Night had long fallen by the time Cassandra made it to the foot of the mesa that still housed the ruins of Château de Bayard. With Fidella starting to show signs of fatigue—and no wonder, after almost a full day of really being put through her paces—Cassandra took a little extra care grooming her before bedtime, unbraiding her mane to comb through it as well, and slept without a fire to keep the camp topside unaware of her presence. When she woke up in the morning, it was not to the dim sunlight of a sky drawn with clouds that threatened rain further in the day, or to the pain slowly mounting in her withered arm once again, but to the sound of Fidella nickering inquisitively and being answered by another horse.
Cassandra lifted her head, trying to extract herself from the blankets and the small nook in the mesa’s cliffside that she had tucked herself into for the night, withered hand on the hilt of her sword already. Then slowly relaxed her posture when she realized that the other horse didn’t have a rider.
It was a gelding, though significantly smaller than Fidella, his coat such a mosaic of colour as if creation itself had ran out of paint and used the last splotches of white, red, and several shades of brown to create him. Mane left loose in a shaggy, untended wave. Tack and harness all in place for entirely long enough to start chafing. Lengths of rope at his hooves, pointing to poorly-tied knots that had long since come undone, letting him wander around.
“Well hello,” Cassandra said, keeping her tone soft as she slowly reached for the gelding’s bridle with her healthy hand. “Don’t you just look like a getaway waiting to happen?”
The gelding’s nostrils flared at her hand, and he snorted, leaning back slightly. Cassandra fell still, and smiled when Fidella’s nose came against her cheek, the mare trying to assist in calming the stranger down.
“Come on now, it’s okay. Come on...”
When the gelding didn’t seem to be convinced with that, Cassandra withdrew her hand slowly, dug through her pack of rations to pull out an only slightly withered apple, and extended it to him. That finally succeeded in drawing him close enough, and Cassandra took the bit out of his mouth before handing the apple to him.
She shot Fidella a long-suffering look over her shoulder. “Boys, am I right?”
Snort, Fidella agreed with amusement.
“Let’s get these off of you, yeah?” Cassandra started taking the gelding’s harness off. At first, he attempted to pull away again, but stopped once he realized what she was doing. “That’s right. You don’t really need these, do you.”
While she knew it was entirely possible to ride a horse without a saddle, stirrups, or reins, she also knew that a lot of people would find it difficult or simply never try due to how dangerous it could be. She scattered the tack and harness among a few coniferous shrubs, growing here and there at the foot of the mesa, hoping it would be enough to slow down or downright ground whoever it was that had prepared the gelding as a means to escape.
Hoot, Owl said inquisitively.
“Well, I can think of two people in the camp up top who’d have a use for a horse, not to mention the money for the upkeep of one. And halberdiers are infantry, not cavalry.” Cassandra started gently pushing the gelding away. “Go on, boy. Go on.”
Snort, Fidella said calmly. The gelding eyed her, then walked off in search of fresher grass than what was still left in the vicinity. Fidella then gave Cassandra a questioning look, as if waiting for further instructions.
“The plan is to be prepared,” Cassandra told her companions, turning to them both. “Fidella, I need you to stay hidden, and stay ready for if we have to chase down whoever left that horse here. Owl, if you see me and the guy I’ll be handing the sword off to splitting up, I need you to follow him—if he runs, fly high enough to point Fidella and me at where he’s going, so we can give chase. Got it?”
Two affirmative noises.
“Alright, let’s do this.”
Cassandra started climbing the switchback snaking up the mesa. The hole in the path was still there, thankfully no larger than it had been last time, and she jumped over it without any more trouble than previously. Glancing up into the morning sky, she saw Owl’s silhouette against the clouds as he hovered high enough to keep an eye on the entire surrounding area, circling for a second pass; she smiled, and cleared the last leg of the path to crest into the camp atop.
The workers were gathered around a small campfire, chatting over a modest meal. Only three of them remained, Cassandra noticed, and there was one less shabby tent comprising the camp. Two must have given up on the endeavour or realized that the pretend-Bayard was running a con. The halberdier was still there, his signature polearm laid across his lap again, looking immensely bored as he played cards with one of the workers. His expression swiftly changed into one of surprise as he noticed Cassandra entering the camp, however.
“That was fast. How’d it go?”
“Eh,” Cassandra said, pitching her voice so that the answer would answer nothing. “Let’s get this done, yeah?”
“Heavens, please.” Riccardo threw his cards down, ignoring the worker’s disappointed sigh, and led Cassandra to the slightly fancier tent. “Lord Bayard, the treasure hunter is back.”
“She is?” The conman sounded surprised, but schooled himself by the time he emerged from the tent, and gave Cassandra an impatient look. “Well? Don’t tell me you’ve returned empty-handed.”
Cassandra reached to the back of her belt and pulled the Ingvarrdian masterwork sword from under her cloak, handing it over and keeping her eyes off the sky. “There was a fissure in the mine, and the jewel fell into it. There’s no way I could have retrieved it alone.”
