Mennaus took a bite out of an apple, tasted a telltale sourness that meant a worm had gotten there ahead of him, and tossed the rest into the mud. He nearly spit out the bite he’d just taken, then changed his mind and chewed. The brackish taste made him wince, but he figured it was the closest thing he would have to a meal until the fighting stopped, and those laying siege to the stout walls of Haltan were finally allowed to retire to their low fires and bedrolls.
For the night, that is, Mennaus thought darkly, reminding himself that come dawn, they’d only be back out here, shivering in the mud, squatting behind mantlets, hopelessly firing arrows over the battlements of the impregnable city before them.
Then the archer to Mennaus’s right spoke. “Hey, Tongue, what year is it?”
Mennaus turned in time to see Brain draw his bowstring until the fletching touched his cheek, then let it go. As the arrow leapt through the air, Brain rose from his crouch with a boyish grin. His head crested the protection afforded by his wooden mantlet, eyes trained on the dark arrow arching over the muddy field.
“Get down, idiot,” Mennaus growled.
When Brain did not obey, the archer to Brain’s right—the man known as Tongue—reached over, grabbed Brain by the back of the tunic, and hauled him to the ground.
A trio of crossbow bolts thudded into Brain’s mantlet, halted by lashed logs coated in animal fat. Two more bolts sailed through the air where Brain’s face had just been and sank with a wet splat into the mud behind him.
“I said, keep your damn head down,” Mennaus repeated. “These Haltan men shoot a lot better than you do.”
Brain blushed. “Sorry, Mennaus.” Then he glanced right again. “You hear me, Tongue? I asked what year it was.”
“He heard you,” said Mennaus. “He just can’t answer.” Mennaus notched an arrow, rose slightly, fired, then sank back to one knee, all in one smooth motion.
Brain looked puzzled. Then he grinned. “Oh. I remember now!” He turned to Tongue again. “Why do they call you Tongue if you can’t talk?”
“Same reason they call you Brain,” Mennaus grumbled. He wondered how many times he’d already explained this, only to have Brain forget.
Tongue laughed—or tried to. Without a tongue, the sound the big man made was more like an airy rasp punctuated by wet clicking.
“Why the hell do you need to know what year it is?” Mennaus asked. He had just drawn the last arrow from his quiver and glanced down at it with fresh irritation.
Brain said, “I get to go home in the Year of the Dove. That’s what the commander said. That’s close, right?”
Mennaus gave him a sour look. “Eighth Year of the Dove starts in mid-winter. Not long now.” He saw the look of excitement on Brain’s face and almost regretted having to dash the boy’s hopes. “But you’re not getting out of this mud-quest until Ninth Year of the Dove, just like the rest of us. If we live that long.” He glanced past Brain and motioned to Tongue. “I’m out.”
Tongue answered by holding up his own half-empty quiver.
Mennaus cursed. “Brain, do something useful and send up a few arrows. Just shoot quick. Don’t mind your aim.” He crouched low, waited until Brain fired one arrow, then bolted just as the lad was drawing another. He ran for the supply wagons set up a short distance behind the long line of mantlets.
Mennaus zig-zagged as he ran. He had seen enough archers die lately, just going to fetch more arrows, to know that the men lining the bone-gray battlements of Haltan, armed with their gigantic arbalests, were always on the lookout for an easy target. Sure enough, crossbow bolts began thudding into the mud, all around Mennaus. Cursing, he ran faster.
A few more bolts peppered the no-man’s-land between the mantlets and the wagons, but none got closer than a few feet. Mennaus ducked behind the safety of the wagons and caught his breath. As he did so, he cursed the past week’s rain, which had churned the ground into a muddy soup that prevented them from simply wheeling the mantlets backwards when they needed to resupply.
A camp-follower in ratty clothing quietly handed him a canteen. Mennaus stopped to look at her. She was homely with an ill mood, but still a better sight than what he was used to. He knew that if she was like many of the other camp-followers, he might rent her affections for a few copper coins. But Mennaus—like all those in the Fourteenth Legion—had not been paid in weeks. Besides, all he wanted now was water, then to get back to his mantlet with more arrows, preferably without getting shot.
“Arrows,” he said. He held up three fingers.
