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If you will be my sword

Chapter Text

Light Filtered Through Leaves

Yekaterina carefully stepped over the brittle branch of the old oak tree lying straight across the road. It had fallen over, rotten at its base, just far enough to cover the dirty pathway with its withering crown. No one had bothered to move it; and no one would in foreseeable time. All those with hands and hearts big enough to move it, and all those obliged to care were preoccupied; the country faced dark times again.

Leaves crunched and twigs snapped with little thought as the party moved around the tree to continue its way onward, and soon left it behind. It wasn’t the first such tree they had encountered, and it would certainly not be the toughest obstacle they would have to face. Sent as a scouting party, not all of them were even expected to return alive – and if one was honest about it, it was almost certain that none of them would.

In their party of eight, Yekaterina was among the tallest. A heavy breast plate and shoulder plates of the same tarnished material, held together by worn leather straps at its edges, along with her trusted battle axe strapped tightly to her back made her one of the heavier fortified, as well. This guaranteed her a spot in the very front line should it come to battle. Her armor proudly retained its scratches and dents from her first war, but was otherwise polished to gleam in the specks of sunlight filtered through the thick ceiling of the forest.

Yekaterina was proud of her abilities. She would not fail her party. That, she was sure of.

“How much longer ‘til we reach the village, captain?” rang an energetic voice from the tip of their formation, “We gotta spent another night out here?”

A sigh from the soldier. It wasn’t the first time the old knights guard had been asked that exact question – by the same person, no less. The old soldier didn’t turn his head, but by now Yekaterina had seen enough of it to know that his expression would match the way his shoulders tightened.

“If you’re not ready to weather nature, I fear for your usefulness in battle…” he shook his head, and Yekaterina couldn’t help but agree. The boy was wearing shiny new armor and carried a sharp, heavy sword and careless attitude to match. Next to her, he was one of the physically strongest, and as such she needed to be able to rely on him in combat. While he could certainly swing his weapon around a great deal – as everyone had amusedly watched him do as he tried collecting firewood in this unconventional way – she wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t drop to his knees the first time there was an enemy who would not simply stand still and let himself be hit.

Perhaps this was unfair, but his youth reminded her too much of her siblings; and her siblings would always be too young to fight.

“We should be arriving tomorrow at dawn, if we can keep up our speed. Will you survive that, boy?”

“Yeah, just fine! I just might hafta reorganize some of my rations…. aw”, the young man replied, demonstrating his uncanny ability to absolutely miss the point. Yekaterina smiled, and her eyes slid from the back of his head up to the sky.

She was walking in the middle of their formation, ready to jump both before and behind her companions to shield them with body and axe. They were still a day from where the creatures had been sighted, so it was unlikely that they would run into any more trouble than wayside bandits – but safety never hurt. Every moving shadow made her hand twitch.

Towards the back of their party the two rangers, who were sporting flexible tunics and leather armor as well as large longbows, were talking about their homes in light reminiscence. One came from the far south of the country, it seemed, and had never personally encountered a foul beast; the other had spent the past ten years travelling from town to town, after the second wave had laid destruction to their home all those years ago.

Walking next to Yekaterina was a woman just barely younger than her, clad in the light garments of a mage. Her dress reached her calf, where it gave way to heavy leather boots covered in dirt, brandishing holes patched up in varying levels of skill – unusual for mages. More unusual still was the sword at her side, its sheath matching her garments both in color and style, but looking far more worn than the thick robe. Were she to draw it, Yekaterina was sure it would be no less sharp than the young knight’s blindingly shining weapon.

The two of them had had the opportunity to introduce themselves to each other, and Yekaterina faintly remembered that she had also fought in the first war. She hadn’t known her back then, but had she fought at the front lines, simply returning alive was a fantastical feat. To return back there, even if they were just to follow rumors… Yekaterina shook her head, wondering what had possessed her to share her fate.