The pretend-Bayard sighed through his nose, even as he took the sword. “Unfortunate. I’d hoped a dedicated treasure hunter would not be as clumsy as to let one-third of their objective slip through their fingers. Though I don’t know how disappointed I can truly claim to be, what with you not being very much of a treasure hunter in the first place.” He paused, glancing between Cassandra’s murderous glare and Riccardo’s stiff-jawed anger. “But I suppose you have done the bare minimum of your task. And you will be pleased to know that while you were off gallivanting, my men have unearthed the third treasure in the ruins of my ancestral abode. Go, feast your eyes, as a prelude to your payment, my servant Roberto will take you there.”
The halberdier nodded her aside again, and Cassandra kept her eyes on the conman in another ominous glare over her shoulder for as long as she could before turning to follow.
“This is what you’ve been dealing with this whole time?” she asked as soon as she and the halberdier were out of earshot. “Why do you even put up with this guy? He treats you terribly. And looks like he treats everyone terribly, to be honest.”
“Doesn’t he just?” Riccardo sighed as they walked into the ruins, and rubbed the back of his neck in an uncomfortable gesture. “Right, so, there’s nothing here. This is supposed to be the part where I kill you somewhere the workers won’t see, but you have a good look in your eyes and I don’t feel like listening to that fucker anymore. He’s not been paying the others their daily due. Don’t think that bodes well for my payment, even if I did kill you for him, so I think I’d rather cut my losses with what I got upfront. What do you say we team up and go after that jewel again?”
Cassandra gave him a long look. Then pulled the jade medallion from the inside pocket of her cloak and showed it to him, taking care to not let it be visible from the camp.
“Huh,” Riccardo said calmly.
“Look at this. Really look at it,” Cassandra told him quietly. “Do you know what the coat-of-arms of Bayangor is?”
“Cherry blossom, right?”
“Right. And of Koto?”
“Two dogs sitting face-to-face.”
“Wolfhounds, but close enough.” Cassandra tapped a fingertip against the medallion’s edge. “This is a cherry tree. The hounds are guarding the tree; the tree is sheltering the hounds. You remember how your King’s grandfather married a Bayangoran princess? This is entirely enough to be a wedding gift for that occasion. Same deal with that sword. If there even is a third one of these here, probably same deal as well.”
“Fuck me,” Riccardo said, coming to a halt just behind the château’s ruined walls. “Nothing good comes out of something this expensive. You can’t just pawn these off like nobody’s business, this is the kind of thing that gets you a grand theft bounty so ridiculously high that nowhere is safe anymore.”
“There was a saddled horse left at the foot of the mesa.” Cassandra watched the halberdier stiffen. “So I unsaddled him before coming up here. I have a horse, too. We can catch him.”
Riccardo stared at her for a moment. Then extended a hand. “You wanna kill that guy, get rid of these things, and split the profit fifty-fifty?”
Cassandra grinned, and shook his hand. “I can work with that.”
They both turned on their heel and ran towards the mesa’s edge, scanning the vista for the sight of a rider. And sure enough, there was one—struggling to mount a bare-back horse and turn it to head further into Equis territory.
“I see him!” Cassandra called out. “Get to the path!”
“Don’t waste time with the path!” Riccardo yelled back, running straight for the pulley at the mesa’s corner, and throwing himself down its ropes.
Cassandra leaned over the edge, waiting to see if he’d make the descent; not only did he make it, but appeared to land unharmed, and beckoned to her impatiently from the ground. She rubbed the palms of her gloved hands together and followed suit, hoping that if the halberdier had proposed the truce, he wouldn’t find it prudent to break it by letting her fall to her death. Mercifully, she was right, and she landed with a jolt but without breaking her legs thanks to the way Riccardo made sure to control the momentum.
“Where’s that horse of yours?”
With two fingers in her mouth, Cassandra let out a single-toned whistle. A familiar whinny, and Fidella trotted up from where she was hiding behind a small pile of rocks overgrown with juniper bushes. While she was climbing in the saddle, Riccardo had snapped both ends of a belt of sorts over the haft of his halberd, making it possible to sling it over his shoulder the same way Cassandra was carrying her sword. She grabbed the halberdier’s arm and pulled him onto Fidella’s back behind herself; the mare snorted under the added weight, but more from surprise than from exertion.
“Run like you’re racing Max!” Cassandra barked at Fidella as soon as Riccardo’s arms snapped around her waist.
Fidella whinnied, a competitive sound that made Cassandra grin, and went straight into a gallop after the conman’s gelding. Leaning forward slightly to work with her steed, Cassandra glanced up into the sky, correcting course to follow Owl as he made sure to lead them on the easiest path across the country.
“Are you following that bird?!” Riccardo yelled incredulously, struggling to make himself heard over the wind and the thunder of hoofbeats.
