Chapter 24
For Hearth and Home

Eagle, Gladius; Gladian Year 603

"Why do men insist of having wars? What good ever comes of the fighting and the killing? I remember reading a book on the philosophy of the Eastland. They say that all things exits in two parts: light and dark, male and female, good and evil, and so on. Maybe it is because woman creates life that man must destroy it..."
- Excerpt from the private diary of Lady Liria

Liria sat in the garden of the Leon manor. She could not bear to be alone at such a time, so she invited her sister. As usual, Nyssa never seemed to take anything seriously and was playing with her niece. Worst of all, she was playing with sticks as if they were swords, the sort of game she once played with dear Leonard. Little Sonia did not need that. Liria had to say something.
"Why do you insist on doing that?" she asked, making no effort to hide her irritation. "I want my daughter to grow up into a proper lady, unlike a certain someone I know."
Shameless as Nyssa was, the insult did not even faze her. Why did she have to be like that? She even drove their father to disown her. Was that not enough to make her correct her ways?
"It's a good idea," Nyssa said. "You have to start while they're young."
"Start what?" Liria asked.
"She's going to be the next Defender, isn't she? She has to be good with a sword if she wants to be as good as her father. Isn't that right, Sonia the Defender?"
Sonia nodded vigorously and assumed a fighting stance that mimicked her father. Seeing her do that only reminded Liria of Leonard at that age. Her heart sank at the remembrance of her lost child, but she hastily broke free of the tendrils of sorrow, lest she find herself trapped in the slough of depression once again. Instead, she focused her energy against her sister.
"Absolutely not!" Liria shouted in an uncharacteristically loud and severe voice. "I will bear another son for Julian. The thought of a woman succeeding an Elemental Knight is absurd!"
"It happened in Luther's family," Nyssa pointed out. "They didn't let her wear the armor, but she created three False Gems. That's more than anyone else. The Elemental Knights need a woman's patience. Besides, times have changed. It's not such a big deal for a woman to carry a sword."
"That would explain all the women filling out the ranks of the King's men," Liria said sarcastically. "The times do not change that much, Nyssa. There will always be certain things a woman cannot do."
"You never know unless you try."
Liria was losing her patience with her sister's unflagging bull-headedness and feared she would have to raise her voice again. She was spared by a servant rushing up to her with a concerned look on her face.
"Milady, someone is here for you. Please hurry."
Liria was not so uncouth as to run, but she did walk briskly. Upon reaching the atrium, she saw Julian's squire with an arrow in his back. One of the house guards plucked out the arrow. Liria screamed at the sight of all the blood and nearly fainted. A handful of servants rushed up to support her.
The guards tried to lead the squire to the doctor, but he insisted on speaking with Liria. Seeing his deathly pale face and bloodied tunic, she did not expect him to be long for this world.
"Lady Liria..." he said weakly. "I know... I'm no sight... for a lady's eyes... but my news... is urgent... Lord Julian... has fallen in battle... According to his wishes... I brought the gear... of the Defender... back here..."
Liria could not believe what she was hearing. It could not be.
"No... No, no, no... No!"
"Please!" the squire strained. "You must... listen... Lady Liria... Greystone... has fallen... The King's men are in retreat... The invaders can't be far behind..."
"What of Luther?" Nyssa asked.
She had just appeared behind Liria. The squire weakly raised his head to look at her.
"I... don't know... I came as soon as I found Lord Julian... Before the battle, he told me... to tell you to flee to Rowan... You will be safe there... Take the gear... It is up to the young mistress now... to succeed him..."
"No, no!" Liria screamed. "I do not believe you! You are lying!"
Because she was caught up in her hysteria, Liria did not see how her words injured the brave young man who had traveled so far gravely injured to fulfill his master's will. He started to shake violently and cough up blood. He was already gone before his body finally stilled in death. Horrified at what she saw, Liria fainted.
Without the lady of the house to give orders, Nyssa took charge of the situation.
She pointed to one of the servants and shouted, "Get the smelling salts! Wake her up!" She then pointed to another. "Clean off the Defender's gear and wrap it up for shipping." She then waved her hand to include a group of them. "Start packing, but make it light. Only provisions for the road, a few keepsakes and a couple changes of clothes. Not everything." She then walked up to the guards. "See that this man gets a proper burial and have your captain report to the House Aran manor. We need to plan our defense."
Everyone went to work with their assigned tasks. Nyssa quickly went into the garden where she had left Sonia. Oblivious to what was going on, the little girl was happily swinging her pretend sword at invisible enemies. Seeing her aunt, she picked up the other stick and offered it to her. Nyssa held up her hand to decline.
"Sonia, Aunt Nyssa has to go now. You and your mommy are going to go on a little trip, so wait here like a good girl until the servants get you. Okay?"
Sonia seemed a little confused, but nodded.
"When will I see you again, Aunt Nyssa?" she asked.
"Soon," Nyssa replied. "Be good until then."
She waved goodbye and Sonia returned the wave. As she was leaving, she looked to one of the servants in the hall.
"Watch over Sonia until it's time for her to go."
"Yes, milady," the servant replied with a bow.
Nyssa had to hurry. Time would not be her ally.

