She nudged Jet closer still, leaning down to stare into his one good eye. “Ask them if they really want to die for the Empress.”

• • •

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By nightfall over three thousand slaves had emerged from the gates. Lyrna watched the last of them troop out and waited, concealing a sigh of relief as the gates remained open. Did you ever manage this, Father? she asked the old schemer’s ghost. To take a city by words alone.

“I should go ahead with the Realm Guard, Highness,” Al Hestian suggested. “Ensure a proper reception for your entry.”

It would be so easy, she thought, eyes still fixed on the open gates. So many wooden houses, so much fuel, the flames would light the sky for a hundred miles.

“I shan’t be entering the city,” she told Al Hestian. “Send as many men as you think fit to ensure they haven’t contrived to retain any slaves and secure additional supplies for my new subjects. No looting on pain of execution. Leave them sufficient stocks to guard against starvation, and their horses. I’m keen for word of our actions here to spread. Be sure the army is ready to march by dawn.”

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She glanced at the prisoners huddling together in the gloom, shivering as much in fear as from the oncoming chill. Like all those souls I left to drown in the bowels of the slave ship, she thought, hands clutching her reins until they ached. It would be so easy . . .

“Release this lot an hour before we march,” she ordered, wheeling Jet about and galloping back towards the villa.

• • •

They covered a hundred miles in three days, the Battle Lord insisting on a pace that saw many soldiers collapsing at the end of a day spent on what many now referred to as the “blood road.” The march had made Lyrna intimate with the varying moods of her army. The Nilsaelins were the most vociferous grumblers, issuing a collective groan of relief and exhaustion at the conclusion of the second day. The Realm Guard were the most disciplined on the march though also the most fractious in the evenings; fistfights over card-games or petty disputes were still annoyingly common. The Renfaelins were by far the most cheery, their encampment rich in song and laughter most evenings, providing a stark contrast to the muted efficiency of the Cumbraelins, though their relative quietude had assumed a grim determination since the temple. They marched at a faster pace than all the other contingents, Lyrna having acceded to Lord Antesh’s request to lead the column, and would often be two or three miles ahead by nightfall. Also, judging from the way they would cluster around the few priests among them come evening, news of Lady Reva’s survival seemed to have birthed a resurgence of piety.

“I find myself ashamed, Highness,” Antesh said on the evening of the third day. She had sought him out during her nightly tour of the camp, finding the Cumbraelins more respectful than usual, their bows deeper though their ever-cautious gaze still lingered.

“Ashamed, my lord?”

“After the storm, when we thought Lady Reva lost, I doubted the Father’s purpose in bringing us here. At Alltor everything had been so clear, she seemed to shine with His love. But if He could take her from us, how could He bless this endeavour? I thought perhaps it might be punishment, a judgement on our willingness to ally with you. Now I see how foolish that was. She would never have guided us along a false path.”

Hearing the certainty with which he coloured every word Lyrna resisted the impulse to ask if, in fact, her Lord of Archers worshipped a goddess rather than a god. “She is a truly great soul,” she said. “I long to see her again.”

She inclined her head and moved away but Antesh reached out, his hand stopping just short of her sleeve. “Highness, if I may. I know you have no belief in the Father, in truth I doubt you have much truck with your own Faith either. But know, although you may not feel his love, he gives it nonetheless.”

Lyrna found herself beset by the unfamiliar sensation of not knowing what to say. She had never been comfortable around displays of devotion; her infrequent meetings with the late Aspect Tendris had been a considerable trial, as had her exchanges with Aspect Caenis, though he had provoked as much pity as discomfort. Lives dominated by the spectres of ancient dreams, she thought. But it never seems to make them happy.

“Be sure to thank him for me,” she told Antesh, putting an edge of finality into her tone and turning away.

“There was one other thing, Highness,” he said, moving to her side, then drawing back as Iltis gave a huff of warning. “Lady Reva,” Antesh went on, “I worry she might become hostage to our intentions. By all accounts this vile Empress of theirs will not baulk at putting her to death should we attack Volar.”

Won’t your World Father reach down and save her? Lyrna smiled to cover her annoyance. “I will not allow that to happen.”

“So you have a stratagem? Some means of securing her release?”

“Indeed I do.” Take the city and trust in the girl’s deadly abilities to ensure her own survival. She extended her hand to forestall his next words. “Please assure your archers there is no greater purpose for me than securing the Blessed Lady’s life, even at the risk of my own.”

