Though there was little left of the night by the time they arrived at Richter farm, Cassandra slept even more shallowly than usual, and cracked her eyes open a fraction each time the older ex-mercenaries rotated on watch. Their Shank Rat guide had tucked herself into a spot the farthest away from Cassandra—unsurprisingly, given how Valdis had taken two heavy hits and lost two friends the last time she had met Cassandra—and in the corner of the farmhouse, leaning for comfort against as many walls as she could find in one spot, also unsurprisingly given that she normally lived in whatever quarters to have been carved out in the spent tunnels of a silver mine. The other three fell into an easy order that included neither the bandit who was to guide them nor the knight-errant who kept their company, stoking the fire and keeping watch, a familiarity born from years of practice and scarcely dulled with the years of peace that have passed for them since. They spoke little overnight, and it must have been close to sunrise when Cassandra surfaced again not to the sound of their footsteps, but their voices in a murmured conversation.
“Go back to sleep. Catch at least an hour more.” Sigrid, but devoid of any firmness, any mocking irreverence that usually permeated her voice. “We need you as strong as you can be.”
“You think an hour this way or that will even matter?” Teagan, resigned—calm, but hopeless. “We can’t take the entire Red detachment on our own.”
“I don’t think we’re gonna have to. That turned chanter will have decimated his own men by now. I’ll be surprised if what’s left of the Reds after that, and after the culling that the Coon Tails and the Shank Rats gave them, isn’t split into factions already.”
“That’s great, but it doesn’t help us much, does it?” Teagan grumbled. “I’ll do everything I can, you know that, but it’s just us and that girl from Corona. We’re going to lose someone.”
Teagan sighed. “I just wish Chloe was here.”
There was a slightly longer pause before Sigrid spoke again, and in a significantly colder tone. “Well, she’s not. Chloe’s gone and Rose is dead, and Bastian has to hold the fort, because the Shank Rats are going to need a safehouse in town regardless of whether we live or die. It’s just you boys and me now, and those two kids we’ve got along.”
“You knew this would happen, didn’t you?” Teagan pressed. “Wasn’t there time to try and go get her?”
“Why would I try that? So she could threaten to kill me again? Tee, Chloe is the one who left us, not the other way around.” Another sigh, and a noticeably more frustrated one. “I don’t want to go into a fight mad at you, alright? Don’t talk to me about her again.”
“Just focus on keeping the Coronian safe, she’s small enough to fit behind your shield with you. I’ll stick with Hanalei and try to keep Valdis behind me. With any luck, she’ll know her way around well enough to lead us down through narrow paths, and it won’t matter that we can’t do any defensive formation worth crap.”
They fell silent after that, and Cassandra drifted off again, managing to sleep for almost an hour longer. Then, the whole group began to stir, waking each other up and putting on a simple meal that would give them energy for the coming day. Cassandra rolled up her bedroll and slung her sword across her back, hilt over the left shoulder, before sitting at the Richters’ hearth as Teagan waved her over to watch the food while he put his armour on. Sigrid was beside the fire as well, a small mirror set out on the floor in front of her as she carefully lined black contours around her eyes with a blunt-tipped little stick dipped in a glass vial. Kohl, Cassandra recognized after a minute, with no small amount of surprise.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen people paint themselves before battle,” the sorceress said calmly without looking.
“I’ve met a few who wore warpaint every day, but I’ve not really seen people treating eyeliner as warpaint.”
Sigrid chuckled, and threw Cassandra a menacing glare across the hearth before winking at her, as well. In fairness, both were significantly emphasized by the kohl lining her eyes, and it did look rather inspiring on her. “I’m almost done. If you want to wait your turn, I have enough to share.”
“No, but thank you.”
They split the ghostload arrows over breakfast, nine each, and Cassandra had to suppress a shiver as she packed the heavy broadheads fletched sheer red-and-black into her quiver. Each time she touched one of them, be it with a bare hand or through a glove, a faint bit of pressure appeared at her forehead and temples, an absence of sound that she could almost hear pressed up against her ears. She watched Sigrid’s eyes drift out of focus for a moment as the sorceress tended her half of the arrows and had to be shaken by the shoulder to return to reality. Cassandra snapped the archery aid around her withered wrist, and flexed her jaw until she felt the joint pop like a cracked knuckle against another inaudible whisper as her hand brushed the fletching.
She was so done with magic.
A hike across the Richters’ fallow fields and a little longer across the land unsuited for being farmed, and they exited a small thicket into the flatter, communal area in front of the mine. The pottery kiln Cassandra had seen a few weeks prior was cracked, and the ramshackle thatch-roofed workshop shared between a tanner and a dyer was no more than a smouldering ruin of charred timbers and soot-stained rocks. Instead of communal cooking stations, there were funeral pyres, some in the process of being re-stacked to dispose of more bodies, and every elevated point in the area—a tree branch, a tunnel entrance’s corner, a rock outcropping poking out of the hillside—was being used as an anchor for chains of laundry lines with the red scarves of the Scarlet Brigade tied upon them, the area festooned in trophies presumably taken from the bodies of mercenaries who had been killed or forced to surrender, putting Cassandra in mind of the garlands of Coronian flags set out each year when it was time to release lanterns in an empty hope of calling the lost princess home. The only other presence in the area were patrols, each armed and each comprised solely of people with Shank Rat or Coon Tail marks on their garb, and one of which had immediately noticed the approaching group, and let out a piercing whistle to alert more sentries.
From where she was walking on Sigrid’s other side, Valdis put two fingers in her mouth and whistled back, the exact same tone, as she raised her other hand to wave at the patrol. Crossbows were lowered, and the Shank Rats crowded around the Coon Tail walking towards them briskly.
