for their medicines, I would have lost my leg at the very least, and probably my life from wound fever. We’d have lost even more people, too, if not for their aid.”
“I would like to hear more about the Eletians,” Zachary said, “but perhaps we should start with the beginning.”
“I may not be the one to tell you of the beginning,” Ansible said, with a brief aside to Karigan. “You see, when the ’mites attacked, I was well asleep on my cot. It had been an evening like so many that had come before . . . ”
He went on to describe being awakened by shouts and the clatter of battle, and how he had quickly thrown himself into the fray, fighting for order among the lines, trying to draw his soldiers shoulder to shoulder around the clearing’s perimeter to defend themselves, with the nobles and servants within.
“It was working,” he said. “Our lines held tight. Where one defender fell, another took his place. I never did see who took mine when the ’mite blade caught me in the leg.” His hand went absently to his bandaged thigh and he shook his head. “That ’mite saved my life.”
Laren leaned forward, anxious for him to explain the curious statement. The captain’s eyes took on a faraway look, and then he shuddered.
“Many pardons,” he murmured. “I was, at the time, in great pain and stunned. But even now, I have a difficult time believing it all.”
“Take your time,” Zachary said.
Ansible inclined his head in thanks, and took a long draught from a cup of wine before him. He licked his lips and began again.
“I had fallen from the line, practically beneath the feet of the ’mites. My whole body was pressed to the ground. I felt it tremble—the ground trembled with thunder, and when I looked up, it was . . . it was like all the lightning of the heavens was contained in that clearing. I can still feel the heat of it . . . the hairs raising on my arms, the sensation of that loosed power crawling across my skin.” He shook his head. “I saw it sluice right through my soldiers—through anyone in its way. Everyone in the clearing. Magic, the Eletians said it was. Magical wards erupting.” He made the sign of the crescent moon with his fingers. “And then . . . and then . . .”