Shanna held up her hand.
She sensed rather than saw the others stop behind her. The need to actually check was long past, if it had ever existed. She trusted her men. They trusted her. That was the core of leadership.
Then there was Lewy.
Their scout was coming back towards her through the trees and underbrush, a worried look on his face. That was not good. Scouts should always look confident, knowing. After all, they were the ones who were supposed to know where the fuck they were, and where they were going. For it to be otherwise ... well, they could be replaced.
The mustached man stopped before her, dropping to one knee. She did the same, as did those behind her. He did LOOK like a proper soldier, at least. All strong and beefy. She also approved of the new armor. Black. Much more sensible than shiny steel in her opinion.
"Lady, forgive me."
Never a good way for one of her men to start off. She sighed, adjusting her glasses before motioning with her right hand for Bogdi to come forward. The brown haired giant was at her side before she had even completed the movement.
"Whether I forgive you, Lewy, will depend on how much you've fucked up. What's ahead?"
"Frogs," he said, wincing. Shanna groaned.
"We shouldn't be within a mile of the border! Where the fuck have you led us, you son of an elf?"
"We haven't hit the road," Bogdi said, dryly, "so we're obviously still north of it. And we're south of the sea." He pulled out a map as Shanna continued her death stare at her future former scout. Lewy looked at his feet.
"It's a pond, with women Frogs bathing. I'm sorry, Lady. Back at the large rock, I should have veered us left, instead of crossing the stream."
"I don't see it," Bogdi said. He moved the map into her lap. "Obviously we don't have Frog territory all sorted out."
Shanna let out a sigh.
"I'll go talk to them. See if any speak Polish, know where the hell we are."
She raised a hand to cut off Bogdi's protest.
"A bunch of human males is not going to make this easier. I'll be OK." She took the map, motioning ahead of them. "Lewy, show me."
The Dark Hussar.
Shanna loved, and hated, the name. The hate came mostly because of its racial component. She had dark skin. Was different. Unique. Being unique, though, was not always a bad thing. She could define herself. Define what it was to have dark brown skin in a sea of white. In this world, she was not part of a historically enslaved, dismissed minority. James may have found himself King in this strange fantasy land, but she ... she was herself.
"Tell me what you want to do," King James had told her. "Pick anything." After her first suggestion that she be the Empress, ruling over him, had been rejected, the eighteen year old had decided to adapt her nickname, make it her own. First, the Dark part. Black armor. Custom made, breastplate fitting her female form without looking stupidly "sexy". Colored with some combination of heat and an oil wax. On her shield, two white crossed swords under a red Buffalo. A tribute to a home she would never again see, yet honoring her new homeland.
The Hussar part required a bit more adapting. A Hussar was, basically, a horseman. Cavalry. Someone who charged the enemy with a lance. As much as she enjoyed riding, Shanna had no desire to do that. It was stupidly suicidal, and she was glad her fiancé was now the King's escort and no longer in that business. Luckily, that was not the cavalry she had grown up knowing. Shanna had loved watching old westerns with her Father. Cowboys and Indians, fighting it out, with her Dad providing social commentary on how wrong most of it was. Not all, naturally. The better films, even the older ones, often showed the problem was wrong thinking US officers, or Whites trying to exploit the natives. The cavalry in those films, for the most part, were totally different from Hussars. They were more mounted infantry. The soldiers would ride to where the enemy was, then dismount and fight.
Could that work here?
Well, she was willing to find out.
Shanna looked over the bush, down into the shallow valley.
There were a half dozen of the brownish splotchy skinned creatures, lounging in a pond. She wondered if it was a hot spring, if only a mild one. The temperature wasn't that bad, fall not yet turning into winter, but she thought she saw, if not steam, then a slight heat haze over the water. The women also had a look she knew well, which transcended species. She looked at Lewy.
With a sigh, she rose, stepping through the bushes.
Silence greeted her, six pairs of large eyes looking up from the tops of the Kikker women's heads. They ducked down until only those eyes were above water, preserving their modesty despite what little clothing the Frog creatures usually wore. All definitely looked startled, and upset. She smiled as she slowly walked forward.