“You came after all,” was his greeting.
“Luc, you’re alive,” Sigrid said to him with a nod. “Where’s Bernard?”
The Coon Tail, a middle-aged Kotoan with cornrows and a small scar down his left cheek, pointed a thumb behind himself at an entrance to the mine. “Inside, at the first major tunnel intersection, with the fire siphon crew. Valdis, you tell her about the Red captain?”
“He dies today, or I do,” Sigrid said calmly as the Shank Rat at her side nodded.
“Well, you’d better not, we’re gonna need you with the pyres.”
“How many dead?”
“Engineers are down half,” Luc said, his tone disaffected and his face a mask of murderous fury. “Rest of the Coon Tails, down some one-third. Shank Rats, probably down between a quarter and one-third. And while it’s not much of a consolation—” he raised a hand to indicate the lines upon lines of red scarves, some bloodstained and some charred, tassels blowing in the wind. “—we made them work for it.”
“No more,” Sigrid told him simply. “Any defectors from the Reds?”
“Not to my knowledge, no. You’d have to ask Bernard.”
“Does anybody need to ask Bernard to know what he thinks about making peace with any faction of the Reds? Especially if he’s still with the fire siphon crew?”
Luc crossed his arms, unimpressed. “They’ve not shown us any more kindness than we’re giving them back.”
“No, I don’t imagine they have. Watch the warhorse until we’re back, if you would.” Sigrid clapped the Coon Tail on the shoulder and walked past him. “Let’s head inside. Valdis, stay behind me and point the way. Boys, on the flanks. Kazandra, on my left.”
Cassandra fell into formation, but not before giving the bandit patrol a glare. “Any of you mistreats my horse, and I will know.”
“You trained the horse to go for the eyes, too?” Valdis murmured as they headed into the mine.
“Do you want to find out?” Cassandra deadpanned before she could think about it.
The Shank Rat looked away with a wince, and Cassandra noticed her shivering briefly. “I can’t wait to never see you again.”
They entered the mine, closed lanterns hanging on the walls every dozen or so feet giving off faint light, the entryway tunnel wide enough to walk four abreast. Soon, a more narrow passage split off on their left, and Valdis directed the group to continue on forward. Another tunnel to the left and a matching, if only a few feet deep, to the right. Another tunnel to the left and another to the right, both continuing on beyond the reach of the wan light. Another tunnel to the left and another to the right, the former forking before both of its pathways disappeared in the dark. Another tunnel to the left and another to the right, the latter at an angle and twisting back the way they came; Cassandra glanced down it, squinting, and thought she could see a sledgehammer and two pickaxes set upright against one of the timbers supporting the roof. Another tunnel to the left and another to the right, and the Shank Rat pointed them right. Another tunnel to the left, and another to the left, the angles no longer straight or grid-like, and another to the right, twisting back the way they came; Cassandra glanced down that one, as well, and thought she could see the same sledgehammer and two pickaxes. Another tunnel to the left, and sheer walls to the front and right, and Valdis waved them into a diagonal turn to the front and right as soon as they cleared the bend, the tunnel now winding gently from side to side. More passageways, short and long, broad and narrow, splitting off like blood vessels rather than straight underground roads, and Cassandra forced herself to take a deeper breath to keep her cool as she finally understood why the Equisian garrison hadn’t dared harry the bandits inside the mine and only gave them trouble on the surface.
She would not be able to find the way back out alone. And neither, she presumed, would the soldiers.
“Hold up,” Valdis murmured, and pushed to the front of the group. Then paused for a long moment, turning her head this way and that.
“You lost?” Teagan asked calmly.
“Please, I live here.” The bandit held up a hand for them not to follow, and took a few steps into a tunnel to the right, sniffing at the air a few times. “Well, that’s decay. Something must have drowned in the flooded stopes.” She stepped into the tunnel to the left then, sniffing at the air again. “Okay, that’s smoke, let’s go.”
Cassandra narrowed her eyes at a hint of firelight in the distance. The way the shadows fell, it must have been a somewhat larger chamber, or at least a cross-intersection of a few broader tunnels. She drew a breath to ask, but before she could say a word, the hint of firelight flared into a spray of flames flooding down one of those intersecting tunnels, and a chorus of agonized howling and shrieks rang out as Cassandra tried to blink the afterimage from her eyes. A staccato of rapid commands hammered through, on both sides, as the fire siphon was readied again, and this time Cassandra heard the grinding of wooden wheels against the hard rocky ground just in time to shield her eyes, just before a second load of burning oil was squeezed down another tunnel where the mercenaries of the Scarlet Brigade were attempting a push towards the exit.
“GET BACK AND ROT IN WHATEVER HELL THAT SPAWNED YOU!” one of the Coon Tail fire siphon crew roared down the tunnel.
“Bernard!” Valdis yelled towards them.
The shadows before them whipped around, crossbows at their shoulders and bolts gleaming in the firelight. “Who goes there?!”
“It’s me and my husband, and a few friends!” Sigrid called out.
“Oh thank fuck, I know that voice. Lower your weapons—”
“Ah, fuck!” The Coon Tail leapt to the fire siphon that his crew of two was refilling already. “Saint Florian, ward us from the flames—”
Another gout of burning oil, and another choir of screams, the Scarlet Brigade’s attempts to return fire with arrows and crossbow bolts failing to breach the Coon Tails’ fortified checkpoint of piled-up rubble and wooden barricades covered in soaked hides.
“You got a saint to tell me where their captain is?” Sigrid barked at the Coon Tail leader.
“Saint Jude, patron of lost causes!” Bernard snapped back, without looking away from reorienting the fire siphon. “Salome, how much more fuel?”