“That’s my bird, he knows what he’s doing!” Cassandra yelled back over her shoulder.
“I really hope I’m not about to regret teaming up with you!”
“Don’t worry! We’re catching up!”
And they were, if not quite fast enough, if at the cost of Fidella’s breathing slowly growing ragged under the added weight of a second rider clad in far heavier armour. Cassandra ground her teeth, trying to gauge how much longer they had, but then noticed that Riccardo only had one arm around her waist now—he’d managed to unhook the crossbow from his hip, and with a one-handed hold, he was aiming at the escaping conman.
“Pull her left!”
Cassandra did, veering Fidella just slightly off course, trying to line up Riccardo’s shot without losing too much ground. She heard the halberdier hold his breath before releasing the trigger, and watched the bolt whiz past the conman’s ear, causing him to duck his head and look over his shoulder with fear in his eyes.
“Fuck!” Riccardo braced the crossbow against Cassandra’s ribcage, and she pressed her elbow to its other side to hold it steady without being asked to as he tried to reload from over her shoulder. Glancing between Owl, the conman, and the crossbow, she was mildly impressed to see that Riccardo succeeded in the attempt, and leaned her head away as he snapped the crossbow up again. “Left!”
This time, the bolt hit its mark, causing the conman to scream and wobble on the back of his horse—and after a moment, lose balance and fall off over the side. Cassandra pulled on Fidella’s reins, letting momentum carry them to where the pretend Bayard hit the ground and was currently keening in pain; Riccardo slipped to the ground the moment they caught up, tossed the spent crossbow into his left hand, and drew a long dagger with the right to open the conman’s throat before he had the time to beg for mercy.
“Clean,” Cassandra commented as she pulled Fidella around. “Good shot, too.”
Riccardo nodded at her. “You set me up for it, and set him back on the escape before that.”
“I couldn’t have done it alone, could I?” Cassandra patted Fidella’s neck, then dismounted. “See if you can bring the skittish guy back, please.”
Snort, Fidella said, and trotted off after the conman’s steed at a leisurely pace.
Owl had meanwhile swooped down onto Cassandra’s shoulder, and was giving the halberdier a very scrutinizing glare. Riccardo cleared his throat, visibly uncomfortable, and nudged the conman’s body with his boot as he hooked the crossbow back onto his belt and cleaned the knife before sheathing it.
“Right, so. You have the medallion, and gave him the sword, and he’s been saying there was supposed to be a third one?”
“I can’t tell if that was for real, or just part of the scam,” Cassandra said honestly. “Did he have any papers when you were working for him?”
“Oh, loads.” Riccardo knelt down beside the corpse and started going through his pockets. It only took a moment for him to toss a flat satchel of waterproofed leather to Cassandra. “Kept them in here, too.”
Cassandra opened the satchel. It was full of loose pages, some looking like scrawled notes, some like slightly crumpled letters, all stacked next to a small notebook bound in stained leather. “That’s a fair bit. I’ll leaf through all these, you look for the sword?”
She sat down in the grass and started with the notebook, starting with the most recent pages. It wasn’t much of a journal, at least in comparison to what she was familiar with, filled with mental shortcuts rather than full sentences, the handwriting a chicken scratch that almost doubled as a cipher. The pages were each only slightly larger than her hand, and she managed to get through one—describing the acquisition of an object, the hiring of a bodyguard, the setup of the excavation ruse, and the original encounter with herself—before Riccardo let out an impressed whistle.
“Holy shit, I see what you meant, this would make for a kingly gift.”
“This seems to say that there was in fact a third one,” Cassandra indicated the notebook. “And that he found it before you and I even showed up?”
“I’ll keep looking... in a minute.” Riccardo lifted the Ingvarrdian sword against the sun, marvelling at how the light played against the faceted topaz in the pommel. “Fuck, but it’s beautiful. You sure it wouldn’t be okay to carry after ditching the scabbard and prying the gem out?”
“Don’t think I haven’t thought about it.” Cassandra turned a page.
She heard the halberdier sigh deeply, and sheathe the sword. “Yeah... It’s too small for my tastes anyway.”
“Hand-and-a-half more your speed, huh?”
“Ah, I like my bastard. What’s a mercenary without a bit of a bastard? Besides, if I were to fight with something this expensive, I’d probably start pulling hits trying not to nick the weapon and get myself killed like an idiot.” Riccardo tossed the masterwork sword to her, and Cassandra caught it without looking. “You’re right about the art on the scabbard, by the way, that’s definitely Koto on one side and Bayangor on the other.”
“Yup.” Cassandra gave up on the notebook when it seemed to detail earlier scams, and started going through the loose papers. An imprecise map, scrawled in a drunkard’s shaky hand, of what must have been the mines, she realized after a long moment, with the southernmost—collapsed—shaft marked with an X. An old bounty letter with a sloppy portrait of a thoroughly unremarkable young man, wanted dead or alive for theft, and notes scratched on the other side about the man having been last seen fleeing into Wolf’s Head Hollow. Another bounty notice, but newer, and far less specific. “Hey, look at this. Looks like Equis is promising rewards and royal favour to anyone who brings lost treasures to the king... it doesn’t specifically say 'treasures stolen from the Seven Kingdoms', but it sure doesn’t say otherwise, either.”
