“Of course I don’t step on people’s throats using my own heels. Have you seen how gorgeous these boots are? I’m not getting blood on these beauties: it takes at least two princes to get the right amount of skin, and duke leather just isn’t the same.”
– Dread Emperor Nihilis I, the Tanner
We’d had to put the entire main avenue to the torch, no two ways about it. While Robber took cared of scorching the earth where Heiress wanted to make camp, my men were stuck with the clean-up. Corpses of my legionaries and the Silver Spears both were stacked on great pyres that would burn until morning. I had one made for Hunter alone, since he’d earned at least this much from me. Anyhow, I suspected Archer would want his ashes to bring back to Refuge, whenever she came back. Necromancers could make some truly terrifying things out of the ashes of a hero, with a little time and imagination, and since I had none of those in my employ better they went far beyond the reach of my enemies. Handling the corpses was grim work, but it wasn’t the worst of it. Apprentice still had enough wits about him that he could serve as a detection device for corruption with the right spell, so I had Ratface appropriate a guildhall and rotate all legionaries who’d been within sight of the demon through it.
A dozen times, I patted a man or a woman who’d served me with nothing but loyalty on the back and sent them to a backroom where a sword was driven through their back.
I would have done it myself, felt like I needed to, but I was too godsdamned tired not to screw up the job. Of all the things to have happened tonight, that one left the foulest taste in the mouth. It was Sergeant Tordis who ended up bloodying her hands, though most of her line stepped in at some point or another. Casualties to demon fuckery were less than I’d feared: the trick it had used to make a new form seemed to have killed most of the affected. There was, of course, another problem. Apprentice himself might have been touched by corruption, and could not be relied on to check himself. None of my other mages knew the spell, and Masego was the only one who could teach it to them. I had records kept of all legionaries who’d been exposed to the demon even after the… purge, just in case. I’d need to have them looked over by another mage as soon as I could manage. I could feel myself falling asleep on my feet, but there was still too much to do.
Hakram wasn’t waking up, so I’d had him moved to my rooms until he was back in action. My healers assured me this was a case of pure exhaustion, and for what it was worth Apprentice cleared him of any trace of corruption. Coming into his aspect when in range of the demon hadn’t had the consequences I feared, much to my relief. Of course, unlike me he didn’t try to fucking force it. Robber came back half a bell later, as I dipped a torch in bucket of oil standing in a darkened street.
“Boss,” he greeted me, creeping out of an alley on silent feet.
I’d heard him coming but I was too tired to bother. I shook off some oil onto the paving stones and grasped the haft of the torch more firmly.
“Report,” I ordered hoarsely.
“The munitions we had stocked in the manor went up by accident,” he lied baldly. “By the time Heiress’ boys got in place to put it out, the place was a burnt-up husk.”
I smiled thinly. There was no pretending I hadn’t given this order out of pure spite, but I did not regret it. Akua had crossed a line by meddling with demons, by setting one on my legion. The only reason we had a truce was that forcing a battle with her right now was too risky.
“Tribune, listen to me closely,” I rasped. “As long as those fucking Proceran mercenaries and their paymaster remain within a day’s march of us, there will be accidents.”
The moon cast its light on the sapper’s face, sharp needle-like teeth and malevolent yellow eyes making my soldier a scarier sight than the devils ever had been.
“There’s all sorts of accidents,” Robber mused. “I wonder what kind might happen to them?”
“Supplies will be poisoned,” I ordered harshly. “Beasts of burden will be crippled. Any men who wander the city alone or in small enough groups will end up dead in an alley. If they so much as stack two stones on top of each other, I want them pushed down and on fire.”
“Hare anulsur,” he murmured in Tahreb.
War of vultures, it meant. The tribes of the Hungering Sands had never matched the Soninke kingdoms north of them in numbers, but never once had they been successfully invaded: Soninke hosts wandering into the desert found only poisoned wells and and nights full of knives, until all that was left of the enemy was a trail of corpses for the vultures. He’d understood my meaning perfectly.
“We’ve been at war since the moment she let the abomination out,” I snarled. “Time we started acting like it.”
