They crept up on the deserter as she gathered wood from the misty forest far below the craggy peaks of the Ice Thorn Mountains. Two muscled warriors, broad chests encased in shining bronzed plate, stout legs girded by skirts of spiked boiled leather, calloused fingers gripping swords with edges sharp as ice. The sun and star insignia adorned their silvery helms, marking them as soldiers of the Golden Dawn, the last remaining vestige of the crumbling eastern empire’s once mighty army.
“On the ground,” commanded the soldier in the menacing iron half-mask, the taller of the pair by a full head. His lilting provincial accent gave him away as a local, a westerner. He stood directly in front of the deserter, his mud-caked bear skin boots planted wide in the tangled ropes of felroot slithering through the thin blanket of morning snow, already half melted under the warm midday sun. His sword was poised high in two massive hands, its arched blade glistening in the hazy shafts of afternoon light piercing the bare-branched canopy. He glared at her with steely grey eyes as the other soldier crept around to flank her.
The deserter’s fingers bristled with energy, itching to wrap themselves around the hilt of the two-handed longsword strapped to her back. She set down her load of wood and pulled back the hood of her black cloak, away from her eyes. Beneath the cloak, the quilted padding of her grey aketon warmed her skin. The cloth armor was not as strong as their plate, but it was strong enough, and far more agile.
“What offense have I committed?” she demanded, pretending not to know.
“We’ll ask the questions,” growled the flint-eyed soldier. “On the ground, whore.”
The name was actually Karna. Of Mei’guol Province, on the low continent. Though she didn’t see how telling them so would do her any good. And she was in no rush to surrender. Being a Golem, an elite class of soldier more killing machine than human, she could move twice as fast as these provincial brutes and think faster still. If she so chose, their necks would be slashed, their corpses hidden, and her ass a long, safe distance down the Trader’s Road before her deed was ever discovered.
But Karna’s tongue was still bitter with the foul taste of human blood, and she’d sworn never to partake of it again. It hadn’t been long since she herself was a warlord’s pawn, just as these men assuredly were. In her former life, she had spilled blood like so much cheap wine whenever her lord grew impatient with maintaining the pretense of civilization and turned to war. And her lord, like most, was not long on patience. War was all she knew. She remembered nothing of her life before being initiated into the Golem at the age of seven. The twenty years since then were filled with nothing but violence. She could sum up her entire existence in three words: destruction, torture, and murder.
Karna did her best to keep those memories locked away, but something in the eyes of the lowborn provincial soldier standing before her brought them rushing back. Behind his cold hard glare, she sensed fear. It was always the lower castes that suffered the brunt of war’s bloody machinery, and bluster and bark as he might, this rural tough’s eyes held the hard truth of it. It was the same look she had seen in the eyes of the raggedy hordes of peasant soldiers as they rushed at the head of the vanguard, only to have their empty bellies split wide open in the first moments of battle. It was the look she’d seen on the filthy faces of those dead soldiers’ wives as they were burned out of their huts and spent their last gasping breaths in wide-eyed horror, watching their daughters raped and their young sons’ little bodies riddled with arrows for sport.
A sickening and senseless affair, war. Yet always it seemed people were ready for more. Bloodthirsty lords need only clothe their lust for conquest in the garb of tribal hatreds, and the commoners would rise up in a righteous fury, clamoring again for the slaughter. War was what people loved best, Karna had decided. Though they might disavow it in the light of day, when night came they rushed headlong to war like an old neglected wife stealing away to the bed of her lecherous young lover.
Karna deemed humans a hopeless lot, rivaled in their brutality only by their hypocrisy. She no longer wanted any part in either. So, nine months prior, she had deserted her garrison, stealing away from camp under cover of the new moon, then disappearing into the sweltering black of the Stranglevine Marsh. When she made her escape, she also made a vow: She was done with humans, and she was done with killing.
“Do as the man says, and just maybe you don’t get poked,” came the thin, raspy voice of the soldier to Karna’s left. Another local accent, even more rustic. A single generation removed from the peasantry, if that. “Though I can’t make no promises,” he added, shifting closer and jabbing at her with his sword.
This one wore no mask. He flashed a grim, tight-lipped smile, sending deep leathery creases all the way up his hollow, pocked cheeks to pinch at the corners of his watery eyes. His left nostril had been lopped clean off. In its place was a thick mangled scar that ran full across his bulbous forehead. Another scar, round and puckered in the center, marred his throat. He chomped on a twist of bitterleaf and leered at her in lickerish contemplation. “Let Valak know the wench is in hand,” he grunted at his partner, his wet eyes still fixed on her. He looked her up and down greedily, then spit a dark patch in the snow and stretched back his crusty lips to bare chipped and crooked teeth awash in the leaf’s brown juice.
The tall soldier shouted at the treetops: “Precept! She’s here! Bring the leash!” Brown Mouth winked at her and smiled again.
Karna’s jaw clenched. She glanced up at the storm front barreling down from the mountain’s icicle tips and cursed the weather. If it weren’t for this savage, interminable winter, she’d have already scaled those deadly peaks and descended into the trackless wildlands on the other side, where she would be free to live out the remainder of her days in solitude.
Instead, she had spent the better part of a month hiding out in a cave carved into a brae in the foothills that lay southwest of Shei’zen, the village at which these soldiers were likely garrisoned.
“No can go. Winter lingers late,” Te’tze of the Ank’hoen hill tribe had told her, screwing up his shiny crinkled face as he squinted at Druin’s Rise, the narrow, ice-covered steps that twisted a thousand feet up the sheer cliff that guarded the Ice Thorn’s only pass. “Wait one week. Then we go.”