Her name, she knew, was Erzsébet.

“Everything alright?” Yekaterina blinked at the words spoken to her, and a slight blush crept on her face. She must’ve spaced out, staring at the woman’s profile bathed in flecks of light. She straightened her back, the heavy axe shifting lazily with her movements, and swiftly looked back at the road ahead.

“Yes. I was just – thinking.”

“Care to share your thoughts?”

Yekaterina’s eyes flickered back to the woman; she had to force herself to look at the open road, force herself to look at the backs of their sorcerer and rogue instead. Something about her face made her uneasy.

She nodded towards the boy strutting on ahead – she couldn’t think of him as anything else – and squared her shoulders. “I worry what will happen to him. He doesn’t know what lies ahead.”

“How could he?”, Erzsébet replied, her tone a tad too chipper for the deep of the forest. “He hasn’t yet fought like you and I – and I doubt that he will.”

“Oh?”

She nodded. “Rumors are rumors, and little will come of it. And if there is something to it – some substance that I wouldn’t bet my hat on”, she wasn’t wearing a hat, or any other head piece of any kind, “- then he would surely die before seeing anything like we did.”

Yekaterina couldn’t help but smile and lift her head towards the sun at the bluntness of her words. “How cruel. “

“That’s the nature of the thing, isn’t it?” She shrugged. “Never trust those with shiny armor to hold their own in a true battle… I’d rather take my chances fighting next to you, and all the dents and scratches you carry.”

She nodded towards Yekaterina, and Yekaterina nodded back.

And then, that was that. They fell back into silence soon after, as the road became steeper and every step took more effort than the last. Yekaterina carried herself in her full weight, her armor, her axe and her supplies, a heavy knapsack filled to the brim with them slung over her shoulders; and when the oldest solider among them couldn’t find the strength to lift his spear and shove it into the dirt and pull himself up with it anymore, she gently pushed him on instead.

When they reached the top of the hill by nightfall, the steepest part of the travel was over. They made good way that day, although they had been slower than expected. The deepest part of the forest lay behind them now. The village was just a little further now, below the hill whose top they were taking their rest on. They would reach it by noon tomorrow at the latest.

Grateful for the safe travel so far, the party gathered around the fireplace, stripped off their heavy armor (Yekaterina kept hers, and her weapon nearby) and heartily dug into the few rations they had left while singing and telling stories, true and false, of life and death and the pleasant and unpleasant things that came with both, as they had done before.

The boy told of his family, and his hopes and dreams, and the younger nodded along while the older let themselves dream of a different life. One of the rangers told the story of how he met his husband, and there was an energy among them again as they roused with him and had their fun. The old soldier sang of his wife, and his wife’s sisters, and the quiet laughter of earlier turned into a roaring louder than the silence of the woods.

And then, when all the food was eaten and the night pitch black and the fire low, one of them sang of the war; an old song that each of them knew. It started slow and quiet, tiny against the mass of stars, more of a mumbling of words than a song; and then the soldier joined in, his voice filled with weary dread; the rangers, the one from the South first, then the other following suit; Erzsébet, her voice clear against the night, with a hint of sorrow Yekaterina felt in her core. The boy joined in, quieter than she had ever heard him, and finally she joined herself, a deep tone straight from her stomach.

They sang of the day the darkness came and swallowed a part of the country whole, an entire village gone in a day, in a day, in a day, and no one knew how. They sang of the troops they sent out, and the lives that were gone in a day, in a day, in a day, and no one knew how. They sang of the unspeakable horrors waiting at the front, clad in horns and heads and fire, they sang of the plague and disease they brought, they sang of the pillaging and the houses left as ashes and the bones ground to dust; in a day, in a day, in a day. And no one knew why.

They sang of the change, of the heroes, of the light that was called hope. They sang of the battles won, the victory; in a day, in a day, in a day. And no one knew how.

