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Winter's Child

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The Palace of Facets was overwhelming and Maxim struggled not to show it. Frescoes painted in rich blues and reds surrounded the pillars and arched overhead, painted directly onto the gold that covered the vaulted ceiling. The colours were echoed in the clothing of the gathered court, making them seem a moving, breathing part of the artwork. Maxim brushed a hand over his own red and gold chuga for reassurance, thinking for a moment that it felt very strange not to be wearing chain mail over it, and then dismissed the thought. He flicked his dark hair back over his shoulder and stepped out firmly, passing beneath a vault with an interlocking pattern of gears around it, to reach one of the tables where appetisers had been spread.

“Have you stopped eating since you got here?” That was his cousin, Dmitry, sounding amused.

Maxim shrugged, swallowing his bite of pirog. “Makes a change from dried fish and oats,” he said cheerfully. The look Dmitry shot him for that was purely pitying, though, and he felt himself blushing. Angry, with himself as much as his cousin, he tipped his chin up haughtily. “What would you know, Mitya? You don’t serve.”

“Not military service,” Dmitry corrected, seeming more amused than offended. “There’s no shame in sending a proxy for that.”

“No shame in serving, either. If I am cold and hungry sometimes, it is for my Tsar.”

“An exemplary sentiment.”

Maxim turned to see who had joined their conversation and then bowed hastily. “Your majesty.”

The Tsar did not have the look of a large man, his face was thin, but he was bulkier under his kaftan in a vaguely unnatural way. Something his madboys had cooked up for him, probably, some kind of protection. “You are Maxim Ivanovich Zima? I have not seen you at court, before.”

“Yes, your majesty. I am… that is me.” Maxim looked away from the Tsar, flustered and delighted at being recognised, and saw Dmitry looking displeased. “I am here as a guest of my uncle, Evgeny Feodorovich Zima.”

“Come, walk with me.” Maxim followed, forcing himself not to skip a step to catch up. This was no place for childish habits that should certainly have been shed by sixteen. “You have been serving with my cavalry for the last year,” the Tsar said, voice resonant. “How are you finding it?”

“I am honoured to serve, your majesty.”

The Tsar smiled at him, an almost secretive smile that warmed the thin face with its neat beard into something charming. “I seldom hear that said with such sincerity.”

“I like it,” Maxim added frankly, thinking there was little at court he would be sorry to give up for an evening around a campfire with men he knew and trusted. The food, perhaps, and the attention of this man here. “I serve with good men. My second in command, Vasily Semyonovich Sokolov, has experience and helps me a great deal. I am grateful for all of them.”

“You have done well,” said the Tsar. “That was why I wanted to talk to you. I have an assignment, a difficult one I am afraid…”

“I will go wherever you want me.”

“The Polar Ice Lords are sending supplies to their fortress at Morozhenoye by mammoth. I need someone to disrupt this.”

“I’ve fought mammoths before. They’re not so bad, if your horse doesn’t panic.” They were huge terrifying beasts that had been a staple of Ice Lord armies ever since they’d dug a couple out of glaciers well-preserved enough to reanimate. They were also cowards, prone to running back into their own lines if their feet or trunks were injured. Cavalry taking them on wasn’t unusual, taking them on away from the main army with no back-up was riskier.

“Then you will take it.”

“Of course! I said I would.” Maxim remembered himself and bowed. “I will do as your majesty wishes.”

“Then I will send your orders when you return to service.”

Maxim accepted the dismissal and almost ran back to his cousin, finding, when he got there, that his uncle had joined Dmitry. “Uncle Zhenya, listen, the Tsar had a mission for me!”

Evgeny frowned. “Did you accept it?”

Maxim stared at him. “What else would I do?”

“Nothing, I suppose.” Evgeny looked over at where the Tsar was talking to a group of Boyars, expression hard and cold. “You should be careful.”

Maxim nodded. “He said it was difficult, but it didn’t sound so bad. Any fight is dangerous.” He couldn’t stop himself from smiling broadly. “He knew who I was and he thinks I can do it.”

“He has much more faith in your loyalty than in ours,” Dmitry muttered. He looked anxious, his earlier amusement gone, and Maxim found it was his turn to pity his cousin.

