The dreaded emperor is dead. The successor to the throne is his nemesis, Archange. Many hope her reign will usher in a new era of freedom and stability. Soon however, word arises of a massive army gathering in the shadows of the north. They are eager to lay waste to the City and annihilate anyone—man, woman, or child—within it.
Yet just as the swords clang in fields wet with the blood of warriors, family feuds, ancient rivalries, and political battles rage on within the cold stone walls of the City. A hero must rise up and restore the peace before anything left to fight for is consumed by the madness.
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The emperor eagle makes its eyrie in the heights of the mountains, far from the haunts of man. Though built of blood and sinew, bone and claw, like the smallest dunghill scavenger, its effortless command of the sky and all-seeing eye make it a potent symbol, in the minds of her warriors, of the mastery and might of the City.
It was not always so. For centuries the phoenix held that emblematic role, watching over the rise of the City and its fall by, variously, earthquake, war, social collapse and once, aptly, by fire. But when the emperor called Saduccuss demanded that one be captured and brought to the Red Palace for display, its mythological status proved a drawback. Saduccuss, thwarted, then decreed that the tufted pea-duck, a dramatically beautiful but stupid creature, given to panic, replace the phoenix as the City's symbol. One was netted and brought to the palace where it hid pitiably in corners, losing its feathers and its beauty until it was mercifully despatched by one of the imperial gulons.
And it was then that the emperor eagle, formerly the crimson eagle, was promoted to City symbol, having the benefit of aloofness without the disadvantage of being non-existent.
One such bird, soaring on air currents far above the topmost peaks of the Blacktree Mountains, might have looked down and wondered what the City's soldiers were doing so high in these crags at dead of winter. Time was when armies packed away their weapons and armour as the chilly weather closed in, retreating homeward like the silver bears which return to their habitual caverns at first frost to doze away the long days of ice.
Had the emperor eagle been interested, or able, to discriminate between the uniforms of the City warriors and those of their enemy, it might have thought the City embattled. True, its force was the smaller one, but it blocked the entrance to a deep, rocky valley which protected the enemy Blues-an allied army of Odrysians and Buldekki. And the City soldiers were well armed and better provisioned, whereas the Blues had been too long in the field, were short of supplies, low on weapons, far from aid.
And on this particular day, less than a year before the Fall of the City to flood and invasion, one company of Odrysians, cut off from their main army, was in a desperate plight.
The dead woman wouldnÕt keep quiet.
Jan Vandervarr pulled his felt cap low over his ears in a vain bid to block out her feeble cries. He was perched on a bare rocky ledge, scoured by icy wind, overlooking a mute, snow-covered valley which two days before had been a battlefield.
All the other corpses, hundreds of them, had disappeared under falls of snow and were pristine white mounds, gentle on the softened land. But the woman warmed the snow with her dying body and her uniform was a splash of black, spilled ink on white. And she moved from time to time, valiantly trying to crawl back to her lines, though she did not know the way. She would remain silent for hours, and Jan would hope she was dead, then she would moan again, or chant some City ritual. Jan wished he had the courage to descend and send her to her death gods. But he feared the long range of the heavy crossbows on the far slopes of the valley where City bowmen watched and waited.
He heard a scuffle behind him as someone emerged from the cave-mouth, and smelled the acrid odour of thick smoke and unwashed bodies pouring out on the expelled air. He and his comrades of the Odrysian Seventeenth infantry had been pinned down in this too-small cave for two nights and there was no sign they would be escaping soon. He was glad to do guard duty, to get away from the sounds and stench of forty trapped, discontented men. And there was nothing really to guard against. Nothing was moving in this silent land, except the dead woman.
"Someone should go down and finish her," his friend Franken said, squatting beside him. The smell of smoke rolled off him.
"You go," Jan replied.
It was a conversation they had had before.
"Rats deserve everything that's coming to them," Franken opined.
The dunghill Rats-as the Odrysians called the City fighters-had come down on them before dusk as they trudged along the valley on their way back to the main body of their army. The skirmish had lost them a hundred or more. With darkness thickening around them they had retreated up to these caves to lick their wounds, ready to break out and hit back at the City the next day. But that night had brought heavy snowfall and the temperature had dropped like a stone. Dawn the next day had revealed a valley bright with whiteness, muffled and still.
