No man shall prosper
Ni malvat, armat, galiador
Ni mensongier, guerrayador
Ni encara gentilhom
Time. Time. Time.
When oh when, Mercè wondered, had it become such an enemy? Was it her fault for bemoaning its slow steady pace in the days when she was little: back when her parents still lived and laughed and loved one another with hearts full of cheer across the supper table?
Her fault for wishing Time away in her haste to reach a tomorrow when there would be something better, brighter, more interesting to tantalise her tastes? How she was paying now for such wastefulness!
After the first messenger, there followed a trickle of survivors. Some brought news and intelligence as to the enemy’s disposition. For all the good it did. Their story added little to what she knew already: Bernardon was on the road with a force that far outnumbered any army Cassonne could put into the field. With the meagre army she might yet assemble behind the city walls, they might hold out for a while. But at what cost?
Should she reduce her own people to starvation to save them from an enemy who might otherwise treat decently with them? Was that statecraft? Or selfishness?
She had not willed the beginnings of this war: had counselled against it. Now, though, she must deal with its consequences.
From the Throne Room, converted to a makeshift HQ, she worked tirelessly to rally Cassonne to a cause she did not entirely believe in. The regent council, packed with non-entities and minor nobility whose ultimate loyalty she could only guess at, she summarily dismissed. In its place a generalitat defẹnsa, a defence council, consisting of only her most trusted allies and those few remaining military folk who appeared to know what they were talking about. At its head, and summoned back from premature retirement , she appointed Bertran.
As if fine words and stratagems now counted for anything.
In between listening and prompting and searching out some road that might extract her and her people from their present dire straits, she worked tirelessly to remedy the city’s defences. As the stragglers from Tomàs cursed campaign returned, she was on hand to greet them: she thanked them, ensuring that the wounded received treatment; organised food and rest for those who might yet serve in the city’s defence. At the same time, she put out a call to the citizens of Cassonne.
Those prepared and able to fight were despatched to the armoury, there to be kitted out in the city colours and grab a weapon. The rest, she directed towards building defence works: repairing the walls; digging great ditches outside the ramparts that, if time allowed, would be filled with oil and backed up by row upon row of deadly wooden stakes. As she did so, she was both touched and surprised by the enthusiasm with which volunteers came forward.
More than once, she found herself having to turn aside grizzled greybeards or shy youth, coming forward to fight for the honour of Cassonne and her Queen. Tomàs, it seemed, had been far less popular than he imagined.
Still, her greatest enemy was time. Given a month — a week, even — she might have called up levies from Cassonne’s lands to the south. But there was scarce time for her urgent envoys to arrive, let alone raise musters or have them on the road.
Whereas Bernardon would be on them in two days. One day. A matter of hours. It was the afternoon of the third day after the news of Tomàs defeat first reached Cassonne that a second messenger arrived bearing news she least wished to hear.
Bernardon and his advance guard were but hours away: would be outside the city that evening. The whereabouts of his main army was unknown: but it could not be far behind.
And so it was. That night the rose pennant of Ortès flew brazenly outside the walls of Cassonne. Shortly after, a herald arrived before the main gate to request an audience. Prince Bernardon, the man announced insolently, would be pleased to meet with her on the morrow to discuss the terms of her surrender . Would she care to meet with his Lordship in his tent?
She hesitated, sensing trap. So it was Bertran who spoke first.
“We are most grateful for Prince Bernardon’s suggestion. But I am sure your Lord, who is a man well versed in military matters, will understand our reluctance for Queen Mercè to risk her person in such fashion.”
“Not”, he went on, good-humouredly, sensing the envoy bridling at the implication: “Not that we fear the Prince’s ill will in any way. But emotions have been running high these past weeks. So it would be tragedy indeed if some individual took it into their head to exact a wholly undeserved revenge on the Queen for some perceived damage to them or their family.
“May I make a counter-proposal? Here in Cassonne we have a well-appointed hall: the throne room where our Queens have sat and dispensed justice these past several centuries. Your Lord would be most welcome to meet with the Queen there.”
Now it was the envoy’s turn to smile. “I fear that we must return your own fears in double. My Lord bears nothing but goodwill towards your Queen. But let us not forget the unfortunate turn that events have taken of late. Set in train, may I remind you, by your own late lamented Consort. Prince Bernardon must rightly fear that venturing inside your citadel before a peace has been agreed might have unfortunate consequences for himself.
