Against Time is a short story set in the 19th century England. On the eve of battle, Miranda must assist her brother, Michael, in any way she can to protect the prince from harm. But her gender and age comes into question from Michael's second in command. Will she be able to show her worth and prove she is capable?
‘I’ve gone down in flames so many times before. Why should this time be any different?’
Miranda couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She stood, mouth open, unblinking as her brother readjusted the sword on his belt. Michael stood straight, his red vest with the crown embalm on his chest, his cornet over his forehead smoothed his golden hair. Guilt, anger, fury rose in her throat. The tell-tale prickling behind her eyes told her she would soon be sobbing, trying to persuade Michael that it couldn’t be true, she wouldn’t let it.
‘Where I stand is where I fall. You all know how this goes, how many times have I had to tell you? This is all that matters, to live or die for this empire. Your families, your loved ones are not here, all remains are your brothers in arms, your comrades. Here and now. Because there is nothing, nothing more important to live for but to serve this country.’
‘But you have something to live for,’ she said, her voice breaking and yet no tears fell. She pushed through the crowd to get to the front, where Michael was stood. ‘You have a child, does that mean nothing to you?’
Michael raised his eyebrows at her, she thought he was going to respond, something she didn’t recognise washed over his features. Mutterings were coming from people around her, some of confusion, the others of anger or agreement with the prince. Then his second in command, Edward, leaned close and whispered something in his ear. Michael looked at him and nodded. He stood straighter, hands behind his back and shoulders tense.
‘For Queen and country!’
The crowd repeated it, loud and as one. She said nothing and maintained eye contact with her brother as she tried to get to the stage, people muttering loudly. She was shoved to one side, looking back at the stage, she felt a surge of anger. Michael vanished from the stage, the rest of the crowd dispersed as bugles sounded, shouting orders and the sound of horses being brought forward filled the air.
She pushed through the mass of bodies who were going in the opposite direction. It took her a couple of moments before she reached the last few stragglers of the crowd and managed to duck behind the stage and hurry towards her brother’s tent. She could hear urgent voices coming from inside, the two guards barred her entrance as she stumbled to the tent. She held her head high and stuck her chin out as the guards stared back at her.
‘Let me through!’ She demanded, trying to push past them.
They refused to move, their eyes slicing through her, making her feel as if she was unworthy to darken the prince’s door. She waited, hands on her hips and glared at them. Her fingers rested on the hilt of her sword.
‘I need to see Michael, let me through,’ she said, heat rising to her cheeks.
She surged forward, her jaw clenched as she tried to use their strength against them. One of the guards pushed her back like she was nothing but a child, she fell to the ground with a thump. The wind was knocked out of her as she glimpsed flickering candles and numerous figures through the tent’s entrance.
‘No one is to disturb his royal highness, he has given us strict instructions,’ one of the guards said, all emotion void from his voice. They remained in position as she scrambled to her feet. Brushing her hands on her skirt, she glared at them. She could hear voices behind her and glanced over her shoulder to see some soldiers watching her. They quickly scarpered as she gripped her sword in a warning. Turning back to the guards, her breathing was laboured. Could she go up against two trained guards?
‘We must insist you leave,’ one of the guards spat, his grip on his sword tightened and there was a glint in his eye that brought bile to the back of her throat.
‘I’m his sister!’ She yelled, blood thumping in her ears. She tried again to get in but was roughly shoved aside.
‘We have our orders,’ the other guard said, his grip tightening on his sword as he took a step towards her. ‘Leave.’
‘Let her through,’ the voice was soft and unmistakable. She blinked at Michael over the guard’s shoulders. They turned to stare at him, not moving.
‘But sire, you said-.’
‘Do I have to repeat myself?’ Michael bellowed, fire in his eyes.
The guards sprang apart, Michael held a hand out to her. She took it quickly and was pulled into the small tent. The noise from the rest of the camp was drowned out by conversations. Michael’s hand was cold as he gripped her fingers and let go, making his way to the large wooden table which took up most of the space. She moved closer and eyed the parchments and maps strewn across the surface.
Edward stopped speaking as he noticed her. His jaw was clenched as he spoke. ‘What is she doing in here?’
Her bother glanced at her, his gaze unfazed before turning back to the large group gathered around the table. ‘You were saying about the reinforcements on the western side?’
‘My lord, surely this is no place for your sister. I must object to her presence,’ Edward spat in her direction. She glared at him and turned her attention to the plans in front of her. She frowned and pulled one of the detailed maps towards her.