"City sorcery," Franken offered, sucking his teeth and spitting in the snow.
He was still talking about the woman. Jan made no reply.
Franken glanced at him. "I wouldn't be a Rat."
It was a common subject for discussion among the allied forces. They all knew Rats were hard to kill. They didn't know why, though there was much superstitious talk about their emperor, whom the City fighters called the Immortal, and his magics. But whatever the reason, and Jan Vandervarr didn't much care what it was, it made City warriors formidable enemies. Even the women. No one wanted to die-and yet if you had a mortal wound you prayed for a quick death or the salvation of a comrade's merciful blade. No one wanted to die like this woman, lost in the snow.
Jan sighed. His years in the Odrysian army had shown him there were no easy deaths, no easy answers. A vision of his wife, Peg, dead these ten years, flashed before his eyes. He pushed it away ruthlessly. That life was long gone. This was his life now.
There was another blast of warm, noisome air from the cave-mouth, and a third soldier squatted on the ledge beside them. Jan glanced at him. It was the red-haired officer who had joined them in the autumn from a company destroyed by the City's Maritime army at Copperburn. The newcomer was young and tall and very thin, with legs like a crane's, and his fiery hair was pulled back in a wiry bunch behind his head. Jan grinned to himself. The three of them perched in a row looked like gargoyles he'd seen on the imperial palace in Old Odrysia, now lost to the Dravidian Empire.
Faint sounds drifted up from the snowy valley.
"Someone should go down and finish her," Franken commented to the new man pointedly.
The officer nodded his agreement then stood and stepped off the ledge into the deep snow. His skinny shanks sank into the icy crust and he nearly lost his balance.
"What are you doing?" Franken asked with alarm, grabbing the redhead's shoulder to keep him upright.
"Going down to despatch her, as you suggest," the young officer replied, regaining his balance and taking another step.
"They'll despatch you before you get to her," Franken told him, pointing to the rocky crags across the valley. "Those bolts of theirs will skewer you like pork."
The officer looked back and smiled. Jan saw he had the strangest violet-coloured eyes.
"No they won't," he told Franken. "They'll wait until I'm on my way back."
Then he plunged forward and started forging his way through the hip-deep snow, moving his arms as if paddling a boat. It was slow going and twice he fell over, but he struggled to his feet and pressed on. As his dark figure dwindled Jan expected him to go down at any moment, felled by a crossbow bolt, but he trudged on until he reached the woman and there he stood, leaning above her like a wading bird, taking his time.
"What's he up to?" Franken asked, squinting, as if Jan might have better information than he. "He's talking to her." Then he added, "Man's a fool."
Women warriors make fools of us all, Jan thought. The Odrysians all despised the Rats, or claimed to, for including women in their ranks, but no one hesitated to kill them along with the men they stood with. In a good honest hand-to-hand battle the women were easier to kill, mutilate or disarm. But most fighting was in the scramble of a skirmish, at night, or in bad weather, or on tough terrain, and the women were often faster, presented a smaller target, and were lower to the ground, better balanced. Many of his dead comrades had learned that the hard way when hesitating to despatch a woman. Jan had no trouble killing them now, and he had learned to fear them just as much as their menfolk.
"He's coming back," Franken announced, his finger, as always, on the pulse of the obvious.
Jan watched as the officer presented his back to the enemy and started plodding back up the treacherous hillside towards them.
"They'll take him now," Franken said confidently, but still the young man came on, unskewered, until he was out of crossbow range and scrambling up the steep incline beneath the ledge. Jan and Franken offered a hand each and pulled. The officer's boots slid on the icy shelf, then he was beside them again. He stamped the snow off his legs and turned back towards the cave.
"Is she dead?" Jan asked him.
The young man nodded.
"What were you talking to her about?" Franken asked. But the officer moved back towards the cave-mouth, offering no reply.
"Well, what did she say?" Franken asked his back.
The officer hesitated and turned for a moment.
"She said, 'Marcellus is coming.'"