“We can do this all day,” another Coon Tail assured him with murderous glee.
“Splendid, because we might have to!” Bernard turned to Sigrid then. “Their only way out is through this spot, now that they’ve buried Crew Beta in a cave-in northeast and we’ve flooded the one you went around already.”
“And the corkscrew up to the shelter topside?”
“Walled off, and even if they were smart enough to find that, Crew Alpha and their siphon is bunkered down on that approach. They’ve been making a three-way push, hoping to overwhelm us, every few hours for a while now. No sightings of that thing that leads them since last evening.” Bernard ducked his head when a few more arrows struck the barricade or whizzed overtop it. “And we seem to be dealing with the half that damn near worships it!”
“Then one of us gets to be a godslayer,” Sigrid growled, and pulled her weapons out: axe in the right hand, sword in the left. “We need a chamber large enough for room to swing, but small enough first to take, then to hold with just the people we have. Which way do we go?”
“I’d say left-side.”
“Burn us a path on the left-side tunnel, and we’ll take care of the rest.”
Bernard let out a laugh. “Diego, Salome, turn the siphon left!”
Another bright flare of burning oil that Cassandra shielded her eyes from, and she drew her sword to follow the three veterans into the resulting breach, Hanalei and Teagan with shields in front and spears thrusting to make room for further advance, Sigrid following close with both weapons drawn and slamming the flat of the sword’s blade against that of the axe’s head a few times in a rhythmic fashion before the smoke-tinged, hot air of the mining tunnel was cut with a new sound that was not the clash of metal on metal, not the shouting of wounded and dying.
“Ef ek skal til orrustu leiða langvini,
und randir ek gel, en þeir með ríki fara—”
One of the Scarlet Brigade mercenaries pushed past Teagan’s tower shield with his own, and Sigrid hooked the bearded head of her axe around its edge to pull it aside and bring down her sword. Another slammed into Hanalei’s shield, giving room for two pairs of hands to wrest his spear away, and the smith drew his own one-handed axe in its place to cleave through the head of whoever it was in front of him. Another tried to get around Teagan’s left, to get at his shield-arm and make him drop it, and Cassandra made short work of him. She walked into Teagan as he stopped against another pouring out of a side tunnel, and she pushed the veteran forward to keep his shield in front of the group, and parried the flanking Red’s next hit only to find that he had a friend with a spear behind himself, too. Without enough light to see where the spearhead was, she couldn’t try grabbing at it with her withered hand, and there was no time for weighing options with a swordsman on her—so she backhanded him in the face with her reinforced glove, and opened his stomach up with a swipe of her sword as he staggered. An impact came against her side, but no sharp pain of injury, and Cassandra didn’t waste time staring into the second Red’s terrified eyes as she grabbed at the spear he’d just tried to skewer her with and yanked it out of his hands to hurl it into his retreating back. Still no pain, she noted, and looked down at herself to find that a faint shimmer of silver mist had formed the shape of a full suit of plate over her clothes, and heard Sigrid’s voice breaking through the din as the sorceress still sang, deep and low and challenging.
“—heilir hildar til,
heilir hildi frá,
koma þeir heilir hvaðan—”
Before long, they were treading bodies, even as Teagan lost his spear as well and was now hacking forward with a sword, even as the cries of chanter! chanter! fall back! rang out from up ahead among the Scarlet Brigade. The mouth of the open chamber loomed before them, and Sigrid charged into it without waiting, a score of blows from the mercenaries waiting for them to enter striking her and each glancing off the protective magic she was still singing for herself and for others. She barrelled through the Scarlet Brigade’s formation in a whirlwind of blades, Teagan and Hanalei followed immediately after, as did Cassandra, further breaking enemy ranks and forcing the mercenaries into a retreat through the only other exit from the chamber. And as soon as there was no more Reds within earshot of that exit, Sigrid stopped singing, and leaned her hands on her knees without dropping her weapons, panting heavily.
“Fuck. One minute. I gotta—catch my—breath.” After a moment, Cassandra watched the sorceress’ silhouette, barely visible as a darker splotch in the darkness, straighten up again and turn her head this way and that. “Sound off.”
“I’m fine,” Hanalei said.
“I’m here,” Teagan called out.
“I’m good,” Cassandra said calmly.
“Miraculously, I’m alive,” the Shank Rat’s voice was unsteady, but with adrenaline rather than with pain.
“Who’s got torches?” Sigrid asked, still a little breathlessly.
Cassandra reached into a reinforced belt pouch and pulled out the small jar of magic-reactive ink, blinking a few times with a wince as it lit up against her withered hand. The others turned away or shielded their eyes as well, the radius of light small but blinding after having spent most of the day so far in the darkness.
“Okay, shit, that’ll make striking sparks easier.” Sigrid tucked her axe into its belt loop, then yanked the red scarf off one of the mercenary corpses on the chamber’s floor and cleaned her sword before sheathing it as well. “Come on, we need more light.”
Between the five of them, they had eight torches, and spent a moment to spread them across the chamber far enough apart to bring dim illumination to the entire area—some twenty by thirty-five feet, no larger—wedging the torches into scars sheared into the walls with mining tools, using the weapons or hands or boots of the freshly dead mercenaries across the floor as sconces. With that done, Cassandra tucked the jar of ink away again, and looked to Sigrid.
“Why are we setting up here? We still don’t know where he is.”
“That’s about to change,” Sigrid said calmly, and reached for the signal horn that hung at her belt. “Cover your ears, kids.”
