“The border of Carrow,” said Captain Tamwell.
Ardria felt fear that she struggled not to show. They were all looking to her. If she gave a show of confidence, no matter how false the others knew it was, they would do their best to match her. Only the Kelvon troopers felt real confidence, she knew. She looked at them, saw the arrogant superiority in their bearing. Let the Carrow dogs try something, that bearing said, and they will feel the wrath of the Empire! All well and good, but the wrath of the Empire wouldn’t do her or the Helberion rangers any good. They would be dead, and she would be a prisoner of King Nilon, and likely to remain so no matter how much noise Emperor Tyron made.
She looked across at Teena, sitting behind Ranger Geoffham on his large, grey horse. Seeing her looking, the handmaid gave her a cheery smile and an optimistic thumbs up. Ardria felt a smile creeping across her face. Good old Teena, irrepressible Teena. What would she do without her?
Ahead were two lines of concrete fortifications, one Helberion, the other Carrow, linked together by lines of barbed wire and with a hundred yard strip of no man's land between them. All pristine and perfect, as if they'd been built only yesterday. The Helberion bunkers had recently contained men and guns, horses and provisions, ammunition and pigeon lofts. Now they were all empty, abandoned as Carrow had broken through the Steel Curtain to the north and everything had been pulled back to the next defensible position. Carrow soldiers had probably been all through them, looking for anything valuable that had been left behind, and there might still be men there now, keeping a watch for any Helberion forces that might try to sneak back in as part of some mysterious military operation.
Ardria looked around at the men surrounding her. Everyone was holding a white flag in their upraised right hands, even the Kelvons, although they were ready to drop them in an instant and draw the pistols at their waists if trouble broke out. They wore the bulls head emblem of the Empire proudly on their chests, newly cleaned to make them as visible as possible. They wanted the Carrowmen fully aware of who was approaching them, and of what would happen if they were molested.
“We're hundreds of miles from the spot where we originally intended to enter Carrow,” said the Princess. “Will they be expecting us?”
“Probably not,” replied the Captain, “but they'll probably be curious enough not to open fire until they know who we are and what we're doing here.”
“Not too late to turn back, Your Highness.”
“Yes, it is. Lead the way, Captain.”
Tamwell nodded and geed his horse into a gentle walk, the Princess beside him and the others following behind in single file.
They were a hundred yards away from the nearest Helberian bunker when they were challenged. “Halt!” cried a voice. “Identify yourselves!”
“I am Princess Ardria, daughter of King Leothan of Helberion. I am on my way to Charnox to meet with King Nilon in order to negotiate an end to hostilities. I request safe passage into Carrow for myself, my men and the representatives of the Kelvon Empire who are accompanying us.”
There was a pause. Ardria felt a moment of amusement as she imagined the shock and astonishment being felt by the soldiers up ahead. Could this be a trick? An attempt by the Helberians to lead an assault into Carrow? She saw sunlight reflected from the lens of a telescope as someone studied them, trying to decide if their extraordinary claim could possibly be true, and she sat upright in the saddle to give as good a view of herself as possible. Her face was well known in Helberion, but what about in Carrow? Would her expensive silken clothes be enough in themselves to convince them she was telling the truth? There was vast scope for disaster whichever decision the Captain made, and if there was a more senior officer anywhere in the vicinity he would be desperate to pass the problem onto him as soon as possible. “Wait there a moment!” The voice eventually said again. “If you make any move, any move at all, you will be fired upon!”
“So, now we wait,” she said, and Tamwell nodded. Several rifles were no doubt aimed right at her heart, and she thought she could see one or two of them. There was the faintest of movement visible through a narrow window in the bunker, and something small and round that might have been the barrel of a gun aimed in her direction. “Everyone take it easy,” she said, for the benefit of the rangers tasked with keeping her safe. This situation couldn't be easy for them. “If they were going to attack, they would have done it by now.” She hoped it was true.
A gust of wind ruffled the silken gown she was wearing and sent a shiver of goosebumps up her bare arms. She was cold, but it was important that the Carrowmen see clearly that she was a woman. Anyone could wear a dress, of course. The sight of her in a skimpy dress would be a lot more convincing if this scene was being played out by the Hetin folk, for whom the sexes were visibly anatomically different. Those lumps their women had on their chests would have been really useful in a situation like this, she thought. Displaying them prominently would leave absolutely no doubt as to the gender of the person facing them. Of course, for all she knew, their woman might have been just as capable in warfare as their men... She realised that her mind was trying to distract her from the peril she was in. All it would take was for one of the Carrow soldiers currently aiming a gun at her to forget how much pressure he was putting on the trigger...
