The quartermaster was yelling obscenely at a subordinate, before turning.
"I need a horse and caravan."
"Don't be stupid woman! We're evac..." He finally spotted Minerva's pips and ground to a halt.
"I realise that this is probably the most awkward time to make demands, but I am travelling east across the plain and I need a caravan and a horse. Also provisions for two."
"I am under orders from the Matriarch. Don't make me invoke..." The quartermaster had turned away.
"You!" He screamed. "Caravan and a horse!" He grabbed another. "Provisions for two, now! Move it!"
Minerva looked around. They weren't going to be able to walk, Rhian was far too young for that. So, she was going to need a horse and cart. Time to try and flex her new rank's muscles...
"Soldier." She just grabbed a random one from the soldiers directing the exodus. "Take me to the quartermaster."
"I'm sorry miss, you need to get back into the line. We're trying to keep everyone moving..." He paused as she looked at him sternly.
"Shut up cadet."
"I'm an officer madam!"
"Not for long if you don't take us to the quartermaster right now!"
She hugged her daughter tightly and moved into the crowd, in amongst the rich and poor as they rubbed shoulders leaving the city.
Outside the wall, the people headed North. Whereas Minerva and her little girl headed eastward.
"Why aren't we going with everyone else?"
"We have an important thing to do. We need to go and see someone to get their help."
"His name is Rexinalt, and he lives near the mountains."
"What? Those mountains?" Rhian peered into the distance at the faint hint of snowy topped peaks creeping above the far eastern horizon.
"Yes. Those mountains."
They watched as Grandma Nerys was led away into the crowd, her bodyguard firmly by her side.
"Bye, bye nana." Came the small voice. Minerva swept her up and hugged Rhian. "Nana's going to be safe." Rhian was picking up on the faint smell of fear that was pervading everything now.
"Are we going to be safe mum?"
"Oh, bunny... I won't lie to you. I don't know. But we have Frankie with us, so I know for certain that you are as safe as anyone can possibly be. And I won't let anyone hurt you. Ever!"
She sniffed. "Promise?"
Minerva hugged her mother tightly. "Be safe mum. Be far, far away from what is coming." She stood back. "This is sergeant Hollister. He'll be by your side for the whole Journey." A short, burly, man stood to attention. "Take care of her sergeant."
"Yes general!" He said, snapping together his heels and saluting. Minerva rolled her eyes, and Nerys smirked.
"General? I hope that came with a pay increase?"
"Not that it'll do you any good mum." She leant down. "Nanner can't come with us bunny. So you need to give her a big hug, we'll see her soon."
Minerva pecked her little girl on the cheek. "We have to go somewhere little one." She put her back down. "Are you packed?"
"Yes mum. Just like grandma said to."
"Good. Is Frankie in his bag? We mustn't forget him."
"Just like Ginny is taking Maggie cat in her basket."
"Good. Go get your bag..." Rhian raced away. "And don't forget to put your big walking boots on!" She shouted after her.
Nerys looked at her daughter. "We're not going to the same place are we."
Minerva shook her head. "Sorry mum, she's much safer with me."
"Are you sure?"
The rapid, practiced, thud of small feet came thundering down the stairs.
"Mummy!" Screamed the eight-year-old as she charged across and buried herself in Minerva's dress.
Minerva quickly wiped her eyes and picked up her little girl.
"Hey bunny! How're you doing?"
"I'm alright. Frankie's been naughty though."
Nerys looked at her granddaughter. "Only because you weren't in control of him." She looked up. "Little monster nearly caught the neighbour's cat the other day."
Minerva raised her eyebrows. "What have I told you about keeping Frankie under control?"
"Sorry mum." She looked dour. "Glad you're home though mum."
Her mother was beside herself. "Oh! You're not hurt are you? What happened?"
"I'm..." Minerva's minds eye flashed back to the moment the coven was broken as she delivered the final, massive, blow to the enemy. "I'm not hurt." She lied. "But we were overrun..." She held on tightly as the floodgates finally had a chance to open. "They're all gone mum. All gone." She sobbed.
"Shh... You're here now. You're safe."
"That's it mum. It's not safe here. Not anymore. There's a friend outside, you need to go with them."
"This evacuation is your doing?"
"Yes, mum, it is."
"Rhian! Don't forget to pack your warm clothes!" Came the shout from the kitchen as Minerva entered the house quietly. Outside the noise of neighbours hastily moving into the street to join the crowd, as they filed towards the northern city gate, hid the noise she made as she opened the door.
"Mum?" The noise from the kitchen stopped and her mother's face instantly appeared at the kitchen door. "Minny! Oh my Goddess!! You're home? They never said, you never said..." She ran along the short hall and wrapped her eldest in a massive hug. "I thought..."
"Back early mum."
Minerva made her way through a city on the very edge of panic. It was clear as the cities forces made their way through the streets. The looks of barely concealed terror written on every face. Young and old, it didn't matter. Even the soldiers.
Minerva, however, had a specific destination in mind. Her mother lived on the outskirts of the city, near the wall. And while it was right that her mother left with an armoured escort, it was her daughter that she sought. In the coming says she would need her by her side. As close as possible.