‘Edward, I will not say this again; she has just as much right to be here as any of you,’ Michael said and folded his arms over his chest. ‘Now, the reinforcements? Do they have enough supplies?’
‘The last load rode out with the mercenaries just after you finished addressing the people, my lord,’ said a man she had never seen before. His beard was long, chain mail glinting in the candlelight. ‘They should be there within the hour.’
‘And how long until they attack?’ Michael asked.
‘Two hours at most, perhaps less. We have spotted scouts circling our outposts in the north,’ Edward said, pointing to one of the maps.
‘You know they are more likely to come through the mountains, don’t you?’ She looked up at her brother and tapped the map nearest to her. ‘They’ll go for our blind spot, the mist at the foot of the mountains hasn’t lifted since we settled. Those on the outskirts of the camp are the ones who will be hit first.’
Edward growled low in his throat. ‘Do not listen to her, my lord. She has no idea what she’s talking about. They will come from the north, the clearing to the forest, that’s where the reports are coming from. It is there we must focus our attention.’
She scoffed. ‘And you never thought for a second they could be misleading you? They want you to think they’re coming from the north, it will be so easy for us to spot them, too easy. They would need cover, somewhere to hide until the perfect opportunity. The mountains offer the perfect protection,’ she said, meeting her brother’s bright blue eyes. ‘It’s a decoy, I’m sure of it.’
‘How can you be sure of anything? You’re nothing more than a child!’ Edward retorted and slammed his hand down on the table, many of the group jumped. ‘My lord, the more time we waste on listening to this cretin’s foolish theories, the least time we have to prepare. The soldiers need to be in position, ready for your word to advance.’
‘Then you had better make sure they are ready, General Wells,’ Michael said and turned to the rest of the group. ‘You have your orders. Any deserters are to be shot on sight, do I make myself clear? There will be no exceptions.’
A murmur flowed around the tent as Michael nodded his dismissal. Most of the group left, apart from Michael, Edward, one of the group members who was studying a piece of parchment and herself. She watched Michael move away from the table to adjust his breastplate.
‘Listen to me, you’re making a mistake. They will ambush the weaker people at the foot of the mountains. They won’t stand a chance, they’re going to be slaughtered. There won’t be time to get the necessary reinforcements to them,’ she said hurriedly, aware of Edward’s intense gaze on the back of her neck.
Michael was silent for a moment before turning to her, his brow furrowed in uncertainty. ‘Say you’re correct, what would you have me do? There is little time to prepare.’
‘There is time if we act now. Send two-thirds of the archers to the mountains, the mist must lift at some point in the next few hours. Ensure there are no light sources at the barricades, nothing so they won’t see us. Outlines in the mist are easier to take down, isn’t that what Father used to say?’
Edward appeared at Michael’s shoulder and sneered. ‘Do not listen to her, my lord. She has no knowledge of military procedures.’
She glared and stood straighter, her shoulders tensed. ‘I have been in every single military meeting, combat training session and emergency summit since I can remember. I can tell you the six thousand different battle positions and plotting techniques to prepare for attacks, by air, by land and by sea. I have trained alongside my brother since I was three years of age and specialise in blade and archery. I would envisage I actually know more than you, General.’
He scoffed and laid a hand on Michael’s shoulder, leaning close. ‘In theory, you might have some knowledge, but this is war. Go and play with your toys, child. You have no place here.’
Gritting her teeth, she lunged and grabbed the hilt of Edward’s sword from his belt and held the blade inches from his throat. The short man froze, his eyes flickering between the blade and Michael who stepped away, a smile on his face.
Michael chuckled as she gripped the sword tighter and hoovered it close to his skin. ‘I do believe Miranda has you in an unfortunate position, General Wells.’
Edward swallowed visibly. She could feel the blood pumping in her veins as she stepped closer.
‘She surprised me!’ Edward said as he tried to edge away from the blade.
She tilted her head to one side. ‘Isn’t that the whole point in war? To have the upper hand, surprise the enemy when their guard is down?’
There was sudden shouting outside the tent, a guard rushed in, panting hard. She kept the sword close to Edward’s neck, one eye on the short man and the other on her brother. Michael strode towards the gawking guard.
‘What is it?’
The guard gestured behind him, breathless, his face red. ‘Figures have been spotted in the mountains, my lord, thousands of moving figures in the mist. There’s been reports of torches ablaze.’
‘You were right,’ Michael turned to her. He seemed to freeze, stuck between fright, flight and confusion. She lowered Edward’s sword and showed the hilt into his chest. Marching over to her brother, she gripped his arm and forced him to meet her gaze.
