“We are a thousand miles from home facing a vile enemy,” Reva pointed out. “Every soul in this army shares the risk, my lord. Please relate the plan to your captains, we land in five days.” She was about to add the queen’s instruction regarding prisoners but found the words stalled in her breast. Her people needed little such instruction and were like to slaughter any Volarian in arms, but voicing an order condoning their bloodlust still felt wrong, reminding her once again that the Father had never related a single word on the subject of vengeance.
• • •
Gulls appeared in the sky the next day and the first vague glimpses of land a day later. They sailed at a ten-mile remove from the rest of the fleet, thirty ships carrying the assembled soldiery of Cumbrael and the elite of the Realm Guard. The queen had also seen fit to provide four of Alornis’s wondrous new ballistae along with a Nilsaelin woman of slight build who seemed to have an expert knowledge of their workings.
“Lady Alornis said to give you her warm regards, m’lady,” she said to Reva with an awkward bow. “Wanted to come herself but Queen Lyrna threatened to tie her to the mainmast.”
Reva let her choose the most able hands to crew the ballistae from among the Scarred Daughters, a fierce but appropriate title given to the company formed from those Cumbraelin women keen to volunteer for service with Blessed Lady Reva. They numbered little over two hundred and, like her male conscripts, at least half were below the age of twenty, grim-faced girls for the most part with various awful tales of mistreatment and orphanhood at Volarian hands. Arentes had initially kept them apart from the men, intending that they act as porters or cooks, but a stern look from Reva told him that would not be acceptable. She had taken to training them herself, though their evident awe and unquestioning belief in her continued lie made it something of a trial.
“If I may, Blessed Lady,” one of them said the day before the landing, a lissome girl of no more than eighteen, sinking to one knee on the deck before Reva.
“I told you, Lehra,” Reva said, “stop doing that.”
“My apologies, Blessed Lady.” The girl stared up at her with a face that would have been the epitome of youthful innocence but for the scar that ran from her ruined left eye to her upper lip, punishment for a minor infraction during her enslavement. “But we were wondering.” Lehra paused to glance at the rest of the Daughters, clustered nearby with heads bowed. “What verse should we recite in the morning? To be sure the Father blesses our endeavour.”
The Father has no blessing for war. You think he looks down on this business and smiles? Reva bit down on the words. The lie had carried thousands across the ocean and could hardly be abandoned now. “You must all choose your own verse,” she said, pulling Lehra to her feet, less gently than she intended for the girl shrank back in a contrite bow. “‘No multitude can think with one mind, for the Father made us all to be different, each and every soul another facet of his love. Find the path to the Father’s love with your own eyes and let no other force you from your true course.’” The Book of Reason, she rarely quoted another these days.
“Will we be at your side, my lady?” one of the other girls asked, her eagerness reflected in the faces of the others.
Reva’s gaze was drawn to the sight of the Shield leaning on the foremast and regarding the scene with evident amusement. “I would have you nowhere else,” she told them. “Now return to your practice.”
She moved to the water barrel next to the mast, meeting Ell-Nestra’s gaze as she took a drink. “Something to say, my lord?”
“You had a god-gifted vision,” he said with a shrug. “I did too, once. Didn’t like it much. Made my head hurt.”
“Your gods are figments of dreams woven into a tapestry of legend.”
“Whilst yours lives in the sky, grants wishes and, when you die, lets you live in a field forever.”
“For a man who has travelled so far, I find your ignorance quite astonishing.”
His face darkened and he nodded at the Scarred Daughters, now going through the most recent sword scale she had taught them. “You know what awaits them when we land. How many will die believing this fiction of yours?”
Reva found she had no anger for him, the truth was inescapable and she had long accustomed herself to its sting. She watched the Daughters for a moment, finding months of practice had done much to improve their skills; they moved well, the strokes and parries performed with speed and precision. Also, they were fierce, many already fashioned into killers by the Volarians. But still, all so young. As I used to be.
