I had withheld
my curiosity from my companions for most of the long journey
from Royal Council, three weeks of plain, hard travel. But
in a fit of frustrated boredom, I dared question my liege,
Baron Heremon. “The king calls us to war, my lord?”
fingers tightened on his reins and he stared forward. We’d
started before dawn, it was now dayfall, and he was more shadow
than man in the dark.
“They say it is
a holy war,” he said, “meant to bring Balesat to the barbarians.
What say you to that, Braedon?”
I dared not voice
an answer. My cheeks already burned from my impertinence. I
was Heremon’s heir, true, but not of age, and certainly not
accustomed to speaking my mind. King Anders had made it plain
he hated me, had barred me from Council, so most of what I
knew came from low-table talk. But Balesat himself had chosen
me to follow Baron Heremon’s footsteps at Temple Gate, and
my lord at least still followed our god true.
War, though. I craved
the opportunity to test my long-honed skills. Heremon turned
his head and looked at me, making me feel like he knew what
I was thinking. I couldn’t see his expression in the darkness
so his next words surprised me. “We’re not going to fight for
King Anders. I told him as much.”
“But we aim for
the front, my lord,” I said, glancing over my shoulder as the
first greys of daylight broke over the mountains before us.
That way lay Temple Gate. Home. But ride past Temple Gate,
as My Lord Heremon planned, and we’d see the front lines within
Heremon leaned closer
to me and dropped his voice to a mutter. “Braedon, think.
Balesat takes our offerings in flesh every day, but only those
freely given mean anything. Now they slaughter in His name.
We go to stop the king’s army—”
The pound of hooves
made us both look back.
Armidian Royal Knights
thundered toward us, braying Prince Regan’s name. My heels
on my mare’s flank made her as determined as a maiden at a
Knight’s Eve ball, but we were not quick enough. An arrow whistled
and punched through Heremon’s back plate. Heremon sat his steed
despite the blow, but within moments a giant of a knight cut
Balesat must have
guided my sword. The murderer’s head flew from his body, followed
by an arc of blood. My stomach churned and my throat closed
over stinging bile. But I spun my horse toward another soldier
before it hit the ground. Swords clanged and notched as they
met. Eyes flashed from masks and helmets, faltered on my face.
My blackened skin gave them the pause I needed. A twist there,
a jab here, and soldiers died. Blood coated my hand like a
liquid gauntlet, tasted salty where it splashed on my lips.
The sun had barely
scorched the sky as I circled the small battlefield on horseback,
sword at the ready. But I counted myself the only living man
among two score of dead knights. I bowed my head. I had very
nearly prayed for war. Balesat had soundly corrected my foolish
had shredded Baron Heremon’s armored body. I lost my battle
with my stomach. After I sicked up most of my shock and shame,
I dropped to my knees by his bloody body. His dead raven-eyes
stared past me. My own had not quite lost all their whites
as his had, but he’d endured thirty more years of Divine Flame
I slipped his signet
on my finger, shaking so badly I almost dropped it in his wound.
In that moment, grief swept across me like a foul wind off
the icy steppes of Hubri. I conjured my balefire and Heremon’s
body flared quickly.
I turned back toward
the bodies and studied their faces anew. No other sounds came
to me, but that gasp had not rattled with death.
I drew my sword. “At
least preserve your honor by showing yourself.”
At the far edge
of the road, an Armidian knight rose from behind the body of
a fallen warhorse and walked forward. He had a handspan of
height on me and his biceps were as thick as my calves.
“Your name before
I kill you,” I growled.
“I am Regan, Prince
of Armidia,” he said, “and I seek you by order of my liege.”
He showed me his
sword. The tiger inlaid on the blade named it the prince’s
sword, though I’d only seen the man at a distance at Council.
Prince or no, his
ease took me aback; few looked upon my blackened skin without
a pang of worry. Blood ran freely from a nasty cut on his forehead,
staining his yellow hair. That handsome face was forever scarred.
But he had attacked us. I was fiercely glad.
“Perhaps I am not
the one you seek,” I said.
He arched his good
eyebrow. “The only barbarian survivor of the Trial of Flames,
Braedon, risen from Balesat’s ashes on the twentieth day of
the second year of King Ander’s reign.” Regan pointed at me
with his sword. “I selected you for Balesat’s Flames, just
before my men killed the rest of your clan. I’m surprised you
don’t remember me.”
Temple flames had
burnt those memories away.
“Whoever you are,
whatever you’ve done, say your last,” I said. “Perhaps Balesat
will grant you mercy; I will not.”
A wry smile deepened
the lines around Regan’s eyes. “You wield your blade well—you
gave me this.” He gestured to his forehead. “And you wear a
knight’s chain. I should be honored to fight you.”
Regan advanced at
once. Again and again I leapt back from the edge of his tiger-marked
blade. At last I got in a nasty gash on his arm. He shoved
me to one side with a brutish slap of his flat and I stumbled
over a stone, falling to my knees. Still, I thrust my sword
into as high a guard as I could manage from my knees.
He closed the distance
between us and spiraled his sword around mine. It sprang from
my grip like a fish from the hook. Before I could scramble
for it, the tip of his blade twitched before my face, kissing
my forehead. Blood surged into my eyes as I scuttled toward
my sword on hands and knees.
“That’s the third
time I spared you,” Regan said, beating me to my blade and
pinning it to the ground with his boot. “Once during the battle,
I did not take an obvious opening. Once during this duel. And
of course I saved your life by pulling you from that massacre
as a child. According to your barbarian custom, you belong
to me until you thrice save my life in return.”
How dare this coddled
prince invoke my dead culture’s measure of accountability?
To even speak of it was against his father’s law. But anger
faded at the thought of my forgotten people. I could no more
ignore their traditions than make my skin fair again.
Regan smiled because
he knew he had me.
How often had I
seen that same smile on Heremon’s lips? “Think,” he’d always
said. “Just because your enemy has you by the balls does not
mean he has taken your good sense.” Then he would laugh. “Only
a woman can do that.”
Good sense told
me killing Regan would bring the Royal fury of Armidia down
upon my head. My blackened skin and hair would forever betray
me as the only person with such a vendetta against the Prince.
Worse, I’d spend eternity in the Depths for ignoring the custom
of returning three lives for three. It was all I had left of
“What is it you
want from me?” I asked, and lowered my gaze. “My liege.”
“You’re going to
help me kill my father.” His smile widened as my mouth opened
in shock. “Come now. It’s what you were on your way to do,
“I had better company
before,” I said, swallowing my shock. Had Heremon really meant
“Now you have better
odds for success. We’re on the same side in this, Braedon.
Come with me and I’ll prove it.”
“I must see to our
Regan dropped me
a bow. “Of course.”
Kneeling by each
body, I prayed a few words and raised fire inside each ruined
body. By the time I finished, salted tears stung my cheeks.
Regan wiped his
sword clean on his own cloak and knelt as well. He bowed his
head and whispered prayers. And he did not protest when I staked
the Temple Gate standard in the center of road. The edges of
the banner curled in the damp, limp air, a black field with
two fiery eyes. Balesat’s wrathful gaze, watching me become
His enemy’s defender.
Complete story available in the
print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010