Editor’s note: We’re back to our regular monthly installments of The Golden Paladin! For context, read the recaps at https://tumbleweird.org/author/n.
The Golden Paladin’s raised arm arced down with the finality of a guillotine.
There was a shout from below.
Much to her embarrassment, Hesa jumped in surprise at the sudden cacophony of noise that followed the motion and shout, and struggled to make sense of the resulting visual bedlam.
She looked down at the Golden Paladin’s scrambled troops, arrayed across the grass between the Keep and the wall, who she regrettably hadn’t paid much attention to after realizing it was the Raiders that bore down on them.
The first four lines of soldiers were wearing the amberrock armor and wielding the amberrock polearms. Strangely, they were looking up — not at her, but just into the distant sky. Behind them were two lines of half-giants holding what looked like barrels of varying sizes. Behind them were three more lines of soldiers wearing Arthur’s Kingdom standard armor (instead of the amberrock gear) and holding long tubes with eyepieces.
Judging by the smokescreen around some of the weaponry held by the half-giants, the shout had been an order to fire. That explained some of the noise.
Her gaze swept to the approaching automata — to find nonesuch.
Then the bodies started falling from the sky, and she understood the soldiers looking up. There had been mages accompanying the automata, probably very high to avoid being either spotted visually or detected by the early-warning system. It was likely also a defense against the amberrock wall interrupting their flying magics.
She wheeled to look at the Golden Paladin, sure her eyes were as large as a hill giant’s but unable to wrangle her expression into anything more professional. Though his face was ever-hidden by the golden helm, the sense she got from him was savage and calculating approval.
How had he anticipated this? How had he done so much with so little? Was this what a military leader actually was? Oh, how she and Arthur had been playing at the role, as surely as children waving sticks. Her heart twisted.
“Well done,” he bellowed, almost causing her to jump again. “Squad leaders, secure the perimeter. Unit report in five.” He turned to the two women and said, “My King and Lady, if you’ll excuse me, I must attend to my men. I will return once our reports are completed to touch base with you about ours and discuss further strategy.” With a slight bow, he was gone with only the heavy bootsteps and rustling of his cape echoing back up the stairs.
Hesa’s hands tightened, fingernails biting into her palms. She couldn’t speak.
“That was impressive,” Arthur said.
“You don’t say?” Hesa snapped, garnering a look from Arthur. She knew she had to calm down but couldn’t. It had been so easy for him. Months to do what they had failed to do in decades. What they had lost thousands for.
“Would you rather he be incompetent?” Arthur asked calmly. “For it to have been a pitched and protracted battle? For us to have barely scraped through, against a force that Merlin obviously only sent as a jibe?”
“Not until you stop holding yourself to the standard he’s raised. The one the Creator hand-sewed for him, might I add. The vow you made to never forgive yourself is tattooed on your forehead and coloring your vision.” Arthur had been speaking coolly but with the force of a whip, and now she waved an arm at the assembled soldiers angrily. “Open your eyes and look at what we have now. The past is the past. You’d do well to remember that, before your tainted vision taints ours.”
Hesa stood atop the wall for a long time, as the soldiers cleaned up every last trace of any battle, until they were long gone and the sun had started to set. The anger — at Arthur, at the Golden Paladin, at Merlin, but most of all at herself — tossed her back and forth like a dinghy at sea until she was sick with herself for it. Feeling frayed, she finally descended into the Keep as night fell.
Arthur was right, of course. But a choice inscribed in stone couldn’t be erased with a thought. Her driving motivation since they’d won their freedom had been to never suffer a repeat. Had that led to her stretching herself too thin? If she had forgiven herself, would she have listened to Morgana? Would she have seen signs of Merlin’s plans before he enacted them?
What was this anger serving now? Had it ever served, or had it only been a punishment for an imagined failing?
She needed perspective. To commune with Celestial.
Through the winding, silent, and dark halls, Hesa’s feet took her with little input from her. She’d walked this specific path so often she could count the lines of the ebonwood planks as she trod them, and know how far she was from her goal.
She pushed open the heavy wooden door and entered Celestial’s Observatory.
The battle with Merlin’s forces was a flash in the pan, but the battle in Hesa’s heart is certainly heating up! I wonder what Celestial will have to say? Glad to be back, and see you next month!
Metacosm trivia time! (Now with improved flavor!)
The Kagdeur armory!
The freed peoples didn’t just blast a hole in the ground and dump things in it willy-nilly. They carved a massive hole, found a hunk of depleted thaumium, hollowed it out, and put the machines in the chamber created. The door was sealed with explosive traps and devastation runes and the tunnel collapsed over it.
Unfortunately, finding it wouldn’t have been a problem for Merlin (because he had access to Hesa’s records as her apprentice), but the digging itself would have taken his lackeys years. He started this process long ago, as Hesa surmised.
And it wasn’t easy to collect the machines, every magus-Lord had at least one, so it took some time to find them all. They had some scares with wannabes finding machines and attempting to gather power for themselves. Every so often (before the Merlin debacle), they’d find another one they had missed.
The automata within the armories had also had their power cores removed and put into a different armory entirely, which just further serves to prove how far Merlin was willing to go.
N.A. Soleil is a portmanteau pseudonym of the two authors' names.
You can read previous Metacosm Chronicles stories in past issues of Tumbleweird.