A crash of steel echoes through the round bed chamber as a athletic woman with long brown hair leaps from the plush, four posted bed. She hikes the sleeves of her sleeping gown up and removes a mace from where it hangs from a bed post. She follows the the steel scraping on stone across the chamber to the window, raises the mace high and swings down. A scream from within the steel as the steel over a knee is dented.
‘I’m here to rescue from the dragon!!!’ The visor screams as the mace is lowered on the other knee. Another scream as the mace lands in the steel codpiece. The heavy oak door sweeps open and a dozen men at arms and a man in a sleeping gown carrying a bastard blade rush in.
‘Where were you?’ Demands the woman with judgmental grey eyes.
‘Killing the rest of them. Your Royal Highness.’ Says the man in the sleeping gown using the tip of his blade to raise the visor. A scarred and pained face looks out from the gaudily decorated helmet. ‘About two dozen of the knaves came in the night.’
‘And where Panphilos?’ The Woman demands as a servant rushes to dress her in a robe.
‘He is searching the loot for his cut, your Royal Highness.’ The man says as his servant arrives with a robe.
‘Well, your Grace, I will see you both in the vault at dawn.’ The woman looks at the pained knight being hauled away. ‘Dragon feed I should think.’
‘We need to build our defences. He might be worth ransoming.’ The Duke says handing his sword to a squire. The squire quickly wipes the clean blade and sheathes the sword.
‘He has thirty days to provide parole and ransom or he is dragon feed.’ The Princess says before waving everyone from her presence. She hangs her mace back up and removes the robe before checking the window. She cuts the rope with a knife from her gown and hauls it in the rope. She replaces the knife in its place before sliding under the thick covers.
Dawn arrives and the Princess dresses quickly and rushes to the massive vault carved from living rock beneath her keep. She is met with a low bows from the Duke, her Chancellor, her Secretary, her spy master and her admiral all in a row. Behind them is a medium sized dragon playing with a pile of treasure. A servant seats her and she scans the still bowing men.
‘Your Grace, Duke Yvon of Sora. My father’s loyal friend and general. Why are our borders porous?’ She says angrily. ‘Why are knights coming for my beloved Panphilos and my virtue, unopposed?’ She slams her fists upon the dark wooden table with the last word.
‘Princess Céleste, your Royal Highness, my beloved sovereign.’ The Duke stops as she glares at him. ‘In short. We need treasure to pay troops, build fortifications and breed horses for patrols.’
A slim jet of fire ignites a brazier just as the Princess is waving a servant to do it. ‘Céleste, my mistress. I have saved the best of the horses from last night as breeding stock. Ten of which are fine mares.’ Panphilos says looking over from his treasure.
‘Say the word and my agents will steal the best sires of the neighbouring kingdoms.’ Says the spy master from under the black hooded cloak.
‘My Lord Chancellor Urban of Rascia, do we have funds for the Spy Master?’ The Princess asks with a sweet threatening tone.
‘As I was telling your Secretary Sir Winoc of Vasconia before you arrived, your royal highness, the treasury is bare save for the dragon horde.’ The bald little man waves behind him at the mound of gold, silver and jewels.
‘Admiral Matilda of Seaborga, shall we raise the tarrifs on river and coastal traffic?’ The Princess asks the tall slim woman in a a sailors tunic and cloak.
‘No your royal highness, the fisherfolk, traders and bargeirs are all being set upon by pirates and raiders. They have little to live on as it is.’ The woman says softly yet with urgency. ‘I need to retire half our meagre fleet as they are rotting beyond repair.’
‘Shall I give them a Viking funeral?’ Asks Panphilos eagerly. The Admiral declines hastily.
‘My father has left me a realm with no treasure to perform my duties to defend my people.’ The Princess says with an exasperated sigh. ‘Ideas, options?’
‘You could accept the hand of marriage from King Svante.’ States Chancellor Urban.
‘And you could find your head on a pike.’ Responds the Princess. ‘I will not marry his cousin King Torgny either.’
‘Both Kings intrigue for your realm and fail to prevent their knights from incursions against you.’ States the spy master in an androgynous voice.
‘Perhaps I should summons a Parliament?’ The Princess asks the distant ceiling.