“Did you have a choice?” she asked him. “When they came to take the Isles? How many of your pirates died at the Teeth or Alltor? And if this war is so hateful, and the queen so vile, why are you here?”
She had expected anger, but his response was subdued, all amusement gone from his face as he said, “I thought I had a stain to wash away. But it seems all I have done is befoul myself beyond any cleansing.”
He looked up as a shout came from the crow’s nest. “The bay is in sight,” he said, offering her a bow and striding away. “Time to marshal your forces, my lady.”
• • •
They dropped anchor a mile offshore, the sailors hauling the boats over the side as Reva waited on deck with the Scarred Daughters. Lord Arentes and the full complement of House Guards were arranged at the rail as they would be the first ashore, their numbers swelled by a contingent of archers. Antesh waited on the neighbouring ship with the bulk of his men whilst the vessels carrying the Realm Guard bobbed on the waves a half mile west. Watching the activity with growing impatience, Reva reflected on the tendency of time to slow to a crawl during events she wished would pass in a blur.
Seeking distraction, her gaze wandered the ship, finding the Shield at the bows, taking an eyeglass from the ship’s captain as he pointed to something on shore.
“The enemy?” she asked, moving to his side.
“A small number only,” he replied, training the glass on the beach. “Perhaps thirty cavalry. Nothing you can’t handle, I’m sure . . .” He frowned, a bemused smile coming to his lips. “One of them just fell over.”
“My lord Shield!” They both raised their gaze to the crow’s nest where a sailor could be seen waving frantically to the north. “Storm front!”
She followed the Shield to the stern, drawing up in surprise at the bank of cloud now shrouding the horizon. It was dark to the point of blackness, shimmering with lightning and casting a faint rumble across the sea as it swelled, coming closer with every heartbeat.
“Impossible,” Ell-Nestra breathed.
“What do we do?” Reva asked but he stood staring at the fast-approaching storm with blank-eyed amazement.
“My lord!” She took hold of his chain-mail shirt and shook him, hard. “What do we do?”
He gaped at her, blinking as reason returned to his eyes. “Haul anchor!” he shouted, tearing free of her. “Raise every sail! Helm, set your course due south! Captain, signal the other ships to follow! My lady, take your people below.”
The crew scrambled to obey as Reva barked orders, sending the Cumbraelins to the lower decks. She lingered however, staying at the stern and watching the storm sweep ever closer. How can it move so fast? she wondered, a suspicion building in her mind as she recalled another unexpected storm, at Alltor when the rain fell in sheets by day and snow by night. The party on the shore . . . What have we sailed into?
Thanks to the crew’s frantic efforts, the great ship soon heaved into a southward course, sails filling the moment they were unfurled as the northerly wind built into a gale. The other ships had followed the Shield’s signal, though those crewed by Realm-born sailors were notably slower in responding than the Meldeneans. Reva watched the vessel carrying one of the Realm Guard regiments wallowing in the rising swell as they drew away, only half her sails raised and pitching at an alarming angle as her helmsman tried to steer a southerly course. Soon the rain grew too thick to make out more than a vague shape though Reva was certain she had heard a great moan rise from the huge vessel before it was lost from sight. In minutes the storm came to claim them too, Reva finding herself enveloped in blackness as the world became a howling fury.
The gale was strong enough to pitch her from her feet, the rigging above resounding with the sound of snapping rope and wood, sailors tumbling to the deck or snatched by the wind to be cast into the sea. Reva found herself sliding across the deck, now awash with water. She was carried past the entrance to the hold, close enough to hear the frightened cries of the Scarred Daughters rising from below as water cascaded down the steps. She managed to grab onto the rail before the pitching deck sent her over the side, both arms wrapped tight about the balustrade as wind and rain tore at her. A dark shape tumbled past, a hand scraping over her mail shirt for a brief instant, a sudden despairing wail soon swallowed by the storm.
The deck suddenly descended, the angle of its pitch reversing, swinging her around so that she lay on the deck, gasping in the sudden lull. “My lady!” It was Arentes, running towards her across the deck, arms outstretched. She was reaching for him when the crash came.