Another gout of flame erupted beyond the Arisai followed by some kind of commotion, too distant to make out but she discerned a certain discord in the rear of their ranks. She saw one of the Arisai who had been edging closer come to a sudden halt, standing with his sword held up before his face, turning the blade in apparent bafflement. He blinked, brow furrowed in deep confusion, then, without pause, turned to the Arisai on his left and slashed the blade across his throat. One of his companions immediately cut him down, only to draw up short himself a second later, his face also taking on the same baffled expression. This newly confused Arisai abruptly launched himself into the midst of his comrades, slashing wildly with his sword, killing three before he too was hacked down.

“What is this?” Nortah breathed. “Your Lonak elixir, Highness?”

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“No.” Lyrna’s gaze returned to the rear of the Arisai host, seeing the enemy ranks parting as if sliced by an invisible blade, allowing a trim figure to stride through, ignored by the surrounding Arisai, who all seemed to be wearing the same identical expression of utter bemusement. Aspect Caenis strode clear of the Arisai, offering Lyrna a stiff bow, blood streaming from his nose, eyes, ears and mouth, before turning his full attention to their enemies.

Off to the right another Arisai drove his sword into the belly of the man next to him, then another and another. The discord rippled through the red ranks like a wave spreading out from a pebble tossed into a pond, but birthing a storm instead of a ripple. Soon it seemed every Arisai in sight was fighting his neighbour, hacking at each other with a ferocity that belied their baffled expressions.

Caenis stood aside, gesturing at the path he had carved through the enemy ranks. “Go!” Lyrna ordered the surviving Daggers. “Escape this place.”

But they stayed, unwilling to leave without her. She went to Caenis’s side, seeing how he shuddered, the blood flowing in thick streams and his skin bleached white as snow. “Come, Aspect,” she said, taking hold of his hands.

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“I . . . regret I must . . . abide here a while . . . Highness,” he replied, a red torrent escaping his mouth to cover his chin.

“Brother!” Nortah rushed forward, reaching out to grab at Caenis’s arms but the Aspect staggered away, reeling into the whirling mass of maddened Arisai, lost to sight amidst their fury, now rising to an even greater pitch of self-destruction. Nortah started after him, restrained only by Iltis and Davoka at Lyrna’s shouted instruction. She ordered the Daggers to gather up the still-unconscious Aspect Arlyn and led them through the battle to the temple steps, Nortah screaming in fury as Iltis and Davoka dragged him along in her wake.

Outside there were more bodies littering the steps and the ground beyond, Arisai and Realm Guard, plus a few in the unarmoured garb of the Seventh Order. A young woman with honey blond hair knelt at the side of a plump sister, tears streaming down her face, a brace of bloodied darts clutched between her knuckles. The plump woman was plainly dead, the steps beneath her covered in blood though her body showed no sign of injury. A dozen hunting dogs surrounded them, all sunk low to the ground and uttering piteous whines. Nearby Trella Al Oren stood amidst a dozen blackened bodies, her face streaked in blood and soot. A burgeoning dust cloud rose to the east, the dark shapes of many horsemen visible at its base, blue cloaks and green—the Sixth Order and the North Guard racing to the queen’s rescue.

Nortah was still straining against Iltis and Davoka, spouting rage-filled curses at them as he fought to return to the temple. Lyrna turned back, seeing how the Arisai’s fury continued unabated for several minutes then abruptly stopped, retreating from one another as if in answer to some silent command, gazing at the carpet of corpses covering the temple from end to end.

“Enough!” Lyrna said, striding to Nortah and delivering a hard slap to his jaw. His struggles ceased and he gaped at her, eyes momentarily so devoid of reason she wondered if he had been rendered mad. “He’s gone,” she told him, trying to gentle her tone. “See to your regiment, my lord.”

The Lord Marshal slumped, moving back from Davoka and Iltis, his eyes tracking over the remnants of the Queen’s Daggers now numbering barely two dozen souls. “Of course, Highness,” he muttered in a tone both caustic and weary. “My mighty force is yours to command.”

He pulled away and began to organise his survivors into some semblance of order. Lyrna turned as Brother Sollis reined in nearby, leaping from the saddle to hurry to where Aspect Arlyn lay between Murel and Alornis, his face betraying both shock and relief.

“Highness!” Brother Ivern drew up close by, staring down at her with an appalled concern that made her consider her appearance, liberally spattered with blood from head to toe and holding a reddened hatchet. “Do you require a healer?”

