XVIII. After the Storm
The Meridian; 26 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
It was the smell, thought Deena, as she vomited again into her bucket. It smelled like a pig roasted over a bonfire, only it wasn’t, and knowing what it really was made her sick. Avenel had already asked if she was alright, and she knew why the woman had asked, but it didn’t smell like Taunsgrove, not really. Taunsgrove had smelled faintly of burnt flesh, it was true, but this… this was a thousand times worse.
She was sure she couldn’t smell it anymore, all the way up here in what had once been a dining hall, but the smell still lingered in her nostrils, or maybe it was in her head. The room had been converted into a makeshift infirmary, the tables and benches turned into beds for the injured.
“I’ll be with you in a bit, dear,” said Sister Merr for the tenth time as she bustled past the corner where Deena sat.
Deena didn’t mind. Her injuries were light, compared to the others, just cuts on her hand from the broken banister and perhaps too much vomiting. Around her, people less lucky than her moaned in pain or delirium or both. It was unclear if they were Elyrian or Ajjraean or one of the monks. But then, it no longer mattered.
She’d caught a glimpse of the courtyard, on her way up from the cellars. She saw first the walls blackened with soot, and naturally assumed that the smell was livestock. Then, as she got closer, she’d seen the mass on the ground, only barely recognizable as human forms.
“Did… did we do that?” asked Deena. “Did we burn them?”
“It was the only way,” said Avenel, and Deena believed her.
She wondered who they were, these people who were now just bits of charred flesh. She wondered what their story was, and how they had come to be at this tower. She wondered if they had families.
She wondered the same about the man she hadn’t saved, the one whose leg had been trapped beneath the rubble. Perhaps he was still alive, somehow. She wanted to ask someone, but she didn’t even know his name.
Somewhere out of sight, an Ajjraean warhound gave a mournful howl, and elsewhere, the other dogs joined in.
Morven came over, bandages around his waist and his arm in a sling. “Have you seen Grandmother?”
“Avenel said they’d be upstairs, in the meeting room,” replied Deena. “Do you want to go look for them?”
“No,” said Morven. “The Sister said I should go lie down.” He hesitated a moment. “Did you see them bring in Pellie?”
Deena shook her head.
“I see,” said Morven. “Well, I’m going to go back to my room.”
Deena looked down at her hands. Avenel had insisted that she come here to be patched up, but it was really only a minor wound, once she’d picked out the splinters. “I’ll go with you,” she said, and picked up a nearby lamp.
They were no more than three steps into the stairwell when they were stopped by one of the Elyrian guards. “You’ll have to go around,” she said. “It’s structurally unsound here.” Behind her, they could see a handful of monks and guards, working together to reinforce the wall with wood salvaged from a table.
“Okay,” said Morven. “Thank you.”
Neither of them knew exactly how to go around, and most of the monks were too busy to stop for directions. But that was alright; there was no rush, not like before, and they could afford to take their time.
Their path, meandering and circuitous as it was, took them past a window overlooking the courtyard. It had been emptied of the charred remains, and instead, a row of humanoid shapes lay beneath white sheets. In the moonlight, they could just make out the form of Lord Zachariah Brynt, his broad shoulders shaking with sobs as he clutched a sheet-covered somebody to his chest.
“I saw it,” said Morven. “There was a boy, the younger brother of a monk. She tried to save him, and then the ceiling collapsed. I don’t think the boy survived either.”
Deena said nothing.
“Do you think Pellie’s down there?”
“I don’t know,” said Deena. “Do you want to go and see?”
Morven thought for a moment, then shook his head. “I’m tired,” he said. “I want to lie down.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence.
The sleeping quarters were empty. They were the first two to return. The torches hadn’t even been lit, but Deena’s lamp was enough to see by. She walked with Morven to the door of his cell, and as he opened the door, the light fell on the wooden chess set sitting on his desk. Most of the pieces had been knocked over from when the tower had been hit by the catapult. He stooped down to pick up a knight that had fallen on the ground.
Perhaps it was the lamplight, but as he looked at the wooden horse in his hand, there was a strange gleam to his eyes. “Look at this, Deena,” he said. “What do you see?”
