What is the punishment for good intentions in a sinful world? To watch as those you wished to help are made to walk down the road you have built for them, all before walking down it yourself.
– Words of the Emperor in Qepperdan, Matthieu Sartonné, as narrated to his page, Jarun Hichame
Even the memory of Vau’s full glory, with all its vaunted cathedrals and the pageantry of the Ferres royal court, could not shake the tedium of marching from Matthieu’s mind. Thirty-seven days lay between him and Ossir. Thirty-seven days of waiting for foragers to return with spoils for Lord Rodolf’s table, to which he found himself invited to his continuing bewilderment. Thirty-seven days of watching as mountain and town and sea fell behind them on roads older than the Corastian Empire itself. And to think that the scouts believed them to be only nearly halfway to Varakuma, the first Qenshi city they would come to on this road…
It was not the anticipation of reaching the place that drove him to unease, but rather the monotony of his routine. The thought of Heilicon falling ever farther behind across lands and time no longer bothered him. In the months that had passed since he last stepped through its gates, the memory had taken on a dullness, as if it were only a story he had read once. He knew this was not true—he had seen it, lived it more truly than any author would ever know the fantastical lands of their tales—but this knowledge did not diminish the feeling of distance. Even here in Ferria, another land all too real, he felt separated from the reality around him as well.
Lord Rodolf’s army was not a part of this place, just as Matthieu was not a part of the army. Rather, it was a splinter, working its way through the flesh on its way to another destination yet distant. Corastians were not strangers here, having ties reaching as far back in the misty past as the roads on which they travelled, but even that did not change the feeling that he was passing through a place that had already rejected him. They had eschewed the larger cities of the Jerician Union in favor of the countryside, where those lords who thought to oppose their march with taxes or armies of their own would lack the means to impose. As a result, no more than villages and crossing towns had passed Matthieu’s sight since the Arcinan border.
He knew from his books that armies foraged their way across countrysides such as this one, taking what they could and ruining what they could not, but so far he contented himself with the knowledge that it was a fact of his life he did not need to witness. Instead, he only partook in its results at dinner with Lord Rodolf and his generals.
Tonight’s bounty was beef stewed in wine; not the lord’s portion of roast chicken coated in fruit sauce that glowed in the firelight, but it would fill him nonetheless. After so many weeks on the march with two different armies, it was this quality that pleased him more than anything else. Between his hunger and his position among the other men seated around him, Matthieu only ate in silence as he often did while the lords bantered amongst themselves.
“Lady Haeda would have you eating fish,” said Lord Joric Pansener, his mustache gleaming with grease from across the table, “to cool that temper of yours. Perhaps I should take the capon to myself.” Laughter rose up around the table from lords and one or two serving boys, as Lord Rodolf shot his friend a sly glance.
“And that is why Lady Haeda will remain in Kicher. A leader of men must have his vigor, after all; let the wives and physicians fret about keeping themselves balanced.” More chuckles met that one, and the men around him fell into small conversations. Matthieu’s thoughts were not for them.
As he often did these days, he thought back to his time with Lord Leopold, so fresh in his mind yet farther away from him now than anything else he had lived, except the islands. Those days of huddling under cover in rain and drifting off to sleep with the gentle rushing of sea on sand were a dream long past, and one about which the merchant captain’s words still haunted him. Captain Tollen had been his name, a hard-faced man whose heart was harder still. There were nights when Matthieu told himself that the island and all its treasures must have been real, if only because the captain had thought it to be, but he reminded himself more these days that the captain could not afford to dismiss the idea out of hand. He must give himself to wild tales of riches beyond the sea, while Matthieu was under no such compulsion. All around him was a world he knew to be real, in the dirt and mud of the westward road and the vile saints with whom he rode.
Ment’s company had been much the same. Though they talked much about destiny and election and the end of the world, they were very much of the world whose end they sought so futilely. Aunt Sarah had convinced him of that, just as much as the sight of old women starving in the streets while farmboys and mountaineers stood in ranks of pockmarked armor to march to their deaths. At least that was what Matthieu assumed, for no word of their fates had reached him in Ossir, much less here. He only wondered what would become of the family he had only so recently met with Cyrnne’s armies so far from home.
Sometimes, he asked himself what kind of life he could have known had been content to stay there. How many years would he have known there in peace before the king’s armies broke through the Alabaster Gates and did to Cyrnne what it had done to its neighbors? It was a meaningless exercise, he knew, since his staying behind might have given Lord Leopold more time. Surely, he would not have succeeded in his end goal of cleansing the earth, but even a few more years could have given Matthieu some respite before the end.
Would the Frandts have welcomed him back with Sarah’s earnestness, the unknown scion of a long-lost daughter? Or would they have cast him out as one more unwelcome mouth to feed if he had pressed his luck in staying with them? The haziest notion snatched him in the depths of his pondering that perhaps he could have known peace there: his grandmother’s family welcoming him as their own, housing him as if he were a nobleman’s son, arranging for him to marry…
It was too much; it had always been too much to give himself to this line of thought. Even with Katahum and all her loveliness fading into that most distant part of his memories, at least that was a life he had actually lived. He had walked the shores of that island, if only in a dream, but never once had he seen the slightest indication that Cyrnne had anything more to offer him than a week’s rest before sending him out again to meet the world with growing discontent. If this was to be his curse for leaving God’s only perfect children behind him, then it was one he had brought entirely upon himself.
The pungent smell of wine and herbs brought him back from his dream to the material world, where men made their various claims to piety in full knowledge of their sins. Where a murderer and deserter like himself could sit among equally sinful company, without suffering under the searing fire of godliness. As much as Matthieu feared to say so, he feared that these were truly men after his own heart, mortal and glorying in their imperfections.