They sang, and some wept, and when they were done with the song and all its variations, they sang it again, and a third time, before they put out the fire with dirt and sand and turned to their sleeping quarters. The rogue held the first nightwatch, and Yekaterina dried the wet stains on her cheeks with the cloth of her sleeves.

She slept with her hands on her axe and dreamt of cotton wool and family.

 

They were woken early the next morning, and hastily readied for the journey down the hill. It was easier than the ascend by far, and Yekaterina enjoyed light chatter with the rogue, while others felt spirited enough to whistle and play jokes. The rogue’s name was Florence, she learnt – or perhaps she had known and just forgotten – and she hailed from the same south as the ranger, and knew him well. The village lay in an open plain just below them. Yekaterina felt comfortable listening to her speak, and she found she liked her voice – it was pleasant, and it’s quiet and calm nature fitting for a rogue whose bread and butter was to be unseen and appear unremarkable.

The polar opposite of the mage. Erzsébet was laughing loudly, at a joke or jest or prank Yekaterina didn’t know, and patted the back of the boy – whose name was Alfred, Florence kindly reminded her as she noticed where her eyes had gone – so forceful she had him stumble in his step.

Loud mages, those Yekaterina was quite used to. The one she had been partied with as a young woman, when she had still had trouble lifting her choice of weapon and having it swing in its devastating arc, had no doubt been the loudest of them all, a booming voice and screaming clothes even in death. He had died with his mouth wide open; forever casting his last spell.

But Erzsébet wasn’t simply loud. She carried herself unlike a mage, dressed unlike a mage in a peculiar way, talked unlike a mage in every other, and it vexed Yekaterina, and it bothered her how much it bothered her. She seemed much more a fighter, a warrior, an axegrinder, a swordmaster than a dainty mage, and the fact that her arms were thick and tight and she had never seen her work magic did not help her assessment in the least.

She herself wasn’t too keen on magic, either. She had always been a pragmatic, a hands-on person, and had found the ways of magic to be fascinating to watch, but too abstract for her comfort. The axe was her preferred weapon, not only because she liked to feel its heaviness lay safely in her hands, but because it was not a weapon, but a tool. What could a sword do but harm? And what magic that her own hands couldn’t do, and do better?

Her younger brother, he knew the ways of magic, so she knew enough of them to know to keep away. He had shown her so excitedly how he let the snow dance on his hands and the fire simmer down, and she had smiled and clapped and given her blessing when he asked to leave for training, all the while keeping her hands behind her apron.

The sudden thought of her brother hurt, and she clenched her hand into a fist.

“- While your weapon is no doubt a quite formidable one”, Florence continued in her comfortable voice and the lofty tone she seemed so taken with, providing a gentle distraction, “I simply find the sharp blade of a dagger or two far more comforting, and surely you’ll agree that there’s no way to be more sure of a kill than to have it be by poison. There is no uncertainty there; you poison it, it dies. Soon as you stab, slice, puncture something, everything gets so… messy.”

Yekaterina quietly nodded along, a pleasant smile on her otherwise vacant face, and focused on the rhythm of her steps. It was not long until finally, they reached the foot of the hill and the valley stretched out underneath and before them. It was lush and green, still pregnant with summer’s ripeness, and yet there was something, she couldn’t put her finger on what, that was off; there was a timid feeling of dread making itself known in the deepest part of her stomach.

The road became broader and soon enough, the trampled dirt turned into sparse gravel. They had been able to see the village ever since they left the thick of the forest near the top of the hill, but it was still too far to know whether her feeling of anxiety was justified; individual houses were nothing more than blobs, blurred together in a giant mass, specks of red and brown shining against the wide green of the plains.

It seemed to her that Florence was tensing up as well, but she couldn’t be sure. The rogue held her quiet, calm, almost aloft expression well and comfortably; but there was a twitch in her lips she could not otherwise explain. The rest of the party felt it too, and conversation among them faded until they walked alongside each other in tense silence.

