We never knew life apart.
As boys, we used to race down the green hills toward the docks. Climbing up on the thatched roof of a waterfront shop or finding an empty pier, we would sit and watch one colossus after another glide slowly nearer the land. The smaller ships they protected, grasshoppers, pulled up to the piers, and the crew and dock workers and slaves instantly became one unit of thought and action, quickly bringing aboard new cargo. Where goods went aboard, men disembarked, crowding to register with port officials.
A colossus rarely made port. We would run to the end of a pier, as close to the warships as possible, and dangle our feet above the water. A colossus was a fortress. They were so large, having more than one at the dock ground grasshopper movement to a halt. It was more efficient to have the smaller ships dart in, load their goods, and transport provisions back to their colossus protector.
This meant sailors on the big ships were bound to the sea. There was rarely time given them to enjoy land. The life of a seaman was brutal. As much as I was mesmerized by the red and black sails, I wanted nothing to do with the Fleet.
“You’re stupid,” Mark would say. “Imagine being a captain of a ship like that!”
“Yeah, I would just love to protect trade ships for my entire life, and never get a mate. Did you know that? They’re stuck on that ship forever, until they’re old and weak. No mates!”
“Spend enough years as a captain, then I’ll be Viceroy of the Fleet.”
“The glory is here, idiot.”
“I heard the Fleet doesn’t go two weeks without blowing apart pirate ships.”
“Yeah, forget that. We’re being trained for greatness in the ranks. You know what Lord Balthazar calls us?”
Mark grinned. “Yeah.”
“So act like it.”
“You’re a toad, Zecharias.”
I slapped him in the back of the head, hard. Mark grinned again, his dirty blond hair sticking up like reeds in a pond.
After the excitement of watching the ships had worn off, we would walk back five or six miles under the bright morning sun. Back to the tall castle with waves crashing high against the seaside wall, where we knew Grio would be waiting for us.
Grio was our battle trainer, and although he had beat both of us more times than we could count, he was one of our closest allies. The old man was strong, the veteran of a hundred battles, with more scars than freckles, and one ear absent. When we were five, he told us the tale of when he lost it, and we asked where the battle took place. The next day, Mark and I stole some provisions and a horse and rode over twenty miles to the famous battlefield, hoping to find his severed ear. When we returned in defeat the next day, Grio explained it had long since become part of the earth. Then he beat us hard for stealing.
The old soldier was compensated well for training us, a fact that caused many soldiers to resent him. Grio hadn’t intended to make enemies when he agreed to teach, but it worked out well for us, because he was suddenly on our side and had little choice in the matter. For his new assignment, Grio was given the rank of ciebenn-commander, the seventh most powerful man in the empire. Having lost his mate to Disease around the same time, he was also given first right, a rare guarantee that he would receive a mate automatically, bypassing the Lottery.
Grio taught us more than how to ride, draw a bow, or strike with a sword. When we were six, we went to him in the stables, as he banged an iron shoe onto his warhorse, Perluck.
“Boys,” he said, not looking up.
“Ask him,” Mark whispered to me.
“Ask what?” Grio muttered, eyes locking with mine.
Fantastic, I thought, feeling adrenaline. Mark was always the adventurous one, why didn’t he ask? Probably because the two-headed dragons that lurked in the mountains were like kittens compared to Grio.
“Why do the men hate us so much?”
Grio laughed. “What kind of question is that, boy?”
We had often heard the nasty murmurs of soldiers. They despised us. We kept to ourselves as much as possible, interacting with each other and our trainer. Though we tried not to bother the men, they whispered about us or taunted us.
We ignored it for as long as we could, figuring it was simply their nature. Soldiers were selfish and mean. A lot of them had the insatiable need to kill. There were stories of men going mad if they went too long without spilling blood.
But we began to hear other things. Recently, a particularly wicked man elbowed me harshly on the temple as he passed by in the corridor. “Keep behind me, pigblood.”
There were other names, too. Heathen. Savage. Foul-breed. None of it made sense to us.
So here we were. I didn’t answer Grio.
“Is that a question a man asks?”
Mark looked down, and I fought not to look away from the master’s scowl. Grio motioned with his hammer toward the courtyard.
“Look out there, boys, what do you see?”
Hay and mud and cobblestones. Soldiers at the gatehouse. Men lounging on the steps, gambling.
“How many other little boys do you see out there?”
“None, sir,” Mark said quickly. That was Mark, diving in for the easy answers.
“But we know some,” I said. “Like Myles, and Andersen. And Peter.”
“Are they being trained by the ciebann-commander?”
“No,” Mark said.
“When those boys are through with their practice each day, where do they go?”
“To their mother and father,” I said.
“Their father, who is an Imperial soldier. And their mother, who came directly from the Fatherland.”
“We don’t have mothers or fathers,” Mark said. “They all died.”
“And the Imperium killed them. They were natives, living like moles in the mud, when our ships arrived. But your fathers were the most ferocious savages the Sovereign had ever seen. They killed many. They evaded capture for decades. Even in death, they haunted his dreams. So instead of killing you off, he ordered me to train you.”
It made sense. Inheritance was more than eye color.
“They don’t like us because we’re sons of the enemy.”
“Because we’ve been given special privileges their own sons won’t get,” Mark said.
Grio continue clanging. “You understand.”
“But we’re just as much Imperials as anyone else,” I protested.
Mark raised his pointy chin. “We’d give our lives for the Sovereign. We’re loyal.”
Grio lifted the hammer and pressed Mark in the chest. “Of course you are, lad. But there are some who would turn their backs on the Sovereign himself to protect the purity of Imperial blood.”
“They don’t want pigbloods around,” Mark said.
“They want to kill us, don’t they?” I asked.
“Many would love to. But they know you’re the Sovereign’s pets. For now, at least. When you come of age, it will be another story.”
We looked at each other, and we could see fear. Did the old man notice? I couldn’t tell.
“We’ll make it,” I said, wincing because it sounded more like a question.
“You’ll look out for each other. And most importantly, you’ll listen to me.”
* * *
We spent the next few days suspicious, wary. We carefully avoided soldiers, and we never went anywhere alone. We left our room together in the morning, and returned together at night. But after a time, being six, we relaxed and pushed these things from our minds.
Training took up much of our days, and when it was over in the late afternoon, we were exhausted. We would eat in the Great Hall and nap on the warm hills for a few hours, until our strength returned. Then we would ride our horses bareback across the fields, or strip naked and go for a swim in the ocean, or hunt rabbits, or try to tame wild dogs, or pretend we were the sorcerers who lived in the forest and have battles with charms and curses. We would sit in the trees and watch patrols go by. Tall, shining soldiers, marching toward the villages to make sure all was well.
Mark and I occasionally went to one of the nearby villages. We joined the village boys in a game in which we kicked a leather ball into a post at either end of a field. It was exciting fun, but our dark red tunics set us apart from the other boys, and when their parents noticed, they forbade their sons from playing with us. We were, to them, also sons of the enemy.
“I wonder how they would feel if they knew,” I spat. “We’re probably their kin.”
“They’re toadskins,” Mark said. “They’re no kin of mine.”
We watched the patrols march into the village streets, watched the people grab their children and shut themselves in their thatched houses. The only living things for the soldiers to see were chickens, darting to get out of the way of clomping hooves. Sometimes the men would break into a home and harass the residents, looking for weapons, stealing food. The villagers were slaves, giving two-thirds of their harvest each year to the Imperial granaries. Such a tax was necessary to keep the armies marching, the empire growing. The patrols kept the Imperial presence constant; it was rare for a village to go a week without seeing the enemy walking the streets.
“We’re lucky the Sovereign kept us.”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “Better masters than slaves.”
We returned to the castle, walking behind the patrol. At night, we lit candles in our room and sat on a bench in front of the window. The stars gleamed. Imperial lore taught that every man who died in battle became a star. The empire of earth was the empire of heaven. Endless, eternal.
The sounds of night were not just owls and wolves. We could hear cackling laughter, sounds from no human tongue. We knew what they were, and we were very afraid.
* * *
We witnessed our first battle when we were seven. We rode with Grio and a cavalry of one thousand men to the front. Grio, whenever he went out, never failed to comment on the glorious country.
“Look at it, my boys,” he would say. “Have you ever seen such a land?”
We had never known another, but we shook our heads anyway.
“The Fatherland is fifteen hundred square miles! Can you imagine how small that is? This land goes on forever. Thirty years, and we’ve only conquered a small piece of it.”
“Why did we leave the Fatherland?” Mark asked.
“I told you before. Overpopulation. Too many people, too few resources.”
“How long did it take to get here?”
“Will we ever see the Fatherland, Grio?” I asked.
He snorted. “No. Soldiers are needed here. The day we stop transporting goods back home is the day our race starts to die out.”
“But at least we get plenty of reinforcements, right?” Mark asked.
“Most of the young men are conscripted and sent here. Once they arrive, they learn the art of war. This accomplishes two things: it slows down population growth there and strengthens our army here, allowing us to take new lands and send resources back.”
We rode on, until we reached a village. Revolutionaries had cut down an Imperial scouting expedition two weeks prior. We saw peasants taking up arms, mostly bows and spears, and waiting behind a spiked wooden fence.
We stayed on a hill with Grio, who explained to us tactics and maneuvers, and watched the village burn.
* * *
Confront your fears. That was the most important thing Grio taught us.
So one autumn night, Mark and I did just that. It had been four or five hours since the evening feast. Mark had stuffed himself, and had dozed off. Probably on purpose. I shook him awake.
“Ugh.” Mark threw us covers over his head.
I tucked a small knife into my belt. Mark sat up and laughed.
“All the good that’s gonna do!”
“I got one for you.” I tossed a blade on his bed. “Want it?”
Mark made a face and took it.
“Come on,” I said.
Mark slipped into his shoes. We opened the thick wood door and were in the hall. I wasn’t sure why exactly we snuck around. We were allowed to come and go as we pleased, like anyone else. But neither of us felt like being harassed by soldiers at that moment. We were trying to mentally prepare for what we would face.
We walked through darkness until we came across a torch on the wall. I grabbed it and we continued on. We reached the stairs of the south tower and went down, down, down. Through the belly of the castle, to the underground dungeons.
Crossing the threshold to the prison, we were struck by the most terrible smell imaginable.
Mark gagged, clutching his mouth with one hand and his chest in the other, as if he was about to have a heart attack. “Sova!” he swore.
I covered my mouth with one arm, and brought the torch closer to my face, trying to breathe in the aroma of burning cloth and oil.
“It’s waste,” I whispered.
“Yeah, you think?”
We crept down the first few steps. “That is terrible,” I said.
“Leave the torch here.” He pointed to an iron fist on the wall, and I slid the torch into it with a harsh scrape.
“You shut up. Come on.” We kept our hands on the cold wall and dropped down another thirty steps or so. We could hear voices. We were almost at the bottom of the stairs when we could make out the rows of cells. They were endless.
Only one, very close, had a light flickering. Its iron grate was open, and the voice came from there. We were close enough to see figures now.
I motioned for Mark to sit, and we did, perhaps ten steps from the bottom.
“It’s funny,” Mark said.
“Some things down here are alive. Some things are dead.”
“And some are somewhere in between?”
He smiled nervously. We watched the five figures huddle around the small flame.
“My bones are aching. Anyone else? Anyone else feeling that?” The scratchy voice echoed down the rows of cells.
“Patrick, don’t you ever shut up?”
“I did once. It was one summer…three hundred years ago.”
“Har dee har har.”
“Gods, I’m cold! This little torch isn’t hot enough.”
“What do you want to do, make a bonfire?”
“Now there’s an idea.”
“There’s nothing to burn down here.”
“Now there’s an idea!”
We had never been so close to the demons before. We had seen them several times during the night, and only once under the sun. One of them was a ghost, a gaunt old man with white eyebrows and stubble, bulging eyes, bare feet, clothed in rags. The rest were human, or had been once, the skin and muscle now gone from their bones. Skeletons, with dark, empty eye sockets and rattling joints.
On that night, all we knew was the cackling sound of their bitter laughter and the fact we were seven and they were the walking dead.
I could see Mark’s eyes were wide with both terror and fascination, feelings that clutched me too as my pulse pounded in my head.
“Why is it we’re stuck down here each and every night, when the other soldiers have warm, comfortable beds?” one of the skeletons asked. This one wore white armor. The skeleton next to him wore black. They huddled together, as if friends.
The one named Patrick was completely naked. “It might have something to do with that horrid stench you’re giving off.”
The one in white raised his humerus and sniffed, the sound a sharp whistle. He cackled. “It isn’t me!”
The final skeleton was naked but for a big black helmet. He shook his head. “We’re here because somebody has to keep an eye on all these prisoners. We’ve got a job to do!”
“Worst job in the empire,” the one in black armor complained.
“Watch your mouth, or I’ll report you for treason!” the helmeted one snapped.
“What are they going to do? Throw him in the dungeon?” the ghost said. They all cackled at the helmeted one.
“Silence, all of you! I’m the only one who takes our responsibilities seriously.”
“You’re the only one stupid enough to think we actually have responsibilities,” Patrick spat. “They have us assigned here to keep us out of the way.”
“He’s right,” the one in white muttered.
“Now, see here,” the helmeted one thundered, rising.
Patrick grabbed hold of his clavicle and yanked him down. “Ah, pipe down you arrogant piece of horseflank!”
“Horseflank? Why, you flesh-loving weasel!” He cracked his hand against Patrick’s skull.
“Oh, not again,” the one in black said, holding Patrick back.
“Every night,” muttered the ghost.
“Look at you two, squabbling like children!” the one in white laughed.
“If you weren’t already dead–” the helmeted one began, gnashing his teeth at Patrick.
“–I’d kill you,” the rest said in wearied unison.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Patrick said.
The helmeted one crossed his legs and stared into the fire. There was a moment of silence.
I looked at Mark and he grinned at me. My fear was subsiding too. We were safe in the stairwell, and these demons obviously weren’t expecting visitors. Hearing them bicker like that, I was less afraid.
“You know what we need?” the ghost said.
“More power?” Patrick said.
“More women?” the helmeted one asked.
“More wine?” asked the one in white.
“More gold?” asked the one in black.
“No, no, no, no,” the ghost said, laughing. “More power!”
Patrick glared and clacked his fingers against his cheekbone.
The helmeted one leaned back contemplatively. “Hmmm…more power, you say?”
“What we need is a plan,” Patrick said.
I grinned and shook my head. Mark’s eyes were drooping. I tapped him on the shoulder and motioned up the stairs. He nodded, and we left together.
We spent the next three years experiencing very predictable days, with only new, exciting adventures springing up irregularly. Just training, training, training. We witnessed a dozen battles, but soon the front was so far away, Grio didn’t want to make the long ride there and back. He said it was because it meant too many days missed training, but I suspected it was because he was getting older.
Mark turned into a capable marksman; I was better with a sword. We both had strengths and weaknesses that I felt complimented each other. Together, we were mighty.
“Don’t be a fool,” Grio barked at this. “One day, one of you will die, and when that happens, you won’t want weaknesses. Figure out what they are and purge them.”
