For Java, a simple young girl who had just wanted to be independent, nothing turned out to be what it seemed. Now she is faced with another round of sweeping changes in her life that shred her plans. But they place her in a position to do what few have ever dared.
The Saga of Java Mountainstand book 2.
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On the eastern half of the Brondian Continent, in the lands that once formed part of the Kingdoms of Reynadia, Kavadia, and Luxandia, the duchies that had formed the Kingdom of Forinstan are threatened by the ambition of the Adept Mage, Emperor Frander. He is one of the most powerful human Magi that has ever lived, and his dream of a perfect communal society is coming true. All who have fallen to his armies have been given magical control brooches which allow even a minor Mage to control large numbers of people, directing their lives for the common cause. But the utopia of his vision has become a dystopia for the people under his control as venal magi abuse their power.
None had been able to resist him-until Greencastle stopped him in his tracks.
The tiny duchy of Greencastle, ruled by Duke Kaster Cambar, had stymied Frander and his armies. In every other instance, Frander's advanced force had infiltrated the command and control structure of the Duchy Guard, making his takeover easy. But in little Greencastle, the duke knew each of his commanders personally, and would not dismiss them for the political reasons that had always worked before. Not only that, but Duke Kaster has an ally: the duke of his western neighbor, the Duchy of Hiddendell. Childhood friends as well as cousins, Duke Arten not only pledged his support, he sent aid in the form of a mercenary company called Freeholm's Firewalkers.
The Firewalkers, along with the Greencastle Guard and three additional mercenary companies, fortified the border between Lender's Dale and Greencastle and fought Emperor Frander's forces to a standstill.
One Firewalker distinguished herself beyond all others. Firewalker Scout Java Mountainstand, through her sense of honor and self-determination, has become a shining example of everything to be admired in a mercenary. That she did so while still a teenager was a constant source of amazement and pride to her mentors.
During the third year of the war, Samantha Lender, the youngest child and sole survivor of the royal family of Lender's Dale, had escaped from her home duchy. Wearing the uniform of Frander's Army, she made her way to Greencastle by masquerading as a young boy.
Mistaking her for an officer's young son, Scout Java captured the young duchess and brought her to Captain Marta Freeholm. By a trick of fortune, Lieutenant Merrit Marston of the Firewalkers had been Samantha's Armsmistress at the estate of Duchess Neldan, and recognized her while she was being questioned. Once the duchess was identified, she was placed in Scout Java's custody, along with the phenomenal triplet magi, the Salem Sisters.
Soon after the rescue of Duchess Samantha, Duke Kaster and Duke Arten had traveled to the Firewalker Camp with the intention of taking the young duchess back to Greensboro or Whitehall with them, but Samantha had other ideas. Declaring that she wouldn't leave while Frander raped her duchy, Samantha stubbornly stood up to her elder cousins, proving she was indeed Duchess Neldan's daughter.
As a compromise, the dukes ennobled Scout Java to provide the duchess with a noble guardian, naming her Lady Mountainstand. Duke Kaster invested her with the unclaimed lands on the Greencastle-Lender's Dale border as her domain, and allowed her to name it Mountainstand County, honoring both her and her parents. Duke Arten invested her with Link County, the Firewalkers' home in Hiddendell.
For eighteen-year-old Java, the daughter of a servant in northern Hiddendell, being ennobled started as a dream come true, but turned into a nightmare. The constraints placed upon her by her title, as well as the duties of the Lady of Mountainstand and Link County, removed her from the destiny she had charted for herself. She could not perform the duties of a County Lady and still be an active Scout. Control of her destiny had been ripped from her grasp, and she fought to regain some semblance of control over her life as the months passed.
But the Gods Above and Below weren't through playing with her.
When summoned by the powerful people in your life, stand tall. Stand proud.
But most importantly, stand ready.
Master Scholar Prince Stavin Zel'Andral, "The Short Warrior's Guide"
CHAPTER 1: THE SUMMONS
As summer turned to fall in the fourth year of the standoff with Frander, Duke Arten sent a summons to Lady Java.
Lady Java Mountainstand of Link County, you are hereby summoned to present yourself to us in Whitehall at your earliest convenience.
Duke Arten Carrington
Duchess Naria Carrington
Captain Freeholm smiled when Java showed her the note. "You realize, of course, that 'at your earliest convenience' is a polite way of saying immediately."
