I was down to my last few crossbow bolts. The Raheshis had slammed into us by surprise, like a blow from a giant fist. Now I fought my way through a gray swarm of pikes, swords, arrows, trying to reach Major Henrik or Captain Iarod without getting tangled up in pine roots and branches. Blood trickled from my shoulder, where a pike had grazed me, but I ignored it. I ducked under a hail of arrows and crawled behind a clump of bushes, from where I could pick off any Raheshis that got too close.
But I was never going to get them all. I got off a shot that hit an enemy’s horse in the withers. Rider and animal tumbled in a single mass and I was down to three quarrels. Then two. Then one. I loaded that last bolt. Maybe I could help one of my friends, at least. I had my knife, which I could use on myself should it come to that. The Raheshis wouldn’t kill me; women are too valuable as slaves.
But I watched, helpless, as the enemy killed my male comrades and threw nets over the females. Sarai, my shield-partner and best friend, fought them like a tigress, as did everyone, but the enemy separated them, so they had little, if any, chance to team up effectively. Then over the din of battle came the voice I least wanted to hear.
Lieutenant Mikhaila. Or as we called her, Blockhead. Spent the last six years as General Eurydice’s assistant, and now, of course, they assigned her to us. She vaulted through the bushes and landed sprawling at my feet.
Instead of the fastidious, perfectly groomed Lieutenant I was used to, Blockhead had dirt on her forehead, with runnels of sweat streaking the left side of her face. Her armor, which always looked as if she spent hours polishing it, had lost some of its steel plates, leaving gaps like broken teeth, and she stank of the gore spattered all over her. Her helmet was gone, so her too-perfect face, with its gray eyes and dimpled cheeks, seemed lost amid the tangle of golden hair that had come free of its braid. She’d just written me up for not having my boots shined properly. Combat’s not what you expected, is it, Blockhead? The judges aren’t going to blow their whistles, and the “dead” aren’t going to pop back up to study what could have been done better.
She’d even lost her sword. Once we got back, if we got back, it might be a week until she received another. There weren’t enough weapons, not since Auriga lost the war with Rahesh and we were reduced to hit-and-run tactics like this raid, but I still had my knife and bolas, in addition to my crossbow. More than I could say for her.
“Where’s Major Henrik?” she asked.
“Out there somewhere,” I answered trying to keep my face neutral. I did not need a useless officer clinging to me. “Where we should be.” When she ignored this comment, I added, “What about Captain Iarod?”
“Surrounded,” she answered. “I tried to fight through to him, but there were too many Raheshis.”
I grunted. At least she’d made some attempt; Goddess knew, she should be able to fight, since she towered over us all, including the men.
“What in Haljo happened?” I asked, then remembered to add, “Lieutenant.”
“Don’t know,” she said, sounding so surprised that I wanted to throw my hands up in disgust. I reminded myself it wasn’t her fault Lieutenant Kiri got killed and she’d been assigned here, a task clearly beyond her abilities. But I wished it was Sarai or one of my friends with me now. “It’s like they knew we’d hit the caravan here and – Shite!”
A gray Raheshi form bounded into our hiding place. With no chance to use my sword, I raised my arm and flung my Magic at him. Immediately his eyes rolled back in his head and he writhed in agony. I let him suffer, feeding the Magic on thoughts about the things his kind had done to my sister Aurigans, then slit his throat. A jet of coppery-tinged blood spattered me. Gurgling, he hit the ground.
I wiped my blade on him, trying to ignore Blockhead’s stare. “Jhaliyah’s Ghost, Kyntha, why didn’t you tell us you could do that?” she asked.
“Do what?” I felt the blood rushing to my face.
“You know what I mean,” she answered, thrusting her chin out, so she didn’t look so raw. “I felt that blast, too. You should have told us you had the Magic!”
“Major Henrik knows,” I answered with a shrug. It’s not my fault the Major doesn’t tell you anything because you’re useless. “I can give people headaches. He said it’s a trifling skill, and not much use as a weapon.”
“Sergeant, look out there and tell me our friends couldn’t use a weapon like yours, no matter how ‘trifling’ you think it is.” The firmness in her voice surprised me. When she looked me in the eye, I could not tear my gaze away. “Go ahead, look.”
There wasn’t much to see. We’d ambushed the slave caravan in a clearing walled by dense woods. A dry stream bed paralleled the trees to our left, with a steep, rocky hill leading up to the forest. The clearing was littered with swords, arrows, spears. And dead men with familiar faces. There lay Jarl, with whom I’d occasionally shared my bed, and Eamon, “the happy warrior,” we’d called him. Adrian, who played cards so poorly. All my friends, killed or enslaved, while I was stuck with Blockhead.
