The lines had been drawn. The plan was in place. In the midst of the winter thaw, the battle for Loscar had begun.
On one side, the Usurper Queen?s forces - a meager fifteen hundred Arctrans, drawn mostly against their will from the estates and properties of the few nobles who still supported Velasca and her daughter?s claim to the Arctran throne. Yet they were bolstered by the presence of two thousand Skarran mercenaries, paid for from the Royal Treasury, members of the avaricious race across the sea who wanted only one thing - dominion over Arctra and a foothold on the continent that held the greatest prize of all; Rhy?Din City itself.
Of those three and a half thousand who ranged over the hills to the south of the wide plain before the gates of Loscar itself, perhaps three hundred were wizards, both Arctran and Skarran; practitioners of magic that had been learned from demons, not gifted to them by the gods. They were led by Gyre, Velasca?s pet wizard ... the man who had engineered her rise to power, and the deaths of so many of Arlan?s line. The man who had sent Skarran assassins into the True Queen?s camp to attack her, fearing the outcome of the battle before them.
Across the plain, on the rising crest of the hills to the north of Loscar, were ranged the armies of the True Queen, Ariana. Three thousand Arctrans, loyal and willing to be there, many of them named rebel and traitor by the Usurper in her time of power, and among them, too, the clans of the Wild Ones, eight hundred strong. Not a man or woman among them had been forced to be there, believing wholeheartedly in the truth of the young queen they had taken for their own and her right of birth to rule their land.
They, too, had magic on their side - true magic, born of the Nine Gods and the Goddess of the Wild Ones. Two hundred strong, those mages stood together, Arctran and Wild One, prepared for the battle to come. They had chosen for their leader the Goddess-born Kari, wizened with age as she was, and it was only to her they would hearken in the chaos that would soon fall over them.
Liayna na?Kari, the Goddess-born woman?s granddaughter, stood with them - just one of twenty-eight Goddess-sworn warriors who had volunteered to defend the mages in their number from any physical attack. It had been a long argument with those who loved her, but despite her pregnancy, Liayna refused to stay behind with the children. She had seen this begun, and she would see it end, but in deference to the concern of those she loved, she had willingly taken this assignment to avoid trouble.
Further down the line, Shaye Dervla sat mounted behind the True Queen, just one of many who would not leave Ariana?s side during the battle to come. She had sworn she would see the last of Arlan?s line crowned, and the end of Velasca?s reign, bound by divine magic to the Sword in Ariana?s hand. But more than this, she had sworn to protect Rory, Ariana?s Consort, from harm in the battle to come. She could not afford to be defeated in the fighting that was to come. That moment of shock when the bond of the First Blade to the Sword of Arlan was transferred could mean death for Ariana in the madness of battle.
Liam O?Connor, son of Eoghan O'Connor, former Captain of the Royal Guard, who had been named a traitor by the Usurper and slaughtered in front of the son who would now avenge his father's death and restore honor to his family?s name - that same Liam O'Connor who was leader of the rebellion and Commander of the Rebel Army ? sat astride his warhorse, restless but calmly awaiting the long-anticipated battle for Arctra. Whatever happened here today, whatever the outcome, even if he died in battle, he would die knowing he had done everything in his power to avenge his father?s death and free the people from Velasca?s tyranny. He had sworn allegiance to the girl who was the rightful Queen of Arctra, and he would gladly give his last breath to see her wear the crown. This, he believed, was his true purpose, and he would not rest until it was accomplished.
Beside him, astride his own beast of battle, sat his second in command - Conall Riordan, a man Liam had come to love and trust like a brother, a man who had his own reasons for joining the rebellion. Of mixed blood ? Arctran and Wild One ? Conall?s loyalties belonged first and foremost to his commander, to the man who had freed him from the gallows, where his life would have been forfeit for refusing to obey the orders of the False Queen. He had more to lose here today than most, and though his heart was with the clansmen and the woman he loved, his duty and responsibility were with the rebels. When this day ended and the battle was over, he would follow his heart and embrace the side of his own heritage that had been kept hidden from him for so long, if he survived.
Brothers in arms, the two men had long-planned and long-awaited this day, whatever the outcome.
