“What’s conscription?”

Reva turned to find Ellese standing at the library door, wrapped in a blanket and rubbing her eyes. “Couldn’t sleep?”

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The girl nodded and Reva patted the couch next to her, Ellese trotting over to sit beside her. “I had a dream,” she said. “Father was alive again, looking for me in our house.”

“Just a dream,” Reva told her, smoothing back the now-unmatted hair from her forehead. “Dreams can’t hurt you.”

Ellese’s gaze moved to Veliss, still standing at the fireplace, back stiff and eyes averted. “What’s conscription?”

Veliss’s shoulders slumped and she gave the girl a weary smile. “The worst of things, love. A hard sell.”

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• • •

“All men of sound health between the ages of seventeen and forty-five are to report to Alltor by the last day of the month of Interlasur, bringing with them any bows or other weapons in their possession. Any childless woman of the same age may also volunteer her service. All who serve will be paid at the same rate as the Realm Guard and will receive a pension for the rest of their lives at the conclusion of the war, this pension to be paid to the widow or surviving children of any who sacrifice their lives in this cause.”

Reva fell silent, handing the scroll to Veliss and trying not to make her scrutiny of the crowd too obvious. Veliss had placed a wooden crate on the topmost of the Cathedral steps, giving her a complete view of the throng, some five thousand people in the square itself with more crowding the ruins beyond. There was some murmuring, clear surprise showing amidst the sea of faces before her, but for the most part they were silent, the predominant expression one of expectation. They await the Blessed Lady’s word, she thought, keeping the sour grimace from her face.

“We have suffered much,” she told them. “Our trials have been many and our struggle long. I wish I came before you with news of peace, I wish I came to tell you our battles are over and we can at last rest, but that would make me a liar. You trusted my word when the enemy was at our walls and I beg you to trust me again now.” She paused, gathering strength, her own words loud in her head . . . that would make me a liar . . .

“And trust that I have heard the Father’s voice.” She put all the force she could muster into the words, hearing them echo from the walls of this wasted city. “And he will permit no turning from this path. Many of you will have heard of the so-called Eleventh Book. I tell you now that book is a lie, worthy only of your scorn. But the Father has ordained there will be a new book, the Book of Justice, written by the Father’s own hand with us as his mighty instrument!”

It wasn’t a cheer, more a roar, instant and savage, rising from the throat of every soul present. There was hate on their faces now, every head no doubt filled with ugly memories of fallen loved ones and burning homes, a hatred permitted free rein by the Blessed Lady who spoke with the Father’s voice. We drowned in their blood, Reva thought as the sound washed over her. And still it wasn’t enough.

She stepped down from the crate, pausing at the sight of Ellese burying her head in Veliss’s skirts, small face tensed with fearful tears as she tried to hide from the crowd’s roar. Reva knelt beside her and wiped the wetness from her face. “It’s all right,” she said. “They’re just happy to see me.”

• • •

She waited two days for Arentes to return, greeting the old guard commander at the gates with a warm embrace. “Forgiven me yet, my lord?”

“My lady commands and I follow,” he replied, his tone a little stiff though she could detect the vestiges of a smile behind his moustache. “Besides,” he went on, gesturing at the line of shackled men arrayed on the causeway, “securing your enemies is my sacred charge, and not one I’ll shirk for any glory.”

“There was no glory to earn. Just more blood.” Her eyes tracked over the captives, about twenty emaciated men in varying states of raggedness, some fearful and sagging with exhaustion, others glaring at her in sullen defiance. “The Sons.”

“Plus a few outlaws. Thought it best to hang them in front of the people, make an example.”

“Unless they’ve raped or murdered I’ll send them to the queen. She’s keen to make use of all men, even those of meanest worth.”

“Word of the edict flew far and wide. Not all were glad to hear it.”

“They will when they’ve heard the Father’s word. I’m afraid I’ll need you and your men on the morrow, it’s time I saw my fief in full.”

He gave a precise bow. “Of course, my lady.” He turned a baleful eye on the prisoners. “What do you want done with the Sons?”

“Lady Veliss will question them. When I return we’ll see justice done.”

