Continuing Tales


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 58 of 69

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"Alanna, come quickly! Alanna!" The sentry skidded to a halt outside the knight's tent and gasped for breath. His voice held a thick Gallan lilt, but like many of the refugees he'd taken to wearing the Tortallan colours. They clashed terribly with his flushed skin. "Alanna! I mean, uh, Mistress Sir Lady Knight Lioness Ma'am! You want to see this!"

"I'd settle for 'your imperial majesty'." The sharp retort made the man flush, and when Alanna stormed out of her tent, rubbing sleep from her eyes, he was tongue-tied with embarrassment. "Well? What is it?" Alanna demanded.

"It's the squirrels, ma'am!" He blurted out, and then returned to his staring contest with the ground. The knight was genuinely nonplussed for a moment, but the rest of the camp seemed to be waking up as well, so there must be something behind the man's insanity.

"Squirrels." She repeated, not quite deigning to ask it as a question. He gulped and nodded.

"Well, first it was the squirrels, sir, and then there was the… hm, was it the badgers that came next, or the… the birds? No, it must have been the birds, because Jim said, he said…"

"What. Did. The. Squirrels. Do?" Alanna enunciated every word carefully and made a mental note to yell at whoever sent this green recruit to deliver this apocalyptic message. He fluttered his hands in the air vaguely.

"They were running into the camp, see, and we thought they were rabid, and then they all just climbed onto the tents and just… just sat there."

"So you woke me up to tell me that squirrels are sitting on the tents." The woman folded her arms.

"And the birds, miss."

"Right. And the birds. And the badgers too, I bet."

"No!" The man's voice was scornful. "How would they get up there? They're in the pass. Cap'n shooed them out of camp because we could hardly move, so now…"

"Wait, you couldn't move?" Despite herself, Alanna stepped forward. "Just how many badgers were there?"

The soldier made a massive gesture with his arms, and then pointed dramatically to the main camp, his finger shaking ominously as he proclaimed."All of them!"

You could smell the animals long before you saw them. The soldiers, many of whom were competent trackers, were used to picking up the scent of a single badger sett from a fair distance. Collectively, the mass of striped animals milling uneasily in the pass emitted an odour that would scare away even the most determined trespasser.

And it wasn't just the badgers. The animals sat quietly, but their truce was uneasy, and many nervous stomachs had been upset by being so close to their natural predators. The rabbits huddled together in a knot as far away from the foxes as it was possible to get, eyes huge as their ears twitched back and forth. The squirrels, on the other hand, seemed to be fearlessly mocking the small group of kestrels who perched regally on the next tent.

"Daine," Alanna breathed, and rested her hands on her hips. She was halfway between annoyed and, frankly, awed. She never would have thought the girl would be able to command such a crowd of animals, let alone from… well, wherever she was. The knight had scanned the crowd and quickly realised that the hundreds of animals had no humans among them. Instead, every time a new human appeared, all the animals' heads would snap around and study the newcomer, dismissing them in a chorus of impatient hoots, yips, snorts and squeaks.

"What's going on here?" Alanna demanded, raising her voice to yell over the rustling feathers and chattering of the squirrels. The heads snapped around to peer at her her, and instead of dismissing her like they had the others, there was a chorus of triumphant sounds of recognition.

"Oh…." The woman managed before a delighted rush of animals charged at her, knocking her to the ground. They pawed her ecstatically, and she spat and cursed and shoved away scores of affectionate tongues and nuzzling heads. "Get off, or I'll turn you all into jerky!" She roared, and they scattered.

Ignoring the laughter of the other knights, who were watching from a safe distance, Alanna climbed to her feet and spat on the ground.

"One of you," she started, staring around balefully at the creatures, "Explain what is going on here."

"How will they talk, Lioness?" One of the captains yelled out mockingly, and then gasped as bright purple magic smeared itself over his mouth, sticking his lips together like glue. Alanna didn't even bother looking around to see if her spell had taken.

"It's obvious that Daine sent them. So she has a plan. She must have… oh, what now?" She peered into the darkness, hearing a rushing sound like growing thunder, and then twisted her hands together and threw a bolt of pure light down the trail. What she saw, illuminated in the purple light, made her gasp and shout for everyone to move out of the way. Humans and animals all dove for the verges as scores of horses thundered into the camp, their hooves shod in strong steel, the tattered remains of well-made bridles fixed to their faces.