Panphilos scoops treasure into his forepaws and flies carefully next to the Princess. He drops the treasure next to her chair and does a bow. The dragon lays down on it and stares at the Princess. ‘How would you spend my treasure if I loaned it to you?’
‘I would let you burn the worst of our old ships and boats.’ States the Admiral. ‘After I have new ones patrolling the coast and river.’ The dragon grunts with pleasure.
‘I’d build fortresses along the river at the crossings and defend the coastal harbours.’ Says Duke Yvon eagerly.
‘With good roads to connect them with the capital.’ Adds Sir Winoc.
‘We mustn’t forget the mountain pass.’ Says the Princess with a growing smile. ‘Eventually, when revenues are better we should build a high seas fleet and a university.’
‘The dragon said a loan.’ States Chancellor Urban haughtily. ‘What is its terms?’
‘Secrecy.’ Says Panphilos inching closer to the table. ‘I would not favour the other dragons finding out about me giving up treasure.’ He tilts his head thoughtfully. ‘As for the surety I will claim the lord Chancellor’s holdings and wealth to back the note Winoc is drawing up.’
‘You have a deal Panphilos. A Chancellor should not be richer than his sovereign.’ States the Spy Master with a devious laugh.
‘I have been spending much of meagre wealth on the army.’ States the Duke leaning forward.
‘I know.’ States the Princess kindly. ‘As has all my council. Except Lord chancellor Urban.’
‘I will have the deeds to my late mother’s estates signed over to the Princess before noon meal.’ The Chancellor says with quick, anxious words.
The Princess nods her approval and signs where Sir Winoc indicates on the loan note with Panphilos. She takes her leave and walks up the many steps to her waiting breakfast of stale bread mouldy cheese and last year’s small beer. She manages to enjoy it knowing it is more than most will have.
The remainder of the morning is working with her clerks and factors on various urgent matters and a few tedious ones that are good to get rid of. She signs the deeds of Lord Urban’s mother over to herself and sits for a meagre meal of pottage with the last of the last olive harvest. She sends a paige for Sir Winoc.
‘Your Royal Highness?’ Winoc says with a bow.
‘For your faithful service I create you Lord Winoc of Styria, one of Lord Urban’s mother’s estates near the capital. I also appoint you Master of the Reaping, a title that comes with the title Count of Carniolus. You may promote Emma of Spoleto my new Secretary.’ She says looking at her torn shoes.
‘May I give her my estate of Vasconia?’ Lord Winoc asks with a low bow.
‘You may and I will wave the usual fees.’ The Princess say happily. ‘Now my lord fetch the wicked Spy Master and tend to your new duties.’ He bows, kisses her offered hand and backs away with an astonished smile.
The Spy Master appears from a shadow as if waiting to be summonsed. The black cloaked figure bows low with flourish and then sits cross legged on the floor. It waits to be spoken to with folded arms and lowered, hooded head.
‘You have friends on the high seas who, find, surpluses?’ The Princess asks sitting on the floor opposite the Spy Master. ‘Do not deny it, just offer our rewards for surplus food in addition to surplus information.’
A slight, affirmative grunt comes from the darkness under the cloak. ‘Carrots and sticks, highness.’
‘Carrots will be the free use of our ports, no questions until the New Year Fires are lit. The stick is a dragon fond of giving ships Viking funerals.’ The Princess whispers with a sickening look of pleasure across her pale face.
‘It is done. As is the acquisition of sires for your stables.’ The Spy Master says with another nod.
‘Now tell me what your intrigues have discovered.’ The Princess eagerly like a girl.
‘The cousins, Svante and Torgny are readying to march before the harvests are finished. I have warned the Duke and he will tell you his wishes. I suggested a dragon and old ships would be a warm welcome as they crossed the river.’ The harsh whisper is joyful to report the information.
‘Is that all?’ Princess Céleste asks rising.
‘The Empress grows weary of your neighbours and embassies should be dispatched before the sunset closing of the river crossings.’ A scroll is revealed from the cloak and handed to the Princess. It bears the Imperial seal in golden wax. ‘She has forgiven you for not wedding her nephew Prince Livio as he has eloped with Svante’s daughter Palla.’
‘This is good news. My other spies have recently suggested they are both hiding across the river in Castle Gefberg. Send my war council in when you leave, if you ever leave.’ The Princess says sitting back in her throne. The shadowy cloak slides into a larger shadow.
