The Burning Kingdoms – Sally Green

IT WAS a gloriously warm and sunny afternoon, and young Prince Harold wandered along the edge of the woodland humming to himself, trying to devise more verses to an old song. “The princess waits, cunning and silent, Ready to do her killing, She’s pretty, murderous, and defiant. Prince Boris rides up, strong and fast, He’s speared through the heart, Dead at last. Harold steps forward his future to meet, Royal and brave, The world at his feet.” Harold stopped and put his right fist to his heart, just as he would do at court when they acknowledged his new position as heir to the throne of Brigant. The world at his feet . The old song was about a pure girl yearning for a boy to give her life purpose. Boris had often sang it when he was drunk. “Well, brother, our sister has certainly given my life more purpose.” The bright red of a tiny wild strawberry growing low to the ground caught Harold’s eye and he plucked the delicate fruit. It was deliciously sweet, and he scanned for more, picking the ripest and trampling the rest. He moved into the full sunshine, out of the woods, and sucked the juice from his stained fingers. Before him, gray smoke still clung to the battlefield, not quite concealing the detritus of war—bodies, wounded horses, and weapons; spears stood at odd angles, piercing the burned earth.

Harold let his head fall back as he closed his eyes, feeling the sun on his face and feeling truly blessed. “What! A! Day!” The words he shouted seemed to hang and vibrate in the still air. “What a glorious day,” he called out again. He was in awe of it all—of his position and of how it had come about and of just how good he felt. But no one replied. It was silent apart from some distant squeals—perhaps a wounded man or horse, though it didn’t sound like a noise either should make. In the middle of the battlefield were two burned-out carts—one that had carried Harold’s sister, Princess Catherine, and the other, Prince Tzsayn. The mules that had pulled the carts were there too, lying in contorted positions, still harnessed to the wreckage; one with its head back and its mane flickering with small flames, another with a leg pointing skyward. Harold had inspected the carts with his father and Boris when they’d been made. They’d looked impressive enough then, but now, like everything else, they looked small and insignificant. Across the field, some Pitorian soldiers appeared through the smoke, walking slowly, heads down, probably looking for wounded. One of them glanced over to Harold.

Harold gazed back. Would this man challenge him? No. Already the Pitorian’s attention had returned to the ground as he and the other soldiers continued their slow progress. Perhaps they thought Harold was one of them, or perhaps they’d had enough fighting. But there was still that niggle in Harold’s mind that perhaps they saw him only as a fourteen-year-old boy—not a soldier, not a threat. They’d learn. They’d all soon learn. Harold was surprised how good the Pitorians were in a fight; they’d won this battle easily and with few losses. Harold had listened while his father and brother had planned the Brigantine attack. He’d tried to ask a question, and Boris had told him, as usual, to “stop interrupting,” so Harold had sat quietly and worked out how he’d counter his father’s simple tactics of full-on force.

Lord Farrow, the Pitorian general, had obviously considered his options too. And Harold’s father had completely misjudged his enemy, assuming that because Farrow was inexperienced in war, he would be easy to defeat. Harold had seen a little of Farrow in the negotiations over the ransom of Prince Tzsayn. The Pitorian lord was vain and greedy, but it had been obvious to Harold that he was neither stupid nor lazy. Farrow had prepared the battlefield by crisscrossing it with pitch-filled ditches. Setting fire to them— and their enemy—had been a simple way for the Pitorians to see off their opponents. Admittedly it wasn’t really a true victory, as the Brigantines had managed a retreat, but the point was that the Pitorians had controlled the situation. Yet again, King Aloysius had underestimated his opponent, just as he’d underestimated his brother, Prince Thelonius, in the last war, and he risked making a fool of himself again. And Boris was no better. Had been no better.

A smile played at the corner of Harold’s lips. “Father underestimated the Pitorians and you, dearest brother, underestimated our rather marvelous sister.” Harold had watched Boris and Lang talk to Catherine when she was chained to the cart during the botched exchange of prisoners. Even in chains Catherine had looked stunning in white silk beneath shining armor. Boris had undoubtedly insulted her, but Lang had touched Catherine’s breastplate, right over her breast. Boris shouldn’t have allowed that; Lang was an oaf and a nobody, and Catherine was a princess. But Lang was dead now. And Boris too. Harold had had a perfect view of Boris’s final moments: the spear flying low from Catherine’s hand, the brief look of surprise and confusion on their brother’s face. Harold had almost laughed out loud at that look.