“Allow me to put a third alternative: that your Lady and my Lord meet before the city gates on the mid-morn”.
Bertran nodded. “An admirable suggestion. And since you are guests here in our land, we would be most pleased to arrange a small pavilion within which such meeting takes place”.
“Under Cassonne colours?”
“Of course. You’d not expect my Mistress to travel in any less fashion. But I am sure your Prince has banners enough of his own with which to deck the place out.”
The envoy nodded. “It is agreed. On the morrow, then.” And with that, he turned his horse about and galloped back down the road.
“That”, Bertran spoke softly, “went about as well — or as badly — as might be expected”.
“What do you mean?” Mercè was curious.
“It was always going to be outside the gates. But neither side must seem to want it so. Honour must be satisfied.”
“Honour? It sounded to me like so much foolish posturing.”
“Indeed, Senhora. But such is diplomacy”.
And with that, Mercè was left to her own devices to prepare for the next day’s ordeal. An hour or two she passed in checking on as many of the guard as she could. She doubted her endeavours in served any great military purpose. Yet it helped quell her own fears for a while: and she sensed that for those men at arms, whose days were spent in waiting for an attack that might come at any moment, it was a helpful touch: a sign that their Queen cared enough for their well-being to visit, and to speak with them.
On the ramparts above the city gates, she stopped a while to speak to one of her Guard. Before her, Bernardon’s force, but a small portion of his strength, seemed already to occupy a large part of the open ground before the city. And immediately below, she noted approvingly, a small team of workers was busy erecting the pavilion for the morrow’s fateful encounter.
“What is your name?
She nodded. “It is tight, Laurenç, is it not?”
A pause. “Were you with the army before?”
“You mean, when… yes, Reina mia, my Queen: I was
“How was it?”
“The fighting. The day. The retreat.”
“It was…brutal, Senhora. Tomàs…the Prince…begging your pardon Senhora: I do not wish to speak ill of the dead, but…
“He’d brook no advice: no counsel save that snivelling toad Drust. They saw half of Bernardon’s armies laid out before them, on a plain just to the north of terreta enlòc and…and they thought they had him at a disadvantage. Too few: too distracted. So they ordered the attack. No scouts. No checking the ground beforehand. Just: attack!
“Some of our captains: they objected. Urged caution. But Tomàs and Drust were adamant. They were about to bring home a grand victory. So they set off at full tilt. I mean, have you ever…?”
“What do you mean?”
“Charging men in armour across open ground! We’re half of us near exhausted by the time we arrived. And that weren’t the worst of it. Because Bernardon WAS ready. While we were running at him, he turned his army about: and then another army, so it seemed, just appeared by magic from the woods bordering the plain.
“We ran into a pocket. Trapped ourselves. And sure: we outnumbered Bernardon. But that made no difference if we could only fight on a narrow front. His men were better fighters, better drilled. Not exhausted after charging half way across a plain. It was slaughter.”
Mercè nodded gravely. “It is as I heard from others. Reckless, reckless! To embark on such an expedition in the first place: and then to pursue it with so little judgment.”
Still, she thanked the man for his presence, reminded him that there was food aplenty in the main hall, and paused: “If you would like to be with me, tomorrow, when we meet the Prince…”
“Then just tell the Guard captain I asked for you. And if he has any issues, to take them up with me directly!”
Then it was on to the next sentry on duty. And on. And on. Because if she must ask them to fight for her, they deserved to know who they were fighting for.
Later, she sat before the generalitat.
“What will he ask, tomorrow?” she began.
“Much!” Bertran had been growing unusually direct of late, and she was not sure whether she liked or feared this new assertive aide. “They will want the terreta ceded to them. No question of that. And since there appear now to be two on our territory determined on taking advantage of our present weakness, they will want more besides. Land to the north. Gold. Trade.
“Though that assumes they do not demand a prize greater still.”
“What do you mean?”
“Senhora. You are most recently widowed. And therefore in want of a husband.”
“I think after Tomàs, the last thing I WANT right now is a husband!” Mercè snapped back.