The camp-follower left, then returned with one full quiver in each hand. Mennaus had hoped for footed arrows—softwood shafts reinforced with hardwood at the tip—but these looked plain and hastily made. He told himself that footed arrows weren’t much use in a siege, anyway. What’s the point of an arrow that doesn’t shatter or crack on impact? That only means the enemy will fire it back at you.
Mennaus inspected the arrows more closely. Most were broadheads but a few had bodkin tips—useless, since few of Haltan’s crossbowmen bothered to wear chainmail. He knew better than to protest, though. By now, so many arrows had been expended that they had to make due with what was available. “I said three.”
“Quartermaster says only two at a time.” The camp-follower spoke with the blandness of one who has been giving the same excuse all afternoon. Mennaus thought she had a pleasing voice, though, and wondered what she looked like under all that mud and lice.
“Sweeteyes, these ain’t all for me. I’ve got two mates up there. Do you really want them to have to run back here themselves and get poked all full of holes, just so your damn quartermaster can keep track of supplies?”
The camp-follower’s expression said she agreed with him, but her lack of response said she wasn’t about to risk a whipping by breaking the rules.
Mennaus sighed. “How about food?”
“That depends. How do you feel about bread older than you are?” The camp-follower gestured to nearby baskets overflowing with bread so stale and hard, it looked like a mockery of emeralds.
“No, thanks.” Mennaus looked away. “Any of that honey left?” Days earlier, soldiers had intercepted a cart of supplies that sympathizers were attempting to sneak into Haltan through the storm drains. Said supplies included barrels of wine, honey, and other sweetstuffs, some of which had been briefly shared with the men. Mennaus had especially enjoyed the honey, which reminded him of the bee farms whose produce had made his childhood nearly tolerable, despite how many loved ones died to feed year after year of forced conscriptions.
The camp-follower’s snicker held a tinge of sympathy. “From last week? The Godprince kept most of that for himself.” She added, “Don’t tell me you didn’t already know that.”
“A man can always hope.” Mennaus took a moment to gather his courage, then shouldered the arrows along with the canteen, and sprinted back into no-man’s-land.
As he feared, Haltan’s archers were waiting for him. More crossbow bolts thudded into the mud all around him. One came so close to his cheek that he felt it brush his hair. Mennaus dodged this way and that, trying to make himself an impossible target, then dove. His shoulder struck the lashed logs of his mantlet and nearly knocked it over. He lied in the mud for a moment, catching his breath, then sat up. He heard the wet clack of Tongue’s laughter and gave his friend a sour look.
“Next time it’s your turn.” Mennaus tossed Tongue one of the two quivers, followed by the canteen. “And no, there’s no wine or honey left, so don’t even ask.” Mennaus rubbed his shoulder. He wished bitterly that Haltan’s archers had regular crossbows instead of their more powerful arbalests. Then, he and the others might at least use shields for protection on supply runs. But a bolt fired by an arbalest could punch clean through most any shield or armor. Even their thick, wooden mantlets shook mightily with each strike.
“We need to find us some godsteel armor!” Brain said. “Those bolts would bounce right off us then!”
“That’ll be the day,” Mennaus snorted. He’d seen a few nobles wielding violet blades, but that spectacular metal forged from fragments of a holy meteor was far too rare to be hammered into armor. Unless you’re the Godprince, that is.
“How’s that verse go?” Brain asked. “Sharp as flint, hard as stone, rare as gold—”
“Light as bone,” Mennaus finished. “Too bad even a tiny knife made out of the stuff would cost more than any of us will earn in our lifetimes.”
“But what if I found some?” Brain said. “If I did, I’d share it with you. Both of you.”
“If you had godsteel, I’d cut your throat and take it from you.” Mennaus pulled four arrows from the second quiver and tossed them to Brain. “Shoot slow, kid. The sun will be in their eyes in another hour or so. We’ll be a lot safer then.”
Tongue finished drinking then passed the canteen to Brain, along with a few arrows from his own quiver. Tongue waved to catch Mennaus’s attention then made a few gestures in hand-speech.
Mennaus shook his head. “Not a chance.”
Brain stopped guzzling from the canteen. “Not a chance what?”
