We three queens, p.1
We Three Queens, p.1Jon Jacks / Fantasy
We Three Queens
Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4th Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – Gorgesque
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The empress was no longer used to the snow.
She had been raised here and, as a child, had played happily in similar snowfalls.
Now, however, she was old, and felt the cold seeping deep into her bones. She had lived too long away from her home, she realised with a pang of regret; too long in warmer climates that had softened her.
She anxiously glanced back inside the tent, towards her great-grandson, wrapped up warm in his crib.
Unlike us, she thought, the Holy Parents had fled with the infant Jesus to the heat of Egypt, not the cold of Essylwg. But Egypt wasn’t safe for the young Magnus, whereas this was the very edges of the empire, not really fully under its control anymore.
Besides, it was here she had to come, she believed, to complete her task.
She stepped outside of the tent’s awning, this time looking over towards the carriage that had been safely parked up for the night. It was guarded by just a handful of legionaries, but so few had been prepared to risk remaining loyal to her.
She smiled, wondering if they ever sensed the presence of the other guardians that remained invisible to them, yet she could plainly see: the angels, sent here to help her achieve her goal.
When Helen awoke, she immediately noticed that the old empress’s bed was empty.
The empress seemed to sleep so little on a night, as if she either had unimaginable reserves of energy, or she remained too anxious to have a peaceful night.
Of course, no such concerns worried the child, who was still fast asleep.
Helen slipped out from beneath her warm bedsheets, grateful for the lushly carpeted floor as her bare feet sank into its thick woollen pile. She silently made her way across to the lantern light by the tent’s doorway, coming behind the old empress as she stared out into the night.
The snow was now falling in much heavier, more ferocious swirls than it had earlier. It would slow down their journey all the more.
‘You should be asleep,’ the empress declared sternly without bothering to make even the most fleeting of glances over her shoulder.
‘How did you hear me?’ Helen asked curiously as, standing beside the empress, she took a wrinkled old hand in hers. ‘I was being perfectly quiet!’
‘Yes, you were,’ the empress agreed, smiling down at the perplexedly frowning Helen. ‘But as well as learning to move silently, you also need to develop your other senses: such as how to feel – on the back of your neck, down your spine – that someone is approaching you from behind.’
Within the swirls of snow, the ferocious swarming of angry white flakes against the darkness of the sky, it was possible to see other images, other creatures, much as our imaginations allow us to see ships and dragons in the clouds, or bears and lions in the stars. Around the guarding soldiers, draped in thick robes to keep out the cold, the white whirls became vast, fluttering wings, as if they were a host of guarding angels rather than men.
No one but the empress was allowed to know what she had brought with her in the elaborate, sturdily constructed carriage. It was long, slim, low: useless for comfortably carrying people. But the legionnaires had been told that it had to be protected at all times, no matter the weather.
‘Is that what you think they are?’ the empress asked, now also staring out towards the carriage as if she had read Helen’s mind, or at least the expressions upon her face. ‘Mere imaginings?’
There was so much, Helen realised, to learn from this old empress.
She had survived to be over eighty years old when most would be lucky to reach thirty. Her highly elevated position made an early death almost as likely as that of the poor, those vying for positions within court resorting to poisons, slander, or treachery to make their way up the ladder of leadership.
Helen thought carefully about the empress’s question.
‘I used to think…when I was younger…that the things I saw within the snow might be real.’
The old empress chuckled.
‘When you were younger?’ she said with great amusement, smiling down once more upon the young Helen.
‘They say I’m wise beyond my years,’ Helen replied with the beginnings of a scowl, well aware that people who said this rarely meant it purely as a complement.
‘That will hold you in good stead, my dear,’ the empress kindly replied. ‘But…as for presuming everything we see within the squalls is all down to our imaginings: well, there you might be well advised to recall that a child still bears the connections with the realm she has just sprung from – just as an old crone like me prepares to embrace that everlasting realm once more. It grants us insights denied others; but only if we are prepared to recognise them as such.’
‘So…you’re saying there really are angels out there?’
The old empress nodded, yet not without accompanying her agreement with an anxious narrowing of her eyes.
‘Yes, they’re out there, thankfully: but even they aren’t prepared to fight every battle for us.’
‘We’re running, aren’t we?’
Helen said it as a matter of fact, without any hint of fear. This is what she had sensed since she and her father’s men had greeted the old empress and her small band of legionnaires on the shore over a month ago.
