Chapter One

The Duke’s Daughter

 

Floroth is an island surrounded by evil. We have an uneasy truce with that evil, but should it ever cross into our land, we will strike it down like the vermin it is.

The Collected Proclamations of King Erastine the Gullible.

 

Duke Granje Damothe sighed loudly. He got up from his ornate chair and walked around to the front of his large oak desk and the map of the Dukedom of Damothe that he kept on the wall opposite.

It was a large map and took up most of the wall. It showed, in as much detail as possible, the Dukedom of Damothe and its immediate surroundings. Damothe sat on the northernmost edge of the peninsula that was the Kingdom of Floroth. It consisted of two hundred and fifty-three square miles, primarily forest and farmland.

Right in the centre of the map was the city of Lambington, the jewel of the Dukedom, although as cities go it was the second smallest in the Kingdom. Only the Dukedom of Anot had a smaller city, and Anot’s Dukedom consisted almost totally of swampland. Other than the city and the castle, in which the Duke currently resided, the only settlements in Damothe were villages, each depicted on the map as little more than a small circle marking its rough position in the world.

To the immediate south of Damothe was the Dukedom of Carlis. Carlis was a long thin Dukedom about twice the size of Damothe, although only the northernmost fraction of it was represented on the map. To the west was the Dukedom of Ganespa. Briademe, the Duke’s lovely young wife, also happened to be the daughter of the current Duke of Ganespa.  They made frequent trips to visit her parents and her homeland. To the east was the Landwash Sea, a part of the Great Southern Ocean that separated the human Kingdom of Floroth from the rest of the human race. It also separated the Kingdom of Floroth from much of the Empire of the elves. Only the Kingdom of Elistrade, a nation of the Elven Empire located immediately to the north of Damothe, was connected to Damothe by land. The worst thing about having the elves so close was that the city of Golespon, a city at least ten times as large as Lambington, sat just across the northern border, less than five miles from the Duke’s Castle.

‘You’re sure?’ the Duke questioned.

‘As certain as I can be without going myself.’ The man with Duke Granje was Sir Baden Richman. He was quite a venerable knight and one of the best tacticians in the land.

The Duke sighed again.

‘Your grace,’ Sir Richman said, ‘this isn’t the disaster that it might seem to be.  I’ve been in this castle for nearly fifty years now. I served your father when he was Duke. I’ve seen the elves do this sort of thing before.’ He pointed to an area of the wall somewhere to the west of the map. ‘As you know, somewhere just over here is the land of the Yagnok.’

‘Yagnok?’ the Duke repeated to himself; he felt a little out of touch. It sounded like a goblin word. The thousand goblin tribes were always vying for power between themselves, and their lands were constantly being renamed depending on which tribe was in ascendancy. That area was usually just referred to as the land of the thousand tribes.

‘Yagnok,’ Sir Richman confirmed. ‘Goblin lands, it’s always possible they’ve done something to upset the elves and this is what has caused them to fortify this town,’ his hand moved back to the map, ‘and pour so many troops in. I really don’t think we’re their target.’ He took a breath. ‘Ever since your great-great grandfather first built this castle, we’ve had almost constant peace with them.’

‘So the elves aren’t a threat?’ the Duke asked.

‘I couldn’t say definitely that they aren’t planning to attack,’ Sir Richman told him, ‘but this activity of fortifying the town suggests defence rather than attack.’

The Duke nodded. ‘What about the harpies?’

Sir Richman shrugged his shoulders. ‘I can’t say what they’re doing here. They aren’t great respecters of territory, and the elves and goblins both tolerate them because they make great shock troops in battle. They prefer to nest in mountains, and since there are no mountains in the Dukedom, I can’t begin to imagine what they might be here for.’

‘Could they have come here to spy on us or on Lambington then?’ the Duke suggested.

‘It’s possible,’ Sir Richman responded, ‘though it’s unlikely they would have brought an entire village with them if this was a covert mission. It may simply be there’s no room for them in the mountains,’ Sir Baden pointed to an area off the map that roughly marked the point where the nearest mountains were, ‘and so they’re moving around trying to find somewhere suitable. They may not even be aware they’ve entered our lands.’

The Duke shook his head. ‘Whatever they’re here for, we can’t let them stay.  Prepare my army to move out first thing in the morning.’

‘Yes, your grace,’ Sir Richman replied. He turned to leave the Duke’s study.