“Does it say what order of magnitude with monetary rewards?” Riccardo asked.
“Then it’s bullshit like pardons and titles and everything else that can be taken away once you’re inconvenient again. Figures.” The halberdier shook his head, giving the dead conman a look full of distaste. “You know what, now I kinda want to see these sent to Koto, just to spite this fucker more.”
Cassandra chuckled. “Good, I was going to push you for returning these to Koto anyway.”
“You from there, too?”
Riccardo looked up at her. “Then what’s your stake in this, anyway?”
“I don’t have a stake.” Cassandra folded an uninteresting page behind the rest, examining the next one. “It’s just going to cause the least trouble to have these go back where they came from.”
“No, I mean this is choosing a side between Equis and Koto, who are at war over this region, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Oh, I’ve noticed,” Cassandra said darkly. Then stayed quiet for a moment, considering how to answer. “I don’t know. Corona’s allied with Koto, so might as well lean into that. And I don’t like the Equisian king. So there. Koto it is.”
Riccardo raised his eyebrows. “What, like you met the king of Equis?”
“Not personally, no, but I heard enough first-hand accounts to have an opinion.”
“Hm.” The halberdier eyed her for a long while, as if trying to gauge if she was being serious, then went back to searching the scammer’s corpse. A long while passed in silence. “Hey, I found the third one! Or at least, I think so. But it certainly looks royal.”
Cassandra looked up from the papers, frowning. “How does it look 'royal'?”
“Useless and expensive,” Riccardo said dryly.
Cassandra couldn’t help a laugh at that. “You’ve got that right.”
The halberdier walked over, carefully carrying something small in both hands, and sat down in front of Cassandra to show it to her. The third treasure turned out to be a glass sphere, mounted on an ornate flat surface serving as its base. The inside was filled with a thick, transparent, colourless liquid, and strewn with what looked like silver shavings and diamond dust laying in an unreasonably thick layer along the bottom, drifting gently with each movement. And along the bottom, profiled like the surface of the ocean, two small boats bobbed along the painted waves: a Kotoan gondola and a Bayangoran sampan, both carved from what seemed to be whale or walrus ivory.
“What even is this?” Riccardo asked, his tone dripping disapproval for this amount of expensive materials used up on something that didn’t even have a practical purpose. “Fake fortune-telling ball?”
“I think it’s called a snowglobe.” Cassandra overturned the glass orb and shook it, upsetting the glimmering snow, then set it upright again to watch the silver and diamonds drifting down all around the orb’s interior.
“What’s it for?”
“Looking nice? I don’t know, there isn’t a point to them.”
Riccardo sighed. “Who even makes these?”
“I think this one’s Galcrestian,” Cassandra said, looking at the ivory boats and the carving of the waves. “But in general, I don’t understand either, it’s the most useless thing I’ve ever seen. Not to mention one of the most expensive.”
“Well, at least the royal wedding gift theory holds.”
“It does.” Cassandra pulled out the Bayangoran medallion, and laid it out in the grass next to the Ingvarrdian sword and the Galcrestian snowglobe. “So, we’re gonna get these back to Koto, right?”
“Right,” Riccardo nodded. “This level of expensive is way out of my league, I don’t want this kind of trouble. Sellsword work is more my speed.”
“You’re from Koto. I’ve only read about it,” Cassandra said simply. “Is there a surefire way to get something to your king?”
Riccardo scratched his cheek. “I mean, I can only think of one.”
Cassandra sighed. “No.”
“Sending back the gear of a dead witch-knight.”
“You went to Wolf’s Head Hollow, right? Is that guy’s gear still there?”
“Probably.” Cassandra pinched the corners of her eyes with her withered fingers. “I just really don’t want to go back there.”
“What, it’s that haunted?”
“It’s less about the ghosts. Ghosts are fine, for the most part, when they can be reasoned with. It’s that the witch-knight’s war hounds are still...”
Riccardo stared at her incredulously as she trailed off. “What, alive?”
“They didn’t look alive,” Cassandra admitted, “but they almost ate me all the same.”
“Okay, good thing that wasn’t ominous as fuck.”
Cassandra chuckled despite herself. “It could work, though. Packing the treasures into the witch-knight’s armour.”
“Yeah, if we pull that off, we could just heap it all into a crate and trade it to a Kotoan merchant heading home,” Riccardo said. “Taking back something like that is a certain ticket for a one-time royal favour, like a tax break or a monopoly on some goods for a while, so a lot of those merchants would pay good cash for this kind of privilege. Split it halfsies and we’re good.”