The Princess sends for another tankard of the small beer and waits until all her war council is seated before her. The last to arrive of the three is Lord Chancellor Urban with a scorned look.
‘We will not be discussing the appointments to Count Winoc.’ The Princess states flatly.
‘No secretary for this?’ Asks the Admiral.
‘She will be at court in a few days after tending to her previous duties.’ Says the Princess curtly. She waits while the three are poured small beer and the servants have left.
‘Both Kings are invading.’ States Duke Yvon angrily.
‘Never! They have little to gain.’ Says Urban emphatically. ‘Why risk their own harvests to take our meagre harvests.’
‘To place Prince Livio and Princess Palla upon this very dais, Lord Chancellor.’ The Princess says angrily.
‘So it is true, they’ve wed.’ Says Admiral Matilda. ‘You have a plan your Royal Highness.’ She adds with a smile.
‘Admiral Matilda will take the fleet, all available levies and garrison the river. By now the Kings’ spies have told them of our new found wealth to prepare against them.’ Princess Céleste allows that to sink in a minute before continuing. ‘Lord Chancellor Urban will send embassies to each King to discover their intentions.’
‘And his Grace?’ Urban asks with contempt.
‘That I will discuss shortly. Please make arrangements for the dispatch of those ambassadors my lord.’ The Princess says offering her hand to him.
‘Your Royal Highness.’ Urban says with a kiss and a stormy exit from the great hall.
‘Your Grace, I wish you to make inquiries of the Empress regarding her intentions with our humble realm.’ The Princess says finally breaking the seal. She reads the short note in golden ink and passes it to the Duke.
‘You’re running of eligible suiters your highness,’ The Duke says with a laugh. ‘Her Majesty gives permission for your army to march and prevision in the mountains.’ He hands the scroll back and watches the Princess roll it and slide it in her robes.
‘Take as much gold as you can from Panphilos’ horde and act as my ambassador to the Empress. It will not take long to get there if you only take a reinforced escort.’ The Princess says rising. ‘I’m told that Castle Gefberg is surveyed to defeat a river crossing. There are spots away from the river a plough horse could jump the wall.’
‘I will see if your information is true. Shall we hold the castle for ransom?’ Asks the Duke kissing the Princess’s hand.
‘No, add it and the surrounding lands to your possessions.’ The Princess declares and the Duke agrees with a smile and leaves.
‘You are generous today your Royal Highness.’ Admiral Matilda says happily. ‘Well, except with Lord Chancellor Urban.’
‘Yes. If you would like to be a baroness yourself all you must do is claim the barony in the river and I grant it to you and your progeny.’ The Princess says escorting her admiral to the great doors.
‘How am I to do that and defeat two invaders coming across the river? None of the new ships are even keeled laid upon a coin yet.’ Matilda says waiting for the doors to part.
‘You promised Panphilos he could burn your old ships.’ The Princess says with a wink.
‘So I did. I will leave at once and make preparations for him.’ The Admiral bows and exits the hall as Count Winoc approaches.
‘Your Royal Highness the harvest could be better than expected. Even if you are sending most of the levies to the river crossings.’ Winoc says with a bow.
‘Good. Have my captains join me for dinner and Panphilos attend me on the battlements.’ The Princess says walking to the stairs toward her keep. ‘I wish a parliament to sit after the harvest. I should like to hear people’s opinions on matters.’ She gets a nod and Count Winoc rushes off. ‘Come shadow.’ She says when she is alone on the steps.
Princess Céleste walks a bare and broken stretch of battlements until the breeze foretelling Panphilos’ arrival blows her hair back. She gives the dragon a hug after it perches on the parapet. They watch the horizon with silence until a shadow joins them.
‘You heard?’ She says and a growled yes answers. ‘How long until the two armies unite to make a crossing.’ The Princess asks a passing bird.
‘A fortnight.’ Answers the shadow. ‘They fear being separated with Duke Yvon between them. So they must use the bridges beneath Castle Vadstena as you have summated.’
‘They will not have suspected the Admiral to be the general defending my vulnerable north.’ The Princess asks as a cloak comes from the shadow.
‘No. They will try and defeat your fleet in the river basin. They expect the dragon to be kept close to you for your protection.’ The Spy Master says.