‘Oh and Baden,’ the Duke said. He wandered over to the fireplace to warm himself.

‘Yes, your grace?’ Sir Richman asked.

‘If you see my daughter, let her know that I’m available for our evening lesson now.’

‘Yes, your grace,’ Sir Richman repeated, and he let himself out.

The Duke sighed. He took down his broadsword from its normal resting place over the mantelpiece and examined it closely. ‘Well, my old friend,’ he said to it, ‘I guess we’ll have more work to do tomorrow.’

He put the sword back and sighed again. Why did his Dukedom have to be right on the border? Baden was right; this castle had helped to keep the peace in the region for close to two hundred years. Why would the elves try anything now? Besides, things could be worse; at least he didn’t have ogres for neighbours.

He wandered back over to the map and looked at the small pin Sir Richman had placed to mark the harpy village. According to reports from the locals and from Sir Richman’s spies, they had moved into the area no more than three days ago. Duke Damothe hoped Sir Richman was right and they were there by error.

The Duke returned to his desk and sat down. There were a large number of papers on the desk awaiting his attention, but he couldn’t concentrate on them now. Besides, his daughter might be along at any moment.

Her name was Jenni. She was ten years old, red-headed with her hair in pigtails.  She entered the Duke’s study little more than a quarter of an hour after Sir Richman had left. The clothing she was wearing would have been more suitable for a young servant boy than for a member of the ruling family of the Dukedom. ‘Good evening, father,’ she said gaily.

‘Good evening, Jenni,’ the Duke echoed. He did his best to hide his displeasure at how she was dressed. Remembering his manners, he moved quickly to the other side of his desk. There he pulled out his guest chair and indicated that Jenni should sit down.

Jenni did as she was bid. The chair was a little on the large side for her; she couldn’t quite reach the floor with her feet while keeping her back supported by the back rest. Also, in part because of the size of the chair and in part because of the material the chair was cushioned with, she had a tendency to slide gradually forward on the chair.

The Duke returned to his own seat and leaned forward, resting his elbows lightly on the surface of the desk. ‘I’ve been speaking with Sir Grant. He tells me he is very impressed with your weapons training. He tells me that you have developed great skill with the sword   and that you are a match for any of the boys of your age and that you can even beat some that are as much as two years your senior. Nevertheless, I would prefer it if you found some more ladylike hobbies.’

She looked him straight in the eye. ‘Father, you have told me many times that if the elves invade our land, they aren’t going to spare me just because I’m a girl.’

‘You’re right,’ the Duke replied. ‘I guess I just hate to see you practising with the sword when all the other ladies of the court are… are…’

‘Preening?’ she finished for him.

‘Well, yes, I suppose,’ the Duke replied. ‘I’m proud of you and of what you can do with a sword. But life isn’t all about warfare, and for a young lady such as yourself…’ He tailed off. ‘Well, let’s just say there are other things, perhaps more important things that you should be thinking about.’

‘Are you talking about Prince Goti?’ she asked directly.

‘Well,’ the Duke edged, ‘he did spend a lot of time with you the last time the King visited. I do think he’s interested in you.’

‘He’s old!’ Jenni said.

‘He’s fourteen!’ the Duke replied simply. ‘He’s younger than your brothers. There’s not even a full four years’ difference between the two of you.’

‘But, Father…’ Jenni began to protest.

‘Please, Jenni!’ the Duke interrupted. ‘I’m not saying you have to fall in love with him right this minute. But please, think about what I’ve said.’

Jenni’s eyes were downcast for a moment, her voice resistant to the words she spoke. ‘Okay, Father. I’ll think about it.’

‘Good!’ the Duke said. Then, changing the subject, he said, ‘So, on to tonight’s lesson.’

‘Yes, Father,’ Jenni replied. She shifted her position in the chair, making herself comfortable.

For a moment the Duke stopped to think. What subject could he discuss with her today? It usually felt more like a discussion than a lesson. She was quite intelligent for her age and often had insights that hadn’t even occurred to the Duke. He smiled to himself. She was so keen to learn too, more keen than either of her brothers had been when they were her age. Just recently he had discovered that she had been sneaking magic lessons with Mangloss, the castle’s resident wizard. If he ever found out officially, he’d have to disapprove; magic was something only peasants learnt. As it was, though, he felt proud of her for wanting to push herself. ‘I think maybe we should talk about harpies.’