“I’m sure if you serve him well he will notice, even if you don’t fight for him,” he said.

Dmitry laughed, regaining his air of being far more adult than his cousin even at only a few years older. “Come on, Maxim. Let me introduce you to some of my friends while you’re here.”

The Palace of Facets seemed less intimidating, now, as Dmitry led him through its colourful crowds. After all, Maxim was welcome here.

The evergreen forest looked black against the blank, white sky. Nina was acting like she’d never seen snow before, flicking her hooves and trying to prance around drifts. Maxim wasn’t doing much to rein her in — she was as responsive in battle as she was wilful outside it and would stop her nonsense herself as soon as it was serious.

“Do you think it will snow?” he asked.

“Could do,” said Vasily, his own gelding plodding resignedly alongside Nina. “Not for a while, I think. Won’t be so bad if it covers our escape, but it’ll be hell to fight in.”

“We’d better attack as soon as we can, then?”

“It shouldn’t be a problem. Scouts said the mammoths were making good time.”

The sound of mammoths trumpeting in the distance rang out through the trees. Maxim tensed and Nina immediately straightened up under him, falling into an even-paced walk that crunched the snow under her hooves. Maxim turned in his saddle to look back at his men. “Vitya, go ahead and scout.”

Viktor’s horse trotted away through the trees, seeming to vanish among them. In the black and white day it seemed almost as if the strips of white were hiding the horse as much as the strips of black tree trunk. The rest of them continued to walk, Maxim straining his ears towards the sound of trumpeting and the thudding of mammoth feet that he was beginning to feel more than hear.

Viktor emerged from the trees in the same optical illusion fashion as he’d departed, drawing alongside Maxim. “Three mammoths, heavily loaded. One rider on each mammoth and a dozen guards on foot alongside each as well.”

“Thank you.” Maxim said, “We’d better split into three, if we only charge one mammoth at a time there’s a chance the riders can bring them to each other’s rescue.”

“Yes, sir,” said Vasily.

Maxim raised his voice, although not too much. The sounds of the mammoths were much closer now. “Vasya, Borya, each take a third of the men. Vasya, you take the second mammoth in the train, Borya, take the third, I’ll take the first.”

They split, gathering into the three groups, formation still loose among the trees. The horses sped up to a trot, Nina’s ears pricked intently forward, then to a canter, finally emerging onto the road at a full gallop.

The foot soldiers were taken by surprise, half of them on the wrong side of each mammoth. Maxim slit one’s throat in passing, turning his face away from the warm spray of blood. The mammoth squealed, alarmed by the commotion happening underneath it, and reared onto its hind legs. It blocked out the sky, the world was orange-brown fur, the heavy scent of musk, ear-piercing squeals. Nina’s ears went back, her flanks quivering, and Maxim took a tighter hold on her reins, bent down to talk into her ears, trying to settle her with one hand occupied with his sword.

The mammoth dropped back to all fours, its foot coming down so close to Maxim that the edges of its hair whipped across his face. He stabbed its knee, aware that slashing at it would foul his sword in the hair. It screamed again, starting to back away from him, its back legs already under attack by other men.

“Trouble above!” The voice was Viktor’s.

Maxim wheeled Nina about, retreating from the mammoth so he could see the sky. In the grey-white a shape almost the same shade was drifting towards them. It twisted in the air, ribbon-like and deceptively lazy, and dived.

“Ice wyrm!” Maxim wasn’t the only one to shout the warning, realising what it was just too late. “Retreat!”

There was no time. It mowed along the side of the mammoths, claws stretched in front of it as if to grasp. Instead they ripped through man and horse alike, leaving a wake of blood and entrails, a path of red against the snow. Nina tensed, muscles bunching in her hind legs, and the instant before its claws hit she jumped. It impaled her midair, a claw ripping through her belly. Maxim was aware of teeth larger than he was, a sunken eye socket, and then he was flying, white sky and white ground indistinguishable until he hit ice-hard earth.

Waking up hurt. At first it was only physical, bruises all over and a sharp enough pain in his chest that he was sure he’d fractured a rib. Then he stood, shaking and dizzy, to see the trail of carnage laid out in front of him again. Before, the world had been black and white, like ink on paper, now someone had added red paint with a careless brush. He should check for survivors, but he already knew there were none. Still, he stumbled towards them.

