The long hours of walking left my feet blistered. The long hours of man-handling cargo, of dealing with ornery animals ten times my weight, left my muscles aching. I didn’t mind. Every time I remembered the alternative, I hated it all the more. Sitting around the castle learning the finer arts of diplomacy and statecraft? I hated every moment of it. I hated every condescending smirk, every off-putting comment, every hint that I wasn’t worthy of my teachers’ attention. Here, as long as I carried my weight I was accepted as one of the group.
It was the hottest day of summer when the Bronze Horde’s scouts finally found us.
When our own scouts came back to report that we’d been seen, people panicked immediately. “They’ll come for us! They’ll come and kill us and eat us and --” “We can’t get away!” "–abandon the horses and cargo–" These people, who had been a family the day before, were ready to leave each other to the mercy of the Horde, if it meant their own survival.
The caravan-master, Rolf, got his bravoes to work. In short order, the loudest dissenters were cuffed and manhandled into silence, and the crowd packed into a tight circle. Rolf hopped up onto the nearest wagon and began bellowing. “You yellow bastards! You gutless worms! Talk like that won’t make it in my caravan. And I’ll clap in irons any useless coward that says another word against my orders, and make 'em haul the wagons along with the oxen. Now we’re gonna organize, and we’re gonna make double time, and we’re gonna live. Is that clear?”
Rolf’s eyes met mine for a moment. He knew, and now I did too, that he had doubts. Very well. He had his job to do. And if we ran out of luck, I’d have to do mine.
The next two days, nobody slept much. Everyone marched double-time. The animals panted with the exertion. When people would fall behind, Rolf would send his thugs to get them to pick up the pace - or lash them to a wagon. He made examples of enough slackers that weariness, rather than laziness, was the cause of each collapse. When the bravoes started getting restless, he paid them extra from the salaries of the exhausted.
The traders’ town was still three days away when the Bronze Horde caught up with us. They came over the distant ridge overlooking the caravan road, close enough that we could make out details. It was a typical raiding party. A few dozen barbarians, a handful of beast-shamans, and even two spell-spawned monsters. They answered our scattered screams with horrible war-cries that echoed across the plain.
Rolf called a halt, which sparked further panic. He nodded at me, and I climbed up onto the wagon with him. Nobody was sure what to do next. I could feel their fear. I had to answer it with something.
I had brought one of my few possessions, wrapped in tattered linen. Now I threw off the wrapping and held it aloft for inspection. My sword, the blade of the Crown. The perfect balance of the blade, the gold filigree, and the symbol of the Crown on the pommel marked it as the weapon of a knight. Would that its wielder had such a self-evident pedigree.
I remembering the lessons of my hated teachers at the castle, straightened my back, held my head aloft, and started to speak.
“Good folk, I am the sword and shield of the king. By the grace of the gods and the blessing of the crown, I travel the roads of the kingdom to ensure its safety. I ask you all to trust in me–”
One man in the crowd - I never found who - had the nerve to speak. “But you’re just a girl!”
The contempt of those at the castle had been enough, but this, here? I felt my blood boil.
“Yes, I am a girl. If you are braver than I, then stand with me when the Horde comes! For stand I shall.”
The heckler said nothing more. I continued.
“In the name of the Crown, I make a sacred vow to you this day. You will make it to safety. The Bronze Horde will not touch you. I will not allow it.”
I could feel their fear transform. Hope was emerging, and because it had nowhere else to go, it was centering on me. I felt their desperation surging, churning, struggling. Their survival demanded it.
I called to the power and it engulfed around me like it always does. I felt the coils of the invisible dragon take hold of me. I felt my armor crystallize from the aether, and heard the crowd gasp as they saw it. My sword lengthened, grew, transformed. I became the knight of their hopes, the champion of their lives, the avatar of the protection I had promised them.
Rolf stepped up next, galvanizing the awed crowd into immediate action. “Now! Let the lady do her work. Everyone else, move!”
I watched the caravan recede into the distance. And I watched the Bronze Horde thunder towards me.