• • •

Ellese had clung to her and cried again, begging to be allowed to come. Reva had been firm in ordering her to remain with Veliss, firmer than necessary judging by the increased pitch of the girl’s wails. “Motherhood has a price,” Veliss told her, holding Ellese to her bodice.

I’m not her mother, Reva had stopped herself saying, crouching to push the hair back from Ellese’s eyes. “Mind Lady Veliss well and stay at your lessons. I’ll be back soon enough.”

She let Arentes choose their route, acceding to his greater knowledge of the fief. “West then south I think, my lady,” he advised. “Westerners are the least godly folk in Cumbrael so we may as well get the hardest task done first.”

There was plenty of evidence of Volarian activity to the west, a procession of ruined villages and the occasional pile of rotting corpses amidst the vineyards. In each instance Reva ordered a halt to have them buried, the words spoken by the only priest to accompany them, a spindly fellow of middling years chosen for his renowned courage during the siege and taciturn nature. She found herself greatly disinclined towards sermons these days. The quiet priest is the good priest, she quipped to herself, wondering if she should write it down.

The devastation abated the farther west they went, disappearing altogether in the hill country on the Nilsaelin border. She knew from Veliss this was one of Cumbrael’s more prosperous regions, the wine being of the finest quality and the people noted for gay celebrations and lax adherence to the Ten Books. Arentes guided her to the largest town in the region, essentially a sprawling hill-fort ringed by impressive walls that traced the line of the surrounding vine-covered slopes in an uninterrupted ribbon of stone.

“Easy to see why the Volarians left it alone,” Arentes commented as they rode up to the gates.

“They’d have gotten to it in time,” Reva said. She expected some difficulty at the gates—it was quite possible these people had no notion as to who she was after all—however she found the town guard already drawn up in ranks and the gates standing open. A stout man in a long robe was on both knees beneath the gate arch, arms spread in supplication.

“Lord Mentari, the town factor,” Arentes explained. “Owns most of the vineyards for miles around. He had great regard for your grandfather.”

“But not so my uncle?” Reva asked.

“Your uncle was much more punctilious when it came to the collection of taxes, and less inclined to favouring old friends.”

“Lucky it is then, that I only have new friends.”

“Blessed Lady!” Lord Mentari clasped his hands together as she approached, dismounting to cast her gaze around the city, finding it strange to see so many intact buildings after weeks of viewing ruins. “You bring the Father’s word to our unworthy ears.”

Reva frowned down at the man’s wide-eyed countenance, expecting to see some glimmer of calculation there but instead his awe appeared completely genuine. “All ears are worthy of the Father’s word,” she told him. “But he doesn’t require you to kneel, and neither do I.”

The stout lord got to his feet, though his back remained at a servile stoop. “The tale of your victory is already legend,” he gushed. “The gratitude of our humble home knows no bounds.”

“I’m glad to hear it, my lord.” She hefted the scroll-case containing the queen’s edict. “For I bring word of how it can be expressed.”

It took two days to gather the people from the surrounding country to hear the Blessed Lady’s words, two days suffering through the feast Mentari organised in her honour and a round of petitions, by far her least favourite occupation. She gave judgement in only the most clear-cut cases and had Arentes note the others for dispatch to Veliss. Despite the apparent comfort and security enjoyed by these people the petitions did give an insight into the fact that war didn’t have to visit your doorstep to cause ill. Complaints abounded of refugees from the east stealing produce and livestock or occupying land they didn’t own, and whilst Tokrev’s armies might not have marched here, his slavers certainly had; weeping mothers telling of sons and daughters stolen in raids. For all their sorrow, Reva took a grim comfort from these tales, her task made easier by the Volarians’ talent for birthing hate in every soul they touched.

She read the edict on the evening of the second day, standing on the porch of Mentari’s house as people crowded the space below, a broad avenue surrounding an elegant fountain of bronze. This time the murmuring was louder when she finished, and the expressions of the crowd not so rapt. However, despite the evident discomfort, there was no open dissent or shouts of disapproval and plenty of godly souls to voice their approval as the Blessed Lady told her lie.

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