Cassandra clapped both hands over her ears and opened her mouth slightly, but the resounding roar when Sigrid tilted her head back and blew the horn still made her wince. Dust shook off the ceiling, and the sorceress lifted the horn from her lips, listening to the sound ring through—and before too long, a vicious little smile curled her lips as an answering horn echoed back to where they stood.
“Now we know where he is. And he’ll be here soon, so nock.”
Cassandra cleared her throat, but said nothing about how she would have appreciated more of an advanced warning, only readied her bow and checked her archery aid, and made sure she had the ghostload arrows within easy reach, as she listened to Sigrid asking their bandit guide a few more questions about the place they were: how close to the Scarlet Brigade’s usual haunts within the tunnels, how many ways around it to the Coon Tail checkpoint.
“Only through here, so they’d have to storm back in and walk down the path we just came through,” Valdis was saying as she held her dinky crossbow to her chest like it would protect her from everything that had just gone down in the walls of the place she called home. “Every side tunnel between here and Bernard is a dead end, far as I know.”
“Then why did one of them try to run away when I threw his spear back at him?” Cassandra asked with a frown.
Sigrid and Valdis both turned to her, the bandit’s face confused and the sorceress’ breaking into a look of fear as soon as Cassandra’s words registered. And in that endless split second of clarity between them, that moment of abrupt chill running through her entire body like on the night she’d sent Owl away, the night when she stood before a grave she had just dug and felt cold fingers carding through her hair, Cassandra moved through that cold without thinking—
She grabbed the back of the Shank Rat’s belt with her withered hand and yanked, throwing Valdis behind herself—
Before the bandit even hit the ground, Sigrid let out a startled cry of pain and stumbled backwards as a throwing axe slammed into her shoulder hard enough to stagger her, and though her hand was already halfway to pulling her own weapon from its belt loop, she barely had the time to bring it up—
—a man-shaped mountain of steel hurtled through the mouth of the tunnel they had just come in through, and hit the sorceress like a battering ram.
Hanalei was in motion immediately, grabbing at the fallen chanter’s back to heave him off of Sigrid. Wherever his hands found purchase in the Scarlet Brigade captain’s backplate, the metal seemed to slither and coil around his grip, brambles tangling around his wrists, barbs digging into his fingers, leaving Hanalei’s skin torn up and bleeding as he maintained his hold, and yanked, and threw. And although the fallen chanter crashed into the wall with a clamour of metal on stone, he was far from landing in a heap, and easily brought his gauntleted hands up to grab at one of the blades of the two-handed axe that the smith attempted to hammer him against the anvil of the wall with—and instead of the axe cleaving through his hands, gauntlet and all, Cassandra watched the fallen chanter snap the massive weapon into pieces as if it were made of tissue paper, and put a foot in Hanalei’s gut to kick him away with a reverberating snarl that sounded like nothing that had the right to come from a human’s mouth.
Teagan charged in then, and the fallen chanter simply extended a hand to the side; Sigrid barked in pain again where she was picking herself from the floor as the throwing axe still embedded in her shoulder dissolved as if into a spill of water thrown from a bucket, a surge of quicksilver flying back into the fallen chanter’s hands, where it froze again into the shape of two swords, and Teagan’s advance abruptly changed into a retreat as the blades struck against his tower shield like a hailstorm and, before long, cut it into ribbons. The fallen chanter brought his hands back together then, and there were no more swords, but a heavy mace, and he slammed it into Teagan’s half-plate as if hammering on a bell, the flanges on the mace’s head cleaving through the armour as the sheer force of the strikes bent its plates inwards.
Before the overhead blow meant for Teagan’s close helm could swing down, Sigrid caught the head of her bearded axe around the fallen chanter’s elbow with a roar and yanked with everything she had left, her own helmet cracked and forgotten on the ground, a dark stain of blood pouring through her braided hair. A backhanded blow into her good shoulder with the flanged mace, and she tumbled to the ground again; the fallen chanter turned to face her, and the weapon in his hands dissolved into a mercurial surge again only to take on the form of a barbed spear, raised high to pin the sorceress to the ground—and fell from his hands as he seized up with a screech of torn metal, as a heavy broadhead fletched sheer red-and-black sank into the small of his back.
Cassandra nocked a second ghostload, and could swear she felt three pairs of hands come against her shoulders and push down as the fallen chanter hurled his spear at her; it clattered to the ground as she easily ducked underneath. A feather-light brush of fletching at the edge of her ear, and she pulled the trigger on her archery aid, the arrow striking the fallen chanter’s right arm halfway between the shoulder and elbow, demolishing the bone and sending the twisting metal brambles of armour splintering off. She nocked a third, and could swear there was a hand on her bow arm, gently correcting her aim, and loosed to shatter a chunk of steel off the fallen chanter’s left hip, throwing him to his knees and halting his jerky, slow advance towards her just like she had put his weapon arm out of commission. She nocked a fourth, and sound all through the cavern dwindled, the fallen chanter’s echoing roar of hatred and pain coming as if from behind a thick wall as she could swear another whisper rang in her ear the moment she pulled the arrow’s fletching to its edge—
—cattle die, and kinsmen die,
and so one dies oneself;
one thing now that never dies,
the fame of a dead man’s deeds—
—three voices singing a condemnation and a mourning and a furious rebuke as she loosed, and struck at the fallen chanter’s throat, and nocked a fifth, and loosed, and struck at where his heart used to be, and nocked a sixth, and loosed, and struck square between the flanged plates at his face now folding open and closed on their own volition as if to assist his laboured breathing, and reached for a seventh, and stayed her hand at the sight of the fallen chanter toppling onto his back, legs folding out from underneath him and head lolling to the side. And with a flash of spectral blue, the half-dozen arrows she had skewered him with crumbled into dust, leaving behind only piles of iron shavings and a scattering of trimmed griffincat flight feathers dyed sheer red-and-black.
