MARCH 13, 1224 J.R.
I awoke with an unbearable thirst and my face resting on something gritty and I had no idea where I was. It was either dawn or twilight, with a sort of diffuse half-light filtering through the trees. Pushing myself up on my hands, I almost immediately collapsed back to the ground as a titanic wave of agony rolled through my head. It started to come back – my squad had been assigned to hold a copse of fir trees on the Emperor's flank so that the Bear couldn't bring his damnable lancers to bear anywhere except against the earthworks-protected crest of the hill that was the Emperor's position. It had seemed a cherry assignment, up until an entire regiment of Flemish skirmishers had entered the copse in an attempt to move to the Emperor's rear. The fighting that had ensued was chaotic and brutal, right up until… until what? What had happened?
As soon as the wave of pain passed, I began to slowly climb to my feet. The ground was littered with the bodies of the fallen, ours and theirs, and I was unable to say whether we'd won or lost. Probably we'd both lost – the winnings of a successful battle didn't exactly trickle down to the foot soldiers, no matter who won. We got to do the dying while our betters got the glory and the lucre.
It was going to be another long season in the Confederated Principalities of Almania, with no prospect of victory for either side.
After finishing the last few swallows of water in my waterskin, I found my sword under the body of an enemy that laid beside where I had fallen, crusted with gore that must be several days old. Saints, how long had I been asleep? My helm was harder to find, being a good 10 yards from where I had lain, and rent by some monstrous blow that I could only assume had happened while my head was not in it. I left it behind.
Unable to get my bearings in the ambiguous light, I set off in the direction I thought was most likely to lead me back to the Emperor's forces, listening always for sounds that could betray danger, and more importantly, for water. After some indeterminate slog over the muddy spring ground, I found the latter in a small pool fed by a spring, not contaminated by the dead that lay all around. I bent forward, drinking deeply. Once my thirst was quenched, I leaned back on my knees to wash myself, and that's when I saw my reflection.
I had a nasty crusted scab covering a head wound that precisely matched my crushed and torn helmet. I fainted.
"Did you feel that, my love?" asked the crimson-haired man of his raven-haired consort.
"Yes, love. The last two are waking even now," she replied softly.
"It begins," the red man murmured, with a predatory smile that sent yellow clad servants scurrying about their tasks, eager to leave their master's presence when he was in such a dangerous mood.
When I came to it was fully dark. I wasn't sure whether that meant that it had been twilight and I had slept a little while, or whether it meant that it had been dawn and I had lain as one dead for a whole day. I splashed some water on my face to wash the sleep out of my eyes and then drank deeply. I was hungry – I would need to find food soon if I were to continue to heal.
My head pounding, I dragged myself to my feet. I set off once again across the wooded ground, soon leaving behind the mangled corpses and the coppery tang of blood. It was an effort to set one foot in front of the other with the hammering of my blood in my head, and after some indeterminate time, I came out of the wooded area into the staging area behind the hill that was the emperor's position. The camp was no longer there. The emperor had either advanced or retreated.
I turned my steps to the right, trudging up the hill to where the earthworks had been built. Arriving near the top, I found about what I expected – evidence of fierce fighting at the stakes – the corpses of men and horses bloodied and broken, scavenger birds picking at the flesh of the fallen, broken and discarded weapons, battle standards, and so on. A few days had definitely passed – the bodies had been not only scavenged but looted, and there were no moans of the dying.
On balance, my best guess was that the emperor had advanced. Although the earthworks and stakes were damaged, they were still somewhat defensible. If the Bear's troops had won through, they likely would have torn much more of it down as they advanced. I turned my plodding feet down the hill, determined to find the emperor's army, and the brother that I hoped still marched with it.
March 16, 1224 J.R.
Sister Marie took her customary place at the head of the red stone table. "Brothers, sisters, councilors: this meeting is in session. Sister Valentine, please read the minutes from our last meeting."
Marie tuned out Valentine as she recited the business from the Council's last meeting: newly registered theurges, reports of witchcraft in the North, quibbling over how to deal with the damnable Venn. Her eyes rested instead on the newest addition to the Council, this young buck knight that the Inquisition had been so eager to foist off on the Council. Sir Anselme was in many ways the prototypical knight of the inquisition: a former priest with an upward trajectory; noble born, but not so nobly born that his presence in the Church was a political pretense for his family; built like a giant, rugged, a little too handsome, and possessed of penetrating eyes that seemed to see too much.
There was only one reason the Inquisition would send a man like this to the Council: to supplant her as the Prime Theurge. This one would bear watching.
Chalon, Seat of the Duchy of Burundy
Sylvie unfolded the paper, scanned the first few lines, and screamed.
Sylvie Agathe Sainte-Bayard hurried through the kitchen of her inn, the Honey Spring, not more than a few minutes after the sun crested the horizon. There was much work to be done. The Duc d'Burundy was hosting one of his noble counterparts, the Duc Honoré Matthieu d'Estaing, and the Duc's chateau was full of half the peerage of Burundy and Estaing, leaving the inns of the city splitting at the seams with all the soldiers and servants and hangers-on of the Duc d'Estaing's court, not to mention those lordlings from both duchies who hoped to gain advantage from this meeting.
So much work! Eggs to be bought, together with fresh vegetables, flour, beef and chicken, soap for laundry, and endless, endless casks of wine and beer.
Sylvie bustled through the market, gathering her purchases and arranging for them to be available for pickup by one of her stableboys when she returned to the Honey Spring.
Returning to the inn, she set to work with her cooks, baking fresh rolls, mulling apple cider, and preparing the day's first batch of her famous honey-cakes, little golden cakes with slivers of almond drizzled with honey from her own apiary.
"Madame?" It was Thierry, the stableboy she had sent to the market. He was 12 and just coming into his adult growth – he was going to be a handsome man and trouble with all the barmaids sooner rather than later. At the moment, he was flushed and breathing hard, holding a folded piece of paper in a shaking hand.
"What is it, Thierry?"
"Message for you, madame." Thierry thrust the paper forward like it was a viper he was holding.