“No, thank you, brother.” Her eyes went to the North Guard, galloping to form a cordon between her and the temple. To the east more dust rose above a dense mass of running infantry, the banner of Al Hestian’s Dead Company visible through the haze.

“Where is the Battle Lord?” she asked Ivern.

The young brother’s expression became grim. “Wounded, Highness. It’s bad. There were Kuritai hidden among the Free Swords, at least a thousand of the bastards.” Lyrna noted the bloody bandage covering Ivern’s hand. “They took some killing, I must say.”

She nodded and turned to the temple, watching the remaining Arisai forming themselves into well-ordered ranks once more. She couldn’t see their faces but the sound of their laughter was clear enough. One-half compelled to kill the other and it’s all just a fine jape.

“Find Lord Al Hestian,” she told Ivern. “He is to ring the temple to prevent the enemy’s escape. Have your brothers convey word to the other regiments to follow suit. Then bring me Lord Antesh.”

• • •

They tried to break out before the Realm Guard were fully in place, a tight wedge of five hundred Arisai launching themselves at Al Hestian’s regiment whilst the remainder split into smaller groups and attempted to escape to the south. Al Hestian’s dead men stood firm however, their line buckling under the impact of the charge but failing to break, their Lord Marshal taking position in the centre of the first rank. Lyrna heard later how he had used his spike to impale one of his men who turned his back on the enemy. After a quarter hour’s savage fighting, with the Realm Guard moving to outflank them, the Arisai retreated in good order, having lost about half their number. The smaller groups were continually assailed by the North Guard and the Sixth Order, cut down by the dozen until they too began to fall back. The Arisai formed a dense defensive square as they retreated, moving like a single laughing beast as it ascended the steps to dissolve into the confines of the temple.

“Give the word, Highness,” Lord Adal said, his usually handsome features rendered ugly by a lust for retribution. The Arisai seemingly had no notion of surrender and he had lost many North Guard in containing their escape. “We’ll scour the place clean for you.”

“If I may, Highness.” Lyrna turned to find Al Hestian pointing his bloody spike at the river. “Our cavalry should cover the hidden causeway and the northern bank. It’s their only remaining line of retreat.”

She nodded. “Lord Adal, join with the Nilsaelin horse. You will guard the causeway whilst the lancers shield the northern bank.”

The North Guard commander gave a reluctant nod. “And the assault, Highness? I would still beg the honour of leading it.”

Lyrna scanned the army, the Realm Guard and Nilsaelin infantry drawn up in good order, Antesh’s archers forming up at their rear. The cavalry patrolled the flanks in a wide arc sweeping around as far as the river to block all avenues of escape. All done with but a few orders and no formal plan. What a deadly instrument we built, she thought. Scarred and dented enough for one day.

“That won’t be necessary, my lord,” she told Adal before turning to Al Hestian. “The army will hold in place. Send word to bring up the ballistae.”

The Arisai continued to make small-scale sorties as the ballistae were hauled into place, a few having retained enough horses to mount a charge to the west, attempting to break through the cavalry screen only to be met by Renfaelin knights and cut down to a man. Lyrna also received reports of others attempting to swim the river, the few making it to the far bank providing welcome sport for the waiting Nilsaelin lancers.

Alornis reported the ballistae ready by late afternoon. As ever, working with her devices seemed to bring some animation to her features and she stood by, watching with a faintly prideful expression as the last engine was trundled into place alongside its fellows. The small corps of artisans who served the ballistae worked their various levers and windlasses until every one was armed and ready, the crossed bowstaves all drawn back, waiting.

“At your discretion, my lord,” Lyrna said to Antesh. The Lord of Archers nodded and lifted his bow above his head. The archers, arrayed immediately behind the line of ballistae, all raised their bows to a high elevation, strings drawn back behind the ear for maximum range. Antesh lowered his arm and the arrow storm began. The sky was still light enough to follow the dark mass of arrows as they rose and fell onto the temple, a black rain continuing unabated as Lyrna had ordered every possible shaft scavenged from the battlefield. She could see the blood still glistening on many of the arrowheads launched by the longbows. The archers seemed tireless, many grunting with the effort of drawing and loosing at such a rate, but their faces all set in determined hatred. Apparently slaughtering so many Free Swords hadn’t been enough to sate their vengeance.

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