Mennaus ignored the question and nocked an arrow. He took a deep breath and rose. This time, he aimed carefully, deliberately ignoring the crossbow bolts that thudded into his mantlet. He fired. He could not hear the cries of his target but he saw a crossbowman in his neat green surcoat topple right over the walls of Haltan. Scattered cheers rose along the line of mantlets.
“Bastards,” Mennaus swore at the crossbowmen before sinking out of sight again.
Brain whistled. “Nice shot!”
Mennaus drew another arrow but did not fire yet. He felt at least a dozen more crossbow bolts thud into his mantlet and knew the crossbowmen had it in for him now. He glanced over and saw Tongue frowning at him. He did not have to ask why.
“Hey, we’re still trying to win this damn war, ain’t we?”
Tongue just shook his head, fired his own longbow—a harmless shot that arched over the battlements and struck nothing—then sank down again. Brain was about to rise as well when Mennaus told him to sit still. “They know you stand up long enough to draw flies. If they can’t hit me, they’ll aim for you.”
Brain looked confused.
Mennaus snapped, “Just stall until I tell you different!” Mennaus did the same, pretending to inspect his bowstring. “We’re not getting out of here anytime soon. That’s what Tongue asked before, if we’d be quitting early tonight. But we’ll be safer at sunset. Just got to stay alive until then.
Brain nodded blankly. He tried to look busy by inspecting his own bow but he looked only half as convincing as Mennaus did. Mennaus shook his head. If an officer saw what Brain was doing, the lad would be whipped for cowardice, or maybe even strangled in front of everyone. After all, the standing order for all archers in the Fourteenth Legion was to fire as often and as fast as possible, so long as they had arrows and breath at their disposal. I shouldn’t have killed that crossbowman, Mennaus thought. He turned.
Tongue had just drawn an arrow. He held it a moment, then loosed it. To anyone else, the motion would have looked innocent enough, but Mennaus knew better. Tongue was the best archer Mennaus had ever seen. Even at three hundred paces from the walls, with their helmeted enemies crouching behind in battlements, he might have scored a hit. Instead, Tongue skewed his angle so that the arrow fell a few feet short, splitting harmlessly off the stone walls.
“Brain,” Mennaus said, “you got a spare bowstring?”
Brain shook his head.
Mennaus reached the pocket of his muddy leather tunic and withdrew one. He passed it over, glad his mantlet was close enough to Brain’s to protect his arm. Brain accepted the bowstring but only blinked at it.
“Cut yours,” Mennaus said. “Make it look like you’re not shooting because you got to fix your bow.”
Brain looked down at his longbow. “But my string’s fine—”
Tongue, who had been listening, grunted with annoyance. The mute drew his knife, leaned over, and cleaved Brain’s bowstring with a single, deft slice. The bow straightened with a barely audible crack, quivering in Brain’s hands. Tongue’s knife vanished as quickly as it appeared and the mute went back to firing his longbow.
Mennaus grinned despite himself. “Well, it’s broken now. Fix it—but don’t rush.” He looked around. Sure enough, a smartly armored corporal was watching them from a safe distance, back by the wagons. The corporal was scowling. But he relaxed when he saw Mennaus nocking an arrow and Brain fumbling with an obviously broken bowstring.
“Tongue just saved you a whipping, boy.” Mennaus swore, rose enough to fire, then ducked out of sight again.
Brain mumbled his thanks. Tongue answered with a quick gesture of hand-speech. Mennaus translated. “He says go to hell.” Mennaus laughed at the look on Brain’s face. “Relax, kid. He’s only fooling.” Mennaus glanced in the direction of the corporal, saw the man had shifted his gaze elsewhere, and made no attempt to nock another arrow. “You best temper yourself if you want to survive four more years of this.”
Brain looked sick. “Four… more… years?”
“At least we’re not infantry. Archers live longer.” Mennaus pointed. “Or would you rather be one of those poor bastards?”
Brain followed Mennaus’s gesture and fixed his eyes on a grim-faced squad of footmen marching in tight formation towards the walls of Haltan. The men—clad in chipped and tarnished chainmail, armed with machetes, axes, and battered tower shields—were about to make another mad dash for Haltan’s gates. Mennaus felt a surge of pity for the men. He could well guess their orders. During the infantry’s last suicidal advance beyond the mantlets, they had faced a storm of crossbow bolts that punched with ease through shields and chainmail. In their haste to retreat, the footmen had been forced to abandon their battering ram. Now, it seemed, the Godprince was ordering them to go retrieve it.