Bertran raised one eyebrow and looked sternly in her direction. “Senhora. You understand what I am saying. The price of peace may be an alliance. And what better way to seal an alliance than through blood and marriage?”
“If I may choose, I choose not to.”
“But you may have little choice.”
“Unless we fight.”
“But should I?”
“What do you mean?”
“Fight! It will not be me fighting and risking my life, but soldiers: the very citizens I am sworn to protect and care for. Have I the right to ask that of them?”
Bertran shook his head: he had no answer, and nor had any other. So after a little more aimless discussion, she bid goodnight to those present, and withdrew to her quarters.
There she found Seurine, waiting.
“Jenofa is settled”, she began. “Poor dear: she senses all is not right. But she is too young to understand. So I sat with her ’til she drifted off. And I am guessing you will want some help with dressing for the morrow?”
Mercè smiled. “You were always so good at knowing my needs. Though this time, I think, it will be a somewhat easier task.”
“Well, I did think it might be interesting to wear the same dress as I wore at my birthday…”
“You could not!”
“Seeing as how well it looks on me, and is all in Cassonne blue”, she teased.
“But for the morrow, I suspect my first instinct is best.”
“And that is?”
“Armour, of course. Bernardon and I meet between two armies. I am as much Captain as he is. And I do not entirely trust him. Twould be all too easy, in the midst of a throng, for the a dagger blade to slip between the ribs of an awkward Queen.”
“You don’t think…?”
“In honesty? No. He likes his ‘honour’: and winning a battle by assassinating a defenceless woman would not look good. Especially when he expects that woman to give him all he asks anyway. But still, there are men of Auvergne there who do not answer to him. Nor do I trust that all his supporters care as much for honour as he.”
Seurine nodded. “I think you are right. But at least add some mark for the city.”
“I will. I shall borrow a surcoat from one of the guards before I head out. Let the great men arrive in their finery: their feathers and furs. I need none such to be Queen in Cassonne.”
For once, Seurine had little to add. “Then it is sorted — and I shall take my leave, Senhora.” She turned to go.
“One last thing, Seurine. Give me a hug, that I may remember when I am surrounded by enemies tomorrow. And, before you take yourself to bed, can you arrange to have a sword brought to my chamber.”
“Yes. Not just any sword. There is one that hangs upon the wall behind the throne, my throne… “
“Yes. I am sure tis all just tittle-tattle. But the trobairitz sing of how that sword was carried into battle, once, by Zoe, High Queen in Cassonne and first in our line. It is likely nonsense. But there are those who will recognise it and note who carries it now. It is a small thing…”
“But important: I see that. Remember dear: Mai floron a Cassonne…”
“…encara gentilhom. No man shall prosper in Cassonne ”. Mercè smiled. “Would that it were so.”
Then, she was gone, leaving Mercè alone to ponder what the morning might bring. She expected the negotiation would be harsh, difficult. And she feared that that she might have changed one poor husband for another as bad.
Sleep did not come easy that night. Yet in the end, come it did, and she woke the next day refreshed and ready to face the worse. It was not long in coming.
After a simple breakfast of fruit and thin wine she donned her armour and her colours, and buckled on the great sword. At least: great in name. She was pleasantly surprised to find the sword itself, mid-length, slightly curved — and wickedly sharp — felt light and easy in her hand. As though made to fit her grip. That, at least, was one good omen, she told herself.
Just inside the main gate, she joined a party of around twenty, her close advisers and Guard, awaiting her arrival. It amused her that not a few of those present tried — and failed — to hide their surprise at her appearance. On the other hand, Bertran rose much in her esteem as he smiled and observed, simply:
“It is a good look, Senhora: who would have thought that armour suited you so?”
Then it was out the gate and down to the pavilion where Bernardon was already waiting, accompanied by the near double of her own retinue. A mix of nobles in their finery — a couple of whom, Mercè felt sure, she recognised as former members of her own ill-fated regent council — together with a veritable scrum of soldiery: the red-gold of Auvergne rubbed shoulders with the pink of Ortès
Stood amongst them and to the fore was Drust, one time adviser to Tomàs and now, seemingly, installed in similar state to Bernardon.
“Good day, My Lord. I am surprised at the size of your company”, she began.