"Those are war horses!" Someone shouted, pointing at a larger group milling towards the back. "Look, they're…"

"This is Gallan livery." The speaker had a strong lilt to his voice, and he studied a mare's bridle with an expert eye. "Nicely made stuff, too. We… they… use the curved stirrups, you see?"

"Gallan warhorses. She's sent us their horses." Alanna started laughing helplessly. She was half expecting the next thing to come over the pass to be a herd of sheep, each with a stolen weapon hidden in their fleece. She sobered quickly, realising that she already knew what the next thing would be.

"We've got their horses." She yelled, "They'll be coming to get them back! Wake everyone! Get ready!"

"But if they've got no horses…" one of the men started, and she grabbed him by the shoulder.

"They have other troops, you idiot! She's taken out their cavalry, but they still have their infantry and their mages! Or have you forgotten that? They're the dangerous ones. We don't know how many mages they spent years training in those insane prisons of theirs." She realised the soldiers had fallen quiet, and turned to them with command in her voice. "It won't be easy, so prepare yourselves! Wake up the men, and find a paddock for these horses! And someone, anyone, get those damned beavers out of the water trough!"

The men scattered.

If they hadn't been alerted by the animals then they might not have seen the soft light glinting dimly off the armour of the men who were trickling into the hills around them. As it was, the sentries were on tenterhooks, and even the slowest ones could hardly miss seeing the soldiers when one of the many demonically excited squirrels was leaping onto their helmets and screeching wildly at the intruders.

"They're too far away for us to attack," Alanna responded, "But we know they're trying to surround us. We can work with that. Do they know about the caves?"

The men glanced at each other, not sure, and a hand was raised towards the back of the group. Rain stepped forward, his other hand nonchalantly in his pocket, seemingly oblivious of the tiny field mouse that was dozing on top of his head. "I'd say not, Lioness. The digging's been quieter these last few days, what with being deeper in the mountain, and we took some care disguisin' the entrance, you see? Speakin' spell's not gone off, at any road." He shrugged and pulled a tiny orb from his pocket, showing her that it was dark.

"Then we can counter with a pincer attack." Alanna drew a few quick lines in the dust, and a few knights nodded knowingly. "Captain Obrams, take your best men- not many, fifty or so at the most, but ones you know won't keel over at the first blow- and set up in the caves. Take some mages, too. Make them as confused as possible."

"Stay low, dart out, attack, and take cover in the hidden caves." The captain grinned and saluted cheerfully. "Got it, sir."

"We need another small group here, in the pass." Alanna gestured to her diagram. "Again, strong fighters would be better, but I'm going to ask for volunteers on this one."

"A decoy?" One of the knights asked, and nodded when she agreed. "I can do that. My men may not be the best of the best, but by the gods I don't think they know what fear is. They'll thank you for it."

"If you say so, I trust your judgement, and thank you." The knight scuffed out the diagram with her boot, standing up briskly. "Everyone else, try to look stupid and get ready to be caught in their trap. Until the pincer breaks through it, it will be vicious work."

"It won't be long," Obrams promised grimly, already pulling on his gloves. Alanna smiled, showing teeth.

"Don't hog all the fun, Captain."

The summer air was already warm, the dew rising in a shimmering haze, when they left the tent. Alanna strode through the camp, awkward raising morale but knowing that it was important that she be seen by the soldiers as confident and commanding. She nodded at more men than she could count, snidely joined in the jibes of men teasing each other for their ill-fitting armour, and kept one eye firmly on the distant mountainside. The enemy was there, distant specks of glinting weapons and bad disguise, and every time she looked she spotted more of them.

She paused in the muddy encampment of refugees, smiling reassuringly at the jumpy new recruits, and leaned against a tent pole. The ground seemed denser here, sucking at her boots as she kicked fitfully at the soil. She hated the wait before a battle, but until the speaking spell she held flared into life telling her the pincer soldiers were in position there was nothing she could do but stand around. She bit at her nail absently and wondered if there was anything she missed, watching one of the refugee women cheerfully trying to hang up some laundry.