A second bowl of soup came and a third glass of wine before most of the lords and other men had shuffled off into the night beyond Lord Rodolf’s tent. The Lord of Kicher himself sat back in his chair at the head of the table, not dozing but motionless, like a cat waiting on a mouse to wander by. Such had generally been Matthieu’s suspicion of the man, and it was a hard first impression to dismiss.
He called to Matthieu over the low rumble of the few conversations still continuing inside this late into the night.
“Something on your mind, boy?” he asked. Matthieu turned to him if only to make sure that he was the intended recipient of Lord Rodolf’s words, and the man motioned for him.
“It is nothing, my lord,” he replied, but the Arcinan’s invitation was too strong to resist.
“Nonsense,” Lord Rodolf said. “I suspect there is always something on your mind. Come here.” He set a hand on the seat at his left, an honor which Matthieu had not expected. He took the chair next to Lord Rodolf and began to surrender his thoughts, if only cautiously at first.
“Something has puzzled me for some time now, my lord,” Matthieu said. “I pray you will not find it impertinent.”
“What is it?”
“The Qenshi States are so distant from Corastia, and yet so many of our armies go there to fight against heresies. Are there not enough heresies in our own lands?”
“You mean the Mentites.” He did, but knew there to be others, if not as dangerous with swords, then with words.
“And others, my lord. The Jubilants or Weepers, for instance. Surely, their claims to authority outside the priesthood are a greater threat to the Church than these western pagans.” The former had begun as a mere curiosity long before Matthieu was born, characterized by leaping about and speaking in angelic tongues. Perhaps they were not the greatest concern for the Inquiry. Compared to the Weepers and their bonfires of vanities, wild dancing and song looked to be but a child’s distraction. But whatever the Holy Office did to check these deviants had been far too late for Eastern Ossiria. Matthieu sighed. “I only wonder if the war in my homeland could have ended differently; perhaps sooner, before so many had to perish.”
“It is so very complicated, between treaties and ancient conflicts whose wounds still ache to this day. If all nations were to keep to the Treaty of Arnoss, signed all those years ago, then none would molest another or seek to expand their borders. The right of a nation to decide its own fate must be held sacred, or else our centuries-old Coalition will fall apart.”
“But my lord, were there not Oravians fighting with the Western Ossirian lords?”
“There were, but they never crossed the Ellorin. Do you know why?” Matthieu suspected, but did not voice his cynicism in the presence of a man of noble blood, perhaps even the blood of those lords who had abandoned his city and three others to the flames.
“I do not.” Lord Rodolf nodded as a smile came over him. It was this same smug expression that Matthieu had grown to loathe over these past weeks on the road, with nothing but the man’s stories of forgotten glory and dead knights to break the monotony of the march.
“The hatred between the Vanterburgish and the House of Mennish is a deep one, almost as old as the Treaty of Arnoss. From what news reached my ears in Volaska, Lord Nickol was content to hold Alric’s Pass while every Mennish city burned, and the queen in Ossir shared her father’s antipathy. The Gentish also were of the same mind.”
“Would that they could have put aside their differences,” Matthieu said with a sigh. “If only for a moment.”
“But King Rickard tells me you saw to that yourself.” He ever tired of hearing this praise, undeserved as it was. It was not the first time he wondered if he should not have joined Lord Leopold on that scaffold, to be met with the same derision and share the same fate. While he would not have died a Mentite, even though he would always be known as one, he would have at least died with a clear conscience.
“Ours is a cruel world, Matthieu, but it is not without its agreements. I find it encouraging that we men of faith from throughout Corastia can overcome their respective differences for the benefit of seekers after the Ineffable God, even on the other side of the world. And what is more, I say let those who struggle to contain the violence within their hearts join with us, that they may find its outlet in the cause of truth.”
But Matthieu did not. Did the Arcinan think to comfort him with this knowledge, that his homeland could be allowed to burn for the sake of politics while another awaited the flames for the sake of devotion? What hypocrisy must rule men such as Lord Rodolf if a treaty like the one at Arnoss could be held immutable when war threatened his home, but cast aside at a whim for some foreign soil? What was so different about Virjatal that it could not be afforded the right to order its own affairs? Whatever danger faced these people was surely just as real as his own had been, but did it make him callous to think first of the men who destroyed his own home before he thought to others?
It was too much to say to Lord Rodolf tonight, or any night. Losing control of his temper in the man’s presence would be a grave mistake, one likely to turn him from war hero to obstacle in a moment, and no obstacle that Matthieu knew of could stop the Lord of Kicher for long. By fate or by folly, the man had come this far, and no Heiliconian boy would be permitted to stand in his way. He waited a moment for the anger to subside before attempting to put what he could into words.
“I sometimes wonder about this adventure,” he finally said. “Why I must go, when I am not the man for it and could be of such better use elsewhere.” Lord Rodolf scratched at his beard in silence.
“It is no wonder that you do not understand. After all, you have never even left the camp.” The lord’s eyes lit up with a sudden thought. “I must inform Rolen that you will join his men on a ranging tomorrow. You will rise before dawn to ride ahead of the army.”
Matthieu’s heart sank; it was the furthest thing from what he had hoped. To venture out into the very death and danger he wished to avoid in Ossiria, now in this distant corner of the map, filled him with deep dread. He fought for the words to rebuff Talkicher tactfully.
“My lord,” he stammered, “I… would hardly be the right one for this. I only ever held a sword once, and thankfully never had to use it. Surely, there are better men to forage.”