‘Harpies again, Father?’ Jenni asked, unsure. ‘We discussed harpies just four nights ago.’

‘Harpies again!’ the Duke repeated insistently.

Jenni nodded. She climbed down off the chair and walked over to the Duke’s reasonably extensive bookcase. It took Jenni only a few seconds to find the book she wanted. It was where she had put it after the last time they had discussed this subject. She returned to the chair, and having climbed back on and made herself comfortable with the book resting gently on her lap, she asked, ‘What do you want to know?’

‘Describe them to me,’ the Duke said. ‘Their physical features.’

Jenni gave her father a coy little smile as if she was party to some secret neither of them were going to share. She didn’t move to open the book; it was there merely in case she needed it. Instead she gave her answer directly from memory. ‘Those who have never seen a harpy often believe they are part bird and part woman. This, in part, is due to an old bard’s tale written some five or six hundred years ago that is still popular to this day.’

‘Sing it for me,’ the Duke said teasingly.

‘Please, Father,’ Jenni replied, embarrassed. ‘I’d rather not sing. Besides, I’m not sure I remember all the words.’

‘Another time then,’ the Duke said with a wink. ‘So, if they aren’t as described in the song, what do they look like?’

‘Well, they have bat wings rather than feathered wings. They are grey in colour and have arms as well as legs and wings. Their feet are similar to those of a bird, although they have four toes in front and one behind.’

‘Ah, yes,’ the Duke commented, ‘ante-dactyl.’

‘Auntie who, Father?’ Jenni asked.

‘Never mind,’ the Duke replied, ‘go on!’

‘Well,’ Jenni seemed to have lost her train of thought. ‘Their feet are ideal for perching, and it has been claimed that their talons are powerful enough to smash through even the strongest steel armour.’

The Duke started to wave his hands from side to side.

Jenni took the hint. ‘As can the claws they possess on their hands, which are retractable.’

‘Anything else?’ the Duke asked.

Jenni thought for a second and then said, ‘Their faces are weird. From the pictures in the book,’ she indicated the book on her lap, ‘I think they look a bit dog-faced. Their ears stick straight up, like a horse or a cat. They have a very animal-like muzzle, although their noses are the same dull grey as the rest of their body and don’t really stand out like they do on a dog.’

‘Anything else?’ the Duke asked.

‘Hmm,’ Jenni said. She closed her eyes while she thought. ‘Well, the rest of their bodies actually do look relatively human. They tend to be flat-chested, though.’ She looked at the Duke and then picked up the book and opened it. After a few seconds of searching for the right page, she said with a nod, ‘Flat-chested.’ Then she asked, ‘What does that mean?’

‘Nothing to worry about,’ the Duke replied, suppressing a smile. ‘You’ll learn in due course.’

Jenni sighed, a habit she had picked up from her father.

‘So what else?’ the Duke asked.

‘Hmm?’ Jenni replied, a confused look on her face.

The Duke pointed with a thumb over his left shoulder.

‘I already mentioned the wings, Father,’ Jenni replied.

‘Lower down,’ the Duke hinted, ‘near the waist.’

‘Near the waist?’ Jenni repeated, still confused.

‘At the back and near the waist,’ the Duke clarified.

‘Oh, their tails!’ Jenni exclaimed joyfully as she finally got the hint.

‘Yes,’ the Duke exulted. ‘Describe them.’

‘A full grown harpy will have a tail maybe three feet in length. They are about half of that in diameter at the base, tapering to a rounded point. They are not pre… preh…’ She gave up trying to remember the word and decided instead to check the book again. Once she found the right page, she read the word out one syllable at a time: ‘Pre-hen-sile.’

‘Good,’ the Duke said. ‘What is the tail used for?’

‘It’s a balance for when the harpy is perched,’ Jenni replied immediately, closing the book and returning it to her lap.

‘And?’ the Duke asked.

Jenni didn’t answer for a second; instead she stared into space. Then she glanced at the study door as if hoping it might somehow contain a clue. Finally she gave up and opened the book again. ‘Oh yes, it can be used like a rudder to help the harpy turn while in flight.’

‘What strengths do harpies have?’ the Duke asked quickly, trying to keep his daughter on her toes.

