War of the Cards – Colleen Oakes

Dinah chased a white rabbit, just beyond her reach. It turned and veered under rosebushes and vertically stacked tables piled with teacups. She turned a corner. It was gone. She turned again. A wave crashed over her, only instead of being wet, it was made of fire, a fire that thundered in her heart. The rabbit was there again, taunting her. As she watched, it swung its pocket watch back and forth, hypnotizing her. The rabbit’s ears began to shrink down into its head before her. Its eyes were swallowed by its changing face, which was becoming elongated and sharp. Feathers blossomed out of its back as it turned into a white peacock. It opened its mouth to speak. Its voice was high and sweet, the disembodied voice of Faina Baker. “Keep your temper, Queen of Hearts.

” “We’re here, Your Majesty.” The gentle voice of her Yurkei guard jerked her out of sleep. Dinah’s eyes blinked open as Morte came to an uneasy stop. It was unbelievable to her that she had fallen asleep while riding this temperamental animal, but there was something so lulling about Morte’s gait. That, and she was exhausted. They had been marching toward Wonderland Palace for many days, and sleep had not been a frequent visitor to Dinah’s bed. All her dreams of late were filled with nightmarish images. In the dawn hours just before she woke, her mind was battered with images of Wardley, the love of her life, who had fractured her heart into a thousand jagged pieces. Wardley, naked and glistening with sweat. Wardley, kissing her as red rose petals fell around them. Wardley, an old withered man, dying in her arms, his heart a hardened black shell that beat outside his body.

It wasn’t just him visiting her sleep. There was the dead farmer that she had found as she outran the Cards in the Twisted Wood, an arrow quivering in his back. There was the Heart Cards she had killed on her way out of Charles’s room, their blood chasing her down an endless palace hallway. These nightmares made for poor sleep, and Dinah awoke each morning with a pounding head and a heavy, jaded heart. She would sit up and slowly pull on her clothing, reminding herself why she was here: because she was the rightful Queen of Wonderland and she had come to conquer her kingdom. Most mornings, the thought was enough to motivate her. Other times, she lay in bed wishing that she was anywhere but here, in a damp tent that smelled of the Spades. After pulling on her tunic, cloaks, and boots, Dinah would sit on the edge of her bed and clutch at her chest, hoping to smother the black fury inside her. The fury whispered to her that she would never be loved and made her mouth water at the mention of blood. She would slowly push the rage back inside and struggle to control it.

Then she would put on her crown, emerge from her tent, say good morning to her Yurkei bodyguards, greet her advisers—Sir Gorrann, Cheshire, Starey Belft, and Bah-kan—and climb on her devil steed. Her army would continue making their way north. Each calculated, queenly step was exhausting. Her waking hours were filled with both longing and hatred for Wardley. She carried the weight of her love for him on her shoulders and in her chest. As they had marched north from the Darklands, he rode behind her, his eyes never leaving her back for long. Everywhere she turned, he was there, and each time their eyes met, Dinah was flooded with fresh pain. They hadn’t spoken since that afternoon beside the waterfall, when he had broken her heart into pieces. But it wasn’t for Wardley’s lack of trying. Every afternoon, he greeted Dinah with a tray of lunch and awkwardly attempted to explain himself to her.

She brushed him off without words, leaving him in the tent with the tray of bread in his hands. He was desperate for her forgiveness, and she would not give it, not now when the sight of him made her physically sick. Dinah knew that he wished for her to know he still cared for her. What he couldn’t understand was that for Dinah, it was torturous to see him. Two nights ago, when she awoke to him sitting on the edge of her bed and staring at her, Dinah finally forced her mouth to form the words. “Wardley.” Her voice was barely a pleading whisper, choked with a restrained sob. “Please, leave me alone. I can’t bear to be near you right now.” Wardley reached for her hand, but Dinah turned away and buried herself under a Yurkei feather blanket.

“If you care for me, you will leave.” Finally, when it became apparent that she would not speak with him, Wardley sighed and stood. “Please don’t cut me off from you.” “Go!” she snapped. “Fine. I’ll do as you ask now. But I will not leave your side once the battle begins, so don’t ask me. I don’t care what you command. Do you understand?” Dinah finally gave a slight nod, praying that he would leave before her tears overtook her. She heard the tent flap open, and when she turned around he had vanished into the early morning darkness, leaving her alone with a shattered heart.

