Ed Gentry


Chapter One

They approach, sir,' the dwarf said, handing the spyglass to Adeenya.

She took no notice of Marlke's calloused hands as they brushed against hers, her own skin toughened from years of swordplay and training. She brought the glass to her eye to see the bright colors of the Maquar silks waving in the wind as the troops approached.

'Not much for subtlety, are they?' she said, scanning their ranks.

'They've little need for stealth, sir,' the dwarf replied.

It was true the Maquar, the elite warriors of Estagund's rajah, might be as subtle as a blow to the head, but they were also as deadly. Their battle prowess was legendary, as was their discipline.

The marching lines of the Maquar were nothing short of perfect. No soldier marched faster than another, not one stood too close or too far from his neighbor in the lines. Their formations were arranged by height with the taller troops at the ends of each line. Marlke was right; they cut an impressive swath across the grassy land as they came. Though only a few score soldiers, each Maquar's chest, shoulders, and head were held high as though the entire army of Estagund rode behind them in deference and support.

Adeenya handed the spyglass back to Markle with a nod. She had heard stories of the Maquar's prowess her entire life, and the spectacle that moved toward her sent a shiver up her back. Most of her childhood she had been enamored of the stories her father told of the peerless, loyal Maquar with their pageantry and glorious battles.

When she was still a young girl, Adeenya had begun training behind her father's back, in preparation for join the Maquar. Under the guise of learning responsibility, she worked hard in her father's shops to earn coin to pay for sword lessons. Paying the tutors to remain quiet had cost as much as the training itself. Her skill in fighting was as undeniable as her love of the art.

Her lessons continued until she learned that the Maquar never accepted foreigners in their ranks, not even those willing to expatriate. The Maquar took only natives of Estagund, as though the land somehow lived in their blood. Without Estagundian blood, Adeenya's place in the mercenary ranks of the Durpari was clear. As soon as she became of legal age, she'd joined the Durpari mercenary forces. She'd had nowhere else to go, after all.

Adeenya turned to study her own soldiers. They had broken camp and were packing away gear to be ready to march anew if the Maquar commander so ordered. The Durpari uniform of dark brown and gray stood in stark contrast to the bright, vivid blues and greens of the Maquar. The Durpari soldiers maintained most any hairstyle they wanted, while the Maquar were all neatly cropped. Adeenya watched as one of her troops tripped another, prompting a bout of laughter from many others standing around. She shook her head and turned back to the approaching force. Her soldiers were different, that was for certain. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw the tripped man come to his feet, mirth clear on his face. Different was all right.

'Sir, what's our move?' the dwarf asked.

'We have no move, Marlke. We wait for them. The Maquar commander is in charge, be he genius, fool, or lout,' she said with a shrug. 'There's nothing to be done for it now.'

'And if he's a fool or a lout, sir?'

'He wouldn't be the first soldier with those afflictions that I've met,' she replied. 'We'll work around it.'

The Maquar were two bowshots away, still locked in their battle-ready arrow formation. Adeenya swallowed and smoothed her short, ruddy hair slick with sweat and nodded to Marlke to prepare the troops to meet the Maquar. The soldiers fell in behind her like dead leaves following a gust of wind and Adeenya strode forward to meet the Maquar, a weak smile on her face. Maquar or no, Adeenya was used to being in charge of herself and her own people. She often thought it was for the best she had never been able to join the Maquar. Subordination was not a talent she'd grown into.

'Orir Adeenya Jamaluddat,' she said with a salute to a dark-skinned man at the front of the Maquar lines. She stood nearly a head taller than him but was half his width. His broad shoulders were straight and strong without seeming rigid or tense. His broad nose hovered over full lips that showed no smile or frown.

'Greetings,' the man said. 'I am Urir Jhoqo Valshu. This is Taennen Tamoor, my durir, and Loraica Hazshad, my terir,' he said, indicating a tall, thin, much younger man to his right and an enormous woman to his left.

Taennen stood with his shoulders rolled back tight, his chin straight, and his hands folded behind his back. Cropped black hair covered his head but his clean, smooth face, which had never seen a razor, showed his youth. His armor and clothing were cleaner than even his commander's, no small feat while on the road.

The woman beside him, Loraica, was the largest Adeenya had ever seen. Most men did not compare in stature with the towering, muscled figure. Tight, dark cuds crowned Loraica's head, forming a loose braid that drifted to her shoulder. Her square jaw gave her face an unfeminine but not unattractive visage. The two Maquar stood close together as only those who are completely comfortable with one another can.

Jhoqo's eyes scanned her troops, though Adeenya never felt them leave their scrutiny of her. She inwardly scowled. She had heard the Estagundian dialect before and the pronunciation differences it caused. Be he in charge or not, she was Orir Jamaluddat, not Urir.

The Maquar leader nudged his chin toward the dwarf. 'And this?'

'My dear, Marlke Stoutgut,' she said. The dwarf stared straight ahead, his eyes focused on nothing, the same attitude as the durir and terir across from him. Proper subordinates, all. Adeenya was pleased.

Jhoqo nodded again, and a long silence passed between the five of them. 'And your third?' he asked.

'None, sir,' Adeenya said.

Jhoqo eyed her for a moment. 'I'd heard the Durpari didn't have extensive command successions. How do you find that works for you, Orir?' the man said, his tongue catching hard on the final word.

'Fine, sir,' Adeenya replied, her forehead wrinkled.

'Well, that's what matters, isn't it?' Jhoqo said, waving a dismissive hand for everyone to stand at ease.

'This is Khatib, our resident intellect,' Jhoqo said, indicating a stocky man in a peacock blue robe who approached from within the ranks. He wore no armor and carried no shield.

'With your permission, Khatib will quickly examine your men,' Jhoqo said. 'Just as a precaution.'

Adeenya nodded, keeping her mouth tightly shut. Caution was always merited, but the line between prudence and insult was a thin one, she knew. If her superiors hadn't advised her to keep her forces small and leave the spellcasters behind, she would have been sorely tempted to send one over to examine the Maquar.

The wizard bowed again. 'If you could simply ask them to form a line, single-file?'

Adeenya nodded to Marlke, adding a significant glance for her second alone. The dwarf saluted with a curt, short snap of his hand and began barking orders. The soldiers from Durpar fell quickly into line and submitted as one to the wizard's examination. Adeenya knew Marlke would understand her implicit order to watch the wizard carefully.

'They seem to be good soldiers, Orir. You are to be commended,' Jhoqo said to Adeenya. He motioned for her to join him as he began to walk.

'Thank you, sir. I have found them loyal, brave, and resourceful in my time as their commander,' Adeenya replied.

'How long has that been?' Taennen asked from his position behind them.

'Durir,' Jhoqo said without looking at the younger man.

Taennen flinched but continued to walk. His dark eyes were locked on his commander, his lips were pursed and his stance rigid. The breeze had mussed his cropped black hair.

'My apologies for my second's manners,' Jhoqo said to Adeenya.

'No need, sir,' she said. 'I have led most of these men for nearly two years. A few, my dorir included, have been with us for a little over six months.'

'Your previous second died?' Jhoqo asked. His gaze lingered on the distant Curna Mountains as he spoke.

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