* * *

It took about an hour for the captain of the Leon manor guards to arrive. Nyssa was waiting with the Aran captain and wasted no time explaining the strategy to them.
"This is where the ore from the mines gets processed," she said, "so the enemy will definitely come here. The defense of the town itself is the garrison's business, but we have to defend our own manors if they fail.
"Keeping with Julian's orders, Liria and Sonia will be evacuated to Rowan with as few servants and escorts possible. That should leave us with plenty of people who can fight, but there are a lot more who can't. If I'm not mistaken, the Leon manor has a basement that locks from the inside, right?"
"Yes, milady," the Leon captain replied.
"Good. Anyone who can't fight goes there. Think up a password and tell them to unlock the door only if they hear it. Make it clear to your men that they mustn't give away the password to enemy. No matter what. The enemy will just kill them anyway and it will betray all the others. This is where the integrity of your men count. Can you trust your men?"
"With my life, milady."
"Be sure you can trust them with the lives of everyone else in the household as well. I won't question your judgment, though. You know them better than me. Now, let's talk about the actual battle strategy.
"How much of a fight can put up will depend on the weapons you've got there. You'll be needing every able-bodied man you have and if there aren't enough proper weapons to go around, make do with what you have. Kitchen knives, sharp sticks, anything.
"Barricade all doors with whatever you can use and try to block the windows. Have a bucket of water or dirt at least every five fathoms in case they try to set fire to the place.
"Avoid fighting in open areas like the atrium. Corridors are a little better, but it would be best if you make them fight room to room. Don't let them use their numbers against you. Don't give them room to maneuver.
"Close-quarter combat is too risky, so use spears or pikes if you have them. Longbows won't do you much good in such a confined space, but crossbows will be fine. Assume the enemy is as well equipped as us or even better off.
"If they've really beaten the King's men, they've gotten the chance to plunder plenty of weapons and armor. Even if they look like Gladian soldiers, challenge them, make them prove who they are. A foreign accent will be a dead giveaway, but they might have some traitors on their side. Keep your wits about you. One of the King's men will surely back down in the home of one of the Twelve Stewards.
"Any other details you can think of, I leave it to you. We don't have much time and there's a lot of work to do. Let's move out."
"Yes, milady," the two captains said together.
Nyssa walked out of the room right behind them. Even though she was not a man, she was an able body and had every intention of taking an active role in the defense of her home.