“Not all mine”, the Prince observed amiably. “Twas not just Ortès wronged by your husband’s unprovoked aggression. Auvergne, too, suffered.”
“I seem to remember that they joined in with Tomàs in plotting the attack. That one of the most ardent advocates for that attack now stands beside you.”
“Then you misremember, Senhora”, Drust spoke up. “Twas always Tomàs plan to start a war. And that plan, as I understand it, was one that you pressed him to.”
“I pressed HIM?” Mercè could barely restrain her indignation.
“Indeed. What could I, a humble adviser, do in face of such intransigence?”
“Your job!” It was Bertran who leapt in now: and though his expression was guarded, there was a slight wrinkling to his eyes that, Mercè well knew, told of serious exasperation. “The role of an adviser is to advise honestly: not play echo to any Lord and Master. And if you could not manage that, you were never adviser.”
“My point, exactly”, Drust shot back smoothly. “If I were never true adviser to Tomàs, you cannot hold me responsible for the actions of this woman’s emissary”.
“That…” Mercè fell silent. It made no difference whether Bernardon believed this nonsense or not. It was enough for public consumption. Enough for excuse to raze her realm to the ground, should he so decide. The fact that history might one day take her side was little compensation for what she sensed likely to be demanded here this morn.
“Enough!” Bernardon brought argument to a close. “Whether you planned it precisely or urged it is neither here nor there. Cassonne sought to over-turn a centuries-old agreement. Cassonne waged war: and Cassonne has lost. It is time now for Cassonne to pay the price. And all your pretty armour…” he cast his eyes disgustedly over Mercè’s figure “cannot save you”.
Mercè recoiled slightly at the violence of his speech. Whatever became of the gallant young man who attended her birthday? It was a foolish question and one she could answer well enough for herself: nothing. Nothing at all. As she had seen on the night. Both Tomàs and Bernardon were brute bores schooled to cover their true nature in a veneer of courtliness. Given half a chance, the mask would slip. As now.
“If His Lordship would like to present his claims,” Mercè began, we can discuss and provide an answer on the morrow”.
Bernardon laughed and stepped a little nearer. “On the morrow? On the morrow, my Lords? Do you hear this fine Senhorẹsa seeking even now to set terms for us, the victors.”
“You only seek play yet more games! On the morrow, the rest of my army — armies — will be here and we will have no need to wait on your answer. We will take all that we desire and you may discuss to your heart’s content…in whatever place we decide to place you.”
This was not going as Mercè had hoped, or even as Bertran had given to expect. The man was not here to negotiate a settlement, but to dictate one. From the corner of her eye she could see several in Bernardon’s assembly inching ever so slightly closer: more than a few had their hands upon their swords. Was this to be ambush after all? Outnumbered as they were, Mercè had little confidence that her own party could fight their way out.
Too, her head was beginning to throb. Not quite as bad as it had done in the days preceding her confrontation with Tomàs. But enough, still, to set her on edge and distract from the matter in hand.
“What then do you propose? Land? Coin? Marriage?”
Bernardon laughed once more, this time adding a most unpleasant leer. “Oh. There will be all of that, most certainly. And more besides. For too long, Cassonne has held itself aloof from the rest of the world, with its sly disdain for Kings and its petty insistence on placing a woman above all others. You shall be the last Queen in this place.”
“I…if I must marry…”
“If YOU must marry? Why no, my dear. What man would want such as you, already in your 25th year! Indeed I shall take a bride. But not you…”
A coldness pierced Mercè’s heart. No! He could not!
And ow! A sharp pain pierced her brow: it was as much she could do to keep from staggering under the impact of it. At the same time, she felt an odd tingling pass across her outer thigh: the thigh on which sat Zoe’s sword. What? Was she imagining things now? But out of the corner of her eye she saw Bertran look down in puzzlement, then back at her. What was happening?
Bernardon took a step closer, drawing his own sword as he did so. “What need have I to marry the old bitch…”, he lowered his voice: “…when there is a young pup in place just waiting to be leashed.”
“No-o!” Mercè stepped back, giving ground. As she did so, she drew her own sword. Just in time to block a swinging attack coming her way from Bernardon.
“Play soldiers as you will: but soon you will be dead; and Cassonne will be ours”.
