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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Queen of Crows

The Sacred Throne (Volume 2)

Myke Cole




Growers—One twentieth

Builders—Render service as customary to Procurer

Drovers—Render service as customary to Procurer—No less than two teams and two carts.

Tanners—One twentieth, in custom or supply.

Herbers—Exempt. Render service to village Maior, save in time of war—then to Lord Marshal.

Menders—One twentieth in custom, save in time of war—then to Lord Marshal for service.

Tinkers—Exempt. Service to Procurer above all. Else, custom as Exchequer may see fit. Shall maintain the vault and secret Procurer’s commission on pain of death. Shall teach trade only within family.

—From Imperial Edict, “Concerning the tithes of the trades unto the Exchequer of the Sacred Throne”

Heloise wasn’t a small girl, but she’d never been a big one either. Right in the middle, her father had always said, and perfect that way, her mother was quick to add.

The war-machine made her a giant, a steel-monster puffing seethestone smoke into the gray sky. One of the machine’s metal fists was hidden behind a shield heavy enough to crush an ox’s skull even without the engine’s brutal strength. The other fist was empty, but no less deadly for it, an unforgiving bludgeon with the implacable strength of a mountain in motion.

Her eyes were still new enough to life to widen in wonder at the world, but they looked out through a brass-trimmed slit in a helmet of burnished iron. Out and down. She towered over the tallest man in the village, Barnard Tinker, the man who’d built the machine she’d used to kill a devil and lead her village in rebellion.

Below the helmet was the heavy iron gorget, and below that, the machine’s solid breastplate, covering the driver’s cage and Heloise’s body. Barnard had painted a red sigil across it, and again on the shield—a little girl, with a halo and wings, standing on a fallen devil’s neck. The girl’s hand was extended, palm outward, in the traditional pose of Palantines. Heloise felt the weight of her people’s expectations every time she looked at it. She knew who she was, and it wasn’t who Barnard, and the whole village, expected her to be.

The breastplate hung on a metal armature, long rods that formed a man-shaped cage around Heloise. Hung across it was more armor—pauldrons and vambraces, tassets and greaves, couters and sabbatons, and the heavy, wicked gauntlets. But where the gaps on a suit of armor would be covered with mail, the machine admitted the empty air, and Heloise shivered as the cold breeze blew through the openings and caressed her bare skin.

“They are coming, your eminence, they will be here by sunset.” It was the voice of Barnard’s son, Guntar, so much like his father’s that Heloise had to look down to confirm. He was red-faced, breathless. He’d leapt off one of Poch Drover’s cart horses, taken for his reconnaissance. Poch raced to take the animal’s reins, patting its lathered flanks and glaring at Guntar. The beast was made for slow hauling, not fast riding. It looked blown, and Poch couldn’t keep the anguish off his face. The old man loved his horses.

Guntar took a knee before Heloise, and the rest of the villagers joined him, as if she were a lord, or a Pilgrim.

Or a holy Palantine, a devil-slayer, a savior and protector.

She had slain a devil, but her throat still tightened at the reverence in their eyes. They had known her since she was a babe in arms. They were her home and her family. She wanted them to hold her, to tell her that everything would be all right.

But everything will not be all right, she thought, and if it is to be even a little bit right, then it is for me to make it so.

For all their fervor, the villagers around her were still an untrained rabble with barely three helmets between them, armed with pruning hooks and pitchforks, here and there a rusty pike or sword left over from their days as a levy in the Old War against Ludhuige and his Red Banners. They were old men, the wives and children of old men. Their names were Sald Grower, Ingomer Clothier, and Edwin Baker. None had the name “Soldier.” A few, like her father and Sigir, the village Maior, were veterans of the Old War, but Heloise knew that levies attended to their trades until they were called to fight. Soldiering was not their life’s work.

And the Order would be here by sunset. Heloise thought of Sigir’s words after the Knitting. The Order speaks of ministry, but it is the paint over the board. The wood beneath is killing. It is what they train to do, it is what they are equipped to do, it is all they do.

The rebels had just one thing: the war-machine Heloise drove, the giant suit of metal and leather that made her stronger and taller than the two most powerful men in the village combined. This new war-machine was made for her, her arms and legs fitting perfectly inside its metal limbs, her movements become its own. But as powerful as the machine was, it hadn’t been enough to save Heloise’s best friend, the love of her life. Her gaze swept the throng, ready to follow her into war. I couldn’t save Basina, she wanted to shout, what makes you think I can save you? When they’d beaten the Order before, they’d had a wizard with them. Now, there was only Heloise, her machine, and the supposed favor of the divine Emperor.