Days had passed since then, and the pain was as fresh as an open wound. “It’s good to take a break, Your Majesty,” muttered Ki-ershan, one of her two Yurkei bodyguards. Dinah blinked in the sunlight. Morte stamped impatiently. She took a minute to shake herself awake and glanced behind her. The sight was staggering. Thousands of men were spread across the plains, like an ominous shadow that passed over the land. A hundred yards behind her, her advisers rode in an unregimented clump. Behind them, a line of two thousand Yurkei warriors on their sleek steeds moved smoothly as if they were of one mind. From up here, she thought, you would never know that they were a mostly peaceful and pleasant people.

From here, they looked like a dark blot of death. Dinah swallowed hard. As they would be, for those who fought for the king. Almost half a mile behind the Yurkei marched the weary Spades and rogue Cards, a large horde of cantankerous and brutal men clothed in black that inched slowly across the grass-blown plain. They were all fighting for Dinah, but they fought for their own reasons: the Spades because of their unequal status within the Cards, the Yurkei because of hundreds of years of violent grievances with Wonderland Palace. A vastly larger group of Yurkei soldiers led by their chief, Mundoo, marched their way to Wonderland Palace from the north. Dinah and her motley bunch were to meet them there on the day of battle. They would crush the larger Card army from both sides—Mundoo attacking from the north side of Wonderland Palace, and Dinah’s much smaller troop coming in from the south—with the idea that two armies would be a bigger psychological as well as a strategic threat. She hoped it would work. It was all Cheshire’s planning.

Dinah rode Morte out front, alone. She didn’t have much use for company lately. Silently, she watched as Wardley raised his arm and the brigade came to a sudden halt. The sound of the men’s obvious relief reached Dinah’s ears. I must remember that no matter how tired I am, I am not as weary as my men. Wardley brought Corning up beside her, with Bah-kan following grumpily at his heels. “Why did we stop?” Bah-kan bellowed. “We are almost to the villages of Wonderland proper.” Dinah cleared her throat and looked away from Wardley. The sight of his face made her heart twist so painfully that she almost lost her breath.

“Please communicate to the army that we are camping here for the night.” Wardley’s eyes lingered pitifully on her face before he spurred Corning off to aid the Spades with setting up camp. Bah-kan growled in Dinah’s direction. “The Yurkei won’t be happy about this.” “Thank you for telling me,” replied Dinah coldly. “I will keep that in mind.” He was right, of course. The Yurkei were a thousand times more physically fit than the Spades, but more important, they rode horses that never seemed to tire. The Yurkei’s wild herds were miraculous beasts, and the Spades appeared quite taken with them. The warriors from Hu-Yuhar had mistakenly assumed they would be marching straight to Wonderland with very little time to stop and camp.

The vast majority of the Spades were walking, and so they rightly required more breaks. This had led to an ever-growing discontent that only inflamed the two groups’ hatred for each other. In addition to this, the long march to Wonderland Palace had taken a deep physical toll on the men. While they had expected the march to take upward of two weeks, Dinah was surprised at just how difficult it was to move her small army. Getting the Yurkei south had been easy compared to this. Returning the Spades back to where they’d just come from was an endless litany of negotiations, disappointment, and hunger. Most of them were not completely at ease with a woman leading them and directed their questions and complaints to Starey Belft, Cheshire, or Wardley. While she at times quietly doubted her own ability to lead, she didn’t want her men doing it. Because of this, Dinah begrudgingly made it a point to interact with the men as much as possible. She joined them for dinner, watched their sparring bouts, and attempted to engage them in casual conversation.

She made sure to personally thank each one for his loyalty. Yet despite all this effort, they still looked to Cheshire for answers. Around Dinah they acted shy but respectful. There was a lot of staring. Dinah apparently wasn’t the only one being stared at. Yur-Jee, her fierce Yurkei guard, was staring with seething hatred at a Spade soldier who was attempting to feed one of the Yurkei steeds a piece of bread. Yur-Jee’s hand clutched his bow as he gestured frantically to the Spade. “Lu-yusa! Ilu-fre!” He stumbled for broken Wonderlander, finally finding the word. “No!” The Spade, a husky man with a giant black beard and red-rimmed eyes, stepped back. “What the hell is he going on about now?” he grumbled.

Yur-Jee was climbing off his horse, tight, lean muscles tensing as his feet hit the ground. The Spade reached for his ax. “Stop! Ja-Hohy!” Both men wisely paused at the voice of their future queen. Dinah carefully dismounted Morte, sliding down half his body as her calloused hands clutched his red leather rein. “Idiots!” she quietly whispered to herself as she closed the space between them. When she reached the men, she calmly took the bread out of the Spade’s hand and tossed it on the ground before meeting the Spade’s eyes. She heard a familiar nicker behind her from Cyndy, Sir Gorrann’s mare. She was reassured by his quiet presence. Altercations like this seemed to happen every other hour, and she was learning to deal with them one by one. Ruling, it turned out, was terribly tedious and made up of a dozen small decisions every day that seemed to always upset someone.