So she holed up in the cave for a week. And then another. And then another. “Weather getting better. But winter still strong. One more week,” Te’tze had assured her just two days ago. But her bowstring had snapped, and she was out of food. She’d risked a visit to Shei’zen to replenish her supplies, hoping none of these westerners on the far-flung reaches of the empire would finger her for a deserter.
Given that she was cornered by Golden Dawn soldiers, it seemed that her hope was in vain.
Karna glanced down at the pile of branches at her feet and sighed. It had been risky to venture out in the open in the plain light of day, but it couldn’t be helped. That morning, an ominous swell of dark thunderheads had amassed between the stony, needle-sharp tips of the Ice Thorns. By midday, great grey shadows were charging down the perilous white slopes like a horde of wraiths. Though the warmth of the past two days had given her hope that spring had finally come, today’s sky told a different tale. A storm was closing in. A bad one. And her once tall pile of firewood had gotten low.
She was all too familiar with what could happen should the storm outlast her fire. While a scout on a long and bloody winter campaign, she and her unit had once come across a deserted woodsman’s cabin in a snowy glade. The place was stripped clean, with not so much as a hatchet or splinter of wood to be found outside. Stolen by the province’s own forces, most probably. Her commander ordered her to scavenge the cabin for loot. But there were no spoils inside, either. Only a frozen, blue-faced woman huddled in a corner, her icy fingers clutching a small child, dead like her and turned ghastly white with frost. They’d killed the husband, no doubt, but left wife and child alive. What a mercy! she had thought, ruefully. As a Golem, she wasn’t supposed to be affected by such things. She wasn’t supposed to feel. But she couldn’t help it. The grisly scene chilled her to the bones, though she knew well enough to conceal her dismay.
A shrill voice cut through the forest, pulling Karna from her memories. “This way, you witless beast!” it shrieked.
Behind the towering soldier, a thick stand of reeds, taller even than he, rustled and swayed. From within the brush came the sound of heavy footsteps and snapping branches.
“On the ground!” yelled the tall one. “I won’t ask again!” He inched closer, his sword still held aloft in two hands.
The traveler studied the two soldiers. Their snarling scowls and upraised swords suggested they were ready to hack her to bits at any moment. But did they really mean it? Her lord wanted to execute her himself, so he’d put out a rich bounty for her safe return: one hundred golden suns. Maybe the soldiers knew about the reward, and they planned to send her back to her lord. In that case, there might be an opportunity to escape on the long journey back. Or maybe they didn’t know about the bounty and had other plans for her.
A squat fat man appeared within the high tangle of brush behind the soldier. An ornate scabbard hung beneath his potbellied middle, but he wore no armor over his bulging yellow tunic and sable-trimmed cloak. His nose was wide as a boar’s, and he sweated and wheezed and cursed in a high grating voice at a third soldier, a hulking behemoth who hacked at the thickets with his sword to clear the way for his porcine master.
“Precept Valak!” the other two shouted, lowering their heads in deference.
Breaking free of the hedge, Valak barged up to her pompous as an emperor, hurling a litany of insults: demon, whore, witch. He even threw in murderer, for good measure. Deserter wasn’t mentioned, but perhaps this ill-tempered, loose-jowled shrew was just taking his time getting around to it.
“Shackles!” Valak shouted, sounding more like a crowing harpie than the fearsome overlord he obviously fancied himself to be.
Valak’s mammoth guard shook his blade clean of sprigs by knocking it against his legs, thick as blackwood trunks and just as strong by the look of them. His bushy mustache and beard were peppered generously with flecks of silver, like the pelt of a grey bear. Where it wriggled free of his top knot, his matching hair fell in long wild straggles to rest atop his enormous shoulders. He sheathed his sword and wiped the sweat from his brow with the backside of a colossal arm, muscles as hard as if they’d been chiseled out of solid granite.
“Now!” shouted Valak.
Grey Bear quailed, then rushed to pull a set of chained iron cuffs from his belt, handing them to Valak with thick trembling fingers. Valak ripped them from his hands.
“You’ve accused me of many things,” said Karna. “But I’ll need more than mere insults before I let you cuff me with those irons. What are the charges?”
Valak scoffed. “On the ground, witch.”
Karna searched his eyes. They blazed with the haughty self-assurance of the highborn, yet behind their fiery arrogance she saw not even the faintest flicker of refinement or intelligence. She knew the type well. In her warring days, she had served under many such men: the idiot sons of the rich. Tangling with their kind was best avoided. Despite their incompetence, they could be surprisingly dangerous. Their hubris and stupidity often rendered them reckless and unpredictable.
“Come with us alive or dead. Your choice,” Valak said, glowering.
She stood her ground. She would not forsake her vow. No matter the cost, even if it be her own life, never again would she extinguish the light of life from another human soul. The very thought of it sickened her.
She could flee, but even if she somehow outran them all and made it back to her hideout, the cave was so close by that they were bound to find her there. And even if they didn’t, the storm was fast approaching. If she holed up in the cave now, without more firewood, she risked freezing to death.
That left her with only one option aside from surrendering and waiting for a chance to escape later: disable the soldiers without mortally wounding them. Given that she was outnumbered four to one, doing so would be difficult, though not impossible. But that would leave them alive to tell the tale. News of such a feat would burn through this wooded realm like wildfire, bringing on a mob and forcing her to flee up the Ice Thorns alone in the midst of the storm. That wasn’t a solution. It was a death sentence.
“Take her!” Valak shouted.
The three soldiers moved in together. Karna backed away. Grey Bear stepped in. With both hands, he cocked his sword back to striking position, his breath slow and steady, his eyes hard and sure. The arching blade winked wickedly in the forest’s cold light.
Kill, die, or surrender. Choose now, or the choice will be made for you, the blade seemed to say.