“Sigir, a word,” Samson said. His eyes flicked between the Maior and Barnard, his lips working beneath his gray beard.

“Samson, there is no time,” Barnard snapped. “You heard Guntar. The Order will be here soon. This”—he gestured to the massive war-machine—“is too loud. Too big and too shiny. The Order will know we’re here from a league off.”

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Samson shot back, then turned to the Maior. “Sigir, please. Now.”

Heloise looked down at her father. He was so like the Maior, both men thick-necked and thick-fingered, with heavy paunches that overhung their belts and shoulders broadened from the work that attended village life. Sigir wore long mustaches, but for that and the gold chain of Sigir’s office, they could have been brothers. It had only been a few nights ago that her father’s approval had meant the world to her, but the fight with the devil had changed everything. A part of her recoiled from the thought of defying him, but Barnard was right, there was no time.

“Father, it’s fine.”

“It is not fine,” Samson practically spat, his face reddening. “This is the other side of the sun from fine.”

“Samson, please.” Sigir gestured at the villagers all around them. Everyone is watching, the Maior’s face said.

Leuba, Heloise’s mother, was among the crowd. She lent truth to the old adage that a couple married long enough began to look like one another—heavy like her husband, thick-fingered and wide-cheeked. But where Samson was thunder, Leuba was the silence after its passing, and she kept her peace and let her husband speak, wringing the hem of her skirts in her hands. But Heloise remembered her mother’s fierce fire when the village had thought to cast her father out after his fight with the Order. I’ll stand at your side and the town fathers will have to look me in the eye as they speak their piece, her mother had said, eyes flashing. Might be that will make them think kinder of what they say.

Samson sighed, swallowed. “Barnard is right, the machine is too big, too loud, and too shiny. So we move it back, away from the road. We can have an ambush without risking the life of my daughter.”

Heloise wanted to agree with him. Here was the chance to step down from behind that sigil, shrug off the weight of it all. She wasn’t a Palantine. What business did she have leading an ambush against the Order?

“Samson,” Sigir said.

“No,” Samson said, “I understand that … much has happened in the past few days, but this is wrong, Sigir. You are the Maior. We follow you.

Sigir threw an arm around Samson’s shoulder, steering him away from the crowd of villagers. “By the Throne, will you be quiet? The village’s will hangs by a thread as it is!” The Maior was trying to keep his voice low, but in the shocked silence Heloise could hear him as clearly as if he had shouted.

“She’s my daughter!” Samson made no effort at quiet. “It is for me to say whether she fights! And I say—”

“Father!” Heloise took a step toward him, forgetting for a moment that she was in the giant war-machine. The metal leg moved with her, a lurching step that sent the villagers nearest her scattering.

Sigir’s grip was tight around Samson’s shoulders as he steered him farther away from the villagers. Heloise followed and Barnard and his sons came with her, Leuba trailing behind them.

“I am your father,” Samson was speaking to her now, “and I am through with this … foolishness. A machine may make you strong, but it does not make you a Palantine. You are my daughter and you will come down from that thing and away.”

“Samson,” Sigir tightened his grip on her father’s shoulders. “Enough, she is—”

Samson shook off his grip. “No! You are the Maior. It is to you to uphold the law, but she is my daughter, and she will do as I say. The village follows—”

“Samson, you Throne-cursed fool!” Sigir threw up his hands, pointed a trembling finger at Heloise. “Do you think you can go on as if the veil was not torn? As if she didn’t just do what no one has ever done in all the days of our people? The village follows her, you blockhead. We are to ambush the Order. Do you think for a moment that we can do that without a war-machine? Do you think we can do it without the people’s hearts united behind their savior? She must lead us, or we must flee, and I do not like our chances on the run. Not now, with the Order so close.”

And there it was. Heloise’s stomach tightened. He’s right. I have to do this. I must at least act the Palantine or we are all finished.

“I don’t care,” Samson said, “that is my decision and it is final. She comes down now. She is my daughter.”

“Basina,” Barnard’s voice was low and dangerous, “was my daughter. And she is dead.”

The dread certainty that she must defy her father solidified. Basina is dead. The Order is coming. Both are my fault. I have to make this right.

“Killed by the devil!” Samson shouted back. “And the devil is dead. Avenged by my daughter. Heloise deserves life for that, if nothing else.”

“Everyone deserves life,” Sigir said, “and that’s why everyone must fight.”