“I’d pack this guy’s documents and a letter to explain, as well, but otherwise it sounds solid... as long as we can get the witch-knight’s armour. Which is the part that I really don’t want to do, but I don’t have any better ideas.” Cassandra looked up at the sound of Fidella calling out, and stood up to wave at her. The mare was leading the pinto gelding back, she noticed. “Let’s get this guy’s harness back, so we don’t have to both ride Fidella, and head off.”
The halberdier gave her a flat look. “The fuck do I look like, a cavalryman? What am I gonna do with a horse?”
“You make a compelling point.”
Cassandra looked over her shoulder at the conman’s dead body. “Are we doing anything about that?”
“Ah, let him rot.” Riccardo lifted a belt with a small money pouch and an all-purpose knife. “Already got everything worth the trouble from him.”
She considered as she gathered up the treasures. “I guess the foxes won’t mind an easy meal.”
“It’s what he deserves, really.”
By the time they made it back to the mesa and retrieved the gelding’s tack and harness, Cassandra noticed that the workers topside had broken camp and left, no doubt having witnessed the brief chase and their employer’s death at the hands of his hirelings. Given that how skittish the pinto gelding was, and how unused to riding horseback Riccardo was in turn, Cassandra decided that it would be better for herself to ride the gelding and for Riccardo to ride Fidella, for now, and steered the group back towards Wolf’s Head Hollow.
The fog that still suffused the area, and the ward of painted riverstones cinched around it, came into focus by the late afternoon. Cassandra broke the silence then.
“I don’t want to go in there after dark. Let’s make camp and prepare for tomorrow.”
“Man, this place really has you spooked, doesn’t it?” Riccardo said, curious rather than mocking.
“Let’s just say that if you hear dogs—like, really big dogs—run for the edge of that circle of stones and don’t look back.” Cassandra turned to Owl, who was still perched on her shoulder, and had consistently kept the halberdier in his field of vision. “Fly perimeter, please.”
Hoot, Owl said, and took off as she boosted him into the sky.
Riccardo stared. “How do you even do that?”
“Talk to your horse and your bird like that?”
“It’s a Coronian custom,” Cassandra lied in a deadpan tone. “You see anywhere suitable for a campsite?”
Riccardo pointed towards a relatively nearby mesa, looming in the distance. “Is that a watchtower up there?”
“Yeah, it’s alright as long as you don’t mind sleeping next to a corpse.”
“I’ll pass, thank you.”
They settled for making camp in the middle of the open field, in the end, letting Fidella and the pinto gelding graze nearby. Mercifully, the morning’s rainclouds seemed to have blown over during the day. Cassandra rubbed at her withered arm, mildly painful still, and felt at her split fingernails through the glove; there seemed to be a little more give than normal, a slightly too-wide range of movement, and she left the hand alone. There would be time enough for dealing with that later, in the privacy of being accompanied only by Owl and Fidella again.
With including Owl in a three-person watch order, Cassandra managed to get enough sleep to be reasonably rested in the morning, if with her withered arm having grown stiffer and the ache in it more persistent. She noted that Riccardo looked similarly refreshed, and after checking together that the three treasures were still in their places, Cassandra turned to brave the roiling mist.
“Alright, you ready?”
“Judging from the look on your face? Probably not.” Riccardo slung the halberd across his shoulders like a water-bearer’s stick. “Let’s go.”
They walked into the fog, the red paint on the riverstone ward flaring twice as they crossed into Wolf’s Head Hollow. With the old battle’s detritus thick under their feet, Cassandra was walking slowly again, taking care not to step on bones if she could avoid it at all; eventually, she noticed that Riccardo had followed suit, although treading respectfully evidently hadn’t been his first concern. Difficult as it was to navigate in the mist, she was reasonably sure she was keeping a direction well enough, and that she hadn’t walked past any particular landmark twice. She did make her way to a familiar spot, however: a faded banner with one of the royal Kotoan wolfhounds and a fir tree, half-surrounded with a pile of Equisian corpses and pushed askew by the falling of a body in a squire’s gambeson stained rusty brown with the blood spilling from a severed throat. Cassandra came to a halt, taking a moment at the Bayard banner again, then looking around, straining to see through the fog.
“You lost?” Riccardo asked, visibly set on edge by their surroundings.
“No, just thinking,” Cassandra said calmly. “What do you know about witch-knights?”
He shrugged. “Only hearsay and common knowledge. I’ve never really met one, only saw them in passing once or twice.”
“Hell of a place you’ve picked for ghost stories.” Riccardo sighed. “I’ve heard they can conjure up fire and lightning to destroy their enemies. I’ve heard they can talk to the dead and always know if they’re lied to. Each trains two war dogs and rides something that may have been a horse, once. Each carries a lance they use both as a weapon and as a focus for their sorcery. They’re nearly impossible to defeat in combat, even without taking the magic into account, and they’re fanatically loyal to the crown.”