One day, Grio took us aboard a colossus, and gave us some basic instruction in sailing and naval warfare. It was our first time on a ship. Mark was out of his mind with delight. I was seasick.
One of the sailors let Mark hold the helm, and he laughed his head off.
Every so often, in the dead of night, we would sneak back to the dungeons and listen to the skeletons argue and plot. It was comforting to know that we were not the most despised creatures at the castle. The men hated those five even more, mocking their low intellect and status. We learned the names they had given themselves: the helmeted one was Regis, the naked one Patrick, the ghost Ghosty, the one in white armor Skeleton the First, the one in black, his brother, Skeleton the Second. Soldiers also ridiculed their jester-esque names, especially Ghosty.
We never let them see us, and later we would talk and laugh about what they had said that day. Eventually, we had our personal favorites.
There were two events to look forward to every year. There was the Lottery and the Feast of the Founding. The Lottery was the arrival of the Fatherland’s finest women. The brutal journey to the Imperium often left a boat half-empty by the time it arrived. Disease, sea serpents, and corsairs made sure of that. Ships full of beautiful girls were the most tempting target for pirates. The women had been taught to kill themselves if they ever fell into enemy hands.
A woman was given to a mateless man at random, and became his property. We weren’t yet sure what the whole mating process entailed, but, like all children, we sensed something mysterious about it.
“Some men will kill another just for looking at his mate,” Grio told us.
“But not if he’s a superior,” Mark said. “That would get him killed, right?”
“Right you are, lad.”
“Can a superior steal someone’s mate?” I asked.
Grio shook his head. “That is the one thing they cannot take from you. A commander will be executed for that.”
“Good thing, too,” I said.
“Why?” Mark asked.
“Because it would happen all the time. There’d be chaos.”
Grio laughed heartily. “You speak the truth, boy.”
The Lottery took place in the Great Hall, in the fall, where every soldier gathered for a feast that lasted twenty-four hours. Even the skeletons attended, hidden in the back so as not to terrify the newcomers. One year, a girl saw them and died of fright.
The women sat to either side of the Sovereign’s throne. The girls wore the most expensive gowns and paint from the Fatherland. They had been selected from a young age to prepare for leaving their homes and families forever, for crossing the ocean, for belonging to a man they had never met. The paint couldn’t hide their emotions. Some looked thin and exhausted from the journey. Some looked proud and excited, having spent their entire lives without male company. Many cried.
All the soldiers, however, had a grand time, with ale and good food. The Sovereign himself handed out the brides to the lucky men.
The Sovereign, Lord Balthazar. Many words had been used to describe him. Cold, brilliant, bloodthirsty, admirable, terrifying. The one who had conquered the New World and built the Imperium. A wrinkled face. Brown beard slashed with white. Glistening silver armor. He wore no crown, but rather the black cloak of the Sovereign. His word was law; he was both loved and feared. Beside him stood Kalia, his silent and gorgeous wife.
The Feast of the Founding was the celebration of the empire’s birth, in the spring. That year was 0132, the first two digits representing which Sovereign ruled, the second two representing the year since the Founding. The celebration was three days of duels, with three fights on each day. Blood was shed on the cobblestones of the massive Courtyard; the duels were to the death. Each night there was a gathering in the Great Hall, to honor the victor and glorify the Imperium with song and cheer.
Such celebrations were the best of times. That year was no different, until the second night of the Feast, when Zeinn-Commander Tiberius, second only to the Sovereign himself, stood beside the throne to read the names of tomorrow’s first-round fighters.
He read our names.
The music of drums and tambourines and fifes stopped. The men turned at their tables. Though their mouths were of stone, their eyes sneered. I saw a flicker of surprise pass over the Sovereign’s face. Then it disappeared.
Grio, between us, slowly rose.
“Speak,” Lord Balthazar said.
“My Lord, this is madness. They are only ten years of age.”
Tiberius stepped forward. “If I may, my Liege, since I am curator of the duels. This match-up, like all the others, was demanded by popular vote. In thirty years, we have never revoked such a decision.”
Grio bared his teeth as he spoke. “My Sovereign, you instructed me to train these boys to be great warriors. Now you would have one of them die?”
A frown tugged at Balthazar’s mouth.
Grio pounced at it. “Such a terrible waste!”
It only then began to sink in what had just happened. I had been too stunned to think or feel. Images of clashing swords with Mark flashed through my head. We had done it every day for years, but had never been trying to kill each other. This couldn’t be right. This couldn’t be happening. We were only kids!
“This will give us the opportunity to see which one most deserves your time, Grio,” Tiberius spat.
If it came down to it, would I win? I was better with a sword. That wasn’t fair. Had that been planned? It didn’t matter. I couldn’t kill Mark.
I looked at Mark. Head bowed. Staring at his dinner.
“My Sovereign, at least let it be to first blood. Do not waste ten years of toil, and throw away a life that will bring victory and glory to the empire,” Grio said.
A murmur rumbled through the Great Hall. They didn’t like Grio praising us like that.
“We have our laws,” Tiberius said.
Balthazar raised his hand. An instant hush.
“The laws stand. They fight to the death.”
The men were satisfied, smiling as they turned back to their wine and venison. The music resumed quickly, louder than before. Tiberius smirked. The Sovereign’s face was a stoic mask as usual. I heard the skeletons cackle somewhere. The celebration continued.
Grio’s knuckles relaxed and turned from white to red. He sat.
Mark and I looked at each other, and I felt like we were both more worried about old Grio than anything else. He took deep, raspy breaths.
“I should have seen this happening,” he growled. “Of course they would do this. What would make them happier than seeing the pigbloods cut themselves to pieces?” He pressed a fist to his forehead. “Sova.”
I could think of anything to say. What could I say? It’ll be fine? Don’t worry about us?
“Has anyone just not fought before?” Mark asked.
“You won’t do that!” Grio roared. Mark was shocked.
“Don’t you understand? If you don’t fight, you forsake your honor forever. You’re branded cowards. You will never fight. You will never lead. You will never command. It’s just about as effective as killing you. I’ll be reassigned and your training finished.”
Grio pounded the table as he rose and left.
Mark and I glanced at each other, then away. There really was nothing to say.
* * *
Until we crawled into bed and were unable to sleep.
“Even if we’re cowards, we’d be alive,” Mark said.
“Yeah, only we’d be exiled.”
“Really? You think so?”
“Only soldiers live here. We’d have to leave. Hope a village would take us in. We’d lose Grio.”
“So what do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t kill you, Zecharias.”
“Why didn’t the Sovereign stop this?”
“He didn’t have a choice, I don’t think. He didn’t want to look weak. He wants us to grow up and be heroes, but he can’t throw away the loyalty of his men. He can’t break his own law.”
“I thought he could do whatever he wanted.”
“Well, he could if he wanted to. But he can’t protect us like that, when everyone else hates us.”
We listen to the crickets in the fields. Mark turned toward the wall.
“For the Sovereign?” he asked.
The famous battle cry. Used when men went to war. We used it when we played in the fields, pretending to hack apart revolutionaries.
I closed my eyes. “Yeah. For the Sovereign.”
* * *
From the moment our swords struck, I knew I was going to die. I would have to let Mark kill me.
There was a wild look in his eyes. I was only a year older than he, but sometimes it seemed like more. He was so afraid, not of being hurt, I suspected, but of hurting me. We were both scared. But he looked so young then.
We were in the Courtyard, surrounded by thousands of roaring men. People packed the balconies and battlements. We had an area to duel about fifty paces by fifty paces. At the front of the crowd, the Sovereign sat, flanked by four guards. To his left, Tiberius, and then each commander according to his rank. Old Grio was about in the middle, the lone commander standing. Sweat dripped off his nose. He rubbed his hands viciously, grimacing as we exchanged blows.
We had started off fairly timidly, so unlike our practice sessions. The bloodthirsty crowd didn’t like that very much. They jeered and shouted, and soon our attacks and parries grew more violent.
It was so hot that morning. We wore no armor. This wasn’t about staying alive. This was about dying.
Mark crashed his blade downwards onto mine. My arm was growing tired. Mark was strong, no doubts there; the same arm he used to draw a man’s bow wielded that sword.
But I was much faster, with better reaction time, and a better knack for predicting the next strike. I turned aside each attack fairly easily; Mark had to scramble when I went on the offensive.
I couldn’t let Mark win quickly. Most of the men knew I was better than he was. I would have to make it a longer battle, then make a critical mistake. Mark, in the frenzy, wouldn’t have time to think. It would just happen. His sword would bite into my throat or my heart or my groin, I would bleed out quickly, and it would be over. He’d drop his sword and rush over to me, and we’d hold hands as I left the earth. I wondered if I’d become a star. Probably not. This seemed too senseless for that. Why did it have to be so hot?
Mark’s face was contorted. Clenched teeth. Burning cheeks. Breathing hard. He was swinging erratically. What if he wears himself out, I thought. If he passes out from exhaustion, I’ll have to sever his head as he lies there.
We were dancing around a few half-broken cobblestones. That was my chance. I could stumble over one of them, just as Mark lunges. I could do it. I could end this.
I never got the chance. In an instant, the screams of delight from the crowd turned into gasps of horror. Then nothing.
Sweat stung my eyes. Mark and I stared at each other, our blades raised. What was going on? Everything had stopped. We took a step back from each other, slowly lowering our weapons.
It was Grio!
There he was. He was standing in front of the chair to his right, in which the sechts-commander sat. Apparently Grio had unsheathed his sword and plunged it into the man’s heart. Blood sprayed from the wound onto Grio’s chest, neck, and face.
I didn’t even know the sechts-commander’s name. Gracchus, maybe? I think that was it. Grio had just murdered him in front of everyone!
Gracchus shook and lay still. The spray of blood fell to a steady flow. Grio pulled his blade out and took a step back to view his deed. He had killed a superior.
The silence was incredible.
The Sovereign rose from his seat. His hand shook with anger as he pointed it at our trainer.
“Traitor,” Balthazar hissed. “Guards, kill this man.”
The guards stepped forward, and the crowd came alive, roaring the most terrible things I had ever heard at Grio. The noise was deafening. The old man moved closer to us; the guards readied their pikes and inched nearer.
Grio looked Mark in the eyes, and gave a little nod. He looked me in the eyes, and did the same.
He turned to face the guards, turned his wet blade towards himself, and fell forward. There was a horrible slash as the sword pierced his chest and ripped through his back. He lay still on the stones, blood rushing away from him in all directions.
Again, everything was still, until the Sovereign moved. He turned and left. His guards hustled after him.
Within a quarter-hour, the Courtyard was empty. Mark and I alternately stared at the corpse at our feet and the one in the chair behind us. I noticed I was still clutching my sword, and it clanged loudly when I let it go. Mark looked at his own sword, then let it fall.
* * *
Grio had saved us, that was for sure, but so had the Sovereign.
“What do you mean?” Mark asked.
It was night. The sounds of feasting and music rang from the Great Hall. We sat on the battlements of the castle walls, munching on bread and cheese, sharing a bottle of wine. After today, we needed it.
“Grio basically spat in the Sovereign’s face, but he got what he wanted. The Sovereign could have made us continue the fight.”
“Instead he left.”
“Signalling it was over. He let Grio challenge his authority and win.”
“So he wanted us to live?”
“We’re supposed to be his heroes.”
Mark nodded, and passed the wine to me. I took a swig.
“We’re alone now,” he said.
“I suppose so.”
“What are we going to do?”
“How should I know?”
“You’re always the one with a plan.”
“Well, I do have one idea.”
“Out with it.”
I smiled mirthlessly, and wiped my mouth with my sleeve. “Get to the top as quickly as possible. They’ll think twice before killing superiors.”
* * *
After Grio died, the Sovereign himself personally took over our training. We weren’t as alone as we had thought, and for that we were much relieved. We also swelled with pride. He was the Sovereign, after all, devoting as much time as he could spare each day (usually about an hour or two) to craft us into great warriors.
We bore no resentment over the fact that if Grio had not taken his own life, Balthazar would have had him speared. Grio had been like a father to us, but we understood that the laws were everything. The laws prevented chaos. The laws had built the greatest empire on earth. Breaking the law, even for a good deed, would never go unpunished, would never result in anything but death.
Balthazar spent as much time explaining our laws and history as he did watching and critiquing our exercises and duels. At first, we had been greatly intimidated by him. He had seemed a cold, silent force. But much to our surprise, we found that when he was with us, he enjoyed telling long stories and would talk forever about his battles and victories.
Mark and I never spoke of it directly, but we would look at each other and both knew that the Sovereign was proud of us, or at the very least, was eager to see what we would become, what we would do for the empire.
We even got to go in the throne room! Wide balconies extending on all sides, each with a large fountain. Massive grey columns and lush red carpet, leading, pointing to the iron throne made soft with purple pillows. Guards, like statues, everywhere. Colossal maps and charts off to one side, commanders and strategists crowded around, arguing. Dancing girls a snap of the fingers away. A domesticated wolf asleep in the corner. Balthazar’s wife, Kalia, always had a bright smile for us.
We boys sat on the rug, Balthazar on the throne, all three of us dining on berries and grapes served by slaves.
“What were our parents like?” Mark asked.
“Ferocious,” Balthazar said, throwing his hands up in emphasis. He tossed aside his bowl and leaned forward. “Your fathers used to live in a fortress of wood and stone not far from here. Their king was killed in battle, and they took over the resistance against me. In the last battle, as the palisade fell, they charged out against my army, probably with the last five hundred fighting men they had.”
“How many did you have?” I asked.
“At the time, about three thousand.”
“What happened?” Mark asked.
“Your fathers probably killed a hundred of my men, each.”
“When it was over, your fathers and fifty other survivors fled, using rivercraft they had stealthily built during the siege to evade me. I had lost over a thousand men.”
“Quite a resistance,” I said, trying to sound grown-up.
Balthazar shook his head. “It didn’t end there! They hid in the forests. They hid in the villages. They hid in the mountains. For twenty years, they organized revolutions against us. Every patrol I sent to track and destroy them never returned.”
“Until ten years ago,” I said.
Balthazar smiled. “We found them in the mountains during a particularly harsh winter. A storm had destroyed their homes. They had frozen to death.”
Mark and I looked at each other. For once, I had no idea what he was thinking.
“They had essentially buried the two of you with anything they had, to keep you alive longer, hoping other members of the resistance would find you before the end. We found you first.”
“What about our mothers?” Mark asked.
“They were there, too, at the end.”
“No, I mean, who were they?”
Balthazar looked surprised. “I haven’t the slightest idea. Girls from their kingdom, I suppose.”
“What were our fathers’ names?” I asked.
Balthazar laughed. “I wish I could tell you, boys, but I don’t remember. I doubt anyone does.”
The skeletons never stopped scheming. They hatched many plots and plans, but more often than not they fell apart over bitter arguing, usually over who would lead or how the riches or power would be divided once they were successful. At times, though, they acted. They got organized some months after Grio died.
“Tonight’s the night, boys,” Regis said to the others in their cell.
Patrick rubbed his hands together. “Yes, indeed. The era of the skeletons has arrived.”