Damn fool’s errand, Mennaus thought. Obviously, the Godprince wanted to teach his men a lesson, but it would have been better to just leave the battering ram in the mud. Haltan’s gates were too thick to be bashed open, anyway. Trebuchets hurling stones and flaming pitch might soften them for breeching, but all the Godprince’s siege engines were broken beyond use. His last siege tower had been torched a week ago, as well.
Mennaus felt the bile rise in his throat, similar to the taste of the apple, and spat it out. Six months harassing a city that’s better fortified than we are. No wonder this camp’s running short on arrows… and coin, and food… and sense, for that matter!
A single trumpet blast echoed over the muddy field, ordering the archers of the Fourteenth Legion to cease fire. Although Mennaus was glad for the break, he knew what it meant: Haltan’s crossbowmen would now focus all their fire on the advancing footmen. The doomed soldiers passed through a break in the line of mantlets—close enough for Mennaus to see their faces. Many of them looked like they were about to be sick. Some of the archers cheered the footmen on, trying to raise their spirits, but Mennaus kept silent. Still, he stood up. Sure enough, the crossbowmen lining Haltan’s walls had other targets in mind.
A dark hail of crossbow bolts descended from the gray battlements, punching through shields and mail. Footmen fell, screaming. Others—unlucky boys with crude stretchers—were already being dispatched to drag the stricken off the field. They faced equally withering fire, and soon, the stretcher-bearers were the ones in need of aid.
Mennaus saw Brain turn away. The lad looked torn between crying and retching. Mennaus averted his gaze as well. He did not have to see to know what was happening: the surviving footmen, close enough to the gates now, broke into a sprint. A few dozen of Haltan’s crossbowmen, who had probably been waiting for just this moment, took aim and fired. A murderous hail of steel-tipped bolts shredded what remained of the infantry’s advance.
A groan went up from the Fourteenth Legion, even as Haltan’s defenders cheered. Mennaus forced himself to look. To his surprise, a few footmen remained. They had turned their backs on the enemy and were trying desperately to haul that ponderous battering ram off the field. But the mud held it like a lover, and all who sought to separate them were rewarded with death.
Mennaus threw down his bow and cursed the Godprince as loudly as he could. He was not afraid of being heard, since he knew the cries of the dying would drown out his words.
Mennaus stirred the fire and pretended not to hear the distant merriment coming from Haltan’s walls. He couldn’t really blame them for celebrating. They had survived another day of siege, after all, and hurt the enemy far worse than they had been injured themselves. Mennaus knew that had he been in their place, he would be celebrating, too. But the bile rose in his throat as he tried to vain to push the day’s events from his mind.
He looked about and saw that Tongue and Brain were in no brighter spirits. He extended his gaze and saw the other archers and footmen milling about, all downcast. Night usually raised the men’s spirits—at least a little—because it meant the day’s fighting was over and they could finally strip off their muddy clothes and armor, warm themselves by the fire (or in the company of a willing camp-maiden), and quiet that gnawing hunger with a bit of stale bread and over-salted meat. Tonight, though, memories of the footmen’s slaughter hung like a pall over every campfire—especially those of the archers, who had witnessed the senseless death up close.
Brain yawned. “I don’t get why the Godprince—”
Tongue slapped the boy’s arm, hard enough to make him jump. Then Tongue pressed one finger to his lips and hissed, telling Brain to be quiet.
“Keep your damn voice down,” Mennaus echoed. “You don’t want some officer to overhear you and throw you in the stockades.” He lowered his voice. “Bad enough we’re all thinking the same thing you are.”
Brain still looked confused, but he nodded. “What do you think will happen tomorrow?”
“Same thing as yesterday,” Mennaus said. “We’ll go back to the mantlets, waste a few hundred arrows, watch some good men die, and accomplish not one damn thing.” He added, “And that’s if we’re lucky.” He saw Tongue glare at him and realized he was speaking too loudly—something they had just chided Brain for doing. He had a hard time caring, though. “Likely, our fearless leader will try to raise morale by donning his pretty armor and parading out in front of the mantlets, letting Haltan’s arbalests use him as target practice.”
