A long piece this time, to make up for the long break between. A little more of each character, as well.
Damien is returning from foraging for food for the travelers, to find the ladies under attack by a Brekken patrol. Cécile has killed one soldier, but Ysaut, the disguised young Queen, lies unconscious on the ground. Damien charges in and kills the other three soldiers in a whirlwind fight, where he himself is injured.
Eadmond, instead of guarding the ladies as ordered, had followed Damien instead, mistrusting him. That mistrust appeared to be justified when another patrol met Damien and spoke in friendly fashion. Damien handed over some papers, which the patrol’s sergeant looks over. Eadmond, distracted, does not see them handed back, and assumes Damien has betrayed them all.
He spent the next quarter hour cleaning up after the fight; first searching the soldiers’ bodies, then dragging them off away from the camp, and finally throwing dirt over the spilled blood. Next he belatedly caught his horse and unloaded the provisions they so sorely needed. By that time, Cécile had led Melina back and settled her between Ysaut and herself. Melina’s storm of emotion had passed, and when Damien had finished, she called to him.
Damien came over and knelt before her, bowing his head in profound respect and abject apology. “M’sera, m’selles, I am so sorry this has happened to you all. I—”
“M’ser Damien, no!” Melina’s voice was soft, but steady. “You have nothing for which you should apologize. You could not have known Eadmond would desert us. You were away seeing to our needs before your own.” She reached out and took his hand in hers. “I wanted to thank you. Without your intervention our case would have been so much worse. I am grateful.”
He had no words to reply to this, and in the end simply bowed his head over their joined hands in acknowledgement. And then his head came up sharply as he heard hoofbeats approaching. He was rising and turning, his knife already in his hand when Eadmond thundered into the camp.
“You bastard!” Eadmond shouted as he flung himself off the horse and onto Damien. They hit the ground together, rolling, entangled like two cats fighting in the streets. Eadmond struck at Damien with no finesse, no sense of how to fight; his blows full of rage but with no skill behind them.
Damien, in contrast, knew how and where to place his fists for the most effect. The moment he realized who he was fighting, he flipped the blade in his hand, only using the hilt to give his blows more weight. But when one of Eadmond’s blows caught the wound in his side, something snapped in Damien’s mind like a flash of white-hot lightning. He brought his knee up hard between the younger man’s legs, buried his fingers in Eadmond’s hair and slammed his head against the ground. Eadmond went limp, stunned, as Damien brought his knife up for a killing blow.
“Damien!” Gilliane’s shout froze him in place. Gilliane, not Ysaut; the snap of command in her voice the unmistakable twin of her Mother’s. For an eternal moment he held there, still and breathless—and then he breathed, and let Eadmond go. The knife was gone again, the moment’s madness past.
For another long moment Damien knelt straddling Eadmond, chest heaving with hard breaths as he fought for calm, and then he climbed to his feet and stood staring down at the younger man. One more hard breath, and he turned and crossed the clearing to kneel before Ysaut, head bowed. “My apologies, your Majesty,” he said. “I—”
“No, Damien,” Ysaut said, her words cutting across his. “No more apologies. Never apologize for protecting us, even if it is only against misguided young fools.”
Damien dropped his head lower, and then nodded acknowledgement. “Your pardon, m’sera,” he said, “I should see to him.”
Damien rose and crossed the clearing again, stopping to pull rope from his gear. Then he went to Eadmond, who was still lying on the ground, groggy from the blow. Damien wound his hand in the man’s collar and dragged him over to a tree, where he tied Eadmond’s hands behind his back, wound the rest of the rope around his chest and the tree, and then tied it off.
Halfway through, Eadmond began to struggle, and Damien put his hand to the man’s throat. “Be still,” he hissed, “Or I’ll put the rope around your neck! Where did you go?” But he ignored Eadmond’s struggles and finished tying him to the tree, and then simply stood and walked away.