"Do any of you speak Polish? I am lost."
The women exchanged looks. Shanna continued down until she was on level ground, stopping a good thirty feet from the pond.
"I am sorry about this. My scout, who I'm going to fire, got us royally lost." One of the Kikker, brownish green splotches visible on her face under the water, looked over Shanna's head. "Don't worry. They're not looking. Or," Shanna added, turning to look up at the bushes, "THEY'D BETTER NOT BE LOOKING!" Returning her attention to the Frog women, she smiled at their startled expressions. Her eyes focused on the one in the middle. "And, you must understand me."
The Kikker regarded her for a long moment. Slowly, she raised up a bit, her mouth just clearing the surface of the pond.
"Yes." There was a slight ... Shanna didn't want to call it a croaking sound in her voice. That wasn't the case. Her accent was strange, though. Shanna nodded to her.
"I'm Shanna, an officer of King James. I am sorry about disturbing you. Given we're not supposed to be here, I didn't want to just bumble around and bump into any guards who might not like being bumped into."
The woman rose, standing on the pond bottom. Her breasts, human like, came just above the water. Her head resembled a Disney version of a talking frog, eyes on top, mouth wide. She was no cartoon, though.
"I am Adanya, daughter of Chief Ajani."
Shanna nodded. So, the daughter of the head of the fishing village. This could be good or bad.
"So, how far off course did my stupid scout get us? We were supposed to loop around and meet the new road down where it passes between two white boulders."
Adanya laughed. A laughing frog. This world was an unending source of wonder. With what could only be described as a hop, the woman was standing on the pond edge a moment later. She grabbed a pile of woven red rope, which became a skirt as she put it around her waist.
"You are not too far. There is a trail from here to there. I will show you."
"Thank your King. He does well by my Father." Now dressed, she looked inquiringly at Shanna. "How is King James?"
The teen king was annoyed.
James hated formal dining. More so, formal lunches. Midday meals requiring fancy dress, good manners, and polite conversation. They were just so ... wrong. More, they took up time. Time the King would rather have been using productively. Even now, a meeting was awaiting him. Waiting for him to be done with this pair of sisters and their scheming mother...
OK, that was unfair. It wasn't the girls' fault, nor probably the mother. He was, after all, single. His advisors and babysitters were getting anxious that he pick a bride from the better class of eligible girls, and he wasn't going to pick one randomly, or just by looks. Thus...
"What do you think, Your Grace?"
He smiled politely at the older of the two sisters, Morela he though her name was. She was attractive, blond, breasts shown off nicely by the cut of her dress. The girl was trying too hard, though, searching for some common ground. He almost suspected she had been given a list of talking points.
"I have to admit," he told her, picking up his golden wine glass, "I haven't thought about it." Her eyes widened, giving him some pleasure. "I never paid much attention to social matters back home, and am happily continuing that here." He took a sip, considering. "In fact, if I DO notice something, those involved usually wish I hadn't."
The three women smiled uneasily, eyes glancing at each other. He smiled again.
"That said, we are starting over here. A new nation. To just copy the old would be a waste of the opportunity we've been given."
"And what changes do you have in mind, Your Grace?" There was actual interest in the younger girl's eyes. He caught a frown from the mother. That made it a more interesting question. His gaze focused on the girl.
"Our nation is small enough that no one should starve, no one should go wanting. We all arrived here on this island as equals, and I'm not going to let the nobles immediately go back to their old ways. The people should have a say in what goes on."
James looked beyond them to the guard standing by the door. He had changed his pike from his left hand to his right. Thank God. James stood.
"Ladies, I apologize, but I have a meeting with the head architect. You'll have to excuse me." They rose swiftly. Knowing it was expected, James went to each, taking their hand, bowing his head slightly as they curtsied. The youngest, probably not even twelve, blushed furiously. Unable to help it, he bowed down a bit more and kissed the back of her hand. There. That should make her day, and keep the mother from yelling at the two too much for not doing enough to seduce him. As he took the mother's hand, the woman made one final try.