“Really?” Brain actually looked worried.
Mennaus almost laughed. “He’ll be fine, kid. With that shiny godsteel armor on, he won’t even get a scratch.”
“Oh,” Brain said, smiling. “Sharp as flint, hard as stone—”
Mennaus cut him off with a murderous look.
Brain fell quiet. He stirred the fire, too, then his stomach growled loud enough for Mennaus to hear. “I wish we had some real food!”
“Better get used to being hungry, kid. Odds are, half of us will starve before long.”
Brain started to smile, then realized Mennaus wasn’t joking. “But I saw the larders! They’re still plenty there. Sausages, bread, milk, even honey—”
“All of which belongs to the Godprince and his generals, to be distributed as they see fit.” Mennaus barely remembered to lower his voice.
“Too bad we can’t go home,” Brain said glumly. “My momma could fix us up a big cauldron of spiced porridge. I didn’t used to think much of it but now I miss it. A lot better than what we get here!” He glanced with disgust at the dirty bowls and crumbs of moldy bread laying nearby. Then the boy’s expression changed. “Hey, Mennaus?”
Mennaus swallowed his irritation and ignored the boy. Brain said his name again. This time, Mennaus almost struck him. “What?”
“Did you mean what you said before?”
“That depends. What did I say before?”
Brain lowered his voice and scooted closer. “About killing me.”
Mennaus snorted. “Boy, I’m about to strangle you just for asking so many dumb questions! Is that what you’re getting at?”
Brain shook his head. “No. I mean, what you said before. Earlier, before all those men got killed. About killing me”—he lowered his voice until Mennaus could barely hear—“if I had a bit of godsteel.”
Mennaus gave the addled boy a piteous look. “Is that what’s got you worked up? No, I wouldn’t kill you. Probably should, though, just to get some peace and quiet!”
Brain grinned. “Good! I’m glad.” He reached into his muddy tunic and withdrew something small, wrapped in an equally muddy strip of cloth. “Here.”
Mennaus hesitated. It was not like Brain to play jokes, although the last time the lad had tried to give one of his friends a present, it had been a half-rotten mouse he thought they might make into a stew. “What’s this, another mouse?”
Brain’s grin broadened. “Nope. Take it. I want you to have it. For keeping me alive. But you gotta promise to keep keeping me alive. I mean, as best you can. I know you can’t help it if I get stuck through the eye or get sick or something.”
Mennaus took the cloth, confused, and unwrapped it. He looked. He gave Brain a disbelieving look, then gestured to Tongue. The mute had been watching, only half-interested, but his eyes widened when we saw it: a thumb-sized bit of ore, marked by telltale streaks of violet.
“Gods, kid… how—”
“My daddy turned it up while he was plowing. He didn’t know what it was but he gave it to me. I didn’t know what it was either but it looked pretty, so I kept it. Then when I got here, I saw the Godprince in his purple armor and I thought—”
“Keep your damn voice down,” Mennaus hissed, even though Brain was still whispering. He unfolded the cloth for another look.
“Is that enough to make a dagger?” Brain asked, excited. “If so, maybe we could make a dagger and sell it, and use the money to buy—”
“No,” Mennaus said. He glanced at Tongue and realized the mute was thinking the same thing. “There’s not enough here for a dagger. But maybe, if the gods are merciful for once, there’s just enough for an arrowhead.”
The next morning brought a predictable routine of mud and clatter. Trumpets sent the archers scrambling. Haltan’s arbalests resumed their fire as the Godprince’s men dashed through the filthy no-man’s-land, striking a few before they could reach their mantlets. Mennaus forced himself to ignore the screams—a few of which came from men he knew—and dragged Brain after him. The lad was a poor runner. Mennaus half-expected to feel the cold bite of a crossbow bolt but miraculously, they reached their mantlets just behind Tongue, who was already notching an arrow.
And what an arrow!