Cécile was there as Damien rose, staring down at Eadmond, shaking in fury. She flung out her hand, pointing to where Ysaut still held Melina to her side. “Look at them,” she said, her voice hard with anger. “Look at us! This was your doing. We were attacked because you left us unguarded! What if those men hadn’t been here for their own pleasure? What if they had recognized Gilliane and were taking her captive? What then? You are endangering your Queen at every turn with your insistence that Damien is an enemy, when it is you, you, every time!”
Eadmond stared up at her, gaping. “Men?” he said, “What men?”
And then behind her, Damien staggered and went to one knee, at last yielding to the wound in his side and the strain and grief of the past days as the adrenaline and determination that had sustained him this far finally ran out. He lost consciousness to the sound of all three women calling his name.
He came to propped against a tree as Cécile stitched up the wound. It was a long cut, but not deep; fortunately, the soldier’s knife had hit his rib and slid along it instead of going in. But it had bled more badly than he had realized.
“Ah, you’re awake again,” Cécile said, glancing up at him and then looking back at what she was doing. “I’m afraid your shirt may be ruined. I’m a fair hand with needle, thread, and flesh,” she said with a slight smile. “With linen, not as much. Serviceable patches only. But a fine seam? For that you want Melina. She could run her own atelier and make a fine living. There,” she said finally, cutting the thread and cleaning up.
Damien inspected her handiwork as she wrapped a bandage about his ribs. “How did you come to learn all this?” he asked, gesturing at the medical kit and her pack of ‘necessities.’
She laughed softly, putting it all away neatly. “Seven rowdy older brothers,” she said, “and a pressing need to hunt to keep them fed.”
“And the wit to think of it all, and plan for future need?” he asked. “The henna was especially inspired.”
Cécile laughed again, “The wit I got from my Mother, and her training to think ahead. The henna, well, that comes of helping her keep her youthful looks by hiding the silver in her hair. My father loves to play his fingers in it, and has no clue what she does to keep him happy.” A merry laugh bubbled out of her. “I think!” Then she sobered, and met his eyes, holding his gaze steadily. “And now, m’ser, you will rest.” She raised her hand against his protest, and her voice went stern. “M’ser, you will rest! How long did you ride from Brekke? You said yourself, one hour only, to rest your horse. And another three days from the Capitol to here, and kept watch on us through all the nights, and when have you slept? It’s a wonder you’re not hallucinating! You need rest, you cannot function like this.”
“How can I dare rest?” There was such pain in his voice that Cécile wanted to weep. “I rested one hour, and look what happened! Think what would happen if I rested a day!”
Now her voice went sharp, to break his thought. “Damien, stop that!” Then she went on quietly, but none the less intent. “That is your exhaustion speaking, you cannot think like that. Had you not rested your horse, you would have killed it under you, and then what? You would have had to walk from Brekke, and then you would not have reached Martagne until everything was over. We would all be dead, because you would not have been there to rescue us.
“Your body is not a horse you can kill under you, and you walk off and find another! If you die of a bullet, or a knife, or exhaustion, you are just as dead, and what if Gilliane dies because you are too exhausted to make good decisions?” She reached out and laid her hands over his. “Damien, you are overwrought, you are grieving. Your judgment is suffering, and those words are the proof of it. Rest. You are not alone anymore! I will keep watch for you. I will keep watch for us all.”
There was a long pause as Damien sat there, his hands knotted together under hers, and then at last the tension went out of him all at once, and he bowed his head. Then, very quietly, he said, “M’sera Cécile, I am very glad you are here to show me my folly. You are wise beyond your years.” He took a great breath and held it long, then let it out slowly. “You are right, of course. I am a man obsessed, and that is no good thing. Obsession, and exhaustion…”
“And care, and perhaps too great a heart.” She gave him a gentle smile, and patted his hands. “Come, give over. Rest. Sleep.” And then she added with a hint of mischief, “Or need I tell Ysaut on you?”
Damien threw his hands up in mock defeat. “Touché, m’selle, I surrender! I shall rest.” But then he took her hand in his, and bowed his head over it, then looked up and met her eyes. “But it is you who have too great a heart, m’selle. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.”
