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“Only have faith,” sayeth the Emperor, “and I shall see thine labor bears fruit.” And He stretched forth a hand, so that those most precious to Him should have power as great as the wizard, as mighty as the devils themselves. Yet they knew not the blight, the corruption. Yet they remained holy, for their power flowed from the Emperor’s hands.
—Book of Mysteries, I. 10.
At last, the iron sky cracked, pouring out a torrent of snow.
One moment, Heloise had a clear view of the gray-green wash of grass to either side of the rutted track, and the next all was driving white. She squinted as the wind picked up, driving sprays of frost through the slits in the war-machine’s metal visor. Careful not to leave the safety of the war-machine, she had allowed Xilyka to climb up onto it, loosening the straps enough to dress Heloise in a thick woolen shift, but the metal frame did little to keep the wind out, and she shivered as its freezing fingers effortlessly found their way through the cloth weave.
“Too early for snow.” Wolfun had been Lyse’s Town Wall, the master of its sentries and the captain of its watch. He was one of the many Lysians who had declared for Heloise when she’d taken the town, but the only one whose counsel had brought him into her inner circle. Sir Steven, the commander of the Red Lords’ host, had given him a horse, and he sat it awkwardly, shivering in the cold.
Barnard, the giant tinker who had built Heloise’s war-machine, sat his horse nearly as awkwardly as Wolfun, but he did not shiver. “Tell the Emperor His will”—the tinker was a mountain of muscle, and his huge weight told on the animal, its ears pinned back as it shuffled uncomfortably along—“and see how He answers you.”
It didn’t take long for the snow to blanket the ground, and Heloise felt the war-machine’s metal feet begin to slide. She could hear the troops around her slowing as their horses began to shy on ground gone suddenly treacherous. The Red Lords swatted at the snow piling on their armor, the Traveling People extended awnings over their wagon-drovers. Heloise’s people, the villagers, pulled up hoods or swaddled their heads in blankets against the piercing cold.
Heloise turned to look back down the column. Her own people were few, poorly supplied and disorganized compared to the Red Lords’ disciplined ranks, their well-stocked wagons. Their fine war-gear was belied by their simple appearance, plain red tabards over their armor. Plain red banners flying above them. Simple square, iron-banded shields.
Heloise swallowed, suddenly feeling very small. All these different people—all here because of her. The thought of all these lives tied to hers made her stomach clench. Some thought her a saint, others a lunatic, still others a brave idiot with a common enemy. But they were all here in the driving snow, the biting cold.
The Red Lords set a punishing pace, the serjeants shouting out the cadence. “Step lightly, lads! Pick them up and put them down!” Some of the soldiers sang marching songs. The words meant nothing to Heloise, but she could tell the rhythm was meant to keep the soldiers moving quickly. The Traveling People in their horse-drawn carts had no trouble keeping pace, but the villagers had just a handful of horses. They were believers drawn to Heloise’s legend, farmers and wheelwrights and carpenters. Heloise could see children and old men among them, panting as they struggled to keep up.
Ahead of them, through the whirling flurries of snow, was the Imperial capital—the home of the Order and the Sacred Throne itself. Seated upon it was the Emperor, whom Heloise and all villagers worshipped. The thought of facing Him made her weak, but she pushed the feeling aside. You are not marching to dethrone Him. You are marching to break the Order, who profane His holy name with their wickedness. You will free Him from their influence. You will restore Him.
Behind them was the ruin of Lyse, the town that Heloise had miraculously held against the full might of the Emperor’s army. She would probably still be there now, if the Imperial force hadn’t resorted to forbidden wizardry to tear down the walls.
Barnard followed Heloise’s gaze to the Red Lords’ knights beside them. “I don’t like it much, either, your eminence,” he said. “Say the word and we’ll go our own way. You are the Emperor’s chosen. You don’t need an army of heretics to take the capital. The Sacred Throne itself will throw open the gates to you, just as it held them shut at Lyse.”