‘Keep an eye on Lord Urban and Count Winoc while I’m away.’ The Princess says meekly. ‘I must go along the coast road and take refuge in the Harvest Palace of our most gracious Empress.’
‘Of course. I must warn you assassins are being sent for you. Better take a large escort to the Harvest Palace.’ The Spy Master says before melting away into shadows.
‘Panphilos.’ The Princess says after the first rays of sunset appear. The dragon turns to her and moves his head closer. ‘Burn the bridges, all of them.’
‘Vadstena bridges are stone. My fire is not hot enough for them.’ Panphilos says starting his wings.
‘Exactly, burn the rest and they have to use Vadstena. When you are finished join Matilda and burn their fleets.’ The dragon screams a mighty cheer and soars high into the air.
All the captains of the army are seated at the grand table with an empty seat across from the Princess where Duke Yvon sits. The last dregs of the castles small beer are not helping the mood of defeat from hearing of the joint invasion.
‘Castle Bonneval should have been repaired.’ Says a captain of horse with anger. ‘We will have few provisions laid in before they arrive.’
‘We will attack them as they cross!!!’ Cheers a few young captains at the foot of the table.
‘We will assemble the bulk of the army and march to petition the Empress in the Harvest Palace.’ States the Princess with a slap of the table for silence.
‘Leave the realm?’ Asks a giant captain of pikes. ‘Never. Never! Your father never left the realm of Biron when invaders march!’
‘Captain Albert, I create you general of the southern army. Strip every garrison and levy the south to guard the mountain pass. The castle guard shall stay to guard the dragon horde while the rest of us will take the south road.’ The Princess says refusing another lump of salt mutton with her hand. General Albert nods politely.
‘Varmland and Gastrikland have defeated us without crossing the river than.’ Says the captain of the castle guard.
‘When do we march?’ Asks the giant captain accepting the refused meat.
‘When you finish that mutton.’ Says the Princess rising. ‘I will change and meet you on the cobblestones.’ She rises accepts the kisses of each captain and her new general before returning to her apartments in the keep. She puts on her chain mail with her black and red checked tunic over it. She carries her simple helmet down to the stables and passes it to a groom while she mounts her favourite galloper. She places the helmet upon her head and leads her army south west.
General Albert leaves her at dawn and heads directly south, a trail of ragged peasants with rusty arms chasing after him. A shadow reports the bridges all burned and the two enemy hosts arguing over who crosses the remaining bridges first. Be evening the second day the frontier with the empire is reached, the pass accepted and another quick, tiring journey to the east sees the ornate Harvest Palace rise from a lush valley floor.
‘Princess Céleste of Biron.’ Shouts a herald in the Palaces grand reception. The Princess is escorted by two guards to the edge of the dais where she curtsies in her armour.
‘Céleste, you silly girl.’ The Empress says offering a ringless hand to kiss. The Empress is dressed simply without ornamentation.
‘Your Imperial Majesty.’ The Princess says after the kiss. ‘I request refuge from Varmland and Gastrikland who are marching to lay waste to my lands.’
‘We know all that silly girl.’ The Empress elevates the Princess and motions her to sit in a chair to her right. ‘What we don’t know is why you sent us your best general as ambassador to make your cause known.’
‘He is well known and liked in this court.’ The Princess states flatly.
‘He is known for being a terror on the field of battle.’ The Empress says. ‘Our shadows have told us your dragon is marauding amongst your enemies shipping. Again a most silly, girlish thing to do. We would know your stratagem.’
‘Don’t play innocent Céleste!’ The Empress bellows. ‘Why have you come if you think you can stop the invasion?’
‘I did not start this war.’ Céleste says and gets a nod. ‘However, I want your assurances I keep all I conquer.’
The Empress lets loose a hearty laugh. ‘We will not allow that unless we get something in return.’ The Empress says turning red under her white hair.
‘I offer Livio and Palla in exchange. If I fail they may have my realm.’ The Princess says gravely.
‘So be it. We accept these terms. We will add that if you loose your realm to us we will marry you to one of our allies across the Great Sea.’ The Empress says offering her hand again. ‘Leave us and fight your war girl. We will prepare your dowry and passage.’
Princess Céleste curtsies, kisses and flees the Grand Recpetion. She finds a friendly shadow to discuss some purchases before receiving her leave of the Imperial Enclosure around the Harvest Palace. She marches east into Gastrikland before her captains clue into where they are bound.