“Sergeant,” the Lieutenant directed, “I want you to cross that dry wash to our left and make for the trees. I’ll cover you.”
“Run?” I spat, just missing her boots. She did not move. “I’ve never run away from a fight, and I won’t run now! Lieutenant.”
“That was not a suggestion,” she said, her mouth set in a line. “But before you do anything foolish, ask yourself where you’ll do more good, trying to fight a lost battle, or hiding, where the enemy doesn’t expect you.”
I couldn’t look. She was right, but I wouldn’t let her see me admit it.
“I don’t care if you don’t like me, Kyntha, but you must obey me,” she said. “I’m giving you an order. If you refuse, I’ll charge you with mutiny in a combat situation.”
There was a chorus of shouts. I saw Captain Iarod’s head raised on a pike. The blood roared in my ears.
The Lieutenant was watching the scene too. “Shite!” she muttered, her hands knotted into fists. She’d never shown emotion since she’d joined us. I realized how little we knew of her, save that she had been in the Army since her first bleeding, and she’d spent most of that time as General Eurydice’s aide.
“I’ll make for the trees, Lieutenant,” I said.
Her look said she’d expected me to obey all along. “Give me your crossbow. I’ll cover you.”
“With one bolt?”
“Are you arguing, Sergeant?”
I handed her the crossbow. She checked its balance and sights, nodded. “If you’re as good as Major Henrik’s reports say, they won’t see you.”
Who did she think she was, challenging me? I scowled. “They won’t see me, Lieutenant,” I said.
She nodded. Her eyes flickered toward my goal.
I’d show her. I scrabbled across the dry wash, clambered up the rocky face, over the ridge, and crawled across the open space to the trees.
Moments later, she joined me, carrying a handful of crossbow bolts. “Excellent, Sergeant,” she said. When she saw me staring, she flashed a grin and said, “There are things you don’t know about me.”
“What are your orders?” I asked. “Lieutenant.”
Her grin vanished. She wormed through the brush to the trees’ edge and peered at the carnage. It was not merely the smell of smoke that brought tears to my eyes. “I don’t think they know they missed us,” she muttered. “Nathaté grant they don’t count the horses.”
“Maybe they’ll think they killed us,” I said. I had a brief image of myself, lying stiff and waxen, flies buzzing about me. Icy claws raked my spine.
“They don’t kill women, Sergeant,” she said. “They sell us.” She looked again. “They’re marching them away,” she said. My hands tightened on my bow.
At the end of the line, Corporal Maergte turned her head and seemed to meet my eyes. A guard cuffed her, knocking her down. I aimed my bow at him, but Blockhead jerked my arm aside.
“Sergeant, how will we rescue them if you give us away?”
Her words hit me like a bucket of cold water. “I’m sorry, Lieutenant, it’s just that they’re my friends.”
“They’re my friends, too.” Her mouth twisted. “Oh, but Blockhead doesn’t have any friends.” I gasped. She continued, “I’ll – “ She shoved me down. My eyes followed hers, and I saw a Raheshi look right at us. He frowned, stared for what seemed forever.
Someone called him, and he turned away. My hands shook as though with the ague, and my ribs ached from not breathing. “Shite, I thought he saw us,” Mikhaila murmured. “Corporal Maergte was my shieldmate when we were cadets. “Our comrades need us, by Nathaté, and we’re going to help them!”
Like a multi-legged insect, the caravan crested a hill. The Raheshis followed a winding path, heading for the alkalai flats at the desert’s edge. If they reached there, our hope of saving our friends would diminish drastically.
“Sergeant,” she said, “tell me about your Magic.”
We scrambled to our feet and followed the caravan under the trees’ canopy. “It’s nothing,” I said.
She grabbed my arm. “I saw what you did to that Raheshi.”
I hesitated. If I told her, ‘d be taken out of combat. “It’s nothing!” I repeated. “Major Henrik says –”
“I’m not him!” she interrupted. “Our friends are counting on us. Or would you rather see them stripped on the auction block?”
“And afterward, I’ll be taken out of combat. Studying arcane lore while the Army loses an ex
perienced sergeant,” I muttered.
She rubbed reached for a tree branch, which instantly became a longsword in her hand. With her other hand, she made a clutching motion, and another branch became a shield. “You’ll notice that I’m in combat, Sergeant, despite having Magic.” She paused a moment, changed the shield back to a tree branch, then said, “Sergeant, hit me with your Magic, like you did that Raheshi. Go ahead, Kyntha. This won’t go on your record. I trust you.”