“Better, perhaps, but none else who need to experience it more. Why, to spend your entire adventure within the camp would give you no stories at all to return with. And you will return, when all this is behind us.” Once more, he was filled with fear at the man’s words. Not for what he would find here in the west, but what devastation likely awaited him in the east should he ever return.
But now he could only steel himself for what was to come. There would be no backing out of Lord Rodolf’s company, nor shirking of his command. He could only try to prepare himself as best he could for what he imagined to be another horror of war, which were so plentiful at home. Even there, he thanked whatever power had kept him alive in all that, and he also kept him from seeing the worst of what Ment had unleashed. He had little confidence of finding any such comfort here.
They bid their goodnights, after which Matthieu retired to the tent he shared with Lord Rodolf’s squires. For the first night, it was that thought which kept him awake: the strangeness of it all, that a cloth merchant’s son should have found himself so far from home in such company as this. It made him think of the wayward Ferenne, snatched away by the whirlwind to an eastern land of strange beasts and even stranger men.
Of course, he had passed through much the same, except the men there were not strange at all, except in their lacking of guile and violence. And as had another who once passed before his eyes like a dream, a maiden of uncommon loveliness faded from his memories just the same. But which of them was truly the dream? The one whom he had taken for granted, or the one whom he had loved but imperfectly? If he was truly to be Ferenne made flesh, then perhaps that western wind would return for him again, to sweep him back to his paradise after the struggles of living had turned his dark hair gray and eyes dim with age.
For now, though, he needed to sleep, for the morrow would test him as he had not been tested for a long time. What sleep he did find came only in spurts, as his bewildering dreams pulled him several times back into wakefulness. It was on the third or perhaps fourth occurrence that he noticed a growing light in the eastern sky, like an old bruise. His eyes wished to close again, but he knew that the watch would be around soon enough that to do so would only bring him trouble.
Sure enough, the tent flap facing the rising sun opened inward and admitted a bearded man in a peaked helmet.
“Ando says you’re to come with me,” the soldier said. Matthieu got up without a word and pulled off his nightclothes as soon as the tent was closed again. His Mentite tabard and lordling’s garments were long gone by now, and that which replaced them was hardly the stock of a noble house, though they bore Larquen green-and-white and a crusader device. The rough linen shirt on first, then a doublet in an older style than Matthieu had been accustomed to wearing in his university days. It hung on his thin frame loosely, but after so many months before spent in rags, he would not complain. His belt lay next to him, holding a dagger that he still hoped to never need.
It only took a moment to tie his breeches and doublet together at his waist with the belt and find his Cyrnnish shoes in the relative darkness. He left the tent to join the spearman outside.
“Come,” the man said, and Matthieu followed. Soldiers slumbered all around him, snores punctuating the shuffling sound of two pairs of feet on grass tramped down by many more like them the previous night. The growing sunlight revealed a cluster of men in the distance near the edge of the lord’s camp, though only as shadows moving against a darker background.
“Bring us back some pigs,” said one of the men Matthieu passed, who he had assumed to be asleep. “Been awhile since I had some good bacon.”
“Pigs?” interjected another not far away. “Bring girls!” Both men chuckled at that while Matthieu kept silent. Such was the rest of his walk to where the foragers were assembling in the predawn light. He counted ten of them, all with horses and one of the fiery crusader banners held in a leather sheath on the lead rider’s saddle.
“This the new recruit?” said one of them, a thin-faced man who looked to be a few years older than Matthieu. Black hair hung roughly shorn below a woolen cap, half a head again taller than his own.
“Matthieu Sa-” he started, until the other interrupted him.
“I know your name. Mount up; we have a long ride ahead.” One of the other foragers motioned for Matthieu to approach a speckled gelding bearing an old saddle and leather bags of provisions. He mounted in one smooth motion, much more practiced than his near-disaster at the Rooster’s Perch back in Ossir.
“You are Ando, then?” he asked the black-haired man.
“That’s right. Humble Andoram Pertenil of Kicher, here to teach a hero of the Ossiric League how to be a soldier.” That drew a laugh from some of the other riders, who by now were all mounted as Matthieu cast his eyes about him. He felt warmth growing in his cheeks and thanked the dull shadows of morning for concealing the color that went with it. “Forward!” Ando ordered, and the company began picking its way through clumps of tents and sleeping men.
Once clear of the camp, they followed a northward road at a good pace that continued until noon. The fields they passed along the way had already been picked clean by earlier parties, and here and there the burned husk of some farmhouse or barn stood out to mark the land for its old tenants. For all the devastation left behind by parties perhaps two or three days earlier than they were, what struck Matthieu was that today would have been otherwise pleasant. No rain clouds or cold marred the sunshine here, and the breeze bore with it the faintest traces of the Great Bay to the south. If anything, the worst of it was the silence around them, broken only by the soldiers conversing in their harsh Arcinan tongue, its hard rs and over-long ehs grating on ears that longed for pleasant Ossiric again. Matthieu held his own tongue throughout all this, trying to avoid a reoccurrence of this morning’s embarrassment.
His effort could only take him until midday, when the riders stopped to eat and relieve themselves in the shadow of a tree where the bloated body of a man hung in the branches above. The wooden sign around his neck read Refused food servants of God in a rough hand, as if its writer was unfamiliar with letters.
Ando started at him again when they had all hobbled their horses for grazing.
“You seen much of this with Ment?” the man asked, a smile revealing yellowed teeth as he nodded upward toward the corpse. Matthieu searched his mind a moment for the best way to respond, perhaps noting that he had only left Lord Leopold’s camp to escape, but came up with nothing that would not mark him further the coward he knew himself to be.
