20 Coloine, very late (continued)
I had just enough time to realize the battle mages had entered the fight—villagers began collapsing, gray-faced, or screaming through flames—when Jeddan shouted and ran past me, throwing himself at one of the battle mages’ horses, and then through it. The terrified animal reared up, dumping the battle mage on the ground and knocking his board from his hands.
It shook me out of my stupor. I feel bad that I didn’t think to attack first, but the truth is I’m used to fighting from the shadows, protecting myself from discovery so I could live to fight another day, and attacking just didn’t occur to me until then. Then I lashed out with the fire-summoning pouvra, which I’ve gotten very good with; it engulfed another battle mage, who also fell off her horse, screaming and beating at herself. I didn’t take time to admire my handiwork, just bolted from my hiding place and ran straight at the leader, wrapped my arms around his leg, which was all I could reach of him, and worked the concealment pouvra on both of us.
I was hoping it would have the same disorienting effect it had had on the God-Empress’s soldiers back in Colosse, but I wasn’t able to look around to see because I was too preoccupied with not being shaken free by the leader. He was disoriented, because he dropped his sword and leaned down to beat at me. I squinted hard and exerted all my will to see him, his arm flailing around, and switched my grip to his wrist and just let myself go limp.
I had about half a second to realize this was a bad idea before he tumbled off his horse and landed atop me, knocking the wind from me and making me lose my concentration and turning us both visible again.
Terror at being pinned and helpless gave me the edge I needed to recover first, and I shoved him and scooted away only to have him grab my upper arm and pull me back. We struggled for a bit, but he was a lot bigger than me and soon he had me pinned again. “What are you?” he said, breathlessly.
I’d like to say I came up with something clever like “Your worst nightmare” or “Retribution,” but all I did was stammer out, “None of your business” which sounds even stupider when I write it. He scowled and said, “I think the God-Empress will want to know about you. Thank me for sparing your life.”
“Oh, she already knows about me,” I said, “and you’re a cocky bastard if you think I’m in any danger from you.” (See, I can be witty and clever. Sometimes.) Then I spun out a string of fire and looped it around his neck, crossing it in back like a garrote and drawing it close enough to singe his skin. He started to jerk away, came up against the fire, and froze. “Let me go,” I said, “or I tighten the noose.”
He wasn’t stupid. He let go of my arms and knelt in the street, holding perfectly still. I rolled to the side and stood and looked around. To my surprise, the fight was nearly over—and the Viravonians had won. They’d taken losses, but more soldiers than villagers lay dead in the street, and a couple of women were controlling the horses, and Jeddan was coming toward me, limping a little but otherwise unharmed. “I didn’t know it could look like that,” he said, nodding toward the line of fire.
“It took a lot of hard work,” I said. Then I returned my attention to the leader, who looked furious now. “Is the God-Empress with the army?” I said. He ignored me. I tightened the noose fractionally. “You know, that fire will burn a long time before it kills you,” I said. “Besides, think of this as a chance to brag about how she’s going to bring her army down on this village and burn it to the ground.”
“This village is nothing in God’s eyes,” he grated out. “She has greater conquests to make.”
“Really? What conquests?” I said.
“She is God. She will rule this land, Castavirans and invaders alike. You think you’ve won today, but you have only delayed the moment when she drags every person in this village into the street to peel the flesh from their bodies and feed it to the dogs.” He looked as if I would be first and he would hold the knife.
“That does sound like something she’d do,” I said. “Where is she now?”
He just glared at me. I said, “Fire. Neck. Lots of pain.” (I was bluffing. I’ve only just been able to bring myself to burn flesh, and I don’t think I could do it in cold blood. But I’m a really good liar and he didn’t know I wasn’t serious. I feel sick thinking about it now, like I was a child playing at war without understanding what it meant.)
He clenched his jaw, then said, “There is an invader city some three days northwest of here. It is to be her first conquest.”
I briefly considered my mental map. The only “invader” city anywhere near here was Calassmir. That scared me. Calassmir is on a couple of major trade routes, and the Royal Road and the southern trunk route both converge on it. If the God-Empress could take Calassmir, she could move her army easily through Balaen—I mean, along the Balaenic highways to any Balaenic city and probably a few Castaviran ones.
“What’s the size of her army?” I said. He clenched his teeth harder and looked away from me. “Talk,” I said, but he said nothing, and I had to either make good on my threat or give in. So I gave in. I dismissed the fire and shoved him toward Jeddan, who held him fast as easily as if the man had been a kitten. Jeddan’s got shoulders like a lumberjack. He might be a lumberjack. I still don’t know what he does for a living.
I hadn’t really thought about the God-Empress until that day—too busy surviving. When she’d disappeared in Colosse, we had no idea what had happened to her, though as I wrote before I was fairly certain she wasn’t dead. So whatever that th’an was that she did at the end there, it seems it took her to Viravon, to her army. All I know about the army is it’s about a third of the combined Castaviran armed forces, but since I don’t know how big that is, it doesn’t really tell me anything. On the other hand, if she’s attacking Calassmir, her army has to be fairly big, because Calassmir isn’t a small city. I wonder if she has any war wagons, or if Vorantor gave them all to Aselfos?
I’m stalling, aren’t I? Because I really don’t want to write what came next. Maybe I’d feel different if I really were Viravonian, because I know some of what the army has done here, the atrocities they’ve committed against helpless people, and even if the Viravonians don’t want revenge (which they do, true God help them) they have to be ruthless to survive. But I’m not Viravonian, and I can’t kill a man in cold blood, so when the black-bearded villager took the leader’s own sword and drove it into the man’s stomach, I turned away and threw up. I am never going to forget the look on that man’s face for the rest of my life.
to be continued…