No one in Ninshi expected the pirates’ attack. If anyone had it would have been Zahir, who often seemed to know what was going to happen before it did. But no one heard a hint of the pirates until the ships sailed into view around the coast.
Ninshi was one of the few safe ports for ships in that rocky coast, and as such did a brisk trade with passing merchant ships. A high wall surrounded the city itself, but for years that wall had been a symbol of safety in the minds of the citizens, not a sign of fear of what lay outside the wall. Even the ancient forest they bordered was feared by none, though all claimed it haunted, and a few even believed it.
The governor of Ninshi, a man with the strange name of William De Beddingfield, had joined General Valkyr and the general’s strategist, Zahir Zah Eil on top of the wall. He watched with them as the pirate ships sailed silently closer to the harbor. This was not something his years as governor had prepared him for, and he didn’t like it.
The general and his strategist seemed calm, as though the situation were well in hand, but William De Beddingfield wasn’t so sure he liked that either. They hadn’t yet trusted him with their plans, apparently still viewing him as a foreigner, rather than their governor. There was no good reason the general should be the one in control of the situation.
After all, hadn’t he served Ninshi well as governor for these past several years? Hadn’t he fought his way to gaining the respect of the community, all the way from outsider to governor of their city? Wasn’t it about time he got some recognition for all of that? Well, this could be his chance. This kind of situation was a rare opportunity in a place like Ninshi, and he wasn’t about to waste it. If he were very careful and very lucky, he could even move up the ladder a few rungs, perhaps with an improved position in a more prominent city.
William De Beddingfield cleared his throat and turned to General Valkyr. “Well, General? What are we going to do?”
General Valkyr nodded to Zahir, who in turn raised his arm in signal. The governor could see flashes from the rocks as giant mirrors were swung into place, reflecting the sun’s brilliant rays. Smoke and flames began to rise from the sails on the lead ship.
The general nodded impassively to William De Beddingfield. “The pirates will reach land ill-prepared for a fight. My soldiers will meet them on the beach.”
William De Beddingfield seized his opportunity. “General, I have request on behalf of the citizens of Ninshi. I would like to lead our militia myself, and wait at the shore for the pirates while the soldiers prepare. In this time of emergency I believe we all must make sacrifices for the morale and safety of the city, and this is a sacrifice I am prepared to make.”
After a brief glance at his strategist the General nodded assent, and swept away off the wall.
Ghilles de Rais frowned as he watched his men douse the sails. He felt responsible for them, to some extent for all the pirates, since he was second in command to Mollie herself. Mollie preferred to call herself Zakiti, Queen of the Pirates, but someone, somehow, had learned her real name and it had stuck—though only behind her back, of course. Mollie was not a woman one crossed lightly, and she might take the smallest offense as treachery.
The damage to the sails was not too bad. No, his concern lay elsewhere. Mollie was cold and heartless as one might expect toward the merchant ships and occasional village they raided. But as the raids increased so did his unease, and his awareness that she could be just as heartless toward her own men. It was no way to hold together this disparate band. Surely it was just his duty to his own men for him to take command should the chance present itself.
Mollie began an impassioned speech, smoke still curling from the sails behind her. She somehow threw her voice across the waves to every ship in her fleet. Ghilles de Rais watched and listened as every pirate fell to the spell of her inspiring voice, and cheered her demands of bold and fearless action. Lured with the promise of the greatest prize yet, and greater to come if they did not fail her today, they began pulling for the harbor at a fever pitch. Even Ghilles de Rais, with all his doubts and suspicions of her trustworthiness, was not entirely unmoved by the speech.
Yes, she was dangerous. If the chance did not present itself soon, then he would make his own chance to take command. For the good of his men.
General Valkyr swept down the hall, hardly looking where she walked. She’d spent almost as many years as a man as not, and the costume was familiar, comfortable even. Still, the disguise often felt as thin as the air in front of her face. She wanted the safety of her office, where she could think and plan without the burden of watchful eyes. Her soldiers were not prepared for battle. Without quick and careful planning, casualties would be unnecessarily high.
Unexpectedly, she collided with someone else. Zahir. Valkyr repressed an exasperated sigh. Zahir was already apologizing profusely, and very much the last person she wanted to see right then.
General Valkyr held up her hand. “Fine. It’s fine,” she said, trying to pack as much cool dismissal into the words as she could. He didn’t take the hint.
“And how are you, General? Would you care for some wine?” Zahir snapped his fingers at the waiting servants, even as she opened her mouth to protest. His very presence grated on her nerves, as always. Wine appeared in his hands impossibly quickly, and he turned back to her with a smile.