And then there was the delight in seeing Boris falling back, mortally wounded. And that was all it had taken to elevate Harold to heir apparent. “Thank you, sister.” Harold smiled as he looked toward the Pitorian camp, where Catherine had escaped afterward. Harold had always liked her more than their brother. She was clever and crafty. But she must have taken some smoke to throw like that. Harold had tried the purple demon smoke himself for the first time only a few days earlier. He’d been rather nervous. His father despised anything that “perverted” nature, even wine and beer, and Boris had warned Harold against it, saying, “It’ll addle your mind —and, let’s face it, your mind is not normal at the best of times.

” Harold was very much aware that his mind wasn’t like those of ordinary people. But who wanted a normal mind, and who wanted to do as Boris ordered? And in the Brigantine camp there were a number of boys with smoke who were more than happy to share what they had with a son of the king. Harold had inhaled only the smallest amount but immediately knew his old life was over. The smoke transformed him. Harold was small and slight—unfortunately more his mother’s build than his father’s—but with the smoke he was faster and stronger than even the best men in the army. That was why Boris hadn’t wanted Harold to have any— he’d been afraid that Harold would be stronger than him. But now it didn’t matter. Boris was dead, and Harold could do whatever he liked. “And I’ll do it better than you ever did, brother,” he muttered. “I’ll have my own troop while I’m still fourteen.

” Boris hadn’t got his until fifteen. Harold knew exactly which troop he wanted—and it certainly wasn’t Boris’s oafs. Harold wanted the boys’ brigades. He’d seen them training, seen how the demon smoke had transformed them from children into— “Hey, you.” It was one of the blue-haired Pitorian soldiers who had been looking for the wounded. He wasn’t alone, but the others were farther back. Harold smiled and waved. “Hello.” “What are you doing?” Harold replied in his best Pitorian: “I’m admiring the view.” The man came closer, and Harold could see the face below the blue hair was unusually ugly, with fat lips and a broad, shallow forehead.

“And you’re ruining it.” “You’re Brigantine, aren’t you, boy? You shouldn’t be here. You should go.” “I most certainly am Brigantine. I’m Harold Godolphin Reid Marcus Melsor, second son of Aloysius of Brigant and the future king of Brigant, Pitoria, Calidor, and any other place I fancy, and I’m in an exceptionally good mood, despite looking at the ugliest man in Pitoria. And I’ll go when I jolly well like. And this”—Harold drew his sword—“is why.” With that, he ran at the Pitorian. He performed a low somersault, swinging his sword as he turned in the air, feeling the strength of the smoke, his blade as light and easy to control as a feather. It felt like a dance, and Harold wanted to laugh again as his sword severed the soldier’s leg cleanly, just above the knee.

Harold landed firmly on both feet as the man toppled to the ground and lay on his back, staring at the sky, his fat-lipped mouth opening and closing soundlessly like a blue-finned fish gasping for air. The other two Pitorians shouted in alarm and ran toward their comrade, drawing their swords. Everything seemed to be moving slowly to Harold, and he grinned at them and held his arms out, wondering if they’d attack, but they came to a halt, glancing around nervously. Harold shouted, “You were looking for wounded men, weren’t you? Well, now you’ve found one. You should help this fellow. He’ll bleed to death if you’re not quick.” One of the men edged forward and knelt by the fish-mouthed man. “Why did you do that when the battle is over?” the other asked. Such dull questions! Harold could hardly be bothered to reply. “To show you what I’m capable of.

And, now that I have your attention, take this message to my sister, Princess Catherine: tell her that Tzsayn and Farrow have won this day, but they won’t win again. Next time, my boy army will cut you all off at the knees.” With that, Harold turned and ran back to the trees, as fast as the wind. The soldiers didn’t even attempt to give chase but knelt by their wounded friend. And above the smoldering fields, above the river and the opposing army camps, above them all, the clouds began to gather. And late that afternoon, the first of the summer rains began to fall.


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