Java grimaced and nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Java, I'm sending ten cavalrywomen with you as guards," the captain said as Java read through the terse message yet again. "Traveling alone at any time is dangerous, but it's worse now. Men use war as an excuse to throw off the yoke of civilization. With so many of the Guardsmen on the border, there are many more men willing to risk turning bandit. I am also sending along Sergeant Whitehall and Ari's patrol. Emily is from Whitehall, as you may have guessed, and she can be your guide in the city. She'll be in command of your escort."
Java smiled. "Yes, sir. May I take along Samantha and Robin? The triplets are needed here, but Robin isn't. And Sammy, well," she paused, tilting her head to the side, "I think she'd enjoy going to Duke Arten's court. She can also try to help me to look less like a yokel, sir." Java smiled shyly. She was much more comfortable with the captain than she'd been just a year ago, but she was still unsure of herself.
Captain Freeholm nodded. "You can take those three demons with you as well, if you want them," she said, holding her mouth in a sour grimace.
Java's expression lightened considerably at that. "I can, sir?" she asked brightly, her eyes widening along with her smile.
"Oh, yes." Captain Freeholm grinned. "Without your civilizing influence, there's no telling what trouble they're likely to get into. Take them, and good luck." Captain Freeholm smiled and laughed, waving away Java's thanks.
Java bounced into her tent, laughing and happy. All four of her girls were there, sewing warmer clothes and gossiping.
"What are you so happy about, Java?" Samantha asked.
"I've been summoned to Whitehall by Duke Arten, and you're going with me. All of you, and Robin too. Captain Freeholm is also sending along Ari's patrol and ten cavalrywomen as guards." Java was still laughing and dancing around.
"When do we leave?" Samantha asked enthusiastically, her eyes alight.
"As soon as possible, which will probably be in the morning. Dig out your dress uniforms. We'll have to make do with them in Whitehall, but I'm sure Duke Arten will understand." She stopped talking when she realized that Samantha was looking at her strangely. "What?"
Samantha grinned. "Why uniforms? Java, that strong box is full. Why wear uniforms when you can just buy a few dresses in Whitehall?"
"Damn, I forgot. But I've never bought a dress before. Mama always made mine from the lady's discards." She looked at the triplets, but they just shrugged. Poor girls seldom bought a dress. Most of the time they didn't have the money to even buy good cloth. Like Java, the triplets had always had dresses made from some noble's castoffs.
Samantha made a rude noise. "Oh, of all the...Java, we're going to be in Whitehall. Naria can see to our dresses. I'm sure she knows at least ten seamstresses."
Java nodded. "You're right, of course. I just didn't think of that. Very well, but we travel in Scout standard. We don't want to look like tempting targets."
Maylee ran to get Robin, and she arrived within moments. Maylee had already told her the news, of course, and she was grinning widely when she entered the tent.
"This is exciting, Java. I've never been to Whitehall. It was always too far to travel."
Java stepped closer and hugged Robin. "I've never been there either. That's part of the reason Captain Freeholm is sending Sergeant Whitehall with us. She knows the city."
Robin nodded, then looked thoughtful. "Java, what about Jah'Moke?"
Java looked puzzled. "What do you mean? I don't think Captain Wilkinson would let him come with me."
"No, but you should at least write him a note, telling him what is going on. And Java," she moved closer and leaned her head toward Java's, "you should release him from any promises. We might be gone for a long time."
Java's expression went blank for a moment, then she nodded. "I can't ask him to be faithful for so long when we're not bonded in marriage. Especially when I'm so far away."
Samantha moved closer now. "Java, life out here is so short."
Java looked at the floor and sighed. "I know, Sam. I know. Let me think now. I'll write him a letter."
My Darling Jah'Moke, I have been summoned to Whitehall by Duke Arten and Duchess Naria. I don't know how long I will be gone, and I wanted to make this clear.
I don't want you to be lonely.
I love you, and want you for my own, but I know what this world is like. If you need someone, know that I am happy for you. I will return to you when I can, if I can. But don't let the chance at happiness pass you by.
With all my love,
Java left her tent in the early morning and went to Lieutenant Skyhaven's tent. She wasn't surprised to see the flickering light of a candle under the tent flap.
She scratched at the plaque and whispered, "Lieutenant?"
A very sleepy-eyed Shair looked out at her. "Java?"
"I'm sorry to bother you, Sir, but I need a favor. I have a letter that I have to be sure will get to Jah'Moke."
"I'll take it," a familiar voice said, and Larena Caswell stuck her head out beside Shair and kissed her cheek. Smiling at Java, she said, "I'm on messenger duty for three more days. I'll take it and make sure he gets it."