The sun was just before its highest point as the village came close enough into view to make out its houses – the tall municipal building, first, with its high tower; then the mill, a bit off to the side. The feeling of dread gained courage, and bravely wandered up to her heart; the street went on downwards, and the closer they got, the further up it crawled. Yekaterina swallowed it back down, far down and heard the rangers’ agitated whisper in the back.

The village looked as if it had been struck by a flood.

The young knight at the very front of their loosely diamond shaped formation stopped in his tracks, and the party came to a stifling halt. Yekaterina heard him suck in a sharp breath of air; or perhaps she just imagined it so, as she watched his expression stiffened. Ah, right, she thought. He had never been to the forefront of war. The others started muttering among them, and Florence lifted her head higher, ever the tiniest bit. Yekaterina squared her shoulders.

The soldier put his hand on the knight’s back, and together, they marched into the damaged village.

Chapter Text

Light Burning Hot and Bright

Yekaterina kept towards the back as they entered the village, a procession of strange figures with tight faces and dirt staining their boots, weapons kept close and their allies kept closer. They had huddled together instinctively the closer they had come to the village, and now they had to pay attention not to step on each other’s feet. She could taste the tension among them on her tongue with every breath – if push came to shove, they would decide on the fate of all villagers, of this village and of all others. Their weathered bodies and tight hearts lay in their hands; Yekaterina’s.

The first thing they saw were the fields, bursting with virgin crop right before the harvesting season. The fights hadn’t reached as far as the foot of the hill, and the first few fields they walked past were almost unscathed, save for a little ash scattered among the plants that had been carried over by the wind. Further down the road a handful of villagers were working the fields, some tending to livestock, some weaving and weathering leather and watching the youngest of their children.

One of the maids tending to the livestock left unharmed perked up as she saw them approach, and swiftly pulled a bell from one of the pockets of her apron skirt. She ran towards the village’s heart ringing and yelling joyfully that the scouting troop had arrived. The geese she left unattended honked in protest, and started attacking the bales of hay laying on the open fields with their unforgiving beaks. The other workers looked up as well, sweat glistening on their faces. Some hollered and lifted their spades and tools to the air.

As the party continued onward, they saw more and more of the destruction, that which they had only been able to guess from up above. Had Yekaterina likened the destruction to a flood at first, it seemed more like a fire now; or a cancer, starting in the very middle of the village and spreading outward in tongues and lashes.

On the outskirts of the village, the destruction could have easily been mistaken for problems that came with aging material - shingles missing off of roofs, doors cracked open and left hanging in their hinges, fixed provisionally with crude metal replacements and ropes - had it not been for the frequency of them, and had it not been for the farmland - vast stretches of it torn apart and laid to waste by what she could only assume had been powerful magic gone awry.

Now, as they were getting closer towards the center, there were entire houses fully missing; scorched patches of earth and wooden debris remained in their place.

The further they got into the village, the more people they saw, those who had laid down their usual tasks to help rebuild their home. She could see their faces light up as they heard, as they saw the party approaching, and many paused their work– they were lifting heavy debris off the gravel road, aided by the soldiers - to greet her and the scouting party. Some gave them a heartfelt welcome, smiled and waved, others simply stopped to nod towards them before resuming their work. The soldiers they came across were visibly relieved to see another presence of the kingdom in the village, not the sole bearer of hopes and target of frustration anymore.

Alfred waved back, a big smile on his face, and she heard the ranger behind her greet the people just the same. She kept to nodding towards those she saw, and kept her smile firm on her face. Dread had consumed her whole stomach by now. There was a scent seeping from the village’s core she was quite used to; a rotten stench, like foul eggs and citrus and death, characteristic for the kind of chaos magic the beasts had used. It turned her intestines upside down, shriveled them up good.