“It’s a knight,” said Deena.
“No,” said Morven. “It’s a toy.” Mechanically, he began rearranging the pieces, placing each one neatly in its starting square. “I’d always wanted to see a real battle,” he said. “I’ve spent my life reading about them, learning about them. I thought I knew what to expect.”
“And what did you expect?” asked Deena.
He was a silent for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “Chess, I guess.” He sat down on the cot. “It isn’t fair,” he said. “Pellie was supposed to get married.”
She ought to say something, she was sure, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. Perhaps she ought to comfort him, or to sit with him as he cried, but…
“It’s late,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”
She didn’t wait for him to reply before walking out of the room with the lamp. She didn’t think she could be in the room with him any longer. Of course a real battle was nothing like a game. Of course there would be casualties, be consequences. That was just the nature of war, of battle: that some would die and others live. If even she could understand that, why couldn’t he?
They had won. They were alive. Sure, there were the bodies in the courtyard and the smell of burnt flesh all around, but they—most of them—were alive. Surely that counted for something. Surely that was enough.
In her own room, the book she had been reading earlier lay face down on the bed, where she had left it. It was one of those silly stories about a group of people going on an epic journey to vanquish some great evil. In those stories, no one ever died if they didn’t have to, and evil was always evil while the good were always good. It was the kind of story that actually made you believe, for a moment, that the world was fair, and that as long as you were a good, kind person, all would be well in the end. But life wasn’t like that. Phea and Mattieu didn’t deserve to die, nor did Pellena and Lord Sylari. But then again, it was their side—Deena’s side—that had consigned hundreds to the flames. Did those soldiers deserve to die? She didn’t know—couldn’t know—because she didn’t even know who they were. She picked up the book and, with a rage that she hadn’t realized she felt, hurled it across the room to the opposite wall.
Pages, knocked loose from their binding, fluttered down.
What had been worse? Had it been sitting in the cellars, in the dark, not knowing if they would live or die? Or had it been afterwards, knowing that they had won, but also knowing the cost? It was easy to believe that those they burned were evil, like in the stories, and that they somehow deserved their fate. But Deena was old enough to know better. Soldiers were just people. They were just following orders; perhaps they hadn’t even wanted to be there. But there they were, and there they burned so that Deena and the others could live. Twice now, she had lived while others had perished in flames. Twice now, her nose was filled with a smell that would never leave.
And yet, when Deena thought about it, all she felt was relief.
The Meridian; 26 April, Year 329 of the Hallowed Era
“Dead,” said Greoore. “All of them.”
“All of them?” asked Syncrest incredulously.
“All of them,” confirmed Avenel. “The fire was… thorough.”
The meeting room was much emptier than it had been earlier that day. It was just Elyria’s Wardens, minus Sylari and Zachariah, with Ajjraea’s Lords Paramount, minus Roniin, who was supervising the burial of the bodies. The King and Queen were there too, along with Vallus. There were no monks, no retainers, no audience. At the back of the room, Garthniiel stood by the wall as though uncertain if he should be there, but no one had moved to send him away.
“And now we’ll never know who they are or what they wanted,” said Oliina. “If Lord Avenel hadn’t proposed such a ghastly tactic—”
“That tactic may well have saved your life, Mother,” reminded Greoore.
“Maybe,” said Oliina, “assuming this hasn’t all been some Elyrian farce.”
“Have some respect,” hissed Khassan. “We lost one of our own today.”
“Just because there were unforeseen consequences—”
“Oliina,” said King Toorre quietly. “Leave.”
Oliina looked shocked.
“That was an order, woman. Go find Roniin and tell him to come.”
For a moment, the queen looked ready to argue, but then she stood up and left with a rattling of her beaded skirt.
“I apologize for my wife,” said Toorre. “Marrying her was a mistake.”
Avenel glanced at Garthniiel, but he looked away.
Ildora cleared her throat. “Without any prisoners to interrogate, we can only guess at the motive behind this attack, but at least we know who’s behind it.”
“Who?” asked Hiikov. His neck was still covered in hives.