* * *
Damien slept fitfully for a few hours, but then woke again, restless from the pain of his wound. He rose and built up the fire, then set up a meal from the dead soldiers’ packs and the supplies he had bought earlier. Then, when it was ready he served the ladies and himself. Only when they were all finished did he even look over to where Eadmond slept, bound near the horses.
At last he rose and went over to him and reached down, shaking him awake before standing up and backing away. “Are you really a soldier?” he asked, his voice harsh with scorn. “Or merely a dressed-up toy? Whoever trained you should be shot.” He turned away for a moment, holding hard to his temper. “I told you to stay here on guard. You abandoned helpless women for no good reason, you ignored the direct orders of your Queen! What were you thinking? Where did you go?”
Eadmond spat at him, his face twisting with hate. “I take no orders from a spy!”
“Don’t be a fool, Eadmond!” Cécile called out from where she sat across the clearing. “Damien Ring has been the Queen’s man since before you were born! He is no Brekken spy!”
“You call me a spy, then, toy soldier?” Damien spoke at the same time. “Well, so I am! Nor have I ever said otherwise. I was spymaster to Queen Gloriane until her death, and by default now I am spymaster to Queen Gilliane. Unless she releases me, in which case I shall yet be her faithful hound and follow at her heels, and fly at the throats of all her enemies. Even you, d’Almena. Even you.
“But wait—you think I am a spy for the Brekken. What do you think I would do for them? What, exactly, do you imagine a spy is good at? What would you say?” He started ticking them off on his fingers, one by one, in savage mockery. “Lies, treachery, deception. Secrets. Intrigue.” He paused a moment, then, quietly, closing those fingers into a fist. “Murder.”
Damien nodded at that, and took a breath that went down to his toes before letting it out and going on more moderately. “Yes, that, too. I am good at all those things and more. And all of those skills I lay at the foot of my Queen, for her and her alone. I play whatever part I must to do what needs to be done.” He looked down at Eadmond and shook his head and then went on bitterly. “As for what I would do for the Brekken? Had I a fast horse and a thousand knives I would cut the throats of every Brekken ever born for what they did to Gloriane. And I would butcher any man who dares lay a hand on her daughter.”
And then he leaned down toward the man at his feet and spoke in whispered tones so cold and deadly that Eadmond winced away. “And you, little toy soldier? You live at her sufferance only. If ever again you desert your Queen for any reason, I will hunt you down and flay you alive, and stake your bleeding body at the crossroads, and weep not a tear at your demise.”
“Brave little man, threatening someone bound at your feet,” Eadmond snarled back. “You weren’t so brave on the Concours!”
Damien straightened abruptly, and behind him Cécile and Ysaut shot to their feet. “What did you say?”
“I said you’re a coward! Your Queen was under attack by the Brekken, and you ran!”
“I followed orders,” Damien snapped back savagely. “Something you seem utterly unable to do.”
“You just left her there!”
Damien took one step back, white and shaking, barely holding his control. “I saw her die!” he said, his voice in rags. “I saw her cut in two by the Brekken bullets. I saw her b—” He cut himself off before he said it, before the image came up in his eyes again, before he spoke the unspeakable in front of her daughter. “No.” he said, deep and harsh in his throat, then in deadly calm, “No. I need not justify myself to you, m’ser. You have not the right to question my actions. I answer only to the Queen.”
“You, answer to the Queen?” Eadmond shot back angrily. “Then who is Charles Banford?”
Damien lost his breath in shock for a moment. “Where did you hear that name?”
“I heard it from your own lips! I saw you when you handed your report to those Brekken soldiers!” Eadmond fought against his bonds, his face filled with anger and hatred. “What did you give him? A letter telling where you were taking the Princess Gilliane?” He spat at Damien in revulsion. “Who better to spy for them than a half-Brekken bastard!”