* * *

It was unbelievable. When Liria came to, all the servants were busy doing all sorts of bizarre tasks. Moving furniture, packing up valuables, drawing weapons... None of it made any sense. Whenever she asked for an explanation, all she got was 'following orders' or something to that effect.
She was the lady of the house. Was she not the one who was supposed to be giving orders? Before she knew what was happening, a guard told her that it was 'time to go' and escorted her outside where Sonia and a couple servants were waiting with horses. After being helped onto her horse, she looked at one of the servants beside her.
"What is going on?" she asked.
"We are taking you and Mistress Sonia to Rowan as ordered, milady."
"Ordered? By whom?"
"Lady Nyssa, milady."
"How can she impose her will on my household?" she asked angrily.
An older maidservant on her other side supplied the answer.
"She is only doing what Lord Julian wished, milady. She speaks with so much authority that the men forget she is a woman. This is the home of all of us and we want to protect it. Lady Nyssa has become the leader in the absence of Lord Julian and Lord Luther."
"Is this not my own household?"
"Yes, milady, but do you want to go against Lord Julian's wishes? Lady Nyssa is doing nothing more than echoing the will of your lord husband."
"Should I not know my own husband's will better than her?"
Liria's agitation was obvious, but the servant did not back down.
"Forgive me if I sound rude, milady, but would you have devised a plan for the defense of the manor? Would you have had us travel light so as to hasten our flight to Rowan? You are the pinnacle of ladyship, but it does not make you an ideal decision-maker in times of crisis. Lady Nyssa may be spurned among the ladies of society for her mannish ways, but desperate times force us to turn to the unlikeliest of people."
Liria could not believe the impudence of the servant. Her pretenses were only a honey glaze over viper's venom. It was incorrigible, but she knew that now was not the time for punishment. She also knew she would not be able to sway the servants now that they were so committed to their current work. It was all so aggravating.
"Guard," she said to one of the escort. "I wish to stop by the Aran estate before we leave the city. I want to... say goodbye to my sister."
"Yes, milady," the guard said.
She may not be able to change the situation, but she would have words with her meddlesome sister.

* * *

The preparations were coming along nicely. Nyssa could only hope the Leon manor was getting things done half as well. A guard handed her a light spear to accompany the shortsword at her waist. She would now be able to fight at both medium and close range.
She knew the odds were not in their favor, but perhaps the enemy would focus more on maintaining the momentum of their attack rather than wasting both time and troops on laying siege to each and every household. 'Plan for the worst, pray for the best' was a most appropriate motto here.
She heard a knock on the door. She motioned for the servants to continue what they were doing. She could already imagine who it was. Opening the door proved her right.
"I thought it was you," she said nonchalantly.
Liria seemed quite upset. Another thing she expected.
"You have a lot of nerve giving orders to the servants of my household."
The bitterness dripped from her sister's words, but Nyssa did not let it get to her. She knew she was in the right.
"Someone had to do something," Nyssa said. "You fainted."
"A man died right in front of me! His blood was all over my marble tile! My husband is dead! I have lost my son! My entire world is falling apart and you take the opportunity to be man of the house! Are you so completely devoid of feeling!? Do you even care what happens to me!? You are so shameful! I can see why Father disowned you, you--!"
Liria had gone too far and Nyssa slapped her for it. She had put most of her weight in it, too. Her sister had crossed the line. Liria held her cheek in speechless shock.
"You've lost a lot, Liria," Nyssa said, keeping her voice level, "and I'm sorry for that, but you're not the only one. My Luther is probably dead out there, too. The world doesn't revolve around you. There are more than fifty lives just as important as yours in that manor and I'm trying to save them... and you. Yeah, you've lost a lot, but so have I and if I have anything to say about it, I'm not going to let them take any more!"
Nyssa could see the tears in Liria's eyes. It was then that she realized that she was crying herself.
"Oh, Nyssa!" Liria exclaimed, falling into her sister's arms. "I am so sorry! I--! I--!"
"Ssh," Nyssa hushed, returning the embrace. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have hit you. We're all a little emotional right now. I guess I'm a woman after all."
Liria stood up. There was a pleading look in her eyes.
"Come with us, Nyssa. Please. I cannot bear to have anything happen to you."
Nyssa shook her head.
"I'm staying here to defend this place. The servants would lose morale if I left them. Besides, this is what I want to do. I promised Luther I'd be here waiting for him."
"You are all I have left..."
Nyssa shook her head.
"No, I'm not," she said. "You've got Sonia. And you better let her become the best Defender she can or Julian's ghost will never rest." She looked past Liria and said, "You need to get going. The enemy will be here soon."
She made a hand signal to the escort. He came up behind Liria and started to carry her away. Liria did not go willingly.
Struggling fruitlessly with her escort, she screamed, "No! Unhand me!" And when that did nothing, she reached out to her sister and cried, "Nyssa! Nyssa!"
Nyssa closed the door to drown out Liria's screams. It was for the best. She motioned for the guards to set up the barricade. Like she told Liria, the enemy would be there soon.