‘Highness?’ Asks the giant captain of pikes as they approach a menacing castle at the high point of the valley they are in. ‘This is Castle Rasebourg, a possession of King Torgny of Gastland.’ He says.
‘Is it?’ The Princess asks before spurring her horse up to the barbican.
‘We should quickly take the old road around the lake.’ The giant says with fear growing in his voice.
‘What say you shadow?’ The Princess calls into the hedge.
‘It is yours Highnesss and well provisioned.’ A shadow says from the opposite hedge.
‘See?’ The Princess says reaching the open gates and lowered bridge. ‘Why go around the lake when we have a place to rest?’
‘Welcome your royal highness.’ Says Lord Rasebourg with a flourish in his bow.
‘Thank you my new lord. I trust you have provided for my passing general.’ She says dismounting.
‘Of course, my Princess.’ He says before leading her up to the large main keep.
After a quick meal Céleste is encouraged to bathe after her journey. She surfaces from the water in the giant stone tub, plucks rose pedals from her face and smiles at the lone attendant. The attendant approaches with a jug of water and pours.
‘Do not linger here.’ The attendant says in a shadowy voice. ‘My lord is the Empress’s creature and will hold you until she marches here.’
‘I leave after I dress. Tell my captains.’ Céleste whispers back before plunging back under. After her bath she ignores the protests of the lord and leads her tired army north into a hostile pass. After four days of hard, dangerous climbing they reach the high valley that leads to their home.
‘Captains, sergeants, soldiers of Biron. I have been your ruler for only three years. I have never lead you to victory or defeat.’ She says to the gathered army after the last provisions have been issued. ‘Culant Castle is ours by right my father built it to keep Gastikland from descending on our crops and villages.’
The giant captain steps forward. ‘I wish to lead the assault!’ He shouts and a cheer goes up.
‘No.’ Céleste commands and draws her sword. ‘That honour goes to General Albert.’ She dismounts and hands off her horse to a groom. ‘Our job is to prevent escape. Prepare barricades!’
The army uses wagons and barrels from the provisions to build a double rampart across the valley. They dig trenches through the night and hammer stakes in the bottom. Stones are piled behind the barricades as missiles and as dawn approaches more stones are worked into the defences. No one attacks so they take turns resting. Céleste in her armour in the centre facing the castle.
Rain throughout the afternoon makes everyone miserable yet still no one comes. The evening sees the first of the high mountain snows and still no attack from either side. Céleste refuses to dispatch scouts. Then refuses the offer of some saved food. By nightfall the snow is swirling around the pass.
As the darkness and the cold grips the army the screams of terrifying joy are unleashed from above. Panphilos can be heard swooping down among the castle garrison and carrying guards up to be dropped on their comrades. Shouts of dragon ripple through the cold winds warming Céleste and her men. They ready.
‘Here they come.’ Whispers a shadow. ‘Dragons alone don’t win battles.’
The Princess grips her shield tight as the first of the castle garrison fight desperately to break the barricades. The fighting is ferocious as both armies are desperate. The Princess slashes and stabs as men scramble over the defences near her. A mace knocks her aside giving her time to parry a thrust towards her face.
A tingling sensation makes her shield herself as the first jets of flame shoot across the valley. The screams of the wounded and the dying drown out the screams of Panphilos enjoying his infliction of slaughter. The barricade breaks apart as the Princess leads her men into the defeated garrison of Culant Castle. Soon prisoners are more important than killing.
‘There is another army waiting for you to runaway.’ Says Panphilos resting next to Céleste as the army of General Albert arrives with more prisoners. Céleste continues to clean her sword as the General announces his victory.
‘Thank you Lord Albert of Culant, the castle is yours.’ Céleste says rising to her tired feet. She walks to the barricade south, and looks down the pass away from the castle. ‘Why didn’t Lord Rasebourg not come?’
‘The Empress has raised her standard above his keep and claimed the castle for herself.’ Says a shadow. The Princess sheathes her sword and adjusts her helmet as a messenger arrives bearing the Imperial standard.
‘Her Imperial Majesty says to give her admiration on winning such an important castle. She will add it to your possessions should you succeed in capturing her fugitive nephew.’ The messenger says with a happy grin. ‘Will you have breakfast with her?’