Cassandra pointed towards a slim shape rising from the ground for at least eight feet, too slim to be a tree, from where she stood under the Bayard banner she had paid her respects to a day ago, as the mist seemed to part slightly for her. “Lances like that?”
Riccardo looked, and confirmed with a nod. “Let’s go grab that, find the armour, and get out of here.”
“I don’t think it’s gonna be that simple.” Cassandra fell silent as they approached the lance, the thicker shape of a helmeted severed head looming atop it through the fog.
Fog that seemed to thicken around them now.
Fog that seemed to emanate from the lance, and the head, outwards all throughout the hollow.
Fog that was now, in the silence between the two trespassers, echoing with a laboured two-toned sound: a rasp, a huff, a pause. A rasp, a huff, a pause. Repeating, endlessly, and in an unsettlingly familiar pattern.
“Oh, heavens.” Riccardo sounded like he was about to be sick. “Tell me you don’t hear that.”
“It’s breathing,” Cassandra said with a calm she did not feel.
With each exhale that the severed head took, more mist billowed out from between its clenched jaws, puffing through tears in the decayed skin pulled taut over the cheekbones, filtering between the teeth. Cassandra looked around, swallowing hard when she realized that the sightlines around the lance dwindled from the twenty, twenty-five feet elsewhere across the hollow to ten, maybe twelve feet in every direction. The morning sun was barely a hint of a glimmer overhead, turning the fog opaque, serving only to blind them further. The sound of any life that continued on beyond the hollow’s edge did not make it this far in, as if the fog was blocking even that, cushioning the old battlefield against any reminder of the passage of time, of the world that kept turning, regardless of any fates and lives that met their end here.
“Now I really wish you had a better idea than this,” Riccardo said weakly.
“Let’s get this over with, already.” Cassandra stepped up to the lance and laid her withered hand against it.
The fog immediately turned freezing cold. The severed head’s rasping breath was drowned out by a monstrously deep growl, coming from two different directions somewhere out of sight. Riccardo took a step backwards, keeping back-to-back with Cassandra, clutching his halberd in front of himself protectively. Cassandra suppressed the instinct to draw her sword and ready herself for a fight—this was not a fight that could be fought, only lost, along with both their lives—and instead strained to see through the icy mist, any hint of movement, any shape or sound.
Vultures. Hyenas. Grave robbers, a voice echoed out from the fog, as sourceless as it was hateful. Another faithless brood come to steal from the dead? Speak your last words before I add your bones to the pyre of my troops!
Oh, this was bad.
Cassandra drew a deep breath, and yelled out, “I carry the mark of the heiress to the throne of Corona! State your needs, servant of Koto, so that I may fulfil them in the name of alliances that bind our kingdoms together!”
CORONA HAS NO HEIRESS! a roar came right against her ear, and when she flinched away, she found herself staring right into the furious face of a translucent man in his forties, a thin line of silver circling his neck where his head had been cut off, his helmet profiled like the jowls of a snarling wolfhound and its lifted visor deformed enough to entirely obscure one eye after a heavy crushing blow. Your king’s only child was stolen from her crib in infancy, and shame on him for doing nothing to secure a clear line of succession!
“She was found less than three years ago,” Cassandra shot back steadily. “Taken by a witch and sequestered in a tower throughout her youth and adolescence, she has escaped her captor and returned to take her rightful place within her kingdom, and soon enough, upon its throne.”
The witch-knight’s remaining eye narrowed. Cassandra shivered with a hiss through her teeth when he pulled his right hand—or what remained of it, a shapeless mass of mangled steel and splintered bone—through her healthy arm and the favour tied around it.
You speak the truth, knight-errant. The ghost seemed surprised to even admit that. Then, however, his baleful one-eyed glare shifted from Cassandra’s face to over her shoulder, to where Riccardo still stood frozen in place behind her. And you? I see your heart, oath-breaker. I know the names of your misdeeds. I may stand still among those who walk past me into the beyond, but do not think they go silently. I hear your name carried on the wind of their cries, and the names they give you—traitor, murderer, thief—today you’ve come to rob one time too many.
Unable to think of anything else, Cassandra extended her arm to the side, blocking the ghost’s approach to the halberdier. “I will vouch for him.”
For him? the ghost spat the words like an insult. You would stake your honour on the conduct of a man who has none? By what will you guarantee him?!
“I will guarantee him by the fact that he had erred once,” Cassandra recited, the memory of studying a Bayangoran treatise years and years ago rising clearly to the forefront of her mind, otherwise emptied with fear. “And so he will take care not to err in the same way again. If we were to find a use only for men who are blameless, then useful men could not be come by, for who among us can claim to have made no mistakes?”
Hm. The dead witch-knight cocked his head at her, one side of the gaping wound that circled his neck widening slightly against the motion. Well-principled and well-read, to cite a common ally’s wisdom at me. Heed my words, servant of Corona: choose your companions more carefully, and leave those unworthy of the favour that shines upon you to face the consequences of their own misdeeds.
