Several hours later, after Cerny and Zar Selentis left to return to the capital, Stefan sat at the table in his pavilion. Two candles in glass holders occupied the table’s center, their perfumed scent overriding that of the untouched food before him. Illuminated by flickering light, a map next to his plate displayed his forces. He removed the pins representing the Alzari Matii. By now, they were well on their way back to Benez under Cerny’s command.
Men were going to die because of the King’s order for their withdrawal. A great many.
In the days to come, the first to perish would mainly be Astocans. Some might say their deaths weren’t much of a loss, but eventually, his own men would number among the dead. A sense of helplessness crowded over him, and he sighed. Yet, he harbored no regrets for his announcement. Somehow, some way, he needed to stay true to his word.
“So what now?” Kasimir asked.
In his brooding, Stefan had almost forgotten about him and Garrick. “We do as we have always done … save as many of the enemy as we can.”
Garrick grumbled a protest under his breath.
“I know how you feel about them, Garrick.” Stefan recalled the sight of Garrick’s mangled body and face after his torture by the Astocans. “However, this was the one thing King Nerian, myself, and the High Council agreed upon. We would be different from other conquerors. We decided to save as many of those we defeated and give their people some choice in how we rule. This way, the common folk won’t think of us as tyrants—a lesson history taught us.”
“Use force as necessary for victory and compassion when the battle is won,” Kasimir said. A quote from Henden’s The Disciplines of Soldiering.
“I understand.” Garrick let out a resigned breath. “I still don’t like it.”
“If that’s the case, what I don’t get,” Kasimir shifted in his seat and peered at the map, “is why the King ordered us to kill them all and now has withdrawn our Alzari menders.”
Stefan nodded. “Yes, that’s been troubling me also. I can’t remember Nerian changing plans without conferring with me in person. So why now? I swear … I feel as if something is amiss back home. I don’t trust Cerny. Any man who is so quick to do anything without questioning motives often has his own plans.”
“You think he had a hand in this?” Garrick scowled.
“Not likely,” Stefan said. “The man barely knows the ass end of a horse. Someone else may be using him.”
“Or he’s smarter than any of us suspects,” Kasimir added.
“Still,” Stefan said, “until I speak to Nerian himself, I’m not changing how we do things. We’ll mend as many Astocans as we can.”
“How are you going to accomplish that without our Alzari?” Kasimir leaned back in his chair, armor creaking as he did so.
“We do possess other Matii besides them,” Stefan reminded him. His thoughts drifted to the crimson-garbed Ashishin Matii sent by the Granadian Tribunal. Considering the old hostilities between Ostania and Granadia, the Tribunal’s willingness to help and their accepting King Nerian among their ranks had come as a shock. It had taken a while for his men to adjust to the Ashishin. The fact that the Pathfinders—whose job it was to kill any Ashishin who succumbed to their power—accompanied them, had not helped.
Initially, his own Alzari had protested the Pathfinders’ presence. When orders arrived from Nerian himself, stating that the Pathfinders would also decide the fate of the Alzari, the outrage grew. It hadn’t lessened, but they did tread with fear around the silver-armored Pathfinders. Stefan was certain Nerian’s new orders relieved the majority of them. However, he harbored his own doubts as to the results of the King’s command. He shook off the thought to hear Garrick speaking.
“Mending as many folk as we gathered might be a bit much for them. Ashishin Matii may be stronger than Alzari, but I doubt they’d be able to do the job without going mad, even if they got it done at all.”
As much as Stefan hated to admit it, the big Knight General was right. Forging Mater varied by Matus, requiring a certain proportion of essences to be available in relation to the Forger’s strength. One could not simply create something from nothing. The Matus, in this case Forgers like the Ashishin or Alzari, either used what existed around them or enhanced that which was inside them for what they wanted to Forge. Centuries before, this was one of the reasons the Alzari had defeated the Namazzi, whose strength lay in water. On land, and without a rainstorm, the Alzari outlasted them until the Namazzi used up whatever liquids they’d stored. The Battle of Blood, it had been aptly named.
From the little Stefan understood, mending worked in the same fashion. The Matus had to use a liquid essence, preferably water or blood, some type of solid, preferably tissue, be it plant, human, or animal, as well as a touch of the essences required for life from either their patient or themselves, in order to mend a wound. Unlike a sickness, which they could simply drive from a body. He was certain the process was much more complicated, but that was the best explanation he ever received.
“You also seem to forget the Shins aren’t exactly ours,” Garrick added.
Considering Garrick’s disposition towards Ashishin, Stefan was surprised to hear the man use their honorary title. “Maybe, but they are all we have. The risk is worth it. At least to save the soldiers who are worse off. For the ones with minor wounds, we gather apothecaries from the surrounding villages. It’s paramount we do something to gain the people’s trust.”
“What if one of the Ashishin does go mad?” Kasimir arched an eyebrow.