But of all those gathered, it was Rory Brennan ? a simple farrier?s son ? who had most dreaded and anticipated this day. He had never asked for this ? never asked to be torn from the simple life of a commoner to become the consort to the queen - and yet, he had dreamed of a greater purpose, of a life of duty and honor, of becoming a knight in the service of the true Queen of Arctra. He had lived his whole life wishing for some greater purpose under the shadow of evil that was Velasca. And now, he finally had the chance to prove to Ariana, who owned his heart; to Shaye and Liam, who had befriended him; to Liayna and Conall, who believed in him; and most importantly, to himself and to the spirit of his father who had died at the hands of the tyrant?s soldiers without ever knowing his son?s fate. Rory had given Ariana his heart, and in doing so, had sworn his allegiance to crown and country. He had suffered indignity and shame at the False Queen?s hand, but it was Rory who would stand beside his beloved, the True Queen of Arctra, no matter what the outcome this day, whether triumph or tragedy awaited them.
Pale and sick with anticipation, Ariana, the last scion of Arlan?s line, sat astride her black stallion at the forefront of her army, surveying the mass of bodies ranged against her. She knew not every one of them wanted her dead, just as she knew the Skarran forces mixed among them must be utterly destroyed. Whoever won this battle, there could be no risk of Skarra learning of Arctra?s weakness in the aftermath of civil war.
By numbers alone, it would be no easy victory for either side. They were closely matched. Yet Ariana?s army were spurred on by loyalty to her and hatred of the Usurper; pitted against an army that was made of Arctrans who merely feared their leaders, it was a powerful advantage. But Ariana was hopeful that there might be a way to avoid the battle altogether.
She signaled her banner-man, and watched as he marched down onto the plain, coming to a halt precisely equidistant from both lines. Then, ignoring the muttered protests from her advisors, she urged her own horse forward, aware of the presence of Rory, Liam, and Shaye close behind her. They had all, one way or another, objected to this part of the plan, but Ariana refused to simply charge into battle without first discovering if it was possible to avoid bloodshed altogether.
Across the field, there was confusion among the ranks arrayed against them, until finally Velasca rode forward, accompanied by Valeyna, and two lords who had gained much power from her reign - Lord Marrun, whose preference for inflicting pain on young boys was well known, and Lord Geniti, who was rumored to have murdered his wife when she had refused to bow down to Velasca.
There was silence for a long moment as the two parties considered one another. Ariana was acutely aware of Valeyna?s glare; each of Velasca?s party seemed to be staring directly at the young queen, as though trying to discover some secret of her disguise. She cleared her throat, breaking the spell.
?I am Ariana, last scion of Arlan?s line,? she informed them. ?Daughter of Arian and Farus, and rightful heir to the throne of Arctra.?
?Don?t be stupid,? Valeyna snarled. ?There is no Ariana; Adare was the only child born to that bitch and her consort, and -? She gasped as Velasca?s hand snapped out, catching her sharply about the cheek. ?Mother! I was -?
?Speaking out of turn,? Velasca informed her daughter, her half-crazed eyes still on Ariana. ?You look very much like your mother, Ariana. But your father?s eyes ... yes, you definitely have Farus? eyes. Very much like Adare did.?
?For seventeen years, I was Adare,? Ariana told them, her voice cold as she spoke. ?To protect me from you, I was disguised with magic. There is no need for the disguise any longer.?
?Nonsense,? Lord Marrun huffed, shaking his head. ?Adare was a half-wit boy with no sense in his head and a demon at his beck and call. If you are he, call your demon to you and prove it.?
Ariana?s jaw clenched in anger, but she saw the flicker of fear in Velasca?s eyes at the challenge laid down. ?That so-called demon, Lord Marrun, is my brother, killed before he could take a breath in order that Arlan?s line would not end that night. Insult him again, and you will die.?
Such was the certainty in her tone that Marrun?s jaw snapped quickly to close his mouth, and in that moment, those who supported Ariana saw the power of the authority she had somehow gathered about her. Lord Geniti swallowed, glancing back toward his own ranks among Velasca?s army, and for a moment, it seemed as though he might dismount. He held himself still, however, under Valeyna?s harsh glance.
?Enough of this,? the young queen said, shaking her head. ?I did not come to trade words. There is no need for a battle. I came to issue a challenge. In the traditions of Arctra, single combat. I will fight your champion - should I prevail, you will surrender.?
Behind her, the shock was obvious on the faces of her companions; she had not told them that this was her plan, knowing that they would object in the most strenuous terms. Now that the challenge had been issued, they could not prevent it from going ahead. Yet here, too, was another reason Ariana would come to be loved by her people - rather than allow so many of them to fight and die, she was prepared to risk her own life in order to save theirs.