“I will be fine, Father,” Heloise said. “Now just stop…”

But Samson was striding forward, grasping the machine’s metal legs and scrambling up. Heloise jerked back in surprise, the machine jerking with her. Barnard and Sigir pulled away from the sudden movement, but Samson managed to hold on. “What are you doing?”

“I am taking you out of there,” Samson said, “and once I have, you are going over my knee until you learn obedience, by the Throne.”

“Father, no! Stop…”

But Samson was not deterred, he reached the machine’s metal cuisse and thrust a hand behind the breastplate, fumbling for the strap that held Heloise against the leather cushion. Heloise reached a hand over to stop him, stopped as she realized the machine’s arm was matching her movement, the heavy metal shield dangerously close to her father’s head. She was struggling to free her arms from the control straps to safely push him away when Barnard stepped forward, seized Samson by the collar of his shirt, and sent him tumbling in the dirt. Leuba cried out and ran to her husband’s side. Samson swatted her helping hands away and rose to his elbows, cheeks bright red.

“She’s a devil-slayer and a Palantine.” Barnard’s voice was flat. Barnard and Samson had been friends their whole lives, but now Barnard hefted his hammer as Samson got to one knee. “She’s not your little girl anymore. She is the Emperor’s instrument now.”

“You think,” Samson bit off each word, pushing Leuba behind him, “that I won’t kill you, should you stand between me and my daughter?”

“No,” Barnard said, “I think you won’t kill me because you cannot.” The huge tinker was a head taller than her father, his gray-shot black beard trimmed short to accommodate the forge-fires that had lit his entire working life. Working beside those fires had made him as strong as he was tall, more bear than man, and still little more than a child in the shadow of the war-machine. His sons stood at his side, each nearly as big as their father, each wielding a two-handed forge hammer heavy enough to fell an ox with a single blow.

Samson stood, and Heloise knew he would try the matter even if it cost him his life. Clodio had spoken of love, of how life without it was but a shadow of life, but Heloise could see now that a father’s love could drive him mad. Could even cost him his life. “I won’t let you send my daughter to her death.”

“My daughter is dead,” Barnard seethed. “Yours can fight.”

Samson took a step and Heloise stepped with him, moving the machine around the Tinker men to stand it between them and her father. “Father, please!”

“You can either help us to fight,” Sigir said, “or you can delay until the Order comes and we are caught unawares.”

“You’re mad,” Samson said, looking daggers at Sigir and the Tinkers. “You’re all mad!”

“She killed a devil,” Guntar said, “she’s a Palantine.”

“Look at this!” Samson stabbed a finger at the red sigil Barnard had painted on the machine’s breast. “Do you see wings on my daughter?”

“Blasphemy,” said Gunnar, Barnard’s other son, and stabbed a finger of his own. “You shame the Emperor, denying His chosen.”

“You’re lucky you’re her father, Samson,” Barnard said, “else I might…”

“What?” Samson’s laugh was forced. “You’ll box my ears and turn out my pockets? You’ll kill me in front of my own wife and child? By the Throne, do your worst.”

“You’ll have to kill me, too, you animal.” Leuba stepped around her husband, face white with fury. “I’ve known you since you was a boy, Tinker, and you’ll have to kill me in front of your sons before I let you hurt my husband.”

“Sacred Throne, enough!” Sigir shouted. “You want my word? You want the word of the Maior of Lutet? I will give it, and it is this: Heloise fights. Palantine or no, we need her and we do not have time to convene a council on the matter. This little display has sapped the village’s spirits enough, I am sure. Come, Heloise, let’s figure out a way to get the machine concealed.”

“Damn you, Sigir!” Samson said. “I will never forgive you for this, so long as you live!”

“I suppose I can live with that.” Sigir shrugged. “And this gives us all, including Heloise, the best chance to go on living.”

Heloise turned to follow the Maior back to the knot of villagers, and Samson moved to intercept her. He stopped as the Tinkers stepped to bar his way, raising their hammers. “Don’t,” Barnard growled.

“Please, Heloise.” Leuba sounded on the verge of tears. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you. We only want to protect you.”

“You can’t protect me, not from this.” She turned to her father. “Don’t you understand? Basina is dead. I have to do this.”

But she could see in his eyes that he didn’t understand. It was a moment before Heloise mustered the strength to look away, ignoring the strangled choke her father made. He only wanted to protect her, but the Order was coming. And Sigir was right, they had to fight, not to win, but to live. I may be a girl, Papa, she thought fiercely at him, as if the intensity of it could make him hear and understand, but I am the one they’ve chosen to follow.