"Perhaps, Your Grace, one of my daughters could accompany you..."
"Perhaps another time." Turning, he quickly exited.
The sun was warm as he emerged into the freedom of the garden. The air, not so much, the cold nip of fall all around him, but the daystar above in the clear blue sky sent its heat down to the grateful King. He stopped, taking a deep breath, his two guards waiting patiently.
That was over with.
Not wanting to be late, although a King can never, by definition, be late for anything, he walked quickly. He was looking forward to the meeting. His major, or intended major for those few weeks he had been in college, had been history. The ebb and flow of empires. He had always, though, enjoyed maps, Lincoln Logs and Legos, blueprints of strange buildings. Looking at designs, seeing how others had created. Now here he was, helping with the founding of a new city, the land around them a blank canvas for them to play with. It was fun. True, much of what they now built with logs would eventually be replaced by stone, but the layout would stand. The streets, the palace.
THIS was power.
He left the palace grounds, rather easy without the outer wall. He had argued, successfully, that there were more important things to start with. If the enemy reached the new palace, there were problems far greater than his safety. The Royal Hill, as he had heard it called, sat not far from the fresh water lake which lay in the center of the island. Along the shore, wooden buildings spread out, mostly two story affairs, separated by dirt roads. The church rose on another hill, empty bell tower topped by a cross. From the growing city, the sound of metal on metal, stone on wood, the buzz of people going about their day.
The sounds of this new Poland.
James still, after all these months, expected to wake some morning and find it had all been a dream. Some medication induced fantasy while he was in a coma. Yet every morning he awoke in the arms of his beautiful Ewa. Woke to find himself the most powerful human in this world. Had it, finally, begun to go to his head?
The people bowed as he passed. Not a full fall to your knees bow, but a nod of the head. That was good enough for him, and by now even the most fervent of "royalists" had accepted this more casual King. He wore simple garb, just blue trousers and a white pullover shirt. Without the guards, he could be anyone. Or so he told himself.
The Royal Engineering Building was a three story structure near the waterfront, taking up a full block. A large, two story tall barn like door stood in the middle of one side, speaking with its very presence of the large scale of the constructions designed within. Around the corner, a more human size door gave access to the offices. It opened as James approached.
"Your Grace," the guard said, nodding. "They're in the map room."
"Thank you." Entering, James made his way through the halls. He knew the place as well as he knew his palace. Better, perhaps, as the building had been finished even before his residence. Not that the palace was finished, by any stretch of imagination. It was just "good enough" to keep him nice and warm through the winter, which was the goal for all the current buildings. In the spring, the real construction would begin.
"So, Gentlemen," he said, walking into the room, "how are we today?"
The ten men standing around the far table bowed, giving greetings. His two guards took up their places on either side of the doorway, already forgotten by James as he took in the maps and dioramas. Not able to help himself, he ran his fingers over the small roofs of the model city as he walked by. There had not been time to build a copy for the Royal chambers, and it seemed wrong to "play" with them here (although he was sure he could get away with it). He so wanted to take a toy monster and have it rampage through the buildings. On the walls were maps, hand drawn, of various locations in various scales. Building plans were tacked up as well, that of the new cathedral still on display even though construction was now done. Coming to the middle of the room, he stopped before something new: a model of the Anne river valley.
Commander Tadeusz Kosciuszko moved to James' side, a smile on his face. He was clean shaven, rare for an officer. Mustaches were the order of the day among Polish men. The King's habit of shaving was having some effect on that fashion, but as of yet it was still limited. Many were probably waiting for him to give in and cultivate a manly crop of whiskers. Tadeusz spoke.
"Welcome, Your Grace. You're just in time, as we've just finished having this set up."
That very well could be true, but James knew it was also possible the thing had been finished the day before. Minor fibs on matters such as this kept the kingdom running smoothly.
"Well, tell me what you have, then."
The man nodded, picking up a wooden pointer. He indicated a point in the middle of the river valley.