“As long as somebody doesn’t screw up,” Skeleton the Second snapped.
“Come on!” Patrick said. “What could possibly go wrong?”
“Plenty. What if someone suspects it’s one of us, and comes down here and discovers you’re missing?”
“No one comes down here,” Ghosty said.
“Unless they have a reason.”
“We’ll hide,” Regis said. “If they can’t find any of us, they can’t count us.”
“And there’s something else,” Skeleton the First added.
“You two are quite a pair of downers, aren’t you?” Regis said.
“Well…perhaps so. But what makes you so sure they’ll react the way you want? I mean, they’ve seen us. Why should they be scared?”
“You guys are brainless cowards,” Patrick muttered.
Skeleton the First smiled. “Brainless, yes, but that goes for all of us.”
Regis bent and picked up a heavy shovel. “We’ve already been over this. We’ll put on quite a show. They’ll be scared out of their minds, and the Sovereign will be bye-bye.”
On the stairs, Mark whispered to me, “Now I see why he keeps them down here.”
I nodded. The skeletons would never stop vying for control. Most of the men were power-hungry glory hounds, but the skeletons put them all to shame.
“Now let’s get moving!” Regis roared, so loud it startled us.
Adrenaline poured through my veins. They were gathering shovels and torches, and heading this way! I grabbed Mark’s tunic and pulled him up. We skittered up the dark stairs as fast as possible. In the hall, we hid in a doorframe, and watched the skeletons march by.
“The first thing I’m going to do as co-sovereign is put our names in the Lottery!” Ghosty said.
“You’re a ghost. How would that even work?” Patrick said, and they all cackled uproariously.
“Humph. Speak for yourself!” Ghosty shot back.
Their voices and the flickering of their fires grew fainter, and we slid out of the doorway and walked casually after them.
Eventually, the skeletons stopped speaking altogether, avoiding detection. They were sneaky, I had to give them that. They could vanish on a whim. They didn’t even realize we were following them, and they were still hard to track.
Soon, we were in the Courtyard. We stayed in the shadows of the Great Hall and watched the skeletons clamber up the ladders and onto the battlements.
They threw their shovels over the towering walls. Then they jumped off!
Mark and I sprinted up to the battlements and peered down into the night. The torches were tiny now. The skeletons picked themselves up, from a fall that would have probably killed more men than it maimed, and continued on.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
Mark shook his head. This was the south side of the castle, opposite from the sea. There was nothing in that direction except grassland.
“The cemetery is that way,” Mark said.
That’s right! “They have shovels.”
“They’re digging someone up. But why?”
“I don’t know. You don’t think…they’d dig up Grio?”
“Grio’s not buried there.”
“The Sovereign had him left for the crows and wild dogs.”
Of course. Traitors weren’t buried. “I hadn’t realized that. Well, at least it’s not him.”
“Yeah, I’d hate to see his body desecrated,” he said sarcastically.
The spots of lights stopped, and the skeletons got to work.
* * *
They dug up Sechts-Commander Gracchus. Within an hour, four of five had scaled the wall, their fingers like claws, and disappeared. Patrick was left behind.
But soon, he approached the gate, dressed in the jewelry and burial robes of the former sixth most powerful man in the empire. His face was shrouded. Mark and I stared in fascination from the Courtyard shadows.
The guards at the portcullis raised their spears.
“Who goes there?” one shouted.
“I…” rasped Patrick. “I live.”
His fingers, caked in mud, clacked around the iron bars. He threw back his hood.
The guards shouted and jumped back.
“Do you know who I am?” Patrick asked, spitting dirt from his mouth.
The guards eyed each other nervously. “Could it be…” the one stammered. “Gracchus?”
Patrick coughed, spat again, and smiled. I had to admit, he was decent actor.
“Open this gate,” he commanded.
The guards were slow to respond. One took a step forward, the other a step back. The former said, “I’m getting Tiberius” and all but ran across the Courtyard.
The last guard swallowed, unsure.
“Open it, swine,” Patrick barked.
He reluctantly obeyed.
Within minutes Tiberius arrived. A crowd of men trailed behind him.
Tiberius eyed Patrick suspiciously. “Gracchus?”
“I am he. Only…changed, somehow.”
Patrick held up his hands. “I feel strong. Powerful. As if my whole life before was just a dream. I can’t explain it.”
Tiberius snorted. “Perhaps you can explain your resurrection?”
“I…I was among the stars,” Patrick gasped, as if remembering.
Mark stifled a laugh. A murmur of interest rippled over the crowd. Tiberius held up a hand for silence.
“A light so bright,” Patrick said, “I could be seen across the universe. I could hear the voices of everyone who ever died. I was both in my place in the heavens, and everywhere at once. Then…”
The men inched closer.
“Then I realized something. Every star, everyone else was…happy. At peace. And I was not. I felt turmoil well up inside me, because I had no glory. I had been taken from the empire, from the earth, in a senseless act of betrayal. I could not stay. I would not. So I hurled myself toward the earth, clawing my way through the protective fire. The next thing I realized, I was no longer clawing down, but up. I was digging through splinters of wood and dirt and stone, and at last…I broke the surface. There I was, in the cemetery.”
Tiberius’ face changed. Was he buying this?
“But there’s more,” Patrick said. “I can feel it. I feel I can do anything I like. As if I could raise my hand, and bring forth…anything.”
He raised his hand, and a pillar of fire erupted from four of the castle towers above us. Each one rose forty feet in the air, roaring and dancing. The men shouted. Mark and I pressed ourselves against the wall, trying to stay in a shadow. Huge grins spread across our faces.
After a moment, Patrick closed his fist, and the fire vanished.
Tiberius cleared his throat. “An amusing trick. But this realm has no lack of sorcerers.”
Patrick laughed. A hearty, human-sounding laugh, not his usual cackle. “Sorcery! Please. This is more than that. I was a star, a god. I have brought myself back to life, to fulfill a higher purpose. I have mastery over death.”
Tiberius shook his head. A fat man next to him chuckled, and said, “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
Patrick smiled, stepped forward, and patted the fat man on the cheek. “You will, Otho. You will.”
The skeleton then twirled and raised his finger. He pointed it at the fat man.
There was a nervous couple of seconds. Tiberius shook his head. The fat man smirked, brows raised expectantly.
Then, Otho gasped. His veins bulged a sickly golden color, his eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed in a large heap, dead.
The soldiers backed quickly away from Patrick, shouting in panic. Tiberius himself drew away. I was shocked, and Mark’s jaw hung loose.
“Behold!” Patrick shouted. “Does anyone else wish to question my divinity?” He waved his finger menacingly.
“What is it you want?” hissed Tiberius.
“Hmm.” He clasped his hands behind his back. “What do all gods want? Power over men. The empire above is the empire below. I’ve returned to bring glory to the Imperium. We shall bring the entire world under our banner, and build a kingdom that will last for a thousand years.”
A few men nodded their agreement.
“But of course, a kingdom cannot have two kings.”
Tiberius’ eyes grew wide in horror.
Patrick smiled. “I want you to go kill the Sovereign.”
No one knew what to say. The only noise was an owl far off.
“We’ve got to do something,” I whispered to Mark.
“Yeah, before it’s too late. This prank has gone on long enough.”
“Who will do this? I assure you, if you refuse, I shall kill you all where you stand. Would you rather serve a Sovereign…or a god?” Patrick hissed.
The first soldier to step forward was a young man named Ivan. Patrick pulled his sword out from under the burial robes and tossed it to Ivan.
For a moment, Ivan locked eyes with Tiberius. The zeinn-commander shook his head slightly, warningly.
But Ivan eyed Patrick and turned. Half of the group fell in behind him.
We had to scream out. We had to stop this. We jumped to our feet.
Ivan made it ten steps.
He collapsed on the cobblestones, writhing, his flesh glowing golden. Then he lay still.
Patrick’s face told us something had just gone horribly wrong.
“You’ve killed him!” a soldier shouted.
“He was following your orders!” another spat.
“Wait!” barked Tiberius. He marched over to Ivan’s corpse and knelt by the sword. He bent his face low, and sniffed. “Poison!”
Patrick was scared. “Uh, no, no, see…I looked into his soul, and saw deception!”
“He’s got poison on his hands,” Tiberius roared. “He’s no god!”
The skeleton scooted backwards. “Now, listen, there’s a simple explanation for this–”
Tiberius pulled out his sword and charged Patrick.
The skeleton managed to shriek, “Regis, help!” before the blade smashed against his skull.
* * *
The skeletons were back in the dungeon, this time in a locked cell. That wouldn’t hold Ghosty, of course, but he really had nowhere else to go, and freeing his comrades would only bring about more trouble. So he sat there with them.
It was hard to punish the skeletons. You couldn’t starve them, you couldn’t torture them. They could be demeaned and degraded, but that only kept their spirits low for so long. Soon they were ranting, arguing, and plotting again.
Balthazar hadn’t been as furious as we had expected. The skeletons had been with him forever, and he knew they never stopped angling to overthrow him.
“Why do you keep them, then?” Mark exclaimed. “Why not banish them?”
We stood in the warm sun on one of the throne room’s balconies.
The Sovereign laughed. “They have their uses, from time to time. Only a fool would give up soldiers who can’t die.”
“They’re clever, too, I guess,” Mark said.
“And you’ve never seen them fight,” Balthazar said. “They can be savages.”
On the grass outside the castle walls marched twenty blindfolded men, their hands bound behind them. They were the men who had turned to follow Ivan last night. Some fifty archers lined the battlements above them. A great multitude of others gathered to watch.
Balthazar raised his hand, and the archers skewered every last one.
Soon I was 16, and Mark was 15. By that time, we had both made our first kills.
We were being integrated into the ranks, but luckily we were kept together. We mostly went out on patrols, and Mark’s abilities with the bow earned us a small measure of grudging respect among the men of the Red Fist, since he often returned with the most game to eat.
There were 21 men in the Red Fist. It took us months of patrols, but we made an ally or two. Fedor and Cassian were good men, not much older than us. I had figured this would make them more likely to despise us, what with the special attention we got, but I was wrong. They did not go out of their way to be friendly, not wanting to anger the rest of the group, but when we spoke they treated us with civility.
We of course had plenty of enemies. Our patrol leader, Cosmas, was an old, hard man, who cared about racial purity more than anyone I’d ever met. He called us “the heathens,” and made us ride behind everyone else. That was fine with us, that way we could talk without him hearing. Blasius was a revered swordsman, with long black hair and piercing grey eyes. He eyed us with contempt, and when he spat, it was usually in our direction. Paul the Terrible was one of the biggest men we’d ever seen. We once saw him lift a dead horse singlehandedly and throw it. He had very pointy teeth, and bared them at us whenever we spoke. Our pubescent voices annoyed him to no end, and he usually led the way in ridiculing us about it.
Our first kills came on our third patrol. The Red Fist had inspected two villages along the coast, some fifty miles west of the castle. As we rode back, the ocean on our left, a band of revolutionaries ambushed us. There were seven of them on horseback, twelve on foot. They were dressed in rags, probably runaway slaves. But they were well armed.
Those on foot attacked first, appearing on a hillside and hurling javelins into our midst. We were taken off-guard, but no one was killed. Only a horse was pierced through the neck, its rider thrown off into the sand.
My heart leapt into my throat.
“Splinter formation!” barked Cosmas.
We drove our heels into our beasts’ flanks and galloped toward the enemy. We broke into three divisions of riders, pulling apart. The first two maneuvered to hit the revolutionaries from two directions. The third group was reserve and rearguard.
The revolutionaries launched their final wave of javelins. One Imperial, Gallus, was struck in the heart. A second, Lucas, had his tricep slashed. Another horse was pierced and its rider went flying.
The revolutionaries on horseback charged to meet our nearest division, and clashed swords in a chaotic foray. The enemy on foot pulled out swords and prepared to meet the wave Mark and I were in, bearing down on them like thunder.
I unsheathed my sword with a loud ring. Mark was one step ahead; he pulled back an arrow and shot a man in the throat. I caught a glimpse of his shocked expression an instant before I hit the wall enemy soldiers.
A sword flew at my left ankle, and instinct alone allowed me to block it. But I couldn’t counter. My horse, Relic, one of Perluck’s descendants, was still surging forward. A revolutionary was suddenly on my right, blocking a blow from Blasius’ sword, his bald head turned and exposed. I didn’t hesitate. That’s what Grio had said. Never hesitate.
I brought my blade on his head as Relic and I charged past. I narrowly avoided a spray of blood, and I turned in the saddle to see the man’s open head fall to the ground.
Blasius caught my eye. He gave me a glare before cleaving an ear off a revolutionary’s face.
Sorry for stealing that one, I thought sarcastically. My pulse was racing. I couldn’t believe I was in a battle. By the Sovereign, I had just killed someone! My stomach twisted. I had trained for that my entire life, but I had not been near ready.
The battle was over. The enemy was either dead or dying.
We had lost Gallus, and Victor, who had broken his neck when he was flung from his horse. Lucas bled from his arm. Paul the Terrible had a nasty cut across his calf. Another man helped him off his horse and they began treating the wound. Other than that, we were fine.
Cosmas wiped blood and sweat from his forehead. He dismounted and spat on a revolutionary, whose throat was cut but still lived. Cosmas stabbed him in the heart.
I looked up at Mark, who was gasping for breath. He grinned, holding up two fingers and his bow. Two kills.
I saluted with my sword. I looked at it. Smeared with that man’s blood and brains. I gagged, but glanced away and pulled myself together. I couldn’t let the men see me shaken.
We all dismounted and cleaned our blades. Mark and the other archer, the ancient Uri, retrieved any salvageable shafts. We took Gallus and Victor and tied their bodies to horses, of which we now had seven more, and got ready to continue on.
We burned the bodies, so revolutionary allies wouldn’t be able to identify the remains.
* * *
Mark and I didn’t talk about our kills. We were soldiers, it was our job, and that was the end of it. There was no point in discussing it, anyway. There would be more kills, many more.
We had only been on patrols for six months when the Red Fist was reassigned to a campaign Balthazar called his Grand Strategy.
“The time has come to master the wild,” Balthazar told Mark and I, pointing from the balcony to the Endless Forest on the horizon.
For over thirty years, the Imperium had felled trees from other, smaller forests in the empire, but now these sources of lumber were diminishing. It was too inefficient to continue avoiding the Forest. We needed new ships, new houses, new buildings. The Imperium was constantly growing, and it needed fuel.
“We have hundreds of new slaves waiting to be put to work,” Balthazar growled. “We are wasting bread and time on them.”
But they could not get to work until the Forest was made safe, for it was the home of what we called the Swarm. These were frog-like creatures over four feet in length that preyed on deer, wolves, foxes, hawks, snakes–anything that moved in the trees or on the ground below. They shot hot venom from their throats, which would kill seconds after touching bare skin, and then tore into flesh with tiny, sharp teeth.
“The worst part is,” Grio had told us when we were three, “they attack from the trees, sometimes a thousand at a time. We gave up trying to kill them after the first battle. For every one we managed to shoot or stab, we lost ten men. We have no idea how far the Forest goes, or how many there could be. It’s a wasted effort.”
