This is my new story. It takes place in the same world as White Stag, although aside from a few place-names and other details, you probably won't be able to tell. You could go read White Stag anyway, though, as it is awesome and I love it.
It's slash, even if it doesn't look it for the first few chapters.
Slash is gay romance, if you were wondering.
Edited 7-21-08, which, yes, is before it's all published. Though not before it was finished.
Chapter One: For Loss
There was blood everywhere. It pooled in puddles and trickled in streams. Stained clothes and hair and eyes, suffocated noses and dripped out of ears.
Body parts, covered in blood or obscenely free of it, lay strewn about near the bodies themselves, crushed and broken and bloody.
Trumpets sounded in victory or defeat, cutting through the clatter of battle, which slowly died down until there was no more noise than that made by the bodies at Gair's feet.
Gair wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, smudging the blood that was trickling into his eye. It started again moments later and he absently brushed at it once more, balancing carefully on his unwounded leg, blood from the other soaking into his sock.
"Was it victory?" someone near him asked.
Gair shook his head. "Not ours," he said.
The trumpets sounded again, confirming what Gair said, and the men scattered around him groaned and threw down their weapons, sinking to the ground.
Gair sighed and looked around for the banners. One was partially raised, propped up by the body it had run through, sticky and dark with blood. Grimacing and looking farther, Gair spotted another banner—the Ostveld white stag on green—and made his way towards it.
The generals were standing close and talking quietly as he approached. Seeing Gair, one of the generals nudged the man next to him, and all three men turned to watch his approach. "Well?" Gair asked when he arrived.
The Norveld general, General Beowulf, shook his head. "We lost," he said. "The cavalry managed to cut across the south end of the field and come up behind us."
"The south end?" Gair asked, raising an eyebrow at General Darin. "Through the Ostveld troops?"
General Darin sneered at him, petty rivalry having somehow survived where so much else did not. "I see you lost your banner," he said.
Gair looked away. "Aye," he said quietly, "and the lad who carried it."
General Kale, his own Estveld general, reached a hand out towards Gair. "I'm sorry, my prince," he said. "I know Squire Oren was important to you."
"Aye," Gair said again. "I dread telling his parents." Oren had been like a little brother to him, and he'd promised the squire's parents he'd keep him safe. He had tried, but they'd gotten separated, and by the time Gair heard the lad's shrill war cry over the sounds of battle it was too late.
"You may not have to worry about that," General Beowulf said, nodding over Gair's shoulder. "The Cheil will take us all prisoner to use as bargaining chips against the 'Velds behavior."
The other men looked at him, their faces reflecting a tired and worn out shock. General Beowulf shrugged. "It is their way," he said.
Horses thundered up and skidded to a halt, hooves throwing blood-soaked dirt onto the four men around the banner. There were three horses, large and brown. They were sleek and strong, and showed no signs of having been in battle.
Nor did the men riding them show such signs, their armor still glittering gold and silver in the sunlight that cheerily mocked the 'Veld's defeat. The feathers in their helmets fluttered jauntily in the death-scented breeze, marking them of high rank. Their heraldry was the plain green square on white of the Cheil Empire, the white as pristine as new-fallen snow.
Gair had the sudden urge to rub a dirty hand down it, sullying the cloth with blood and dirt and death.
The man with the largest feather pulled his helmet off. "You are the generals?" he asked, his voice all but dripping scorn.
The four nodded as one.
"Norveld, Ostveld," the Cheil said, reading their heraldry, "and two from Estveld? My, my." He nudged his horse a little closer. "Oh, I see, you are no general," he said to Gair. "You are the prince." He gave a tiny yet delighted laugh. "I had not thought that rumor true; that the 'Velds sent their princes into battle."
Gair drew himself as straight as he could, reopening the slight scab that had started to form over the cut on his leg. "We do not send our men where we would not go ourselves," he said, flicking a clot of dirt at the Cheil. It fell short, but the message was clear.
"Is that so?" the Cheil asked, mocking rather than angry. "Where, then, is the Ostveld prince?" He made a show of looking around for him, as though expecting one of the bodies to leap off the ground and declare itself.
"Prince Cavan stayed behind to help his ailing father," General Darin said to defend his prince.
"Some of us must remain behind to protect our homes," Prince Gair said. Whatever issues he had with Ostveld were nothing in the face of the Cheil Empire. "And if we would ask our soldiers to stay, then we must ask ourselves to stay as well."