“No,” he responded instead. “Only in Alicksport, and it was the Mentites they treated thus.”
“Fitting.” Ando picked at an apple with his knife blade before cutting off a piece and putting it in his mouth. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“Some of them were children. They could hardly be called heretics.”
“They’d grow up to be, though,” interjected a mustached soldier seated at Ando’s right. Another voice joined in from behind the tree, where a third man was retying the laces of his breeches.
“You’ll see that well enough in Virjatal,” he said, and Ando nodded.
I see that well enough here, Matthieu thought. The smell of death above him threatened to bring back scenes of defeated Heilicon, and with it the bread and hard sausage they had packed on their ride. He forced away both the thought and the urge to vomit.
“Come,” Ando said, sheathing his dagger behind his back and rising. “It’s a long ride yet until we get farther than the last party to come this way.”
Matthieu feared as much, not for himself but for the sights he would yet see on the way. The other riders made their preparations to depart, with one shooting a derisive salute to the hanging man, who listed to and fro in the warm noontime breeze.
They made fair enough speed northward, conversing only briefly and in low tones so as not to draw unnecessary attention to themselves should they pass any who remained alive near the road. Little still remained here to catch the eye, much less to warrant taking it back to camp, and so they continued riding until near dusk. Matthieu was sure they would stop to make camp for the night when the two men Ando had sent ahead when the sun had been a hand’s width above the horizon trotted back to join them at the head of the bunch.
Whispers exchanged between them told Matthieu that his hopes for a delay of the inevitable were to go denied.
“Little village up ahead,” Ando announced. “Looks like seven or eight houses, perhaps thirty head of cattle and a few plowhorses. Should do for old Rodolf, eh?”
Despair gripped Matthieu’s heart at the thought that the company would not stop for the night after all, but would instead continue on to what end he could only imagine. He looked to Ando, knowing he would only find viciousness there, and his heart cried out inside against the future. But the greed around him drove them all on at a quicker pace, as the possibility that one man could hold back violence this night only clung to his mind as the feeble castaway in a storm.
All this weighed on him until the sun fell into the west and the little jumble of houses that marked the village came into view. No one waited in the road to meet them. Moonlight up above cast a pale glow upon all around him, giving the only brightness aside from a wide splash of stars that cut across the blackness. That there was no sign of life here, where he knew there should be, only made it worse. All that gave him any comfort was that they were still far enough away that if they were heard, they at least would not be seen.
Some distance from the nearest farmhouse, they dismounted and knelt in a patch of tall grass beside a little stream. Time passed without sound or movement before one of the riders finally spoke.
“What say you, Ando?” asked the mustached man. “We could get in and out before they knew.” Their leader took a moment to think it over as Matthieu himself doubted that this plan would work at all. Even one stubbed toe and subsequent curse could bring the entire village down on them, and most likely end in loss of innocent lives, if not their own.
He could not bear it any longer.
“If I may,” Matthieu said, clearing his throat. Ando turned on him with a mix of amusement and derision.
“May what, hero?”
“Surprising them would likely end in bloodshed. We should announce ourselves as members of Lord Rodolf’s army and ask them for supplies.” The laughter that broke the momentary silence was too soft for the villagers to hear, but loud enough to tell Matthieu what he needed to know.
“That how you saved the League?” Ando answered. “You asked that bastard Ment to please stop? We’re servants of God; we’ll get what we need, no matter what needs to be done.” With that, Ando tapped the mustached man and four others on the shoulder. When they moved to get up, he turned to Matthieu again.
“You stay here to watch the horses with Joran. As for the rest, follow only if I call for you. Come.” They snuck off through the grass as quiet as serpents, and with as much malice. For his part, Joran leaned against a nearby tree as if to slumber while the other three squatted for a better view of the village. Only the faint light of the moon gave Matthieu an indication of the others’ progress, slow as it was.
He only realized that his right leg was shaking when the mustached man hit his shoulder from behind.
“Stop it,” he hissed, and Matthieu did. When he turned back to face the nearest house and the barn at its right, he could barely make out the shadows of Ando and the others clambering over a low wooden fence. Any moment now, they would be inside the house.
A cry broke the silence and was ended just as suddenly as it began. Matthieu could not tell if it was a man or a woman, only that another joined in soon after. The three soldiers nearest him rose to their feet.
“What is it?” one of them asked, while Joran only sat up straighter against the tree.
“Sounded like Hirett to me,” replied another. “Come!” Matthieu rose himself before speaker turned on him and drew his sword. “You stay here! Joran, follow me.” The fourth soldier did so, leaving Matthieu behind to watch their quicker progress across the field and over the fence. As soon as the men had passed out of hearing, though, his hand went to the hilt of the knife on his belt. It had not been since that last night on Fleidt that he had ever thought to use a blade, and while fear gripped him as tightly as it ever had, so too did a new courage.
He slipped off into the night, creeping through the grass behind the others. If perhaps he could stop Ando from doing anything rash, then maybe he could convince them to at least not kill anyone. Or his plan would fail entirely and more blood would be shed this night. He could not know until he tried.
Matthieu made it to the fence by the time the flames started in the barn near the closest house. They were small at first, but the dryness of this year’s Waning gave them such strength that when he finally reached the building, half of it had already been consumed. By now, the shouting was all around him. He could not distinguish the different voices by their words through the distance and the roaring blaze beside him that caused the skin on his face to tighten and itch, so much so that he had to turn away.