“Lieutenant, I don’t think I shou—”
“Don’t think, Sergeant. Do it.”
“That’s an order, Sergeant!” She glared at me fiercely. “Do it!”
I took a breath. “Remember, you gave the order, Lieutenant.” She nodded. I hit her with a strong bolt. Her face drained of color and her eyes went wide. Then she was on the ground, hands pressed to her temples. Horrified, I knelt beside her.
“Lieutenant!” I laid a hand on her shoulder. She barely moved. Blessed Nathaté, I’ve just blasted my commanding officer! “Lieutenant, I’m sorry! I –”
She groaned, levered herself to all fours, glared at me. “Shite, Sergeant, any time someone doubts the value of your Magic, you use it on them. You should have on Major Henrik.”
Then she threw up. I put my arm around her shoulders and held her, keeping her hair out of the way with my free hand. When the spasms subsided, she shoved me away and hauled herself up, still trembling, refusing my aid. I stared in amazement.
“No one ever got back up after I blasted them,” I said in a small voice.
“All the more reason to use it,” she said. “Come. We need to reconnoiter.” She wiped her mouth on a leaf. Her face was pale and her eyes glassy, her voice raspy but firm. I saw what incredible discipline she possessed. And we thought she was useless? “Boost me up this tree,” she added. When I hesitated, she stared at me. “Something wrong, Sergeant?”
“No, Lieutenant, it’s just that –”
“Are you challenging me?”
“You’re an officer,” I said. “Tree-climbing’s for grunts like me.”
She digested this. Then she crouched, stirruped her fingers, and boosted me to the lowest branch.
“Well?” she called up.
“Road cuts through the trees to the desert. They’ll make it by sundown.” The sun was already on the decline. I didn’t see how we could intercept them in time, much less rescue our friends.
Instead of her next question, I heard the sounds of battle. I looked down, saw the Lieutenant battling three Raheshis, keeping them at bay with the longsword. There was joy in the way she parried every thrust, every cut, dodging and spinning, her blade clashing against theirs. They rushed her and she ducked, then leapt over them like an acrobat, landing outside the circle they had formed. I started to climb down, but before I got there, the Lieutenant was pulling her blade out of the last one.
“Fine work, Sergeant,” she said, flashing a grin.
“But I didn’t do anything—”
“You gave a clear picture of what we face, Kyntha. “Information is powerful.” She clapped me on the back. “And, in the unlikely event I was overpowered, you and your Magic were in reserve. You’d have helped, I know it.”
I turned away a moment, to hide my blush. “I saw a deep defile before the trees end, Lieutenant. Looks like they’ll have to go through it single file.”
She nodded. “Yes. That sounds like our best bet.”
I said, “Lieutenant, if I’m that commander, I’ll have more scouts than this searching the area.”
“Excellent,” Mikhaila said. “We’ll make sure the other scouts don’t find us.” She paused, then added, “Which means we do not engage them unless absolutely unavoidable. Understand? If those louts don’t come back, that commander will know we’re here.”
But the enemy commander must have suspected our presence already, for not long afterward, a Raheshi soldier was almost upon us before we heard him. The Lieutenant dove into a thicket, while I scrambled up a tree. Through the thick branches, I watched him, a bearded man with a scar splitting his face from brow to chin, and he stank of too many days without bathing. Across his back he’d strapped a crossbow and a full quiver, and he carried a spear, which he was poking into the branches overhead and the bushes on either side.
He stopped directly under my tree, looked up, and his eyes widened when he saw me. I tried to blast him before he could shout, but when I summoned the Magic, it did not respond. But Mikhaila sprang up behind him and slit his throat.
When I told her how the Magic had not responded, she nodded. “Mine, too,” she said. “It’s not unlimited. It needs time to restore itself. Come on. We can make more trouble up ahead while it’s returning to you.”
She vanished into the forest. Even over the blanket of dry leaves, she made no sound of any kind.
We heard the caravan as we reached a rocky shelf overlooking the defile. Huge boulders stood like sentinels. Hiding behind the massive stones, we watched the caravan approach. A Kiivis, equivalent to an Aurigan general, led the column. The captives’ wrists were bound by leather thongs, each tethered to the one in front. A dozen mounted guards rode on either side. Even if my Magic returned, the two of us could not get them all.
“Shite, where’s the rest?” Mikhaila whispered. “Surely we weren’t taken down by a mere two dozen.” Her frown deepened. She pointed out a man on a gray destrier. He had a rip in his left sleeve. She indicated another directly opposite, on another gray destrier. He had the same rip in his right sleeve. In every detail, they were reflections of each other. Down the line, I saw five more sets of mirror twins.
