“Ah, mortal wounds. My only weakness.”
– Dread Empress Sanguinia II
This wasn’t like fighting devils. Wasn’t like fighting mortal soldiers either, because mortal soldiers couldn’t summersault in mail and swing swords like they were feathers. We’d bloodied he fae so far but that had been through tactics, no what I’d been taught to call qualitative superiority. It was one thing to lead Nauk’s heavies in forcing a gate when we outnumbered the enemy ten to one, another to charge into a sea of Summer swords and expect to come out on top. We would have to anyway. If the eastern flank was allowed to collapse, we were all fucked. The knights had bought us a lull and they were far from done with the day’s bloody work, but now the Fifteenth and its allies needed to bring it all home. Summer would have trump cards of its own, of that I had no doubt. I refused to believe all they had in their arsenal was regulars, winged knights and a handful of nobles. If that were the case, they wouldn’t have a history of crushing Winter in open battle. My role, then, was to force the hidden blade into the open and promptly break it.
There were probably elegant ways to do that, fancy manoeuvres and strategies, but Akua hadn’t been entirely wrong when she’d called me a thug. I didn’t have the time for elegant, so watering the ground with red until something came to stop would have to do.
Fire greeted us when we came out screaming. Ribbons of flame shot out like spears, shivering through the air and burning clean through steel and flesh. The tongue that would have put a hole in my belly I cut without without missing a beat, and Hakram contemptuously ignored the fact that his own shoulder was smouldering. We were the only ones so dismissive: sorcery the fae had shaped in the span of a breath stopped a shield wall two hundred wide, and stopped it cold. We couldn’t allow them to pull these kinds of surprises often, I thought. We didn’t have the numbers to handle those kind of casualties. They could trade three fae for every legionary sallying and still have it be nothing more than a drop in the bucket. I’d enjoyed having the bigger army on my side, at the fortress of Olden Oak, but now I was back in familiar territory: outmanned and in way over my head. I smashed into the Summer line like a runaway cart, the slivers of power I’d fed into my legs when I got close seeing me shoot forward quicker than the enemy had anticipated. I hacked my way through some poor fool’s hand and threw him at the man behind him, face grim.
The hateful thing about the fae was that their sorcery was not rituals. Every one of them was at least a middling caster, and their tricks were heads and shoulders above those that the Legions taught their mages. Cutting my way into the throng had only killed the fire ribbons of the fae in front of me, the rest could have cared less. We weren’t entirely unprepared, though. What few mages had not gone with Robber finished their ritual a few heartbeats later, disrupting the fae flames and allowing the heavies to finally close the distance. My insistence that Apprentice teach our mage contingents some things to deal with the fae was paying off, though they were few and no replacement at all for a caster of Masego’s calibre. With Adjutant at my side, I set to keeping the fairies busy. Perspective went up in smoke as we waded into the enemy host, replaced by quick flashes of movement and steel. My shield was carved away strike by strike, ice growing to fill the gaps without the need for me to even will it as I traded glancing blows for death strokes. Calm, measured, ever going forward. This was not war, it was just a chore taken care of to the backdrop of screaming.
Nauk’s voice screamed for a wedge to be made and to my sides legionaries took formation, shields high and swords piercing forward like this was just a drill on the training yard. Getting our foot in the door had been costly, I saw from the corpses and flickers of sorcery that still took lives every few heartbeats, but we had it. At this rate there would not be much left of Nauk’s jesha by nightfall, but we had bought something precious with those lives: room for the Watch. The cloaked Deoraithe did not deign to use bows, this time. They took to the left of our wedge with knives and longswords, scything through the Summer regulars with war cries in the Old Tongue. The rank and file of Daoine’s army poured in behind them, propping up the Fifteenth. They were no legionaries, but they were well-trained soldiers in mail with swords and shield that did not flinch in the face of sorcery. I caught all this in a glance, for it was all I could spare. The trail of dead behind me had apparently marked me as enough of a threat the fae were getting inventive.
