Shieldmaiden’s Quest

Chapter 1

Robin rubbed her eyes and stifled a cough. The large tent filled with her thirteen commanders swirled with smoke from the braziers. The nights had chilled the past week, but she preferred the chill to the smoke.

“We should be putting things to order.” Paychen, a commander of five hundred, almost banged the table but caught himself. The fines for yelling and hammering the table made the nightly meetings quieter if no less unruly. “The Ancans need someone with a firm hand to prevent civil war.”

“As soon as we fight, the doom will fall on Caldera.” Revont, the other commander of five hundred had yet to pay a fine, but her voice cut through the chaos like a knife.

“Then what are we here for?” Paychen scowled and clenched and unclenched his fist.

“We are here because the King ordered us to accompany Lady Robin.” Marshal Hapten scanned the room, and a brief silence fell over the tent.

“That’s all very well and good,” Themson, a commander of a hundred, drawled. “But the men are asking what Lady Robin is doing.”

All eyes on the tent turned to her. She leaned forward to speak and coughed. Sargent Temajin handed her a water skin. She took her time drinking the water.

“I am here because the land has called me.” Robin had been over this a dozen times in the week since they left Fhayde. “I’ve ordered the soldiers to take their time and rest after the battle, but we will be at Marques Povost’s manor tomorrow. He is the first imperial nobility we have met since leaving Fhayde. The men and women of the thousand will be prepared to parade when we arrive. We must make a good impression.”

“And what of us, Lady Robin?” Timost, the Ancan commander asked. “Are we to parade ourselves before this Marques as well?”

“You are our escort; I would invite you to be part of the formalities when we arrived.”

“Formalities, for a Marques.” Timost didn’t quite sneer, but it was a close thing.

“For the father of the Voice of the Emperor.” Robin’s cough at the end of her words stole what little emphasis she had tried to give them. But Timost nodded reluctantly and leaned back, his arms crossed.

They’d all been around this circle before. Timost was a Baron’s heir, if his father’s people hadn’t risen against him. They’d heard rumours of rebellion and fighting other places from the scouts Timost had sent out.

Timost’s hundred men kept to themselves, though many spoke enough Calderan to make themselves understood. Most of them were scouts or sweeping for trouble. Robin struggled to learn the Imperial Ancan language.

“Once we’ve arrived, detail some experienced farmers to be instructors in our techniques.”

“We are here as soldiers, not farmers.” Marshal Hapten said.

“You are here as representatives of Fhayde.” Robin spoke firmly. “There is a reason you are here. When you learn what it is, you may regret wasting the opportunity to rest.” She stood up, and the rest of the men and women scrambled to their feet. “You will have your people in full dress when we arrive tomorrow, and you will have a squad prepped and ready to teach what we know about farming.”

“How are we to pick out a squad from a thousand?” Revont frowned.

“If I may be so bold,” Sargent Temajin stepped forward. “That is a task for your commanders of a hundred and their staff.”

“Assign it to a commander,” Robin nodded at Marshal Hapten. “Tomorrow, the commanders will attend a formal dinner with the Marques. Ask the cooks to make it a memorable meal.”

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