She wished she had his unwavering belief. It would be so much easier to be certain. But no. Barnard, like many of the villagers following her, believed her to be a sainted Palantine, one of the holy warriors of legend who had killed a devil. He was half right. She had killed a devil, but all that made her was lucky.
Onas and Xilyka, Heloise’s “Kipti Guard,” bridled. They were Traveling People, and “heretics’” themselves. Heloise spoke quickly before either of them could say something to provoke Barnard’s fanaticism. “What does the Writ say about truth?”
Barnard glared at her before looking down at his horse. “That a word of it is more pleasing to the Emperor than poetry, your eminence.”
“The Red Lords saved us, Barnard. The Order would have crushed us if Sir Steven’s troops hadn’t shown up. They fed us. They took care of our wounds. They helped us.”
Barnard kept his eyes on his horse’s mane, and said nothing. She knew it was risky to challenge him, especially in front of others, but it would have been just as risky to let his words stand. War, she was finding, was nothing so much as a series of choices between bad and worse.
“Begging your eminence’s pardon,” Wolfun said, breaking the uncomfortable silence, “when we take the capital, what then? Do you think the Red Lords will be content to leave? That they will simply throw down the Order and return the capital to the Imperial court?”
“The Emperor will not permit them to remain.” Barnard lifted his chin.
Wolfun eased off his metal skullcap and scratched at his balding pate. “Don’t see that the Emperor is going to have much of a choice, after we let an army into His city.”
“He is the Emperor.” Barnard fixed Wolfun with a hard look. “All the armies in the world are nothing to Him.”
Wolfun looked away. “We had a saying on the wall. ‘Trust in the Emperor, and keep your spear sharp.’”
“I … I will talk to Sir Steven,” Heloise said. A real commander would have thought of this already, would have a plan to sound out the Red Lords’ intentions. I am only sixteen winters old. How can I lead these people?
“That’s best,” Onas said. He was a Sindi knife-dancer, as agile as a cat. He could have stood on his horse’s back if he’d a mind. Xilyka was a knife-caster of the Hapti band. She could throw a knife accurately enough to take a bird on the wing, but she was even more awkward on horseback than Barnard. The Traveling People used horses to pull their wagons, not for riding. Heloise felt her eyes dragged to the Hapti girl again and again, tracing the line of her shoulders where it disappeared beneath the runnels of her dark hair, gathered into copper rings set with tiny stones.
Xilyka’s horse took an uncertain step, its back swaying, and she clung to its mane, her feet swinging in the stirrups, heels gently touching the horse’s flanks. Heloise could see the beast take the touch as a command and it quickened its pace. Xilyka let out a cry, flailing, digging her heels in even harder.
Heloise couldn’t help but laugh, and she stepped into the animal’s path before it could set off into a trot. The horse nosed the shield, shied, then stopped.
“I do not,” Xilyka’s voice was relief and anger in equal measure, “understand how you villagers do this.”
“I don’t,” Heloise said, “not really, but I know a little. You can’t keep using your heels, Xilyka. That’s how you tell it to go faster.”
“How,” Xilyka said through gritted teeth, “in the Great Wheel, am I supposed to stay on if I don’t use my heels? This monster’s back twists like a snake!”
Heloise laughed again, tried to turn it into a cough, failed. The laughter banished the worry, the weight of the column behind her for a moment, and she was grateful. “I’m sorry. Just try taking your feet out of the stirrups.”
“Are you mad? They’re the only thing keeping me on this animal.”
“Just trust me, Xilyka. If you take your feet out, your weight will hold you in the saddle and your heels won’t touch it. Please just try? If it doesn’t work, you can put them back in.”
Xilyka held her gaze, her jaw still set, but Heloise could see the laughter behind her eyes. She was learning that there was little the Hapti knife-caster did without laughter. Xilyka slowly slipped her feet out of the stirrups, letting them dangle at the horse’s side.