I aimed the bow, but she stopped me. “We have to find the real ones. The false ones can’t be killed by conventional means. You must kill the living one they’re based on. At least, that’s how they did it before.”
“Before?” I asked.
“It’s in the Archives,” she said, as if surprised I didn’t know. “Battle of Five Hills, Jehan’s Year 504.”
I shrugged. “Guess I didn’t hear about that.”
She studied me a moment. “I was hoping you’d suggest some plan,” she said.
She nodded. “The division in the Archives wasn’t outnumbered twenty to one like we are.”
I could hear the occasional snuffle of a horse, the creak of harness, the groan of a captive. The odor of flesh, horse and human, reached my nose. Down the trail, the forest thinned out, giving way to the desert. “I don’t know,” I began. “I’m trying to think of something, but all I’ve done is give myself a headache.”
She stiffened. “What did you say?”
“I said I can’t think of anything.”
“You said you were giving yourself a headache. Are you?” When I didn’t respond, she said, “That’s our answer, Sergeant!”
“But, Sir—” I began. She looked a question at me. “Sir, I… I don’t really think I’m strong enough to—”
She laid her hands on my shoulders, looking me squarely in the eye. “Kyntha, look at the prisoners again. No, don’t look at me, look at them.” She used both hands to make me look. “There, in front, there’s Sarai, and Lisette and Maergte are just behind her. Our friends need us, Sergeant. They’re depending on us to get them out of this fix. And that means using your Magic. Not just to find the false soldiers, but to disable and even kill the real ones. Now, you just finished telling me how nobody gets up after you blast them. It’s time to show me.”
I watched the caravan approach. The Kiivis kept his eyes moving. The soldiers were hurrying the captives along. They were counting on the scouts we’d dispatched to be on the watch.
At the defile, they halted. I could see sweat like a mustache on the Kiivis’s lip. I felt his tension. His eyes were dark under heavy brows.
A subordinate officer, a Dukaare, rode up and said something that upset them both. Wondering where the scouts are, I thought.
At Mikhaila’s signal I called on my Magic. If they had a mage, this would signal him like a beacon. We both knew this; I wondered if she felt as nervous as I did.
My Magic was little more than a trickle. I aimed it at a rider in front. Not enough for him to notice, I hoped. As the spell touched him, I sought his soul, but found only a gray void, and shook my head. A false one, I thought, and pointed.
Just as the Kiivis gave the order to move out, we struck. I found the real Raheshis, and the Lieutenant, her bow a blur, got five in as many breaths. As she predicted, as soon as a real soldier went down, his twin vanished, horse and all. But then my Magic failed again. I shouted this to the Lieutenant, but I couldn’t tell if she heard. She hauled down another dead Raheshi and leapt into the empty saddle, while I fired bolt upon bolt into the enemy. When Mikhaila cut Maergte’s bonds, Maergte freed the others, who turned on their captors. Two Raheshis converged from either side; as they leaned from their saddles to attack, the Lieutenant leapt from her horse to that of the enemy on her left, slit his throat, then took the fight to his partner. One cur tried to flee; my crossbow caught him in the heart before he could escape.
On the way home to the Lair, my squadmates congratulated me. Nobody seemed to hear what I kept saying, that the Lieutenant did all the hard work. Everyone was sure I’d done it all, and Mikhaila was just an inconvenience I had to work around. I glanced in her direction and saw her sitting atop the captured horse, her face a mask, though she did smile and nod at me. Otherwise, she seemed content to sit outside the group. I realized the terrible truth that even her fellow officers considered her excess baggage, and probably called her Blockhead too. I saw how terribly alone she must feel.
Half an hour after we returned to Jehan’s Lair, I was summoned before General Eurydice and the Elder Witches. I described my power to cause fierce headaches; how I’d tried to conceal my skills, for fear of being taken out of combat; my initial dislike and disrespectful behavior toward Lieutenant Mikhaila; even our nickname for her. I hid nothing. Mikhaila watched, speaking only when questioned, offering neither support nor criticism. For two days they wrung out every detail of my life. When it ended, the General confined me to quarters, except for meals and an hour a day to exercise. I was sure it was the end of my days as a combat soldier.
I established a daily routine of exercises in my room, broken up by the one hour I was allotted outside. The third day, I ventured out to the archery range. There’d been no mention of forbidding me to handle weapons, so I simply tried it. No one said anything. The fourth day, I encountered Maergte, who greeted me without much warmth and seemed to remember somewhere else she had to be.