The thought occurred to him then to run past the barn and discover what could be seen beyond when the next scream caught in his ears, high and piercing. It held within it the purest fear, and came from the house nearest him. His hand drew the dagger from its sheath at his side and he ran toward the kicked-open backdoor, though his eyes still bore within them the shimmering ghosts of flames.
He saw the man’s body immediately inside the door, mouth hanging open and transfixed with a crossbow bolt. Only a single glance could be spared to determine if Matthieu knew him; when it was clear that he did not, he moved on without a word. It was beyond this dead farmer that he saw Ando and the girl.
Moonlight and the glow of flames brought the her face to him in all its terror and fear, and in that moment she was Beate whom he loved; Heide taken so young; Lyda the betrayed; Greta the broken. The decision felt as though it were not even his to make, or that it had already been decreed what he should do. It was clear then what was happening, and he did hesitate any longer, such that he found himself within reach of the man before he realized it. His right hand raised the knife and brought it down with all his anger into Ando’s back.
The blade skipped in vain off the man’s shoulder, followed by a thin trickle of blood that mottled the back of his doublet. A second passed as Matthieu’s failure dawned on both men. In his fear, he gripped the handle tighter and began to stumble away as Ando turned toward him, his eyes wide with shock.
“You?” Ando said with gritted teeth, now facing Matthieu. The pain in his eyes was more than what his wound had conjured alone. There would be nowhere he could run where this man would not find him, and to leave this place would surely mean the end of this girl. Only a fight would give him a chance now, as slim as that chance would be against a trained soldier. He set his feet apart with the knife extended in his right hand, ready to dart away or thrust as necessary. It would be useless, he was certain, but at least he could die like a man.
Ando tried to step forward, away from his victim, when a pale flash of steel brought red streaming down the man’s throat. He turned around again, grasping at the wound in his neck. Weakness brought him to his knees while the girl stood over him, clutching his own knife that he had worn at his back in bloody hands. He clutched at her but only caught air as his killer stepped just out of reach, and he fell onto his face, convulsing. Once life had finally left him in great gouts of red, stillness took him at last.
There was nothing more for her to do here, nor would Ando ever pose a threat to either of them again. The girl’s eyes met Matthieu’s and though he knew she would not understand him, he said the only word that was needed in any tongue.
“Run!” With one more hurried glance toward the Arcinan lying before her in death, she darted out the back door of the house and off into the night.
Matthieu himself stood as still as his companion until a familiar voice called out to him from behind.
“Why do you wait?” Joran shouted above the clamor outside. “We’re lea-” He stopped as his eyes fell on Andoram’s body. Matthieu did not have to turn and face the man; instead, he looked to his right hand, still clutching the dagger uselessly in straining fingers.
“Dead,” he replied. It was all he could say.
“Then come! They are nearly on top of us!” His gaze fell on the dead Kicheri one last time before he fled out the door from whence he had come. Once he had crossed the field again, he found that only nine of them had made it back to the horses that night. The hobbles came off their mounts’ legs in trembling hands and once they had all been stowed away, their owners rode on until the fingers of dawn once again crept over the eastern sky. When Matthieu finally arrived back in camp, he did not think on the shouts around him. He only passed off his reins to a young groom, stumbled along the once-trodden path back to his tent, and fell to his pillow without even stripping off his muddy boots.
He arose again with only shapes and feelings to mark the passage of night, as whatever dreams had come to him were immaterial as the dancing shadows from the flames the night before. He jerked awake, and with it came a yelp of fear; fear that he may have angered Lord Rodolf, or perhaps that the camp had moved on without him. The latter he thought to be improbable, even weary as he was, yet the lightness outside and the empty blankets beside him spoke of the hour’s lateness.
It was then that one of the pages with whom he shared the little tent pushed open the flap and the midday sun reached his eyes.
“Lord Rodolf will see you now,” the boy said. Matthieu looked down to his filthy clothes and thought to change them, but knew that to delay further would only be to his detriment. He pushed his blanket aside and joined the page on the walk to his reckoning.
But what sort of reckoning would it be? There could be no other reason for Lord Rodolf to call him this morning but for the foraging, though what report the man sought from Matthieu, he could only guess. Unless there was some way the truth about Ando’s death had reached the camp… He had seen none else alive until Joran burst in, except the girl, who was hopefully long fled by now. The thought occurred to him that Joran could have thought Matthieu to be Ando’s killer, and his heart sunk. After all, he had been standing behind the man’s body, bloody knife in hand; it would not take much for Lord Rodolf to make such a deduction. He cursed his fortunes silently, straining to keep the creeping panic he felt from showing on his face.
Rodolf Larquen’s tent looked like what a nobleman who had never known war thought such a thing should look; its gaudiness in gold and his house’s green-and-white marked it a monstrosity amongst the mud and patched cloth of his men. Two pairs of guards stood outside with arquebuses and arming swords, and one pulled back a tent flap for Matthieu and the page to enter.
When his eyes adjusted to the relative dimness inside, he saw the lord seated at table with wine and the picked-over remnants of a chicken. Then someone else met with success last night, he thought, while outwardly he maintained what calm he could muster.
The page slipped back outside and the tent was closed once more. Lord Rodolf did not look to Matthieu, but instead took another sip of wine and dabbed at his mouth with a napkin. Only after he had finished did he turn his attention to the new arrival.
“They tell me one of our scouts was murdered. Andoram was his name.” There was no greeting for him this morning; no anecdote of court or discussion of literature. Matthieu would now have to weigh his words more carefully than he ever had in the lord’s presence.
“It is true, my lord. I saw his body.”
“Only ten of you returned this morning. Did you see the others who perished as well?” There would be nothing to gain from lying to the Arcinan. He knew Matthieu not to be a warrior, or even really one among their company.