"Is that so?" the Cheil asked, his voice still mocking. "Because it seems that, had you not asked anyone to stay, perhaps then you would not have lost." He gave a cruel smile, then turned and nodded at the two other horsemen with him. "These men are prisoners of the Cheil Emperor. Take them to the general and see the rest of the soldiers are rounded up." He wheeled his horse around and rode off.
"Cavan!" a voice called from behind. A voice Cavan recognized.
Smiling he spun around, opening his arms to catch Elenor in an embrace. She giggled coyly and gave his lips a tiny peck.
"Where are you heading to?" she asked.
"I was merely looking for something to brighten up my day," Cavan said, releasing her, though one arm lingered on her waist. "It seems that something has found me, though, rather than the other way 'round."
Elenor laughed, pulling the arm off her waist and entwining their fingers instead. "I would be most displeased if someone else could brighten your day like I do," she said.
Cavan smiled at her, allowing himself to be towed along the hallway. "There is no one who can brighten my day like you." He sped up a bit, gently nudging her into a convenient nook that had once held something fragile. And if a younger Cavan had known how useful the empty nook would be to his older self, he would have made sure to be even more reckless in the halls.
"Oh, Cavan," Elenor said, smiling at him. She leaned forward just as he did, and their lips met in a most inappropriate kiss for a hallway, nook or not.
A few footsteps—unnaturally loud—forced them apart, the two of them turning with identically guilty grins to see who it was.
The captain of the guards cleared his throat as his facial expression fought between a stern frown and an amused smile. "Prince Cavan, there is a messenger from the front that's just arrived," he said.
Cavan raised an eyebrow. "Why not tell my father?" he asked.
The captain sighed. "It looks to be bad news, and with your father's health so poor…" he let the sentence linger.
Cavan nodded. "Of course," he said, turning to follow the guard captain to the great hall. Cavan had been taking on more and more of the duties of his father, and he didn't mind, except when it cut into the few minutes that he could steal to spend with Elenor.
Glancing behind, Cavan saw that she was following them, and reached out a hand for her to hold. In a few years they'd be married, and the only thing that Cavan wanted more was for his father to be alive and well enough to attend the wedding.
As they reached the great hall of the castle, Cavan ran his thumb along Elenor's wrist and withdrew his hand. He needed to be the Crown Prince in front of the messenger, and not a lovesick boy. Many soldiers harbored a silent disapproval that Cavan had not gone to war, as had the Estveld prince. Cavan had not been happy about remaining behind either; for all that his presence was needed here, the prince longed to be off in Norveld fighting the Cheil and defending his homeland.
But just as the king had insisted Cavan return from the coast three years before his allotted time was up, King Gerard also refused to let Cavan go to war in the north.
"I need you here, Cavan," he'd said, "I will not always be around, and I wish you to learn from me before this disease ends my life."
Cavan couldn't argue with that. Not after Tu- after everything he'd lost on the coast. Life was precious, and saying 'good-bye' one last time was more important than a younger Cavan had ever imagined.
So he tried to put the best face on staying home that he could, which included acting like the prince he was in front of messengers.
This messenger was sitting at one of the long tables in the great hall, wolfing down a plate of food as though he had not eaten in a month—and it had probably been longer since he'd had cooking as good as the castle cook's.
Cavan sat down across from him. "You have a message?" he asked.
The man nodded and slid the envelope across the table to him, the paper somewhat battered, but the red Norveld seal unbroken.
Cavan accepted and opened it, scanning the words. He frowned as he read, gripping the paper tighter as he neared the end. "I must take this to my father," he said as he stood, completely forgetting that he'd intended to chat with the soldier about the front for a minute.
"Don't tell him," the messenger said as Cavan stood up.
The prince frowned at him. "What?" he asked. It wasn't like he could keep their defeat a secret from their king.
"That it was Ostveld troops they cut through," the messenger said, lowering his voice with a glance at Elenor and the guard captain, who both hovered nearby. "It would break his heart to know it 'twas us that failed the 'Velds."
Cavan stared at him, shocked at the messenger's concern over the king. Finally he shook his head. "I can't promise," Cavan said, "but I will think about it."
The messenger nodded. "All we can ask," he said, turning back to his food as Cavan hurried away.
"What does it say?" Elenor asked, catching up to him.
Cavan shook his head. "My father-" he started.