There was a faint cough in the silence that followed.
“I am so done with magic,” Cassandra said weakly.
“Fuck me. Good work, though.” Sigrid pushed herself up onto an elbow with a hiss of pain. “Sound off, who’s alive?”
“I am,” Hanalei wheezed from where the fallen chanter had kicked him away.
“Ow,” Teagan croaked from where he was crumpled into a heap.
“I’d say I want to go home,” the Shank Rat whimpered from where had backed herself into a corner of the chamber, still behind Cassandra. “But this entire clusterfuck has been going on inside my home.”
Sigrid laughed breathlessly, and collapsed back to the floor for a moment—pain, relief, who knew what else—then picked herself up again into a sit. “Alright, on your feet, the lot of you. More Reds can still come at us from two directions now.”
Cassandra took her bow into her withered hand and turned around, extending her good arm to the bandit guide squeezed into the corner. When the Shank Rat didn’t move, just stared at her with terrified eyes, Cassandra shrugged and lowered the offered hand, and walked away from her to take a closer look at the fallen chanter’s remains, using the small jar of glowing ink as a lantern.
Plates upon plates of grime-covered steel, falling almost like folds of fabric when the light hit them just right. A stripe of dried blood and worse staining the front of the corpse from chin to waist, tiny shreds of muscle and sinew and offal and more caught on the now-still barbs and brambles sticking from the armour. Cassandra pulled at one of the flanges at his cheeks, and found that his mouth was opening in multiple directions all at once, the joint at each side of it no longer a hinge like an elbow or a knee but closer to a shoulder or a hip, and the lower jaw split at the bottom like that of a snake, the resulting maw capable of forming a nearly conical shape now. She tried to find someplace the helmet was separate from the face, some straps tied underneath the chin, some gap between the visor and the eyes. There were none to be found. The plume overtop the corpse’s helmet was as good as his own hair; the armour, barbed like the scales of a pufferfish, as good as both skin and carapace at once. She lowered the jar of ink towards the shattered hip she had struck with one of the ghostload arrows, and found that there was no exposed muscle, no bone splinters, no blood—only whorls upon whorls of banded metal, as if the fallen chanter’s body had been cast into a mould and yet layered from watered steel, all now torn up and twisted and broken into sharp-edged shards like so much earthenware.
Was that why he had been eating corpses, Cassandra wondered with a sick feeling, to remember what it felt like to have flesh and blood inside himself?
“Kazandra,” Sigrid called out to her, though not ungently. “There’s no need to do that.”
“There is for me.”
Sigrid grunted as her husband tied a dead mercenary's red scarf around the cut in one of her shoulders and laid her other arm in another scarf tied hanging off her neck like a splint. “Then I hope you’ve stared your fill, because we’re about to leave, and we need to be quick. Come on and help Teagan walk.”
Cassandra tucked the ink away again, and walked to the armoured veteran who still struggled to stand. Between her and Hanalei, who wasn’t straightening his back for his part, they managed to drag Teagan to his feet and drape his arms around their shoulders. Sigrid, meanwhile, picked up her signal horn from the floor where it had tumbled away during the fight, and helped Valdis stand with a grunt of exertion.
“Right, you lot start walking. I’ll give you a bit of a head start.”
“Sigi,” her husband said in a warning tone.
“If we want the Reds to start surrendering, we need to let the whole mine know who won this challenge.” Sigrid tapped a finger against the horn. “I’ll catch up. Get Tee outside, he can’t walk.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Teagan wheezed, even as Hanalei lifted him off of Cassandra, slung him over one shoulder, and gave Sigrid an unimpressed look. “I feel great.”
Sigrid gave a frustrated sigh, glaring at her husband. “Why did I marry you? You’re more stubborn than a mule.”
“You’d lose your mind with someone meek enough to never stand up to you,” Hanalei shot back dryly.
“Shut up, I love you.” The sorceress emptied her lungs with a huff, then drew a deep breath and blew the horn again with all the force she could muster. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
And so they ran, Valdis in front to lead them out this time, and frantically shoving them into a side tunnel to wait for a Scarlet Brigade squad to go past, twice, and running in front again as they panted and stumbled in the dark. A hint of firelight in the distance, and heavier shadows of piled-up barricades, and both Sigrid and the Shank Rat called out to the Coon Tail fire siphon crew before the group came within range and risk of friendly fire. With the news of the Scarlet Brigade captain’s demise, the three Coon Tails started withdrawing the fire siphon, pulling it out of the mine—and once outside, Cassandra hissed in pain against the bright, cloudless, early afternoon sky, and shivered when a gust of cold wind bit through her sweat-soaked clothes.
With the Shank Rats and Coon Tails, fire siphon included, setting up a bully circle around the exits from the mine to greet whatever remains of the Scarlet Brigade that would attempt a last stand or a surrender, Cassandra made sure to grab the first teenager she saw and send them into town for one of the clinic’s medics. The three veterans she had just fought alongside had set out in one of the communal cooking areas, and were taking stock: all of Hanalei’s and Teagan’s weapons were gone, as well as Teagan’s shield, and multiple sections of his armour were sundered and bent out of shape. Sigrid’s helmet was gone, as was her bow—broken when the fallen chanter had rammed into her and knocked her flat. As for injuries, Sigrid had a shallow cut across her scalp, a deep cut in one of her shoulders, and a fracture or full-blown break in the other; Hanalei, minor cuts and a few abrasions all over, as well as probably two broken ribs; Teagan, laid out flat atop Sigrid’s cloak after his friends had peeled him out of the mangled half-plate, and his multiple broken bones were being tended to by whoever it was that passed for a healer in these parts.