The red-headed officer, whom the Odrysians knew as Adolfus but whose real name was Rubin Kerr Guillaume, pushed aside the heavy groundsheet which screened the men from the worst of the cold, then ducked his head and with a sniff of distaste entered the reeking cave. There were two fires, one for the officers, one for the men, but they were poor weak things, fuelled by damp brush and twigs, pouring out more smoke than heat. The smoke lay in a thick layer in the roof of the cave. It was impossible to see through, impossible to breathe, and Rubin hurried, doubled up, stepping over injured soldiers to his billet where he sat down against the rock wall and took a cautious breath. Several junior officers watched him sourly. He was not a popular man, he knew, and if they wondered what heÕd been up to they didnÕt ask.
Rubin, under direct orders from the City's First Lord Marcellus Vincerus, had infiltrated the Odrysian company after the Battle of Copperburn, where the City's veteran Maritime had crushed an alliance of Blues in a three-day battle of unparalleled awfulness. Rubin's command of the Odrysian tongue was pitch-perfect, and he had previously spent two years in their country, long enough to convince the keenest of inquisitors that he was a native. No, the other junior officers didn't dislike him because they suspected him of being a spy. They disliked him because they suspected him of being an arrogant, opinionated dilettante. Which was at least partly true, and which was just the way Rubin liked it.
He rummaged in his pack, pulling out some crusty old bread and leathery meat. He sniffed the meat, decided it would last a day or so more, and chewed on the bread, which wouldn't.
A dark figure emerged from the smoke, coughing. "General wants you."
Rubin sighed. In the scramble to find shelter after the battle two days before he had stuck closely to the senior officers and found himself in the same cave as the general. He liked to stay near the centre of things. But now it meant having to explain himself, something he didn't care for. He stood and ducked under the smoke again to where Arben Busch was encamped.
Rubin loomed awkwardly over him until the general glanced up and gestured him to sit. Busch was dark-faced and bad-tempered, but he had the reputation of a brilliant strategist, a reputation Rubin was starting to doubt now they were a hundred-odd men trapped in caves at dead of winter.
"Did you kill her?" the general asked him.
"She was affecting the men's morale, sir."
Busch sighed, deeply pouched eyes red and weary.
"Did it occur to you that if she was affecting our morale she was affecting the enemy still more?"
"No it didn't, sir," Rubin said straight-faced.
Busch snorted. "Did you question her? What did she say?"
"She said Marcellus would come and destroy us all."
"Marcellus is fighting in the south," put in another officer, a loud-mouthed know-nothing called Camben.
"As far as we know," added the general thoughtfully. Then he shook his head. "Just words," he concluded. "She wields Marcellus like a bogeyman to frighten us with."
Rubin told him: "She was blind. She thought I was a comrade."
"You speak the City tongue?" asked Camben suspiciously, glancing at his general to see if he was impressed by this keen deduction.
"Of course," Rubin replied. "Know your enemy and his ways. Don't you?" he asked in mock surprise.
"I don't succour the enemy," replied Camben, reddening.
"Gentlemen," Busch snapped. "How is the terrain?" he asked.
"Hopeless," Rubin told him. "The snow is still waist-deep in parts. Crossing the valley would take half a day. They could pick us all off at their leisure with those hefty crossbows of theirs."
"We don't even know if the City crossbowmen are still there," argued Camben. "We haven't seen them for more than a day."
"They're still there," said Rubin.
Camben scowled at him, but Busch asked, "How are you so sure?"
Rubin shrugged and flashed a smile, which was wasted on the dour general. "I could feel their eyes on me," he lied.
"You can take guard duty tonight." The general cocked his head towards the cave-mouth, dismissing him.
As Rubin turned away new arrivals covered with fresh snow came in from the cold, stamping their feet, shaking themselves like wet dogs. Officers from the other caves were gathering, and Rubin would be stuck outside unable to hear what was going on. He returned to his pack, took out a thick wool scarf and a thin blanket, swallowed the last piece of bread, then went out into the icy air.
It was snowing hard now and he could see nothing but a moving white wall a few paces in front of him. It was blowing away from the cave-mouth, though, and Vandervarr and Franken had erected a small awning in the lee of a rocky outcrop. They looked quite cosy, and Rubin joined them.