Fermin smiled, his lips widening to an impossible extreme, revealing long rows of triangular teeth, the teeth of a shark.
The burnt woman’s knife flashed and Fermin’s throat gaped open, blood gushing forth in a torrent, cascading down the sides of the plinth to fill the bowl. The burnt woman shoved the body aside and beckoned again, another figure coming forward. He was taller, well-built, his scarred face telling of a hard life, though his smile was the same one that came to his lips when the ballista bolt speared him through the back. It was still there, the steel head protruding from his chest, scraping over stone as he knelt.
“You had a choice.” Lyrna knew the words a lie even as they spilled from her lips. Harvin, however, seemed to find her dishonesty amusing, for he laughed as the knife flashed again.
“I didn’t do this,” she insisted as the burnt woman pushed the body away and beckoned again. “They served me willingly.”
“As they should,” the burnt woman said. “Mortals live only to serve their gods.”
Furelah came next, bowing to Lyrna with a dagger in each hand, her face and hair slick with seawater, eye sockets empty, the surrounding flesh partly eaten. Just before the knife opened her throat a small crab crawled from the black circle of her eye, its pincers snipping at Lyrna as if in accusation.
She tore her gaze away from the spectacle, but found no relief. The temple was crowded now, a long line of people, a few she knew, most she didn’t. The Meldenean archer who had tumbled from the rigging at the Teeth, a Seordah woman who had fallen at Varinshold, and so many others. Eorhil, Nilsaelins, Cumbraelins, like Furelah, all dripping brine, their flesh partly claimed by the sea . . .
“I HAD NO CHOICE!” she railed at the burnt woman, falling silent at the sight of the figure now kneeling at the plinth.
“Choice?” Malcius asked. His head was cocked at an obscene angle, though his face was kind, his smile rich in affection and sympathy. “Choice is not the province of those who presume to rule,” he told her. “The world is yours to make, my sister. As I always knew it would be. Don’t you think it would have been kinder to kill me sooner, before I took the throne? Didn’t it ever occur to you? A small drip of poison in my wine cup? It would have been such an easy thing.”
“No,” she said in a whisper. “You were my brother . . . I once did a terrible thing for you.”
“You set me free to preside over the destruction of my Realm, the murder of my wife and children.” He raised his arms as the burnt woman stepped closer. The knife didn’t flash this time, instead she pressed it to his flesh with delicate, even loving tenderness, her other hand cradling his head to her breast.
“Do not turn away now, Lyrna,” Malcius said as the blade traced across his throat. “For the gods are always thirsty . . .”
• • •
She came awake at Murel’s gentle prodding, the lady starting visibly at Lyrna’s wide-eyed stare. “The Battle Lord sends word, Highness,” she said. “A Volarian host approaches from the east.”
She found Count Marven at the temple steps, the plain beyond him busy with soldiers forming ranks and riders galloping to their companies, a thick pall of dust rising to shroud the morning sun. “Brother Sollis estimates their number at sixty thousand, Highness,” the Battle Lord reported. “Almost all Free Swords, which is unusual. They approach in good order though.”
Sixty thousand. Little over half our number. The Empress makes a desperate gamble to stem our advance, perhaps? “Take no risks, my lord,” she told Marven. “We cannot afford significant loss.”
“Battle is always a risk, Highness. But I’m confident this matter will be settled come noon.” He bowed and went to his horse, galloping off and soon lost in the morass of men and dust.
Lyrna looked up at the tallest tower in the temple. She was tempted to spare herself the sight of the battle, the dream having dispelled any desire to witness more bloodshed, but it seemed cowardly to turn her sight from the army now. “My lady, see if you can find a spyglass,” she told Murel, making for the tower.
Ascending the tower proved a trying business, her legs aching with the effort as she forced herself up the narrow steps without slacking the pace, Iltis and Benten huffing along in her wake. It was hard not to be distracted by the tower’s internal decoration. Every surface, including the steps beneath her feet, was adorned with some ancient Volarian script, the symbols at the lower levels carved with a delicate precision and elegance that faded the higher she climbed, so that by the time she reached the top the symbols were a confusion of haphazard etchings, seemingly carved by some random feverish hand. She made a note to ask Wisdom as to the meaning of it all when time allowed.