Ysaut had moved up behind Damien throughout this, and now she stepped up and past him to stare coldly down at Eadmond, every inch the Queen she would need to become. “Charles Banford is the name m’ser Damien uses on his missions to Brekke. Missions undertaken solely on my Mother’s orders these past seventeen years, to seek intelligence to protect Martagne. And like my Mother, I have full faith and confidence in Damien—as I have not yet in you. Will you remain the willful, foolish boy-child you have been acting until now? Or will you rise and become the Queen’s Guardsman whose uniform you wore?” She lifted a hand when he made to speak. “Think very hard on this tonight, Eadmond d’Almena. I will have your answer in the morning.” She turned on her heel and stalked off , pausing a moment to touch Damien’s sleeve. “Attend me, m’ser,” she said. Damien turned on the instant and followed her away.
Behind them, Melina stood breathless in shock, while Cécile gazed after Ysaut and nodded thoughtfully.
* * *
Change Of Heart
In the morning Gilliane sent Damien to let Eadmond out of his bonds and bring him to her. Once freed, Eadmond went and knelt before Gilliane, head bowed. He spoke in a low voice, quite different from the haughty tones he had used before. “Your Majesty, I have no right to ask, but I beg you to hear me.”
Gilliane considered him for a moment. “Go on,” she murmured.
“I am sorry for the trouble I caused for you, and for everyone. I, I am,” He shook his head and began again, still not daring to look up at her. “I am Piedmontése, from the south provinces. This was my first time in the Capitol. I was just promoted, and I was so, so proud to be assigned to be your escort for the celebration. I was, I was full of myself, and it made me foolish. And then things—happened, things went so horribly wrong. And that man, Damien, came, a nameless wretch covered in sweat and road dust, and you turned to him for protection instead of to me. I was angry, and I was, I was—”
“You were jealous.”
Eadmond nodded. “Jealous, aye. That. And then he started giving orders, and you all obeyed without question, and who was this man that could command a royal Princess? And his orders made no sense, I didn’t understand.” Finally Eadmond raised his head, and gestured helplessly. “And then he killed that man, for no reason, just because he was in the hallway—”
Gilliane answered the implied question. “That man was a known Brekken spy. One whom we tolerated, because he could be used in return. But in that place, at that time? He was there looking for me. To kill me.”
Eadmond looked up, shocked, seeing the absolute knowledge in her eyes. Behind her Damien and the others moved in closer.
“The papers he had on his person were orders from his Brekken masters.” Damien’s voice was quiet and precise. “Orders to make sure that Gilliane was on the dais with her parents for the airship review. Or failing that, to find her and kill her himself. Proof of the Brekken’s treachery, detailing the date and time of the attack, and how it would be accomplished.” Damien’s slender knife appeared, spun once, glittering, and disappeared again, all in the flicker of a moment. Then his voice went cold and deadly, “I regret that his death had to be quick.”
“Damien,” Gilliane chided softly, and Damien bowed his head and stepped back.
Eadmond nodded, acknowledging the new information, then shook his head. “You should have been able to rely on me. But I was ignorant of so much. My pride and my ignorance made me foolish, and my folly endangered you, the one person I was honor bound to protect.” He looked up at Gilliane again. “I accused Baron Damien of treason, but it was I who betrayed you.” He took a deep breath, then met her eyes steadily. “I will abide whatever punishment you decide.”
“Punishment…” Gilliane said quietly, gazing back just as steadily. “So be it, Eadmond d’Almena. Hear, then, your doom.” Then she took a deep breath and raised her head. “Do better. Watch those around you. Listen to those who know. Learn what they can teach you. Carry your weight, and be the Guardsman you should be. Let there be no more of this foolishness and mistrust. We must have one goal only—to take back Martagne from the invaders. Nothing else matters. Are we agreed?”
Eadmond stared up at her, his eyes almost glazed over in shock. And then he bowed his head and whispered, “I agree.”
Behind her, Damien’s eyes were locked on her as a drowning man locks his hands on a floating branch. His breath came harsh in his chest as if from a hard run as he thought, ‘This, this is the Queen Martagne needs now!’ And never realized that in that moment his loyalty left his doomed Golden Queen, Gloriane, and settled forever on her daughter.
* * *