Looks were exchanged around the room.
“The timing is too much of a coincidence,” continued Ildora. “His goal may have been to kill us all, or it may have been to simply disrupt this meeting. In any case, I can’t think of anyone else who might benefit from an attack on both our nations at once.”
“But how could the Harbinger have gathered an army?” asked Greoore. “And without our knowledge?”
“For that matter,” added Thanriiel, “how did they get inside? If they could do it once, they can do it again.”
“I have my men scouring the castle,” said Greoore, “but I doubt they’ll try the same thing twice.”
“Could they have gained entry through deception somehow?” asked Vallus. “The monks can hardly be expected to know all of our faces, and we certainly don’t know all of theirs.”
“It’s possible,” said Avenel, “but there were too many of them for them to all have gone unnoticed.”
“I did notice something odd during the fight,” said Desmina. “I could be wrong, of course, but I thought I recognized one of the ones who attacked me.”
“It was someone you knew?” asked Syncrest.
Desmina nodded. “One of my soldiers, but I thought he died decades ago.” She frowned. “But he didn’t seem to recognize me, before I cut him down.”
“Now that you mention it,” said Greoore, “some of them looked familiar to me, too. No one that I can put a name to, but I’m sure I’ve seen them before.”
“Are you saying that this army is composed of our own men?” asked Khassan. “But how? Bribery? Blackmail?”
Desmina shook her head. “A handful of traitors, I could believe, but there were hundreds of them out there today. They can’t all be ours.”
“Even one traitor can be dangerous,” said Avenel. She looked around the table. “I know you’ve all brought only the people you trust the most, but may I suggest that nothing we discuss here leave this room?”
Around the room, everyone nodded.
“But even without the threat of treachery,” said Greoore, “how can we fight an enemy we know nothing about? We don’t even know if that was the entire force today, or if there are more of them elsewhere.”
Ildora nodded. “There could be thousands of them, for all that we know.”
“There could be,” agreed Avenel, “but we only need to kill the one.”
Everyone looked at her.
“Are you… suggesting we assassinate the Harbinger?” asked Greoore.
“But we know nothing about him, or what he’s capable of.”
“That only means it’ll be dangerous, not impossible.”
“Who are you proposing we send?” asked Vallus.
“The only one we can trust,” replied Avenel. “Me.”
Thanriiel raised an eyebrow. “You’re sending yourself on a solo mission to kill the Harbinger? And what are the rest of us supposed to do: twiddle our thumbs?”
“Of course not,” said Avenel. “You’ll have to obfuscate my activities and make preparations in case I fail; if it appears that we’re taking no action, then our enemy will only grow suspicious.”
“So we pretend to be preparing for a war to draw his attention,” said Desmina. She looked thoughtful. “It could work.”
“No,” said Toorre. “It’s far too dangerous.”
“I appreciate the concern,” began Avenel, “but—”
Toorre shook his head. “If you die, then you fail. The fate of the world is too great to leave in your hands alone.”
“I’d agree, but the rest of you would be missed if you were to suddenly leave your posts.”
“Except me,” said Garthniiel.
All eyes turned to look at him. All eyes except Toorre’s.
“Come again?” asked Thanriiel.
“Except me,” said Garthniiel again. “The Harbinger’s agents won’t notice if I’m missing—no one would—so I could go and aid Lord Avenel.”
“Absolutely not,” said Greoore. “It’s too dangerous.”
“I can fight well enough,” said Garthniiel. “You taught me yourself.”
Toorre held up a hand. “He’s a man grown, Greoore. He can make his own decisions.”
Everyone looked surprised at that, Garthniiel more than anyone else. “Thank you, Fa—um, your majesty,” he said.
Toorre only gave a grunt.
“At least take Flame and Frost with you,” said Greoore.
“Your guards?” asked Hiikov. “Can we trust them?”
“My companions,” corrected Garthniiel, “and I would trust them with my life.”
“Is this acceptable to you, Avenel?” asked Desmina.
For just a moment, Avenel hesitated, but in the end she nodded her assent.