She gazed up at the Ice Thorns, their proud stone peaks soaring above the roiling thunderheads. Such a beautiful world. Yet its splendor always seemed to evaporate in her grasp.
“I yield,” she said.
Karna lay down in the snow and mud, muttering curses. Two continents she’d traversed. With a price put on her head for abandoning an existence she’d never chosen, for committing the heinous crime of rejecting death as a way of life. Nine torturous months of crawling through jungles teeming with deadly creatures great and small, of stumbling desiccated and delirious over endless scorching flats, of traveling by night and sheltering under brush and in rotted tree trunks and in the clefts of rocks. Nine months of hunger, thirst, fever, and cold, all of it gladly endured for the privilege of risking her life yet again crossing over the treacherous Ice Thorns and plunging herself into the solitary, forbidding wildlands. A lifetime of suffering traded in for the modest prize of being left alone to live and let live, for the pursuit of simple freedom. And yet it seemed too much to ask. As if the world itself, sensing she stood on the cloudless cusp of liberation, had conspired to drag her back down into the bloody mire of petty human squabbles. Was it too much for even a single soul to be free? Was it preordained that every last life be ruled by hatred, fear, and violence?
A hollow desperation settled in her bosom as the soldiers relieved her of the longsword she kept strapped to her back. She pushed it away. No. It was not too much to ask. She was not some deluded mystic, clutching at ghosts. She would find a way to escape. She would break out of whatever hell hole Valak was taking her to, and she’d ascend Druin’s Rise, alone if need be. She would do it as soon as the storm passed. If that proved impossible, she would escape from wherever they might send her, whether to serve as a slave in a labor colony or as a conscript in one of their own armies. And if they sent her back to be executed by her lord, she would escape on the long journey east. Whatever their plans for her, it did not matter. She would not relent. She would hold to her vow, and she would break free, once and for all, from the loathsome, war-torn realm of man.
Cold iron clamped around her wrists as Valak secured the arm shackles. The left one grinded against the smooth round obsidian stone embedded in her wrist’s underside. She stared at the token, black as night and set with three tarnished bronze claws rooted in her arm bone. Valak and his men must have seen the odd piece of jewelry, but they made nothing of it. Didn’t they know it was the mark of the Golem? If not, all the better. The less they knew of her capabilities, the more likely they were to be careless.
Heavy iron fetters weighted down her ankles and a rusty iron collar snapped around her neck, its cold hard edges digging into her collar bone as Valak yanked it and let it drop.
“On your knees,” he growled.
She got her legs beneath her and rose to her knees, focused on the promises she had made to herself, silently reciting them like incantations. She would escape to the wildlands. She would be free. Valak stared down at her and roughly clipped a chain to the collar. The certain pleasure he took in doing so did not escape her notice. She did not care. She would be rid of him and the rest of his kind soon enough.
Without a word, Valak spun around and waddled away. She tried jumping to her feet but was tripped up by the shackles around her ankles. He was seven feet away when the chain grew taut and yanked her face-first back into the muck.
“Now’s not the time for waving your ass about in the air like a bitch in heat,” said Brown Mouth, his hoarse laughter scarcely louder than the leaves rustling in the breeze. “But don’t fret. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.”
Karna stifled a laugh. Go ahead and try. I won’t kill you, but I’ll leave you wishing I had.
She struggled to her feet and scrambled after Valak as he tramped through the thick wood. The bulky chain between her ankles made it difficult to keep up. She took short, shuffling steps, the chain rattling over felroot vines and dragging a trail through the leaves and mud and melting snow.
Grey Bear found the tree line and they stepped out of the wood onto the brow of a high escarpment. After crossing a narrow clearing teeming with ankle-high ice thistle, they stopped at its stony ledge. The day’s last light beamed down on Karna’s neck and back, melting away the chill that had penetrated her cloak and aketon. She turned to let the sun warm her face. It hung low in the western sky, a hazy blood-red glow slowly disappearing behind the Ice Thorn’s stormy crags.
She turned back and looked down. Far below the ridge where she stood, the muddy Trader’s Road wriggled free from the shadowy fringes of the Witches’ Wood to the south, then ran straight north toward The Frozen Sea, the uncharted ice sheet that marked the known world’s upper edge. She squinted out over the icy plain. It stretched all the way to the ends of the earth, where it finally got swallowed up by the dark horizon. Closer in, the skies above the ice brooded in the gathering gloom, the storm having already skirted the scraggy teeth of the Cape of Thorns, where the last rocky vestiges of the frozen mountain range finally succumbed to The Frozen Sea. Her eyes drifted back to the sheer cliffs on the frozen coastline. Just before them, the Trader’s Road forked right, leaving a narrow hedge of towering blackwood trees standing at stiff attention, like a column of pikemen between the realms of ghosts and men. Karna’s eyes followed the line eastward to the road’s end. There lay the village of Shei’zen, where the soldiers were no doubt taking her.
“Move!” squealed Valak. He planted his foot on her ass and gave her a shove.
Taken by surprise, she stumbled off the ridge onto the steep embankment below. She nearly kept her feet, but her ankle chains hooked around a stump, and she went hurtling into the scree and briars. Valak and his men jumped down after her, bellowing with laughter.
Humiliation was what they were after. Humiliation and fear. Well they weren’t going to get it. She had never been taken prisoner before, but she was no stranger to being treated as less than human, a soulless tool existing only to satisfy the ruthless ends and base desires of others. She was, after all, a soldier. And not just any soldier, but a Golem: trained from childhood that she was nothing, that the very purpose of her life was to give up her life, and to take the lives of others, all for the greater glory of her betters. Though she couldn’t remember much of her early training, she’d learned the lessons all the same. Learned them and then unlearned them. Mankind’s cruelty could no longer tarnish her sense of dignity. The only shame she felt was for the human race itself.