There was no need to tell him not to get caught, and that if he was I’d have to deny I’d ever given him this order. Goblins understood the ways of quiet war better than humans ever could. With my free hand I opened the shutter to the only lantern lighting up the street and used the candle inside to light my torch. With heavy steps I walked to the pile of firewood Tordis’ line had stacked up, engraving the faces of the twelve legionaries on it into my mind. Gods, they look so young. I threw the torch.
“Your deaths are debt,” I whispered as the flames spread. “And I will have a long price for them. I cannot give you much, where you are going, but I can promise you that.”
I turned away, Robber falling in behind without a word. Dawn was but a bell away, and I needed to get some rest: Creation wouldn’t stop spinning just because I was exhausted.
My entire body ached when I woke up.
All available beds had been taken by my wounded, so I’d ended up passing out on a chair in one of the empty rooms of the Fifteenth’s command centre. I tested my bad leg by putting weight on it and had to bite my lip to stop from screaming. Fuck. Well, I won’t be running any time soon. My armour was in a messy pile on the other side of the room but putting it back on seemed like a masochistic endeavour, so instead I carefully rose while putting as little weight as possible on my wounded foot. I felt filthy, and probably smelled like it too: a mix of old blood, sweat and grime. There was no washbasin, unfortunately, and going on a quest for a bathtub was a luxury that would have to wait. The only upside to how I felt was that I was too tired to be hungry. I bent over with a hiss to pick up my sword belt and strap it on, tightening it sloppily. My ponytail had turned into a tangled mess while I slept, but that was nothing new: at least it had stopped growing since I’d become the Squire.
I pushed the door open and limped into the wider chamber. There were only a handful of officers there, spread among a few tables and talking in low voices. Through the windows in the front I could see the sun had risen, and that was as much as I took in before a hush fell over the room. Every single legionary was looking at me in utter silence. I kept my face blank, unsure how to react. It wasn’t fear or resentment I saw, but something else I couldn’t quite identify. Aisha’s voice rang out suddenly.
“Back to work,” the Taghreb girl barked. “Azim, put the herbs in the pot. If I catch any of you gossiping you’re getting a double shift helping the sappers.”
Aisha was perfectly groomed, looking like she’d just walked off a parade ground. It wasn’t because she’d not been in the thick of it, because some of the other staff officers I could see were looking distinctly haggard. I even smelled a touch of perfume on her as she came closer, offering me an arm to lean on. I pushed away the gesture a touch too harshly, regretting it immediately as I hobbled to a chair on my own. She didn’t seem particularly offended, at least. I suppose that being as close to Juniper as she was, she knew a thing or two about dealing with rudeness.
“Aisha,” I grunted. “What time is it?”
“Half past Dawn Bell,” she replied, sitting on the edge of the table.
I noted with tired amusement that she was as close to me as she could be without my feeling irritated at her closeness. I wasn’t sure whether that perceptiveness was a result of her aristocratic origins or something unique to Aisha herself, but it was appreciated nonetheless.
“Hakram up yet?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Apprentice said he’d be out until noon, at least. Something about drawing too deep on his Name,” she paused, then raised her voice. “Azim, if that pot isn’t on its way I will have you strung up.”
A harried-looking Soninke officer ran towards us with a very nice porcelain pot I’d see Aisha use for tea before, nearly dropping the matching cup in his haste. The Staff Tribune dismissed him impatiently after he set it on the table in front of me. I raised an eyebrow in her direction.
“Masego left me herbs for when you woke up,” she explained.
I offered her a grateful nod and poured myself a cup of a brew smelling just like the one Apprentice had made me before the battle. I noticed her twitching at the sight of my pouring my own cup, which got the ghost of a smile out of me. No doubt the aristocrat in her balked at the idea of the highest-ranking person in the room filling their own cup, but she knew me well enough by now to have noticed I disliked relying on people for things I could do myself. The effect of the herbs didn’t kick in immediately, unfortunately. I spoke up again to keep my mind off the burning sensation in my leg.
“Where is Masego, anyway?”
“Room next to yours,” she said. “He didn’t last much longer than you, and informed me that if anyone disturbed him for any reason they’d spend a week of their life as a toad.”
I snorted. Whether or not he could actually do that was debatable – metamorphosis was a branch of sorcery that consumed a hideous amount of power for even the smallest changes – but coming from the Warlock’s son the threat would be enough to give anyone pause.
