War of the Bastards – Andrew Shvarts

WE HIT THE CARAVAN JUST after sunrise. This was down the southeast border of the Heartlands, where the flowing wheatfields gave way to grassy foothills and sprawling forests. It was a beautiful morning: the air had that earthy smell of fresh dew, the first rays of morning crested the horizon, painting the sky an ethereal ghostly purple… And here we were, armed to the teeth, planning to kill a man. The caravan was a modest thing, three wagons long, escorted by a dozen marching soldiers in heavy armor. They wore my father’s colors, red and gold, but that didn’t mean they were Westerners; their faces were hidden behind bulky helms, and you never knew who you’d find fighting for him. In the early days of my father’s reign, when he’d first demanded all the able men of the Kingdom take up arms in his name, we’d held out hope that the people of Noveris would rise up in defiance, that they’d sooner choose death than serve a usurper king. Then Miles took up the mantle of Inquisitor and the culls began, as his bloodmages tore through the Province, leaving a trail of burning villages and mutilated corpses in their wake. Turns out? Pretty much no one ever chooses death. “There,” Lord Galen Reza said as the last wagon rolled into sight. We were up on a hilltop, six of us, huddled in the shadows of a birch grove. We wore the de facto uniform of the Unbroken: leather armor, hoods up over our heads, black bandanas pulled up over our faces like masks. Galen had his fork-tipped daggers, Zell his curved nightglass blades, and I had Muriel, my short sword, the one weapon I was pretty damn good with. The wagons rolled closer, turning the bend to cross a narrow little valley between a pair of hills. I squinted at the driver of the middle one, a pale old Westerner with a shaggy beard. It was definitely a royal caravan, but that didn’t make it worth ambushing; the last thing we wanted was to kill a dozen men over a few wagons of grain.

“You sure Vladimyr is in there?” I whispered to Galen. “Oh, he’s in there.” Galen’s curly black hair was pulled back in a warrior’s bun, and a long white scar cleaved his cheek in half. He looked about a decade older than he had when I’d first met him, back when he’d been the young Heartlander lord of a minor House, before he’d hardened into the brutal rebel leader he was today. “The Raven said Vladimyr would be here. And the Raven’s never wrong.” I nodded. The Raven was our best contact in Lightspire, a high-ranking nobleman who seemed to know every detail of my father’s regime. It bothered me sometimes that we were attacking people on the word of someone whose real name we didn’t even know. But I wasn’t the leader of the Unbroken.

Galen was. Which meant he called the shots. The last wagon fully rounded the corner, putting the whole caravan between the two hills. My stomach fluttered, and my hands tingled with pins and needles. It had been a year since the fall of Lightspire, a year since my father had taken the throne and become King Kent, a year since our tiny band of refugees had coalesced into a Kingdom-spanning rebellion. It had been a year of resistance and warfare and midnight raids, a year of blood and pain, a year of killing and running and killing some more. And even after all that, after a year of pure frozen hell, I still got nervous before every battle. I glanced to Zell for reassurance and found his eyes above his mask, soft and brown, the eyes I stared into every night, the eyes that often felt like the only calm, reliable thing in the world. He nodded, the tiniest bit. I took a deep breath.

I could do this. I could do this. “All right, kids,” a gruff voice said from my left. A massive slab of a man stood there, a grizzled old warrior with biceps the size of my head and the deepest wrinkles I’d ever seen etched into his dark features. This was Manos Vore, a Heartlander general who’d lost his entire company to my father’s men, which gave him a, shall we say, unique outlook on the conflict. “Let’s kill us some traitors.” He grinned and tightened his grip on his massive iron warhammer. Galen pulled down his mask enough to put two fingers in his mouth and let out a loud whooping whistle. The guards by the caravan froze, spinning our way, which was perfect because it meant they weren’t looking at the other hill, the one across from us, where all our archers were rising up from their hidden position, longbows nocked. The wagon driver, the old man with the beard, let out a yelp of surprise, but it was too late now.