Maybe 'being tended to' was a bit of an overstatement, Cassandra had to admit with a wince and she heard the veteran yowl in pain again. “Fuck you!”
“I know how to work sheep, not people!” the Shank Rat next to him barked. “You want real help, find a real physician instead of complaining!”
“I sent some kid to the clinic for help,” Cassandra offered as she came by. “Stick it out until then, you’ll be fine.”
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” Teagan rasped to the sky, eyes squeezed shut in pain. “Isn’t that just the pinnacle of reassuring.”
Sigrid laughed a little despite herself, then pushed herself up to her feet again with a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Watch him for me?”
Hanalei made a come-hither motion at her with one mangled hand, and leaned his head up for a kiss. “Now I can do that.”
“Oh, you big baby.” Sigrid dragged a hand through his hair in an affectionate gesture. Then she looked at Cassandra, and motioned her to follow. “Come with me, you’re unhurt and there’s work to do.”
“Agreed.” Cassandra fell in step beside the sorceress. “Do I remember something about pyres?”
“You do, but that’ll have to wait until a work gang pulls enough bodies out of the tunnels. Let’s find Bernard first. And, probably, your warhorse.”
Cassandra grabbed the first Shank Rat they passed. “Hey, where’s my horse?”
“Oh, one moment,” the bandit stammered at the look in her eyes, and ran away as soon as she let go of their arm.
Sigrid snickered at the exchange. “Do you enjoy scaring them like that, or are you not doing it on purpose?”
“Is it too convenient if it’s both?” Cassandra asked dryly. Then shrugged. “I don’t enjoy scaring people, it’s just useful when they’re a little afraid of me. Keeps them from giving me trouble. I don’t need to make friends everywhere I go, especially if I’m just passing through like here.”
“I think it’s a little late for not making friends here,” Sigrid told her with a raised eyebrow. Then the corners of her lips twitched up again. “Then again, you don’t have to worry about Valdis trying to be your friend. At least not until she figures out that this axe—” she tapped her bandaged shoulder, “—was meant for her head, not my arm. You have good reflexes and a good nose for magic, from what I’ve seen.”
Cassandra ground her teeth, and pulled the three remaining ghostload arrows from her quiver to hand them to the sorceress. “Just take these back and don’t say any more.”
They found the Coon Tails’ leader still beside the fire siphon: in the sunlight, Cassandra could now see that Bernard was a Kotoan man with salt-and-pepper hair and deep brown eyes and a soot-smeared face, like the faces of both of his crew. While Sigrid was speaking with him, one of the Shank Rats streaming through the area led Fidella back to Cassandra, and she asked the mare about how they’ve been treating her to be answered with a snort that she took more seriously than the incredulous stares of the bandits around them. Before Sigrid and Bernard were done talking, a piercing whistle of alert went through the group encircling the exit from the mine, and a scared-but-steady voice called out everybody stay calm out there! we’re coming out! we’re not armed! before about two dozen haggard mercenaries with hands in the air and red scarves of the Scarlet Brigade wrapped around their necks exited to the surface. After a brief negotiation, an agreement was reached to let the Reds go, on the conditions that they would leave behind all their gear and all weapons but for a knife each and that they would not double-back to the mine or the town—a sentence barely short of an outright execution, Cassandra knew, especially when considering the season and the weather.
With being the only rider in attendance, Cassandra offered to keep an eye on the retreating mercenaries: just under fifty strong, if the term 'strong' could truly be applied to a band of empty-handed exiles trekking across the countryside. Visible as she was on horseback, she knew she was more of a scarecrow and a guarantee that they would indeed avoid double-backing towards Silberstadt, rather than a legitimate threat—and she did notice the Reds turning over their shoulders to check if she was still within sight, every now and then. Once, a few of them split off and started walking back towards the mine, so she nocked a regular arrow and very demonstrably shot in their direction, without dismounting or without aiming, a warning to stay away. And the warning of it was heeded, judging from how the mercenaries stopped, and turned on their heel afterwards to re-join their compatriots.
They were heading north, Cassandra noted with a frown as she followed them back to a road. The road that she would be taking, too, as soon as Owl came back. Maybe it would be prudent to stall for a few days more, and let them clear out.
She pushed the Scarlet Brigade survivors away until night took the sky, then turned Fidella around and rode back to the mine. There were significantly more people there now, as well as chickens and sheep that she’d seen a few weeks ago; the shelter at the top of the plateau must have been given the news already. There were significantly more bodies, as well, laid out in orderly rows and each field of them attended by a Coon Tail speaking to grief-stricken mourners. They were identifying the dead, Cassandra realized, and keeping a list of who they had lost in the fighting. But given how many of the Coon Tails—especially the older ones, and those who seemed to hold positions of leadership—were of clear Kotoan descent, perhaps that wasn’t really so surprising to see. Despite the late hour, work gangs were still hard at work: some pushing water-filled mining carts out of the mine, no doubt from a pumping station reused or hastily constructed to drain the flooded stopes, some hauling felled spruce trees into the area and preparing them for replacing the timbers that had been damaged in the fighting, whether by rot or by charring, the Coon Tails’ fire siphon no longer within sight. And for propping whatever tunnels that the Scarlet Brigade had dug out on its own, Cassandra supposed, as well as the newly-collapsed section where another fire siphon crew had been buried.
She didn't know how dangerous that cave-in would be to the rest of the mine, or how lasting the consequences would be. Briefly, she considered asking someone about it, but dismissed the idea quickly. There was nothing she would be capable of doing with the knowledge, anyway.