“They haven't sent a horseman yet,” she said. “If there were a more senior officer anywhere nearby...”
Tamwell nodded. “That means it’s all on the Captain. His biggest concern will be not to find himself facing a firing squad for making the wrong choice. Apparently, the Carrowmen are really fond of firing squads.”
“I can believe that. I imagine he's asking himself what’s the very worst that can happen to him if he lets us pass.”
“He gets the firing squad for letting enemy soldiers into his country during a time of war.”
“...and what’s the very worst that can happen if he take us prisoner and keeps us here.”
“He gets the firing squad for delaying the Helberion surrender, during which thousands more Carrow soldiers die.”
“Will he be discussing it with his men, do you think?”
“I doubt it. Carrow officers are arrogant and stupid. Far too proud to ask for advice. “
“What would you do if you were in his position?”
“Allow you to pass through. You'd hardly announce yourselves openly if you were bent on mischief. We just have to hope that... Ah, something's happening.”
Ardria couldn’t see what the Captain had seen, but a moment later the voice came again. “You two in front! Disarm yourselves and come forward so we can talk!”
“I’d like to request that Captain Brailsford of the Kelvon Empire come with us, so that he can explain the Empire's interest in this matter.”
“No, Highness!” said someone behind them, and Tamwell turned his head to hiss back at him. “Silence back there!”
“Agreed!” said the voice from up ahead. “Just the three of you, and no weapons!”
Tamwell and the Princess dismounted, and Brailsford came forward to join them. They made a big show of unstrapping their pistols and swords and laying them down on the ground, and then the three of them walked slowly forward, the Princess in the middle. The ground was hummocky pasture, and they stepped around some dried out cowpats as they advanced. There were no cows left in sight, though. Either the Helberian farmer who'd once owned this land had taken them with him when he'd fled the border territory, or the Carrowmen had rounded them all up. Ardria hoped it was the former. There was nothing they could do about the crops they had to abandon, but they could at least keep the cattle from feeding the advancing enemy army.
As they got closer to the bunkers, they got their first sight of the Carrowmen themselves. They wore coarse brown uniforms with grey trim and had rounded steel helmets. They were ordinary army soldiers, then, Tamwell thought. Not rangers, like the Helberians behind them, or troopers like the Kelvons. Just grunts with the very minimum of training. The penalties for disobeying orders and how to fire a gun. Most of them were probably criminals, serving time in the army in lieu of a prison sentence. Many of them would probably be thinking of the ransom they could get for a Princess, and he desperately hoped that the Captain had good control over them.
“This way, please,” one of them said. A man with a peaked cap instead of a helmet and with pips on his shoulders. He gestured towards the bunker and Tamwell ducked his head to go in through the low concrete entrance. Ardria followed, then Brailsford and the Carrow Captain last of all. Inside were three more soldiers with rifles pointing out through the narrow windows. The Carrow Captain gestured for them to leave.
“My name is Captain Leese,” he said. “Stewart Leese.”
“Captain Philip Tamwell of the Helberion Rangers, Captain Edward Brailsford of the Kelvon Troopers. And this is Princess Ardria Regis daughter of Leothan Regis. Heir to the Kingdom of Helberion.”
Leese stared at her. “I never expected to meet a Princess,” he said. “I am in charge of the stretch of the border between Cleggsford and Gowen. My job is supposed to be to see that nothing and no-one crosses the border. My orders were very clear on that point, so you can see the dilemma you put me in.”
“Then allow me to make it a little easier for you,” said Brailsford. “I represent the Kelvon Empire. My job is to ensure that Princess Ardria gets to Charnox safe and unmolested. Anyone who wants to detain her will have to go through me and my men, and that will be taken as a declaration of war with the Empire.”
He stared at the Carrowmen, locked eyes with him, and the Carrowmen swallowed and looked away. “Thank you,” he said with a nervous smile. “That does indeed make it easier for me. If you can convince me that you are indeed who you say you are, I'll have to let you pass.”
Ardria reached inside her gown and produced a letter bearing the seal of the King of Helberion. “This was written by King Leothan explaining our reasons for going to Charnox. In it, he explains that we wish to negotiate an end to the war.” She handed it across.