Death had brought none of them peace, blue-white faces were contorted with shock and pain. Maxim had seen people die before, but it seemed inexplicable, somehow, that it was all of them and so fast, as if the ice wyrm had been death itself come to take them. Reanimation, he thought, grasping unsteadily at hope. The brains were mostly intact… even though it seldom worked, especially with damaged bodies, even though he couldn’t take them with him… they at least deserved the chance of resurrection. He began to gather snow, packing it as tightly around each body as he could.

The ice wyrm wasn’t supposed to be there. This was wrong, something deep in his mind insisted. Not just a lost battle, something wrong. Bad information, the Tsar hadn’t known about the ice wyrm. But there were few ice wyrms and the amount of food they needed made it hard to hide where they were stabled. It was rare for one to show up in battle without the Russian forces knowing it could happen. For a three mammoth train, too. The supplies must have been much more important than he’d been led to believe. Not food, maybe some madboy thing. Had the Tsar not known?

Evgeny had told Maxim to be careful, had looked at the Tsar with eyes like ice. The Tsar did not trust the members of Maxim’s family that lived at his court, so why give a mission to a member of it he had never met before?

The Tsar had known. Had considered Maxim’s loyalty, his oath to serve, nothing more than a convenient means to an end. Maxim himself entirely disposable, a way to send a message by killing someone only just important enough to be missed. He had sent Maxim to die, he had sent Maxim’s men to die alongside him and there would be no revivification for them. Either the Tsar wanted them dead as well or he didn’t care.

”Why?” It came out more plaintive than anguished, the same inflection as when Maxim was a child and his father had beaten him for some infraction he was unaware of. He scrubbed away the tears that were starting to freeze his eyelashes together and tipped his chin up. “Fine, then. If you want me dead, you can think me dead, my Tsar. I will not serve someone who treats me as garbage, and I will not die because you want me to!”

He turned towards the west, clinging tightly to what courage he could find, and walked, hunched against the cold. After a while it began to snow.

The city states of Europa were always hiring mercenaries, Maxim found. If they considered him disposable, at least they made no pretence about it, and Maxim offered them no loyalty beyond what they paid for. Whether this particular Prince had paid him enough to be waiting outside a city for an army that was half nightmare, half force of nature was a matter of opinion, but Maxim saw no reason to refuse. Death had passed him over by chance, sooner or later it would catch up.

The shouting came first. “Ve hunt,” yelled as a call and response, tangled by echoes among the mountains until it sounded like the baying of hounds.

Maxim’s captain, Eliasz, shifted his horse forwards and ordered them to form up. He was an ex-hussar, eagle wings still tightly folded against his back for now, but Maxim had seen them flare out when the unit charged.

The shouts and laughter were getting closer and even from this distance no one could have mistaken the army for human. Not just because of the flashes of colour above each uniform where there should have been a pale face, but because they moved wrong. They loped along, heads held low like stalking cats, then suddenly their formation seemed to boil rather than flowing as they pushed and darted, trying to gather around someone who had called, and then they were flowing again, coming towards Maxim’s unit deceptively fast.

“Charge!” Eliasz shouted, bending over his horse, wings spread as if he were flying.

Wild laughter greeted them from the opposing army. “Charge dem beck!” someone shouted.

Most of the Jägermonsters weren’t mounted and Maxim had a moment to marvel at the stupidity of infantry trying to charge cavalry before the Jägers speeded up. They ran like the ice wyrm had dived, teeth, claws and onrushing death. Maxim’s horse balked, maybe sensing his fear or maybe pushed beyond its own limits, and he tried to urge it forwards even as his regiment broke up around him.

The second line of charging Jägers jumped, as if they’d decided to pounce on those ahead of them, the first line lifted their arms with a shout and launched them forwards over the already struggling cavalry. For a moment, in the air, they were beautiful, colour and wildness and absolute confidence combining into a feral grace. Then they were a grinning circle around panicking men and horses, closing in fast.