‘The muscles in their shoulders are shared by the wings and their arms. Although they don’t look any more muscle bound than any human, their muscu-la…’ She struggled for a moment with the word and then decided to describe it a slightly different way. ‘Their muscles are more concen…’ Again she struggled a little, but it wasn’t quite so difficult a word, ‘…concentrated than ours. They are between three and six times stronger in the upper body than the average human.’ Jenni looked relieved as she finished her sentence.

‘What about their weaknesses?’ the Duke asked.

‘Harpies have hollow bones. It makes them light enough for their wings to carry them, but it also makes them easier to break. Although they have strong arm muscles, they are creatures of the air and their legs are made for perching rather than walking. They are maybe half as strong as a human in the lower body.’ Jenni gave the Duke a cute smile as she reached the end of her description.

‘Describe them in battle,’ the Duke requested.

‘Harpies can fly,’ Jenni said. ‘That means town walls are useless against them. However, they don’t like to carry any extra weight when flying. They don’t tend to bother with things like armour; they can’t armour their wings anyway, because then they wouldn’t be able to use them and that would effectively cripple them. A harpy will also think twice about carrying a heavy weapon such as a sword. If they are armed with anything other than their claws and talons, it will usually be a ranged weapon such as a bow or a dart-thrower.’

The Duke nodded sagely. ‘What about their community?’

‘Never knowing when they might need to take to the air, harpies don’t tend to wear clothing, even socially. That said, they have been known to wear light skirts that can be removed in a fraction of a second if they feel the need to save the weight. Harpies prefer to live on the sides of mountains; they like to be high up and unas…’ She struggled with another word, ‘unassa… un-get-to-able. They prefer to be near caves, though they don’t tend to live totally in the cave as they also like to be in the sunlight. They might sleep in the cave, though it’s more common for them to build huts.’

‘How big are they?’ the Duke asked.

‘About human sized,’ Jenni responded, a little confused, ‘perhaps slightly shorter.’

‘I mean their villages,’ the Duke clarified.

‘Oh,’ Jenni commented. ‘Each village might contain as many as three hundred harpies. Actually, even larger villages are possible, but these are very rare.’

‘Are they intelligent?’ the Duke asked.

‘They have their own community and their own language. They don’t have an education system like we do, but it’s thought that if they did they might be of equal ability to us.’

‘Can they use magic?’ the Duke asked.

‘That’s unknown. No harpy has ever been seen wielding magic, but it’s thought that there’s no reason why they couldn’t, if someone were to teach them.’

‘Okay. What about their leadership?’ the Duke asked.

This was a new question to Jenni, and she found herself reaching for the book again. Once she found the page she began to read from it. Although she still had to read some words one syllable at a time, for a girl of her age she had quite an amazing reading voice. ‘Although most people think the race is purely female, it would be impossible, as a race made purely of one sex would die out within a single gen-er-a-tion. Each village contains a male. He is known as the chief of the village, and it is his job to service all the females of the village.’ She paused. ‘Father…?’

‘Yes, Jenni?’ the Duke asked.

‘What does it mean by service?’

The Duke hesitated. ‘I’ll, er, I’ll tell you when you get older.’

‘Horse and Tiger, Father! That’s what you always say,’ Jenni commented with a sigh. Her eyes were downcast again.

‘What else can you tell me about males?’ the Duke pressed.

‘Once the chief begins to get too old, or sometimes when the chief is unpopular with the rest of the village, a group of females in the village will begin to raise an heir. Sometimes the heir is raised with the full support of the chief, although most of the time they have to bring him up in secret. Should they get caught, they will likely be killed with the heir. Sometimes leadership of the village can change hands through challenge. An heir that is tired of waiting for the chief to die can challenge for leadership of the village. Likewise, any chief that wants to be chief of two villages can challenge the chief of another village for leadership. This is how the larger villages come into being. It is only in these larger villages that sometimes two heirs for the chief’s position are raised. Usually instead of fighting it out, they will divide the village evenly between them, but there are always exceptions.’

The Duke raised his hand to indicate she’d read enough. ‘What is the life expectancy of a harpy?’

Jenni closed the book and rested it back on her lap. ‘About thirty to forty years. They reach full adulthood by the age of eight. If they live to be as old as thirty, they often begin to display signs of senility. Again, there are always exceptions. One legend claims that a certain harpy huntress was still fighting fit at the age of sixty. Some even say she was still active into her nineties.’

‘But that is only a legend,’ the Duke commented. He poured himself a drink from a small flask he had resting on the table. ‘What about other male children?’