“Some of us are on duty,” she reminded him icily, pushing past him into her office. Zahir followed her, pouring the wine smoothly into two goblets as he walked. To Valkyr’s great satisfaction Lieutenant Ryllim was already waiting inside her office with a sheaf of reports. Zahir, however, hesitated only briefly. “Ah, lieutenant…” Zahir said, “won’t you join us?” He signaled the servants to bring another goblet.
Valkyr watched him in a cold fury. Admittedly, the man was good at his job, but he was entirely too good. She occasionally caught glimpses of his strategies which reached far beyond what was necessary for his military position. There was no telling exactly what he was really after, but she knew that men like him only wanted one thing and that was power. And her position was the obvious next step for him. If anyone found out just how much of her military success was due to what he schemed without her knowledge, it wouldn’t be hard for him to replace her. And there was always the question, did he know?
General Valkyr drew herself up to her full height and faced Zahir. “I want you out of my office. Out. Now.”
Zahir bowed and scraped as he always did. “But, General—”
“I suggest,” Valkyr insisted, “you see to polishing the armor. It seems we’ll be needing it soon.”
“I had it done yesterday,” Zahir said. “However—” he set the goblets on her desk, “—do enjoy it. A very fine vintage.” And with that he withdrew.
Ghilles de Rais watched in horror, shouting orders to his men. Even Mollie, surely, could not have intentionally opened fire on her own ships. But she had. The shots from her ship had barely even reached the coast and the small band of villagers beginning to gather there. The brunt had been taken by the ships unfortunate to get in the way of their queen. The message was clear to him, at least. Get in Mollie’s way and she will get rid of you, no matter who’s side you’re on.
His men pulled the ship as close as they could to the carnage, but in the close quarters of the harbor, surrounded by the other ships, it wasn’t close enough to do much. And it would be too dangerous to get between Mollie and the coast. Ghilles de Rais ordered lines thrown out for the survivors.
Perhaps this would even work in his favor. It wasn’t his plan that these men have to die, killed by their own queen, drowned, or cut down by angry villagers as they crawled onto the shore. But the fact that they had would add weight to his speech. And the few who’d reached his ship would listen readily to what he had to say, swaying the others in his favor.
Ghilles de Rais did not plan to use the word mutiny, but the act of mutiny would be easy enough to convince them of. The only complication would be passing the word to sympathizers on other ships, but that could be arranged quietly. Ghilles de Rais smiled grimly. This might just all work out for the best.
William De Beddingfield had waited patiently by the shore. He’d gathered the militia, arrayed them along the shore, and given them a carefully prepared speech so all know who to thank when he drove off the pirates. Some pirates had been driven to shore early through some mishap and he’d run them through while they still choked on saltwater.
Even a lack of pitch had not deterred him from his brave and brilliant defense. Though the men showed some distaste for substituting manure, it was easily obtained and just effective as the absent pitch. The catapults had been set and ready to fire the flaming manure at the pirates as they landed. The plan was flawless.
Finally, the main force of pirates reached the shore. As the flaming manure flew through the air, William de Beddingfield yelled a battle cry and held his sword above his head. Just as a reminder to everyone. He charged the pirates to begin the slaughter.
But somehow, nothing went according to plan. Even as pulled his sword from the chest of a pirate, he saw the left flank of his militia crumble and fall back, almost before the pirates reached them, it seemed. Between hacks and slashes of his sword he realized dimly that half the pirates were fighting each other, and yet they were still overrunning his men. For the first time he began to care that General Valkyr had promised soldiers to fight with the militia. And with a cold wave of fear he realized the soldiers were late.
Zahir sat on the eastern wall of the city, watching the sun set over a peaceful forest. He sipped his wine thoughtfully. General Valkyr appeared to remain as distant as ever. He knew well, though, how deceiving appearances could be. It was beyond him how she thought simply dressing as a man was sufficient disguise. Her every move bespoke what she truly was.
After tonight Valkyr would see clearly all he had done for her. The carefully laid plans that were spinning out even now had all been for her benefit. Zahir knew that Valkyr was his. He’d worn down her resistance at last. The flaming oranges and pinks began to fade over the trees. Lovely, he though. Quite lovely.
Valkyr tapped a knife impatiently against the edge of her desk. She’d completed going over the plans and reports Lieutenant Ryllim had brought her. Everything was in place.
But that loathsome man was probably lurking in the halls somewhere just waiting for her to leave her office. Fine vintage, indeed! She sighed and pulled a stack of papers closer. She would be informed of any important changes on the shore, and in here she was safe from encountering Zahir again. So, perhaps it was best to go over all the details one more time…
General Valkyr stormed into Zahir’s office. “What is going on?” she demanded. “What are you doing?”
Zahir spread his hands. “Doing? I don’t know what you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean,” Valkyr said. “Your deployment of my soldiers. Explain.”