I watched her hurry away, not looking back. Why get close to someone who’s going to be relieved from combat? I might as well be dead. Lieutenant Mikhaila feels this way every day, I realized.
A week later I was practicing with the crossbow when the Lieutenant appeared.
“You’re dropping your back elbow,” she said, as my shot hit high.
I lowered the bow. A week ago, I’d have made some sharp answer. Not now.
“Just as you squeeze the trigger, you’re dropping it,” she said. “Can I show you?”
I shrugged and gave her the bow; I wasn’t likely to have many chances to use it any more, no matter what the General and Elders did with me. She raised the stock to her shoulder. “See how I keep my elbow up?” she said. “That way, there’s a straight line from the tip of the quarrel through the crossbow, all the way to the tip of my elbow.” She fired. The bolt hit a little off center, but still better than my shot. I heard her mutter, “Shite!”
Here it comes, I thought. I’m relieved of combat. Even when she returned the weapon to me, I cursed under my breath. I cranked and fired, cranked and fired, several times, furiously. If it was the last time I’d fire a crossbow, I’d show the Lieutenant what a mistake they were making. I clamped my jaw shut, trying not to say anything else I’d regret later. All my shots hit near-directly on center.
“Nice shooting,” she said. “You listen pretty well when it’s what you want to hear.”
I shot one more, hitting the target true again, then stopped, but clung to the bow, sure this was going to be the last time I could fire it. “Look, I know how stupid I’ve been. You heard me admit it.”
She nodded. “I heard you,” she said. “And you’re not stupid. Stubborn, irascible, damn near insubordinate, yes. But you’re also very courageous. You didn’t back away from the Elder Witches or the General. A lot of others might have tried to blame someone else, but you didn’t.”
I snorted. “For all the good it’ll do me.” Then I frowned. “Did they send you to pronounce sentence?”
“I’m no judge,” she said. “Certainly not yours.” I shot another bolt, striking the target squarely in the center. “You’re an excellent soldier, Kyntha,” she said. “You caused a stir, not just among the Raheshis. The Elder Witches are interested in you.”
My heart felt as if it was shrinking. “I’m not interested in them,” I said. “I don’t want to spend my days poring over scrolls in some dusty attic.”
“You’d rather spend them in a cell?” she asked. She took away the bow. I wanted to resist, but didn’t.
“I’m a soldier, not a scholar,” I said. “You spent years studying procedures and rules, and it made you a better officer than I gave you credit for. But I’m not like that. I belong here, fighting, not studying bat’s entrails. Besides, my power’s not all that great anyway.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” Mikhaila answered. Her mouth twisted. “Do you know I still have traces of the headache you gave me. The first few days, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.”
My eyebrows lifted; the two days I’d testified, she’d given no sign. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
She shook her head. “Nothing can be done about it now. If you hadn’t done that, nobody would ever have found out how powerful you are.”
I stared in disbelief, wondering anew about her. She knew? And yet she ordered me to blast away. I saw no answer in her face to the question that was foremost in my mind. “You’re quite an officer,” I said, then added, “Lieutenant.”
That brought a half smile. “So are you.”
I shook my head. “Officer?” I said. “Not me. I may not even be a soldier any more. I blasted you with my Magic!”
“You were obeying a direct order. You heard how I reported it. Your Magic is more powerful than you think. The Elders believe you’ll find all manner of uses for it. You may even have a trace of telepathy.”
“But Major Henrik said –”
“Major Henrik is dead, Kyntha,” Mikhaila answered. My heart became like a stone.
“If I study the Magic, they’ll take me off combat duty! I belong here!’
She sighed again and her mouth twisted. “You sound like I did when my Magic awakened. You know, everybody gets some of the Magic in some form, usually when they turn twelve or thirteen. Mostly women, but about thirty percent of males do, too. If they took us all out of combat, there wouldn’t be anyone left to fight the war! And I agree, you belong here, Kyntha. You’re an excellent soldier. Taking you away makes no sense. I said that to the General and the Elders, and fortunately they agreed with me.”
I stared at her. My face grew hot, but if she thought I looked foolish, she gave no sign. “You’re not being taken away,” she said. “You’re going to spend a few hours a day in study. Do you think you can put up with that?”
I felt my knees go weak. My heart throbbed so much I could only nod.
“Good,” she said. “Your potential’s too great to ignore. But your duties are going to change. As befits a Lieutenant.”
“Lieutenant?” I stammered. Thoughts raced through my mind. Me, a Lieutenant? “But what about you?” I asked. Was I to replace her?
Her mouth quirked. “Assuming we can keep from killing each other, how does ‘Captain Blockhead’ sound to you?”