“No, my lord. In the confusion, we ran back to the horses. It was only then that we knew our losses truly.” Sleep beckoned him still, but he suspected that Lord Rodolf would not have called him here to hear something he already knew. “What more would you have of me, my lord?”
“I would have you know that the young men’s deaths are to be avenged. I dispatched a company of riders after you returned. They should reach the village by nightfall and should any remain there, they will be taught that hindering our cause comes at a cost.”
His hands balled into fists almost against his will, and the urge to speak further rose within him until he was already speaking the words almost before he realized what he was doing.
“But we attacked them first, my lord. Torched their houses, and stole their livestock. It is only natural that a man would oppose this.” Yet as the words left him, it was not a man’s face that came to his mind, but a girl’s, framed in darkness as the mingled light of the moon and her burning barn showed fear becoming action. So had died Andoram Pertenil of Kicher.
The face of Lord Rodolf turned hard, and his brown eyes narrowed.
“A man interferes with the city watch in the pursuance of their duties, withholding justice from the guilty. Is he not to be punished? This is justice that we bring to the Lamatali, Matthieu. They threaten the believers by their very presence and heaven will not hold us blameless for their abandonment. Whatsoever is done in the service of this work, no matter how we may see it with our mortal eyes, only serves to bring about God’s purposes.”
“Then God’s purposes are cruel.” The Arcinan’s mouth twisted at Matthieu’s blasphemy, as if he would spit.
“The world is cruel. If you do not harden yourself against it, it will break you as a clay pot against an iron kettle.”
“You would tell me of cruelty, my lord? After all that I have seen?” He regretted the words instantly but in his anger, it had felt so right to speak them. Let Lord Rodolf know of Matthieu’s heart after so long on the march, after all this destruction unleashed by this man who would never see it through. He thought to brace himself for a blow, but one did not come.
“I would, boy. I know what you have seen. Do not think the word that reached me in Volaska was an easy thing to bear. Heilicon, Meddelburg, Rickerspont, Leganne… All the east brought before a tyrant who thought to be the world’s end. Did you think yourself the only man ever to suffer? The only one who ever lost?”
“I saw my father dead in our own home, along with all the rest!”
“Then count yourself lucky to have seen him at all. When Ernest and Stefen returned from near this very place, I could only trust that it was indeed their bones inside that cart. There were no peaceful faces to greet me then, nor acts of kindness by which to remember them. I could only read of their passing and wait those many weeks for their final return. Though you too have seen hard things, you have not learned how to harden yourself against them, and as such, you are not yet fit for this service. Perhaps you will be one day, but that day is yet far off.”
His mouth went dry, and he feared such that he did not even know what to fear for. Would Lord Rodolf simply abandon him here, or leave him to march in shackles behind the baggage train? His life was truly in the nobleman’s hands.
“Once we reach Varakuma, I plan to ride on further west in search of allies. This is a task that I must do apart from your company, as only those men with experience in such matters are necessary in this thing.”
“What shall I do, my lord?”
“You will remain in Varakuma with a portion of my soldiers. There is a priest there whose work you can assist. Go to him and await the day when I shall require your services again. Now leave me.”
Relief came over him at first, but he could not show it. What followed was anxiety, that this was not the end of his troubles. But where would he truly be more safe: in the company of a man who thought him disposable, or a place where he truly would be so? He knew nothing of Varakuma any more than what he knew of this western land in general, except for the stories, and those were enough to tell him he did not want to be left to his own strength in such a place.
He must have taken longer to think than he realized, as Lord Rodolf was already calling after him again.
“Why do you wait?” he asked, not moving from his chair but still radiating violence. The man looked as if he could go for his dagger at any moment. If he did, Matthieu would find no help here. Instead, Lord Rodolf nearly grinned. “Ah, I know. Perhaps you worry that I think you were young Andoram’s killer.” Matthieu did worry about this very thing, and thought to flee in that instant. Only the memory of the guards outside kept him from doing so.
“My lord?” His breathing was forced and shallow as he tried to still the pounding in his chest.
“Worry no more, boy. I know you now; you lack the spine to have done such thing. Now begone.”
This time, he did not hesitate, but only bowed and left the tent so quickly that he almost tripped himself. His eyes and ears were not for the camp scenes around him, but only saw the path that would take him back to the only space of his own left in this world. The little tent was still empty when he returned. Sleep was yet many hours from him, and yet he dreamed.
The previous night returned, haunting his waking eyes with flames and the sight of Ando clawing at nothing as the girl stood over him. In that moment, he thought increasingly that Lord Rodolf was right; Matthieu was not hard enough to do what must be done. The girl had finished what he started with no second thoughts, while he fell back and thought to fight fairly, despite the surety of his own death if he tried it. And as much as he wondered when this next opportunity would come to prove that he was could be as iron, at the same time, it repulsed him. He could only live as he had since the night of Heilicon’s fall: whether others thought him strong or weak, he could only be ever watchful and try to do what good he could in a fallen world.
It was knowing what was good that would daunt him as it had done other men since the beginning.
After this day, nearly three weeks passed as he rode ahead of the lord’s company, but not quite in the vanguard of the army. He was reminded of his days with Lord Leopold, not only for the setting but for the unease that permeated all he did. For one living so long on the caprice of others, it was something he came to accept in a way that one might take a loss of a limb. While it galled him, he knew that to do away with the itch of it forever was beyond his power. He could only endure it.
It was on this day that the Lord of Kicher called Matthieu back to him. Falling in behind a lancer in a peaked Arcinan helmet, he approached his new liege with deference, though he reminded himself that he could appear weak. Without a way to understand this even for himself, he struggled to find a way to show it and only hoped that Lord Rodolf would not ask.