I ran through a soldier but her charges’ momentum had her collapsing on me, another three fae piling up on me as a dozen of them rose in the air and began calling on colourful lights. A few crossbow shots from the Gallowborne slowed them down, but I was too busy dealing with the writhing, clawing mass trying to pull down my shield to be thankful. The lights hit the lot of us like a dozen sharpers, tearing through flesh and bone and blowing up straight off my feet. I was thrown against the raised shield of one of my retinue and sharply refused his hand to help me up: my fucking shield was gone, again. And my sword was bent and burned to the point of uselessness. Those pricks. I’d spat in Malicia’s soup already, where did they think I was going to be getting goblin steel from now on? I sidestepped a spear, chucked the remains of my sword into the man’s face and ripped the weapon out of the fae’s hands. Had no idea how to use one of these, so I snapped it in half and broke a soldier’s jaw with the shaft before taking her exposed throat with the point.
She had a sword, thank the Gods, so I lifted it up her corpse and took it in hand. Too light and long for my tastes, but it would do. Anyways, it wasn’t technically corpse-robbing if the battle wasn’t over right? Deoraithe arrows took care of the flying casters before they could have another go at blowing me up – and huh, my breastplate was actually melted and I simply hadn’t noticed – so I gripped the neck of a fae trying to put a spear in Hakram’s back and squeezed until something gave with an ugly crack. He grunted thanks and I waved them away, barely remembering to drop the corpse in my grip first. The Fifteenth had gained ground since the Watch had taken the field, steadily advancing as the cloaked lot essentially took care of the left flank. Watching the fights there was hard on the eyes. The Deoraithe were as quick as the fae and twice as ruthless, deaths on both sides happening almost faster than the naked eye could see. Whoever led Summer now that the Princess of High Noon was busy beating Winter royalty raw had to know they were in trouble, I thought.
Our sortie had put a knife in their bellies, and between the knights and the Watch the palisades had managed to sort themselves out. Ranker’s engines were still pounding wherever the fae were thickest, and though bloody trails could no longer be seen now that they’d gotten used to it every shot still left its share of dead. The trade of corpses was in our favour, and if Juniper managed to get enough men on this side of the gate then we’d have them encircled on three sides and it wouldn’t matter if they were more than us – it was the soldiers at the edge of the circle that fought, not those in the middle. They needed a win on one of the three sides, and they needed it quick because even if they unfucked one of the flanks as long as my sortie went unchecked there was a chance we’d split the meat of their army in two. If we did, they were done. So bring out your monsters, I thought. Now is the time.
The fae lines parted and I finally got to see Summer’s answer to the Sword of Waning Day, the deadwood soldiers that had given me so much trouble on our first encounter. Fae tended to prefer mail, and light one at that, but these were different. Heavy plate of gold from foot to neck, thick gleaming rubies dotting it in arcane patterns. Golden armet helms atop, with the thin slit for their eyes steaming from whatever was inside. Long heater shields polished like golden mirrors, almost as if someone had tried to make a kite shield for a footman, covered their left flanks. In their right hands halberds of pure ivory were held. Was I supposed to be impressed they used a two-handed weapon with one hand? I was pretty sure I could do the same. Wherever the tread the greenery smoked and died, which did not bode particularly well. If they were half as good as killing as the deadwood soldiers, then Nauk’s legionaries were going to rout. I’d taken Named to handle a few members of the Sword of the Waning Day, and there must have been at least ten thousand of these shiny bastards ahead of me.
Well, at least I knew what part of this battlefield the enemy commander was most worried about. I looked at those rubies, and the armours that seemed made of pure gold.
“Catherine,” Hakram gravelled. “Why are you smiling?”
“Because by the time this is all over, I’ll be able to afford rebuilding Marchford,” I said.