Mark and I both used to wake in the night in cold sweats, nightmares of the Swarm plaguing us, bringing tears to our eyes.
“We’ll have to drive them back deeper into the forest,” Balthazar mused. “We needn’t eliminate them, just train them not to go beyond a certain point. Like a dog that learns not to beg when he is hit, so they will learn not to approach us.”
“How many will you devote to the campaign?” I asked.
“The revolutionaries have been crushed on the southern and eastern fronts. We’ll be solidifying our borders with more permanent defenses and outposts, and hold position, so we can concentrate on the Forest. I’m prepared to send in two thousand men if necessary. Though I am confident we will not need nearly that number.”
“We’re ready to serve, my Lord,” Mark said.
Balthazar smiled and slapped him on the back. “Good boys. The Red Fist will be expanded into a division of one hundred men. You’ll be a part of the first army in.”
Mark and I look at each other. We were ready. Since our first, we had been in three other battles. One had been quite large: we tracked down and engaged a revolutionary force of fifty men, all on foot. The Red Fist killed forty of them. Blasius was extraordinary, slaying thirteen men on his own. I had three kills, Mark had five. We lost seven men, including Cassian. The ten revolutionaries who survived were captured, imprisoned, tortured, and returned to the Imperial slave masters and hard crop labor.
Balthazar turned to us and gripped both our shoulders. “I’m looking forward to seeing how you fare.”
* * *
The campaign in the Forest lasted three years.
I had hoped, at first, that being so close to the castle would allow us to sleep in our warm, familiar beds at night and march out to battle each morning. But Balthazar had other ideas.
The Swarm didn’t allow anyone to get very far into the Forest before striking. We could not give up the day’s gains. Each foot farther past the edge of the Forest was invaluable. If we retreated, we would pay dearly the next day to make up the ground.
The Forest was thick, the trees towering and mighty. Sometimes it was hard to swing a sword without accidentally lodging it in a trunk. That got some men killed.
The toads were very difficult to see, being black and green and perching motionless above the canopy. Often, it was the smell that gave them away.
“It’s good because it takes away their surprise,” I said.
“It’s bad because you know there’s five hundred of them,” Mark quipped.
They would come raining down, often dropping from a hundred feet or more. We soon fashioned spikes on our shields, so we could cover ourselves and kill whatever landed on us. The instant the toads hit the ground, they were spewing poison like arrows from a bow. We were well protected, but if your hands or face were hit, you were dead. Soon members of the Red Fist, and indeed the whole army, were given leather gloves. The Swarm was highly intelligent, though, and soon learned to aim between the eyes.
When we knew they were coming, we usually were the victors. Archers would shower the trees with barbs, so a smaller wave of the toads reached our line alive. Those that did we fought with sword or spear.
But when they surprised us, as we marched or made camp, it was devastating. Without shields, or protection from swordsmen, the archers were often massacred disproportionately. After six months, archers were made to carry shields with stakes on the base, so one could slam the shield into the earth and use it for protection as he drew his bow. Mark became so fast at this, he could pull it off in a single second. Mark later fastened a blade to the tip of bow, so he could stab anything that got too close. Some scoffed at this sign of “cowardice,” but others copied it.
The losses were astonishing. The deeper we advanced into the Forest, the more men fell taking each step. Two thousand men were dead by the end of year two. Another fifteen hundred would perish before it was over. Corpses, their poisoned veins bulging a goldish yellow, littered the woods. We had slaves come behind us and cart the bodies to the cemetery.
I’m not sure how many toads we killed, but Tiberius and the other commanders estimated anywhere from six to ten thousand. It was much easier, for Mark and I, to kill creatures than men. We became calloused to it, and very efficient at it. Mark’s shot became almost legendary, and I competed closely with Blasius in each battle to slay more toads. I usually lost by a few, but the fact I was keeping up with him surprised many and angered some. Some men gambled on our competition. Blasius despised me.
Not only did Mark and I distinguish ourselves as truly dangerous warriors, we learned how to think like commanders. We hated Cosmas more and more for taking foolish risks and not listening to our suggestions. I think the fact that we didn’t die enraged him a bit more each day. But I take pride in the fact that I came up with an idea that set the Red Fist apart, after he finally listened to me.
After Balthazar deemed the skeletons had been locked up long enough, he sent them to the Forest, and they were assigned to our division. The Sovereign had been right: they were savages on the battlefield. They could leap and climb like the toads and, immune to the poison, just kept stabbing away. The Swarm quickly learned the best defense against the skeletons was to pile on top of them and make them immobile. This didn’t work too well on Ghosty, but for the others, it was effective.
I went to Cosmas in his tent.
“Get out of my sight,” Cosmas muttered, not looking up from the map on his desk.
“I have a tactic, sir. The skeletons can help us.”
Cosmas spat. “Balthazar must think so low of me, handing me both heathens and the undead. What did I do to deserve such insults?”
“The toads have made a habit of crushing the skeletons to slow them down. In our last encounter, I saw at least ten pile onto Regis and just lie there.”
“Sir, had the archers been ready, they could have dropped all ten. They’re sitting targets.”
“It was the heat of battle, pigblood. Archers were fighting for their lives.”
“My point is, we should use the skeletons as bait. Send them out ahead of us, get the toads to swarm them, then have the archers fire from a distance. If the toads crowd as they have been, our men won’t even have to aim.”
Cosmas frowned, his eyes darting back and forth. If I had been anyone else, I would have been commended. He steepled his fingers and motioned toward the tent flap.
“I’ll consider it,” he growled.
I bowed in salute and went off to find Mark and tell him about my idea.
* * *
It took a few weeks, but eventually Cosmas had the skeletons advancing ahead of us.
“Sure, now you need us,” Regis laughed.
Skeleton the First said, “First it’s ‘Get to the dungeons, you worthless devils!’ But as soon as there’s a war going on, it’s ‘Help us, help us, help us, skeletons! We need our immortal friends!’”
The others laughed.
They were being loud, but that was all right. It was their job to attract attention.
“What business is this war of ours, anyway?” Ghosty whined.
“Shut up, Ghosty,” Patrick said, but then turned and shook his fist at us. “But he’s right, you know!”
“That’s right,” Skeleton the Second quipped. “We have no wages, no pleasant accommodations, no ranks or titles, no women, no nothing. Why should we fight? What’s in it for us?”
Regis rubbed his chin, then raised his sword. “This is our chance for glory!”
“And who will glorify us?” Patrick asked. “The Sovereign? Those men back there? Nonsense.”
“When this war is over, we’ll be back in the cells,” Skeleton the Second grumbled.
Regis straightened his helmet. “Well, then, just enjoy the fresh air! Ahhh.”
Mark and I grinned, but none of the men seemed amused. Were we the only ones who found the skeletons so funny?
The trap worked better than I had hoped. Soon there was a sudden movement in the trees, and probably a hundred toads descended upon the skeletons.
“Eek!” screamed Ghosty in surprise.
“To arms, boys!” Regis roared. “For honor! For glory! For the Sovereign!”
“For us!” Patrick barked, slashing a toad in the throat.
They were peppered with poison.
“It’s so slimy!” Skeleton the First wailed miserably, before he was buried in toads.
Regis sliced off an arm and a leg before he too disappeared in black and green flesh. Skeleton the First and his brother hacked apart several more, until the Swarm came together as one and crushed them. Ghosty kept on swinging his knife, as toads leapt through him.
From our line, Cosmas raised his hand, and Mark, Uri, and the other archers unleashed a hail storm into the pile. The toads struggled to dig their way out from under new corpses, to no avail. The archers kept firing. An arrow passed through Ghosty, who clutched his chest in horror.
Very quickly, the Swarm was dead.
* * *
The end came after another division discovered the toads did not belong to a single Swarm. Imperials witnessed one group of toads viciously attacking, and devouring, another. These rival groups could be identified by color and size.
It took many months of planning and mapping, but soon Tiberius had an idea of where the territory of one group ended and another began.
So we burned sections of the Forest to force rival groups together, and the results were astounding. The Swarms tore themselves apart. Their numbers diminished; we built outposts and fortresses, and burned the areas around them to prevent toads from using trees to attack. In the open, the toads were vulnerable and easy to repel.
Of this Endless Forest, a hundred miles now belonged to the Imperium.
In three years, we had spent maybe a total of twenty nights back at the castle on leave. It had been agonizing, knowing home to be so close, sometimes even hearing celebrations and feasts.
It was good to be back.
That same week, however, was marked by an attempt on our lives. To this day, we are not sure who it was.
Had we not stayed up late discussing the future of our careers, we would have surely been stabbed in our beds. As it was, we had stopped speaking twenty minutes ago, and I was about to drift into a deep sleep. Luckily, Mark was much more awake than I, his mind no doubt racing with thoughts of rising through the Imperial ranks and commanding men and ships.
When our door creaked open a few inches, a knife flashed in the moonlight. A bow was instantly in Mark’s hands, and an arrow pierced the intruder’s large, hairy forearm.
He screamed and cursed.
Jolted awake, I swept up my sword from under my bed and leapt to the door, Mark kneeling on his bed with another arrow drawn.
The man was gone, leaving behind only a few drops of blood on the stone floor.
That night, we did not sleep. We built an iron lock for our door.
* * *
The first part of that year, with myself 19 and Mark 18, saw the Red Fist return to patrolling the empire. We also did our fair share of slave collecting, choosing from the villages the fittest men and women to serve at the castle, work the mines or the lumberyards or the farms, or build ships and structures. By Balthazar’s reasoning, the more work we could create, the more subjects could be made slaves, and fewer would be able to join the resistance.
The revolutionaries were weakening. The Sovereign had halted advances on the front, and increased the size and frequency of patrols. When it could be ascertained, any village that aided the enemy with shelter, food, or weapons, would be subject to random executions. One village Balthazar had burned to the ground. This chokehold helped the situation greatly.
When we were with the Red Fist, Mark and I took turns sleeping. Any of the men could slit our throats, without consequences. Cosmas would certainly like to. He had been trying to get us transfered to another patrol. Blasius would most love to kill me, I suspected, and it wasn’t just because I was a foul-breed anymore. Paul the Terrible seemed to accept our presence more once our voices stopped cracking, and had even gambled with Mark over whether or not Mark could bullseye certain targets. He usually lost his money.
Uri, all of a sudden, turned into a close ally. Tall, skinny, and bearded, he was pushing eighty years old, but could still ride and shoot with the best of them. All Uri cared about was skill. He respected Mark’s aim to such a degree, he probably wouldn’t have cared if he was a woman. The young Fedor started being more openly friendly, joining us for meals, cards, or duels, but was soon transferred to another patrol. We probably had Cosmas to thank for that.
The skeletons, for their extensive service fighting the Swarm, were finally off prison duty. They were allowed to rejoin the regular army for drills, guard duty, and patrols.
We would often join the Sovereign in his throne room to discuss the ins and outs of overseeing an empire, or ride with him when he wanted fresh air or to hunt. His commanders, especially Tiberius, hated this, but speaking ill of us to Balthazar was most unwise. We were like sons to him. The rumor was that Kalia would never be able to give him an heir. Surely, he could take another wife if he so chose, but it was obvious to us that Balthazar loved her very much. So he came to see us as his own, despite the fact we were an inferior race. He, too, seemed to care more about ability than blood, and for that, we respected him a great deal. He had saved us when we were young, not only from death but from slavery. And from then on, he had looked out for us, trained us, praised us.
“Whatever blood you have in your veins,” he said to us once, lounging on cushions at the bow of his extravagant luxury boat, “it has produced two of the finest soldiers at my command.”
He had felt like spending some time at sea on this beautiful autumn day, and we had gone with him. So had a small army of guards and two colossus warships.
“Thank you, Lord,” I said.
“Eventually Tiberius and the men will come to terms with your presence. They will value your place in the Imperium, I promise.”
We watched the waves crashing against the rocks and the north castle wall, the seagulls circling and flapping every which way.
“I hope so, Sire,” Mark said.
Balthazar waved his hand. “Come, come, I already see it happening. You’re both young and already there are few who would cross you without thinking twice. You survived the Swarm, and so many did not. You’re more dangerous than you realize.”
His words lifted my spirits. Mark and I did want acceptance, we did want respect.
“We’ll just continue on then,” I said.
Balthazar stroked his beard. “Precisely. Keep doing what you’re doing. It won’t be long before you will be leading them in battle, and they will follow you loyally to the bitter end.”
* * *
It was less than a fortnight later that everything went to hell. All the hatred and tension came to a sudden and violent head. The Lottery for the year 0141 arrived, and Mark’s name was pulled.
I’m sure you can imagine the scene in the Great Hall. Thousands eating, drinking, lusting after the hundred gorgeous women that stood beside Balthazar at his throne. The skeletons climbing on top of each other to get a better view of the prizes. Mark and I sitting with Uri and a few of the others in the Red Fist, laughing over our adventures or arguing over who had the most kills.
A slave held a cauldron, from which Tiberius ceremoniously pulled out a piece of parchment, unrolled it, and read loudly the name of the lucky man. Then the music roared, the crowd shouted in congratulations, some men cursed their misfortune, some women cried out in fear, and Balthazar rose to take the hand of the next woman in line and hand her to her new husband.
“Long live the Sovereign!” the men would cheer.
As soon as this was complete, the two were considered mates. Slaves rushed in and refilled drinks and plates between every drawing. The music then stopped, a hush fell over the room in gripping anticipation, and Tiberius reached into the cauldron again.
Mark nearly choked when he heard Tiberius gasp his name.
The response was immediate. The soldiers screamed their displeasure with a ferocity I hadn’t heard at any duel or in any battle. They rose from their seats and shouted and shook their fists at Tiberius. Cosmas was so wrathful he was turning purple; he shattered his plate and goblet. A few men kicked over their table and stormed out of the room. Blasius and others spat on the floor in protest. Paul the Terrible, vile and bloodthirsty, was probably the first one with a blade in his hand. The ringing noises meant others were pulling their own swords from their sheaths. They lifted them above their heads, roaring. More tables smashed to the ground, more glass broke.
The women were confused and terrified. The skeletons were beside themselves with laughter. Tiberius took a step back in fear, even as Balthazar’s guards stepped forward.
Mark slowly rose to his feet, and I did the same, my hand on my sword hilt. Soldiers all around us swore at us, spewed in our faces, shouted in our ears.
I watched Balthazar. He reached over and grabbed Tiberius, yanking him nearly off his feet. The Sovereign hissed something to him, clutching his throat. Tiberius gasped for air, his eyes bulging in terror. Balthazar head-butted him in the nose, and Tiberius fell to the ground, blood gushing.
I understood then. Mark was 18, and eligible for the drawing, but he was never supposed to be a part of it. A reaction like that meant Tiberius had failed the Sovereign. Tiberius was supposed to make sure the Lottery planners kept Mark’s name, and indeed my own, out of that cauldron. Tiberius was valuable to the Sovereign; he would probably live. The planners, probably not.
Balthazar rose to his feet. The ruckus and violence did not stop.