"We've done our survey of the rapids. Your idea of putting in a lock is a good one. We've done some tests of various designs, based on what you've told us, and I definitely think we can do it." James couldn't help but straighten. He knew little that these people didn't already know, or that could be useful in this vaguely medieval society. However, having grown up next to the Erie Canal, he did know locks. Even understood how they worked enough to pass that on to the intelligent people here. He motioned to the Engineer.
"Show me what you have in mind."
Tadeusz pointed to another man. Reaching into the diorama, the soldier carefully placed carved wooden pieces above and below the river rapids. The Engineer pointed with his wand as soon as the hands were clear.
"Everything is navigable above and below the rapids for the largest ships that can handle the narrows, which naturally is all we care about. Maybe someday we can widen that, but that's for the future."
"Far future," James agreed. Without gunpowder, that would be the work of years.
"Yet we can do it. Anyway, if we put the lower and upper gates here, and here, that should give us enough water depth. We can raise the ships the six feet needed to get over the rapids and into the lake."
James leaned over, nodding. They currently were using a natural harbor on the southern side of the island, or the Kikker village on the western end, transporting supplies overland to the new capital. The ability to sail from their village on the shore of the continent right up into the capital would be a godsend, even with the delay a lock would cause.
"I like it." The men around him relaxed. "Defenses?"
"There are various caves and natural features all along the ravine we'll be turning into strongpoints. Dropping fire on any ship that passes should do the job."
"And," added a Lieutenant, "Destroying a lock door will force them to walk the rest of the way."
"Again, good." James looked around the room. "Great job. Now, about the harbor..."
Shanna rode out of the forest, onto the city plain.
The view kept changing. It had been empty when she had first led her men here, scouting the lakeside in advance of the first builders. Now it was a bustling town, fully twenty thousand of the over thirty thousand Poles were now on the island, housed and employed. The rest were still in the encampment just north over the ocean, over half of those soldiers. That was their toehold, their statement that the Elves had not driven them completely off the continent. As symbolic as it was practical.
This, though, was home.
The Frog Road, which started in the Kikker fishing village, continued down towards the lake. Already, after only a few months, it was well traveled. Wagons carried smoked fish and crates of shellfish from the Frog fishing vessels down to the humans, metal, wood, and cloth traveling back the other way. Her troop had passed three wagons after returning to their mounts. Another lay ahead, making its way slowly into the city.
Shanna raised a hand, reining in.
"Looks like we made it. Good scouting, Lewy."
"Thank you, Lady," he said behind her, sighing. The others chuckled, not unkindly. She turned her head to look behind.
"This is why we're training. Work the kinks out. You're a good soldier, Lewy. Just not a good scout. I want you with us. You're now a bowman."
There were murmurs of agreement to that. He bowed his head, voice grateful.
"Thank you, Lady Shanna."
"That means we still need a scout. Bogdi, pass the word. See if we can steal one."
"Now, let's go home."
Friendship with the King had privileges. One of those, for Shanna, was her own military base. The barracks and stable lay outside the proposed city walls, a long two story residence with a courtyard walled in with posts. It's resemblance to a Western US Cavalry fort was pure coincidence.
Stablemen ran out as Shanna led her men through the open gate. As soon as Sobczak had a hand on the harness, she dismounted. As was usually the case, her body didn't feel the day's effort until the work was done. Her armor suddenly felt heavy.
The front door to the main building opened, a slim redhead bursting out carrying a bucket. Two other girls followed, dressed, as she was, in the long one piece dress women seemed confined to in this world. Anelie, braid whipping behind her, skidded to a stop before Shanna. Dropping the bucket to the ground, she grabbed a mug which had been hanging off the side and dunked it in the water, handing the now full cup to Shanna.
"Drink, Lady Shanna."
"Thank you." She closed her eyes. The dust of the road left her mouth, the cool drink restoring her. Stronger drink would be needed later, but for now this was what she needed.
"Did all go well, Lady Shanna?"