Mennaus grinned, despite the whimpering and curses roiling all around him. It had taken every favor and threat he could muster, but he’d managed to gain access to one of the little smithies set up at the rear of the camp. Mennaus knew nothing of metalworking, but Tongue did. Once they were in the smithy, Mennaus and Brain guarded the door while Tongue heated the ore, then hammered and shaped it on the anvil. Tongue’s forehead gleamed with sweat but his eyes had sparked with a fierceness even brighter than the forge-fire. Before long, a sleek, violet arrowhead took shape between hammer and tongs. Then Tongue quenched it in cold water. The water hissed and steamed. When Tongue withdrew the arrowhead, it gleamed like a thing of magic. Mennaus took over, sharpening the thing as fast as he could. Then, they fixed it to the shaft of one of their own arrows and returned to their bedrolls, careful to keep the special arrow out of sight. But the three hardly slept.
Now, Mennaus watched as Tongue fit the special arrow to his bow, took slow, cautious aim, and fired it beautifully over Haltan’s battlements. The breath caught in Mennaus’s throat. He wondered how long it would be before one of Haltan’s archers spotted the arrow and read the note attached to the shaft. Of course, there was always the chance it would be missed, or whomever found the arrow would want to keep it for himself.
No, Mennaus thought fiercely. He decided that for once, he would have hope.
Hours passed. Archers continued to fire at each other. Now and then, a man screamed and fell. Mennaus fought to suppress his impatience. Then at last, amidst a great blare of trumpets, the Godprince galloped past the lines.
The footmen cheered, albeit halfheartedly. Archers cleared a path. The Godprince raised a valiant cry, whirling his great, violet-streaked bastard sword overhead. His violet armor caught the light, beautiful and alien. Silk and dyed goose feathers hung from the Godprince’s weighty pauldrons, complimenting the brilliant plumes rippling from the crest of his lion-shaped helmet. Mennaus had to admit, the Godprince looked impressive.
Of course, it doesn’t take guts to ride out in the open when you think you can’t be killed!
The men watched as the Godprince rode back and forth along the muddy line of mantlets and war-weary archers, shouting defiantly at the walls of Haltan. Predictably, Haltan’s archers peppered him with crossbow bolts. Their arbalests were powerful enough to punch through steel and bone, but against the prince’s Godsteel armor, they could do nothing. Bolts slid off the Godprince’s arms and chest, even his helm, as he gave a hearty laugh and waved his gleaming bastard sword again.
“You cannot harm me! You cannot kill me! My men will gladly lay down their lives to take this city in my name!”
“Fat chance,” Mennaus muttered. He watched the Godprince and felt a sudden surge of sympathy—not for his ruler, but for the horse that carried him. Unlike the Godprince, the horse had no fantastic armor to protect it from the hellish rain of crossbow bolts. The beast reeled and screamed as it was struck again and again. But the Godprince was merciless, whirling and driving the beast this way and that until it finally toppled beneath him.
Mennaus fought to keep from laughing as the Godprince fell headlong into the mud, half-hoping the haughty ruler might break his neck. But the Godprince rose, paying his dead mount no mind as he wiped the mud from his fantastic armor. Rather than retreat, he strode toward the walls, spreading his arms in invitation.
Still more crossbow bolts rained down on the Godprince—with no effect. The Godprince turned slowly, allowing the enemy archers to hit him on all sides. Meanwhile, Mennaus could tell that the archers and footmen of the Fourteen Legion were rapidly losing interest in the spectacle. After all, this was not the first time the Godprince had done this. Mennaus even saw some of the men turn away and yawn, or use this opportunity to grab a sip of wine or a bite of stale bread.
“Why hasn’t it happened yet?” Brain asked.
“Don’t know,” Mennaus said. “Maybe they haven’t found the arrow yet. Maybe it’ll be a few days before—”
Tongue pointed, grunting to get Mennaus’s attention.
At the center of Haltan’s battlements, just above the gates and murder holes, one of Haltan’s defenders—a captain, by the look of him—was taking up position. Instead of a cumbersome arbalest, the man held a simple longbow. On either side of him, Haltan men were cheering.
The Haltan archer-captain drew back his bowstring, taking slow, careful aim. In the muddy field below, the Godprince heard the spectacle and laughed. He opened his arms wide, presenting his violet-streaked breastplate to the archer-captain, daring him to fire.
The archer-captain fired. A lone arrow caught the sunlight. The Godprince held his bombastic pose like a statue dressed in steel. He did not move.