“We let their Pathfinders deal with them,” Stefan answered.
“I don’t know.” Garrick shook his head skpetically. “The Pathfinders themselves worry me. What makes them so different from a Shin, Zar, or any other Forger? Why are they immune to the elements’ effects? Another thing, if they do know a way to keep their madness at bay, why keep it secret?”
“Does it matter?” Stefan shrugged. “The Pathfinders never fail to do their jobs.”
“Not that we’re aware of,” Garrick countered.
“Regardless,” Stefan spared a glare for his big friend, “they’re the ones we rely on. Now, if you two don’t mind, I need you to visit the villages, collect the apothecaries, and head to the encampment. When you leave, send in Pathfinder Kaden.”
The two Knight Generals stood, bowed, and left the tent.
Stefan rubbed at his throbbing temple. Other than the difference in elements each could Forge, Alzari, Ashishin and Pathfinders were the same or should be. So why were they so far apart in control? Did their strength in particular essences within each element create the disparity, decided who went mad? No, he doubted that. Someone would have resolved such an issue long ago. He’d inquired after the Pathfinders and the Ashishin in general once, but his questions resulted in silence. On more than one occasion, he was told to direct his questions to their ruling Tribunal. Stefan shook his head. As a free Ostanian, setting foot in Granadia was not an option. Not if he wished to live.
Still, the plan to mend the Astocans was a risky business. Chances were they might overwork the Ashishin. Doing so could result in more bloodshed. But the lives saved by their work and the modicum of trust such a compassionate act brought was what mattered. Ostania needed to be whole again. For that to occur, the Astocans must see the Setian meant well.
Stefan closed his eyes and worked his neck from side to side to relieve some tightness. He wondered what his wife was doing at home in Benez right now. The sweet scent of bellflowers from the candles tickled at his nose. Thania’s and his favorite. He sighed. Gods knew he wanted to be in his villa again. He pictured his triumphant return and the cheering masses. More than them, he anticipated the sight of Thania on the wall awaiting his arrival.
A rustle announced the tent’s flap opening. Stefan eased his eyes open. A smooth–faced cadet stepped inside.
The young man placed a fist to his heart and gave a stiff bow. “Sir, Pathfinder Kaden is here.”
“Send him in.”
The cadet ducked outside and moments later, Kaden entered. As with all other Pathfinders, he wore filigreed silversteel armor. The torchlight played off its surface, highlighting the fine craftsmanship. At Kaden’s hip rested a sword in a leather scabbard chased with the same metal. The Pathfinder’s eyes were dark things obscured within the port of his full plate helm. The small golden shield worked into Kaden’s breastplate was the only thing differentiating his armor from his fellow Pathfinders.
King Nerian’s words rose fresh in Stefan’s mind: ‘The Pathfinders protect us from the Ashishin and the Ashishin from themselves.’ The words lent Stefan some comfort. Things existed that were beyond men like himself or his Knight Generals. For those, he needed Matii like the Ashishin or the Alzari and inevitably men like Kaden and those he led.
Kaden knuckled his forehead to Stefan. “Sir, I assume this means we leave for the encampment at dawn?” Despite the helmet enclosing his face, Kaden’s voice was deep, clear, and vibrant.
To the point. Stefan nodded. “Yes. There are more wounded Astocans than expected. Quite a few from our earlier skirmishes, in fact. Your Shins will be mending near fifteen thousand men.” Stefan wished the Pathfinder’s entire face was visible, but the narrowing of Kaden’s eyes told him enough. “Can they can manage?”
“If we had a few weeks or if I had more than a thousand Ashishin plus your Alzari, yes, but you want this done in days. Why? It’s not only the lives of these Astocans at stake. There is a possibility I will lose some of my own men as well.”
“I understand, Pathfinder Kaden.” Stefan stared through the slit of an entrance to his tent and into the night. “A King once said to me, ‘a good commander is one who shows an interest in the plight of his enemy, especially after their defeat. Such an act goes a long way in turning the mind of one’s enemy to seeing more than a simple conqueror.’ ”
“A wise man. But what of my Ashishin? Essentially, you might be working them to death, and putting your men as well as what’s left of the enemy you’re trying to save at risk at the same time.”
“Doesn’t your Tribunal proclaim the Shins as servants to all?”
Kaden regarded him in silence for a moment. “Fair enough.” The Pathfinder tipped his head. “Whatever is the Tribunal’s wish, I am but an extension of their orders.”
“Good. Now, do you think your Pathfinders will be able to prevent any Shins from losing control?”
“We can try, but there are no guarantees in this. However, if one of them does succumb, we should be able to stop them before they do any damage.”
“That will have to do,” Stefan said.
“Why did King Nerian summon the Alzari back to Seti?”
“I’m wondering the same thing myself,” Stefan answered.
“If something should go wrong tomorrow, Nerian’s decision will be partly to blame.”
“Then let’s make sure nothing does.”