The empress glanced down at her, grinning with loving admiration.
‘You’ve noticed that we’re running? Good, good! But we won’t be running forever, trust me.’
‘But why are we running while traveling over my father’s lands? Your son has no power here; my father defeated the last three legions he sent to bring us back into the empire.’
‘Within any kingdom, there are powerful men prepared to betray their king if it increases their own power. Besides, there are other, far more dangerous powers–’
Helen saw the old empress’s eyes fleetingly flicker over towards the solid patch of darkness lying between their tent and the one occupied by Serverus the scribe (a man tasked with accurately recording the empress’s entire journey from its beginnings on the other side of the empire).
Within that coal-black darkness, there was the merest glint; the sparkle of beady eyes briefly caught in the extremes of the lantern’s already dim light.
It was a hawk, Helen was sure.
Admittedly, it was more likely that it was a fox: there were always foxes skulking around an encampment, looking for easy food amongst the waste, amongst the spills of badly handled cases. Even so, Helen sensed that it was a hawk, even though it made little sense that it would out on a night – and, moreover, so close to the ground too.
Perhaps she’d simply become overly aware of the presence of hawks: after all, the old empress always seemed particularly wary of them, as if granting them a degree of intelligence higher than most men.
It was the same with crows and wolves. On seeing one drawing close, the old empress would carefully observe them intently while – with a deft wave of a hand – ordering everyone else to continue with whatever they were doing, as if she hadn’t been distracted.
Crows could be harbingers of inauspicious news, hawks could cause mayhem amongst the livestock (yes, even amongst animals bigger that fowls, if they had any young), while wolves always had to be treated with caution: and yet the empress’s interest in these creatures went far beyond what any normal person might grant them, for she seemed to Helen to regard them with the deep suspicion usually reserved for those capable of the most malicious intent.
Coming under the empress’s probing stare, the hawk appeared to back away a little: then, abruptly, whirled around and began to rise into the air, to head deeper into the darkness lying beyond the tent.
‘Guards! Stop that hawk!’ the empress commanded, pointing after the swiftly fleeing animal.
It was, of course, impossible for any of the soldiers to spot the rapidly retreating hawk, the darkness swallowing it up completely. Nevertheless, a few of them obediently sprinted off in the direction indicated by the empress, or loosed arrows while making scrupulously sure to avoid the tents. Most naturally remained at their posts, protecting the carriage’s secret load.
Despite her great age, the empress rushed into the all-absorbing darkness with the pursuing soldiers, cursing their lack of numbers and their inability to mount a more substantial guard. She must have known the soldiers had a hopeless task, Helen reasoned, expecting her to almost immediately call off the chase, perhaps informing them that she held no one responsible for the hawk’s escape.
Instead, the empress flung up a hand, a sharp action unseen by anyone but Helen: and a slither of silver, of what could have been nothing more than a streak of moonlight, seemed to fly up from that hand.
High in the darkness, there was a flurry of feathers, a frightened squawk, an agonised squeal – and then the hawk abruptly dropped with a softened thud onto the snow covered ground, where it was suddenly easily visible.
There was a hiss, that flash of silver once more: and Helen could have sworn she caught a glimpse of a serpent rapidly writhing away, disappearing from view before the first of the men arrived at the motionless hawk.
‘One of your arrows must have struck it!’ the empress announced joyfully, congratulating the men on their supposed achievement, even though she must have known it was a lie.
As the legionnaires happily returned to their stations, Helen noticed that at least one of them appeared disgruntled by the effort wasted on chasing an innocent hawk: perhaps, like her, he wondered if the empress’s brain wasn’t becoming just a little addled in her old age.
If that were the case, it wouldn’t be long before he began doubting the wisdom of maintaining his allegiance to her.
Helen and the empress returned to the warmer interior of the tent, letting the large flap of the entrance fall back into place.
The empress had brought the lantern, its light briefly falling across the still soundly sleeping baby. He had obviously remained undisturbed by the commotion engendered by the soldiers’ chasing of the hawk.
The empress ignored the crib and its innocently dozing occupant, however, hurry across instead towards the specially constructed chess board that had so intrigued Helen from her very first sight of it.
It was a board that, opening up from its centre like three incredibly thick spokes of a wooden wheel – or the curved edges of a three stemmed cross taken out beyond the edges of a shield – allowed the use of three sets of pieces.