“No one can find Archer,” Aisha continued, “and Juniper’s sleeping the battle off somewhere on a rooftop.”
Surprise must have shown on my face, because the lovely Staff Tribune elaborated.
“She always does that after a fight,” she explained. “Lets her mind rest.”
As far as vices went, that was a rather mild one. Not that I should be surprised: the Hellhound was one of the most temperate people I’d ever met. Hardly drank, disapproved of gambling and I’d never heard of her being involved with anyone. Robber kept insinuating she was sleeping with either Aisha or Hakram, but then he’d also composed a ten-stanza poem about how Nauk had fathered half a dozen calves during our march to Callow. The tribune’s words had to be taken with a grain of salt, was what I was saying. I hummed, finishing my cup and pouring another. The taste of the brew was bitter but it soothed my throat, and already the pain in my leg was receding.
“Heiress?” I finally asked.
“Hasn’t made a move,” Aisha informed me. “Set up her camp around the ruins of the manor and put up a palisade. There are regular watches, but none of her men have set foot in the city.”
That was fine. I was willing to be patient: night would fall eventually, and unlike Robber’s men hers did not see in the dark. Wooden stakes would do little to impede goblins with knives and a mandate to spill as much blood as they could get away with.
“And so ends the Battle of Marchford,” I murmured. “We got so close to a real victory, Aisha. So damned close.”
The Taghreb’s face went inscrutable, then she let out a soft sigh.
“Ma’am,” she said, then stopped when I gave her a look. “Catherine,” she corrected herself. “Look at that orc over there, the woman with the lily jutting out of her breastplate.”
The sight of a broad-shouldered orc frowning down at paperwork was almost comical, I had to admit.
“That’s Lieutenant Asta,” Aisha continued. “When she went for water, around dawn, a five-year old boy walked up to her and have her that flower. Thanked her for saving his mother from the devils.”
I met Aisha’s eyes and saw she was smiling softly.
“That’s happening all over Marchford, right now,” she said. “Callowans are pitching in to help legionaries clear debris off the streets. Half my staff was ambushed by old women bringing them sweetbread and lamb stew. Catherine, a fortnight ago these people thought we were worse than the plague. Now children are bringing us flowers.”
She rested a hand on my wrist for an instant, then withdrew. Such soft skin, for a soldier.
“That look on their faces when you walked in was pride, Squire,” Aisha told me. “We’re proud of what we did here. The Fifteenth took a stand and we were bloodied for it, but we won. And that makes all the difference.”
“We didn’t get the demon,” I replied tiredly. “Heiress did.”
The Taghreb aristocrat shrugged. “That may be true. But the stories that are coming in aren’t awe about her taking care of the threat. They’re about three villains and a pair of heroes, standing between the Fifteenth and a demon. They’re about you and Hakram forcing back a monster the size of a guard tower with nothing but swords and shields, about Apprentice making a new sun in the sky to scour it clean. Maybe in the Tower they’ll care about what Heiress has to say, but not those of us who were here. We know, and more importantly we’ll remember.”
I looked away, feeling my throat choke up. How tired must I have been, for this to bring tears to my eyes? Aisha was kind enough to pretend she wasn’t seeing anything and I forced myself to finish my last cup of herbal brew. I took a few deep breaths, enjoying the last few moments of peace I’d be getting for a long while. The Battle of Marchford might be over, but I still had another war to fight. The same war that had begun the moment I’d laid eyes on Heiress, and made the mistake of ignoring because I hadn’t seen her since. A prickle at the edge of my senses chased that peace away in the blink of an eye. I immediately rose to my feet, much to Aisha’s surprise.
“Lady Squire?” she asked worriedly.
“Trouble,” I hissed, as a door behind me slammed open.
Masego hopped out, robes askew and his braids an unwholesome mess. His eyes were red and bloodshot.
“Fucking Hells,” he snarled. “Really? Right after the demon?”
“Focus, Apprentice,” I spoke up, forcing my voice to remain steady. “What exactly is this?”
“Something’s coming from Arcadia,” he replied, and I only now noticed he wasn’t wearing his spectacles.
I had a dozen urgent questions, but none as urgent as this one: “Where?”
His fingers lit up with red light and he traced a few runes in the air, muttering under his breath as they rearranged themselves on their own.