Samson and Leuba stood apart, watching as Sigir directed the villagers to gather branches and clods of earth to drape over the machine. Barnard and his sons kept a close eye on Samson, ready to move if he tried to intervene. The villagers had clearly overheard much of the conversation, and their allegiance was clear. They circled around Heloise, studiously ignoring Samson, when they weren’t glaring daggers in his direction. The sole exceptions were Poch Drover and Sald Grower, who stood apart, casting worried glances over at Heloise’s father, but not daring to move against the Tinkers.

Heloise could feel her father’s eyes on her back. She could feel his gaze sapping her will. What if he’s right? What if I can’t lead them? What if I can’t fight? She pushed the thought away. In a broken machine, she had killed a devil. Who knew what she could do in this machine, whole as it was? Not whole, Heloise thought as she looked down at her right arm, the machine, maybe, but not me. The stump of her wrist hooked the control strap, though she winced as she pulled experimentally and the leather put pressure on the bandage. Barnard hadn’t bothered to affix a weapon to the war-machine’s metal fist, fearing the extra weight would add to the hurt. She needed time to heal, but the Order was coming now.

Some of the villagers saw her looking at the machine’s empty right hand, at the stump within. They shuffled, uneasy. Fear’s a deadly thing, Heloise, Barnard had said. It can drain a person of all their strength, make them weak before their enemies. That’s how we were until you showed us different. But we see now, and we are not afraid anymore, so long as you are with us.

She wrenched her gaze away from the bloody bandages and forced herself to meet the eyes of the assembled throng. “I am with you,” she said, “after the devil, the Order will be nothing.”

In answer, the villagers bowed their heads or tugged their forelocks and raced to cover the machine with more branches and earth.

“Now, you all listen to me,” Sigir said as they worked. “Should … things go badly for us…”

“Blasphemy,” Barnard said, his eyes never leaving Samson. “We have—”

“Will you shut your yob for a gnat’s whisper, Tinker!” Sigir said. “The Emperor is with us, to be sure, but He will no doubt smile on a well-formed plan. Faith isn’t always rushing in with your balls hanging out.”

Barnard opened his mouth to reply, but Samson cut him off. “You got what you wanted, Barnard. Heloise is fighting. Let the Maior speak!”

Barnard looked up at Heloise, cheeks red, waiting for her direction. She would never get used to this man, who had known her since she was a baby, who could break her with a twist of his fingers, looking to her for orders. She swallowed the discomfort and nodded. “Let us hear the Maior out.”

Sigir spoke quickly, “Should the enemy take the day, we go to the fens.”

Barnard shook his head. “The frogging clans won’t have us if they know we’ve taken arms against the Order. They’re the most pious folk in the valley.”

“We don’t need them to shelter us, and we won’t go all the way into the mire,” Sigir went on. “The fens are broken ground. Close enough for us to make it on foot, but the mud will suck the shoes off the horses and the holes will snap their legs. If the Order wants to come for us, they’ll have to come on foot. In all that armor, they’ll be slow. We know the ground, and they don’t. It’s the best place to fight in skirmish order.”

“What do we know of skirmishing?” Samson asked. “We’re trained to the pike, formed and well commanded.”

“We’ll have to learn, won’t we?” Sigir said. “If it comes to it, I mean.”

They made little headway hiding the machine. Some tried to weave the branches into a lattice that could hold the earth, others simply piled them on, or thrust them into the frame. Some stayed put. Most didn’t. After a quarter candle they’d succeeded mostly in piling a heap of brush around the machine’s metal feet, and smearing dirt on Heloise’s shift, face, and all over the interior of the driver’s cage.

“This isn’t working,” Sigir finally said. “We’ll need to dig a hole.”

“That will take too long,” Barnard gestured to the enormous machine. He stomped the frozen ground. “It’s hard as stone here.”

“If all of us pitch in,” Sigir said, “we can get it done in time.”

“Begging your pardon, Maior,” Sald Grower said, “we can’t. Even if we had shovels for every man, it’d take days to bury something that big.”

Barnard snorted. “We don’t need to bury her,” he said. “She can run faster than a horse in that. By the time they know she’s awaiting them, it’ll be too late.”

“That is madness,” Samson shouted. “Barnard, Sigir, please. It’s one thing to have her fight. It’s quite another to have her rushing into battle like a…”

All around her, villagers were throwing in their considered opinions, shouting to be heard among the others.

“It was to be an ambush!” her father was shouting.

