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Volume 3172b
Aros - Frank Frazetta
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

We waited, all of us, waiting behind barricades, mounted two or three on thoats, and more on foot, with as many as we could gather as close as we could make them to an organized military force, our raiding party.

The sensible thing to do, I told myself, would be to get somewhere safe, or at least safer.  Like in a crowd of fleeing refugees fleeing at night in the middle of a personal guard all of them mounted on fast thoats, just in case we had to make a break for it.  Or perhaps in some fortified bunker surrounded by fanatically loyal soldiers.  I think that at some point, whether fatigue or desperation, or simply the relentless press of events, I had gone a little mad.  Which was why, when I paused to think, I seemed to be leading a raid on an airship yard.

I kept asking myself why I hadn't been able to talk my way out of it.  My mistake, I thought, was in trying to let them talk me out of it.   But had that really been it?  Or had it been some sentimental impulse.

Sheer idiocy.   My heart pounded within my chest, my mouth was dry.  We were going to risk our lives.  We were going to risk my life.  Out there, beyond the barricades were real soldiers with weapons and tactics ready to cut me to pieces.

I wanted to throw up.

In the plays, in the stories, nobody ever talked about the waiting.  No one ever talked to the cold fear that seemed to worm its way into your bowels, or the way your hands shook, and the way you couldn't stop thinking about dying.

Instead, there'd be some big bluff hearty character who would treat the whole thing as a lark, who'd be confident and fearless.   There was no such character in our group.  Thinking it over, it was just as well.  While such a man might be excellent stagecraft, here in the moment of the real thing, if such an ass appeared, I'd hit him with an axe.

There was no odious little comic relief character, no steady but wise supporting players, no grizzled veterans about to retire after this one last campaign, no proud but naive lieutenant.

Just us, waiting in the dawn, for the word to come that would start us on this lunatic purposeless raid.

I was going to be killed.

“I don't want to be here,” I muttered, as the Thoat I was on shifted on its foot pads.  Ton Sabat was behind me.  In front of me was some freed red slave, far more expert on these strange mounts than any Orovar could be.

Japh Leah grinned at me, from a nearby Thoat.  Behind him, Vadak Eth offered his sober nod.

“We will keep you safe, Princess,” Vadak Eth assured me.

Unctuous jerk, I thought.  You should be telling me I can't possibly go.  There's too much risk.

“So long as we succeed in our mission,” I replied, mostly because such bold nonsense was expected of me.

What mission?  I wondered suddenly.  What purpose?  To risk our lives raiding an airship yard in the hope of what?  Capturing someone who could tell us where Markath Khan's fleets were, whether they'd already been recalled, and how much time we had before they returned?  Or finding some convenient documents, a timetable or a ship schedule or something, with that information?  And where exactly in the Shipyards were we going to find this?   Sitting around a table trying to plan a strategy, it had seemed so straightforward.

Now?  Utter madness.  A foolish, reckless gamble.  And me, right in the middle of it.  I must be mad.   We must all be mad.

Better to just hide behind our barricades, or to strike out for the jagged lands now, and take our chances.

But either would lead to doom.  Which is why we had to take the risk now.

We'd evolved an elaborate plan.  Aspar Aguus would lead an assault against the Merchants quarter.   This would force Markath Khan to concentrate his forces there, to repel the attack.  If he did not, and we overran the Merchant's quarter, we'd have the run of the city.  The uprising would become impossible to contain.  Khan had no choice but to stop it at all costs.

Actually, it sounded like a much better plan than a raid on the shipyards.   I hoped that it would succeed, if it did, then no need to risk my life.  Unfortunately, the consensus of the fighting men was that it would fail.  There were too many soldiers already in the merchants quarter, too many likely defended points.  The attack would slow and stall, and then Khan's soldiers would inevitably push us back.

But as that battle reached its peak, we'd make our thrust to the shipyards, hopefully only lightly defended by naval personnel.

On a nearby Thoat, I caught a young man looking at me.  He smiled sheepishly, and looked down, as I stared at him.  There was something false about his smile, something desperate.

“You're afraid, aren't you?”  I said.

“No,” he replied, a bit too quickly.

“It's all right,” I said.  “This is a dangerous thing we do, not all of us will come back.  It's all right to be afraid.”

They were all listening to me.   I felt a flutter of panic.  I shouldn't be saying these things, I should be full of rousing speeches, something to incite them to martial fury and inspire them to put as many of their bodies between me and pointy objects as possible.

“I don't want to die,” he said softly.

“No one does,” I replied.  “But still, we do what we must.”

Did that make any sense?  See what happens when you go off script/  I was floundering.

“Come here,” I said, reaching out to cover my awkwardness, “take my hand.”

He spurred his thoat closer, and one by one, I his hand in mine, and his fellow riders.   And this seemed to begin something, because one after the other, the other riders came forward, not rushed, not jostling, but in an orderly fashion, solemnly to touch my fingers.

They stared at my face, seeking what... hope, promises, salvation?  They needed a Princess, I realized, and once again, I did my best to play a part I did not deserve.  We touched hands, these men and I, each of them.  I knew that some would not live to see another day.

As they looked into my face, finding a faith that I did not myself have, I stared back at them, trying to memorize each of theirs.  I promised myself that I would remember each of them, as if their lives were now my burden.  This touch, my face, would be the last thing in their lives that was not blood and sorrow.  I wished that I could give them more.

And then, it was over, a sort of orderliness came upon us.  The waiting was done.  The word came that Aguus was leading his forces deep into the Merchants quarter.

I glanced nervously at Japh Leah and Vadak Eth, my dear murderers nodded as one.  I raised up my hand.  Everything went still, all eyes were on me.

Ten thousand doubts assailed me.  Could we even find the place, much less overrun it?  One last time, I wanted to run away.  But running was impossible.  We do what we must, I thought.

My hand fell.

The charge began.

We swept from concealment well behind the barricades.  At our approach, those of our forces who manned the barricades leaped forth, rushing at the enemy to consume their attention.

Ahead of me, I heard the clash of steel, men screaming in fear and pain, the sounds of murder.  I ignored it, the thoat beneath me merely redoubled its speed, galloping the harder.  All around me, I was surrounded, at the center of an army of murderous men on murderous beasts, stampeding forward.

A leap.  Suddenly we were through the barricades, spilling out, milling everywhere.  There were flashes of blood, terrified screams, a wild melee, as the soldiers of Diome were overwhelmed, died.  There was a moment when our Thoat passed over a dead soldier, a red man, young but with a broken nose and an awful surprised look on his features.  I tried to memorize his face.  But then he was gone and lost to me.

We did not tarry.  Instead, we pounded forward for all we were worth, driving up the boulevards, cutting through token opposition.   Once again, it seemed to me that Diome was a ghost city, empty of humanity.  All human traces lost as we thundered down streets with high buildings like canyons on either side of us.  We turned a corner.  Ahead there was a plaza.  And beyond the plaza, a stockaded wall, a great gate, soldiers, naval men I had learned to distinguish, staring in shock and horror.  Wagons entering and leaving.

There was a moment of paralysis on them then, staring at us with appalled fascination.  Then they roused themselves, struggling to close the gate.

But it was too late.  We were on top of them.


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