The early morning air sang with the whistle of a half-dozen longbows shooting at once, and a hail of arrows streaked down into the company below. Two guards dropped right away, one with an arrow in the throat and another with one through his skull, and a third caught one in the side and lurched over, still alive but bleeding out fast. The other guards scrambled into a defensive formation, shouting to one another, pressing themselves against the wagon, drawing their blades as they braced for the second volley.… Which meant it was go time. Galen moved first, unsheathing his daggers and sliding out of cover, and the rest of us followed. We raced silently down the hill, a swooping shadow, a clenching fist, our weapons glistening like shooting stars. There was one second, one lingering second, where the poor sons of bitches guarding the caravan realized what was about to happen. Then we hit them, hard, and there was just the screaming of men and the clanging of steel. Zell struck first, as always, leaping forward to plunge a blade down into a man’s chest. Galen was next to him, daggers a blur as he cut through the ranks.

And Manos came charging up behind with a bellowing roar, swinging his hammer in a broad arc to cave in a terrified guard’s skull. I hadn’t chosen a target, not really, but I didn’t have to. One of the guards charged right at me, a broadsword raised high over his head. I could see just a little of his face through the slits in his helmet: pale skin, furious green eyes, a few wisps of curly blond hair. A Westerner. A boy. He swung his sword in a downward chop, and I dodged it, weaving to the side in a little bound. His blade hit the dirt uselessly, a total amateur move, and I almost felt bad for him. But my feelings didn’t matter now. My body was in control, the khel zhan my guide, and it knew what to do.

As he looked my way, eyes wide with horror, I whipped Muriel up and drove her through the gap in his armor just below his armpit. Twenty-seven. The Westerner dropped like a stone as I jerked my short sword out, her blade slick with crimson, and not a moment too soon. Another guard was on me, and I didn’t get a good look at him because I was too distracted by the sword he was swinging at my damn head. I jerked Muriel up in a fumble, just barely blocking him, our blades hitting with a resonating clang. He was stronger than me, no question. The force of his hit spun me around, and I nearly lost my grip on my sword. But the khel zhan was all about beating stronger opponents, about using kinetic energy and movement to your advantage. I kept the spin going, whirling in a circle, dodging his next thrust…and driving the edge of Muriel into the back of his head, right where the skull met the base of the neck. He let out a gurgle, and collapsed into the dewy grass.

Twenty-eight. I fell back, taking stock. Most of the guards were dead, along with one of our men. Someone in the wagons was screaming. Galen was crouched low, his knee pinning a struggling man down as he pushed his daggers into him. Manos had driven his hammer into the side of the carriage and was trying to pull it out. Zell had a nightglass sword in each hand and was fighting two men at once, blocking the attacks of the first while finishing off the second. And beyond him, at the front of the caravan, was the wagon driver, the old Westerner with the shaggy beard. He hopped off his perch and glowered at us, raising his hands, and the veins in his eyes flared a throbbing sickly green. Oh shit.

“Bloodmage!” I screamed, as the air around pulsed with a sticky moist squelch, as my ears buzzed with the rustle of leaves and my nose flooded with the smell of freshly cut grass. Vines emerged from the palms of his hands, dense rope-like vines covered in thick thorns, and they streaked toward us like pouncing eels. They tore open the side of Manos’s arm and shot past him, hurtling blood-tipped toward the rest of us. But they were too slow—too slow for us, anyway. Galen dove aside, neatly rolling under them, and Zell shoved the guard he’d been fighting forward, right into their path. The man shrieked as the vines hit, their ends splitting open as they entangled him. The bloodmage let out a gasp, struggling to pull his vines back… Which meant he was vulnerable. I let out a battle cry of my own and raced toward him, my feet padding over the ground, my body a blur. I leaped over a guard’s fallen corpse, streaked past Zell, an arrow on a collision course with no turning back. The bloodmage jerked back, raising one hand, and I weaved below it, under the new vine bursting forth, and drove Muriel’s point straight into the underside of his chin.

