Holly needed thugs with a modicum of intelligence. Pawns were easy. Knights, rooks, bishops—those were rare. Along the way, she had to find kings and queens and kill them quickly, before they turned troublesome.
Wodec, for example. He knew her secret.
The High Mage, much to her relief, had embarked on a “wizard’s sojourn.” Which, according to her staff, meant he’d wander the desert for an unspecified period of time. Initially, this had weighed heavy on her mind. She’d spent long hours on her Gortaki cot, staring up at the darkened ceiling, wondering what that wrinkly-ass bastard might be up to. But as more Indashi fell in line, her worry had dimmed and faded.
Six months in, she began to imprison her fellow barbarians. At first it was for egregious offenses, but then she added obtusely worded laws, easily misread and open to bias. This was deliberate.
So long as she picked the right justicers, the Indashis would begin to jail themselves.
She paid close attention to reports from Yin-Skythe, who, instead of Sword Master, now bore the title of Head Barsman. A fitting description. Holly had ordered a double row of bars for every cell; if an inmate managed to reach through the first, their mobility would be limited by the second.
She needed her jailers safe and secure. The guards were loyal to her and each other, a sentiment she wished to encourage and amplify. Once they were used to unquestioning obedience, she would tighten the reigns even further. For now, though, they needed to believe in their own nobility.
Right now she was riding to Reykafix, a newly established prison camp. As her troop drew close, a watchtower guard lifted a horn. When he blew it, his fellow guardsmen—manning skull-crusted towers built directly into the walled perimeter—straightened up.
A couple months back, she’d changed their armor—she needed sword-wielding storm-troopers, not Conan wannabes. She’d asked her artists for rough sketches, then coached their efforts with careful suggestions, doling out praise and indifference with masterful skill. As a result, their armor looked like Orcish plate mail from Lord of the Rings. The artists thought she was open to input, and said as much to any who would listen. Holly was pleased; she wanted them to think they were willing participants.
She wanted them to think it was their own idea.
What she now saw made her happy. Dick Cheney would heartily approve, if he were made ruler of a fantasy-world hellscape.
The man in the gate-tower cupped his mouth. “HO!” he called. “THE KING APPROACHES!” Iron pulleys creaked and clanked. The thirty-foot high, double-door entrance swung inward.
Holly rode through to the prison courtyard. The inside was spare: guard shack, prisoner hall (a large, squarish building in the middle of the compound) and equipment hut on its rightmost wall. The local warden—Lubbock Icewind—sank to a knee and clapped a fist to his heart. His four lieutenants, all arrayed neatly behind him, followed suit. Their cloaks formed black, silky pools atop the sand.
“Rise,” Holly commanded.
They rose. “My lord. What brings you to Reykafix?” Lubbock asked in a respectful growl.
“Your latest arrivals—summon them.”
Lubbock turned to the soldier on his left. “Hor’glank. Muster the Orcs.”
“No,” Holly said. “Indashi only.”
“Of course.” He turned back to Hor’glank. “The humans, lieutenant.”
Hor’glank jogged toward the guard shack and slipped inside. A second later, he jogged back over.
“They are coming, Senior Warden.”
Two guards led a pair of Indashi out from the hall, prodding them forward with spike-tipped poleaxes. Both prisoners halted before Holly, heads bowed. Draggled hair hung from their temples.
“My king,” one of them rumbled. “I wish to apologize for—”
“Silence.” She drew a bone-hilted knife from her leather belt sheath, and lifted the weapon to eye level. “Do you know,” she mused, examining the back-curving blade with a speculative gaze, “what it takes to run a kingdom?” She dropped it to her waist and regarded the prisoners. “It takes sacrifice, for suffering is a language understood by all. In order to maintain our strength as a people, blood must be spilt.”
“Please,” the prisoner on her left gasped. “ ’Twas a single night of drunken revelry! I’ll happily pay for—”
“Interrupt me again and you’ll pay with your tongue.”
The prisoner fell silent. All color drained from his face.
“I shall excuse your mishap,” Holly said. “I shall grant you a quick death.” She stepped forward and punctured his throat. Her blade made a wet, sliding whisper as it slipped in and out.
Holly’s victim fell to the ground, gasping and sputtering. The hole in his throat gushed and bubbled. Quiet shock rippled through the guards; it had been so businesslike, so blasé…like a malign magic trick.
“A quick death,” Holly stated, staring intently at the other prisoner. “ ’Tis a privilege, is it not?”
Terror flashed across his face. Not just terror, but desperate calculation. If he fought or ran…
His eyes dropped. If he tried to resist, it would make things worse.
“Yes, my king,” he whispered. “A privilege.”
“So thank me.” Holly’s voice was chillingly casual.
“Thank you, my liege.” The barbarian’s tone was equally chilling—as if his punishment was par for the course.
“You are welcome. You are most welcome.” Holly’s dagger slid in and out.
The barbarian yelped and fell to his side, twitching and jerking as red freshets poured from his neck. His dying sigh was lost and quiet.
Holly wiped her blade on her tunic. “Merciful, was I not?” Her voice had risen; the question was meant for all who bore witness.
The reply was unanimous: “Yes, my king.”
Honestly, she was kind of disappointed. Deep down, she’d been hoping for reticence. That way, she could have set a sterner example.
Oh well. All in good time.