Cassandra forced herself to unclench her teeth, already ground at the sound of being called a servant again. “I’ve known thieves who gave away their treasure troves once they were given to freely. I’ve known a traitor whose allegiance was true under the lies she had been fed, and whose betrayal had saved her sovereign’s life. I will stake my honour upon that of my companion—and trust that I won’t come to regret it.”
The ghost sniffed, giving her a thoroughly unimpressed look, and leaned away. Very well.
Cassandra slowly let out the breath she was holding, and folded her hands at the small of her back, settling into a neutrally official posture. Riccardo’s hand came against her left elbow, and she turned to look at him.
“Thank you,” the halberdier mouthed at her, careful not to make a sound, his eyes still wide and forehead still dripping with sweat under his helmet.
Cassandra nodded at him, letting herself look as scared as she felt for a moment, before looking away again and snapping her game face back on.
In any event, the dead witch-knight spoke up again, motioning the living two to follow him in an inviting gesture of offering a tour around the hecatomb ground of a battlefield under their feet as if it were a nobleman’s estate. To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence in the place of my unrest, knight-errant?
“My companion and I have come to inquire after your armour and the privilege of returning it into the hands of Koto, my lord, if it pleases you to permit such an endeavour,” Cassandra said formally. “In exchange for a labour performed in your stead, of course.”
It shames me to have an ally from across the border witnessing my armour in such a state, the witch-knight sighed as gestured to himself—the caved-in helmet, the cloven breastplate, the partially crushed left greave, a dozen or more crossbow bolts scattered all through his chest and legs. Even as a ghost, he walked with a heavy limp, leaning hard on a massive two-handed sword with a flamed blade as if it were a cane, and concealed his mangled right arm in the folds of a rich cloak billowing behind him as if against a hot wind. However, there is a task I would charge you with, and permit you to have my armour returned to rest among those of my fallen brethren upon its completion.
“What is it?”
The ghost came to a halt and stabbed the flame-bladed sword into the ground more firmly, then leaned against it with his right elbow and put two fingers of his only hand with fingers remaining into his mouth to let out a modulated, trilling whistle. Rastaban! Kuma!
Cassandra fell very still as the growling reverberated through the freezing-cold mist again. This time, however, when the monstrous wolfhounds came, they came in a walk, and with no malice burning in their eyes. This time, one sat down at the ghost’s feet and lolled out its tongue, and the other laid on its side, unable to sit with the broken-off swords and spears protruding from its coat.
Look at what they’ve done to my boys, the witch-knight said, his voice cracking with tears. I can’t bear to watch them like this, yet I can’t ease their suffering, either.
“What would you have us do, my lord?” Cassandra asked slowly, a cold sense of foreboding settling in her gut.
Take out what causes them pain, and burn it down. The witch-knight gave her a resolute stare. Then, and only then, will I lead you to where my armour lies.
Cassandra looked at Riccardo, who gave her a nod and a shrug, still clearly rattled quite deeply with just about everything that was going on. Then she turned back to the ghost. “With respect, my lord, it is very difficult to find our way across your domain, and to burn anything down we will have to start a fire. May I ask that you scatter the mist a little, so that we can gather up firewood without getting lost?”
The witch-knight narrowed his eye at her suspiciously, but after a long moment, he did raise his left arm and beckon at nothing with two fingers. The thick fog whooshed away as if scattered by a powerful wind, clearing out from all around them in about an eighty-foot radius, locking Cassandra, Riccardo, the ghost, and the hounds in an arena of clear visibility. I am watching, knight-errant.
Cassandra bowed her head and stepped away, then turned to the halberdier. “Come on. Anything that looks like it’ll burn.”
“Yeah, no, that’s– yeah. I swear to high heaven and low hell, next time someone as serious as you says they don’t want to go somewhere, I’m gonna stop pitching the idea of going, immediately.”
“I didn’t have a better idea, did I?” Cassandra picked up a few pieces of a long-broken barrel.
Riccardo stared. “How are you staying this calm, with all the ghost shit happening?”
“Ghosts are the easy part. They’re—” Cassandra sighed. “They can’t do anything. They’ve failed one time too many, and there’s nothing they can do about it anymore, all they have left is just... waiting, until someone else shows up, and hoping for help they may not even remember how to ask for. You and me, we’re alive. We can always try to do another thing right. They can’t. And it’s keeping them here, driving them crazy.”
When her withered hand flared with pain again and another piece of reasonably dry wood slipped from Cassandra’s grasp, Riccardo motioned her to give him the pitiful scraps of firewood they could find. “You know we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t argued him like you had.”
“That was, um...” the halberdier cleared his throat awkwardly. “That was a lot.”
“It’s fine.” Cassandra tossed the remains of a kite shield at him. “I already killed four people since this started, and watched you kill the fifth. I think it’s enough already.”