The golden fae slammed the butts of their halberds against the ground as one, a wave of heat washing over me and everyone else I could see. The warmth didn’t leave, afterwards, it hung in the air. The Summer fae in it quickened, while my legionaries grew sluggish. Oh that was just bullshit. Warlock could probably do something similar, but there weren’t ten thousand of the handsome bastard. Ranker, bless her wretched goblin soul, caught the danger. She had the ballistas fire at the golden fae, a dozen bolts that should have punctured their ranks. Instead the cold iron-tipped bolts hung in the air mere feet in front of them, and slowly began to turn. That, uh, wasn’t a great development.
“Dodge,” I yelled.
On the bright side, they’d been aiming for Named and not legionaries. Unfortunately that meant me, and even though I flattened myself against the ground and avoided the worst of it two of them tore into the same shoulder. Gods, those things were fucking heavy. I bit my lips to avoid screaming and crawled on the ground trying to get them out as the golden fae began to advance. My fingers were twitching too much, pain continuing to roll through my body in harsh waves. It was the iron, wasn’t it? You couldn’t steal fae power and not expect to have some fae weaknesses come with it. Adjutant was the one who got them out of me, and I muttered Rise through gritted teeth as my broke shoulders and ribs snapped back in place and the wounds slowly started to close. The well was beginning to run dry, I could feel. Another damned liability I was going to have to deal with. Hakram’s plate was dented in three places, but the bolts hadn’t broken through. The sight was no comfort. He must have called on his aspect for that, and that was another advantage we’d just lost.
“Is it possible to bruise a lung?” I said, spitting a thick gob of blood to the side. “Because I think I bruised a lung.”
Whatever Hakram would have replied I didn’t get to hear, because I was too busy exploding. Or at least that was what it felt like. At least a few of my ribs were now more powder than bone, an entire pauldron was liquid and burning through my aketon and to add that special touch I was now falling. From the sky. Where I did not remember going of my own will. I coughed blood again but managed to shape a pane of shadow and ice under me, landing on it like a rag doll. The strange noise of fae wings in action erupted, and a dark-skinned woman in mail of jade came to face me. Her eyes were golden as the armour of the fae who’d been wrecking my day, golden as the Diabolist’s. For all that, she was no Soninke. Her power filled the air to thickly I could almost taste it. Duchess, I thought. She had to be. Unlike the Summer nobles I’d fought so far, she did not talk and posture. She pointed the tip of her sword at me, and I hastily broke the panel that held me up. The air where I’d been exploded again, not in flames or light but as if the wind itself had gone mad. Another panel formed under me, and this time I landed on my feet.
“Rise,” I barked.
The ribs began to fix themselves but it was slow work and Gods I might not be able to afford slowness.
“Wither,” the duchess said, her voice stunningly musical.
Three panels, I judged in less time than it took for my heart to beat. That was how many supports I’d need to leap my way to her. I moved before the thought was finished, and that was the only reason I survived. The hem of my cloak was caught in the area where her power surged, and the cloth thinned and dried instantly. Considering the amount of water there was in my body, the thought of what would have happened to me if I hadn’t moved was chilling. I moved faster than any mortal could have, but in the sky only the fae reigned. When I landed on my second panel she simply flew higher and pointed her sword at me again. Fuck. This wasn’t a Rider of the Host I was scrapping with. If I kept this up, I was going to get killed. I unmade the panel and dropped down another fifteen feet before landing on another. We were staggeringly high, I only now noticed. That first hit had sent me up as if I’d been tossed by a trebuchet. Below us the golden fae had engaged the Fifteenth and the Watch, and the engagement was gruesomely one-sided. I needed to wrap this up quick if I wanted to have an army left by the time I broke my legs landing.
“Aren’t you supposed to introduce yourself before we tangle?” I called out.
If nothing else, her title would give me a better read on what her powers came from.
“I am the Duchess of Restless Zephyr,” she replied. “You are a corpse.”
I wasn’t particularly fond of being on the wrong side of that line, I decided. The healing power I’d stolen from the Lone Swordsman was being a real trooper about getting me back into fighting shape, but it only worked so fast. At least I was no longer in any danger of choking on my lungs. I leapt another two panels upwards to avoid getting exploded after her announcement, keenly aware that I was burning through power quickly. Even just maintaining a panel was draining, and unless I wanted my blood to turn to ice again I was going to have to find another solution.
