A familiar hissing sound drew Lyrna’s attention back to the main body of the army, allowing her a brief glimpse of the first Cumbraelin volley descending on the centre of the Volarian line. It seemed to shudder from the impact, its pace slowing but still keeping on despite the continuing arrow storm, Lyrna’s spyglass revealing the blank faces of Varitai marching blithely forward as their comrades died around them. She had expected Al Hestian to halt the army and let the Cumbraelins do their work for a time, but the sounding of multiple bugles told of a different intent.

She lowered the spyglass as the Renfaelin knights spurred into a charge, thunder rising from the earth as they accelerated, a cloud of shredded redflower ascending in their wake, rendered oddly beautiful in the sunlight. The Cumbraelins immediately ceased their arrow storm and began to form ranks for their own charge. Discarding bows and drawing swords and hatchets, moving in a more coordinated fashion than their maddened charge at the temple to fall in alongside the leading Realm Guard regiments.

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Lyrna lifted her gaze to watch the Renfaelin charge strike home, a spectacle she hadn’t witnessed before though her father had often spoken of it. Imagine an arrowhead of unbreakable iron, but fashioned by a giant. She heard Murel issue a curse of amazement as the great wedge of steel and horseflesh struck home, the impact birthing an instant tumult of screaming men and horses mingling with the harsh, discordant notes of colliding flesh and metal. She saw several knights fall, tumbling with their horses in a tangle of armour and flailing hooves, but for the most part the knightly host retained its cohesion to skewer the Volarian line, tearing all the way through to the Free Swords and the open country beyond.

More bugles sounded and the entire mass of Al Hestian’s infantry increased its pace to a run. The comparative cohesion of the Cumbraelin contingent evaporated as they ran, covering the remaining distance to the Volarian line in a frenzied sprint of flailing swords and hatchets, tearing into the already disordered mass of Varitai. The leading Realm Guard regiments struck home seconds later, halberds rising and falling in a practised display of disciplined slaughter, stripping away any remnant of order in the Volarian ranks, which buckled, fell back and disintegrated.

Ever more petals rose from the field as the battle became a rout, obscuring much of the unfolding carnage in a haze of drifting scarlet. The cavalry battles on either flank raged on for a time but soon the Volarian horse could be seen fleeing east as they discerned the fate of their infantry. The spyglass revealed the sight of Lord Adal leading the North Guard in pursuit of the escaping riders, despite the foam covering the flanks of his horse, green cloak streaming behind as he spurred it on, reddened sword extended straight as an arrow.

As her gaze returned to the centre of the battlefield she found a dense cluster of Free Swords had formed amidst the onrushing mass of Realm Guard. The spyglass revealed mostly fearful men, fighting with the kind of ferocity that was only born of survival.

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“Send a rider to Lord Al Hestian,” she told Iltis. “I am keen to secure more prisoners . . .”

“Ah, Highness . . .”

She turned at Murel’s half-whispered words, the sight that greeted her making her wonder if some new enemy hadn’t appeared in their midst, so disordered were the ranks of the Realm Guard, thousands of mostly unarmoured figures struggling through their lines. The slaves, she realised, catching sight of Nortah on horseback, vainly attempting to hold back his recruits as they charged towards the surviving Free Swords. The first hundred or so were cut down in seconds, but the others came on as if maddened, uncaring of the swords that slashed and hacked their unprotected flesh. She saw a man claw his way through the Volarian ranks with his bare hands, tearing at faces and necks, seeming not to feel the blade that sank into his chest as he bore its owner to the ground, prizing his helmet away to fix his teeth on the flesh beneath. His fellows piled into the shallow gap he had rent in the Volarian line, the Free Swords’ desperate courage turned to panic by the savagery of the onslaught. Some ran to the Realm Guard, empty hands raised high and sinking to their knees. Most were not so fortunate.

Justice, Lyrna thought as the last speck of Volarian black disappeared in the seething mass of former slaves. Many were now waving captured weapons, or even severed limbs and heads in celebration as the petals continued to fall. We are not the only hungry souls here.

• • •

“Do you think I’m pretty?”