“You okay…?” A hand reached up to touch her shoulder. Yekaterina pulled back, and her arm twitched to reach for the knife stashed in her belt. Erzsébet let her hand sink again, and shot her a concerned look.

“Ah- Yes, yes. Of course,” Yekaterina lied. “I’m fine.” She widened her smile a little further, strained it at the corners like she used to do when her sister clung to her apron in the middle of night and she had to hide the stains of her tears.

“You sure-“

“Yes. Quite sure,” she cut her off curtly, and kept on smiling. Erzsébet raised her brow, but let her be, and the both of them turned back towards the road. Yekaterina felt her heart beat in her chest; shame, she was sure. How could she have let herself look so vulnerable that even a complete stranger had seen right through her defense? She squared her shoulders once more, and felt the comforting weight of her axe against her back. Under the watchful eyes and the hopeful murmur of the villagers, they walked onwards.

It wasn’t long until they reached a quaint market place, a small square at the heart of the village, or at least that which was left of it. The party came to a staggering halt. The knight’s shoulders were shivering, the soldier held on tightly to his spear. Yekaterina puffed out her chest, and pressed her fingers against her palm. She heard Erzsébet huff out a breath of air; reflexively, she took a small step, just enough to stand slightly before her.

It wasn’t as much a hole, she soon realized, as a crater, right where the middle of the square was supposed to be. It was a deep, uneven dent, and the ground around it still covered in soot and ash, blacker than night. There were kids playing just off the edge of the black earth, and a mother watching them with eagle’s eyes. They dared each other, had fun finding out who would go closest to the dark. Yekaterina took another step forward, not knowing why. She blinked, and found her hand resting on her knife’s shaft, half pulled from its pocket.

“Hey, there, travelers,” a voice called from the left, and like a ripple effect the ghostly grasp of the dark hole let off from one party member after the other. Yekaterina quickly let her hand sink and held onto the hem of her chainmail instead. She tightened her grip until her knuckles went white.

“Are you the scouts sent to head north?”

A man, shorter than Yekaterina by easily more than a head, approached them, somehow hurriedly and calm at the same time. He carried himself like a man used to higher dignities, and yet the grime staining his guard’s uniform fit him well. Yekaterina had known the likes of him back in the war – they could bring the flair of the capital wherever they went, and act like it was their right to do so.

“Yeah ‘s us!” spoke the knight, the color slowly returning to his face. He seemed to stomach the stench quite well, and Yekaterina gladly gave him credit for it. The ranger behind her kept curling his nose, and opened and closed his mouth as if he couldn’t decide whether breathing through his nose or through his mouth was more disgusting. “You the one in charge, here?”

The man nodded. “Kirkland, Knight-commander of the fine group stationed here. Are you the one in charge of the scouting party…?” He eyed him critically, and Yekaterina heard someone laugh towards the back; Florence, perhaps?

“No, that’s – “

“That’d be me, sir”, spoke the soldier. Alfred laughed and reddened as he stepped back to let his senior take the lead, and mumbled something that almost sounded like an apology. She felt the need to step forward, comfort him somehow over the mistake he had made so brashly.

The sorcerer hit his shoulder, in jest or in threat she couldn’t tell. Kirkland held his disapproving gaze on him just a tad longer, then shifted seamlessly towards their actual leader, the soldier - the oldest among them and only one with rank in the royal army. The soldier and Kirkland nodded at each other in a mutual gesture of respect, and he introduced the party as it gathered behind him.

This village was one of the first that had sent back word to the bigger cities, a hurried girl crying help on the only horse they could spare sent as a scout, driven half to death by the time they arrived, over hills and creeks and through the darkest parts of the forest. Soldiers had been sent, first, all the guards who could be spared. The soldiers they had encountered as they had walked along the main road leading through the village belonged to that first troop, clad in streaks of royal red and the light rivetted chainmail that marked their kind. They weren’t specialized fighters like the members of the scouting party, and many looked younger than Alfred, still.