Java smiled and said, "Thank you, Laree," as she handed over the letter, then hugged her lieutenant and kissed her cheek. "I'm going to miss you."
"I'm going to miss you too, Java. Tell Arten and Naria hello for me."
"Yes, sir." With that Java stepped back and saluted, then turned and hurried away.
* * *
First light found Java and her party mounted and heading out of the compound. Captain Freeholm had meant to send along a purse to provide for them on the road, but Java had left it on the captain's desk. It didn't matter, as she, Samantha, Robin, and each of the triplets carried a purse filled with ten gold and thirty silver royals from her own coffers. She had also given each member of the escort fifteen silvers for their own use, and Sergeant Whitehall had a purse full of gold and silver that would more than provide for them on the road. That damn strongbox is still full to overflowing, but I'm finally using some of it.
Ari and Morgan rode up beside Java as they were preparing to leave. "This is exciting, going all the way to Whitehall. Do you know what Duke Arten wants, Java?" Morgan asked.
Java shook her head. "No, but Sam thinks it's just something she calls 'clearing the cobwebs'. Duchess Neldan used to bring in people to scandalize her court all the time, just to keep the nobles on their toes." Java laughed, happy at being back with her friends for any reason. She looked down to where her dog, Ah'Lan'Ah, was scampering under Sugar's hooves and giggled. Ah'Lan'Ah seemed as eager to go as any of them.
Java and her escort left Firedale and headed back to Hiddendell with Arandar warming their backs. They were all in high spirits at the prospect of returning home after more than four years in the field.
Emily Whitehall was the happiest member of the group. She was really going home. Home to Whitehall, and her family. She spoke expansively, telling Java about the city where she'd been born.
"Whitehall is a beautiful city, Java. After it was destroyed during the revolt against Blackmoore, the city was rebuilt. The duke and his city planners laid it out carefully before they did much building. I was told by my teachers that they went as far as making a sand-table version of the valley and building a model city to see how it would look."
Java, who had seldom had much contact with her, found Emily to be a very nice, soft-spoken woman. She nodded encouragement and murmured appreciatively to keep Emily talking. After one long pause, Java asked, "How long has it been since you went home to see your family?"
Emily shook her head slowly, as if considering her answer carefully. "I'm anxious to see my family. And anxious about seeing my family. There were some bad feelings about why and how I left. I'm nearly thirty, and it's time I consider retirement. I have to make sure I have a place." She grinned at Java, then winked. "Might see if my old boyfriend is still around. And available." She put her right hand on her belly and her smile turned tender. "Might be nice to be a mother."
Java smiled as she reached over and touched Emily's hand. "You'd be a wonderful mother."
Ari spoke softly to Java later that day. "Don't worry about Emily, Java. She's been saying that for years. But she's all Firewalker, just like Merrit. She'd never be happy retired and sitting in her kitchen having babies."
Java smiled and nodded. "Sounds familiar."
* * *
Larena delivered Java's letter before the day was three hours old. Jah'Moke took it, then looked at Larena.
"What is it?" he asked as he looked at Java's seal.
"I'm sure she explains it in the letter, but she was summoned to Whitehall by the duke. She's already on the road west."
Weldon had wandered over when he saw Larena talking to Jah'Moke. Hearing what was going on, he nudged Jah'Moke and said, "Read it."
Jah'Moke broke the seal and read the letter aloud. At the end he said, "Don't let the chance at happiness pass you by." He looked at Larena and asked, "What does that mean?"
Larena looked at Weldon, so he answered. "It means that if you feel the need to be in a woman's arms," he grinned at Larena, "she understands. In simple terms, have fun."
Jah'Moke shook his head. "I cannot do that."
Larena put her hand on Jah'Moke's shoulder. "Bad things happen, Jah'Moke. You could fall to an unlucky arrow any day. And so could she. It isn't safe anywhere right now." She squeezed his shoulder to make him look at her. "Stay true if you wish. If you can. She's just saying that if you don't, she's alright with it."
Jah'Moke shook his head. "Java is the only woman for me."
Greencastle was all but deserted close to Lender's Dale. Deserted farms, sometimes clusters of five or more, dotted the landscape, but Lone Pine was the only town. As the days passed they began seeing more farms, and soon villages. Sergeant Whitehall led them through most of the villages without stopping for more than a few supplies.
