“Well,” Iltis commented. “That was a piss-poor show.”
“Highness.” Lyrna turned at Murel’s soft but insistent call, seeing her point to something to the north, another dust cloud on the far bank of the river. Lyrna trained the spyglass on the base of the cloud, discerning a mass of horsemen moving at the gallop.
“Cavalry,” she murmured, watching the horsemen come closer, noting their armour was red instead of the usual Volarian black. Also it was a sizeable force, over five thousand by her reckoning. The Empress sends her Arisai, she mused, recalling Brother Frentis’s description from one of his dream visions. Why not send them with her army?
“The river’s too deep to ford for miles around,” Benten said. “Even if they have boats, the battle will be over before they can make a crossing. The archers will cut them to pieces.”
Lyrna felt a certain unease build in her breast as the red-armoured horsemen came closer, their course becoming more clear as they neared. She had expected an attempt on the army’s flank, presuming they had some means to cross the river, but instead the horsemen were riding directly towards the temple, towards her.
“How many guards did Count Marven leave us?” she asked Iltis.
“Two regiments, Highness. The Twelfth and the Queen’s Daggers.”
Lyrna moved closer to the platform’s edging, looking down at the temple below. Lord Nortah had clearly spotted the horsemen and was arranging his own company of archers at the riverbank. As if sensing her scrutiny he looked up, gesturing at the onrushing cavalry with a baffled shrug. Why would they charge just to mill about on the other side of the river? The river . . .
She trained the spyglass on the fast-rushing current, seeing only churning water, grey with silt. It was when she lowered the spyglass that she noticed something odd about the waters, how the current seemed marginally faster as it neared the temple, the waters slightly paler in colour. “There’s something under the water,” she whispered, knowing it was far too late.
The lead company of horsemen galloped towards the far bank and plunged into the river without pause, their horses sinking no more than two feet into the water, churning it an instant white as they continued their charge. Before Iltis grabbed her hand to drag her to the stairwell she had a glimpse of one of the red-armoured men, a blazing smile on his face as he neared the southern bank, laughing at the meagre volley from Lord Nortah’s archers.
• • •
Davoka waited at the bottom of the steps, face grim and spear already bloodied. Alornis was at her side, staring in white-faced immobility at the carnage unfolding in the temple. The noise was near deafening, colliding metal mixed with the screams of the dying, the roaring challenge of those still fighting and the laughter of the men who had come to kill her.
On emerging from the stairwell, Lyrna glimpsed one of the Queen’s Daggers, a hulking fellow heaving an axe, shouting in rage with every blow as his red-armoured opponent danced aside and slashed repeated and precise cuts into his face. Beyond them the temple was a tumult of whirling combat and steel, Lord Nortah just visible amidst the fury, hacking down an Arisai and dragging one of the Daggers to his feet, voice raised as he attempted to assemble a defensive formation. Despite his skill, Lyrna could see his survival owed much to Snowdance, the war-cat a blur of claws and teeth as she took down one enemy after another, apparently numb to the wounds they slashed into her sides.
“We must . . .” she began, starting forward.
“NO!” The Lord Protector’s considerable fist closed over her arm, tearing Lord Nortah from sight as she was dragged away.
“Lord Nortah!” she protested, trying to wrestle free.
“Will die here defending you, Highness.” Iltis pushed her against a wall as an Arisai appeared from around a corner, voicing a delighted laugh as he thrust at the Lord Protector with a narrow-bladed sword. Iltis twisted aside, the Arisai’s blade tip shattering on the stone, though he still retained enough steel to parry Iltis’s overhead counterblow, but insufficient speed to dodge Davoka’s spear thrust to the groin. Iltis shoved the corpse aside and took hold of Lyrna’s arm once again.
“The horses are tethered on the western edge of the camp,” he said. “Should I fall, Highness, do not linger.”
Two more Arisai appeared to block their path, Davoka and Iltis instantly charging forward to meet them. This part of the temple was mostly narrow walkways threading a complex course between the various pyramidal structures, constricting the movements of the combatants, though it seemed to favour Iltis. The hulking lord locked the hilt of his sword onto an opponent’s, bearing him down with his bulk, slamming a knee into his chest to wind him before smashing his unarmoured head against the wall, again and again until the skull cracked like an egg.