Mark shot me a glance, and began shouldering his way through the men. He was pushed and heckled. He dodged a blow, but pressed onward. I began to wonder if I’d be able to make it to him in order to save his life, so I followed him.
And there she was. Standing next in line was a goddess among women, a petite brunette girl in a blue dress named Chloe. This was Mark’s bride. Be it luck or fate, her beauty only exacerbated the situation. It threw the men into a greater rage. Now she watched the scene with large, fearful brown eyes, utterly bewildered at what was happening.
For a moment, Mark seemed stunned by the girl.
Then the unsheathing of more blades jolted him back. When he turned, I could see it in his eyes. It was that hard look, the one he gave right before unleashing an arrow. The girl was his. No one was going to take her from him.
Seeing Chloe, I couldn’t say I blamed him.
Mark yanked a short sword from his belt and bellowed, “I will fight any man here to protect what is mine!”
The men cursed at him, pressing forward. More weapons flashed in the firelight. I stood next to Mark and raised my own blade; a few men swore, as if they had hoped I wouldn’t get involved. Yeah, right.
“Silence!” roared the Sovereign.
The Sovereign raising his voice usually meant someone was about to die. The din died out, but no one lowered their weapons.
“We will have order in my Hall,” Balthazar said.
“My Lord!” It was Cosmas.
Devil, I thought. Stay out of this.
Balthazar motioned to him to step forward. “Speak, Cosmas.”
“My Sovereign, for too long your soldiers have been in a state of confusion. Torn between our loyalty for you, and our love of the law!”
Agreement swept through the multitude.
“You decreed, forty years ago,” Cosmas continued, “that any Imperial man who mated with a woman of impure blood would be put to death.”
Rumbles of approval.
“He would be put to death for breaking your law. And the woman, she would be put to death as well, to ensure no half-breed ever walks this earth!”
The crowd shouted in triumph.
Cosmas raised his arms and quieted them. “How, my Lord, can we simply allow the opposite? How can we hand one of our women, hailing from the Fatherland, bred for this service, to a…a heathen?”
Cosmas spat at our feet, and the men screamed in agreement.
“Kill the pigbloods!”
“Protect the bloodline!”
“The Sovereign betrays the law!”
Balthazar spotted who screamed that last one. He pointed to an overweight, red-haired man and said, “Guards, take him to the Courtyard and cut out his tongue.”
The guards leapt forward, arrested the soldier, and dragged him toward the massive doors.
“Wait!” the man shrieked. “No, wait, please!”
“Oopsies,” Regis said, and the skeletons laughed.
The doors slammed shut.
Mark turned to Balthazar. “My challenge stands, My Liege, if you will allow it. I will fight to the death any man who wishes to.” He whirled on the men. “If I am a heathen, come and kill me. The girl will pass to the next man drawn. If I should slay you, then I am an Imperial, and I take the girl as my own!”
A smile tugged at Balthazar’s lips. He nodded his agreement.
“We accept the duel!” Cosmas barked. The soldiers clanged their weapons and cheered.
“Send forth your challenger,” Mark said.
Cosmas waved someone over, and the crowd parted for him. It was Blasius.
I swore under my breath. Mark, what have you done?
In an instant, the crowd moved as one, pushing back to give the duelists space, slamming tables and chairs against the far wall. Dishes and instruments and food clattered on the floor. Chloe and the other women, amazed, mortified, moved behind Balthazar’s throne. The Sovereign sat, grabbed an apple from his plate, and bit into it.
Blasius pulled forth his sword and examined its sharpness. He looked at me, not Mark, and smiled.
So that’s how it is, I thought. You’ll kill my best friend right in front of me. I wanted to slash my blade across that smile.
Mark seemed unfazed.
“His downward cut is fast, but he’s slower on the thrust,” I whispered to Mark.
“Don’t think you know more about his style than I do,” he replied. “You’ve watched him fight while fighting enemies off yourself. I’ve watched him from a clearer vantage point.”
“He’s right handed, but left footed. Don’t let his footwork confuse–”
“You’re not really building up my confidence, Zecharias.”
“I think he was hurt once on the–”
“Right knee.” Mark rolled his shoulders and loosened his neck. “You worry too much.”
“We’ll see.” I gripped his shoulder. “Finish him quickly.”
Mark glanced at Chloe. She looked away.
You’d better root for him, I thought. You could do a lot worse. In fact, if Mark died, she would do a lot worse.
Blasius and Mark raised their blades, and all was still.
Then the distance between them disappeared, and the Great Hall echoed with the clanging of their weapons. They danced back and forth before the throne.
The men rubbed their sweaty palms together in anticipation. I noticed the Sovereign doing the same. Then I noticed myself doing it.
Blasius was stronger than Mark. His blows were painful to block. Mark offered few hard strikes of his own. He let Blasius expend energy trying to finish the battle fast. He had no intention of finishing Blasius quickly. He let Blasius chase him around, pounding with the heavy sword.
A quarter of an hour passed. Blasius had started the race too hard, and he knew it. He had broken into a fierce sweat. Mark seemed energized and light on his feet. He was the weaker swordsman, but was younger and had great endurance. I couldn’t believe it, but he was holding his own.
Blasius slammed his blade down so hard Mark almost lost his own. Mark jumped back and, wincing, switched hands.
I swore. That wasn’t good.
The skeletons cackled, expecting a fatal blow.
Blasius seized upon the opportunity, and struck with such a might that when Mark’s sword blocked it, it fell back, and the tips of both swords smashed onto the floor. The two were suddenly inches apart. Mark reached with his right hand, snatched a knife from Blasius’ left hip, and stabbed him in the chest with it.
His sword fell. He stared at Mark, at his chest, at me. Then he collapsed.
Mark slid his sword, clean as could be, into its sheath. Balthazar’s expression was like stone. He rose, took Chloe’s hand, and passed it to Mark’s.
The speechless men parted, and the three of us left.
For the first time, Mark and I weren’t always together. The night of the Lottery, I found Fedor and shared his room. Very soon, I realized, Mark would probably move from the castle to the Imperial village outside the walls. Soldiers with mates were allowed to construct their own homes to raise families.
Chloe was cold to Mark. He related a conversation to me they had one night, on the battlements.
“I want to go home,” Chloe whispered.
Mark couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Being pretty is a curse in the Fatherland. I was taken and put in a Protectory when I was a little girl. My family was allowed to visit me, but I was never allowed to leave, except on special occasions and holidays. Even then, I was never apart from my teachers.”
“Sorry, Protectory?” Mark had said.
Chloe laughed mirthlessly. “You have no idea what happens before those ships reach this shore and you have your little prize drawing, do you?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“A Protectory keeps girls secluded from the outside world. From men, from work, from the sun. From scratches and sickness and family. It’s meant to keep us young and beautiful, unattached and unloved. So we can be shipped like the finest horses here to you.”
“Oh,” she mocked. “I will never see my family again! I had a loving mother, and two little sisters.”
“Perhaps…perhaps you will see them again. Your sisters.”
Mistake. Chloe whirled on him.
“Don’t say that!” she screamed. “Don’t say that! I don’t want them to go to a Protectory. I don’t want them sent here. I want them to stay with Mother. I never want to see them again, don’t you understand?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean–”
But Chloe had slapped her hand over her mouth. Mark heard a muffled curse escape her lips.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Forgive me for screaming. I won’t do it again.”
“It’s, it’s all right. You have reason to be upset.”
“You’re not going to do anything about it?”
“No, of course not. I’m not about to beat you.”
Chloe was relieved. “All right.” She cleared her throat. “Thank you.”
“They train you to expect that over there?”
“We know what the men here are like. Most of our schooling was about how best to avoid angering our husbands, how to serve and entertain them.”
“They’re cruel, cruel, and they’ll beat you, every night unless we teach you,” she muttered.
Mark couldn’t help smiling.
“Something our teachers loved to sing,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” Mark said, touching her shoulder. “Really, I am. I understand why you’ve barely spoken.”
She looked away, staring into darkness. “I spent my whole life dreading this. Years and years and years. At the Protectorate, we didn’t celebrate birthdays by how old we were, but by how many years we had left until we were eligible. And now I’m here. The nightmares have come true.”
“What can I do? To make things easier?”
She turned away. “I want to go home.”
* * *
Mark and I were riding across the fields, the castle a speck on the horizon, when he told me this. I had been six days since the Lottery. It angered me.
“She’s ungrateful,” I said. “Does she know how lucky she is she ended up with you?”
Mark picked a chestnut bur out of Bravado’s mane, and shrugged.
“Anyone else, and she wouldn’t get away with a word of complaint. She would get beaten, and hard too.”
“She knows it.”
“And she still complains like that? Maybe she does need a slap across the mouth.”
“Shut up,” he snapped. “That’s not your place to say.”
“Maybe not. But you killed Blasius for her, and had you lost she probably would have ended up with him. The last mate he had, he choked to death, you know.”
“Well, I won. Forget about everything else.”
“Well, the sooner you teach her a lesson, the sooner she’ll come to terms with her new life.”
“Shut up!” Mark shouted, so loud it startled Relic.
Suddenly, we were glaring at each other.
“That’s not your place. Don’t tell me how I should or shouldn’t treat her.” He spat on the ground in front of me. “You really think beating her will make things better? As if! You’re not an expert on the subject, and that shows why.”
“Calm down,” I said.
“She isn’t the happiest right now, but that can change. But not if I’m whipping her.”
“Fine, Mark, do whatever you want.”
“Thank you, I will.”
I wanted to both curse and slap myself in the face. Calm down, I said to myself. What do you care? We rode on in awkward silence; Bravado and Relic sensed something was wrong and pulled apart from each other, giving us some space.
I knew why I was angry. It was a combination of things. The past six days I had barely seen Mark at all, and had been bored, agitated, alone. I had spent some time eating and gambling with Fedor or Uri, but I grew tired of making small talk. After Mark had killed Blasius, tensions were high, and my conversations with them were awkward and forced. Despite their good-natured spirits, they were now more hesitant to associate themselves with me. I was also mad because throwing Chloe into the situation was going to make every day that much harder. I could relate to Balthazar’s anger; I wanted to find Tiberius and head-butt him myself. I couldn’t kill the planners, they were already gone. Not dead, but serving ten years as slaves in the mines. Balthazar had been right to keep us out of the drawing. We couldn’t earn acceptance and honor from men who burned with rage over heathens desecrating their women. They both loved and hated the Sovereign. He was a terrifying god to them, and every time they went to battle, it was an act of worship. But they hated the hypocrisy. Men had snuck out to the villages and found slave girls before, and Balthazar saw to it the woman was drowned and the man butchered alive. Perhaps the men were hypocrites themselves, obsessive about the bloodline, but furious they themselves could not break the law and take a non-Imperial as a mate. It took years and years of waiting for your name to be pulled from the cauldron. This made it all the worse, no doubt, that the very year Mark was eligible, he won. And won a woman so beautiful it was almost painful to look at her for too long. All this was racing through my mind day and night. Our futures were bleak. They would try harder and harder to kill us. Leading men in battle was a joke now.
But Mark wasn’t thinking of any of that. He was concerned with Chloe. Getting to know her. Making her happy. Enjoying her company. Despite her anger and coldness, it was clear she was highly intelligent and strong, and Mark liked that. (Which some men would find strange.) But he was ignoring the world around him! And she had the audacity to gripe, when she had no idea what Mark and I had been through since we were boys. She was sad because she missed her mommy. We were afraid to sleep, because we may not see morning.
* * *
We weren’t the kind to apologize. I don’t know if any Imperial has apologized, ever. We gave each other time and forgot about it.
A few days later I was resting on my bed before the action of the day, boots crossed and fingers steepled on my chest. Chloe and Mark had a quiet discussion on the other side of the room.
“We’re going to begin building this week,” Mark said, of their home in the Imperial village.
“Who’s we?” Chloe asked, smiling.
“Well,” Mark said, “I’ll be supervising about ten slaves. We can find another hammer if you like.”
“No, thank you. My teachers would sense it and hunt me down.”
“It’ll be a big house. Fit for a queen. You’ll like it.”
Chloe shrugged. “Anything will do, really. Anything is better than our tiny cells at the Protectory. How long will it take?”
“Four days, maybe five. It will be empty, but I figured we would move in anyway, if you wished.”
I chuckled inside; this room was too small for two people, let alone three. I, of course, was usually locked out of it these days.
Mark put on his belt, and sat to tie up his boots.
“Where are you going?” Chloe asked.
He motioned toward me. “We’re heading to the docks. There’s a ship coming in. I’m hoping to find some furnishings among the imports. If I find some, I’ll have them hold them so you can come see and help me choose.”
Chloe nodded, and looked about, probably wondering what she would do to pass the time. Things could become boring quickly for a soldier; Chloe had to be losing her mind. Or perhaps she was used to it.
“Are you the decorating expert of this duo?” Chloe asked me.
I grinned, waving my hand. “Well, naturally. Every archer needs one.”
Mark kissed the top of Chloe’s head. I swung my boots over my bed, and we rose and left.
* * *
We watched the grasshoppers unload their goods. It was a grey day, with a chilling wind. We stayed clear of the icy spray of the waves, our hands clasped behind our backs to shield them from the wind.
“So you’re moving out,” I said. It was a hard thing to imagine, after all this time, and I regretted it deeply. I had tried not to think much of it, but today that had been made impossible.
“I suppose so. Will you move in with Fedor?”
“Probably so. He’s the only one who won’t gut me.”
“Yeah. I’ll be making this house a fortress, I can promise you that.”
“Good. And you and her seem great.”
Marked nodded, his eyes remembering the tension between us.
“I’m happy for you,” I said. “Really, I am. And quite jealous.”
Mark smiled wide and slapped me on the back. “It’s only a matter of time, Zec.”
“Nonsense,” I said, laughing. “You used up enough luck for both of us. That won’t happen again. Not if Tiberius wants to live.”
“You never know. Perhaps the Sovereign will only see it fair.”
I shook my head. “Never. Never going to happen.”
“Things can change. Laws can change. We’re living proof.”
He was wrong, but there was no point in arguing over it.
We watched the grasshopper depart, back to its colossus.
* * *
When I made it back to our room, Chloe was dead.
There she lay, naked and bloody on the bed, glassy eyes wide and horrible. I was alone; Mark had dropped by the stables to make sure Bravado was being well cared for.
Gods, I thought, my throat tight, my body numb.
She hadn’t made it ten days.
I couldn’t move. It didn’t matter. There was nowhere to go. Mark would come up those stairs and down that hall in a few moments. He would see me frozen in the doorway, would look over my shoulder in puzzlement. He would see his wife, butchered. He would scream, shoulder past me, reach for Chloe, but would be unable to touch her cold, wet skin. He would collapse on the ground, staggering back against my bed, the horror and agony on his face washing away, replaced by pure, pitiful shock. Breathing wildly, he would cover his eyes with his hand and weep.
And so it was. I dropped to the ground and held Mark as he wailed.
Chloe stared at us. I reach over and closed her eyes, and also cried.
Mark didn’t say anything till nearly a half an hour later. He rose to his feet suddenly and bellowed, “She was innocent!”