Antesh hesitated before sinking to one knee and pressing his lips to her hand. “I shall, Highness.”

• • •

The following days saw the rolling hills flatten into undulating farmland, much of it dominated by fields of redflower, stretching away like an endless crimson carpet broken by the occasional villa or small town, most showing signs of hasty abandonment. This region also held another singular distinction in the poles with which the Empress had chosen to adorn the road.

“Little wonder they won’t fight for her,” Baron Banders commented, squinting up at one of the rotting corpses dangling above. “Could be we’ll have a clear road all the way to Volar.”

Lyrna gazed ahead at the long procession of poles disappearing into the distance, discerning a faint pall of dust rising above the horizon. “I doubt the Empress intends our passage to be an easy one.”

Al Hestian had sent the Sixth Order ahead that morning and Brother Sollis soon returned to report the approach of a host some seventy thousand strong. “About half Varitai, by my estimation,” he said. “They’re a more ragged lot than we’re used to. I suspect the Empress has commandeered every privately owned slave soldier in the region. The Free Swords don’t seem much better, old men and boys mostly. However, their cavalry is another matter, keeping in good order and patrolling the flanks with keen eyes. We were lucky to return without being seen.”

“No Kuritai or Arisai?” Lyrna asked.

“None that I could see, Highness.”

“The temple taught us a hard lesson,” Al Hestian said. “We can expect them to have hidden their elite among the fodder.”

“In any case it’s suicide,” Nortah commented, shaking his head. “There are well over a hundred thousand souls in this army now, and growing by the day.”

“If our enemy is intent on their own destruction,” Lyrna said, “I am more than happy to oblige. Battle Lord, you will wish to make your dispositions.”

• • •

Al Hestian sent the Nilsaelin horse and North Guard galloping off before his main battle line was fully in place, ordering them to engage as many Volarian cavalry as they could. The Realm Guard cavalry were kept back to secure the flanks of the infantry, which he arranged in a surprisingly compact formation. The lead grouping consisted of just three regiments, standing in close ranks with the rest of the Realm Guard arranged behind and Lord Nortah’s Dead Company, flanked by the loosely ordered mass of barely trained slaves, forming a rear-guard with the Nilsaelin foot. Out in front he placed the Renfaelin knights and Cumbraelin archers.

“I assumed Your Highness wished this matter concluded quickly,” the Battle Lord stated in response to her cautious observation that this order of battle was beyond her experience.

“Quite so, my lord,” she said, watching him ride off with his flag-men and signallers, wondering if she shouldn’t ask Davoka to stay at his side throughout the battle, ready to kill him should this stratagem reveal itself a great, and perhaps deliberate folly. She pushed her misgivings away at the sight of Al Hestian riding along the flank of the army she had given him, seeing the total absorption on his face as he cast his expert eye over their ranks. War is his art, she realised. His one remaining passion. Like Master Benril’s statues or Alornis’s sketches.

Her gaze went to the Lady Artificer, moving among the line of ballistae arranged on a low rise on the left of the army’s line of march. She had voiced a strident objection when Al Hestian advised the engines would not be required for his assault, calmed only slightly at Lyrna’s suggestion they be employed to guard against a counterattack. Enlivened only by the prospect of blood, Lyrna thought, her gaze tracking Alornis’s slim form as she moved from engine to engine.

Lyrna had placed herself at a short remove from the ballistae, under close escort by the remnants of the Queen’s Daggers and the Seventh Order’s most gifted members. The rise offered a fine view of the unfolding drama. The Volarians were approaching in reasonably good order, their front line composed almost exclusively of Varitai, with the Free Swords behind. A large plume of dust rising from the redflower fields beyond their left flank told of a fierce battle already raging between the North Guard and the Free Sword Cavalry, the Nilsaelin lancers streaming towards the struggle at full pelt. A three-battalion contingent of Volarian cavalry could be seen arcing round on the right, presumably with the intention of threatening their rear, but a series of flag signals from the Battle Lord’s attendants soon sent the Realm Guard horse in pursuit, the opposing mass of riders meeting in a headlong charge some three hundred yards short of the rise. Lyrna saw Alornis pacing about amongst the ballistae, face set and fists clenched in frustration as not a single Volarian horseman emerged from the melee to provide a welcome target.

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