Leese took it but made no move to open it. It was addressed to King Nilon and, besides, the seal itself was of far greater importance than anything that might be written inside. “Terms of surrender, you mean. How do I know this is genuine?”
“It bears the Royal Seal.”
“Which can be easily forged, I'm sure. Or it may be a genuine seal, used by the King himself, to make me think you're the Princess. You could be anyone in a pretty dress. Your friend here could be a Helberion soldier in a Kelvon uniform...”
“And what would be our motive?” asked Tamwell. “We know as well as you do that there are no high value targets within a hundred miles of here. If we only wanted to sneak a handful of men across the border, we could do that without all this subterfuge.”
“Why didn't you take one of the main roads? Why go cross country?”
“We were originally planning to go north, to Erestin, then enter Carrow from that country, but we came across a battle blocking our way. We thought it best to stay clear in case your countrymen, in the heat of battle, attacked us before we could explain ourselves.”
Leese nodded. “Simple common sense tells me that you're telling the truth, but still, the magnitude of what you're asking me to do... If I could dispatch a squad of men to go with you, see that you went straight to Charnox without getting up to any mischief along the way...”
“But you have orders to guard the border,” said Tamwell. “You have no authority to pull men away from that duty.” The Carrow Captain nodded.
He scratched his head. “I must give this some careful thought,” he said. “Give me the rest of the day and tonight. There is an empty barracks house fifty yards to the north, you and your people can spend the night there. I'll deploy some men to guard the building, please make sure no-one leaves it for any reason. I'll give you my decision in the morning.”
“That will do very nicely,” said Ardria. “Thank you.”
The barracks house had been built to house a hundred men and was easily large enough for all of them and their horses as well, once some of the bunks had been pushed up against the walls. The Carrowmen had been all through it, scavenging everything of value, including the food, but the walls and ceiling were in good condition and there was glass in the windows. Once they were inside, the men all picked a bunk and Teena hung some blankets from the ceiling beams to create a private space for the Princess. Ardria found the presence of the men comforting, though, and decided to sit among them for a while. Tamwell selected two men to take Darniss to the other side of the room and keep an eye on her. He didn't think she was likely to try anything, since they were already taking her back home, but he didn't like to take chances.
“I don't like this,” he grumbled. “It's a little too like a prison for my liking.”
“It's what’s waiting for us in Charnox,” replied Ardria, “and look on the bright side. We're all together, and you've still got your weapons. What would you have done if they'd tried to disarm us?”
Brailsford answered for him. “Refused,” he said. “And woe betide them if they'd tried to make an issue of it. We would have taken it as an assault against us.”
“I'd like to repeat my words of gratitude to you for doing this, Captain,” said the Princess. “You saved us from death or capture just by being here. When this is over, the whole Kingdom of Helberion will owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“If there is still a Kingdom of Helberion,” muttered one of the men sitting nearby.
Tamwell rounded on him angrily. “I'll hear none of that defeatist talk!” He snapped. “I firmly believe that we are going to win this war. If you think otherwise, keep your thoughts to yourself.” The man mumbled an apology and moved to another bunk further away.
The incident caused an awkward silence to fall across the room, and Tamwell found himself regretting his words. This was not the time to be building tensions and fuelling resentments, but there was nothing he could do to amend the situation without damaging his authority. Ardria saw his dilemma, though, and came to his rescue. Change the subject quick, and inject a little humour into the room.
“That Captain is going to have a story to tell his grandchildren,” she said therefore. “The time the future Queen of Helberion turned up on his doorstep and posed him the deepest dilemma of his life! He'll probably tell it so many times they'll be heartily sick of it! What's the strangest thing that's ever happened to you, Captain?”
Tamwell gave her a grateful smile and decided to take the opportunity to remind the men of their past victories. “Well, there was this time doing the last war. I was just a raw recruit then, less than six months in the army and still hadn't seen any real action. The actual fighting was all over by then and I'd joined my unit just in time to chase the enemy over the border and back into their own country. We'd bunked for the night just outside this little town called Pokby, a few miles south of Salford. Twelve of us in a leaky little stable that let the rain in in half a dozen places. One of the men, Austin I think his name was, decided to go see if he could find something to supplement our trail rations and came back leading this huge pig by a rope he'd tied around its neck. It was gigantic! Way bigger than he was, at least double his weight, it would have fed an entire village for a week!” There was a slight chuckle from some of the men, all of whom were listening. Good.