His voice echoed down the hall. On and on and on.
“She did nothing, you cowards! Why didn’t you send her home?” he roared. “You could have just sent her home!”
* * *
After we buried Chloe in the area of the cemetery meant for women and children, Mark stayed in our room for three days. I brought him food. I even brought him a waste pail. I was relieved we weren’t assigned on a patrol; Mark never would have gone, and his punishment could have been severe. He spent his time either trying to sleep or trying to stay awake. He looked lost.
I had ventured out, talking to any allies I had, trying to find out if anyone knew anything. If they knew who had done it, they were skilled liars. They knew nothing. I spent as much time as I could in the Great Hall, in the Courtyard, in the shadows and around corners, hoping to catch a piece of a conversation. Where were the rumors that always ran so speedily through the halls of the castle?
I eavesdropped on the skeletons. Sneaky, suspicious, spying, if anyone had heard anything, surely they had. But I grew impatient with their prattling about gold and silver, that had once seemed so funny. So I left my hiding place and approached their table in the Great Hall.
“The mighty Zecharias!” Regis said.
“What brings you to us?” Patrick asked.
They all wore smiles. They found the bickerings of mortals so amusing.
“Mark’s wife is dead. I want to know if you know anything.”
“Such a shame, too!” lamented Skeleton the First. “She was fiery!”
The skeletons cackled.
I was angry, impatient. “Have you heard anything?”
Skeleton the Second clutched his hand to his breast. “Well, it wasn’t us!”
“That’s right,” Ghosty said. “We’re the only ones who couldn’t care less.”
“Don’t kill us!” wailed Skeleton the First.
Gales of laughter.
I snatched Skeleton the First’s goblet from his fingers and bashed it across his skull with all my might. There was a sickening crack, and he and his chair crashed to the ground.
“Ow!” he shouted.
“Stop wasting my time! If you know something, out with it. If not, say so and let me be on my way.”
“It’s unwise,” Regis sneered, playing with a knife, “to make enemies of immortals.”
Skeleton the Second snickered as he helped his brother back up.
Patrick smiled wide. “We may know something. But it’s not going to come free.”
“Nor cheap!” Skeleton the First snapped.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“How much you got?” Regis said.
“Answer me first.”
Regis pondered for a moment. “Hmm, five pounds. Gold. Each!”
I turned and marched away in disgust.
“It really is too bad,” I heard Patrick say.
“Yeah, she was hot!” said Skeleton the First.
* * *
I returned to Mark on the third night to find him sitting on my bed, his short sword on the floor. He had destroyed his bed in a fit of rage. He shuddered and wept. It was no matter. I had given him my bed and slept on the floor anyway. The bed had been unused, neither of us having the stomach to sleep in it. It was just the same that it was in splinters.
“This is my doing,” Mark said.
“It’s just a bed.”
“No, Chloe. I never thought…”
“They would go this far?” I sat next to him. “Sure you did.”
It was I who hadn’t thought of it. We were the pigbloods. We were the targets. We had to look out for ourselves. Why hadn’t I considered her safety? What a fool I was!
He wiped his sleeve across his nose. He nodded. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“I should never have left her alone.”
“Forget that. If you hadn’t left her alone today, you would have had to tomorrow. Our next patrol. Our next war. You didn’t have a choice, you never did.”
“I didn’t even give her a blade. I could have taught her to use it.”
“Against a soldier?”
“It would have helped. Don’t tell me it wouldn’t have helped,” he snapped.
I nodded. “I guess it could have.”
“I should have moved faster on getting a house built. I can’t believe I delayed.”
I gripped his shoulder. “Mark, stop. Stop with the ‘I should have’ nonsense. You can’t think like that.”
“She didn’t even lock the door,” he hissed. “Why didn’t she lock the door? Did I remind her to? I can’t remember.”
I let go of his shoulder and sighed.
“Did you hear anything?” he asked, avoiding my gaze.
“No, nothing. I’ll keep trying.”
“Doesn’t matter. I know who it was.”
“You think so, huh?”
“Yes, I do.”
* * *
Trying to talk Mark out of taking a weapon wouldn’t have just been impossible, it would have been a grave insult. An Imperial was never without his sword. Mark’s was in his hand when he kicked in Cosmas’ door.
“By the gods!” Cosmas barked, rolling off his bed, diving for his sword. Mark kicked it away from him.
Cosmas raised his hands. “I’ll see you both in the dungeons for this outrage!”
I slammed his door shut. As if we wouldn’t be punished if no one else heard. As long as Mark didn’t kill him, I was confident we wouldn’t be executed. We probably would serve time. I just had to make sure Mark didn’t do anything stupid.
“Be careful what you say,” Mark said, shaking. “We may be the last faces you ever see.”
Cosmas spat at his feet. “You dare threaten me, heathen!”
Mark raised his blade to Cosmas’ neck. “Did you kill her?”
He threw back his head and laughed.
Mark kicked him in the gut, and he collapsed, doubling over on his bed. Mark’s blade cut ever so slightly into his cheek.
“Did you kill her?” Mark bellowed.
Cosmas tried to laugh even while gasping for breath. “You…you don’t know?” He looked at me. “Neither of you know? How?” He found his lungs again and roared with laughter. “It was the Sovereign, you fools! It was Balthazar!”
We had left Cosmas as he was.
Back in the room, Mark glared at his boots, his hand over his mouth, as he thought. I paced about the room, hands behind my back. Mostly, I was guarding the door, wary of Mark escaping.
The torches flickered, our shadows danced. We held our positions for over an hour, before Mark spoke.
“I’m going to kill him.”
Of course you are, I thought.
He looked me in the eye. “I’m going to kill the Sovereign.”
I leaned against the door. “Not if you want to live.”
“Why would he do this?”
I frowned. “The Sovereign cares about the bloodline. The law was his. If we never have mates, our impurity dies with us.”
Mark rose, and tightened his belt. He bent low and grasped his bow and quiver. He flung the quiver over his shoulder and clasped it.
I didn’t move.
“When I say I’m going to do something, I do it,” he said.
I shook my head.
“You can come with me, or stay here. Either way, stand aside.”
“I won’t do that,” I said.
Mark’s eyes flashed. “Would you protect the man who killed her?”
No, I thought, and I meant it. “Balthazar can burn for this. But not at your hand. You’re not thinking clearly. You do this, and you are dead. Your death will be long and painful. They will invent new ways to torture you.”
Mark raised his chin, undeterred.
“I can’t let you do that.”
“You think I don’t know the consequences?” Mark snapped. He took a bold step forward, right up to me. “I will kill him.”
“Stand down,” I hissed.
Our hands drifted to the hilts of our blades.
“That’s the right idea,” Mark whispered. “You’ll have to kill me to stop me.”
“I have no intention of killing you. We can just dance until you’re too exhausted to stand.”
Mark hesitated. He knew I was right. I did it every time.
He sighed. “I don’t have the stomach for this place anymore,” he whispered.
I was surprised.
That was it then. He was leaving.
Could he escape? I doubted it.
“They will never stop hunting you,” I said.
Mark nodded. “You can’t watch me forever. You can’t guard that door till we’re both old and weak. I will kill the Sovereign. And I will run. When I die, I die. That’s it.”
There was no doubting his conviction. I looked at the ground, and sighed. I stepped away.
Mark smiled and clapped me on the shoulder.
Then he was gone.
* * *
Within three minutes, I was in the doorway, looking around our childhood room for the last time. Then I turned and followed him.
I quickly realized he must have taken off at at a run. I quickened my pace. Up the endless stairs.
My heart racing, I reached the top. A colossal tapestry of a battle was in front of me. It hailed the birth of the Imperium, forty long years ago. The hall to my right would lead to the throne room. The hall to my left would lead to Balthazar’s chambers.
I slowed my pace, listening carefully. Nothing.
The hall curved lazily. The torches were angled so the shadow of anyone approaching could be seen from the end of the hall, at Balthazar’s door. There would be no sneaking up on the guards.
The guards were dead on the floor. Three bodies had one arrow puncturing something vital. The fourth man had required two.
Mark had worked fast.
Balthazar’s door was open.
There was Balthazar, writhing on his bed, Mark’s short sword in his gut.
I stepped inside.
“You took her,” Mark hissed in the Sovereign’s face. “You took her for yourself, and then you killed her.”
Balthazar’s wife, Kalia, was nowhere to be seen. Had she escaped? Had the rest of the castle been roused?
Balthazar gasped, turning white, blood and spittle squirting from his dry lips.
Mark pressed down harder on the hilt. “You could have sent her away, you devil!”
I grimaced, and not for Balthazar’s pain. I looked back down the corridor.
Mark’s flaring eyes filled.
Balthazar gnashed his teeth, like a dog in defiance.
Mark pulled forth his sword in a shower of crimson and stabbed the Sovereign higher, in the heart. Balthazar’s eyes bulged, his throat gurgling, choking. His face froze, and his body lay still.
The deed was done. Mark only noticed me then. He freed his sword from the corpse and wiped it on the sheets. Then he gazed long and hard at the scene.
Come on, stupid! I thought. I stepped in and quickly took him by the arm, pulling him from the room.
“We’re getting out of here.”
We hurried down the empty hallway.
* * *
We were dead. Mark had killed us.
It didn’t matter that we had escaped. It didn’t matter that the castle somehow slept quietly that night, while Mark and I snuck to the stables to get Bravado and Relic. It didn’t matter that we had managed to silently kill the guards at the portcullis. It didn’t matter that the castle didn’t stir until we had raised the gate and were galloping for our lives.
It was only a matter of time before they found us.
Mark had killed one of those guards, I had killed the other. Now we both had Imperial blood on our hands. As if I had had a choice in the matter. As if I would have chosen differently if I had.
We rode hard south, throughout the entire night. We avoided Imperial outposts and subjugated villages alike, but kept to the roads as much as possible. They would try to track us. Ourselves and our horses had to be the only ones who knew where we had gone.
Hour after hour passed by.
We said nothing. There was nothing to say.
As the morning light peeked over the hills, we took shelter in some woods that the Imperial slaves were nowhere near ready to fell, but were not too close to the front.
Our old lives seemed far away, so we slept.
* * *
“If they don’t get to you first, I’ll kill you for this.”
Mark was barefoot in a stream, washing his face and hands. I knelt and took a long drink. The water was cold and delicious.
Mark sat. “I didn’t ask you to come with me.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Not with words, anyway.”
I slapped him on the back, took off my boots, and stuck my feet into the stream.
Bravado and Relic waited patiently. It was the late afternoon, and they knew night would come and we would ride.
“What will we do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You’re always the one with a plan.”
“Yeah, you see what happens when you make them?”
“Well, then, I’m counting on you.”
* * *
We were the first Imperial outlaws.
Tiberius ascended to the throne, and his first act as Sovereign was to put a bounty on our heads. 300 gold pounds, each. All patrols had a new mission, to find and destroy us. Messengers were sent in all directions; all outposts and villages were alerted. We couldn’t trust the villages. Yes, they despised their overlords, but that didn’t guarantee anything. 600 pounds of gold was a tempting fortune for a peasant. We spied a time or two on a village to hear news and gossip. Balthazar’s death had spurred a massive celebration among the oppressed masses.
We moved around the forests, making a new camp every couple nights. We didn’t have to worry about hunger or thirst. The woods were full of game and mountain streams.
We had two things to worry about: being tracked and dying of boredom. It was a rough couple weeks, though it gave us plenty of time to reflect on what had occurred and what we would do next. Everything had happened so fast. We agreed we would work our way south, and try to make it past the Imperial boundary to free land. The empire was large, but we could not hide forever. Not with the weight of the legions bearing down on us.
I had plenty of thoughts of my own that I didn’t share with Mark. I held a different view of the grounds on which we had betrayed Balthazar. I nearly considered it unjustified, though I wouldn’t dare utter such things to Mark. I say this because Balthazar taking an innocent life was not exactly out of the ordinary. Sometimes he ordered the death of innocent people, sometimes he did it himself. It was mostly to terrorize his subjects. He would randomly execute villagers. We saw him do it once, with our own eyes. This happened over and over throughout our lives, and we thought nothing of it. It was our culture. It was for the empire. Now it was different. Now, to Mark (and thus to me), it was personal. As if all Balthazar’s actions before had been just, and this one deed in a long life of violence was evil. I thought of these things often. After days of lounging in trees, with nothing to do but swat at insects and ponder, I wondered if we were hypocrites. But perhaps that wasn’t it at all, perhaps we had simply been calloused to it, had habituated to it, and it took Chloe’s death to shake us awake.
I didn’t know if Mark thought along these lines, and I didn’t ask. He still blamed himself. I grew tired of trying to change his mind. It was little use. But he was satisfied in his vengeance; he felt he had done the right thing.
“Sometimes betrayal is the right thing to do,” he told me one night. “Grio taught us that.”
And perhaps he had. Only Grio had betrayed to save a life. Mark had betrayed because a life had been taken. Grio’s deed seemed far more noble. We had only caused more death, soon to include our own.
After three weeks, someone found us.
It was a group of revolutionaries, and our encounter was by complete accident. There were fifteen of them stalking the woods, and they heard our horses moving around our resting tree. Thinking it might be deer, they approached.
Mark sat in his perch, his bow drawn. When they looked up and noticed us, five archers drew back their own arrows. I just hid as much of my body behind the trunk, which would do nothing when they decided to surround the tree.
There was an ugly silence.
An older man with a red beard and an ax crossed his arms and stepped forward. Mark aimed for his heart. He was a massive man, tall and wide; it would be difficult to miss.
“I’d ask you your names, but we know them already,” the man said.
“And what about yours?” I asked.
“What is it to you?”
“It would make things even.”
“Then I’m Basil.”
“You have quite the price on your heads,” he said.
“Dead or alive, from what we’ve heard,” Mark said. With a touch of pride, perhaps?
Basil snorted. “Well, we have no interest in Imperial gold.” He waved at his archers to stand down. “I’m sure they would let us walk away in peace with our reward, eh boys?”
His men chuckled.
“Get rid of your weapons and armor,” I said. “Put on a guise. They wouldn’t have to know you were revolutionaries.”
Basil roared with laughter. “I appreciate that advice. But I suppose they would believe simple peasants killed two of their finest warriors?”
“You could say you came upon us while hunting. We were asleep, and you slit our throats,” Mark suggested.
Basil laughed and shook his head. “What would we do with the gold?”
“Give it to your poor,” I said. “Or use it to bribe soldiers. That works more often than you would think.”
Basil raised his hands. “Ha! If you were so set on meeting Death, why didn’t you just wait around after you stabbed Balthazar? Or better yet, gone down fighting?”
“Death isn’t on the top of the priority list at the moment,” Mark said.
“Well, while the gold is tempting, no reward is high enough to warrant turning you in. An enemy of the Sovereign is my friend.”
The group murmured their agreement.
Basil waved to us. “Why don’t you climb on down? We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Waiting for us?” I asked.
Basil smiled. “For twenty years now.”
* * *
Basil’s group had set up a permanent camp nearby, in a depressed area of the woods surrounded by trees so thick you had to turn sidewise to maneuver inside. They had been on their way back when they found us. The camp was empty; Basil said they never left anyone alone.