Hands scratched and bleeding, she picked herself up and clambered down the steep rocky foothills with Valak in tow and the soldiers at her flanks. When they spilled out onto the Trader’s Road, Valak took up position to her left, leading her with the leash as Brown Mouth and the tall one covered her right flank. Behind her, Grey Bear’s heavy footsteps made loud sucking sounds in the narrow road’s mucky red clay.
From the north came the low rumble of thunder. Valak had commanded her to keep her head down, but she didn’t care. The natural world was her solace, and she wouldn’t be denied. She looked up from the rusty earth beneath her manacled ankles to gaze into the bitter wind blowing in from The Frozen Sea. Just beyond the cliffs that plummeted to the icy shoreline, inky smudges darkened the sky. Soon, the bloodwine glow overhead would give way to soft grey hues and the gentle first rains of the storm. A sense of tranquility washed over her. Despite her temporary enchainment, she liked it here in the northwestern provinces, where the sun was made to play supplicant to the gods of snow and rain.
In the great cities of the southern continent, where she was from, the sun exercised sole dominion. There, she had been tortured year-round by the sun’s scorching heat and blinding light. The relentless barrage was a scourge on her soul, a spiritual plague that hurled her into a brittle and frenzied state, aggravating the brain fever that had afflicted her as far back as she could remember. Though the biting cold and drizzling grey of these provinces did nothing to restore the lost memories of her childhood, they did bring some relief. Somehow, the stormy weather soothed her. It slowed things down, restoring clarity and calm to her unquiet mind.
“Head down, witch!” Valak shouted, yanking sharply on her leash. The heavy iron collar bit into her neck and she lurched sideways, nearly running into him. He looked like a fool, parading down this sloppy backwater road in his mud-spattered sable cloak, left open to flaunt the Golden Dawn’s sun and star insignia on the breast of his brilliant yellow robe. Behold the mighty Precept of Shei’zen, shit hole outpost in the dustiest corner of a dying kingdom.
Dark clouds blew in from The Frozen Sea, washing the world in grey. She slowed her pace, so that she walked just behind Valak. Again, she looked up at the sky. Her foot slipped into a rut in the road and she stumbled over her chains, yet she kept her head turned upward, waiting.
At last came the first droplets of rain, sprinkling her face like a benediction. She raised her hands, bound close together by her rusty iron fetters, and opened her palms to receive it. Her cracked, dusty fingers drank in the water thirstily. Closing her eyes, she listened. Beyond the clank and rattle of her bonds, raindrops pattered on outstretched leaves, high grasses rustled as fauna scurried for cover, the rising wind combed through swaying treetops with a pleasant swish.
The gusts grew stronger, soaking her with driving rain. Heavy drops ran down her scalp to glide between her shoulder blades, then rushed like impassioned fingers along the length of her taut, muscled back. She breathed deep, savoring the fresh, mellow fragrance of wet earth, laced with the berried scent of the surrounding junipers and, beyond them, the spicy brine of The Frozen Sea. She exhaled slowly, letting the deluge pour over her like a tonic.
“Keep pace, witch!” shrieked her squat gaoler, jerking her leash to pull her closer. As if to emphasize his point, he balled up his short, fat fingers into a tiny fist and punched her in the back of the head.
The blow was too feeble to cause much pain, but her reverie was shattered, the gentle ebb and flow of tranquility boiling into anger. Her eyes narrowed to thin slits, but her head stayed turned to the heavens. She squinted down at Valak. From his belt hung his curved scabbard, lacquered in deep, glossy red and adorned with delicate white tracery depicting a raging sea battle. The sword’s handle was long and wrapped in cords of rich red silk, weaved in a pattern that left a line of open diamond shapes running up its center on both sides. A vision flashed in her mind: She saw her wet fingers wrap tight around the sword’s grip, saw the blade slide lightning quick from its scabbard, then saw herself plunge it hilt-deep into Valak’s rotund belly.
But she reminded herself of her vow. Never again would she take human life, even a life as miserable and base as Valak’s. And though she could easily knock his stubby legs out from under him and send him face-first into the mud without doing serious harm, she knew that would not help her cause. She needed to act strategically.
“I said to keep your head down!” Valak drew back his tiny fist once more, winding up to strike her again if she did not do as told.
A display of weakness would be the best move, she decided. She bristled at the thought of giving this vile coward what he wanted, but if she could goad these men into underestimating her, perhaps they would become careless and place her in a situation that afforded opportunity to escape once the storm passed. No need to overdo it. Just enough to be convincing. She flinched and feigned a pathetic whimper, then bowed her head low in submission.
Valak harrumphed and puffed out his chest, then said something to his men in the local dialect, which she did not understand. Brown Mouth and the tall one gave a loud round of laughter. She had been trained to guard her authority, that to let mockery go unanswered was to invite trouble. But once more she silently recited her vow and pushed thoughts of retribution from her mind.
By the time they reached the western fork of the Trader’s Road, night had settled, and the storm was steadily whipping itself into a frenzy. Karna shivered, fixing her gaze on the rusty, rain-spackled fetters that bound her hands, looking for points of weakness but finding none.
The round obsidian token on her wrist flashed, as if suddenly energized with life. A deafening thunder clap rattled earth and sky.
Fighting the impulse to look to the heavens and watch the dance of light and dark taking place there, she took a deep breath and centered her concentration, focusing on the moist tendrils of her short black hair brushing across her face and neck like a lover’s wet kisses.
Above the fierce refrain of wind and rain she heard the hellish howls of The Frozen Sea. The ghastly shrieks and groans were a constant presence on the ice itself, but at night the bloodcurdling clamor grew so loud that she could hear it as far south as her cave. The freakish chorus grew to a fever pitch at the witching hour, haunting her dreams with troubling visions.