“It was way more food than we could eat, more than we could even cook! I've no idea what he had in mind. Some kind of giant spit with a couple of men to turn it over a roaring fire, perhaps, like something from a Royal banquet. We would have had to just cut bits of meat from the carcass, stew them in a cook pot and leave the rest to go back into the ground! We never got the chance, though. Before we could do anything the door opens and in comes one of the lads the Corporal had left on guard. Said there's a man anxious to see us. So Corp goes see what he wants and there's this Carrow farmer, completely naked, saying one of our men had kidnapped his son!”
Ardria stared. “Did the pig show any human characteristics?” she asked.
“None whatsoever! We'd looked! You always look, everyone knows that, but this man insists it’s his son! Well, maybe he was intending to adopt it one day, but it didn't look as though a parent bond had formed yet. The pig was certainly willing enough to be led away from him, although it would probably have been rather less willing if it had known what Austin had in mind for it.”
“Who adopts a pig anyway?” asked Teena.
“They're just animals,” pointed out the Princess. “There's no logical reason why you shouldn't adopt one, and if you're a pig farmer you've got plenty of chances to assess them, pick out the healthiest.”
“This was apparently the last pig the man had left,” said Tamwell. “They'd butchered the rest to feed themselves, but kept one to be their son. The poor man was almost in tears! When he saw the animal he ran over to it and wrapped his arms around it, said anyone who wanted to harm it would have to kill him first!”
“So what did you do?” asked Ardria.
“Corp let him have it back, of course. What else could we do? The poor man kept thanking him over and over again, still with his arms around the animal, and then he pulled it out of there before we could change our minds. If he did adopt it, it’s probably human by now. Might even be one of our friends outside.”
“I don't recommend asking any of them whether they were raised from a pig,” suggested the Princess. “Might damage the deep bonds of friendship we've...”
“Radiants!’ said one of the Kelvon troopers, looking out through one of the windows. “Two of them, coming this way!”
Ardria and Tamwell ran over to thee nearest window and stared out. They were still far away, nothing more than two tiny points of brightness just above the horizon to the north. “Everyone away from the windows!” the Princess ordered. “Don’t let them see you!”
“Bit of luck, being under a roof when they passed by,” she heard Geoffham say. “If we’d been out in the open...”
Ardria nodded to herself. This was flat, open pasture land with no cover except whatever man made structures they happened to come across, most of which were far to small to contain all of them. If they hadn't been so close to the border... “Carrow’s likely to be full of those creatures!” Geoffham continued. “How are we going to get all the way to Charnox without being seen?”
“One day at a time,” replied the Princess. “Everyone quiet, now! We have no idea how good their hearing is.”
“They can't understand human speech, surely,” said Teena in a quiet, scared voice.
“No, but if we make too much noise they'll know there's someone in here.”
“They'll know that anyway when they see the Carrowmen guarding us.” As if to emphasise the point, one of the Carrow soldiers chose that moment to pass by the window outside. He turned to gaze up at the Radiants, shading his eyes with his hand.
She was right, Ardria realised, but there was nothing they could do about it. They just had to hope the Radiants thought there were prisoners of war under guard. Maybe they wouldn't even be curious, she hoped. Maybe they were on their way somewhere on some urgent business and wouldn’t want to waste the time to investigate.
“Hey, Helberries!” said the Carrow man outside the window. “Radiants! They're on our side, you know! They know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, hey?”
Nobody bothered arguing with him. The man had been indoctrinated with the Carrow version of history all his life. He wasn't going to be converted by anything they said to him now. The man apparently wasn't finished mocking them, though. “The Radiants want to kill you all, because you're the bad guys! Maybe I should tell them you're here so they can come get you!”
Tamwell moved towards the window, his hand going to the pistol on his belt, but Ardria put a hand on his arm to stop him. “Anything we do will only draw the Radiants,” she said. “He's just, what’s the expression? I heard one of the maids using it once.”
“Yanking our chains,” suggested Teena helpfully.
“Right. I don’t think he’s actually going to do anything.”
“If the worst happens, we've got the incendiary ammunition,” said Corporal Munn.
“Right,” said Tamwell. “All eight rounds, and what do you think the Carrowmen will do if we kill a Radiant right in front of them? If that idiot decides to take the joke any further, we're all dead! I could knock him out, apologise to Leese afterwards...”
“Let's pray to Those Above that that's not necessary,” said the Princess.
