* * *
At first nadir, when the Fieldman lifted the Scythe from the horizon, we lined along the eastern bank of Houd’s Son, the wide river that ran down to the sea.
Flags of blood and bronze glimmered, the banners of the Autumn Queen fluttered delicately in the evening’s breeze. She rode a dark horse, bareback, her long red braid laid against its roan coat, her split skirts heavy with mail, her gauntlets fisted into the plaited mane. She did not carry a standard; she carried a greatsword with ease, and wore no helm, but painted her face in streaks of red, her wide, white eyes bright in the dark, her sharp teeth gleaming.
The divide between loyalist and rebel cut deeply through the shattered Heartsreach of our nobles; the countryside had erupted in a thousand small skirmishes, blood painted on the hands of friends and fathers, mothers and maids alike, and now it came time to draw together; we had begun this war, and now we had to finish it.
The Order of the Unending Night called out to the Queen and her army, urged her to go back, to give up. “This is folly!” the Fullpriest shouted. “You must give up the fight You have been overthrown!”
The Queen did not answer; she had ridden with her ranks in silence. It was pure rumor and loyalty that brought her soldiers along; they believed she had been wronged, been robbed — but they did not know in what fashion. It did not matter; they loved her. They would put down the rebellion with quick strokes. They would still us, and quiet the petty ragings that led us to rise up against her majestic right to rule. They believed it would be quick, and that when they had cut through our lines, we would be quick to dissemble, quick to give back what had been taken.
Some were thrilled to ride against me, their Commander, having never loved serving beneath a soft noble’s daughter. I could count half a dozen leaders that had tried to wrest control of the armies from me, three by subterfuge, one by outright force, and two, with clumsy attempts at romance.
All had failed, and I had mistakenly allowed them to live, as a show of grace and mercy. Elias had counseled me to it when these things happened, never having had my taste for blood, as I had never had his taste for prayer. No matter. At moonrise, we rattled our swords and stood tall; we were not a small force — I had managed to take control of three-quarters of the army, and all for the sake of the Unnamed Prince, son of my brother. Elias sat across from his long-ago love, his face turned toward hers. Tears would not fall from his ruined eyes, but I could taste the salt of them anyway.
“We are in the right, Elias,” I promised him. Kellis’s half-mad shouts still haunted me, even as I gave the signal to advance. “She never should have kept him from you.”
“It doesn’t matter, Elodie,” he answered softly. “No one will win.”
“We will,” I soothed him. “You’ll see.”
As the moon’s pale sickle of light spilled down over us, as we faced down the cavalry that tore up the ground with their black hooves, stamped and panted frost plumes in the chill, the rallying cry of our enemies was not ‘Return our prince!’ or even ‘Thieves!’
Instead, much to the horror of those who faced brother and sister across imaginary lines drawn against silver grass, the Autumn Queen’s voice was a howling command, bearing no justice, only revenge: “Kill them all!”
* * *