Snort, Fidella said, and tossed her head to indicate a direction when Cassandra looked at her.
“Oh, hello.” Cassandra smiled a little at the sight of Ramon’s old chestnut standing beside a thick tent set out near one of the communal cooking stations, and led the mare that way. Sure enough, she found the Kotoan spy inside—as well as Teagan, Hanalei, and Bruno. “The Reds are leaving, heading down the north road.”
“Probably going to try licking the boots of the Riddersbrug detachment until they’re adopted,” Hanalei said calmly.
“Probably,” Teagan agreed, still laying flat on his back, now with something more of a bedroll underneath himself.
Cassandra looked to Bruno, and gestured at the veterans. “These two gonna be okay?”
“Nothing life-threatening, but I don’t want Teagan moving yet.” The physician gave Cassandra a long look, incredulousness mixed with something not unlike awe. “And based on what I’ve seen on them and heard in camp, you are incredibly lucky to be alive, as well.”
“I think that every day,” Cassandra deadpanned, then looked to Ramon. “With two horses, we can hang a cradle between them to take Teagan back to town.”
The spy nodded. “Good thinking.”
“Sounds great,” Teagan offered from the ground.
Cassandra inclined her head to him, and turned to Bruno again. “Did you see Sigrid? She was injured, as well.”
“Yes, I did. She insists she’ll walk it off, even though I would beg to differ.”
“Where is she, anyway?”
“By the pyres,” Ramon said, and waved at Cassandra to follow him out of the tent. “I’ll walk you over.”
She waited until they were out of earshot of the others before speaking. “I hope this didn’t count as ruining your and Tara’s work here.”
“You like sticking your toes across firm lines, don’t you?” the spy asked her, not bothering to keep the frustration out of his voice. “At the very least, this wasn’t your idea, you just pitched in to help keep a few important community members alive. And the Scarlet Brigade is gone. So I’ll let it slide, this once. Though you certainly did make things harder on me in town, yeah.”
Cassandra winced. “I will be gone soon. In a week and a half, miss Tyson and I are leaving.”
“Good. Give it at least four months before coming back. Better yet, don’t come back at all, and not because I don’t like you.” Ramon dragged both hands through his hair in a tired gesture. “Anyway, I hear that congratulations are in order. Again. I hope your luck against suicidal odds holds true, knight-errant.”
Ramon gave her a nod, and split off as Cassandra walked towards one of the burning funeral pyres. There was a single figure of a woman before it, though seated in a rather sizeable wicker armchair, idly nodding her head from side to side as the sound of another sung spell coiled through the air, weaving between the crack of logs splitting in the flames. After a moment, the singing stopped, and Sigrid raised an arm to wave Cassandra forward without looking.
“Come on over.”
“I can see you’re busy,” Cassandra offered as she came to stand beside the sorceress, and folded her hands behind her back in a neutral posture.
“I’m exhausted. I need a break, anyway, and this’ll burn for a while with or without sustain.” The sorceress leaned back in the wicker armchair, the dressing at her right shoulder far cleaner and thicker now, the splint at her left heavier and sturdier. “Are the Reds leaving like they said?”
“Yeah, they hit the road and went north last I saw them. Hanalei says they probably want to join another detachment near Riddersbrug.”
“He’s probably right. Don’t tell him I said that.”
Cassandra rolled her eyes at Sigrid’s little smile. She wasn’t prepared, however, for Sigrid to turn to her and give her a genuinely concerned look.
“Are you doing alright? You spent a while giving that guy an awfully close look.”
Cassandra was silent for a long moment. “...I have a lot of uncomfortable questions.”
“Then I probably have uncomfortable answers,” the sorceress offered in a disaffected tone.
“I used to have unbreakable armour that I couldn’t take off, and a sword that could cut everything,” Cassandra said quietly. “Both afforded to me with an old and powerful magic of some description. I don’t... know where the difference lies.”
“Well, for starters, in the fact that we’re having this conversation. If you were a monster like him, you wouldn’t be able to think straight enough to reason with me anymore. Two, when a chanter goes wrong, they are no longer a magic user—they’re a twisted version of whatever fate they could have had beforehand, and they can’t do magic consciously anymore, just discharge it. Think building up static charge on a griffincat’s fur. Or act on whatever magic-augmented senses they have, like slayerwolves.”
“I don’t know what happens when you build up static on a griffincat’s fur. We don’t have those in Corona.”
“Right, I keep forgetting. Go pet Gadwall one of these days, and you’ll find out.”
Cassandra sighed. “You keep saying that monsters are only real if they used to be people.”
“Yeah. And each of us wakes up every day, and makes a choice whether to act like a monster or like a person,” Sigrid said calmly. “You aren’t special in that, Kazandra.”
“And if you were to turn, would you be as bad as that guy?”
The sorceress gave her a long look. Gentle. Almost sad. “No, girl. I’d be worse.”
“How much worse?”
“Incomparably. Got any more uncomfortable questions in you?”
“Well? Might as well ask, after the last one.”
Cassandra cleared her throat quietly. “Whose huskarl were you?”
Sigrid closed her eyes before looking away, a resigned expression on her face now. “How long have you known?”
“I’ve suspected since you showed me your dagger. Watered steel is rare, and expensive even where it’s accessible. Not to mention that the shrike head at the pommel has jewelled eyes.” Cassandra paused, and after a moment, decided to admit the rest. “But I wasn’t sure until after you told me that normal sellswords pass two or three trials, those in positions of command pass four, and you’ve passed five.”