Despite this, a third player had never joined in with the games that Helen regularly played with the empress, the latter coolly explaining this away with a comment that the ‘third queen’ would come into play far sooner than was good for them: and therefore they should both make use of the opportunity they had to learn as much as they could about how the ‘real game’ would be played.
‘Unlike chess, this is a game of alliances, of the treachery of allies, of the necessity of patiently waiting while others wear themselves out fighting each other.’
The empress stared down at the game as if expecting Helen to have made a move while she had been away from the board.
‘I haven’t fully considered my move just yet…’ Helen began to explain, only for the empress to place a consoling arm around her shoulders.
The empress’s attempt at a smile looked more like a fearful grimace in the yellow light of the lamp held aloft in her other hand.
‘I know you haven’t moved, child,’ the empress interrupted gently. ‘I checked the board earlier.’
Helen had noticed that the empress continually checked the board for any changes to the positioning of the numerous pieces.
‘We must reset our pieces,’ the empress declared, setting the lantern down by the side of the board and beginning to quickly reposition her own set.
Moving round to her side of the board, Helen began to do the same with her pieces, placing them on their starting squares.
As the empress repositioned one of her war elephants, with its towering castle upon its great back, she briefly paused, as if momentarily weighing it in her hand before finally setting it down.
‘That reminds me,’ she said almost distractedly, before continuing with her deft moving of the pieces, ‘of a story I must tell you.’
‘Now what?’ Helen asked when every piece was back in its place on the edges of the board.
‘Now, we wait,’ the empress replied uneasily, pulling up a chair and seating herself down by her side of the game.
The War Elephant and The Humbled Man
Just as the sea eventually washes away all that stands before it, the vast army from the steppes had laid waste to every city, every kingdom, every empire that had lain within its inexorable path.
Proud, previously unbeatable armies had been slaughtered on the battlefield, their banners now used as rags for tending animals, their skulls as ornately bejewelled goblets.
Ancient, towering walls of great cities had proved useless: apart from preventing their garrisons and citizens from fleeing when the barbarous hordes had inevitably rushed in. The ensuing ferocious whirl of swords ensured the ground would be stained with blood for centuries to come.
No matter the growing, fearful reputation of this unstoppable army, a great many of the cities they originally came across would laugh at the impudence of these uncultured horsemen. As a dire warning of the outcome of any battle, they cited their own histories of successful expansion of empire, of immense learning, of innovations, riches, and far-reaching trade.
What had they to fear from barbarians?
They had a great deal to fear, of course; but by the time they had finally recognised this, their city would be burning, its citizens either slaughtered or rounded up to be sold as slaves.
Soon the cities the Rouran army came across began to send out not their armies but ambassadors naively offering terms forging an alliance between them.
When this failed, as it always did, the terms would be those of peace.
When this failed, as it always did, the offer would be the payment of unimaginable riches.
When this failed, as it always did, it would be an unconditional capitulation, the hope being that most of the city’s people would be spared death if not slavery.
Eventually, the invincible Rouran army found itself standing before the soaring walls of one of the very greatest and most resplendent cities of antiquity, one that many said might even have been the world’s very first city. If the truth of such a claim could be verified or not, then the proof would undoubtedly be found only in its own impressively stocked library.
The Rouran leader halted his army a short distance before the city’s towering main gate, ordering that his tent should be set up while they waited to see what self-humiliating terms the city would be prepared to offer them.
Around the Great Khan, bets were already being placed on how many would be within the negotiating party, it being well known by now that ambassadors were frequently sent back as nothing but heads in boxes.
No one was prepared to put money on it being an army that would be sent riding out to meet them. Unfortunately, it had been years since they had faced any serious challenge that tested their skills.
The city gates unhurriedly swung open.
And a war elephant of a size the Great Khan would have previously thought impossible confidently strode out towards the waiting army.
For the very first time ever, the Great Khan sensed a shiver of fear running through his army.
The horses whinnied in terror. They had to be brutally brought back under control.
The Khan’s men might have turned and run had it not being for a glare of his eyes that told his commanders that they would surely die if they fled.
The ground itself quaked as the towering beast advanced towards the Rourans. The castle set upon its back was indeed a fortress, one of many levels, and each heavily armoured.
Indeed, the whole beast was clad in glittering iron. It sparkled, too, with every precious stone imaginable, their worth at least that of everything he had conquered so far.
From small openings within the elephant’s soaring castle, their came the boom of thunder, not once but twice.
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