Claws raked Maxim’s side and down his arm, a sabre pierced his side. Looking up, trying to strike back against the tide, he saw the sabre was wielded by a mounted human, grin almost as feral as the monsters he rode with. The rest of the monster army swept past like a shadow, a man built like a bear dressed in the colour of wet blood at their centre. The attacking Jägers abruptly abandoned the slaughter and ran back to their army, pushing through their comrades to the man’s side as if they expected treats for the carnage they’d left. The foremost of the Jägermonsters were scaling the wall, now, still laughing and shouting.

Maxim closed his eyes as the army vanished over the wall, feeling warm blood welling from his side. Hands grabbed him and he yelled, hitting out, then opening his eyes when Eliasz swore at him. Eliasz’s wings were stained with patches of crimson and his hands were full of bandages. “Stay still,” he snapped, tugging Maxim’s shirt away from his side. “Those of us that can had better get out of here before they finish with the town.”

“Hmm.” Maxim looked over at the walls. Smoke was rising above them, staining the sky.

“Nothing we can do for them now,” said Eliasz. “Not that there ever was.” He was deftly winding bandages down Maxim’s arm now. “They’re hiring in Nadmuchywanygród and with any luck we’d be out of the Red Heterodyne’s path there. God knows where his brother is. You want to come?”

“No.” Maxim picked himself up and moved alongside Eliasz, looking for the next person who might be saved. “Thank you.”

“Got somewhere else to go?” Eliasz asked.

“Yes.” Maxim gestured to the city, to the screams and smoke. “I’m going with them.”

Eliasz recoiled. “I didn’t take you for that kind of monster.”

“I think maybe the world is a better place for monsters,” Maxim said. “It’s cruel, but at least they get to enjoy it.” He bent down to check a pulse.

Eliasz shook his head.

No one stopped Maxim from entering the Red Heterodyne’s camp. Maybe they didn’t notice him, maybe they just didn’t care. What could a lone saboteur do to Jägermonsters? Glancing around to get an idea of how Jägers acted when they weren’t attacking someone, Maxim wasn’t sure whether he was surprised or not. The raucous laughter in the air, the mingled smells of cooking and blood, the Jägers sprawled out on the ground with beer in hand, none of those were very surprising. The Jägers fighting weren’t surprising at all, except that two of them seemed to be having a very serious fight over a hat. Elsewhere a Jäger was sitting on the steps of a caravan working on an elaborate embroidery, while another lay on the roof of the caravan stealing the lamb shanks out of someone’s casserole with a fishing rod.

A row of horses were picketed together and Maxim absently paused to pat one’s nose, only to jump backwards when it bared teeth like a shark’s at him. Someone behind him laughed and he whirled. For a moment he thought the one laughing was human, blond hair flopping over a tanned face, then he grinned with teeth sharper than the horse’s.

“Here,” he said, rolling easily to his feet from sitting and pulling something out of his pocket. “Hyu vant to mek friends, giff him dis.”

He dropped something slimy into Maxim’s hand and Maxim took a moment to recognise it. “Bacon rind. Why would you have bacon rind in your pocket?”

“It koms in hendy.” The Jäger held bacon rind out flat on his own palm, the horse’s knife-sharp teeth delicately scraping it off.

Maxim huffed. “If I lose a finger I’m going to punch you.” He put his own hand out, carefully steady, and held his breath as teeth ran over his palm. It felt like shaving, razor sliding over his skin, then the horse pulled back and deigned to let Maxim pet its nose.

“Zo, hyu is new,” the Jäger said, scratching another horse’s rump with hooked claws while the horse made appreciative sounds.

“I came here to join you.”

“Oho, vere is hyu from?”

Maxim shrugged. “Nowhere.”

The Jäger leaned forward. “Hy smell blood,” he said. “Hyu von ov der guys ve chust beat?”

“That’s right.” Maxim folded his arms and looked the Jäger in the eyes. “So I’ve come to join the winning side.”

“Hokay, kom vit me.” The Jäger started away from the horses with a bouncing lope, forcing Maxim to trot to keep up. “Ve usually gets pipple from closer to home,” he added. “Villagers.”

“People you haven’t tried to kill?”

“Ho, no, ve try to kill dem all der time! But ve kom by odder times too, like shoppink. Zum haff great beer.” He skidded to a stop, the oddly square toes of his boots kicking up dust. “Here ve is!”