“She is a Palantine! She needs no ambush!” Barnard yelled.

Heloise was no soldier, but she knew this confusion wouldn’t beat the Order. Everyone was giving orders, and no one was listening.

“Shut it!” Heloise’s words rang through the din before she realized she had yelled them.

The silence dragged on, and Heloise realized with a start that they were waiting for her command. “I … I think I know what to do. Follow me.”

She took a step, then another, then another, and the war-machine took them with her, the crowd parting to let her pass, then closing to follow her through the overgrown thicket and back out onto the road that led to her village. It was little more than a wide track, stretching out in a low valley bordered by two gently sloping rises. Both were well concealed, the thicket on one side, and a nearly solid wall of trees on the other.

She felt the machine’s heavy tread sinking into the softer ground, still frozen, but warmed by the sparse traffic, the clods of horse dung, and the break in the canopy that laid it bare to the sun.

Samson was at her elbow in an instant, Barnard coming with him. “Leave me be, you great pill!” Samson shouted at the tinker. “I’m not going to try to take her out of the…”

Heloise ignored them both, dropping the machine to one knee, raising the shield high over her head.

She could hear the sharp intake of breath, feel the crowd backing away from her. She brought the machine’s shield arm down with all its engine-driven strength. The point of the shield careered off a stone just under the surface of the soil, sending up a shower of sparks and making a sound like two empty pots banged together. But that only served to drive the shield point to one side, and it sank deep into the earth, digging a furrow almost two hand-spans deep.

The ground was hard, but it was not equal to the engine’s brutal strength. Together with the heavy weight of the iron shield, the ground broke apart, clods of earth spraying as Heloise dug.

For a moment, the village watched in confusion, and then Sigir was on his knees beside her, clawing at the earth with his hands. Barnard soon joined him in the rapidly deepening pit. Gunnar and Guntar followed, swinging their great forge hammers, breaking up rocks and roots. At last, all the village pitched in, scraping and digging with shield edges, knives and swords, and here and there an actual shovel.

As the hole became shoulder deep, Barnard began waving some of them off. “We’ll need to cover it. Weave a screen of branches.”

“Won’t hold up under a horse,” Sald muttered.

“Sald, you’re a Throne-cursed grower,” Barnard said, “what do you know of horses?”

Heloise glanced up at the road. It was more than wide enough for a column of riders to pass without moving over the hole she would be hiding in. She forced herself to return to her digging. The sun was sinking beneath the horizon, it was too late to turn back now.

Some of the villagers went scurrying off to comply with Barnard’s order. Heloise noticed that Samson was among them. It’s better this way. The less he’s about, the less you’ll be tempted to give in to him.

They made good progress, but every moment Heloise thought they were moving fast enough, they hit a man-sized rock, or a root as thick around as her wrist, lost more precious time. The machine’s great size had been a comfort to her before she’d started digging, and now she cursed it for needing a pit so deep to hide it.

The shadows were growing long when Guntar finally leaned on his hammer and cursed. “It can’t be long now,” he said, “if we don’t get out of this road, we’ll be ridden down.”

“Then we make our stand,” Barnard said, “and die on our feet.”

“How many standing dead men have you seen?” Sigir asked. “An ambush is our only chance. If we cannot catch them unawares, we should run, come at them another time.”

“And let them burn the village?” Gunnar’s voice was heated.

“What else…” Sigir began, and Heloise knew that once again she would have to stop the men from arguing.

It took her a moment to find the strength. The digging had made her tired in her bones. Her stump throbbed, the bandages soaked through with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She felt a flash of heat across her forehead, sharp enough to make her sweat, followed by a shiver. It’s fever. She pushed the thought away. If it was, there was nothing to do for it now.

The men argued, and she glanced at the hole, still woefully shallow, but maybe …

She put confidence into her voice. “It’s deep enough.”

The men stopped fighting, raised their heads to her. They looked at each other, then at the shallow hole, then finally back to her. “Your eminence,” Sigir began, “you cannot possibly…”

“Not to stand, no,” Heloise said, walking the machine on its knees into the hole, praying she had guessed right. The metal frame groaned as she folded her legs and sat on her heels, the machine shaping itself to mimic her posture. She leaned forward at her waist, tucking the machine’s head between its metal knees. The engine’s bulk blocked out most of the sun, so that she could see only the dimmest reflection of light off the metal tops of the machine’s knees. “You can’t see me from the road, can you?”

“No.” Barnard’s voice, slow and deep. “Praise the Throne, we cannot.”