The young woman elected to speak for the freed slaves was in truth possessed of a certain delicate beauty, her features smooth with skin a pleasing olive hue, marred somewhat by the bandage that covered her partly severed left ear. She wore a mismatched variety of captured armour and weapons, standing with arms crossed, glowering at Lyrna in open defiance, the lack of any bow or honorific rousing Iltis to issue a threatening rumble as he started forward. Lyrna calmed him with a touch to the arm and gestured for the woman to continue.

“My back is not so pretty,” she went on. “My first night in the pleasure house I cried, greatly displeasing the red-clad who had paid a handsome sum to take my virginity. My master had me flogged every day for a week then sold me to a pig farmer. The pigs ate better than I did and the farmer didn’t care if I cried when he pawed me. Would you like to see my back, Great Queen?”

“I grieve for all you’ve suffered,” Lyrna told her. “My wrists were once bound by chains so do not imagine your pain is unknown to me. Nor should you imagine that I care for the enemies we kill. However, if your people are to march with us, they must regard themselves as soldiers, bound by the orders of those who command them.”

“We have no intention of trading one master for another,” the woman returned, though her tone was more cautious. “And we are grateful for your coming. But there is much to account for, and we have only just begun.”

“You’ll have your accounting. When this war is won give me the name of the master who flogged you and I’ll see the same done to him, and the pig farmer. Have your people make lists of the wrongs done to them and I’ll ensure every soul receives justice. But until then I must ask that your people conduct themselves as soldiers and not a mob. You will be paid the same as any soldier in my Realm Guard, but service requires discipline. Lord Nortah is a fine commander who will not waste your lives, you would do well to heed him.”

“And if we do not want to serve you?”

Lyrna spread her hands. “You are free people and may go where you wish, taking with you payment for service already rendered plus my thanks and friendship.”

The woman thought for a moment, her stance marginally less closed. “Some will leave, some will stay,” she said. “Many, like me, were stolen from their homelands years ago and will wish to return.”

“I will make no effort to prevent them, even provide ships to carry them home when our task is complete.”

“You’ll make an oath to this, in front of all of them?”

“I will.”

The woman nodded. “Come to us this night, I will ensure they listen.” She gave an awkward half bow and went to the tent flap.

“You didn’t give me your name,” Lyrna said.

“Sixty-Three,” the woman replied, a faint grin playing over her lips. “I’ll resume my own when I go home. And don’t worry about the pig farmer, his hogs ate better than ever the day I left.”

• • •

It’s beautiful. She had reined Jet to halt beside Aspect Arlyn and Brother Sollis, waiting with the Sixth Order atop a low hill, all sitting in silent regard of the sprawling city in the distance. The sky was clear today and the unconstrained sun played over the panoply of marble, making it gleam before painting a glittering shine on the waters of the Cut of Lokar to the south. The absurdity of her mission became clear as she took in the myriad towers and countless streets; the destruction of such a city would be the work of years and she doubted even Alornis could conceive of a device capable of birthing a conflagration great enough to bring it down.

“No enemies to report, Highness,” Brother Sollis said. “No sign of any defensive works in the suburbs either. There are some fires raging farther in, large numbers of free folk seen fleeing to the north. The slaves flee in our direction.”

Lyrna nodded. She had ordered the release of the few hundred prisoners captured two days before, having been provided with fulsome descriptions of the dread queen’s intentions. It seems sufficient numbers had fled back to Volar to bring about the desired effect.

“Highness!” It was Brother Ivern, raised up in his saddle and pointing to the south. It took a moment for her to recognise the dark shapes dotting the waters of the Cut. She used the spyglass to pick out the Meldenean battle flags flying from the thicket of masts, all clustered in an arc around the harbour, dozens more visible farther downriver, the unmistakable sleek shape of the Red Falcon among them.

She beckoned to one of the Queen’s Daggers. “Ride to the Battle Lord. He is to proceed to the centre of the city forthwith, destroying any opposing forces he should encounter. Tell him I believe our newly freed subjects would be best kept in reserve.” She turned to Aspect Arlyn. “Aspect. I trust you recall the route to the arena.”

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