“Curse that damnable ice,” Brown Mouth said. “Lived here all my life and never heard it wail with such ferocity. So loud it keeps me up nights!” he spit into the rainy darkness.
“Better to lie awake than to suffer the dreams it brings,” put in Grey Bear, his voice deep and somber.
Brown Mouth had a wheezy laugh at that. “Having nightmares are we, big man?”
Grey Bear nodded ponderously.
“Sophisticated easterner like you, frightened on account of the weather, like some gullible little girl? Perhaps we should cut off this witch’s tits and hang ‘em on you.” Brown Mouth stretched back his lips in laughter, but the wispy sound of his voice was carried away on a gust of wind and rain.
“Take her tits if you like;” said Grey Bear, the crassness of the words clashing with his solemn tone, “but insult me again, and I’ll sever your puny cock and feed it to you.”
“Don’t get your uppity eastern ass all puckered,” said Brown Mouth. “Them noises are due to the late winter. Once spring finally comes, they’ll quiet down and you’ll be sleeping like a baby.” He spit into the wet again.
“I’m no easterner, you provincial rat, and those aren’t noises. They’re no trick of the weather. They’re voices,” Grey Bear said, his voice low but strong, like rumbling thunder. “They carry a hidden message, and through my dreams I’ve divined its meaning.”
“You’ve divined a bag of shit,” Brown Mouth said.
“Every night for the last month, the haunt has come to me,” said Grey Bear. “A faceless man in robe and hood, floating over The Frozen Sea, chanting black prophecies of a monstrous sea beast coming to wreak destruction from beneath the frozen tides.”
Karna’s skin prickled at Grey Bear’s words. Ever since making camp in her cave at the base of the Ice Thorns, she’d been beset by the same dream. Not every night, but far more often than she’d liked. Grey Bear seemed different from the other soldiers. His accent was almost southern. Perhaps he came from the low continent, like her. Perhaps there was something similar in their backgrounds, a legend or myth that could explain the uncanny similarity of their visions.
“It’s the Shadow Monk,” Grey Bear continued. “Come to warn us of Asha’kulei’s return.”
Karna searched her mind. Neither the Shadow Monk nor Asha’kulei meant anything to her. Whether they wandered in rooms behind the sealed doors of her lost memories, she couldn’t say.
“It’s an omen alright,” put in the tall soldier, heavy drops of rain pelting his armor. His tenor voice cracked and wavered where Grey Bear’s was sonorous and sure. “Not from the Shadow Monk but from the abandoned ancient gods. A fool thing it was for us to turn our backs on the Blood Lords,” he grumbled. “They’ll have their retribution yet. Those greedy bastards in the east will suck this province dry until the people rebel. Then those eastern fucks will use the rebellion as an excuse to drown us all in our own blood!”
“I could put you to death for those words!” Valak roared, stopping and jabbing a stubby finger in the man’s face. “The lord of this province has sworn allegiance to the Holy Emperor, and you are now pledged to the East, a soldier of the Golden Dawn! You have been redeemed from your life of idolatry and ignorance to serve the Paladin and the Matron!” He glowered at the other men. “That goes for all of you! Asha’kulei. The Shadow Monk. The Blood Lords. All of it nothing but superstitious ghost tales! I’ll not hear another word of your treasonous blasphemy!”
Karna studied Valak. Swollen raindrops ran down his plump face like beads of sweat, then fell from his jiggling, meaty jowls and got swallowed up by the night. In his eyes, she saw uncertainty. She saw something else, too. Fear. Raw and black as the brackish depths of The Frozen Sea itself.
The resumed their trudging march toward the village. Again, the world came alive in a blinding flash. The lightning lit up the decrepit wooden town gate, a hundred feet ahead. She looked back at Valak. What did he have planned for her beyond it?
Thunder roared. Frigid rain poured down in thick sheets as the wind whipped at her flesh like a cat o’ nine tails. Against her back, where her sheath and sword should be, there was only cold weightlessness.
The soldiers pressed tight around her as they passed through the town gate and entered a small muddy square littered with a jumble of ramshackle shops and tumbledown cottages, a pair of squalid inns, and a weathered old tavern whose tilted frame quaked with the riotous clamor of drunkenness. A crowd of onlookers took to the porches, braving the squall to gawk at the prisoner. Their pale faces wavered in the dim yellow light of the lanterns that swayed from the upswept eaves of the battered, swooping roofs.
The mob cursed her as she shambled by.
“That blackcraft whore seduced the soul of dear Kai’zun! Quarter her!” yelled a stout middle-aged woman in a blood-stained apron. She stood with a gaunt, handsome-faced man outside a butcher shop, waving a cleaver in the air.
“Fire the cauldron!” put in Old Man Hu, the keeper of the Golden Swallow Inn, where Karna had indulged herself with a steaming pot of sharkfin stew and three flagons of warm rice wine on her last trip to the village. He teetered before the inn’s doorway, shaking a bony fist and drawling like a drunken cat. “That fox spirit’s foul energy defiled my inn! It’ll stay unclean ‘till she’s bathed in fire!”
“Don’t listen to that ignorant Rue toadie,” shouted another man, waving off Old Man Hu. “The witch is in league with Ak’ho! Sever the head from the body, so Ak’ho can’t resurrect her. Behead the blackcraft bitch! For Shiori and Rumi and the others taken by those Shadow Temple ghouls!”
Karna tried to conceal her shock. When Valak had called her a witch, she’d taken it for mere insult. But these provincials sounded serious. Arrested not for desertion but for witchery? The prospect was deeply troubling. As a deserter, she would likely be conscripted or sent back to her lord to face execution. Either way, there would be opportunity for escape. Accusations of witchcraft were an entirely different matter. In that case, what reason would they have to keep her alive? For all she knew, Valak could be leading her to the executioner now.