Zahir smiled slightly and leaned back in his chair as Valkyr waited impatiently. “I deployed them to the east,” he said.
“Yes,” she said icily, “You may have noticed, the pirates are attacking from the west.”
“Of course,” said Zahir. Valkyr waited silently, and he sighed. “My dear General, has it occurred to you that the more damage the pirates do, the more everyone will understand what a dangerous band of marauders they are, and the more they will applaud you for removing them? It’s all in your best interests, of course.”
Valkyr stared at Zahir. He was saying her post was assured. Her dwindling reputation as a great general would return, perhaps to the extent that not even a scheming strategist could remove her. He was lying of course. Everything he did was to benefit himself in the end. Still…
She imagined the homes of Ninshi burning like signal fires in the night. Silently she turned on her heel and left.
Mollie fought her way toward Ghilles de Rais. Burning corpses littered the beach, lighting the battlefield as the sun faded from the sky. She had only one thing on her mind: kill the traitor.
Mollie skewered some villager stupid enough to get in her way, and kicked him off the end of her sword. These people seriously thought they could fight? Could fight her? And then she was face to face with Ghilles de Rais. He didn’t look nearly frightened enough.
Their swords clashed. Ghilles de Rais parried and tried to reach Mollie with the sword, but she jumped aside, landing on a small pile of corpses. She stood there for a moment, laughing at him. Now he started to look frightened. Better. Not good enough, but better. Mollie launched herself off the corpses, using the height to knock his sword aside and drive the point of her sword into him.
Ghilles de Rais managed to catch the blade in his arm instead of his chest, but still she’d drawn blood. Much blood. Mollie bared her teeth and watched him fall back, hunched against the pain. As much fun as it was to toy with him, there were other matters needing her attention. She leaped forward, catching him under the chin with the edge of her blade, and it was over.
Mollie finished the job of hacking off the traitor’s head and held it high. Flames and shadows danced around her as her battle cry left her throat, echoing off the rocks. The clash of swords paused as all the beach turned to look at her.
The villagers shrunk back in fear. They finally understood then. She was Zakiti, queen of the pirates, and she would have victory. Head of the traitor in one hand, and sword in the other, she charged with another yell.
Even as her men fell into line behind her, and the puny defense of the villagers crumbled before them, she saw a group of soldiers emerge from the shadows. No matter. No one could stand between her and what she wanted. Tomorrow she would kill the pirates willing to mutiny and betray her. Tonight she would kill the others who stood against her. She would kill them all.
The tide of the battle had turned when General Valkyr showed up on the coast with her small band of soldiers. Zahir had planned on that, and she had been reliable as ever, though she didn’t know it. He chuckled softly. As if he hadn’t known that she would storm straight from his office to handpick soldiers worthy of defending Ninshi. When ordering most of the garrison off to the east, he’d deliberately left the men he knew she’d prefer for this attack.
Of course, he’d set it up long before that moment. First, instructing his agents to cause a panic in the left flank of the militia; that ensured that William de Beddingfield would not steal the victory. Then removing most of the soldiers who were to have been sent to the beach, again ensuring that foreigner’s lack of success, and preparing the way for General Valkyr to display heroic leadership in the face of a dangerous enemy.
No one but Zahir knew that the enemy was less dangerous than they appeared, for his own men had set fire to parts of Ninshi, while disguised as pirates. The fires had been very carefully placed, as the merchants raided had been carefully chosen, and in the end all of Ninshi would benefit from this part of Zahir’s plans. And most importantly, it had cemented in the mind of all what a truly horrible enemy General Valkyr had saved them from.
So in the end the pirate queen, Mollie, had been captured and sent to the king in Argonzed for trial and sentence. Zahir made sure one of his own men was appointed with the guards, and sent along a letter detailing for the king the desperate defense of Ninshi, emphasizing how it was made possible only by the extraordinary skill of General Valkyr. He suggested that Ninshi could not be left in its current condition without a strong leader, such as the general, taking control, perhaps in a military dictatorship, only for the duration of the crisis, of course. He also defended the actions of William De Beddingfield, for unskilled as they had been (he told the king), they showed a true heart for the people of Ninshi, and therefore Zahir pleaded that this should not cause his removal from the position of governor. Zahir was satisfied this would achieve his ends.
General Valkyr had also sent a letter to the king, which Zahir had taken the liberty of modifying. For instance, he removed a few sections which might have been misconstrued as blaming Zahir for some misdeployment of soldiers. He left only a charmingly modest admission to having done her best to protect the village of Ninshi, under unfortunate circumstances.
Zahir picked up a wine bottle and two goblets. Life was going exactly as he planned it. Now it remained only to toast the victory. He entered Valkyr’s office. “Wine, General?”