She opened her eyes to look down at the girl. The green eyes that looked back were still worshipful. It no longer bothered her. Anelie was ... well, she was just someone who was always around, helping. Part of her new family. Maybe even a friend. Shanna let out a sigh.
"Operation 'travel without a map' didn't end successfully. We're going to need a new scout. Lewy's now an archer."
"I could have told you that would happen." It came out under the girl's breath. Shanna smiled slightly. For all the apparent hero worship, the girl was not shy with her opinions. A hulking shadow fell over them. Shanna turned to see Anelie's brother Bogdi. He put a hand on his little sister's head, getting a playful groan in return.
"Any orders, Lady Shanna?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "No, we're done for the day. Enjoy dinner. I'll be with Piotr at the Palace."
The giant's eyes seemed to flick to his sister before turning to give the order to the men. Shanna handed the cup back to the girl.
"OK, let's get me out of this armor."
"Yes, Lady Shanna..."
The dining room was more crowded, yet for James much more intimate. These were his friends. Companions. He could talk freely, for the most part. Some words were reserved for Ewa, whispered in the night. Others for Shanna, who alone knew the Earth as he had. Those two he trusted without reservation.
"So, King, how were today's potential baby makers?"
Unfortunately, Shanna felt she could talk freely as well.
Ewa gave a small sigh beside him, although the teen laughed with the others. James put a hand on her leg under the table. Her smile became more real. She was the only woman he wanted. The one who would, in seven or so months, give him his first child. That society would not accept a commoner as Queen was something he could not, as yet, change. He looked over at Shanna, sitting next to the head of his mounted guards. She was smirking.
"The younger one had some smarts," he said, bringing his hand up onto the table and placing it visibly on Ewa's. "But, no. Can't say either of them did anything for me."
"Gotta pick soon," Shanna went on, cutting up her fish. "My men are hearing some rumblings in town."
James sighed. He already knew that, his own people reporting the same. His eyes lifted to his Chamberlain, Ola. The effeminate man let out a theatrical sigh, but kept silent as he stood nearby. The King decided to change the subject.
"So, when are you two tying the knot? He knock you up, yet?"
Piotr's drink seemed to go down the wrong pipe, the Hussar coughing. Shanna just laughed at James.
"Soon, for both probably. He's trying, that's for sure!"
"Shanna!" Her blond lover stared at her in disbelief. James flicked his eyes over to Ewa's ten year old brother, and the similarly aged girl Ruta who now acted as Ewa's maid. Their eyes were wide. Ah, well. Kids grew up quickly here. Releasing Ewa's hand, he picked up his wine glass, raising it in toast.
"To Love, in all its forms!"
Ewa's eyes met his, her own glass raised.
Shanna stood in the palace garden, looking up at the stars.
The night sky was as clear as the air was cold, the nip of winter drawing a shiver from her. As she did most nights, Shanna wondered if one of those stars was hers, if the Earth she knew circled a distant light. It could. There was no telling if she was thrown across dimensions or through space. Each was as insane, as ... stupid. Yes. This was all stupid. Green elves, talking frogs, winged warriors. All stupid. All...
Soft footsteps came up behind her on the stone path. Shanna closed her eyes as strong arms wrapped around her. Piotr's body felt warm, comforting. His voice drifted next to her ear.
"No." Shanna shook her head, leaning back into him. "I'm tired."
"Come to my quarters."
She smiled, turning in his arms.
"No. Not tonight."
"OK," he said, disappointment clear in his blue eyes. Still smiling, Shanna raised a hand, caressing a cheek on the verge of needing a shave.
"We should go on vacation somewhere."
"Vacation?" He said the word as if it had no meaning. Her exasperation rose a bit.
"Vacation. Time off. Stop doing our jobs for a week or two and just have time to ourselves. Maybe take a trip. See another part of the world." His eyes widened a touch in understanding. "Just the two of us," she went on, "somewhere romantic." She stepped back, Piotr releasing her without hesitation. "We'll talk about it tomorrow."
He bowed, a full flourishing bow, that of a young officer courting a lady.
"As you will, My Lady."