The tent was covered in so many golden trilobites you almost couldn’t see it was red. “The Heterodyne’s tent?” said Maxim, heart pounding.

“The Red Heterodyne’s tent,” said the Jäger. “Hyu vanna serve him, hyu gotta at least say hi. Iz polite.” Ognian pushed up the door flap. “Master Carmine, somevun to meet hyu.”

The inside of the tent was also red, and not with dye. Some of the enemy dead had evidently wound up here, and now they were strewn over a formerly white sheet while the Red Heterodyne worked on them from his seat on a cushion. Maxim avoided looking at the few faces that had been preserved.

“My Lord?” he said, tentatively.

The Red Heterodyne looked up. “Who are you?”

“Maxim. I wanted to join your army.” It came out a little too much like a question.

The Red Heterodyne chuckled. “Can you ride?”

“Of course. I’m trained cavalry,” Maxim said, the flash of pride and temper reviving him somewhat.

The Red Heterodyne reached out and grasped Maxim’s chin with bloody hands, tilting his face towards the light of a lamp hanging from the ceiling. “You talk like a Russian, but not a Cossack I think. So, one of the Tsar’s little noble horsemen.”

”No.” Maxim’s voice seethed with venom.

“So you want to serve with me.” The Red Heterodyne’s eyes were dark, something sparkling in their depths, and his voice was deep, soft, a voice you could sink into. But you might never emerge again.

“I want to fight alongside your monsters,” Maxim said. He was shaking and he knew this Heterodyne could feel it, could sense the man’s amusement.

The Red Heterodyne let go of his chin and ruffled his hair, streaking that with blood too. “Ognian, go and find our new friend a horse.”

Outside the tent Maxim swore and pulled out a handkerchief to try to wipe the blood out of his hair. The daylight was almost shocking, as if he’d been in there long enough to expect the sun to go down.

Ognian was laughing at him again. “Hyu iz a soldier und blood bothers hyu?”

“Shut up. It’s in my hair.”

“Oh noes, how terrible,” Ognian said, tugging on Maxim’s hair for emphasis.

Maxim snarled, “Get off,” and punched him. The wisdom of tussling with a Jäger didn’t occur to him until they were both on the ground. Ognian didn’t scratch, although Maxim did, and the brief scuffled ended when Ognian grabbed Maxim’s shoulders and pushed his head back against the ground just hard enough to stun him into going limp for a moment.

“Hy vin!” Ognian said, holding out a hand. “Goot fight, hyu is gunna fit right in.”

Maxim hesitated and then reached out. The hand that closed around his was clawed, muscled like knots in wood, and very warm.

As Langsambach came into view on the hill above them, Chort gave a little buck, registering his preference for going into battle unencumbered. The scaly beast was more dragon than horse and tough as a Jäger, so Maxim didn’t feel bad about putting a fist between his ragged ears by way of a reply. The walls of the town were white, but covered in so many vines heavy with large pods that the main impression was green, and no army waited outside to defend it.

“Looks like an easy one,” said Ion, one of the other humans in the regiment.

“Tch. Lettink schtuff grow on dere valls,” said Jurgis, scratching one of his hound-like ears absentmindedly. “Iz poor maintenance.”

A sharp drum beat cut through everything and the Jägers pricked up their ears. Maxim sat up straighter, too, feeling the excitement of a hunt about to begin. They were still advancing slowly, horses’ hooves beating just out of time with the snare drum.

“Ve hunt!” The cry came from near the Red Heterodyne and Maxim added his own voice to the response as the army surged forwards. Uphill the Jägers on foot outpaced the cavalry, bounding surefooted from rock to hillock across the uneven ground. The Red Heterodyne cantered forward with a shout of encouragement as the foremost reached the walls and one jumped to grab a vine.

The pods swivelled outwards, ends pointing at the approaching army, and then popped in a deafening staccato. A pea the size of a conker hit Chort’s side, scoring a furrow through his scales. A moment later another hit Maxim’s stomach and everything exploded into crimson pain. His grip on the reins slackened and Chort, deciding his rider was more than usually useless, bucked him off and charged uphill alone. Maxim curled into a ball as he hit the ground, more to avoid the hooves milling around him than because of the pain. Retreat was being sounded by the drummers and now he could hear the shouts of another army, bugle calls and human voices, hooves thundering downhill.