* * *

It was the middle of the night when the sounds of war reached Eagle. Nyssa personally double-checked everything to ensure the manor was secure and that everyone who could not fight had been safely evacuated to the basements. She decided to split the guards between the two wings of the manor in the hope of splitting the enemy's ranks as well. They should be able to hold out for a while.
She hoped the people at the Leon manor were as well-prepared. The gates of the city were breached in less than an hour. The garrison would fall in short order. It was only a matter of time. As one of the two biggest houses in the city, the manor was sure to catch the enemy's attention.
As she suspected, it did not take long for the enemy to start challenging their barricades. The sound of glass shattering filled the corridors along with the sound of axes cutting into the ancient oak doors. Fire arrows poured in the openings that were made. Nyssa on her end and the captain on the other barked orders to douse any threatening fires that started. She knew that was just the beginning.
The doors finally gave way and the roars of the mob outside became much louder. They viciously tore through the barricades. Priceless furniture was reduced to junk in a matter of moments. As the enemy poured in, the crossbowmen were waiting. Sadly, the manor only had a few crossbows, so they were only able to make a single volley and retreat. The enemy was put on the defensive, but they soon realized that no more bolts would follow and quickly filled the atrium.
They then moved swiftly into the corridors. By the guards' insistence, Nyssa was stationed at the last line of defense. If all else failed, everything would rest on her team. She took some comfort in the fact that she would be able to cover those that had already done their part and were forced to fall back.
It did not take long for the enemy to reach them. Since no one had fallen back, the enemy either had enough people to plow through and eliminate the resistance as they went or they had simply wiped out everyone else. Either way, the enemy was already upon them.
Five spears and one crossbow bolt plunged into the enemy's front rank. The crossbow still needed to be reloaded and a spear was stuck in a body by the time the second rank approached. Two more spears were lost and the crossbow still was not loaded when the third rank arrived.
Not having stopped all of them, Nyssa let go of her spear to challenge them with her shortsword. Her first strike lodged her blade into the skull of a burly man with a shaved head. She could not get the blade out in time to stop another man from knocking the sword out of her hands. As the enemy began to surround her, shouts erupted throughout their ranks, a few of them in the old common tongue, enough for her to have some idea what they were saying.
"Take the woman!"
"Don't hurt her!"
"Hurt her and it's your head!"
Whatever they were saying did not apply to the guards around her, for they were all mercilessly hacked apart. Down to her last straw, she drew a small knife from out of her sleeve and rushed at them, swinging frantically. She cut the face of one and slashed the chest of another when someone grabbed her wrist. The grip was strong enough to keep her from moving, but not enough to really hurt.
A couple others moved in to secure her. In desperation, she resorted to every last trick she had. She bit, she kicked, she scratched, but it was not enough. They carried her out of the manor, holding her so tightly that she could hardly move. Strangely, though, for all their savagery, these savage men were not hurting her that much.
She had heard that rampaging armies tended to brutalize women rather indiscriminately. Why was she the exception? Perhaps they intended to use her for some special purpose. Her heart sank into her stomach. She wanted to die fighting. Why did it have to end this way? Once she had reached the streets, she was set down on her own two feet and a youth with a broken nose walked up to the men who carried her.
"You haven't hurt her, have you?" he asked sharply, in the old common tongue, indicating there were consequences if they said otherwise.
"No, sah," one of them said. "We been gen'le as we could."
"Put up a helluva fight, tho'," another said. "She kill'd three o' us an' wound'd two mo'."
"If all wimmen fought like that, we'd be out o' a job," a third chuckled.
The youth bowed to her.
"Forgive the harsh treatment, Lady Nyssa, but there was no other way to bring you in."
"Da ya think they 'ave sahvints cooped up in th' basemint loike th' uvvah place?" one of the men asked. "Should we try an' get the password out o' 'er?"
"No need," the youth said. "We have what we came for." He looked back at Nyssa. "Our master awaits, milady."
How did they know her name? Who was this master of theirs? The questions piled up in her head and she was unsure whether or not she wanted them to be answered.