“Would you like to make a wager?” I called out.
Come on, you’re fae, I thought. You lot feed are always up for a bet.
“No,” she replied, after trying to explode me again.
That was starting to get old, I would admit. Play to her nature, Catherine. She wants a kill, not a crippling. She’s been throwing around hard hits since we started.
“I am going to destroy you in one blow,” I lied, sword rising above my head as if I was preparing some trump card I really wished I had right now.
The Duchess of Restless Zephyr laughed. She was maybe thirty feet below me, and in the face of the flaring of my Name she smiled mockingly.
“You are no true duchess,” she said. “Just a mortal playing the fool. Learn your place.”
Unlike my parchment-thin deception, the ball of roiling winds that formed above her head was very much a threat. She kept feeding power into it while I tried to look like I knew what I was doing. Which I might. Maybe. It was a gamble with horrendous odds, but still better than jumping around beneath the clouds and hoping she ran out of juice before I did. Studying her face I gauged when she was about to finish preparations, the sneer and hint of triumph giving it away. If I got hit by that ball, what was left of me was going to rain all over this battlefield in little chunks. I really hoped that would hold out for her as well, because I was about to surrender an advantage that had saved my life at least three times in the last year. Her wrist began to move my fingers tightened around the hilt of the sword I’d stolen.
“Take,” I said.
Her eyes went wide as we both felt the same thing: my Name claiming ownership over the winds she’d been gathering. The remains of what I’d stolen from the Lone Swordsman vanished, and instead a painful surge filled the aspect. I gritted my teeth to avoid screaming. Claiming Summer power when I was already bound to the Winter Court felt like my insides turning out. I struck down with my sword and the ball of winds followed, smashing into her and detonating. Dry winds howled all around as the arm she brought up to shield herself was ground out of existence, her tall silhouette plummeting down like a gold of old had kicked her back down to Creation. My control over the winds was beginning to wane, and I hurriedly forced them down to follow the Duchess. She’d fallen in the back of the lines of golden fae, the ground heaving at the impact, and that was where the winds unleashed the fullness of their fury. Fae were scattered like insects, the hurricane my opponent had meant to destroy me with blooming life a flower in every direction. That, I mused, should help my army get their bearings back.
Then the winds contracted, crushing whatever they’d drawn in with them, and shot back up towards me as my aspect once again became a shapeless bundle of power needing to be defined.
“Shit,” I said, for my wit was peerless in any world.
I was quick to flee, but not quick enough. The ball had been popped already, but the winds were far from tender: they pulsed and detonated into a circle that had me sailing through the sky for the second time today. And was that the feeling of another rib breaking? Ah, no, just fracturing. It had happened to me often enough that I was beginning to be able to tell the difference just from the kind of pain that had me clenching my teeth. I couldn’t even tell what direction I was falling in. I shaped a pane of ice in front of me but I was going so fast I just tore right through it. Another two tries only managed to slow me down and cut the side of my neck with shards. The landing was going to be problem, I mused. And this time I couldn’t rely on stolen hero tricks to get me back on my feet afterwards. I was debating creating three panes in a row to see if that would do the trick when I felt my fall slow. Yanked out of the air, I started to float down like a feather until I was caught in a strong pair of arms.
“We meet again, Foundling,” Archer grinned.
“Are you seriously trying to pretend you were the one to cast the spell?” Masego asked peevishly. “You’re not even a mage.”
I sighed, leaning back bonelessely in Archer’s arms so I could stare at the braided Soninke.
“Hello, Apprentice,” I said.
“Do I need to explain to you how gravity works,” Masego said, “And what it does to the bones of women in plate falling from the sky?”
“I am invincible,” I gravely said. “Gravity bends to my will.”
Naturally, Archer took that as an excuse to drop me.