“It didn’t work!” Brain wailed. Tongue squeezed his arm to quiet him but Brain wailed anyway. “It didn’t work! It didn’t work!”
Then, slowly as if in a dream, the Godprince’s violet sword wavered and tumbled from his grasp, landing in the mud with a heavy splat. The Godprince’s spectacular helm wobbled as he looked down, as though studying the lone arrow driven impossibly deep through his breastplate. Then the Godprince fell.
The walls of Haltan erupted in wild cries of celebration. The Godprince’s bodyguards—stunned—raised their shields and charged onto the field to retrieve their stricken liege. The rest of the Fourteenth Legion just stared, including Tongue and Brain. Only Mennaus looked away, covering his face with one hand to hide his wide, reckless grin.
As they walked along the deserted road, Mennaus made sure his muddy cloak concealed his satchel filled with gold coins. Tongue carried no satchel, but he’d slid jeweled rings onto every finger, then covered his hands with dirt-caked gloves in case they were spotted. They still took care to get off the road and hide in the forest whenever they heard someone coming—likely just other deserters—but the sounds of fighting in the distance confirmed that whichever generals and soldiers had chosen to stay behind and continue the siege now had problems of their own.
“Where to now?” Brain asked. With one hand, he led a pony he’d loaded with foodstuffs taken from the camp. In his other hand was a biscuit slathered in honey from the Godprince’s private stores.
Mennaus and Tongue exchanged looks. Tongue answered in hand-speech. Mennaus scowled. “Tongue says we’ll help you get home. You promised us spiced porridge.”
Brain brushed flies away from his pony’s eyes. “I did?” He stuffed the rest of his biscuit in his mouth. “That’s right, I did! Too bad”—he chewed as he spoke, his words barely intelligible—“I didn’t get some treasure, too.”
“It’s your own damn fault,” Mennaus said. “You were too busy stuffing your belly with sausages and sweetcakes when you should have been stuffing your pockets with gold.”
“Can’t eat gold.” Brain brightened. “I would have liked to get my hands on the Godprince’s helmet, though! I’ve never seen a helmet shaped like a lion before. Except for his, I mean.”
“One of the generals took it, probably.” He almost made a joke about how Brain could have used the helmet to safeguard what few senses he had left, but stopped himself.
Brain shrugged. “That’s all right, I guess. What I took’s probably worth a lot more, anyway.”
Mennaus shook his head. “You really think sausages and biscuits are worth more than a godsteel helmet? Gods, lad, your quiver really is short a few arrows!”
“Oh, I didn’t mean the food. I meant this.” Brain reached back to the pony and swept aside a blanket. Mennaus saw saddlebags overflowing with provisions and foodstuffs—and something else. Mennaus swore under his breath and peered closer. Sure enough, strapped to the pony’s back was a bastard sword wrought entirely from gleaming, violet-tinged godsteel.
“How…” Mennaus sputtered.
“A general took it right after the Godprince died. But then another general said he wanted it. While they were fighting—well, I just took it.” Brain hesitated. “I hope they won’t be mad.”
Mennaus and Tongue exchanged looks. Tongue rolled his eyes. Mennaus took the blanket and covered up the sword again. “Keep that out of sight. Understand?”
Brain nodded. “Mennaus, you said you wouldn’t kill me over a godsteel dagger.” He brushed flies from his new pony’s face again. “You wouldn’t kill me over a fancy sword, either, would you?”
Mennaus tried to scowl but the worry on Brain’s face got the best of him and he laughed. “No, lad. Not even for a fancy sword. But I might kill you for a biscuit.”
Brain grinned. “Oh, you can just have one! Or three. I have a whole knapsack full.” He pointed. “And there’s honey, too, if you want it.”
©January 2018 Michael Meyerhofer
Michael Meyerhofer is a fantasy and science fiction writer. He is an active member of the SFWA and has published stories in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, Strange Horizons, Hayden's Ferry, Ploughshares, and other journals. He has also published novels and poetry.
Curtis Ellett is a frustrated fantasy writer and a founding member of the 196 Southshore Writers' Group. He has lived on three continents, studied archaeology and worked as a newspaper ad designer and a bookseller. He now gets paid to write. Find him on Twitter @CurtisEllett.