Stepping from the oppressive silence of the Matriarch's chambers back into the real-world felt like stepping out into a front-line camp. The mansion was heaving with people rushing around. Minerva quietly stopped a girl that was gathering up plates and dishes.
"What is going on?"
The girl looked at her quizzically and then spotted the new pips on Minerva's collar and changed the look to wide-eyed horror.
"M'm'ma'am!" She tried to curtsey and hold onto her plates. "The Matriarch has issued orders to evacuate the city ma'am!"
"What? The whole city?"
"Yes ma'am! Everyone is to leave!"
The Matriarch brought her staff down and placed the tip on Minerva's shoulder.
"I hereby promote your rank to general. You are to leave this place with my orders to gather the weapons of war, in accordance with the prophecies of the Augury. You report directly to me and to no-one else."
She stood the staff upright and at rest.
"Am I clear in my orders general Khisha?"
Minerva bowed her head. "Ma'am!"
"Then I must ask why you are still here. You are dismissed!"
Minerva hurried to her feet, and strode purposefully, and quickly, from the Matriarch's chamber.
The Matriarch glared at Minerva. "And what, exactly, did the Shadow lord ask in return for this unfettered, and presumably un-molested, access?"
"Ma'am. His lordship requested that I keep him appraised of the situation here in the lands of light."
"Did he now... I would say that this was unprecedented. However, I have heard reports from the Western lands that the Augury has returned to us." She sighed, heavily. "Death and great change is upon us as we stumble, blindly, into its dark and heavy folds. I would send you west, but there are tasks for you here first."
Minerva stood before the Matriarch of Moorehaven, head bowed, red eyed after fully describing what had happened and how Hammords Reach had fallen.
"The Shadow Lord allows you access to his lands." Croaked the Matriarch with her gravelled voice.
It was a statement. Not a question, just a statement. The Matriarch sat on the throne chair, carved from the remains of an ancient oak; it's roots still fixing it to the ground. The chamber had been built around it.
"I find that most disturbing of all. No-one has had such access for over three thousand years! If not more."
"I am arresting you for possession of weapons within the city walls!" Shouted the guard.
"Oh, my goodness! Gordon! What...?" The sergeant gasped an exasperated sigh. He clipped the soldier over the head. "Shut up private!" He shouted as Gordon yelped and grabbed his ear.
"Sorry ma'am. May I see your papers?" The sergeant quickly looked over the document that Minerva had been trying to present to the guard.
"That seems more than in order ma'am. Or should I say Sergeant Major?"
She smiled. "Ma'am is just fine sergeant."
He nodded and turned to Gordon. "Back on duty private! Now!!"
Minerva calmly presented her coven paperwork to the guard. "I did not pass through the gates. I..." She was one of the few who knew the shadow realm. "Travelled here. Magic. I am staying at the laughing duck."
"Sergeant!" He bellowed. "Intruder!"
She rolled her eyes and planted her fists on her hips.
"Listen up moron. If I wanted to bypass you, I'd be inside already with the Matriarch. As it is, right now, I'm being very polite and walking in the light bearing you no harm."
"What are you doing Gordon?" The sergeant rolled up behind the guard, scowling.
She was brought to a stop by the thud of a Halberd on the cobbled street in front of her. The guard, in the kings' livery of cobalt blue and gold planted himself in front of her.
"Halt! State your business!"
Minerva sighed. "I must see the Matriarch. It is very urgent. I have come from Hammords Reach with news."
She reached into the pouch on her belt, pulling back her cloak and revealing her gauntlets slung beneath.
The guard stiffened, stepped back and brought the sharp end of the halberd to bear. "All weapons are stored on entry!"
The city of Moorehaven was of standard fair, other than it being a port city. A castle sat in the middle of the city on top of a bear lodge butte of solid granite. The river Moorechase came from inland via a gate that helped the city to control commerce. As a result, it was rich. It had well paid guards. It had good defences and little crime. For a city, it was a good place to live.
Minerva really hated it.
She could feel the veneer that was plastered over the whole place, and it made her skin crawl.
Minerva deliberately swooshed past the inn's front desk. Placing another coin as she passed. "I'll be back!" She exclaimed as she left.
This morning was not going to be fun. Arriving, as she had, meant that she'd slept away urgent hours. She didn't think that the enemy would be able to mobilise across the distance she'd travelled, but still...
Her first call would have to be with the local Matriarch. She had to report the deaths of her coven. Twelve dead, excluding herself. A witch's dozen. The symmetry of the twelve and the focus... Her.
She strode towards the keep.
The bed actually looked clean for once. Which was good, as she had no strength for a cleansing spell. She locked the door, hung her favourite bad luck totem on the handle, kicked off her boots and promptly collapsed onto the bed where sleep came quickly.
Warm morning sunshine splashing across her face brought her fully awake. Almost as much as the need for the toilet. Which, it turned out, to not be as nice as the bed. To be fair, there was only so much that could be done to a seated bucket in a box affair.