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?”

Heremon’s black 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 two dayfalls.

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 him down.

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 impressions.

Marauding hooves 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 than I.

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.

Someone gasped.

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 my people.

“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, after all.”

“I had better company before,” I said, swallowing my shock. Had Heremon really meant treason?

“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 dead.”

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



Betsy Dornbusch lives with her family near the foothills of Boulder and alternately in the heart of Grand Lake, Colorado. She enjoys snowboarding, writing speculative fiction, editing the magazine Electric Spec, and pretending to be a soccer mom. (Nobody's buying the soccer mom bit, though.)

For more of Betsy's work,
visit her Big Pulp author page


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