The group was surprisingly welcoming. After all, who knew how many friends or relatives Mark and I had slain. It turned out that the two twins in Basil’s band, Robert and Roderick, were second cousins of Mark’s. They weren’t much older than us. A few of the revolutionaries, most notably Basil and an old swordsman named Junius, had known one or both of our fathers.
It was night, and we feasted on deer and rabbit stew around a small fire. The band had rigged up a contraption to dissipate the pillar of smoke rising from the flames. Men (and indeed women, for there were four among us) would take turns lying on the ground (with a pillow under one’s head), pushing a lever wedged against a rock. This action spun three blades that were propped high over the fire, scattering the smoke. Mark and I would each take a turn that night.
“Your father,” Junius said in his slow, raspy voice, pointing at me, “Viktor, he was quite an animal on the battlefield.” He tried to laugh. “He refused to carry a shield, preferring two swords. I thought that foolish, but he did all right. A shorter, lighter one in his left hand, a broadsword in his right. He would block with his left, and then thrust with his right. If I recall correctly, Viktor married Laurentia just a few years before the invasion.”
“Beautiful woman, your mother,” Basil said. “I knew it and I wasn’t even a man yet!”
Junius rolled his eyes. “She was also skilled with the bow. Our women fight with us.”
I nodded my thanks. I had many more questions, but for now, just knowing their names was significant.
Junius pointed at Mark and said, “Like you, Josiah was a bowman. Well, a longbowman, actually. There were none better. I once saw him pierce an Imperial’s eye, then the other, at almost three hundred paces!”
Basil and the others chuckled.
“Hogwash!” one muttered.
“Don’t impugn my honor,” Junius snapped. “I saw it with my own eyes.” He turned back to Mark. “Anyway, he married Marlena, the night before the final battle.”
“Very romantic,” Basil said after a gulp of wine.
“And Basil knows romantic,” a man named Thomas quipped.
The group laughed, and so did we.
“Your fathers were good men,” Basil said. “They would have fought to the bitter end.”
“We old men like to say that only the winter storms could bring them down. No Imperial could,” said Junius.
“That’s right,” Basil said. “I wish they were still here. There’s still much work to do.”
After that first night, there was no more talk of continuing south.
We journeyed with Basil, who noted that the Imperium searching for us had given revolutionary groups distinct opportunities to inflict serious damage. The revolution had surged again. Across the empire, native forces were rallying. Imperial patrols came under more frequent ambushes, especially in the woods as they searched for us. Slave prisons were being attacked and razed. Since the Imperium enslaved the youngest, healthiest subjects, freeing them en masse meant production slowed for the enemy and revolutionary ranks swelled.
Mark and I knew we could not run away, could not leave the revolutionaries to fight on their own. They were our blood; they needed our help. We had spent our entire lives serving the empire our fathers died fighting. This made me sick to my stomach. Why didn’t it before, Zecharias! If only we hadn’t been boys, wrapped up in a world that was not our own, and unable to see it!
This was our chance to make things right. We had been the oppressors; we chose to become the oppressed. Tiberius had taken the throne, and he would be just like Balthazar. And when Tiberius died, his successor would be just like him.
We would help free our fathers’ land.
Within days of meeting Basil, Mark and I took part in an attack that became legendary. We freed nearly one hundred slaves from a busy lumber mill in the eastern province of the empire. A coordinated assault with another revolutionary group meant that we had a force of forty-five against sixty Imperials. Not many of us had horses, but Basil’s group managed to block most of the Imperials from reaching their own in the stables near the mill. And when we attacked, the slaves rose up with saws, or even simply planks of wood, and hacked apart their oppressors.
Mark killed nine men. I killed twelve. The revolutionary forces lost twenty men and women; twenty-eight (former) slaves died; the Imperials fought to the last man.
Mark and I stood out, not only in our kills but in our attire, as we still wore the Imperial uniform.
“I’m keeping mine,” Mark said to me later, as we rode near the head of our band, just behind Basil.
“For sentimental reasons?”
“You’re funny. A funny man. No, to remind the Imperials who trained us to kill.”
“I like it.”
* * *
Each group of freed slaves was organized into bands of fifteen to thirty, and armed first with Imperial weapons, then weapons secretly created by village smiths. The bands then elected a leader and became an autonomous unit.
Word of our involvement in the resistance spread quickly throughout the land. From what we heard, it caused a great deal of excitement.
The first thing an uninformed man or woman heard was: “They’re two of the Imperium’s fiercest warriors!”
It was followed by: “They’re our sons, they were stolen from us.”
When we met with other groups of fighters, or when three or four of us snuck into a village to relay information, our presence was celebrated. We provided as much information on Imperial tactics, positions, and commanders as we could.
“This is invaluable,” they would all say, and pour us a drink.
* * *
Soon Basil’s band all rode stolen Imperial warhorses. We were a much more mobile, dangerous force. Which was fortunate, because after only a few weeks as revolutionaries, we met the Red Fist in battle.
It was a strangely hot day, though the skies were dark and threatening a storm.
There was no ambush. It was simply a chance encounter, the Red Fist on patrol and our band riding west to deliver stolen swords to a unit that badly needed them.
As Basil, Mark, and I looked out across the plain at the Red Fist, we noted we were quite evenly matched at twenty. Suddenly, the enemy raised their weapons and emitted a terrible shout, full of wrath and cursing. They could see us. They could see our uniforms.
I saw Cosmas point his sword at us and spur his steed. “For the Sovereign!” he bellowed. And here they came.
Basil hefted his ax. “Attack!”
Lightning struck on the horizon, and thunder boomed alongside the thunder of hooves.
I pulled forth my sword.
Robert and Roderick, whose horses carried most of the stolen swords, took hold of these weapons and hurled them like javelins into the enemy formation. An Imperial was decapitated, his head and body tumbling from his ride.
Mark let loose an arrow. It hit the breast of a horse, which wailed and crashed to the ground, taking the next two riders with it.
The Imperial archers sent shafts into our midst. A woman was hit in the heart. Thomas was struck in the forehead. An arrow narrowly missed my neck. As we charged nearer, I knew it was Uri who fired it. I saw him string another, a savage look in his ancient eyes, but this time shifted his focus to Mark.
Mark saw him, and drew back his own arrow.
They hit each other. Uri was thrown off his horse with a scream, his stomach pierced. Mark was hit in the shoulder but managed to hold on. He pulled Bravado back to a trot. The rest of us dashed onward. I heard Mark roar and risked a glance back to see him pulling the arrow out of his body, tearing his flesh.
Slowly, he strung the arrow, and sent it back to the Imperials.
That was when our forces met. Cosmas was upon me, and our swords struck. Our horses circled each other aggressively as we exchanged blows. Cosmas clenched his teeth, hammering upon me with all his might. He was full of hatred and malice, but was not the best of swordsmen. I countered his attacks easily.
Suddenly, a horse rose up behind me, and a second attacker swung for skull. I half-turned and blocked it, a loud clang right in my ear. Cosmas lunged; I turned his aside. The second attacker was a man named Sabor, whose skills with a blade were paltry at best. I crashed my blade to the right against his, and quickly to the left to stave off Cosmas.
Cosmas laughed, spittle flying from his lips, as they pressed me. Relic saved my life, continuing to back up in the chaos to keep me from having to turn around and defend my backside and my front.
I blocked a strike from Sabor by, rather than meeting his blade, slamming my sword onto the top of his guard, above the hilt. This broke his hand, and I sank my weapon into his heart before a scream of pain escaped his throat.
Cosmas and I crashed blades for but another few seconds. I deftly forced his steel away from his body and slashed him across the mouth. Blood sprayed in his eyes and he let loose a pitiful cry. He swung his sword blindly, and I cut off his arm at the wrist. He screamed, and then I killed him.
Relic rushed me to the next opponent, and on I fought.
The two biggest men on the field, Paul the Terrible and Basil himself, had inevitably found each other. They had killed each other’s horses and dueled on the ground. It ended when Basil drove aside Paul’s defense with his ax and head-butted him. Basil cleaved upward, biting through Paul’s armor and destroying his ribcage and the organs they protected.
In the end, there were eleven of us left. Junius was among the fallen, taken out with an arrow.
The Red Fist was gone.
* * *
In response to the surge of revolutionaries, Tiberius reorganized patrols into small armies. When it was learned we were with them, the search was discontinued and efforts focused solely on finding and destroying revolutionary bands. And the next few weeks saw this happen quite often.
He had whole armies guarding slave groups now. Basil led us toward the mountains, hoping the slaves in the mines would be less protected.
As we hiked through the rocky wilderness, darkness spreading, we realized we were being tracked. Birds that had risen as we passed and settled back down would take flight again a few miles behind us. Mark and I broke off from the group and stealthily circled back.
It was the skeletons.
The incredible thing was, they were on foot. Horses, after all, wouldn’t bear them. They had the advantage of requiring neither nourishment nor rest, but it was still a stunning feat.
Their footsteps were deathly silent, but they couldn’t help squabbling.
“Now see here,” Regis snapped. “Six hundred pounds divided evenly between us. That was our agreement from the beginning.”
“That was if we took them both alive,” Patrick said. “Naturally, the one who actually kills them takes a larger share!”
“He’s right,” Ghosty said.
“Shut up, Ghosty,” Skeleton the Second said. “Patrick knows that was never a part of our agreement. Dead or alive, we split it equally.”
Skeleton the First counted on his fingers. “Let’s see, that’s six hundred…into five is…is…eh…”
“A hundred each, idiot,” said Regis.
“A hundred ten,” Ghosty corrected tenderly.
“A hundred twenty,” Patrick spat.
“Which is a hefty prize for everyone,” Regis muttered.
Patrick shook his head. “Whoever makes a kill should take two hundred pounds. Two of us will get two hundred, the others divide up the rest.”
“Ridiculous,” Regis said.
“Or,” Skeleton the First piped up gleefully, “if one of us kills both of them…”
“Four hundred,” Patrick said, smiling wide.
Skeleton the First squealed in delight.
“No, no, no!” Regis barked. “I’m the leader of this brigade. We stick to our agreement.”
“We’ll see about that,” Patrick sneered.
“Indeed we will!”
The skeletons then decided to stop.
“We’re drawing close. By tomorrow night, we’ll be sneaking into their camp and stealing their heads,” Skeleton the Second said.
“And then back to Tiberius,” Ghosty whispered.
“To collect our reward!” Skeleton the First screamed.
Skeleton the Second slammed him on the head.
Mark and I quietly made our way back to Basil, and told him.
* * *
When the skeletons began moving again in the frigid morning, they were suddenly faced with not one but four trails to follow. After a solid half-hour of debating whether or not they should split up, they decided to stay together and take a shot in the dark.
Mark and I were now tracking them, to see if they would pick a false trail.
“Onward!” Regis commanded. We watched them disappear through the trees.
“Let’s get back,” Mark said.
I caught his arm. “What, you don’t want to see this?”
He grinned. “Yeah, all right.”
We hung back a while, then followed them.
Miles later, the skeletons reached the point where Basil’s band had turned around and doubled-back. It was directly in front of a large rock face with a big cave opening. The rock wall and the ground at the skeletons’ feet were black as night.
“Oh, oh no!” Patrick gasped. “Regis, is that you?”
Regis covered his face. “By the Sovereign! That smells awful!”
“Wait…” Ghosty said, eyeing the cave.
Skeleton the First sniffed himself and shrugged sheepishly.
“It’s coming from in there!” Ghosty declared.
There was a rumble from the dark.
“Eek!” Skeleton the First said.
“Well, time to go,” said Skeleton the Second nervously.
“Sova!” Regis swore. “Mountain beasts!”
From the rock emerged what the Imperials called Dualies: two-headed, flightless black dragons, as long as some warships. Four ugly heads gnashed their teeth at the intruders.
Patrick shrieked, “I’m too young to die!”
The Dualies sent forth quick bursts of angry flame. The skeletons turned to run, but one of the dragons leapt behind them, its heads encircling them, swaying back and forth menacingly. Mark and I watched in horrified fascination. No one was sure what could kill the skeletons…but this might be it.
Regis grabbed hold of Patrick, Skeleton the First grabbed Skeleton the Second, and Ghosty whimpered fearfully, holding himself.
“It’s not fair!” Regis bellowed. “It’s not fair!”
The Dualies stopped, eyeing the skeletons curiously. They sniffed and peered, prodded and nudged.
“Wha–what’s happening?” Skeleton the First asked.
“They know we’re not food!” Ghosty said cautiously.
“I think they like us!” Regis said.
“It must be my rugged good looks,” Patrick said.
“They’ve just never seen anything like us, idiot,” Regis snapped.
Skeleton the Second carefully reached out a hand and touched one of the beasts. It eyed him but offered no reaction. The dragons turned and rested by the cave entrance.
“We’re alive,” gasped Skeleton the First.
“What do we do now?” Patrick asked.
“Now,” Regis declared, smiling evilly, “we see if these beasts can be tamed!”
* * *
As it turned out, they could.
To say our plan backfired, however, would be premature.
When we realized the skeletons were staying put for a while, we rode off to report to Basil. When we returned, we were amazed to see the skeletons climbing up onto the backs of the beasts. They had worked faster than either of us could believe.
Regis cackled hysterically. “The traitors don’t stand a chance against these babies!”
Patrick, behind him, scoffed, “Think, you imbecile. Why would we even need to go after them now? With these beasts, we can seize the throne. We should make for the castle!”
“He’s right!” Ghosty said.
“Yes!” shouted Skeleton the First.
Regis laughed. “Well, Patrick, you old fool, when you’re right, you’re right!”
The skeletons seemed surprised for a moment. How it could be that there was no argument brewing? Then they cackled greedily.
“All right,” Regis said. “We storm the gates. Onward!”
They spurred the Dualies forward, and were on their way.
* * *
Standing next to Basil and Mark and the rest of the band, we watched the dragons speedily making their way down the rocks and cliffs in the distance.
“If they lay siege to the castle, this is an opportunity like no other,” Basil said.
Roderick said, “It’s our chance to stab the heart.”
“There’s no guarantee they’ll have to,” Robert. “Those demons might trick them into opening the gates.”
Basil turned to us. “What say you to that?”
This is madness, I thought.
But I said, “The Imperials won’t open the gates for them.”
“Agreed,” said Mark. “They’ll have to strike.”
Basil smiled. “Then both the Fates and the gods have favored us today.” He turned to face his band. “We’ll have to split up. Each man will ride like Death’s behind him. We must reach every command post, every village, every unit. We will gather at White Burrows.”
Robert stepped forward. “Sir, if things go wrong, we will be fish on a hook. The army will ride out and destroy us.”
“That’s the risk we take,” Basil said. “We’ll either fight and live or fight and die. Either way, we fight. Let’s get organized. Tonight’s the night.”
Relic thundered out of the last location I was responsible for alerting, a small mountain village called Clover. We galloped under the afternoon sun. It was strange, riding alone. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever done it before.
My mission complete, it was time to head for White Burrows, one of the last villages south of the castle. My heart pounded just thinking of what was to come.