They watched anxiously as the Radiants drew closer, and the Carrow man continued his taunts and mockery, but as the airborne creatures passed by overhead he just gazed up at them and waved. The creatures ignored him and continued on, and everyone relaxed as they began to recede into the distance. “Some other time, Helberries!” said the Carrowman, tapping the window with his finger. The Radiants’’ll get you some other time! Hey, how does it feel to know that they want to destroy you? With them on our side, you have no chance! No chance at all! How does that feel, eh?”
“They want to destroy Carrow as well,” muttered the Princess angrily. “They want us to destroy each other!”
“Yes,” agreed Tamwell, “But there's no point trying to tell him that. He'll never believe it.”
“Then what are the chances Nilon will believe it? Do we have any hope of convincing him? Any hope at all?”
“We have to believe we do. Otherwise, what's the alternative? Go back to Marboll and wait for the enemy to come knocking at the gates?”
The Princess could only nod glumly at that. “Well, since evening's getting on and we're already camped for the night, we might as well have something to eat. Break out the food please, Teena.” The handmaid nodded and went to obey.
They were all awake early the next morning and had already eaten a light breakfast when the Carrow soldier came for them. “The Captain will see you now,” he said. “Same three as before.”
Tamwell, Brailsford and Ardria accompanied him to Captain Leese’s command bunker. Carrow soldiers watched them as they went, one of them pointing a finger at Tamwell and miming shooting him while others snickered in amusement. They ignored them. Inside the bunker, Leese stood up from his desk and came around from behind it to greet them. “I have decided to allow you to proceed,” he said, and Ardria forced the relief not to show on her face or in her bearing. Neither of the men reacted either, she was pleased to see. Showing fear in the face of the enemy was a court martial offence.
“There is a road three miles west of here,” Leese continued. “You will make straight for it, then follow it to Tibre, where there is a military base commanded by Colonel Hemdall. You will report to him and explain your presence in this country. You'll be his problem then.”
“Thank you Captain,” said Ardria. “Future generations will thank you, when peace reigns between our two countries.”
“I hope so. A more likely outcome is that Hemdall will send a rider to put me under arrest. Despite that, though, I believe that your mission is important. Saving lives by ending the war sooner can only be a good thing. It can't be easy for you, though. Fancy diplomatic language aside, you are basically on your way to offer your country's surrender.”
Ardria chose not to correct him. “We owe you a debt of gratitude,” she said. “If your superiors do react badly to your decision, I promise that I will do everything in my power to protect you. You may think that that won't be much, considering our present situation, but I think I still have some influence.”
“Thank you, Your Highness. You had better be on your way. Your presence has caused some unrest among the men. Those of them I can trust tell me that there was some disagreement over what should be done with you. The sooner you are away from the border, the better.” He held out a letter. “This is a notice of permission to be on Carrow soil. Technically, I have no authority whatsoever to write any such thing, but showing it to any soldiers you encounter on the way may give you the time to explain yourself.”
Ardria took it and tucked it away with the King's sealed letter. “Thank you again, Captain. We will take your advice.” She bowed her head to him, a gesture that a member of a Royal family normally only made to equals or superiors. Leese didn't know enough about Royal etiquette to recognise the honour he was being shown and so simply bowed his head back. Then the three visitors turned and left the bunker.
“So far, we have been unbelievably lucky,” said Ardria as they rejoined the rest of their people. “That we should encounter a man like that at such a sensitive moment...”
“Those Above are with us,” agreed Tamwell, “but we will need a great deal more luck before this journey is over.”
“We also need the Brigadier. He's hopefully waiting for us in Bonewell, but our new course takes us nowhere near there. As soon as we're well over the border, I want you to ask for a volunteer. A man will need to go to Bonewell to find the Brigadier and bring him to us. He'll need to be out of uniform. A Helberion soldier in uniform will be killed or taken prisoner by the first Carrowmen he comes across.”
“If he’s captured out of uniform, he’ll be shot as a spy.”
“I know. That's why it has to be a volunteer.”
Tamwell looked at her. “If I weren’t in charge of protecting you, I’d volunteer myself.” He sighed. “I’ll talk to the men when we stop for our midday meal. They'll probably all volunteer.”
“Then choose the man you think has the best chance of making it. We need the Brigadier, and every day he’s waiting in Bonewell he’s at risk of discovery. Okay. Get us out of here, Captain.”
Tamwell nodded, and gave the order for the column to move out.