“No-o!” Mercè backed again, ducking as a second lethal swing came her way. And back. She had learned her swordship with the best: but she was under no illusion. Bernardon was more practiced, stronger than her. She might survive a while but she could not win.
Around her, his own party was coming forward, reaching for their swords.
Another swing. Another block. To her shock her blade appeared to spark with the clash. Not as she had seen before, when blades meet, and a spark flies off, but something else. Her blade was glowing white with the crackle of lightning.
She was not imagining it. Briefly, Bernardon paused his attack, as a look of surprise crossed his face.
“Witchcraft”, he muttered . “No matter. In a moment you will be gone — and I shall be taking my bride home to Ortès.”
“No!” One last time, Mercè forced back against his blade. Three blows in quick succession and Bernardon stepped back, momentarily surprised by the ferocity of her attack. Then he parried and came back again. What was happening? The glow…the lightning…whatever in Mercè’s sword was building at every clash: was crackling and whining each moment she swung it through the air. Her head was bursting.
“No!!!” Mercè’s blade…her body….the air itself erupted in an explosion of white electricity. Projected forward, the blast struck Bernardon square in his chest and flung him backward across the pavilion, his body twisted and blackened by the contact. But wider. Those stood to his side were hurled back. Those behind him were caught in the blast. A good dozen went down in flame: others reeled away, faces raw and burnt, garments singed. The air reeked of burnt flesh.
A second blast — this, Mercè sense, emanating directly from her — ripped through Bernardon’s retinue. Then silence, broken a few seconds later by Drust: “Witch! Witch!”
He pointed at her: at her sword which, she realised, was still humming, still outlined with flickering white. There was danger still, as the survivors of Bernardon’s party rallied. They were shocked. But not defeated. And there were, even now, more of them than by side.
If her own side did not also believe the slur: believe her witch and abandon her to her fate.
“Per Dieus’i Cassonne!” For Goddess and Cassonne! The old battle cry of the city. Who said that?
Laurenç, the guard she’d spoken to the night before stepped forward and took up position to her left. A good move. A soldier move that she appreciated and understand: covering where she was most vulnerable.
“Per Dieus’i Cassonne!”. A second guard moved up to her right. Beside him, Bertran and a couple of captains she had met across the table of the generalitat. Others, too, swords drawn and looking as though they meant business.
Outnumbered, yes: but not stunned nor unexpectedly suddenly of their leader and several of their captains. Bernardon’s party paused and then, to her relief, recoiled.
“You win today, witch” Drust snarled. “But not tomorrow”. And it was over. The remnants of Bernardon’s party limped back to their camp, where, no doubt, they would lick their wounds and plot her downfall for the morrow. Mercè took stock. Despite the ferocity of the clash, she was relieved to note that her side had escaped mostly unscathed. A couple of soldiers had flesh wounds, from which they would recover soon enough. One of her nobles had taken a cut to the cheek, adding, she noted, to several older scars already there. Despite the seriousness of the situation, she could but smile. Dieusa! The man taught swordplay! Seemingly not that well. She thanked her own good fortune that she had never studied with him.
In the end, though, all was sorted. The party turned and, with considerably more dignity than the other side, made its way back to the city. Mercè was fearful of the reception she might receive. Her own Guard had stood with her. But they were sworn to do so. And seeing how easily the witch curse came to the lips of others, she feared she might have saved herself for now, only to lose her crown: even, her life.
She was wrong. Word of what had taken place had already spread — messengers had gone ahead to place the city defences on alert and they, it seemed, had wasted no time telling what they had seen. Others, watching from just outside the gates or atop the rampart had caught flashes — literally — of recent events and understood that they were witness to some strange event.
As she walked through the gate, a cry went up: “Per Dieus’i Cassonne!”. Seemingly the entire people, from humblest errand lad to highest noble approved.
Her return through the streets to her palace was as much procession as any she could remember: the crowds greater, more enthusiastic, than came out to cheer her marriage. More extraordinary still, as she passed, here and there, people made the sign of cabocejada: a nod and a slight bowing of the head. Not reverence, exactly: but most certainly a sign of approval and support
Uncalled for. Humbling. Her emotions were everywhere and nowhere.
Back in her apartment, she threw off her armour any how and rushed to Jenofa’s side. She had much to discuss with her council. But later. Now, she needed nothing more than to be with her daughter: the helpless young girl, whose fate was become entwined with her own.