“Then it’s settled,” said Desmina. “In the meantime, we should discuss exactly what to tell our people. We’ll need to prevent mass panic even as we prepare for the worst.”
“I’ll leave that to the rest of you,” said Avenel, rising to her feet. “Excuse me. I need some air.”
Firing a bow had not done her shoulder any favors, and now that the rush of battle was over, the pain she had ignored came back with a vengeance. She could rest her arm later. For now, there was still one thing left to do.
In the courtyard on the Ajjraean side, Lord Roniin was still there, directing the disposal of the dead. He looked up as Avenel approached. “Is the meeting over?”
“No,” she replied. “The rest of them are still there. The king is waiting for you.”
The gatehouse was occupied by a single monk, a novice by the look of the boy. He had a swollen lip and a bruise on his forehead, but was otherwise unhurt.
“Raise the gate, please,” said Avenel. Her eyes fell on a bullseye lantern hanging on the wall. “And I’ll need to borrow that.”
It was with some effort that the boy raised the gate a few feet, just high enough for Avenel to duck under. The ground outside was a mess of trampled mud. Roniin or Desmina would soon send someone to follow the trail left by the invading army, to see where they had come from, but if the enemy commander had any sense at all, he or she would already have moved on.
In the woods, the night air was unexpectedly cold. Avenel shivered. She hadn’t thought to bring a cloak, but the cold air was welcome after the heat of the fire. She found the place along the wall where she’d descended earlier that afternoon, and from there she worked her way back to where they had parted ways with the patchbeard monk. Even with the light of the lantern, it was difficult to see; here and there were dark splotches on the foliage which she knew to be blood, but now they merely looked like shadows.
Perhaps she should have waited until morning, or else sent someone else. But no, she had been the man’s commanding officer when he died, even if it had only been for an hour, even if she had never learned his name. It was her responsibility, at the very least, to find his body.
She hadn’t had the chance to go back for Ephraim. By the time she had finally been able to return, there was nothing left to find. Perhaps his bones were at the bottom of some unmarked mass grave, or more likely, in the belly of a dog.
She was about to give up, to return in the morning, when she caught a glimpse of movement through the trees. She raised her lantern, but whatever it had been was gone. She set down her lantern and followed, the rustle of leaves leading her further and further into the woods until she arrived at the clearing with the catapult. It was still there, the wooden beams as white as bone beneath the moon. And leaning against it was a stranger, a woman with snow white hair and eyes that gleamed violet in the moonlight.
“Lord Avenel,” said the woman.
Avenel’s immediate reaction was to draw a dagger, but a nagging sensation at the back of her mind stayed her hand. The woman seemed familiar, somehow, though she was sure that she had never met someone with so striking a coloring. “Who are you?” asked Avenel. “Have we met?”
“In a manner of speaking,” said the woman. There was a loop of black prayer beads around her wrist, and she fiddled with it as she spoke. “I had wanted to warn you of the attack today, but I’m afraid my arrival was too late.”
“You knew about it?”
“I suspected,” said the woman. “Your Meridian was built over the ruins of an Asterii temple. I would guess that the portal is still intact, and that was how he sent them inside.”
“He?” asked Avenel.
“Your attacker,” said the woman. “The portal will be somewhere on the lower floors, a small circular room with inscriptions on the floor. He will not be able to use it again anytime soon, but you may still wish to keep a guard at the door.”
“How do you know this?”
“What does it matter?” asked the woman. “I’m trying to help you.”
“Then I thank you,” said Avenel, “but I have to ask why.”
“Why help a stranger?”
The woman looked at her for a moment, then looked away. “You and I,” she said, “we’re bound by more than you know.”
“What do you mean?”
The woman shook her head. “It matters not. Our goals are aligned regardless; we both wish to save the world.”
“And what do you know of that?” asked Avenel.
“I know more than you,” said the woman. “I can’t stay, but come find me in Triinton, just a few days north of here. Wait for me at the inn.”
“Wait,” said Avenel. “The attackers. What do you know of them? Do you know why they attacked us?”
“Is it not obvious?” asked the woman. “They were here for the girl. They know what blood she has.”