“Where we fought it,” he replied, and didn’t have to specify what ‘it’ was.
I felt calm settle on me. We could handle this. We’d have to.
“Aisha, evacuate the whole sector,” I ordered. “Send word to whichever commander is awake, I want the Fifteenth on combat footing immediately. Surround the place. Mages are to make sure nothing gets out.”
She saluted immediately, and I turned to Masego.
“We’re going,” I said, and it wasn’t a question.
“I thought Fae could only come into Creation through gates? You know, like the one in the Waning Woods,” I said to Apprentice as we hurried through the streets.
“Powerful enough fairies can create paths,” he explained, rubbing at his eyes.
The morning sun wasn’t doing either of us any favours.
“And Marchford is in a unique situation,” he added.
We turned a corner. The street was empty, Aisha’s runners having taken care of making sure there wouldn’t be anyone caught in the crossfire. It would take longer for the legion to be in position, though. We’d be without backup for the beginning of the fight.
“Elaborate,” I gritted out when it became obvious he wouldn’t.
“Slower,” he panted.
I resisted the urge to point out that I was the cripple between the two of us. He’s running drills with Hakram after this, Heavens burn me if I lie.
“Demons damage Creation,” he told me as we cut down our pace. “The separations between Creation and a realm as close to it as Arcadia will be running thin right now. Maybe forever.”
“Well that’s just fucking wonderful,” I cursed.
Fae inside a bloody city. Just what we needed right now. And I couldn’t even use all of my legion against them: at least a third would have to be watching Heiress’ army to be sure they didn’t backstab us at the first occasion. Which they damn well would, because Akua was the kind of insane megalomaniac who used existential threats as catspaws. Sometimes I understood why Black had wanted to put all the Wasteland’s nobility to the sword after the civil war.
“Are we sure they’re going to be hostile?”
“Fae aren’t hostile, Cat,” he got out. “They just like their games and don’t understand the concept of mortality. They’re basically souls given form – inside Arcadia they can’t die.”
I paused. “But in Creation they can, right? Right?”
Apprentice cleared his throat. “That’s, uh, a matter of academic debate. The most popular current of thought is-“
“Masego,” I barked.
“Sure,” he replied, looking as pained by the lack of precision as he was by the act of running. “Stab away, that’ll work.”
We cut through the plaza as fast as we could and arrived at the head of the avenue just when something tore open. Blizzard poured out of an opening I couldn’t see, impossibly thick. Winds howled as frost spread across the ground, an empty ruined avenue turning into the eye of the storm faster than I could unsheathe my sword. I grimaced.
“Well, that’s promising,” I muttered.
Masego whispered something under his breath and a moment later I stopped feeling the cold. I shot him a grateful glance, and together we strode forward. It was hard to make anything out in the spinning snow, but as we got to the edge of the blizzard we saw a silhouette approach. A man? Maybe not, the features were too fine to tell and the long hair could have belonged to either gender. If Fae even did gender, which I wasn’t sure they did – some were supposed to be shapeshifters. Tall, with impossibly clear blue eyes and hair that looked more like flowing darkness than anything materially possible. Those eyes, I noted, were wide and showing white. The Fae looked at us and hesitated, then jerked.
“No,” it called out in a voice that was like velvet made sound, even when taken by terror.
Something dragged it deeper into the snow storm and there was a scream, then a sickening crunch. I licked my lips nervously.
“Suddenly I’m not too sure about going to have that look,” I admitted.
“You’re the commander,” Apprentice croaked out. “If you favour a tactical retreat, who am I to argue?”
We never got to make a choice, as the blizzard continued to expand and enveloped us a heartbeat later. I kept close to Masego and brought up my sword. The visibility was the real problem here, not even my Name sight could – the cold touch of steel against the back of my neck stilled my heart.
“Wekesa?” my teacher’s voice prompted.
“She’s clear,” Warlock replied, still invisible. “Though someone took a butcher’s knife to her soul.”
There was a long pause.
“Also clear,” Warlock finally said.
The sword came away from my neck as the tear in the distance closed, the blizzard dispersing to reveal the sight of the Black Knight in full regalia save for the helmet. He offered me a sardonic smile.
“So,” he mused. “I’m given to understand you’ve had an eventful few weeks.”