‘No, I march with my army north to fetch her fugitive nephew.’ Céleste says. ‘Would you care to join us?’
‘I would love nothing more but I am needed to announce Her Imperial Majesty’s return to the Harvest Palace.’ He bids farewell and gallops off whistling a marching tune.
The Princess gathers her tattered, exhausted army and marches down the pass to home. She releases her levies and continues on to meet with Admiral Matilda. They meet each other near the bridges of Vadstena where the vanguards of the two enemy armies are in camps facing each other. Princess Céleste receives embassies from each king.
‘King Torgny demands the return of Castle Culant and Castle Rasebourg.’ Demands a fat, perfumed man in obscenely ornate clothing. ‘He also commands you to disband your army and submit to his rule as your lord and husband.’
‘He can come and claim me himself.’ Céleste says with a hand on her sword hilt.
‘King Svante also commands you to surrender yourself to marry his youngest son Olaf.’ The other ambassador says while scratching at his leggings.
Before Céleste can respond a messenger arrives from King Svante. Svante’s ambassador reads it, pushes the messenger outside. After some harsh shouting and abuse the ambassador returns. He scratches at his leggings and spits on the floor of Admiral Matilda’s tent. ‘Your Royal Highness must return Castle Gefberg, Princess Palla and Prince Livio or suffer for it.’
‘So my Princess may keep the Basin Islands?’ Asks Matilda with a smile.
‘You may keep those fish as a bride fee.’ Proclaims King Torgny’s ambassador.
‘They are not your King’s to give!!!’ Says the ambassador.
‘Perhaps you should both return to your King’s and consult.’ Suggests the Princess politely. They nod agreement and start for the exit. ‘First.’ Céleste says with a girlish smile and twinkling eyes. ‘I wish to keep all I’ve gained and take Vadstena and its bridges as well.’
‘Are you mad?’ Asks the fat ambassador.
‘No, that is my price for violating my realm. I must have the bridges to keep my people safe from your raiding knights.’ They are pushed out by guards before they can protest. The Princess waits for an answer.
By midnight her answer is clear. Both King’s are more interested in each other’s realms to bother with Céleste. The Governor of the town of Vadstena rushes across the bridge with a flag of truce and demands to see the Princess. She receives him still in her armour.
‘You must come and save us!’ The Governor pleads still gripping his flag for dear life.
‘They will besiege me and starve you.’ Céleste protests.
‘Young Princess, send for your dragon and break the camps. Come unharmed across the bridge and through our gates to break the siege. We will empty our vaults into yours!’ The man pleats out while steadying himself on a chair.
‘That won’t be necessary.’ She says rising from her seat. ‘All I ask is to add you to my realm and collect tariffs on your docks and at your gates.’ She offers her hand.
‘We are yours.’ The Governor says with low bows and many kisses of her hand. He leaves with his flag of truce raised in triumph.
The army begins to march across the bridge and the forces of both enemies capitulate to the Princess as she ride past. Soon the fortified city has new defenders and the castle a new ruler. Céleste peers from the keep battlements and sees the two armies moving camp further away from each other.
The Princess refuses ambassadors and sleeps in her armour. At dawn the messenger from the Empress arrives with a demand and several companies of knights. ‘Patients you will have your prisoners soon.’ The Princess tells the messenger. He makes camp across the river to avoid being caught in the imminent fighting.
A week goes by and the three armies stand off with each other. Each fearing attack in the rear should they charge. Each passing morning Céleste politely refuses the Imperial Messenger over breakfast until finally the Duke arrives and joins them.
‘Brave attack in claiming Castle Gefberg, your grace.’ Praises the Messenger after the ales are refreshed. ‘Would you have two royal prisoners in your baggage?’
‘Yes, they are yours to escort to the Empress.’ States the Duke.
‘Very good. I will pass through your lines and escort the Princess Palla to her father before leading Prince Livio home.’ The messenger says. He leaves with the prisoners in haste after breakfast.
‘Torgny or Svante?’ Asks the Princess when she is alone with the Duke.
‘Attack or marriage proposals?’ Asks the Duke.
‘Attack.’ She says with a scowl.
‘March the army in front of the gates and sees who assembles to face us.’ The Duke says reaching for his helmet on the table.