She smiled kindly at the Spade, who stared at her unnervingly. “The Yurkei only let their horses eat wild grasses, did you know that? This special diet is what we believe gives them their endurance.” The Spade snorted. “Fancy diet, yeh say? For their horses? That’s a load of shit if I’ve ever heard it.” He spit on the ground at Dinah’s feet. Behind her, Sir Gorrann cleared his throat to reprimand the man, but Dinah raised her hand, silencing him. She leveled the soldier with a glare. “Should you disrespect me again, you’ll find yourself in shackles at the end of the line, trying your best to keep up with their steeds. If you choose differently—say, to make your way back to your post and take it upon yourself to educate others that they are not to feed the Yurkei steeds—then you may end this journey without raw wrists and bleeding feet.” She tilted her head, ignoring the urge to strike this man repeatedly.

The man dropped his eyes and bent to his knee. Dinah smiled. “It’s just, we’re tired, miss. The savage—” Dinah’s hand went to her sword at the word, but the man backed up. “Sorry. It’s just that the Yurkei all have horses, and we have none. I lost one toe on the march already, and I thought if I gave one some food, then maybe . ” “It would let you ride it? That the Yurkei warrior would walk?” Dinah knew this would never happen—the Yurkei were deeply connected to their steeds—and yet she understood the inequality of being forced to walk all day most days when others rode. It wasn’t just about the horses; this was a bitterness that predated her reign by several decades. Dinah had imagined herself leading an army of brave men with herself at the helm, arriving in glory and with great fanfare.

Instead, she spent most of her time trying to make peace between the two factions that fought for her. She motioned for Yur-Jee to return to his horse and lead on. He nodded, and briefly Dinah recognized the obedience she’d fought so hard to gain. Her black eyes simmering, she bent over the Spade. Her newly short black hair brushed her chin. “I hear your cries, but disrespecting the Yurkei will get you nowhere. I will offer you this: take care of the Yurkei steeds on the march. When we camp for the night, brush them, feed them—wild grasses only—and make sure they are checked for injuries. If you do this and do it well, once I am queen I will remove you from the Spades and put you in charge of incorporating the Yurkei’s understanding of animal husbandry into our new, united kingdom. We have much to learn from them.

” The Spade was sputtering now, tears forming in his eyes. What she had offered was unthinkable for a man who had never been allowed property, rights, or titles in any way. “Yes, my queen.” He began kissing her hand repeatedly, his scratchy beard tickling her wrist. “I’m not queen yet,” Dinah stated. “But let’s change that, shall we?” The Spade walked away, and for a moment Dinah was proud of how she had comported herself. With Cheshire’s help, Dinah was learning that it was far better to put offenders to use rather than impose harsh punishments. She would be foolish to do so, for it would mean the loss of these skilled fighters. This same strategy shaped her entire plan for the battle. The war council met nightly in a heavily guarded tent, always coming to the same impasse: the men would argue for lots of casualties, and yet Dinah repeated herself, again and again, “I will not hurt my people if I don’t have to.

” Once Cheshire had reluctantly agreed, the plan moved forward. At their most recent council meeting, Bah-kan had pushed himself up dangerously close to Dinah, his huge face bursting with veins. “How will we hold back the Cards if we cannot kill them? How are we to win when we must keep men alive? This is nonsense! You are sending us to our graves.” Dinah’s face remained calm in the presence of his boiling anger, though she longed to strike him. “The Cards who fight for the King of Hearts will become my men once the war is over. I do not wish to inherit an empty palace with only ghosts to haunt its walls. We must make prisoners of as many as we can. We will spill blood in the first wave; that can’t be helped. May the gods have mercy on those men who face our swords first. But Bah-Kan, we also must be merciful.

To win this battle—and the battle for the hearts and minds of the people—we must get to the king as quickly as possible. That is our priority.” “The king will fight,” protested Starey Belft. “But he will don his armor and ride out with the mounted Heart Cards on the north side, to face Mundoo’s army. He is a fierce warrior but tires easily. As soon as the battle turns, he will retreat back inside the keep to wait for you there, sharpening his Heartsword.” Dinah felt a twinge of fear mixed with something alarmingly seductive deep inside her. “By that time, our army should be pressing against the gates, or, by the grace of the gods, inside the gates.” “We cannot assume that we will be inside.” Cheshire spoke quietly, as always, his long hands folded underneath his chin.