A long-legged youth burst from the door of the tavern. A portly woman wrapped in a serving apron shouted after him, but the boy disappeared into the mob, scuttling from porch to porch until finally squeezing next to a pretty girl standing alongside Old Man Hu. The girl wore a white fox fur cloak over a downy winter smock, a ribbon of her black hair tucked back with a white flower shell comb. The boy’s clothes were shabby, and though his face was handsome, it was smudged with dirt. He leaned in and whispered in the girl’s ear. She giggled. He stepped off the inn’s porch, dug through the plaza’s sludge, rooted out a jagged stone, and hurled it at Karna.
She watched it sail through the air. A show of weakness. It’s your best chance. The boy’s aim was sure. One more step and she’d walk right into it. She let it come. The stone struck her square on her crown.
The boy turned back to the pretty girl, howling in triumph and flexing his scrawny muscles. The pretty girl covered her mouth with both hands and giggled again.
A warm trickle of blood ran down Karna’s head, pooling in her eyes and blurring her vision. As a Golem, she was resistant to pain, but not immune. A dull throbbing claw wrapped itself around her skull and squeezed. She made the most of it, whimpering and moaning in feigned agony, clutching her head, smearing the blood across her face, performing for Valak and his men, knowing her chances for escape would be multiplied if they took her to be soft.
Valak froze and threw her leash into the mud. “Assassin!” he screamed, turning toward the crowd.
At the sound of Valak’s voice, the boy spun around. The rain came down on him in buckets, soaking through his bedraggled shirt and breeches, pasting them to his bony frame. His expression had turned from triumph to terror.
Valak pushed toward him like a wading bear.
Karna stared down at the leash through bloody fingers. It lay at her feet, on a patch of sodded snow. The soldiers left it alone, but when Brown Mouth thrust the tip of his sword to her neck, the other soldiers followed suit.
“Stay put, wench,” he said. “I’d hate to have to poke you in front of all these decent folk.” He spit and smiled his filthy smile. He and the other soldiers had her surrounded. If she moved an inch, her neck would be cut to ribbons.
Behind the youth on the porches, the villagers backed away, leaving him isolated.
Valak stormed up to the boy, hurling accusations of treason, his neck and face burning dark red. The boy took a step backward, then another. On the third step, he backed into an awning post and froze. Two doors down on the left, in front of the entrance to the Golden Swallow Inn, the girl clung to Old Man Hu, her pretty face twisted in horror.
Valak pressed his fat body against the boy, spitting curses and death threats. Because he was short and the boy tall, Valak was forced to look up. The boy’s eyes were wide with fright, but he dared not speak.
“Now you will see what happens to treasonous infidels!” Valak shouted, his eyes wild with rage. He brandished his sword, a sleek two-hander with an arching single blade. Unlike his mens’ blades, which though sharp bore the mars of battle, Valak’s was pristine. It twinkled in the moonlight like a trophy. At the sight of it, the boy’s whole body trembled.
The pretty girl’s eyes had gone swollen and wet. She looked up at Old Man Hu with pleading eyes, imploring him to intervene.
Karna could hardly believe what was happening. The boy was a fool, but no killer. She marveled at Valak’s pathetic bravado, hoping that’s all it was, hoping that the craven bully didn’t actually intend to seriously harm the child.
Valak lowered his sword to the boy’s neck.
“Please sir, forgive me,” the boy managed to squeak out through quivering lips. “I … I wasn’t aiming for you, sir. The black witch … I—”
“Rue liar!” Valak shrilled. His eyes narrowed to thin slits. “I’ll hear your confession before you die,” he hissed, nudging the blade’s tip against the delicate skin of the youth’s throat.
The boy pissed himself. Steam rose up from his crotch, then crept down his pant leg until bright yellow drops fell from his high hem to the sodded snow at his feet.
Valak burst into tittering laughter. The soldiers japed and jeered.
“Tremble before the pee-pee assassin!” cried Valak, his impish cackles echoing through the square. His men roared and hooted. Some of the villagers joined in, too.
“Yeah! Tremble ‘afore the pee-pee assassin!” parroted Brown Mouth, his lightless, droopy eyes glimmering dimly.
Karna fixed her eyes on her sword, its hilt peeking out from her box sheath, which Brown Mouth now had strapped to his back. To get at it, she’d first need to do something about the sword that Brown Mouth was pointing at her throat.
She looked back at the boy. He stared down at the ground shivering, rain and tears smudging his dirt-stained cheeks. Seven years of nightmarish memories came flooding back. Dead bodies littering the landscape, ravaged and bloated beyond all recognition. Men screaming in agony, begging for death. Women and children burned and beheaded. Anger boiled in her belly. She had seen enough of the horrors of war. She would not allow this to happen. She would not stand by and let this feckless, backwater tyrant murder a defenseless child. She hadn’t become a hunted deserter and snuck across two continents only to be party to more barbarism.
She turned her eyes back to the swords at her neck. If she waited another moment, Valak was going to slash the boy and leave him to bleed out, she was sure of it. But if she made a move, her own throat would be slit and there would be two dead instead of one.
“Just look at you,” Valak said to the boy, his laughter dying as suddenly as it had started. He smiled grimly, his countenance turned haughty and gloating. “Soiling yourself in public, like the primitive Rue animal that you are.” A crude wood carving of a roaring bear hung from a thong tied around the boy’s neck. Valak ripped the talisman off and flung it into the mud. “Where are your vulgar animal gods now, heathen? The fox spirit and the wolf daemon and your hallowed bear shaman? Your gods are dead. And so too shall you die … like an animal.”