Blood bubbled from his lips. A wet wheeze escaped his throat. The green glow faded from his eyes as he slumped down and lay still. Twenty-nine. And then it was quiet, that sudden, restless, panting quiet that only comes at the end of a battle. All twelve guards lay dead at our feet. I lurched away, heart thundering, suddenly aware of how weak my knees felt. Galen’s nostrils flared as he rose up, and Manos just stood there, warhammer at his side, casually pulling twisted thorns out of his bloodied bicep like they were berries on a bush. “Vines, huh? That’s a new one.” Zell rushed toward me, pulling down his mask.

“Tilla! Are you hurt?” “No,” I said, even as I stared down at the body in front of me, the bloodmage with my sword through his head, the man I’d just killed. “I’m fine. Really.” I mean, my hands were shaking, but that was normal. That happened all the time. “Clear!” Galen shouted up to our archers, which was helpful because I’d forgotten all about them. He walked over to the first wagon and threw it open, revealing bags heavy with gold, and the second, filled with metal chests. Galen leaned in to open one, and there, inside, were rows of syringes, neat little vials filled with lightly glowing crimson. Miles’s serum. The secret to my father’s army.

Capable of turning anyone into a powerful mage. Made from the blood of our captured allies. I exhaled sharply. There was no turning back now. Galen threw open the third wagon, the one where the screaming was coming from, and exposed a man hiding inside, a trembling chubby Easterner with thick jowls and bushy purple eyebrows. And even while I was relieved that it was our man, that this hadn’t all been for nothing, a tiny part of me was upset. Because that part knew what came next. “Vladimyr Cel De Naro the Fourth,” Galen said, arms folded across his chest. “End of the line.” We pulled him out of the carriage, crying and flailing, and dragged him up the hill, where we forced him to his knees.

There, we gathered around him in a semicircle as our archers joined us, as the sky’s purple just barely started to fade into pink. Galen nodded at Zell, who strode over to Vladimyr and drew his swords. “Please,” Vladimyr begged. “You have to listen to me. This is all a misunderstanding. I’ve done nothing wrong!” I clenched my teeth, forced myself to look away. Because I knew that if I kept looking, I’d start to believe him, start to listen, start to feel the natural empathy that’s unavoidable when a man is crying and begging for his life. No matter how many times I did this, I always wanted to believe them. Galen, for better or worse, didn’t have that problem. He reached into his bag and took out a rumpled handwritten parchment.

“Vladimyr Cel De Naro the Fourth,” he read. “You have trafficked in blood stolen from loyal mages, and partaken in the creation of abominations. You have betrayed your countrymen to the hounds of the Inquisitor. You have collaborated with the Usurper King. Do you deny the charges?” “I…I…” Vladimyr stammered, his eyes flitting wildly from side to side as he struggled to come up with an excuse. I hoped he wouldn’t try to lie, because it was always so pathetic when they lied; he had to know that with a caravan full of mage blood, we had him dead to rights. “It’s…it’s not what it looks like. I had to do it! I had to help them! They would have killed me if I hadn’t!” “I’ll take that as an admission,” Galen said, and resumed reading. “You are guilty of treason against the crown. By the order of the one true Queen and the lawful ruler of Noveris, Lyriana Ellaria Volaris, you are sentenced to death.

” Without a word, Zell crossed his arms, laying one blade flat on each of Vladimyr’s trembling shoulders. “Do you have any last words?” I glanced back and there were Vladimyr’s eyes, wide, terrified, glistening with tears. “This is so pointless,” he cried. “They won. You lost. It’s over.” “Do it,” Galen said, and Zell swung his arms out in a lightning-fast scissor chop. Vladimyr’s head tumbled off his shoulders and rolled down the hill. His body sat there for a moment, then crumpled down into the grass, blood pooling around the stump. “May the True Queen reign,” Galen said.

“May the True Queen reign,” we repeated, and Manos spat on the corpse. I didn’t add Vladimyr to my count. I mean, I know I probably should have. But I had to draw that line at only counting people I killed with my own two hands. If I had to keep track of everyone who died as a result of my actions, everyone whose death I was indirectly responsible for—well, that was a road I couldn’t go down. Twenty-nine. My number was twenty-nine. Zell reached out, gently squeezing my arm. I leaned into him, pressing against his side, resting my head on his shoulder. Everything in the world was broken.

But this still felt right. “Come on,” he said softly. “Let’s go home.”

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