The man did not give a greeting, but only stated a fact that Matthieu had already heard in campfire gossip for days.
“We have just crossed the border into Virjatal,” he said. “Another three days and we shall arrive in Varakuma.”
Matthieu brought his horse up next to the Arcinan’s, careful to mind those of the knights who rode at his side. Would Lord Rodolf still leave him this close to his destination, or possibly worse? He would not push him to find out, but neither would he merely accept without question as before. This conversation had passed too many times in his mind for him to let that happen now.
“May I ask, my lord, why you did not simply send a messenger?”
“For this very purpose,” Lord Rodolf responded. “You came as commanded, yet you still think to act impudently with me. If you truly think that hardening yourse-”
“Look, sire,” said a page who rode up from the left, pointing to the horizon. “Smoke. What do you think it could be?”
“Nothing for us to worry about,” replied Lord Rodolf. It bothered Matthieu how quickly he gave his attention away, but he could not say why. “Likely a camp for our Varakumi conscripts. They regularly take this road out of Herantin, so I am told. Besides, we have sufficient men if it should be robbers, eh?” The concern on the page’s face did not disappear, however, and the nobleman noted it. “If you are still worried, my boy, ride up ahead and wait for the forward scouts to return.” The youth did so, urging his steed to gallop toward the head of the column.
Matthieu’s nervousness was not well masked. Lord Rodolf, of course, was impressed enough in the abilities of his own men to hide fear even in these strange lands, but Matthieu had no such confidence. All he knew of the Qenshi States—what he had heard as a child and at the university in Leganne—told him of a wild land, as distant as it was strange. Here, said the stories, unknown gods reigned supreme by sacrifice of blood, wielding cruel hordes unnumbered in the struggle against the saintly emissaries of the one true God. It had seemed only fitting to the bravest of the lords of the east that defenseless priests be safeguarded in their travels and in their saving work, hence the presence of the Arcinan company. Nevertheless, Matthieu still questioned his own purpose in this place.
“Does not the Church have enemies in this part of the country?” Matthieu asked, his concern growing. “Perhaps there was a battle.”
“Nonsense,” Lord Rodolf replied. “There is not a force large enough in all of Virjatal to threaten us. The Lamatali, perhaps, but they have not ventured this far east in nearly forty years, since their defeat at Huji. But the Varakumi fight for us. They believe as we do, and one day we will make of them a force that will cause even the lords of Jantai to tremble.”
Matthieu kept his silence. He knew that voicing his anxiety would do nothing to humble Lord Rodolf’s Arcino pride; rather, it would only increase the disparity between their two attitudes.
The page was galloping back already, visibly disturbed. The lord grimaced to show his annoyance.
“Perhaps he fears another bandit attack,” he quipped. A few of the men-at-arms chortled along with him. Matthieu, however, only felt his unease grow into fear as the page approached. The man pulled up his horse near their company, gasping out of fright.
“Sire, the Varakumi have been attacked by a Lamatali force not several hours ago!”
Lord Rodolf only returned a scowl.
“They would never violate the treaty: it would be too great a risk.”
“No other force could have managed this. Certainly not bandits!”
“I refuse to take the word of a page over what I can see with my own eyes!” Lord Rodolf kicked his palfrey into a gallop, his men-at-arms doing the same to maintain pace with him. Matthieu himself felt compelled to follow as well, and soon the others in his company joined in behind.
They arrived a moment after the lord had crested the rise with his men-at-arms. The men were silent, though their steeds whinnied and moved about, sensing their riders’ unease; the Arcinan himself only stared with mouth slightly agape out across a vast field, strewn with bodies and smoldering fires.
“God in Heaven,” he said.
Smoke drifted lazily in one of the morning breezes that often drifted up out of the southwest. The same wind also carried the wailing of mothers, wives and daughters, now bereft of their men. The carnage was vast, spreading across the flooded fields and staining them with gore. Not long ago, a loyalist Qenshi force had swept up along with that southwestern wind, crashing right into a force of Varakumi conscripts, so newly minted as soldiers that they had likely still fussed over the mud that had caked their breeches on the long march from Herantin. Now, the fighting was over and the families were left to find their butchered loved ones among the bloody swamps.
If Matthieu had not already been overpowered by the scenes of mourning around him, the stench alone would have caused him to flee as far and fast as he could manage. As it was, he felt his heart shriveling in horror at what he saw on all sides. As was customary among the Varakumi, exceptional grief for the dearest of relatives and friends was marked by mournful wailing and the slicing with a knife the skin of the lower arms. That cursed wailing, Matthieu thought with a shiver. To his left, a particularly comely young women shrieked over the bloating corpse of a once-handsome junior officer, drawing a slim blade over her bronze forearms as she did so. Her blood mingled with that of what Matthieu presumed to be her husband or older brother.
He tried his best to look the part of a soldier, but he recalled correctly that never since the fall of Heilicon had he seen this much death and grief displayed in such a way, nor was he in the slightest a soldier. Even in Heilicon, none had been left to grieve but himself, and he was too numb at the time to find any, even for poor Beate Kerns. The campaigns he had joined with the Mentites had featured no pitched battles in the open, particularly unrestricted slaughters such as this against men yet untried in war. Ment’s war had been one of capturing cities, but high walls of stone had always contained his men’s atrocities in such a way that Matthieu never saw much more than what he had glimpsed in Heilicon on that horrible day nearly a year ago.