Then the queen had called for volunteers; anyone who would hear her. Trained warriors they couldn’t afford to remove from the capital, not if the threat was real and a new war would come upon them, and paid soldiers they had none to spare. Many of those who knew the fight up close, who had lost and mourned, travelled to the cities to register and stand before the country should the need arise; many more came as the cowardly nobility started finding incentives to have their farmers turn to the sword in their stead. Just as everyone else in the party, Yekaterina had volunteered for the scout; and as so many, she had had no choice.

They had gathered them, mixed and matched and sorted them into parties based on their skills, and sent them off to fight without as much as a days’ time to prepare. They had learned each other’s names on travel, or they had not, and were a unit only in name. She feared how they would fare should it come to a real battle.

“The village has been hit pretty badly. They say they came from the darkest forest, the old front further north, and hit the village from above. Most of it was over by the time we first arrived. There was enough smoke to fill the capital, but little fire. Could’ve been bandits, just as well”, the two guards standing to the left and to the right of Kirkland shifted uncomfortably, and he swiftly cleared his throat, “Could’ve been… something else, too. We’ve been doing nothing but cleaning scorched earth the past few days, saw to it that all those who’d lost their houses found shelter and put up our own tents up north.”

“The fields are mostly unharmed – you probably saw. Market took the brunt of it. Used to be a bustling meeting place for the whole community, we’re told, and now it’s just a damn hole in the ground.” He scoffed and shook his head. The gesture might have seemed callous to others, but Yekaterina thought she knew the sadness behind it. “People are mostly unharmed, although there were a few deaths – buried, already – and then there’s of course- “he sighed, and brushed some dirt off his lapel, “the missing. Ten, twelve, all in all – we’re not sure, entirely, there’s still some debris that we can’t clear up – it rained just yesterday, and we can’t afford to cast a spell powerful enough to clear all the mud. Can’t even search for their bodies. “

Ten missing. Twelve, maybe. Yekaterina steeled her heart. Bandits? Doubtful. If the other villages that had called for help looked even half as bad as this market place, impossible. No bandits had access nor skill to cast magic powerful enough to cause such singular destruction – and even if, not magic of the same color and smell as the beasts’ that had plunged their kingdom into darkness so many years ago.

Ten missing. Twelve, maybe.

Kirkland eyed all of them with a piercing stare, and after having satisfied himself with what he saw, he gave another curt nod and turned on his heels.

“Follow me.” He started walking. “Towards the tents. We’ve got a map there, rudimentary supplies to stock up on, and a place to rest, if you so wish. You will set your tents up next to ours, I suppose?”

Yes, the soldier nodded, and they all fell into a light jog as they followed along the spindly man and his two right hands behind him. The north of the village didn’t look much better than the market place; there were traces of houses still visible. Some had retained one or even two of their walls and served as crude shelter until their rebuild. The rest wasn’t much different from the soot covered earth of the market place’s crater, reduced to nothing but dirt. Yet the road was easier to walk here, all the debris piled neatly to the side. Hadn’t been much left to clean, she supposed.

Kirkland was talking to the soldier, and Yekaterina heard them exchange more private greetings and even share in a laugh. It didn’t surprise her to hear the old soldier laugh, nor the tight faced Kirkland. The soldiers had always gotten on best with their own kind. Yekaterina was at the very end of their formation now, and held careful watch over their backs.

She smelled the tents before she saw them. Their stench was different than that of the soot, distinctly human. Yekaterina knew that it never took long for the smell of the troops to claim a place among the tents, but here, with the stench of magic so close by, it seemed to be almost stubborn.

There were seven tents all in all, five of white linen – quarters – and two more of reddish cream – stock and base, respectively. They were set up on a field that had been burnt for purification just outside the village, meant to serve as a first defense should the beasts hit again. Kirkland lead them towards the largest of them all, the reddish cream in the very middle, and had them rest around the fireplace before it. He and the soldier retreated to the tent, to talk strategy, she supposed. The young knight sauntered off towards the city with one of the rangers – to gather testimony, as they said. The rest of the party remained close by, shed off their heavy armor and stretched their limbs.