The top of the tower consisted of a crenellated spike ascending from a flat granite platform a dozen feet in diameter. Like the steps the surface of the platform was adorned with more writing, so wildly confused she knew she looked upon the work of a maddened soul. The platform held no balustrade or shelter of any kind, a hard, cutting wind whipping Lyrna’s hair about as she stepped free of the staircase. Benten ventured forward to peer over the unguarded edge before making a hasty, slightly pale-faced retreat. “Best stay close to the centre, Highness,” he advised.
Lyrna looked to the east, seeing two great walls of dust edging towards each other across the plain. The pall lifted sometimes to reveal the marching regiments and provide some clue as to Marven’s dispositions. He had placed a solid line of Realm Guard on his left, close to the river, which would prevent any flanking move in that direction. The centre was held by a mix of Nilsaelin and Realm Guard infantry whilst the bulk of the cavalry moved in parallel to their line on the right flank. Behind the main body were four more regiments of infantry and the Renfaelin knights, though only two-thirds were horsed, the remainder obliged to suffer the indignity of walking to battle.
“Quite a sight, Highness,” Iltis said with a rare grin.
She had seen her fill of battle, but as only a participant, and seeing one unfold at such remove provoked a strange sense of guilt, as if she were a spectator at some bloody entertainment. “Indeed, my lord,” she replied, forcing a smile. “Quite a sight.”
Murel appeared at Lyrna’s side, sagging and out of breath. “With Brother Hollun’s compliments, Highness,” she gasped, holding out a spyglass. Lyrna took it, extending it to full length to train the lens on the Volarian host. It took several moments before the dust faded sufficiently for her to make them out, finding their ranks were arranged in neat order, the Free Sword battalions marching in a steady rhythm. Like Marven, their commander had seen the wisdom of anchoring the left flank on the river, with most of the cavalry on the right. However, she could tell their line was stretched thin, the infantry moving in ranks only two men deep so as to form a front wide enough to match that of her army. She raised the spyglass, the dust shifting enough to allow a view of their rear.
“No reserve,” she murmured. Does she seek to bleed us? Spend the lives of an entire army to reduce our numbers? Even for a deranged mind it seemed a facile strategy. Why not gather enough force to meet us in equal numbers farther down the road?
Marven halted the army three hundred yards short of the Volarians, Cumbraelin archers moving forward to form three dense ranks in front of the line. The storm had left her with only a third of the number that had sailed at the Blessed Lady’s behest. However, the arrow-riddled corpses she had seen at Alltor had provided ample evidence of what even a small number of skilled longbowmen could do, and she had over three thousand. Added to the archers were the twelve cart-borne ballistae now being wheeled forward. Lyrna checked each one with the spyglass to ensure Alornis had not somehow contrived to escape Davoka’s care, breathing a soft sigh of relief at her absence. She had given the Lonak woman stern instructions to bind the Lady Artificer hand and foot should she try to join the battle and hoped it hadn’t proved necessary.
A ripple went through the loose ranks of the archers as the Volarian line came to within two hundred paces, the spyglass picking out men standing with bows drawn and raised high, each with a thicket of arrows thrust into the earth around his feet. They loosed as one, the arrow storm thick enough for her to discern the flight of the shafts, a dark arching cloud forming between the archers and the Volarians. Their line seeming to shimmer under the weight of the assault, the centre taking the brunt of the punishment.
The ballistae were soon adding to the barrage, at least twenty men falling to the first volley, the ranks of the central battalions thinning with every step. Lyrna watched as a battalion was decimated, trailing a dozen or more dead and wounded every ten yards, until it inevitably began to slow, marching men faltering as their comrades died around them. She watched an officer wheeling his horse about at their rear, waving his sword and shouting unheard exhortations until a ballista bolt punched through his breastplate with enough force to carry him clear of the saddle. The battalion slowed further, halted, then broke, men dropping weapons and turning to flee, bowed low under the unending deadly rain.
Lyrna couldn’t hear the shout that must have erupted from the Cumbraelins then, but knew it would be a savage expression of vengeance barely satisfied. They surged forward in an unbidden charge, discarding bows to draw swords and axes, pelting towards the gap in the Volarian line. Not a man to miss an opportunity, Marven gave the signal for an immediate advance, the entire Realm Guard moving forward at the run, the cavalry on the right spurring to an immediate charge. Lyrna saw the Cumbraelin assault strike home before the dust grew too thick to see more. She had a glimpse of the Volarian centre fragmenting under the fury of their onslaught but soon the entire field became a mass of roiling dust and the vague, flickering shadows of men in combat.