“The majority of the king’s Cards will be on the north side to counter Mundoo’s army, but he will no doubt spare a few thousand for our army on the south end of the palace. We will have to cut our way to the gates, open them, get inside, make it through the palace grounds, and open up the gates on the north side so that Mundoo’s forces can enter. But if we cannot get inside quickly, the Cards will make a graveyard of our forces. We do not have the men or resources to lay a siege. We must win the first push, or else we will lose.” There was a silence in the tent as each man and one queen weighed their fates. Wardley broke the silence. “The king will unleash all his power. He’ll use innocent people in unthinkable ways. And then there is the matter of the Fergal archers.

” He rubbed his lips, and for a second Dinah tasted them against her own. “The battle will descend into chaos quickly, where both sides will be taking heavy losses. Dinah’s right—we must overtake the king as quickly as possible. That is our purpose. Once that happens, Dinah can seize power quickly and the fighting will stop. When she is the sole ruler of Wonderland, the people will bend their knees and submit to her authority. They will have no choice. Remember, most of them fear the king. They’ve lost loved ones to his paranoia and rage. Most of these men are bakers, spoiled members of the court, farmers, fishmongers.

” “Or highly trained Heart Cards,” countered Dinah. “Yes.” Bah-kan ran his fingers over his blade as if strumming an instrument. “Whoever they are, we will give them no choice. They will bow to the Queen of Hearts or they will die. Then we will execute the highest-ranking Cards to remind them of her power.” Wardley flicked his hair out of his face, annoyed, and though Dinah’s heart gave a pang of pain, her face remained motionless. She turned to Bah-kan. “No, we will not. All who declare their loyalty to me will be cleared of any charges and allowed to continue with their lives.

It is the quickest way to get Wonderland back to a functioning kingdom. We cannot risk a divided city when winter is near. We’ll need every baker, fisherman, and Card.” Dinah raised her chin and the men around her nodded their consent. “When I am crowned queen, we will grant mercy to those who want it. Is this understood?” “And to those who kill our men? Our warriors? Or what of those high-ranking court members who aided the king?” Bah-kan was stalking around the room, scowling at everyone who looked in his direction. “I’ve seen what Cards do to the Yurkei they capture. It is unforgivable. They have taken our lands, raped our women. ” “Spoken by a man who once called himself the greatest Card to ever live?” snapped Starey Belft.

He turned to the group. “Do you mean that you’ve taken their lands and raped their women? Before you turned? Before you became one of them?” His voice rose. “How dare you speak against them when you were once a Card yourself?” Bah-kan lunged for Belft but was blocked by Wardley, who leaped in between them. All parties fell to the ground in a fury of fists and shouts. Cheshire raised his eyebrow at Dinah from across the room. Her head throbbed as they tumbled at her feet. Fury rose into her chest; she had had enough. “Sit down!” she thundered, rising to her feet. “Enough, all of you!” The three men stared at her with shock. “I am your queen and you will listen to my command.

I order you to stop acting like spoiled children with your imagined hurts and prejudices. You are no better than the men out there in the tents, looking for any excuse to beat on each other. We are their leaders, and we must project to our men that we are one army. If you cannot control your emotions, how am I to believe that you can lead these men and warriors into battle?” She whirled, unleashing her ferocity on the men seated around her. “Bah-kan, control your temper, or this council will know your absence. Starey Belft, you may not insult Bah-kan or any Yurkei again, not in or outside of my presence. He has made his choice, and he has been an essential ally in our fight. Now, we will continue with our discussion in a civilized and dignified manner.” The men sat like obedient children, and it occurred to Dinah that what all these warriors might need was a strong mother with a whipping spoon. She rubbed her forehead.

“You have disappointed me tonight. You are dismissed.” In silence, they filed out of the tent. That night, as Dinah undressed for bed, she was filled with a surge of pride. Without a trace of fear, I just belittled the greatest collection of warriors I’ve ever seen. Perhaps there is hope that I can be the queen that Wonderland deserves. This thought followed her pleasantly into sleep, but her subconscious proved to be the enemy of rest. In her dreams, the King of Hearts stood beside her, his massive red cape snapping around them like a cold wind as they stood on a pile of Yurkei corpses. He pointed his finger at her. “I’m waiting for you.

” Dinah cried out in her sleep, but there was no one around to hear her.

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