1. A Little War: Uther

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Uther spat sludgy water into his mouth gag. Mud plastered his right eye shut, which only added to the wrongness in his gut. The water seeped into his boots, numbing his feet, and soaked his clothes. His head felt pumped full of iron. Uther hadn't been drinking, but he didn't know where he was or how he'd gotten there.

He knew he was at war with his uncle.

Who was losing, Uther reminded himself, struggling to get his numb back to sit upright. Whoever had bound him had done a thorough job, and he slid around on the bank like a beached trout.

His memory felt sticky. A sense of offness crept into his body as thoroughly as the water soaked his clothes.

Stop and think. There's a reason for this, he thought, forcing himself to stop struggling against the sludge.

'An hour in the library saves a year on the battlefield,' Joyce, his tutor, had told him. Joyce had never been in battle, having spent his life as a bookbinder and private tutor, but that didn't keep him from using the quote.

He'd been in his tent...well behind the front lines, Uther thought. A contingent of archers from Deep Fords had returned. Cyrus, his general and advisor, led them. The battle went well, but Cyrus was disconcerted. The archers were spooked. He tried to get it out of them, but they'd seen something; something they deemed too silly and embarrassing to tell their commander. At least, that's what Cyrus told him. And Uther believed Cyrus, who was going to have his second in command, Brinn, question the contingent. She didn't have Cyrus's imposing, stony demeanor, but Uther suspected her to be the more ruthless of his two advisors.

That left him back in his tent after the briefing. He'd been looking forward to a night of rest before the bustle of advancing the army. And then...nothing. No, not quite. There'd been a draft, and he'd gone to close the flap.

Then nothing.

The swampy landscape turned inky gray, and his one good eye saw the greens and washed out purples of the swamp flowers pop through the haze. His uncle, Arniel Gains, had his keep out in these festering, stinking swamps. It was good land for wet crops, fish, and clay, but it sat on the border with the unsettled fae country, which dropped its value considerably. No one wanted to live too close to the wild magic.

Arniel Gains was a wizard, too.

'Don't go to war with a wizard,' his friend, Septimus, who was also a wizard, had told him. 'Besides, going to war with your uncle for the throne is a cliché.'

It was, he agreed, but he had to, and there were The Rules of War. There were things wizards didn't do to normal folk. You weren't allowed to use magic in battle. Unless you were fighting another mage, then anything went, he supposed. And just like the swamp water, it sunk into Uther's mind that his uncle had broken The Rules of War. What he'd done, Uther didn't know, but it wasn't good. He suspected he might be blind in his right eye, although it didn't hurt. Arniel Gains was blind in his right eye, too, which made his insides squirm.

Someone will find me, Uther thought, craning his neck. The night had been chilly, keeping the air clear. The fog boiled off the land, muck, and water before the sun rose. The humps of the Tohanas Mountains hovered in the distance. Mount Skylark was still visible, as it had been the night before from camp. The Tohanas weren't a grand mountain range, and these tracks of wetlands drained down from the mountains on their west. They were heavily wooded, treacherous, and of course, they were home to the fae.

Uther peered around, listening to the gurgling, chirping morning in the swamp. Some of his men, a bit bashfully, had thought they'd seen fae on the campaign. But they were an army bristling with iron pikes, swords, and arrows. No fae would come close enough, and Brinn said she thought fae were like mountain cats. They watched you, but they didn't particularly like you knowing they were watching. In the case of mountain cats, that something was usually food. With fae...there were stories about what they wanted with humans. If you were lucky, you came back the right shape.

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