Seurine was waiting for her.
“You heard?” Mercè began, after she had had her fill of hugging her daughter: after Jenofa made plain, by her squirming, that she, too, enjoyed hugs but it was lunchtime, after all, and her favourite dishes had just been served.
“And you are not afraid? Do not think me a witch? Possessed by some demon? In league with the dark?”
“You most certainly do not seem so. They say that evil hides itself in plain sight: still, I sense nothing of the dark about you.
“Besides, you carried the great sword which, legend has always claimed, fights only for the light.”
“And what light! I near blinded myself in that tent. I cannot imagine what the others there thought was happening.”
“You know, Senhora: you know what legend claims. That once, Queens in Cassonne were gifted such powers as you just wielded. Power to defend and to help in time of need. And there you were today, carrying the sword of Zoe, seeking to end a foolish war you never sought: and up against a villain and a bully…
“Perhaps the surprise is not that the lightning struck today. But that it did not strike sooner.”
“There is that.”
“There is. Now rest. And eat. And allow me to prepare you a bath. Armour is not polite garb for a young woman.”
Later still, she sat before the generalitat, nervously watching for signs of disaffect. To her surprise there was little but sympathy. More so, she felt, than yester-eve. Those who accompanied her to the pavilion had witnessed Bernardon’s duplicity at first hand. They well understood that whatever the source of her power, without it, not only would she be likely dead, but many others in the room as well.
For now, the citizens and nobility of Cassonne regarded the Queen’s powers as Goddess-given: a sign of divine approval. And the louder her enemies cried witchcraft, the louder they would shout back in her defence.
Once more, sleep did not come easily. That night, though, she was distracted, too, fascinated by the discovery that whatever this power was, she could call upon it without the rush of emotion that she had felt earlier. On the contrary, sat upright in her bed that night, she was amazed to find that she could send little rivulets of lightning shimmering up and down the walls at will. Or if she chose — she tried this but the once, incinerating a small, but antique work of art in the process — she could throw bolts of energy that, though they might not match her previous efforts, were nonetheless potent.
On the morrow, descending once more into the square just inside the gate, she was shocked by the crowd awaiting her. Half the adult populace, it seemed, had turned out bringing whatever makeshift weapons they could muster.
“What is this?”, she whispered to her Guard captain.
“The people, Senhora: they wish to fight for you!”
“Oh.” That was the last of Mercè’s doubts swept aside, and her fears that Cassonne might reject her for the certainty of peace evaporated. “Well, then”, she ordered brusquely: “break open the armouries. Make sure that those who wish to fight are provided with a decent weapon.”
It took a while. By the time they were ready, the enemy was drawn up on the plain outside the city wall, and Drust, who appeared to have achieved rapid promotion to overall command of the two armies, was demanding loudly that the people of Cassonne surrender, and “Hand over the witch!”
If they did so quickly, willingly, their lives might be spared.
Still, she hesitated. To ask that others die for her! It was responsibility she could not take lightly. The sun was high in the sky, a little past noon, as she mounted her horse and addressed the crowd.
“Friends! I cannot speak how much it means that you stand with me today. Yet you must know: the odds are still poor. The enemy outnumber us. They are seasoned men. And if we face them, many will die.
“But we have heart. Belief. Courage. We have Cassonne…”
“I La Dieusa!”.
“And the Goddess!” Mercè did not see who it was who called out. But she was grateful for it, as a chorus of assent went up from the assembled throng, turning, quickly, to the more familiar: “Per Dieus’ i Cassonne!”
They would fight. They wanted to fight. With studied drama, Mercè drew her sword and held it aloft. At the same time, with the lightest of mental flicks, she sent lightning crackling along its edges, drawing from the crowd a mingling of cheers and awe.
“Per Dieus’ i Cassonne” she repeated, before turning her horse towards the main gate and signalling for it to be thrown open.
It should have been a grand battle: a contest such as the trobairitz would sing of for centuries thereafter. In the end, though, it was nothing of the sort. For all Drust’s bluster, his army was already nervous, shaken by the loss of their Prince, and rumour of what had taken place the previous day.