The Princess takes the advice and sit upon her horse watching as the army of King Svante breaks camp and marches west. King Torgny forms his army and marches towards the Princess’s army. The armies close on each other until the archers rain down arrows on the troops opposite them.
The larger army wraps its wings around the smaller and Céleste is soon only aware of the melee around her as her army is slowly being worn down. She fights for the men around her until she is worn out and nearly trampled by a charging company of knights. Céleste recovers to find she is surrounded and swings wildly at the first knight to approach her with growls of ransom or rape. Her chain mail is no match for the slash that cuts deep into her shoulder, followed by a mace shattering her shield.
Céleste is disarmed by a skillful knight leaning carelessly from his horse. She rolls away from the back swing and draws her dagger to slash his saddle in a single motion. She dodges the falling night and steps over him as he lands. He sees her blade point drive through his eye slit and lets loose a scream. She recovers his fallen sword and de-legs a man at arms rushing her with a spear.
A block of a sword, parry of a spear and a upper cut to an unarmoured groin has her covered in blood, sweat and surrounded by bodies. Céleste recovers her sword and keeps a sword in each hand as she prepares to face a fresh company of spears levelled and rushing toward her.
She watches with relief as they disappear in a wall of bright yellow flame. A blow removes her helmet and the offender is beheaded by Céleste with crossed swords. Panphilos uses his heavy tail and claws to fight while his fire breath ignites the autumn grass of the field. Carnage starts to roast as the defeated army and the victorious army rush for the river or a well.
‘You have no hat mistress.’ Claims Panphilos as he takes a break from slaughter. He removes something from a claw and drops it at her feet. ‘Shiny ring will tell everyone where you are.’ She reaches down and puts on the large helmet with golden circlets.
Céleste is to dry to thank the dragon as it rushes off to find more challenging prey. The Princess discovers her banner only slightly singed and hoists it high after sheathing her sword. A knight of Gastikland rushes over and takes up position to defend her from charging knights of her own realm. The knight looks down at her and gasps.
‘Your majesty!’ He proclaims. ‘King Torgny is dead and you wear his crown. I am your servant.’ The Duke rides forward from the smoke and orders his men to spare the knight.
‘Is it true? Is Torgny dead?’ Céleste shouts to the Duke. She accepts a flask of mead from the knight to wet her throat.
‘Yes, your majesty.’ The Duke says with an equally dry throat. He accepts the mead flask, drinks and passes it back to the knight. ‘Panphilos killed him and all his escort.’
‘With no heirs the kingdom is yours!’ Says the knight of Gastikland in awe. ‘Bested by a girl and her dragon.’
‘Your grace! Rally the men, all of them. Svante may come to make a claim for this crown.’ The helmet slips over her eyes and she removes it. ‘Find me a helmet that fits and a horse!’
The knights find both and they form up on the flanks of the surviving foot of both armies. The smoke lessens as the grass is extinguished by locals rushing around with buckets of sand and shovels. High above a medium sized grey dragon weaves a pattern in the sky. Food and water is being passed out and tired people rest on their arms or horse.
The army of Svante returns in full, splendid order with banners high and unscorched by dragon flames. The dusk begins to settle as the tired armies stares down the fresh. A flag of truce glows in the half light as it speeds across to where the banners of Céleste flap with holes through them.
‘My King sends compliments to the victor this day.’ Says the messenger. ‘Where is King Torgny? King Svante would treat with him.’ The messenger ignores the woman with scarred face and smoke blackened tunic.
‘Torgny is dead.’ Céleste says running her gauntleted fingers through her long brown singed hair.
‘Then his realm falls to my King.’ States the messenger coldly.
Céleste stares the man down until a cough distracts her. She looks to see the Imperial messenger returning with some knights. He rides up to the flag of truce and nods at Céleste. ‘Your Highness, I have heard reports of your death. The Empress will be most glad to hear of this news of your victory.’
‘Remind her of our agreement. I keep what I have conquered.’ Céleste says with a smile.
‘My King will contest this.’ Claims the messenger from Svante. ‘He has fresh men of greater number than this upstart.’
‘She has a dragon.’ Proclaims the Imperial messenger. The other messenger follows all eyes to the sky where Panphilos orbits the field.
‘I have a dragon.’ Céleste says pointing at King Svante’s army breaking formation and marching away. Panphilos lets out a shrill, terrible scream.