Looking around, he was not surprised to see the other officers gazing straight ahead, as if what surrounded them was nothing but pleasant fields being worked by cheerful if impoverished farmers. Not a one paid any mind as an older woman screeched horribly nearby, having ruptured a large vein in her wrist in her mourning ritual. Whether or not she had done it intentionally was not something any of them would ever learn in the flesh.
Glancing into the carriage beside him that held the friars bound with them for Varakumatal, he could make out their bowing shadows in the window, warding off the evil around them. It was merely an unfortunate happenstance that the mourners surrounding them, many of them converts in dire need of counsel, lived in a parish outside of the friars’ own sphere of influence. Even in strange lands, so they said, the hierarchy of the Church must be upheld at all costs.
It was more than he could stomach. In fact, as soon as his solemn caravan had passed over a small rise on the other side of the field, Matthieu wretched messily, barely missing the outside of his trouser leg. Lord Rodolf himself had managed to choke down his own anxiety, brought on not so much by the grisly scene around him but at the audacity of the Lamatali to venture this far to the northeast. Neither he nor his men-at-arms had said a word since they had first seen the remnants of the battlefield, and Matthieu had no intention of being the first to speak again.
Off in the distance, they could see a rough cluster of tents, surrounded by several hundred uniformed men. Writhing in the breeze above them was the battle standard of the Global Church’s crusaders: the rising star against a crimson flame. Matthieu supposed this to mean that they had won, though the carnage they had just passed through made him question the merit of any victory that would come at such a price.
As they drew closer to the camp, they saw even more men kneeling in the mud. Their dress was strange to Matthieu: instead of the vibrant colors that characterized the uniforms of Ossiric and Arcinan soldiers, these figures were dressed in robes of dull green. Lord Rodolf muttered under his breath and urged his steed on faster, with Matthieu and the rest matching his speed.
A grizzled sergeant ambled out to meet them on the field, wearing a stained breastplate over a yellow-and-red doublet. On his right shoulder rested an arquebus nearly as long as he was tall.
“It is good to see you here, my lord,” he said, “though I can only imagine the outcome being more favorable had you been here earlier.”
“And it is good to see the Virjatal Company here, not just these aldo wretches. Where is your commander, sergeant?” the lord responded. The man motioned towards one of the tents.
“Killed in battle, my lord.”
“How could this have happened? The Lamatali shall pay for this insult!”
“It is as you say, my lord. The Lamatali are threatening the east again. It seems our allies in Huji were just as surprised as we were, else they would have stopped these ones.”
“Are these their only survivors?” Lord Rodolf said, pointing at the kneeling men.
“Yes, my lord. None escaped us. It must have been a scouting mission, for their force was smaller than I am accustomed to seeing-”
“Kill them,” Lord Rodolf interrupted. “Kill them all.”
“But sir,” the sergeant said. “We may yet use them in prisoner exchanges with Jantai. They hold thousands of our Varakumi captive as laborers to fortify their own territory. To kill these would be unwise.”
Talkicher brought his horse closer to the sergeant, then slapped the man with a gauntleted hand. He waited until his victim had picked himself up off the ground, long enough to increase Matthieu’s already great disgust, before speaking again.
“You presume to counsel me on how to conduct the war?” he shouted as the sergeant shot a fearsome gaze at him, a trickle of blood beginning to mat the man’s beard. “I was born for this! My own father fought the Lamatali hordes on Huji’s fields, watching as two of his nephews gave their lives for our cause. Now order the execution of these prisoners or you will join them.”
“Yes, sir,” the sergeant said bitterly. “Keran!” Another sergeant came running forward.
“What is it, Legerra?” He saw the blood on the first sergeant’s face, eying Talkicher cautiously.
“We are to execute the Lamatali prisoners at once.” Keran looked again to Legerra, then to the lord.
“Yes, sir,” he replied. With that, he turned back to the camp, where he could be seen conversing with more Southern Coalition soldiers.
Talkicher turned his horse around to face his company; the look in his eyes made Matthieu even more uneasy. He could not avoid thinking that this man would enjoy the executions he had just ordered, and it turned out that Matthieu was correct.
“Why do I have the feeling that I must ensure personally that my orders are carried out?” he mused. “Come, let us observe. You are invited as well, sergeant.”
Matthieu could see the dread on some of the faces around him, even on professional soldiers. Killing enemies in battle was considered one’s duty, but murdering unarmed prisoners of war was the most shameful act imaginable for the honorable soldier, to be expected from barbarians and only the most undisciplined mercenaries. Yet still, they followed Lord Rodolf behind the officers’ tents to the killing fields.
It was more horrible than Matthieu could imagine. What looked like two hundred Lamatali soldiers knelt before them as Southern Coalition and Varakumi men approached from behind with swords drawn. Once the prisoners realized what was happening, they wrestled against their captors’ blades, but to no avail. Even after their throats were cut, many of them still writhed on the ground as if fighting death itself. While the urge to vomit came again, Matthieu had nothing left to surrender.
The company stayed until all the Lamatali prisoners were dead, their blood only adding to the tragedy of that field. He looked disturbingly satisfied at the sight of hundreds of green uniforms lying prone in the mud, perhaps imagining himself the avenger of his cousins and countrymen after so many years.
Virjatal’s eastern border lay not far behind him, yet Matthieu already dreaded that he would be long in this country, ostensibly for adventure and his own protection. Already, he wanted to leave this place far behind him, and yet he knew that forces beyond his control would keep him here as long as they desired or until he too became an unnamed casualty on a distant field. Matthieu held silence with many of the others, while Lord Rodolf only spoke his fury to the wind.
Though only three days separated him from his destination, it would be a long ride yet to Varakuma.