Heloise nodded, and stood aside, giving the horse its head. The animal walked placidly forward a few steps, then lowered its head to nuzzle the snow in search of forage.
“See?” Heloise asked as she began walking again, the horse moving alongside her, Xilyka much more stable in her seat now.
“This is doubtless some form of what you call ‘wizardry,’” Xilyka groused.
Heloise laughed again, and gave herself permission to watch the Hapti girl now, letting her eyes linger.
Xilyka squinted against the driving snow, wrinkling her nose as the ice drove against her face. Heloise watched the flakes turning to water on the girl’s cheeks, and felt her heart melt with them. Xilyka glanced her way suddenly, and Heloise looked away. Don’t be stupid. You’re just looking at her. She can’t read your thoughts. But Xilyka’s wry smile left Heloise with the odd feeling that she could.
“You’re cold,” Heloise heard herself say. “You can ride in your mother’s wagon … if you want to.” Why are you saying this? You know you don’t want her to leave.
Xilyka took a moment to answer, and Heloise’s heart sank with the thought that the Hapti girl might agree, but at last she shook her head. “My place is with you.”
“It’s all right.” Onas sounded hopeful. “I can look after Heloise until you’re warmed up.” Heloise knew the real reason Onas wanted to be alone with her. In Lyse he had cornered her and asked for her hand, and in her panicked belief that refusing his suit would drive the Traveling People from her cause, she had agreed to put off discussing it until after the battle. And here they were, the battle a day behind them, with nothing said. I’m not ready for this now.
Xilyka rescued her. “Not the first time I’ve been snowed on. You’ll do well enough if an assassin comes on her close, but what’ll you do if they’ve a bow?”
Onas laughed, spinning one of his knives on his fingertip. It was doubly impressive in the wind, on the shifting back of the horse. “Oh, I’ve done for archers before.”
“Still,” Xilyka grunted, “I’m staying. Mother wouldn’t abide me coming back in the wagon if she knew it meant leaving Heloise.”
Is that the only reason you’re with me? Heloise thought. Because your mother promised you would? Why should that reason matter? Xilyka was her guard, not her friend. Because I want you to choose to be here because you want to be.
“Yes,” Onas said, “I suppose that’s best.” But his eyes were fixed straight ahead, color rising in his cheeks.
Heloise was grateful when her father kicked his horse and drew even with them, interrupting the tense silence. The days since they fled their village had been hard on Samson Factor. His big belly no longer overhung his belt, and the last defiant streaks of brown in his hair had been overwhelmed by the rising iron gray. His eyes were the worst, red-rimmed and puffy. Purple shadows hung beneath them, bruises left by grief. The Order had murdered Heloise’s mother, Leuba, before the fighting at Lyse, and her father grieved her sorely. It was easier on Heloise, she supposed. With both the villagers and the Traveling People looking to her to lead, she hadn’t time to mourn. Like the conversation with Onas, it was a thing she would put off as long as she could. The hurt and exhaustion so plain on her father’s face cut her, but she swallowed the urge to speak soft words to him. She knew what Samson wanted more than anything: for Heloise to come out of the machine, to abandon her quest and be his little girl again. One glance at the shivering villagers behind her reminded her that she could never let that happen, no matter how much she might want it.
“Heloise,” her father’s voice was like his face, bruised, drawn. He alone didn’t call her by the Palantine’s honorific of “your eminence,” but neither did he call her “dove” anymore. “We can’t keep up this pace.” As if to underscore his point, the wind howled, and the entire column hunched as it drove the stinging snow into their faces.
“The men march well enough,” Samson went on, “but many brought their families. Children, the old and sick. Do the Red Lords plan to run all the way to the capital?”
Heloise fought against the frustration rising in her throat. “I know.” But what can I do? I did not ask for children and graybeards. I did not ask for anyone.
“You are a Palantine,” Barnard said. “All who serve the Emperor’s will, all who hold the Writ sacred, are drawn to you like a moth to a flame. You must not refuse their homage.”