Samantha rode forward as they left yet another village behind as Arandar was setting behind the distant hills. She maneuvered her horse in beside Emily and asked, "Sergeant, why can't we stop at an inn? We don't have to sleep in our tents."
Emily just looked at her for a moment, considering her words carefully. "Duchess, how many people know you're alive right now? How many people know what you look like?" she asked softly.
"I don't know. The Firewalkers, the Thunderfeet, the Vandals, my cousins. Why?" Samantha had learned through hard experience that none of the non-coms ever asked a question without a reason.
"What do you think would happen if we stopped in every town and let them know who you are?" Sergeant Whitehall asked, looking closely at the young duchess.
"I don't know. I'm sorry, Sergeant, but I don't know what you're driving at." Samantha looked Emily in the eye and shrugged.
"Duchess, do you think the twenty-three of us, even with Robin and the triplets, could protect you if some large force of men decided that the Duchess of Lender's Dale would be worth some ransom? Or Lady Mountainstand? Do you want to see us all dead?" Sergeant Whitehall let Samantha consider her words for a moment, then continued. "The safest way for us to travel is as a group of mercs rotating home, not as an escort for Duchess Samantha and Lady Java. And that means we act the part all the time."
"Oh, didn't think of that," was the only thing Samantha could think to say. Her expression clouded over for an instant, then she looked at the women around her and a small smiled curved her lips. I think I'm safe. But there was a trace of worry in the corner of her eyes now.
Days turned into a week before they began seeing larger towns. Once they were past the city of Overlook in Cotton County, Sergeant Whitehall began allowing them to stay overnight in inns or taverns rather than their tents, much to everyone's delight. This was after they began hearing stories about bandits. As Captain Freeholm had said, men took advantage of the fact that the Guard was on the borders.
As one day was coming to a close, they heard shouting in the distance. Sergeant Whitehall stopped her patrol, then called the cavalry to the front. "Five abreast, lances. Fast trot. Archers, on me," she ordered, and the cavalry advanced toward the sound. "Duchess Samantha, Lady Java, to the rear. Let us deal with this."
* * *
Arran Leress led his men into the village of Drover's Point at a run, shouting at the top of his lungs. They had been very successful so far and had taken three towns already. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to buy a farm and retire. He smiled with satisfaction as his men raided yet another place with impunity. With thirty men, his was the largest armed force in this part of Greencastle.
The bandits charged into town, shooting arrows at any who dared show their faces. The village store, the inn, and the smithy were the only places there was likely to be any real coin, and they concentrated on them. The owner of the store, the mayor by chance, fought against them, managing to kill one of the bandits. This earned him a belly full of steel, and the chance to see his daughter raped before his eyes closed for the last time.
Women and children were screaming, and the few men in the town were fighting back, but Arran knew he had little to worry about. All the able-bodied fighting men were gone with the Guard, leaving only oldsters and youngsters to oppose him. He was standing in the center of the town, contemplating what he was going to do next, when the drumming of running horses came from the east.
The cavalrywomen saw the bandits among the town's folk, and charged. Bandits went down with heavy lances in their bodies, screaming like the women they had been chasing.
Sergeant Whitehall and her archers followed close behind the cavalry, shooting at bandits left and right as they passed.
But Java had stopped her girls at the edge of town, wheeling Sugar in front of them to block their path. "We don't go in with them."
"But, Java..!" Samantha began, but Java cut her off.
"Don't! Ready an arrow, but we do not go into town. You're too important, Samantha. We can't risk you." Java's eyes were bleak as the screams continued.
Ah'Lan'Ah whined and stalked back and forth in front of Java and the girls. Her loyalties were torn between Java and the rest of the patrol. The fact that Ari and the rest continued to defer to Java made her consider Java to still be the "alpha" of her pack, but she wanted to be with the others.
Java finally noticed her puppy and said, "Go on, girl. Go to Ari." Ah'Lan'Ah took off like an arrow, drawing their eyes up the road.
"Java! Look!" Mayrie pointed into the town, and Java cursed.
Arran and ten of his men had broken loose and were headed out of town as fast as their feet would carry them. He didn't know who these mercenaries were, and he wasn't about to stay to find out. Running down the road, he saw six more mercenaries blocking his escape.
Java and the girls had readied their short bows as soon as Sergeant Whitehall had called for the archers. Acting almost in unison, they drew and shot. Four men went down with the first volley.
Java called, "Surrender! You cannot escape!"
Arran's answer was to shoot an arrow at Java, only to see it deflected away. His action drew a second volley, three of which hit him. The remaining men turned to flee back through the town, but the cavalry had returned. In moments, all the bandits were dead or dying.
