Cobalt had reached the camp where those not on the squads had been resting. By now, everyone had returned, and she felt the eyes on her as she walked to her tent, refusing to turn and meet their gazes. Not until she was able to counter them. And to figure out how to do that, she needed some solitude.
Her tent was the same size as all the others, but she didn’t have to share it as they did, giving her double the room of the rest of the warriors. She sat on a wide, soft pillow on the left side of the tent–the right side being her bedroom–and closed her eyes, reaching inside to find the peace to meditate, sinking to where she hoped answers would come.
When she opened her eyes again, the day had shifted into late evening, and her mind blazed with the things she had seen.
Poking her head out of the canvas flap, she yelled to anyone within earshot, “Find me Onson! Now! And some food.”
The food arrived before Onson did, and Cobalt was feeling satisfyingly full when the necromancer arrived outside her tent and knocked on the canvas, “Cobalt, I believe you sent for me.”
“I did, please come in.”
Onson ducked to enter, and took the pillow seat he was offered, sitting across from Cobalt. He dropped back his hood and looked at her, eyes glittering in the blue light from a magical lamp.
“You said you would convey one message for me, without anything owed by me to you.”
Onson inclined his head, “I did indeed. One task, for which no return payment is required.”
“Good. Then I want you to stand by me–you don’t have to speak, just be present–while I speak to my troops. Some will leave right away, some in the dark of night, but whoever remains in the morning will be the force I can bring to bear. I want you to take that number, and my greetings, to whoever leads this plotting. Tell them I and my forces will be nearby, ready at their chosen signal to enter the cave and help to subdue any resistance to the change in leadership.”
“I can do this,” Onson agreed. “How might they contact you in return?”
Cobalt thought hard, “There’s a small copse of trees, to the right of the cave and a short way into the woods. I will have one of mine stationed there, in hiding, at all times. If a message is conveyed to this place, it will reach me.”
“Very well. When do we speak to your people?”
“Now,” Cobalt gestured for Onson to exit first, and followed.
The camp was dotted with fires, surrounded by pixies keeping warm, making food, or just chatting–gossiping, Cobalt thought, and most likely about her.
She climbed onto the small podium and spread her wings, creating a glow around herself that called her warriors’ attention to her.
When all was quiet, and her pixies–except for the guards–were gathered, she looked at them all. In many eyes she saw doubt. In many postures, she saw anger. And the feeling that drove towards her from her collected troops, was mostly made up of confusion and fear.
Onson fell into his place behind her, and to her left, standing silently, his hood back up.
“Warriors! My warriors. I have trained most of you. I have fought beside you, and sparred with you. I have shared food and rest and work and battle with you all. I am your commander, and while that is the case, you will listen to me.
“Yes. I felt defeat at the hands of the traitor. I underestimated her. The beasts she clings to have taught her more than I had imagined.
“I was sloppy. I was careless. I was arrogant. We should be carrying the traitor home to be drained, but instead we remain here, unable to return by order of the leader of our clan. I was in error, and I will not be so again. When we move once more to take her, we will succeed because we will not underestimate her, or her beasts, again.
“But. my family, I stand here today to speak of another matter. One which concerns us all personally,” Cobalt paused and took a deep, steadying breath. She was about to speak treason. “Deserina is no longer fit for her post.”
There was uproar. Cries of anger, bewilderment, demands for explanation, shouts that branded her traitor. Cobalt waited until the noise began to slacken, then held up her hands placatingly.
“I know the weight of what I have said, and I ask you, as warrior-kin, to hear me out. Any who wish to leave may do so, without fear, once I am done.”
Silence fell. She heard the crackle of fires. The whisper-shush of leaves talking in a soft breeze. And again, she took a steadying breath.
“I have information, which I believe to be correct, that the history of our leaders has been full of dread and decay. The ritual which gives our clan a leader, also slowly destroys them. They connect to all of us, giving us life, but doing so causes the Breaking. Their mind collapses under the strain, as Deserina’s is doing right now.
“There are secret Histories, hidden from even those who seek them–rare though they are…discouraged as we are from learning of our own past. These Histories tell how each leader has either fallen prey and had to be removed, or died before it could happen. This Breaking is inevitable, but they hide it from us like we are children.
“I say no more of this. I say the folken currently plotting a way to remove Deserina, before her madness, her Breaking, destroys us–as it will if left unchecked. I am sending a message to these plotters, that I and any of you who remain come the morning will stand with them, when they move.
“If Deserina is left to Break further, the ties that bind us will falter and we will fall into the chaos that the hidden Histories tell of. Killing each other, until someone new can be given the reins.
“So now I tell you: you may stay or leave. None will stop you if you wish to go. I ask only for you to remain out of touch with the clan for now, to give no warning of what is to happen. Allow us a clean break, and a new dawn.
“Those of you left here tomorrow, we will discuss further.”
Cobalt stepped from the podium and was back inside her tent before the next storm of noise erupted.
When Onson appeared again, she sighed, but invited him in.
“You spoke well, Cobalt. Most warriors cannot hold a crowd.”
“Yeah. Maybe I’ll be a wandering storyteller when all this goes tits up,” she sighed and lowered her head to her hands, massaging her temples where a headache was growing.
Onson looked at her, almost kindly, “You know that our paths are long and winding, Cobalt. That the right decision can lead to a hundred wrong ones, and vice versa. You understand that the choices you make affect a thousand others. You understand some of the complexity of the Tree of Choice. Yes?”
Cobalt nodded wearily. It was compulsory for her current role. Others studied it in much more depth–Onson, she now realised, was one of them. Which made sense, she supposed.
“Then you know that all of your available choices were the result of a hundred, a thousand, a million and more choices, all leading back to the very first.”
“Kinda,” Cobalt nodded. “It’s a bit foggy but I get the idea.”
“Then you know that this has come to pass through no choices solely your own. All of those choices made by others led you to your pathways, and your choice of which to go down has been made. What you find as you travel, and what others find as a result of your choices in this, they are things yet to be known. But still, for all of this supposed freedom, we are led by the choices that came before us.”
Cobalt poured a cup of wine and bolted half of it down in a gulp, “I never stood a chance, did I? I was going to come to this road no matter what.”
“But that’s the sad part, do you not see?” Onson spread his arms, his gaze burning intensely into hers. “You did, once. One choice you made one one day, more likely multiple choices on multiple days, might have led you somewhere entirely different than where you are now.”
“Well either way it hardly matters, does it? I’ve chosen this, and I can’t go back. There’s no point trying to figure out where I could have chosen differently.”
Onson smiled his narrow smile, “I suppose not. Not for you, anyway. For one such as myself, such things act as a pastime–a mental exercise, you might say. I see threads and connections to this world that you could never understand…” He looked sad, for a moment. Bereft, lonely. Alone. But that was gone in a moment, the usual reserved face returning. “Good night, Cobalt. I will deliver your message tomorrow, and I wish you and whoever remains, and those who will be glad to receive your help, the best in carrying out your tasks.”
Cobalt nodded tiredly and Onson left, securing the flap behind him.
She was tired. Exhausted. But she knew sleep would not come for a while, and sadly tonight was not a night where she could afford to drink herself into it.
Still, the bed was comfortable, and she took to it gladly. Tomorrow…well, tomorrow would come, and she would see whatever she saw. Though she already mourned those who would leave, she understood, and she felt joy of those who would remain.
Sleep did take its time coming, but when it did she fell into it gladly, and deeply. And dreamed of her clan, covered in blood as Desernia’s Breaking continued unchecked.