“Yeah, when you put it that way.” Riccardo pointed her at what seemed to have been a small cart or wagon once, and started helping her pry out the moss-covered boards. “So... knight-errant to the Coronian princess, huh?”
“She’s a friend,” Cassandra said without thinking. Then shrugged. “Mostly. Or was. I don’t know.”
“That good, huh?”
She sighed again. “When it was good, it was great, when it was bad...”
“Oh,” Riccardo said when she didn’t finish. “That kind of a friend.”
“Yeah,” Cassandra admitted reluctantly. “What about you? Oath-breaker, huh?”
Riccardo made a disgusted noise. “So I deserted from the army, so what? I didn’t ask to get conscripted in the first place. Not into the infantry, anyway.”
“No? Where would you have rather gone?”
“Siege engineer corps. Spent half my life studying for that.”
“So that’s how we didn’t kill ourselves on that pulley.”
Riccardo chuckled despite himself. Then glanced briefly at Cassandra’s right arm, and motioned her back to where the ghost and the monstrous hounds were waiting. “You take the hedgehog, I’ll take Mr. Skewers?”
Under the witch-knight’s unsettling scrutiny, they managed to get a small fire going, then knelt by a monstrous wolfhound each. Cassandra placed one hand over the messy, blood-clumped coat, and took the shaft of an arrow sticking from its flank into the other, immediately eliciting a thunderous growl.
Calm, Rastaban, the ghost said firmly.
The growling subsided momentarily. Cassandra held her breath and pulled the arrow out, causing the wolfhound to yelp in pain, then tossed the arrow into the fire. The stench of burning flight feathers filled the air. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Riccardo watching, then carefully bracing a foot against the other monstrous hound’s flank and pulling out a spear, only to break it over his knee for good measure and toss the halves into the fire as well. The weapons seemed to burn more easily than the firewood itself—arrows, crossbow bolts, swords, spears, javelins, axes, the fletching curling up in the matter of seconds, the hafts and hilts cracking in half like a log put into a fireplace, even the metal shrivelling away like a dry leaf placed against hot coals as the witch-knight glared silently into the flames. And with each weapon removed, the giant monstrous wolfhounds seemed to lose their monstrosity. Their teeth started resembling those of a mundane dog. Their size dwindled to normal. Their coats faded from the tangle of darkness and shadow into something smoother, if just as insubstantial, until Cassandra was gathering up arrows by the handful with no flesh to be torn up by pulling them out anymore, and Riccardo was picking out shards of broken sword-blades and spearheads from the soil between the other hound’s ribs. With nothing left to cause them pain anymore, the wolfhounds turned out to be nothing more than any other corpse along the battlefield: dead, and long-decayed into a full set of skeletal remains.
My boys deserved a kinder end, the witch-knight said quietly.
“They’re free now,” Cassandra told him. “Will you follow them?”
The ghost gave her a patient look. I shall not rest till war is done, knight-errant. If one who is a sibling-in-arms to me lays rightful claim to this land and brings it back into the fold of Koto, then and only then will I find rest, knowing that my oaths are unbroken and carried forth in another’s hands. He stepped aside, then, causing the mist to reveal a headless and partially crushed corpse on the ground behind him, clad in destroyed plate and pierced with multiple arrows, not unlike one of his hounds had been. Take my armour and my lance. See them returned into the hands of my King, that my brethren may know I await them.
“What of your mortal remains, my lord?”
I am Étienne of Koto, the dead witch-knight said calmly. Whatever man may have lived in those bones had given his life away on the day I was sworn into service to the crown. They matter none, and have not since, not beyond being a tool to move my soul and advance the will of my King.
Cassandra bowed her head in a sharp motion, trying to ignore the dismayed look on Riccardo’s face and the deep sense of understanding that statement had invoked from inside her own heart. “As you say, Sir Étienne.”
She waved the halberdier forward, and together they managed to disassemble the pitiful remains of the suit of plate from the desiccated corpse. When they stood up to pull the lance from the ground and take it along with the deformed wolf’s head helmet, the ghost was gone, and the severed head had stopped breathing.
“I hate this place so much,” Riccardo said serenely.
“You can say that again.”
The halberdier pointed at a familiar massive two-handed sword with a flamed blade, laying on the barren soil nearby. “Do we take that, as well?”
Cassandra paused, unsure. Then shrugged around the armful of plate. “Sure, why not?”
With a sigh, Riccardo managed to sling the weapon over his back next to his halberd, then took the lance in one hand and tucked the cloven breastplate under his other arm. “Where to next, o servant of Corona?”
“Don’t call me that.” Cassandra heaved the rest of the plate suit in both arms. “Silberstadt, maybe? We need a merchant to take these to the court of Koto for us. And a box, I guess.”
Riccardo indicated the eight-foot-long lance. “More like a coffin. After I break this thing in half.”
“You know what, packing all of this into a coffin is gonna be the least morbid thing I’ve done this week.”