“That’ll learn me to drink with strangers,” Sigrid muttered to herself. Then sighed. “I think the continental term would be marquis. The family holds land in a territory that borders some kingdom or other republic that’s outside of the alliance. I used to be one of the lady’s top retainers, so I was put on rotation for the personal guard of one of her sons. But then the young master died, and I... well, I didn’t. So there’s probably still an outstanding bounty for me under an oathbreaking charge in Ingvarr. Or some parts of Ingvarr, at least.”
Cassandra took that in with a frown. Murder and oathbreaking were the heaviest of crimes under Ingvarrdian law, and both usually answered with capital punishment. To level such an accusation simply because a bodyguard had outlived their charge seemed excessive, even to her. “What was his name?”
“I don’t get to say his name anymore, Kazandra.”
“I meant the noble family’s name. Or steading’s, I guess. I want to see Ingvarr someday, but if that’s how unreasonable the lady and lord are, then that’s a region I’m definitely going to avoid.”
Sigrid gave a hollow little chuckle. “And what makes you think that charge was unreasonable?”
“Just about everything you’ve shown me of yourself,” Cassandra said dryly. “You are liked here, and respected, and relied upon. Your husband and your friends defer to you immediately when there’s a leadership role to be taken. Your neighbours worry about you when you’re gone. You’ve been nothing but good to me, and fair—if infuriating, too, but I’ve had worse—and yes, you may avoid taking on responsibilities if at all possible, but I watched you step up and do the right thing every time it was needed. Besides, you’ve also told me that an oathbreaking chanter is a chanter who turns, and you are very clearly not—” she nodded towards the mine, where they had killed the fallen captain of the Scarlet Brigade. “—that. So if you used to be sworn to serve and protect an heir of some description, who then died while you survived, that means you’ve legitimately done everything you could within the confines of your oath to keep it fulfilled.”
Sigrid was silent for a long moment, staring into the pyre. Then she gave a small shake of her head, a pained look on her face now. “How was I supposed to keep that fuck-stupid, obstinate, idiot kid alive when he was actively sabotaging my efforts to do so?”
“You can say that again,” Cassandra murmured with feeling.
“What, same experiences?”
Rather than answer straight away, Cassandra reached into her breast pocket and pulled out the wanted poster of herself that she had been carrying there for three and a half months now, the portrait unmistakable despite depicting her still with turquoise hair and eyes, naming her both traitor and pardoned. “I betrayed an heiress I’ve been sworn to protect, partly because I was done with how she treated me. And partly still to protect her, because she was preventing me from actually doing that when I was at her side.”
“And now you’re her knight-errant,” Sigrid said slowly, staring at the gold-trimmed kerchief tied around Cassandra’s left bicep.
“And now I’m her knight-errant.” Cassandra took the poster back and folded it back into her breast pocket. “Things get complicated when people with power over us don’t acknowledge that power, huh? Or their off-handed use of it.”
“Don’t they just,” Sigrid sighed. “I really don’t know what to make of you.”
“Trust me, I don’t know what to make of me either.”
“What I do know is that I owe you now,” the sorceress said pointedly. “This was a lot, you do realize that?”
Cassandra shrugged. “I barely did anything. You just needed someone to shoot a few arrows. Anyone could’ve done—”
“Valdis was supposed to die,” Sigrid cut her off in a harsh tone. “I spent two weeks dreaming of this fight, trying to find the least costly resolution to it, and she died every night like clockwork. And then you showed up when I was chugging Bastian’s whiskey so I wouldn’t remember dreaming the same thing again, with that kerchief on your arm and that pendant around your neck and a ghost’s touch at your forehead, asking after when we were going to brute-force a solution to this shitfire of a gang war, because you wanted in on the action. Now you’re standing next to me, with that kerchief on your arm and that pendant around your neck, and you have no blessing of the dead on you anymore, but Valdis is going to sleep in a bed tonight, not in this pyre. Yeah, we could have done this without you. We could have done this with another person. But someone would’ve gotten hurt. Someone would’ve gotten killed. And now we’re alive, and none of us are injured beyond recovery, because you were here. Because you decided to involve yourself, regardless of that the fight wasn’t even yours. You scored a blessing from the Tysons for protecting their daughter, and you used that blessing to protect someone else’s daughter, too. You helped me keep those I care about safe, and do something that was my job, not anyone else’s.” Sigrid slowly heaved herself onto her feet, and opened her arms, if with difficulty. “So bring it in, you stubborn ass.”
Cassandra laughed a little, even as she stepped closer and allowed Sigrid to hold her. It was as firm as her handshakes had been, and as her entire demeanour, and with the same underlying tenderness she had exhibited through her decision-making: hard enough to stare down the worst horrors that walked the earth, warm enough to give the world at large and each of its myriad facets the reverence it was due. She hugged with the same strength that she hurled a javelin with, and she smelled of smoke and sweat and something sharp and unrecognizable that must have been the residue of protective magic she had sung for each of her group, and Cassandra caught herself on not wanting to let go just yet.
“If you find yourself in need as dire as this has been, call on me for aid and I’ll answer,” Sigrid murmured next to her ear. “And that, Kazandra, is a promise. Send your bird to find me and tell him to lead me back to you, I’ll worry about keeping pace and travel time.”
“You don’t need to bind yourself for me like that,” Cassandra protested weakly.
“Well, too late. And I will complain if you pull me far enough from home for it.” Sigrid patted her back—not patronizingly, thank goodness—before pulling away and holding Cassandra at arm’s length for a moment longer. “Get some rest. I’ll need you to keep watch on the Reds tomorrow, too. One more day, and then you can go back to the Tyson girl, and wherever you’re headed with her afterwards. Just make sure to hang around long enough to benefit when we go bother Bastian to roast us a duck and crack us a bottle.”