Sesskia’s Diary, part 120

20 Coloine, very late

It’s taken me nearly an hour to convince myself to write the events of the day. So much has happened that I’d rather forget, because I feel so guilty about it, guilty too because it was so easy to tell myself that the Viravonians have a right to defend themselves in the ways they’ve learned over the years are most effective. But there’s nothing I can do except move forward. And maybe I shouldn’t have started this entry this way, maybe I should have just written it out and let things unroll the way they did today. It’s one of those days where I feel every one of my choices was a bad one.

I only slept a few hours last night because I was up so late writing, but they were restful hours despite the mattress feeling thin, and Kasselen fed us a very good breakfast. (I don’t think I wrote that Jeddan and I stayed in his house. He was an excellent host.) Even so, I felt lazy, so we took our time packing our things—Jeddan has a backpack with essentials, including shaving tackle, and he makes a ritual out of shaving that I’m sure will become annoying when I’m in a hurry, but today it didn’t bother me—and then visited a few stores in the village.

I found someone to buy one of Audryn’s hair clips, only one because it occurred to me that Castaviran money would do us no good in a Balaenic town, so I saved the other to sell later. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s enough for an emergency. Erael is a very pretty town, as pretty as Jeddan’s village, and it makes me angry that they’re probably going to destroy each other because they don’t have the good sense to make common cause.

We were just about to head out of town when we heard horses coming toward the village from the south. That is, Jeddan heard the horses first, and pulled me to one side of the road to put us behind a stack of boxes displaying the last vegetables from someone’s kitchen garden. I resisted, and he said, “We haven’t seen any horses around here, just mules and oxen. And that sounds like quite a few horses. I don’t like it.”

I was impressed with Jeddan’s paranoia, so I stood with him behind the boxes and watched. By this time a lot of people had heard the approaching riders, and it was clear they weren’t happy about it. Mothers dragged their children off the street, storekeepers shut their doors, and soon the street was empty except for about twenty or twenty-five people lounging casually in doorways or on hitching rails. But their seemingly relaxed stances did a poor job of concealing tension. Some of them were standing very near posts or hammers or pitchforks, things that could become weapons under the right circumstances. All of them looked like people who expected a brawl to start soon.

It took only a minute or so for the riders to come into view, and by then we could also hear the ominous sound of a lot of marching feet, thudding echoes in perfect rhythm that to me screamed “soldiers.” Sure enough, six men (or women, I couldn’t tell at that distance) rode at the head of a double column of thirty or so soldiers. They were fully armed and armored, down to the chicken helmets, but their long-sleeved linen tunics were green instead of black and they wore short green surcoats bearing the falcon emblem over their steel mesh shirts.

The man in the lead had black stripes sewn to the cuffs of his shirt, three or four of them, and for some reason he was carrying his helmet in the crook of his arm instead of on his head. The other riders’ tunics and surcoats were white, and each carried a very familiar wooden board in his hands. (His and hers. Two of the mages were women, I eventually discovered.)

They rode right down the middle of the street, ignoring the villagers, who turned to watch them go but otherwise didn’t move. The leader raised his hand in a gesture that meant “stop,” and they did, right at a point where they were surrounded by villagers. I have no doubt he did that on purpose, and I can see why he thought he had the upper hand. Poor bastard.

He said, in a loud voice that carried the length of the street, “In the name of the most benevolent God-Empress Renatha Torenz, greetings. God requires that all Castaviran subjects contribute to the support of her army, which protects her subjects against enemy incursions. You will provide five hundred measures of wheat, four hundred measures of oats, two hundred bales of hay, and twenty casks of beer, all to be collected in three days’ time.”

“We need that food to survive the winter,” a man called out. He stood a little ways behind the leader (captain?), arms folded, leaning against a post as if he were entirely relaxed. His long black beard quivered in the brisk, chilly wind that had begun rising as the soldiers approached, as if in warning, or in omen.

“Your duty to God will bring blessings. She will not permit her servants to starve,” the leader said, not turning around.

“We went hungry last winter ‘cause of her demands,” the man said. “We won’t do that again.”

“If you refuse to give willingly, it will be taken by force,” said the leader. He gestured, and the soldiers began spreading out, drawing swords and choosing targets.

“Your choice,” the black-bearded man said, and to my surprise lightning forked out of the clear sky and struck the ground at six equally spaced points surrounding the soldiers, hitting some of them and making them fall. The bolts that didn’t strike targets radiated tendrils of electricity, making the other soldiers fall back.

I looked up to see where the lightning had come from and saw instead Lineta, leaning out of an upper window with her board and scribbling rapidly. Then she screamed as fire circled her, and dropped back inside the room, and then everything was chaos. Villagers leaped to the attack with their makeshift weapons, or took swords from dead soldiers, and as the lightning faded, battle was joined.

to be continued…

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