Heloise stifled a sigh of relief. “Then cover me up. There’s not much time.”

“Not yet!” Her mother’s voice. She winced as she heard Leuba scramble down, leaning on the machine’s shoulder. The machine shuddered as she shrugged off Barnard’s hand, trying to pull him back. “Leave me be!” She tried for a kiss, but there was no way to reach her, so she settled for touching her shoulder. “Oh, my dove. Be careful. I love you,” she whispered. Her father’s weight settled on the machine’s opposite shoulder. The same touch, the same words. Heloise choked back tears and nodded. Not now. I can’t be your daughter now.

Heloise heard the scraping of branches as the latticework was dragged toward her. A weight on the machine again, much heavier this time, accompanied by a loud clang.

Heloise sawed her head to her right, saw Barnard strapping a brass-bound, metal box to the machine’s shoulder. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“The devil’s head,” Barnard said reverently, cinching the straps down and patting the box’s huge brass lock, “will keep the Emperor’s eye turned toward us. It is yours, your eminence, and you will carry it high as you lead us to victory.”

The box would block her view to one side, and the thought of the devil’s severed head so close to her made her stomach lurch, but as she opened her mouth to argue, they dragged the lattice over her, and all was shrouded in darkness. Tiny pinpricks of sunlight dotted the pitted surface of the machine’s metal legs, but beyond that, the world vanished.

“Wait until they have all gone past, your eminence,” Sigir said as they scraped earth over. “You will rise behind them and then we will strike from the sides. They will be trapped, and if Emperor is willing, we will triumph.”

The scraping and thumping of earth being piled on her grew more muffled as the cover of woven branches filled in. The pinpricks of light vanished one by one, until at last Heloise could hear nothing at all, and she was alone with the darkness and the stifling chill of the pit.

Now, Sald’s words seemed wrong. They had piled so much earth atop her that it would easily hold ten horses. So much that she would never see the sun again.

The tiny space stank of seethestone. She stifled a cough and shut her stinging eyes, squeezing out tears. Her skin tingled and itched as the caustic smoke, with nowhere else to go, turned on her. The only sound was her own short, gasping breaths, so loud in the tight space that the entire Imperial army could be marching over her back and she wouldn’t hear them.

This was stupid, useless. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear. She wanted only to stand up, throw off the oppressive weight of the earth.

She felt a tremor. No more than a ripple of the earth across her back, a pebble shaken loose to drop against the machine’s metal knee. It was followed by another, and another, until the ground around her came alive with rumbling, the earth overhead vibrating under tramping feet and hooves.

The Order. They were here.

She could hear muffled voices, the creaking of leather harness, the jangling of chains. She tensed, waiting for the hoofbeats to pass, so that she could rise up behind the column, cutting off their retreat.

She felt a sharp pounding against the machine’s metal back. Rhythmic, steady.

The latticework was holding. The Order rode over her. She tried to count the hoofbeats, to guess the number of animals passing, to get a count of how many enemy she would face. She tried to stifle the itching in her throat, swallow the urge to cough, and waited for …

A horse stumbled. Earth cascaded around her.

Shouts, hooves skittering sideways, the drumming of feet. The column had been alerted, halted. The latticework of branches, even with the thick layer of earth, had not been enough to hold a warhorse’s weight with an armored rider on its back. If Heloise rose now, she would emerge at their head, giving them a clear road to retreat, and the element of surprise gone.

She heard scraping above her, men straining to pry the latticework away. In moments, they would find her. You can either die down here on your knees, or up on your feet, breathing the air.

It was an easy choice. Heloise dug in her heels and jerked her legs straight. The machine shuddered as it rose, metal back and shoulders exploding upward, sending the latticework spinning away. She heard men and horses screaming. Light and spraying earth blinded her, but not so much that she couldn’t see two men and a horse flying through the air, sailing head over foot into a column of Pilgrims. The horses spooked, and the Pilgrims, desperate to control them, had no time to gawk at the war-machine in their midst. There was no time to count them, but their numbers seemed endless, at least a hundred riders, thick leather armor making them huge beneath their gray cloaks.

The men and horse that Heloise had thrown came down in their ranks, knocking men from their mounts and sending them sprawling in the mud, cursing. Heloise blinked, her eyes adjusting, her vision still blurry. The column was a splintered mass of plunging horses and shouting men. Most still had their flails on their shoulders, if they hadn’t dropped them in the chaos.

She wouldn’t get a better chance than this.

“The Throne!” Heloise shouted, and charged.

Copyright © 2018 by Myke Cole