The revolutionaries had never had the numbers or equipment for a large-scale assault. Taking the castle would require siege weapons; villagers could barely churn out a few swords without getting caught. Anything bigger was impossible.
But until the castle fell, there was little chance at freedom. But was it possible? Or were we all marching to our deaths?
I wondered how far Mark was from the gathering point. He had been sent to reach our allies in the eastern province; he was sent farther than probably anyone else.
As Relic trotted down a lazily sloping mountain path, a clearance appeared in the tree line, and I could see the castle by the sea on the horizon.
There it was. A tiny burst of flame!
The skeletons were already at work.
* * *
As the sun set, White Burrows witnessed what no one else ever had: the full might of the revolution.
I was stunned. Mark and I simply could not believe our eyes.
Thousands upon thousands of revolutionaries, battle-hardened and armed to the teeth. This was so much larger than we had ever known or been led to believe. When bands of ten to twenty stalked the empire and pestered patrols, an organized army of this size was unimaginable. The Sovereign had lied to us, lied to everyone, about the threat of the resistance.
Perhaps this wasn’t madness after all.
The battle between the skeletons and the Imperials was still raging. The Dualie Regis and Patrick rode swept the battlements with flame, keeping archers at bay. Most that rose to take a shot were blasted and fell burning and screaming from the wall. The two heads on the beast of the other three smote the portcullis, which glowed orange and red. The doors had long since been reduced to smoldering ash. The iron portcullis was all that was left. Once the dragons broke inside, there would be a slaughter.
Did any skeleton or Imperial noticed the gathering at White Burrows? Who knew. If they did, it changed nothing.
Mark and I rode out of the village with Basil, who was placed in charge of a division that included his band and ten others. The army was marching resolutely forward, a few columns with old war banners from long ago, ragged blue and gold lions flapping in the wind. The only sound was the pounding of boots and hooves as we journeyed across the plain.
The sun was beginning to set.
“It was a beautiful day today,” Mark said.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, it was.”
“Tomorrow will be just a pleasant, I imagine.”
“Let’s be sure to be there,” Mark said, grinning. “Tomorrow.”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
The Dualies’ work was done. The portcullis melted away, curling and contorting and collapsing. The skeletons let out a savage cheer.
“Attack!” Regis shouted, and they disappeared inside the castle. We saw fire, smoke, and arrows, and heard screams.
We maintained our steady pace. We had to be fresh when we struck. Our enemies would be exhausted.
The grassland seemed so much larger than I remembered.
“Six pounds silver says I kill Tiberius,” Mark said.
“Wasn’t one Sovereign enough for you? Greedy fool.”
And after a few quiet moments, I asked, “How’s the shoulder?”
By the time we reached the castle, the sun was about to disappear behind the hills.
There were a few archers that decided to focus on us, rather than two dragons loose inside. Shafts pierced faces and thighs, shields and earth.
That was when we roared. The army pulled forth their weapons and raised them, screaming, craving the blood of their oppressors.
And in we went.
The horses galloped, the men sprinted. The columns poured through the broken gates and into the Courtyard where we had watched Grio die so long ago. There were charred bodies underfoot; revolutionaries and Imperials alike leapt them as they charged and smashed together.
Relic pushed into the fray. I blocked a blow and cleaved off an Imperial’s scalp, which spun like a discus and flicked blood in all directions. Mark hung back, looking to the battlements and sniping other archers. Many would see him and try to strike him first, and all of them failed.
I lost sight of Basil, but Roderick and Robert were hacking away nearby. I saw a woman on the ground kill two men with a single swipe, biting into one’s neck and the other’s skull.
Relic rose up and crushed a man. I cut into someone’s wrist, then his jaw. Our forces kept pouring in; the Imperial numbers were quickly diminishing. My sword struck aside a spear and buried itself into an enemy eye. Beside me, a revolutionary was hit in the chest with an arrow and disappeared from his steed.
All around, the hammering of blades, the crack of bodies striking the stones, the splash of blood, the curses of men, and the screams of the injured. It was the sound of slaves taking back what was theirs.
We took the Courtyard. We roared in triumph and surged forward, into the towers, into the corridors, into the stables, into the Great Hall.
Basil reappeared, blood soaking his ax and body, and rallied his division toward the Great Hall. We battled our way inside.
An Imperial sliced into Relic’s shoulder, and he wrenched away and wailed in pain. I swore and cut off the man’s head. Relic but pressed on.
A man leapt up onto the table and swung a broadsword for my head. An arrow pierced his throat and he collapsed. Thanks Mark, I thought. I slashed on the other side of Relic.
Imperials were pushing in from the corridors. Our progress was halted. And any minute, I expected four dragon heads to appear and burn us alive.
I dueled a particularly skilled soldier for several seconds, before gutting him. Blood and sweat stung my eyes; I tried to rub it away quickly. An Imperial was sprinting down the table, charging me.
For a moment, I was stunned. It was Fedor!
His eyes, so full of hate. He feigned a downward blow with his blade against me, and instead thrust straight into Relic’s neck.
Relic fell. I managed to dive away before he crushed me. I was barely on my feet when Fedor leapt off the table and smashed his weapon against mine.
I don’t know if I’d ever been so angry in my life. My blade moved too fast for Fedor to block more than twice. I cut into his flesh in three places, and he stared at me from the floor as he bled out.
Fedor, one of the only men I had called a friend at the castle. I had shared his room when Chloe had arrived. Gods, he was young, like me. Just another boy caught in a world where no other worlds existed.
I looked at Relic, who was dead. Another friend gone.
On I battled. With sudden reinforcements from another unit, we took the Great Hall. Then the two western towers. The eastern towers were proving impenetrable. Wave upon wave of revolutionaries went in, and were never able to make it more than a few steps up the stairs before javelins, arrows, and spears obliterated them.
Our division abandoned its mounts and fought up through the main structure toward the throne room, with the majority of our forces. Our losses were devastating. The corridors were narrow and stairs were a deathtrap.
Mark’s arrow whizzed by my head and pierced an enemy in the eye. I lunged and finished him off. Beside me, Robert took a pike in the chest. I cut off the fingers of his attacker, then slashed his neck. Robert’s corpse dropped to the floor.
I cursed. Where was Roderick? I wasn’t sure.
We made it to the throne room. It was littered with hundreds of black bodies. The skeletons rode the Dualies near the throne. One of the dragons was feasting, tearing someone to shreds. The armor and black cloak made it unmistakable: Tiberius.
We slowly approached, weaving between corpses, trying to ignore the horrendous stench. A few men leaned over and vomited. I gagged but kept hold of myself.
“Ah!” Regis exclaimed. “The mighty heroes return!”
The skeletons smiled wide, and the Dualies, blood drenching their four gaping mouths, seemed to smile as well.
“Surrender, if you value your lives!” Patrick said.
“This is our Imperium,” hissed Regis. “And no man, slave or slave master, will take it from us.”
Skeleton the First pointed at us and shrieked, “Kill!”
The Dualies rose up, leapt forward, and roared, spewing fire. We scattered, making for the balconies. Several men were torched, screaming and rolling on the ground. Others beat at them frantically with cloaks, but these good people were then vulnerable, and died too.
From the balconies, we could attack from three sides. We charged and stabbed at the shield-like scales. I cut into one of the necks over and over and over, as if felling a tree. I had to dive aside to avoid a pillar of flame from the other head, but Basil was instantly there to take my place, hammering with his ax and snapping off the neck. A geyser of purple blood exploded onto the floor. The other head screamed, a terrible, painful noise. Mark fired his last two arrows at the dragon bearing Skeleton the First, Skeleton the Second, and Ghosty. The barbs disappeared into each of the beast’s brains, and it collapsed. The skeletons screamed as they tumbled off and were quickly beat into submission by a mass of revolutionaries. Mark drew out his short sword.
I rolled underneath the final head, stabbing upward and piercing clean through. Regis and Patrick leapt off and raised their blades, but were surrounded and subdued.
The skeletons huddled together and sulked.
My arms were exhausted, my sword heavy. But within seconds, a man shouldered his way into the room and reported that the Imperials had rallied and had retaken the towers, the battlements, and the Great Hall.
“Our forces are diminished,” he said. “The remaining divisions are trying to hold the Courtyard to allow our escape. We must hurry.”
Basil swore, but there was no further hesitation. He motioned his ax toward the doors, and we swarmed back into the corridors. “Make for the Courtyard with all speed!” he bellowed. “If it falls, we’re trapped in here.”
I heard the skeletons cackle with delight.
We fought our way back. Imperials assaulted us several times, and one of them cut me in the hip before I killed him. But it wasn’t very deep; I ignored it.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. After battling so viciously to make it all the way to the top, capturing the throne room of the Sovereign himself, we were now running for our lives. The battle was lost. The Imperial forces were too many.
We surged out of the castle and into the Courtyard with our allies, many of whom were still on horses. Imperial archers on the battlements gave us hell. Our own archers were few, but we had a decent number of javelin throwers. Other groups of revolutionaries desperately exchanged blows with the enemy on the ground as they moved to surround us. We pushed forward as a mob.
“Retreat!” roared Basil, and other commanders. “Retreat!”
A horn blew somewhere, and we were racing toward the gates. I suddenly realized Mark was no longer beside me.
No! I thought. He couldn’t fall now, after all this. I turned and looked about in a panic. Next to me, a man was hit in the heart with an arrow. I would be next, I was sure.
There was Mark! He had somehow found Bravado, and was galloping toward me. I reached out a hand and swung onto the horse. The Imperials roared and charged after us, desperate to kill the traitors. Arrows and spears chased us. Men died all around us. Somehow we lived.
But Basil did not. He was hit in the back with a spear and fell.
The revolutionaries flooded out of into the plains. Those on horses grabbed at those on foot and hauled them up. We thundered away into the darkness, but were not pursued.
Mark and I sat on the end of a pier at the empty Imperial docks in the grey hours of the morning. Any soldiers, officers, sailors, or slaves at the docks had been called to the castle in the wake of our assault. There were repairs to make, bodies to remove, cobblestones to wash. The effort would take weeks.
Everything was still. The ships, large and small, sat motionless on the horizon.
We had removed our armor and shirts, washing off blood from our bodies. Mark scrubbed his sword. I had yet to do that. I was cleaning and wrapping the painful gash in my side.
Occasionally, I looked toward the castle, the high tide crashing against the northern battlements. So many had died. Basil’s death pained me. Mark, too.
“Lost my bow,” Mark muttered.
I snorted. “At least it wasn’t your horse.”
Mark remembered. “Oh, I’m sorry about that. He was good horse.”
“Yeah, he was.”
I grabbed my sword and started scrubbing. The crusty blood was thick.
“Roderick was put in charge of a band last night,” Mark said.
“I heard. He’ll do well.”
“A shame about his brother.”
“Will we serve with him?”
“We could form our own, you know. Many would want to follow us.”
“I’m not so sure, after last night.”
“That wasn’t our idea, Mark. Wasn’t our command.”
“We could have stopped it.”
Here he goes again, I thought. “We saw a shot, and took it. There’s no shame in that. We were close.”
He nodded. “Yeah. Close.”
We continued scrubbing in silence for a time.
“How many of us made it out, do you think?”
“Not sure,” I said. “Couldn’t have been more than a few hundred.”
“The Imperium will come down hard on the people. They’ll make sure this never happens again. And they need more slaves. They’ll take older folks and children now.”
I grimaced, my stomach churning at the thought. I hadn’t considered that. “We can’t let that happen.”
“We’ll keep fighting. Our strength will return.”
I looked out across the choppy waters. A colossus and a grasshopper seemed so much like the Imperium and the revolution, one utterly dwarfing the other.
Then I smiled.
“How much strength do you have left? Right now?”
Mark carefully rolled his shoulders and shook out his arms. “Last night was nothing. I could do that all day.” He grinned. “Why?”
I looked to the castle. “Because I’ve got a plan.”
* * *
We stood on the deck of a colossus, bodies at our feet. Mark took the helm. I was getting seasick, but I tried to focus all my attention on dragging corpses to the rail and heaving them overboard.
“And we just spent all morning cleaning our swords, too,” I said.
The day was still grey.
The waters were growing more violent as Mark turned the enormous vessel toward land.
The wind was with us; I took us to full sails.
“I don’t recall ever feeling so uneasy about one of your plans before,” Mark said.
“And I thought you were the one who was supposed to tell me not to worry so much.”
“Ah. Good point.”
We picked up speed. Our bow pointed at the castle, like an arrow ready to fire.
I moved to Mark and grasped the rail in front of the helm. Adrenaline pumped through me. The castle was growing large. I unslung some thick rope on my back, and we tied ourselves as tight as we could to the rail.
We shook hands.
“Well,” Mark said, smiling. “It’s been an honor.”
“Good luck, brother,” I said.
We held onto the ship until our knuckles grew white. The current was mighty. The colossus was charging faster. The wind picked up, whipping our hair into our eyes. The sea sprayed onto the deck and onto our cheeks. The deck creaked and groaned.
“This is it!” I said.
In seconds, the waves battering the battlements would be us.
“Hold on!” shouted Mark.
* * *
The colossus struck the castle wall with the most violent roar I ever heard, greater than any army or any battle. Mark and I were slammed into the rail and helm, torn out of our bonds, and pitched forward, slamming and rolling across the deck.
The port side of the ship barreled into one of the eastern towers, which collapsed on top of the next one. Stones rained to the ground like hail, crashing all around us. The colossus collided into the main body of the castle at an angle, driving through and obliterating its northwestern and southwestern corners. The castle shook and with a bellow collapsed.
The sound was deafening.
A great stone struck me in the shoulder and stomach as I held on for dear life. I heard Mark scream. I think his leg was crushed.
The ship rammed into one of the western towers and stopped so suddenly we were thrown. The top of the tower broke off and smashed onto the battlements below.
Nearly half of the colossus was gone, and the castle lay in ruins.
* * *
Within hours, the oppressed populace, men and women, old and young, fighter and storyteller, were walking or riding to the ruins. From every village in the empire, they came. When people heard the news, they dropped whatever they were doing and simply set out.
Roderick and the other revolutionary leaders took charge in rounding up and capturing any Imperials that survived the devastation.
There were few.
Midwives and doctors treated these men as best they could. And naturally, they helped Mark and I. We both had many broken bones, though Mark’s shattered leg was by far the worst of it.
The people labored for days to clear away access to the dungeons down below. When they finally reached them, the surviving oppressors were thrown into cells. The skeletons, who were already locked up for their treachery, remained where they were.
It was over.
Regis awoke. Something was amiss.
He peered around the dark cell. That was it! It was so much darker than usual. Normally, Ghosty’s glow provided–Ghosty. Where was he?
There was Patrick and Skeleton the First and Skeleton the Second, all sleeping peacefully. But Ghosty was missing.
A loud clang awoke them.
“Eh? What?” Patrick said, sitting up.
“What’s going on?” Skeleton the First asked.
They all looked to the iron door, which suddenly screeched open, a large black key in the keyhole!
And there stood Ghosty, triumphant.
They snuck out of the cell after Ghosty.