"Oh, of course," Elenor said, but she caught his arm and pulled him around to look at her. "Come speak with me when you are done." She pulled him into an embrace. "It has upset you, and I do not like to see you upset."
Cavan breathed in her scent, drawing strength from her mere presence. "Thank you," he said quietly, pressing a quick kiss on her cheek.
"I will wait for you in the gardens," Elenor said, dancing away.
Cavan watched until she vanished around a corner of the hallway, wondering what he would ever do without her support and love. Shaking his head, Cavan turned and went to find the king.
"Father?" Prince Cavan called as he approached the king's office, his boot heels clicking on the stone floor in a most satisfying manner.
King Gerard of Ostveld was sitting at his desk his head bent over some papers and the thin crown sitting slightly askew on his balding head. He looked up at his son's arrival. "What is it?" he asked, wheezing a bit.
"We've a message from the front," Cavan said, holding up the letter in his hand.
"Well?" the king asked, setting his quill down and coughing slightly. "What does it say?"
Cavan took a deep breath. "We've lost," he said.
The king crumpled, hunching over his desk, hacking his way through a coughing fit brought on by the shock. "How- how did it happen?" he asked finally, his voice dry and strained. He grasped for the water glass on his desk, sipping carefully when he found it.
"The Cheil cavalry broke through at a weak point and attacked from behind."
The king snorted, straightening slightly. "I'll bet it was through those fool Estveld soldiers."
Cavan shook his head. "It didn't say," he said quietly, remembering what the messenger had asked, and hoping the king wouldn't read the missive.
"Didn't say?" King Gerard asked, his eyes sharpening suddenly. "Cava-" he said, interrupted by a cough. "Do not lie to me."
Cavan glanced away. "They do not want you to know," he said.
"To know what?" King Gerard asked, frowning at his son.
Cavan hung his head. "It was the Ostveld troops that failed," he said.
King Gerard sighed. "And the messenger asked you not to tell me this?"
Cavan nodded. "It wasn't their fault; the Cheil Calvary was able to-"
King Gerard shook his head, coughing again and reaching for his glass of water. "I am sure that they did the best they could," he said. "And for the sake of the men, I will not mention their defeat." The king himself looked defeated, slouching in his chair.
"General Darin is still alive," Cavan said, hoping news of the king's old friend would be enough to rejuvenate his father. "The death toll is lower than we could have hoped, as well," Cavan added, which marked the end of his good news.
King Gerard nodded. His eyes grew distant and he sketched in the air with one hand as he thought. "We'll need General Darin at Corners, I think," he said. "The Cheil would be fools to attack there, where both Ostveld and Estveld can attack them together, but it's central enough that I can send Darin quickly to the northern or eastern passes, depending where the Cheil decide to try."
Cavan hissed slightly, needing to tell his father the worst news of all, but unwilling to do so.
King Gerard glanced up sharply at him. "Do you object?" he asked. "The Cheil would do best to attack Estveld first, but they may assume that we expect that, and seek to attack before we are ready."
Cavan shook his head. "It is not your orders," he said, still reluctant to share the last information included in the missive.
"Well?" the king said, folding his arms onto the desk and giving Cavan his full and intense attention. "What is it?"
The prince closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to watch his father crumble again. "You won't be able to send General Darin anywhere," he said.
Cavan heard a gasp of breath, followed by a faint cough. "You said that he was still alive," his father said, "is he wounded?"
"No," Cavan whispered, shaking his head. "But it is Cheil practice to take defeated soldiers captive and to hold them hostage against their home country's good behavior." He opened his eyes and met his father's gaze. "Our soldiers will not come home unless we treat with the Empire."
It was now the king who closed his eyes, too shocked even to crumple as he let out a slow and shaky breath. "What will they ask of us?" he asked, his voice so soft Cavan almost didn't hear.
The prince shook his head. "The missive does not say anything save that we need to meet with the Cheil Emperor's representative at Corners in one month's time. If we do not show, our men's lives are forfeit."
Taking a deep breath and fighting visibly against coughing, the king straightened himself out as much as his aging body would allow. "If that is the way it must be," he said, "then we will make the best of it. Announce that the war has ended, for the time being, and that we are doing all that we can to see the soldiers come home as soon as possible." The king nodded and glanced down at the paper on his desk. Grimacing, he crumpled it up and tossed it away. "Prepare yourself," he told his son, "for tomorrow we leave for Corners."
Yup. So there it was. Any thoughts? Any reviews? critiques, compliments, personal stories to relate?