And he was caught between lie and insult. The more he condemned Mercè as witch, the more some in his army would be spurred on to righteous indignation and retribution. Yet, as many would be made fearful. We must fight a witch? That was never mentioned, and it made them nervous!
Too, they expected a cowed and reduced enemy to emerge from the city gates: not the confident, almost eager army that marched out to face them. Even were it not composed entirely of professional soldiers, at least now it was comparable in number to the forces of Auvergne and Ortès.
Were that not enough, there at the front was Mercè, in full armour, and brandishing a sword that flickered and crackled with infernal energy. Aware that such might unsettle her horse, she had given orders the night before for blinders to be attached to her bridle, and took care to kept herself some distance from the rest of Cassonne’s mounted knights.
Not so the Auvergne cavalry which, rashly drawn up almost directly opposite, was growing skittish and hard to handle.
“Drust”, she called across the field. “You are here to end a war: yet the two who began it are now no longer with us. We did not wish that war. Nor to fight with you. You and your men have proven yourselves over the last few weeks.
“Withdraw, with honour. And Cassonne will seek to agree just settlement for your troubles.
“But if you do not, we cannot be responsible for the consequences.”
“Witch!” Drust’s only reply, as he ordered his army forward.
Mercè shook her head sadly.
“Per Dieus’i Cassonne!” As she spoke she willed the intensity of lightning that circled her blade to blaze with a new intensity. From out the clear sky she summoned a succession of bolts that hit the ground with explosive force in the middle of Drust’s cavalairia, his cavalry.
Men fell from their saddles, some injured, many more simply thrown as their by horses panicked at the lightning. An elite force, created and drilled by Bernardon, was breaking before her eyes — and not a blow was struck. Elsewhere, she saw the enemy waver and hesitate. To left and right, her own army advanced and, as she brought down two more bolts within the body of Drust’s troops panic begin to set in.
What could she do? What would she do? The fear and the doubt were palpable and, despite the best efforts of their captains, Ortès finest seemed reluctant to move forward. A finely aimed bolt brought down one of the men she recognised from the previous day, and Drust’s army started to fall back. Gradually at first, but as each man saw his companion hesitate, so the retreat gathered pace. Retreat turned to run, and then rout.
Per Dieus’i Cassonne! By contrast, Cassonne’s unlikely army was now in full charge, and against an enemy already turning away, the outcome was inevitable. Fighting there was, still, that day. But by nightfall, Cassonne held the field and the combined armies of Auvergne and Ortès were scattered to the wind. Even so, Mercè took care not to humiliate her foes, ordering a halt to pursuit before victory became slaughter.
And then there was peace. Mercè understood well enough that a city and a state surrounded by potential enemies must make friends. “Mai floron a Cassonne… mensongier, guerrayador…” The liar and the warrior shall never prosper in Cassonne.
It helped, for a while, that the story of what happened when she rode forth turned rapidly into the stuff of legend. But in truth, after returning from battle, she hung up Zoe’s sword, once more, above her throne: and there it stayed for all the long years after.
Nor did she ever again — in public at least — so much as practice the awesome power unleashed that day. Because a Queen and Princess that called down the lightning in her city’s hour of need was one thing: a miracle arranged by the Goddess. Whereas a Queen who ruled through lightning was unlikely, she suspected, to achieve such love.
“Mai floron a Cassonne…ni encara gentilhom” Nor any man shall prosper in Cassonne.
The old rhyme spoke true. Though whether it was Mercè or her old friend Seurine who added an extra line with which to lull Jenofa to sleep, neither could ever remember.
“Mas floron a Cassonne… sempres caduna domna”: but always in Cassonne will prosper each and every woman.
No man shall prosper: Besieged is Part III of a three part story set in the fantasy universe of Cassonne. If you liked this and would like to read more, drop me a line or say hi on Twitter (@janefae). If you like it, please indicate in the usual fashion.
Many thanks, once more, to Thibaud Ducros — also known as Tibaud Delcròs (in Occitan) or Tebôd Ducrôx (in Arpitan)- though better known to me as @PersonaPositiva: a Twitter friend and speaker of modern day occitan, who has guided me greatly in the Occitan language.
And if you would like to read other stories from the world of Cassonne, check out the Cassonne fan site, now over on Facebook, where i give advance notice of what is up and coming as well as answer questions readers may have.