Someone snatched him up by the collar and dropped him onto their horse’s withers with one arm wrapped around him to keep him there. Maxim flopped against his rescuer and opened his eyes, expecting to see a Jäger, only to meet the dark, intense eyes of the Red Heterodyne.

“You have been messed up, little one,” he said. His fingers poked into the hole in Maxim’s stomach and Maxim wouldn’t have thought it was possible for it to hurt more but it did, it did. He heard his own choked scream as if from a distance and was left shivering, feeling vaguely unreal, as the Heterodyne pulled his hand away. He frowned down at Maxim. “Blessed fragile, humans,” he said. He swept his cloak around them both and twitched a fold of it into Maxim’s mouth. “Bite that and stay still.” His words rang with command and somehow, in that moment, obeying them was the most important thing in the universe.

The sounds of the battle around them were blocked out when the Red Heterodyne started to hum, a strange droning that somehow drowned out even the sound of Maxim’s own heart, his own blood in his ears. He bit down, biting back a whimper, as the Red Heterodyne jostled him pulling things from his own pockets. A needle and thread, what looked like a soldering iron, something glowing blue. Maxim clenched his fists as fingers probed his wound again, trembling wildly, but perfectly still. Should he be scared? The thought felt almost rhetorical, an intellectual exercise. He was the focus of a Spark, one of the most powerful and twisted Sparks in the world, deep in fugue, he was half-swooning and entirely helpless in a Heterodyne’s hands. Fear didn’t come, though. Perhaps it was resignation, the sense that whatever would be would be and there was no fighting it now. But why, with all the world shut out but him and this man, did he feel safe?

“There, all done,” said the Red Heterodyne, the sound of hoofbeats and shouts coming back with his voice. “Good man.”

Maxim opened his mouth and took a tentative breath, feeling the stretch and burn of the wound as he did. The Red Heterodyne flicked his cloak back behind him and the world was revealed, a hilltop across from Langsambach, the green city standing smugly on its hill with the silver spears and coloured pennants of its soldiers glittering as they made their orderly return to it. Around them on the hilltop Jägers churned and sulked, drooping ears and bared teeth broadcasting their feelings on defeat.

Maxim tried to sit up but still ended up mainly leaning on the Red Heterodyne’s arm. His stomach was a mess of thread, looking like a poorly darned sock, but it hurt so much less than it should. He should be dead. “You saved my life,” he said.

“You’re one of mine, I’d hate to lose you,” said the Red Heterodyne, quite matter of fact.

“Thank you.” The words were more breath than voice, and Maxim was forced to stop to hold back tears. Crying now would be both humiliating and painful and he couldn’t explain, not really, what he was thankful for. “Master.”

A hand ruffled his hair and then grabbed his collar and swung him down the same way it had lifted him up. Maxim swayed, trying to keep his feet under him, and suddenly another arm wrapped around him.

“Hullo, Ognian,” said the Red Heterodyne. “Go get your friend some water and see if he’s fit to fight after that. Better find him a new horse too. Then we’re going back there with flaming arrows. And weedkiller!” He sat up on his horse and bellowed. “Minions! Bring me hot oil and weedkiller!”

Maxim let himself be half-carried to the side of a fire where someone had uprooted trees to serve as benches, and gulped down water until he felt less fuzzy. Standing up still took effort, but he could manage. “We’d better find a horse,” he said.

Ognian gave him a look. “Hy dun tink so.”

Maxim glared back. “Master Carmine said. He wants me to fight.”

“Oh, so dot’s it. Vell, Hy heard Master Carmine say to vait und see und not vaste all his vork stitchink hyu op.” Oggie folded his arms and looked stern, but a grin was tugging at the corner of his mouth. “Und hyu vill get to fight for him plenty in der future. Since hyu is stayink for good.”

Maxim had to lean against a tree to stay upright at that point, which probably meant he’d lost the argument, although that didn’t mean he was going to concede it yet.

Still, Oggie was right. There would be more battles. There would be a place for him in all of them.