“We could fall back,” Samson said, “catch up to the Red Lords later.”
“The Red Lords have the food, Father.” Heloise tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. “The snow will make it hard to glean in the woods.” Heloise left unspoken that the Red Lords were more than double the number of the villagers. If she was going to have to fight again, she wanted to do it in their company.
Villagers from every settled place in the valley had walked for leagues to join her, carrying their few belongings on their backs. Only a few had come mounted, riding plow-horses or ponies barely broken to the saddle. Most of these were riding double, mounting up a child or an old man too weak to make the long march. But there were far more on their feet, stumbling in the snow as they tried to keep up.
“There aren’t enough horses,” Heloise said. “I can carry two or three on the machine’s shoulders.”
Samson waved his arm at the line of creaking wagons. “The Traveling People will take them, if you will ask it, I am sure of it.”
Xilyka and Onas stiffened at the words, and Barnard narrowed his eyes at them. “What’s wrong with that? We all work the Emperor’s will, and if it is His will that the weak ride in your carts, then it’ll bring no harm to you.”
Onas spoke through gritted teeth. “The Traveling People do not work your Emperor’s will, and those are not carts.” He stabbed a finger at the line of wagons. “Those are our homes.”
“Aye, so?” Barnard asked. “They’ve still got wheels and shelter from the cold. Plenty of room for you to take on extra charges for a time.”
“That is not our way,” Onas said. “You do not just tell a band Mother who she must take into her home. She must invite them of her own will.” Xilyka nodded agreement.
The wind picked up again and Wolfun shivered under the saddle blanket he’d drawn around his shoulders. “Well, they don’t seem to be in the inviting spirit just yet, and the snow don’t care either way. That’s children and old folks there. They’ll fall behind, they’ll freeze.”
Xilyka turned to Heloise, reaching into the machine’s metal frame and touching her hand, sending a thrill racing through her. “Please, Heloise. Onas is right. You may ask the Mothers, but it will anger them. What we give must be given freely.”
“We cannot wait for them to decide it is right,” Samson said. “We lose families, and we will lose the fighters that came with them. Some may think better of their decision to march with you. I’ve seen folk desert, back in the Old War. It’s like ice melting in spring. At first it’s just a few pieces dropping off, then suddenly the whole sheet goes.”
“I’ll talk to Sir Steven,” Heloise said. “Maybe the Red Lords have room in their supply wagons.”
She turned the machine and set off with long, clanking strides toward the Red Lords’ column. They were at least twice the number as Heloise’s troops, stretching back so far down the road that she could only just hear the creaking of their supply carts at the column’s end. Xilyka and Onas spurred their mounts to keep up with her. That she was too important to ever be left alone should have made her feel mighty, but it only made her feel unworthy.
Sir Steven rode at the head of his column, a huge, plain red banner snapping above him. His face was clean-shaven, his hair cropped so short that it stood up in gray spikes, like a bushpig’s quills. He wore the same plain armor as his troops, the same simple red surcoat. The only nods to his rank were the red enameled chain around his neck and the white band, marked with three red stripes, cinched tightly around his right arm.
His knights looked nervous at Heloise’s approach, but they kept their lances up, reining their horses back to let her come close. “Heloise Factor”—Steven jerked his thumb at the gray sky—“this is an unpleasant turn. Snow is a rare thing on the Gold Coast. How are your people faring in it?”
“They can’t keep up,” Heloise said. “They brought their families. Children and graybeards. Some are falling behind.”
Steven frowned. “An army on the march is no place for children and graybeards. They should go home and sit by their fires. We will make the valley safe for them once we have taught the Order a lesson.”
“If they go, their fathers and brothers and sons will go too.”
Steven looked past her at the line of wagons and people, straggling and tangled. “This is the problem when an army marches by its faith, rather than its will. War is the work of captains, not saints.”
Copyright © 2019 by Myke Cole