The pretty girl tore at Old Man Hu’s arm. “Do something, daddy! Please!” she begged.
Valak gazed at the boy as if transfixed. A deathly gleam darkened his eyes. He wrapped both hands tight around the oxblood hilt of his sword and drew it back, ready to strike.
“Precept!” cried Old Man Hu, bowing deeply. “I beg your mercy! Jin is a stupid boy, a foreigner, unfamiliar with our ways. Allow me to punish him for his insolence. I assure you I will not let him off lightly!”
Valak scowled at Old Man Hu, sword still high in the air. “Shut your ignorant mouth, you money grubbing Rue shill!”
Hu’s daughter crumpled in a heap at the old man’s feet, sobbing. Valak looked down at her. His beady eyes flared, as if struck by sudden insight.
Karna allowed herself a glimmer of hope, glad that Hu had distracted Valak. Perhaps the old man would manage to save Jin’s life without forfeiting his own.
Valak sneered at Old Man Hu. “You line your pockets by enticing the Rue to come infect this province with their primitive beliefs. You even let them defile your own family! You’re so busy taking their money, you can’t even be bothered to stop them from fucking your own daughter!” His face glowed a reddish purple that reminded Karna of burnt flesh.
Valak stepped toward Old Man Hu, jabbing a finger at him while lowering his sword to point at Jin’s neck. “This scrag mongrel just tried to kill me in front of the entire village. But you are the one who brought him here. You are the one teaching these Rue shits they can do whatever they please, letting them spread their filthy religion and make your daughter their whore! I should punish you!”
Old Man Hu fell to his knees and bowed his head to the ground.
“No! Please!” his daughter cried. She pulled herself up beside her father.
A wry smile crept across Valak’s face. He raised his voice, so everyone could hear. “Someone is going to pay for this crime. I’ll let you decide, whore. Will it be your grubby Rue fuck, or your greedy Rue-loving father?”
“Please,” the girl muttered, looking up at Valak with tears streaming down her face.
Valak left Jin shuddering against the post, his bare feet mired in a puddle of snow and piss and mud.
Grey Bear had been standing between Karna and Jin. In three lumbering strides, he was on the boy. “One move, mongrel, and I’ll run you through,” he told him.
Valak marched up to father and daughter.
“Look at me,” Valak commanded. The old man did as he was told. Valak pressed his blade to the wizened skin of Hu’s throat. “Decide, girl,” the precept growled.
“Please, sir, have mercy!” she implored him between sobs. “Jin meant no disrespect!”
“Refuse to answer again, and your father dies. Is that what you want, whore?”
She shook her head violently.
“Then answer. Or the choice will be made for you.” He pushed his sword harder against her father’s throat. The blade ran red with a thin trickle of blood, the faint rivulet dripping from the razor edge to stain the girl’s white cloak.
“I won’t ask again. Who do you choose?” Valak’s eyes blazed.
The girl lowered her head, tears falling like rain onto the wooden planks of the porch.
“… Jin,” she whispered.
“Louder, whore! So he can hear! Lift your head and look him in the eyes when you say it! Or I’ll spray your pig father’s blood across the square!”
Hu’s daughter raised her head. She looked at Jin, her face covered in tears, her lips quaking.
“Louder! Who will it be?!”
“Jin!” she screamed.
Valak spun around and charged at the boy.
Jin lurched backward.
Karna’s breath caught in her throat. He was going to do it. This revolting swine was going to execute a child for throwing a rock, a rock that she intentionally let strike her. She fought the urge to try and stop him. Above all else, the Golem was a detached calculating machine, employing ice-cold logic while the mad heat of battle melted lesser minds in white panic. Getting involved would likely only get her killed. The correct strategy was to do nothing. But how could she?
Jin slipped in the slick mud and fell back on his ass. Before he could scramble to his feet, both Valak and Grey Bear loomed over him. Valak raised his sword. Raindrops rain down its edge, glinting under the pale moon. Jin bawled and blubbered, begging for mercy as he desperately kicked and clawed in the slosh, trying to put distance between himself and the blade.
Karna pulled the chain taut between her shackled wrists. With both arms, she swung the chain up into Brown Mouth’s sword as she twisted her body into the open space left by Grey Bear. She drove forward, hard and fast as her fettered legs would move, her wrist irons still stretched tight, forcing the blade back, back, toward Brown Mouth’s face. When the tip dug into what remained of his ruined nose, he let out a yowl and the sword popped from his grip. It flopped on the ground as he fell to his knees, clutching his bleeding face.
The tall soldier’s blade came whistling from her right. She dropped into a crouch as it cut the air overhead, then planted an arm in the muck and rammed both heels into his knee. He shrieked in agony as he went down.
She went down on her back. Grey Bear was already above her. He swung his blade down hard with two hands as big as boulders. She rolled away. When the sword lodged in a clump of wet clay she kicked again, sending it flying from his huge hands.
She leapt to her feet. Valak stood before her, eyes wide in dumb astonishment. Jin was still on the ground, pinned between the Golden Swallow’s high wooden porch and the melee. He had curled into a ball, his eyes squeezed tight, his hands stopping up his ears as he muttered incoherent prayers. Valak lunged gracelessly with his sword, overextending and tilting forward. She’d seen defter attacks from children at practice with sticks.
Grey Bear had fished his weapon out from a puddle. He lumbered toward her. She leaned away from Valak’s reeling jab, then swung her arms around and checked him in the back of the head with the cuffs of her irons. His fat body slammed into the mud with a satisfying splosh. She threw herself on top of him, mashing his face in the mire as they both scrabbled for his sword. Valak wrapped his swollen fingers around the blade. She grabbed the hilt and pulled it away. Valak screamed as blood streamed from his hand.