Java kept her girls from entering the village until Sergeant Whitehall signaled it was safe. Robin rode ahead, her steady gaze telling Java as clear as words that she was determined to help, and was in full control of herself.
Samantha chafed at the restriction. "Java, they've seen to the bandits. We can help."
Marie spoke softly and said, "This place looks like Brian's Ford."
Maylee whispered, "Please, Sam."
Maygren finished the thought softly. "We don't want to see a village so much like home after a raid."
Samantha looked at her friends and was chilled by their expressions. Nothing frightened the triplets, normally, but now their expressions made them look like terrified children. She nodded slowly but nocked another arrow anyway.
Finally, after almost an hour, Java led her girls into Drover's Point. The Firewalkers and town's folk had cleaned up, but there were still numerous places where a patch of mud marked someone's death. Java closed her eyes in pain when she saw women crying, holding onto bloodied remnants of cloth.
Sergeant Whitehall was issuing orders, and the people were obeying as if she was a noble. Slowly, order was reestablished.
"Scouts," Sergeant Whitehall called, waiting until Java faced her, "go to the inn and do what you can. That's where most of the wounded are."
Java saluted and led the way. Entering the inn's common room, they faced horror. The bandits hadn't been discriminating about who they had attacked. Men, women, and children all showed signs of violence.
The triplets linked and began using the healing spells that Sherefin had taught them, backing Robin. Java took Samantha by the hand and led her to where the less seriously wounded were being bandaged up.
An elderly woman looked up as Java and Samantha approached her. "Who are you?" she asked warily.
"We're here to help. We're from one of the mercenary companies that Duke Kaster hired to keep Frander out," Java answered, carefully not giving any details.
"Well, if you're mercenaries, then I guess you must know a bit about caring for wounded. Start over there." She pointed to where a young girl sat cradling her arm.
Java went to her knees and said, "Let me see," in a gentle tone as she looked at the girl. She hissed in shock when the child moved her hand. A sword or knife stroke had cut into her biceps, though not too deeply.
"Sam, I need bandages and a sewing kit. Hurry." Turning back to the girl, she looked for further signs of trauma. The girl's eyes were dull with pain, and her face was ashen, but she wasn't injured anywhere else. Except her heart.
Sam was back in a moment. "Here, Java. Do you need anything else?" Samantha asked, handing Java the sewing kit first.
Java nodded. "I need that stuff Sherefin makes to stop the wound from being infected. Then I need your hands to hold the wound closed." When Sam had washed her hands and Java's, she doused the sewing kit as well. "Match the skin as well as you can, Sam. Gods Above and Below, I wish I'd paid more attention when I was in the leech's tent." Java began sewing the child's arm back together, making the smallest, most delicate stitches she could.
Samantha sighed. "It's hard to believe this is happening. I never thought this sort of thing could happen so far from the war." Samantha looked around the room, her eyes bleak at the sight of the carnage.
Java shook her head, never taking her eyes off the girl's arm. "Captain Freeholm warned me. She said this always happens. As soon as the Guard is gone, the scum rises to the surface. Well, at least none of them are ever going to harm another child," she commented as she finished sewing and bandaging the girl's arm and looked around. More than a dozen people were there, and she began bandaging whoever she could. Samantha aided where she could and comforted those who were beyond their meager talents to save. Not even the combined power of the triplets was sufficient in some instances.
In the end, the town lost twenty people. The mayor's widow and surviving children begged Sergeant Whitehall to stay, but in the morning, they rode on with the promise that they would send aid from the next town.
Samantha looked back to see women and children standing in the road, watching them go with fear in their eyes. "Java, I never want to see anything like that ever again." There was a quiver in Samantha's voice Java had never heard before.
"I don't want you to, Sam. But I remember what you told me about Lender's Dale, about the people Frander controlled. At least these people had a chance to fight back." Java kept her eyes forward, refusing to look back.
"What will they do now, Java?" Mayrie asked.
"Go on with their lives as best they can, the way people always do. Maybe Lord Panishin will help them." Java looked at her charges. "We'll send him a message from the next town."
Loren Jones lives near Tampa, Florida. He married Pamela A. Willis in 1983 and they have stayed together to this time, and have three adult children. A US Navy veteran, Loren served as a nuclear reactor operator on attack submarines for six years before his honorable discharge in 1986. Loren makes his living as an instrumentation and controls technician and writes because the stories won't leave him alone.
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