‘Two-thirds of the archers, no light and complete silence,’ she said, glancing at the guard.
Michael smiled weakly. ‘Yes,’ he breathed deeply, panic still in his eyes. She reached for his helmet and dagger which were resting on the table. As she handed them to him, he seemed to snap out of his trance. ‘You heard what she said, go!’ He said and the guard scurried away quickly. He turned to Edward who was stood open mouthed, sword clutched to his chest. ‘Get a message to the north of the camp, exactly as Miranda said, enforce the barricades to the south and try to move some of the most vulnerable people. No light, nothing but silence. Be as quick as you can.’
‘Are you sure about this, my lord?’ Edward asked, sheeting his sword.
‘I trust Miranda. Now go send word and get someone to bring my horse around. I need to address the people,’ Michael said, sheeting his dagger and shoving his helmet on his head. She reached up and quickly buckled it under his chin along with straightening his armour.
‘As you wish, my lord,’ Edward bowed, glared at her and swept out of the tent. The other group member had also slipped away, leaving just the two of them.
‘I want you out of the way, Miranda,’ he said quietly as her hands stilled on his shoulders. She looked up at him questioningly. ‘I loathe to admit it, but Edward does have a point, this is no place for you.’
‘Are you telling me I can’t fight?’
‘That’s exactly what I am telling you,’ Michael said, gripping her arms. ‘Nothing can happen to you, Mother would never forgive me.’
‘And yet here I am,’ she said. ‘You are not turning me away, Michael, I will not leave your side.’
He dug his fingers into her arms as the shouting grew louder outside of the tent. His eyes flicked between her and the tent’s entrance. ‘I can’t guarantee your safety if you are with me.’
She smiled and held onto his wrists, his heartbeat thumping against her fingers. ‘And I can’t guarantee yours, but I can try my best to keep you safe. For Queen and country, for the future King.’
His expression softened as he leaned back with a sigh. He lifted his fingers to her cheek and stroked her skin gently. ‘You’re just like Father, stubborn as a mule and always right. Are you prepared?’
She ducked away from his hand and reached behind the table to grab a bundle resting against one of the legs of a chair. Spilling its contents onto a table, she grabbed her breastplate and gloves. ‘I’m always prepared.’
He picked up her chain mail and lifted it over her head. She ducked inside the garment and sighed at the familiar weight on her shoulders. ‘How long have these been here for?’ He asked, the corner of his mouth upturned.
She slotted the metal over her chest and buckled her shoulder strap. ‘Since we made camp,’ she said, twisting her hair up into a knot at the top of her head.
‘I cannot help you dress, I need to inform the captains of the plans,’ he said, glancing at the tent’s entrance as a shout came from outside.
‘Send Gwendoline in, I told her to wait by the side of the tent when you gave your speech to the people,’ she said, putting her gloves on. She stopped and looked at him, his golden hair peeking out from under his helmet seemed to burn in the candlelight. ‘Be careful.’
He stepped close and embraced her. ‘And you. I will have your horse ready at my right-hand side.’
She gazed up at him as they pulled away. ‘But that’s where your second in command rides,’ she said softly, her voice betraying her feelings. She needed to be calm, in control.
Michael smiled, moved away and picked up his gloves. ‘I believe it’s time for some changes, don’t you?’
She opened her mouth to protest and keep him with her for a while longer, but there was another shout and screaming from the camp and he hurried from the tent without a backwards glance. Her maid, Gwendoline rushed in a moment later to help her fix her armour. Not a word was spoken between them and soon she was telling her maid to hide someplace safe and to run to one of the nearby villages for sanctuary if things didn’t go as planned. With a quick embrace, she hurried to the front lines. She could already hear Michael’s booming voice as she neared the front of the assembled soldiers. She reached her brother, he didn’t pause his speech as she swung up onto her horse, Bella. She glanced at Edward positioned on Michael’s left and smirked. The short man was all but shooting daggers at her. Resting her hands on the reins, she smoothed Bella’s mane and took in the crowd.
‘You heard me say that we might have gone down in flames so many times before. How is this time going to be any different? Because we will not lose this fight! We will not stand down, we will not give in! Stand firm, stand brave with your comrades for your Queen and country!’
‘For Queen and country!’ She shouted along with the thousands of men standing side by side. She looked at Michael as they turned and began to ride towards the southern end of the camp. Her brother nodded at her and veered off to the left as the horns sounded and the first line of enemy soldiers approached with swords raised and torches ablaze.
Her heartbeat thumped in her ears as the first shot was fired and screams filled the air.