Yekaterina sat down on one of the heavy stones serving as makeshift stools, glad to relieve her legs of the burden of her body’s weight, and set down her heavy bag right next to her. She took her axe off her back and rolled her shoulders back and forth, she stretched her neck until she heard that satisfying crack, and gave her knuckles the same treatment. “D’you see the crater? What can even do something like that?”

“Magic. Must have been magic, my friend. There isn’t much else so destructive in this world.”

“But… magic? If even the royal guards can’t clean it up with their powers- “

“Powers, pah!”, Erzsébet interrupted the ranger’s conversation with a laugh and crossed her broad arms in front of her chest. She had let her hair down, and the chestnut waves got caught between her arms and stuck to her head from the sweat. Her eyes had something of a storm.

“You want to call that powers, their parlor tricks and fireworks? No common soldier has the training, nor the skill. They couldn’t lift the stone you’re sitting on if your life depended on it. It’s not their fault – they aren’t trained for it. I’d be surprised if any of them even knew what kind of magic caused this, even though the smell’s so prominent, it’s hard to imagine anyone couldn’t.”

“The smell – that’s magic?”, the southern ranger spoke up. “How unpleasant.” He shook his head, as if he regarded that property of magic to be a personal slight, and his long, blonde hair loosened and escaped from the ribbon he tied it together with.

“Smell’s not the only unpleasant thing about it, I’m afraid.” Erzsébet kicked back her head with a smirk. She sat on one of the stones opposite of Yekaterina, and lifted her right ankle to rest above her left knee. “If you were to be hit by an attack just a fraction as powerful as the one that levelled the market place…” she shrugged, her smirk turning stale, “ – you’d be levelled just the same.”

“But – but surely, casting such a spell would take time, and we’d have more than enough opportunity to slay them before –“

“They slay us?” She shook her head. “You’re right, it would take time. But not enough to slay even half of them – and that’s an optimistic estimate.” Yekaterina nodded in agreement and fiddled with her supplies. She had to dig her hand in deep before she found the snack she was looking for: bread made of corn starch and flour, and cow’s and goat’s cheese wrapped into old, brown linen. A parting gift, given to her by her village’s elders. She unpacked it on her lap, and wordlessly offered some to her companions. “I don’t expect that we’ll come across magic that powerful, though– not here, not when they’ve already struck once.”

Florence gladly took some of the bread and cheese, and returned the favor in kind by offering a swig of the grape juice and wine she had brought, and the southern ranger with the long blonde hair proudly passed around sweet, white bread.

“And even if they hit us, you won’t be the first one to go, Francis”, Erzsébet mocked the ranger, who promptly narrowed his eyes. They flickered over to Yekaterina, who returned the look with a smile.

“Ah, yes, that would be me” she laughed, and the smile on her face was quite real. She held out another piece of bread to be passed along to Erzsébet, but she declined with a raised hand, as she declined all other offers of food. “I will do my best to protect you all until my last breath.”

The others were silent, whether because they had their mouths filled with her food or their hearts with sudden shame, she didn’t know. She didn’t understand why she shouldn’t speak openly about her position; she was the one who would take the brunt of hits if she was doing her job right. She was the shield made flesh.

Erzsébet’s laugh broke the silence. “How dramatic.” Yekaterina tilted her head in question. “Hadn’t we agreed that the young hero would be the first of us to go?” There was a twinkle in her eyes not unlike lightning.

Yekaterina chuckled, and the rest of the party continued to look on in silence. “Yes yes, I remember.” She took a good bite of her packed lunch, and then her time chewing. “Hmm, but I do hope to spare him this fate. He’s so young, he’s yet to realize what it means to fight. It would be a shame to have him die among us.”