‘Harpies tend to have more female than male children anyway. For every ten females or so, only one male child is born. If a village already has a chief and they don’t need an heir, then the child will usually be killed by whatever means they happen to have on hand.’

‘Do they eat their children?’ the Duke asked, sipping his drink.

‘Harpies are carnivores. They will eat the flesh of any other creature, including humans, goblins, elves, or whatever. However, it is not believed that they are cannibals.’

‘Good!’ the Duke commented. ‘That will do for tonight, Jenni.’

‘Father,’ Jenni’s demeanour changed a little now that they were finished with the lesson. She folded her arms. ‘Just why are we talking about harpies again so soon?’

The Duke sighed and nodded. ‘A small harpy village has crossed into our lands. Tomorrow I plan to take the army and remove them. Our chat was as much to remind myself as to what they were as much as it was to educate you.’

‘Can I come?’ Jenni asked.

‘This is war, Jenni dear,’ the Duke responded.

‘But Daddy!’ Jenni protested. ‘I’m ten years old. You let both of my brothers go to war with you when they were my age. Is it because I’m a girl?’

‘I let Greyforth come with me merely to watch when he was fourteen. It was true that Tir came along as well, and it is also true that he was only ten at the time. However, I didn’t know he was with us until we actually saw the enemy. You see, Greyforth had helped to smuggle him along. He didn’t have my blessing to be there.’

‘They’ll be with you tomorrow though, with your blessing,’ Jenni commented.

‘Greyforth is now a knight of the realm. He is twenty years of age. Of course he’ll be with me tomorrow. And though Tir hasn’t been officially knighted yet, I plan to give him command of the reserve forces. It would be good for him to gain some experience of command. And as nasty as harpies might get in battle, I don’t expect to have to call on him for aid,’ the Duke explained.

‘So I’d be safe if I stay with Tir?’ Jenni pleaded.

The Duke sighed. He could look the King straight in the eye and argue to the tenth degree on the merest subtext of a declaration, yet he found it virtually impossible to refuse his own daughter anything. ‘Very well, you may come. You will join the reserves in the capacity of an observer only. If I do call upon the reserves, you will not join them in battle. Is that clear?’

‘It’s clear, Father,’ Jenni replied.

‘Good,’ the Duke said. ‘Make sure it is. If you disobey me in this, I’ll never take you to war with me again.’

‘I’ll be good, Father,’ Jenni replied. She got up from her chair, made her way round his rather large oak desk, and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Thank you, Father, I can’t wait to tell Tir.’

‘I think we’re done here for the night. I’m very proud of your progress. I think you should get an early night if you want to be up to join the war party,’ the Duke told her.

Like most children of her age, Jenni was usually quite resistant to the idea of going to bed. Today, however, instead of insisting that her father allow her to stay awake a little longer, she was clearly so excited about being allowed to go to war the next day that she gave no resistance at all. Jenni walked over to the bookcase, where she returned the volume she had borrowed. Then she headed to the door, turning before opening it to wave and say, ‘Goodnight, Daddy.’

‘Goodnight, Jenni,’ the Duke said, echoing the wave. Then he suddenly had a thought. ‘Oh Jenni, hold on a second.’

‘Yes, Father?’ Jenni said questioningly. She hovered by the door.

‘It might be best if you didn’t tell Mother about our little conversation,’ he suggested. ‘She might be resistant to the idea.’

‘Okay, Daddy,’ she agreed readily, and opening the door, she left him alone in the study.

The Duke sat back at his desk and sighed. He still had a lot to do before he too went to bed. He had to go and check that Sir Richman had prepared the troops properly for tomorrow’s battle. He needed to make sure that the archers had plenty of arrows in case the harpies took to the air. He had to talk with his officers and his sons to tell them where he was going to want them during the battle. He also had to put on his armour and make sure it still fitted him; he didn’t have long to get it adjusted if it didn’t.

First, though, he should go and tell his wife. It wasn’t something he wanted to do, as she would probably be up all night worrying, but if he didn’t tell her tonight he’d never hear the end of it. He could understand why she would worry too. It might be no more than a skirmish, but he still anticipated some losses. Tir and Jenni ought to be safe with the reserves, but Greyforth would demand to be in the forefront of the action, and as a knight of the realm it was his right to be there. With Greyforth’s wife about to give birth any day now, the Duke would have preferred it if his son decided to stay home with her.


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