Davoka’s assailant managed to fend off her precise jabs with apparent ease, voicing a laugh that died as Lyrna sent her dagger spinning into his neck. A clash of steel at her back made her turn, seeing Benten, backed against a wall, sword moving with frantic speed as he tried to fend off two Arisai. Murel, crouched at Lyrna’s side, uttered a screech of rage and launched herself at the nearest foe, her dagger sinking into his arm. The Arisai tore his arm away before she could retrieve the blade for another blow, slamming a punch into her face that sent her reeling, advancing towards her with a broad grin, then collapsing as Benten’s sword cleaved into his neck. The other Arisai lay dead at his feet but the young lord’s hand was clamped over a wound in his side, the blood flowing thick through his fingers.
“My lord!” Lyrna rushed towards him, finding herself restrained by Murel. The girl’s eye was swelling shut and she seemed a little unsteady on her feet, but still had enough strength to prevent Lyrna from going to Benten’s side as three more Arisai appeared, one sparing a brief glance for the wounded lord before laying his throat open with a swift, efficient slash.
“Lerhnah!” Davoka’s hand gripped her shoulder, pulling her along, the world becoming a blur of frenzied combat. Iltis led the way, attempting to find a course through the maze of stone, now littered with corpses at every turn. Davoka guarded the rear, pausing to spear any pursuing Arisai who came within reach. At Lyrna’s side Murel had hold of Alornis’s hand, the Lady Artificer’s face betraying scant notice of the surrounding horror.
Iltis gave a shout of frustration at finding their way blocked again, ducking under a sword swing and delivering a counter that left his assailant giggling as he regarded his severed fingers. The Lord Protector cast around, his features betraying a panic Lyrna had thought beyond him. It was his fear that restored her, banishing the sight of Benten, the blood flowing from his gaping neck to soak the temple floor. The gods are always thirsty . . .
“To the centre, my lord,” she told Iltis. “At least there are allies there.”
He hesitated a moment then gave a shallow bow. “I crave forgiveness for my failure . . .”
“Time is against us, my lord.” One of the Queen’s Daggers lay nearby, a lean, dark-haired woman, her hatchet cradled in her arms as if clutching a beloved infant. Lyrna bent to retrieve the weapon and nodded at Iltis to proceed.
They were obliged to fight their way through to Lord Nortah’s surviving defenders, perhaps fifty of them in a tight circle in the centre of the temple, ringed by a growing wall of dead. Iltis hacked down an Arisai from behind, laying about on either side with great two-handed blows of his sword, carving sufficient passage for Lyrna and Murel to force their way through with Alornis between them. Iltis tried to follow but fell as an Arisai delivered a kick to his legs, others closing to finish him but reeling back as Davoka landed in their midst, spear whirling to claim eyes and outstretched hands. She paused to haul Iltis to his feet, the Lord Protector barrelling through the throng of red-armoured men as she followed close behind, spear still whirling.
Lyrna was quickly conveyed to the middle of the formation where she found Snowdance slumped on her side, ragged flesh dangling from her claws, fur matted with gore and the stone beneath slick with blood. Despite her injuries the cat’s great yellow eyes stared up at Lyrna as bright as ever. She even uttered a soft purr as Alornis knelt to run a hand over her head.
Lyrna looked up as the cacophony suddenly abated, the clash of weapons fading to leave only the groans of the wounded. The Arisai were thick on all sides but seemed to have retreated somewhat. Many were wounded, some grievously so, missing eyes or standing with gaping wounds to the face or blood flowing freely from rents in their armour, but they were all smiling, not in mockery, or cruelty, but joy.
This is what they were made for, Lyrna thought, her eyes playing over the sea of happy faces. A new race born to delight in slaughter. The Volarian bred to perfection.
Around her the Queen’s Daggers all stood, drawing breath in ragged gasps, tensed for the next assault. Most had bloody scars, some wide-eyed in shock or grief. But still no fear, she saw, seeing how their ranks tightened around her, many casting furtive glances as if fearing her disapproval. The Empress made something vile, she decided. I made something great.
“We make them happy it seems,” she said, rising from the war-cat’s side. She raised her hatchet above her head, the gore-covered blade evidence its owner had died hard, as she intended to do. “Stand with me and we’ll make them weep!”