“Young, young – he’s not too young to hold a sword. He lacks experience, and respect.” Erzsébet shot back, gnawing on the hard black bread she favored over the other’s generosity. “Respect for what it means to fight, and respect for us. A shiny sword doesn’t make a warrior.”

“He seems to know how to wield it”, the second ranger jumped in, and earned himself an amused look from both Erzsébet and Yekaterina.

“He knows how to wield it, may be. But he doesn’t know how to use it as a weapon. I doubt a boy of his age and standing - you saw the way he moves, I assume? Not unlike yourself”, Francis, whom she had nodded towards, blushed slightly but gracefully took the hit towards his class, “ – I doubt someone like him even knows the pain of someone else’s hand, much less that of a blade.”

“I would hope so”, Yekaterina nodded. “Or our fight and our deaths all those years ago would be for nothing.”

Silence again. Yekaterina was the only one who held onto her smile. Were her words really that shocking to hear? She had never thought any of them extreme enough to be silencing. Hm, hm. How unusual the city folk was. She prepared a second sandwich, and found that her cheese tasted quite good with Francis’ sweet bread.

“She’s lookin’ quite alive to me”, the sorcerer muttered under his breath. Yekaterina didn’t expect him to understand; but she was grateful he broke the silence. She herself didn’t find it too awkward, but she often heard how others would, and it made her feel guilty that she would have been the one to make them feel bad.

It was then that the soldier emerged from the tent, one hand combing through his moustache. “Miss Hédervári, would you join us for strategic discussion?” He had a wrinkle on his forehead she hadn’t seen on him before. She wondered why he would call Erzsébet to him? She had served, yes, but so had Yekaterina.

Erzsébet nodded, and seemed to know what she was needed for. Perhaps they needed her expertise in magic? Then again, wasn’t the sorcerer the one who would know more than she, a veritable battle mage? Yekaterina watched her pack the black bread that looked hard as a rock away and brush the crumbs off and into the fireplace.

As if on cue, the very second Erzsébet stood up there was a loud, high whistling noise, followed directly by a blazing black fire ball that burnt a clean hole through one of the white linen tents before striking another and exploding into a white-hot flame. It engulfed the tent within seconds, and before Yekaterina had blinked twice, there was little of it left.

The soldier was the first to scream.

“To your weapons, we’re under attack!” Kirkland burst out from the tent, a sword already in hand and a wildness in his eyes she wouldn’t have likened to the man. “It came from the west – “ He barely had the words out before another fire ball missed the tents only by a few inches and combusted without having anything to burn. Yekaterina shivered, even with the flames so hot and close.

She only took one more moment, cursing herself for even needing it, before shoving her lunch to the side. She grabbed her battle axe by the broad knob and pull it upwards in a swift swing so the handle’s belly rested in her hands. She saw Erzsébet standing straight as a broomstick in the corner of her eye, mumbling a formula she didn’t care to understand, saw Florence ready her knives and Francis step back to draw the string of his bow.

Without thinking what to do next, she did it, turned on her heels with the axe’s shoulder resting on her’s so the first swing would come directly from her body. They must have used a tarn spell – a charm – a distraction, their sheer number alone should have never allowed them to come even half as close. There were twenty at least, and thirty most likely, charging towards them with weapons that looked like tar; hideous soldiers with skin as pale as death. Adrenaline shot through her body and made everything sharper – the open plains that left them defenseless, the feel of metal under her fingers, the breath of each of her companions behind her, and her own.

Erzsébet cast the first spell on their side, and it swung like a blade through the grass and cut straight through the first of the pale soldiers. He staggered, walked another meter before he stopped and fell apart. He turned to ash before his body had the chance to touch the floor.

Yekaterina narrowed her eyes onto the nearest attacker. She screamed a low, loud battle cry, and charged forward.