"I wouldn't bother, ma'am. There might be blood everywhere soon." Alanna said absently, not seeing the woman's flinch as she inspected her calloused hand. When she looked up again, the laundry had vanished and the woman was giving her a filthy look from inside her makeshift shelter. The knight shrugged and turned away. Or, at least, she tried to. The mud sucked at her boots, and she stumbled slightly before regaining her balance.

"What…?" She started, and stumbled again to the ground. When she threw out her hands the mud felt oddly warm to the touch, and she drew back quickly. Muttering a short incantation she squeezed her eyes shut and then reopened them, seeing the blaze of olive-green magic swimming through the ground as far as she could see.

"Dear Mithros…" she breathed, and struggled to her feet. The mire sucked at her feet, and she nearly dislocated her ankle dragging it free. "Everyone!" She yelled, "Get to high ground! Rocks, trees… climb! The ground is… is…"

Quicksand, she thought incredulously, struggling through the mud. It's quicksand. How are they…?

No. The second voice in her head was angry. Not how, who is doing it?

She looked around, scanning the green magic for a brighter area, or a patch where the ground was safe, or… there! A dark patch, as if the caster wasn't using magic there. But it was far away, and the soldiers nearby were struggling themselves to climb a nearby outcrop of rocks. No-one was paying attention to the refugee, a woman who looked as innocent and plain as any other Gallan citizen, who was crouching down with her hands flat against the ground. Alanna growled under her breath and struggled towards the mage as fast as she could manage.

"This is stupid," she snarled, and hurled a fireball in the woman's direction. It missed, but the screaming explosion sent the mage sprawling away. As she fell, the mud dried and cracked, and the woman landed in a hard cloud of dust and grit. There were cries as people across the camp found their feet entombed in suddenly-hard clay, but Alanna barely heard them as she threw herself forwards, sprinting towards the woman who writhed around in the dirt. She pressed one hand to the ground, and was about to flatten the other palm to the soil when the furious redhead barrelled into her.

Alanna didn't have a plan, she simply wanted the woman to stop, and so she didn't bother to ask any questions or try any tricks. She simply slammed into the woman and knocked her head against the dirt until she passed out, headdress coming uncoiled around the knot of bruise. The knight caught her breath, rolling off the unconscious mage and dragging at the ragged fabric around the woman's arm. She knew what she'd find, but she had to be sure, and when she caught sight of the glint of a bronze chain she cursed bitterly.

Daine had explained in some detail how the prisons worked, and so the knight knew that this bronze chain meant that the woman was considered to be a weaker, expendable mage. But that wasn't the point. The woman had walked… walked!... into the camp and been welcomed, casting her damned magic on the soldiers without anyone giving her a second glance. A spy. A traitor. Alanna thought of all the words for it and spat bitterly at the unconscious woman.

Fool, fool! She told herself. Of course they're not all refugees. I've been such an idiot! We should have been screening them from the start, forcing them to show us their wrists… but there were so many, so many, and we trusted them… How many more are there?

She swore again and stood up, starting to hear the cries of the trapped soldiers now her rage had faded into a bitter diatribe. Pressing her own hand to the ground, she concentrated and called on her magic. She didn't know how to do the spell the woman had been casting, but she could summon enough water from the mountain streams to soften the mud, at least. There were cries of relief as the soldiers pulled themselves free, and she removed her hand with a sigh. The spell had made her tired, but it couldn't be helped.

Perhaps that was what they intended, she thought, Weaken our mages with a few annoying tricks, and then…

A warning horn sounded, nasal and harsh in the summer birdsong. She looked up, and saw the distant Gallan soldiers speeding down the mountain walls at a fast march. There was a shrill, shrieking sound of hundreds of straining bow strings, and the first rain of arrows thudded into the camp in a wail of tearing canvas, punctured flesh and screaming men.

"To arms!" She yelled, scrambling in her pocket and finding that the speaking spell was still cold and silent. She slammed it back into its place with a breathless curse. The counterattacking troops hadn't made it to their position in time. The cries of her men fighting for their lives echoed from the cliffs as the first enemies streamed into the camp.


A Tamora Pierce Story
by Sivvus

Part 58 of 69

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