When she looked up, Grey Bear was on her, but it was too late. She had the sword. She grabbed a tuft of Valak’s black hair and jerked his head back, her chains just long enough to slide the upturned blade beneath his neck.
“Drop your sword or he dies,” she told Grey Bear. It was a lie. But these men knew nothing of her vow.
“I yield!” shrieked Valak.
“Do it and I’ll make sure you’re next,” Grey Bear told her. He wet his lips.
“I said I yield,” Valak shouted at Grey Bear. “Drop the sword, you cretin!”
Grey Bear cursed and sneered at her, then jabbed the tip of his blade into the sludge squishing up around his bear skin boots.
“The injury was mine,” Karna said to Valak. Now that she was no longer in the thick of battle, the throbbing ache in her skull came rushing back. “The child did not harm you, nor did he intend to. Neither shall you harm him.”
“I said I yield,” Valak grumbled, cradling his bloody hand with the other. “Now let me go.”
“Swear that you’ll spare the boy. Loud enough so all can hear.”
“The Rue will not be harmed!” he shouted. “Now unhand me, you stinking whore.”
“Swear it. By the Golden Paladin and the Matriarch of Dawn.”
Valak’s face was covered in mud. He spit in anger. “I swear it! By the Golden Paladin and his Matriarch!” he raged, spittle flying from his lips like tiny white hot embers.
Under the circumstances, it was as sure a guarantee as she was going to get. But there was still the business of how she was going to make it through the night with her head intact. She had acted on impulse, seizing on an opportune moment to step in and save the boy. It had to be done, and truth be told she was glad to have been the one to do it. But now she needed to puzzle out her next move, and quickly. The tall soldier was still on the ground, writhing and moaning and clutching his knee. But Brown Mouth was up with sword in hand, blood seeping from the nick on his face, the blowing rain rinsing it clean as soon as it appeared. He would want her head, as would Grey Bear, and Valak was sure to hand it to them, the moment she let him go.
The wash of rain thrummed against the tiled roofs of the cedar planked buildings, the air thick with the smell of wet earth and the musty odor of sodden old wood. Grey Bear hulked before her, eyeing his sword as the tempest whipped about him, his long hair black with rain and twisting in the wind. Jin sat frozen in the mud behind her. She yelled at him to run away, but he only sat there with his fingers in his ears, rocking himself and whispering prayers, back pressed up against the veranda’s sides. At the railing, dumbstruck villagers stared at her, blinking. Behind them, Old Man Hu’s daughter wiped tears from her eyes.
There is only one solution. I must confess.
She jumped to her feet, tossing Valak’s sword away. “I’m not a witch,” she yelled to the crowd. “I’m a soldier in the army of Lord Eldir of Mei’guol, on the low continent.”
“Ak’ho swallow your southern lord,” Brown Mouth said, brandishing his sword as he stood fuming next to Grey Bear. He chomped his wad of bitterleaf, then spat out reddish brown. “His rolls will number one less poxy cunt when I’m through with you.”
Grey Bear plucked his own sword from the muck as Valak clasped bloody fingers on the lip of the porch and hauled himself up, mud caking his cloak and hanging off his big round face.
“Kill me for scraping your cheek and wounding your pride, if you must,” Karna said. “But I say a hundred golden suns is a high price to pay just for the sake of vanity.”
Brown Mouth’s eyes narrowed. “Explain yourself.”
“I’m a deserter. My lord has put a bounty out on me for a hundred golden suns. You can gut me yourself, or return me safely to my lord, so he can have the pleasure. Either way, I die. The only difference is the amount of coin in your pocket when they put me in the ground.”
“You lie, whore,” said Brown Mouth. “That’s more than two years’ wages. No lord would pay so high a bounty, especially not for the likes of you.”
Valak slipped in the ooze as he toddled over to his men, but he latched on to Grey Bear’s burly arm, smearing it with blood. He wiped his face with the back of his sleeve, but that only made the muddy mess worse. “Give me your sword!” he spluttered. Grey Bear handed his sword to Valak. “Seize her,” he ordered.
Karna threw her hands in the air. Her token glowed under the pale moonlight. “This is the mark of the Golem,” she cried out to the crowd. “I am—” Grey Bear grabbed her from behind. His massive hand slipped across her neck like some giant ice-blooded sea serpent, then her chin lodged in his elbow. He squeezed and her throat pinched shut. He had her in a stranglehold. She couldn’t breathe.
Valak carried Grey Bear’s sword. He minced gingerly across the mud to the boy and wielded it high in both hands. The sight of Valak’s sword knocked Jin from his trance. He cried out and tried to scramble away, but had nowhere to go.
Karna opened her mouth to scream but couldn’t. Grey Bear’s gargantuan arm was a vice. She kicked her chained feet, squirming and heaving against him with all her might, trying to break free of his hold. She clawed viciously at his arm, but it only cinched tighter and tighter around her throat, like a great iron rope reeled in by a mighty wench.
Valak’s blade hissed as it came down.
A gush of black spewed from Jin’s savaged neck.
Karna’s lungs were on fire. A mighty river raged in her ears. Stars winked in and out of existence as black clouds formed at the edges of her vision. Still she kicked and struggled.
Valak stood over Jin gloating as the child clutched in futility at his ruined throat, gasping for air, choking on his own blood.
Karna saw Hu’s daughter wailing, but she couldn’t hear the sound. The black clouds plumed and billowed, the fire in her lungs dissipating. Was she breathing? She couldn’t feel anything, but the rush of roaring water was deafening, as if she were a spirit, floating beneath a mighty waterfall. Its soaring black curtains threw up great swirls of obsidian mist, the smoky haze coalescing around the face of Valak, sneering at her in grim satisfaction, then fading … and fading … and finally disappearing into darkness.