The Horde

Here is The Horde presented from the beginning and without any pesky footnotes. It includes all chapters up to the most recent self-critiqued post.

CHAPTER 1: HAVOC

The waxing moon shone brightly in the sky. Havoc peered through the thick forest, then motioned to his Alpha Squad to follow quietly. The insurgent camp ahead was sloppy. Their guards were too few and too far apart, and all the sentries on the north side now lay with their throats slit. As he crept forward he could see their campfires, and the stench from the open latrines made his eyes water. As he drew closer, he heard a raspy voice ahead.

“Next time, I want to hear you make some noise. I like my women loud, and I’ve been patient with you long enough.” There was the sound of a fist hitting flesh, and an intake of breath. “One way or the other, I’m going to make you scream.”

Havoc crept closer. Just past the tree line, there was a wooden post in the ground about eight feet high. A small, naked woman was tied to it, her arms stretched above her head. A short, wiry man was tucking himself back into his trousers. Havoc calculated how far away the main camp was. It was far enough.

He ran swiftly and silently behind the man, his short sword out. He was in the woman’s direct line of sight, and he hoped she had the sense not to betray his presence. With his free hand, he put a forefinger in front of his lips in the universal ‘shhhh’ sign.

Her eyes flickered briefly before focusing on the ground.

Havoc covered the man’s mouth with his large, calloused hand and drew his sword cleanly through the man’s windpipe. A hiss and a gurgle was the only sound. Havoc forced his victim’s head to face the woman, and drove his sword into the man’s groin. He felt him flinch and shudder.

Through dry and cracked lips, the woman smiled.

Havoc held the man until the life left his body. Then he lowered him to the ground and cut the woman free. In the dark he couldn’t tell much about her, other than that she looked undernourished and filthy. He took off his tunic and helped her put it on. Her hands were clumsy at first, but seemed to regain their dexterity quickly. He saw her glance appraisingly at his heavily muscled bare torso, which was crisscrossed with scars.

Havoc whispered, “Can you understand my language?”

She nodded.

Havoc gestured towards the forest where his squad was barely visible through the trees. “Go back there and wait. We’ll get you to safety, but first we have some business to attend to.”

She shook her head firmly. She mouthed the words ‘Follow me’ and gestured towards the camp. Then she turned and glided towards the western edge of the encampment. Surprised, Havoc grabbed for her, catching her wrist. She deftly twisted out of his grip and continued towards the camp. Havoc’s jaw dropped in shock, then he started after her, motioning behind him for his squad to follow.

She crept through the tents at the outskirts of the camp, moving confidently and quietly. About thirty yards in, she stopped, motioning to a tent that looked like all the others. She made a cutting motion and pointed to his sword. Havoc obliged.

As soon as the slit in the tent was large enough, the woman scurried through. Havoc enlarged the rupture enough to fit his two hundred and twenty pounds through, and followed.

He looked around. Enough light filtered through the fabric of the tent for him to make out piles of weapons, stacked haphazardly. The woman stood next to a stack of longbows, flipping through them quickly like cards. She stopped, held one up and bounced like a child receiving Solstice gifts. The unstrung bow was almost as tall as she was. She strung the bow expertly and slung it over her shoulder, grabbed a quiver and started searching for arrows.

Most of the weapons looked worthless, but Havoc figured he had time to check if there were any items of power among the piles. Havoc concentrated, spreading his arms wide. He made a quiet grunting sound, earning a quick glare from the woman. With altered vision, he saw a purple glow coming from the bow on her shoulder and the quiver now on her back, and some faint glows scattered among the weapons. He focused on the strongest glow coming from the piles.

He dug through rusted sickles, dented helmets, and worn greaves. He paused when he reached to toss aside some non-descript leather boots. They pulsed with a blue light.

Havoc took off his worn footwear and slipped on the leather boots. They looked small, but they fit easily and comfortably around his feet. He had hiked for six hours in the dark, and more in days before, and he had a few blisters and aches. He hadn’t really noticed the discomfort until his new boots eradicated all traces of weariness and injury. He smiled with satisfaction and placed his old boots on the pile.

He looked around. The gently glowing heat from the magic was fading from his sight. Most of it was centered on the woman. In addition to her bow and quiver, a small woven pouch at her side had an odd green glow. It was magic, but not the kind he was used to seeing.

He gestured towards the slit in the tent, and she nodded. She crept through, and he followed. Rather than head back to where the rest of his squad lay in wait, she pulled three arrows out of the quiver and nocked them as though she would shoot all three at once. She started to move towards the center of camp.

Havoc put a hand on her shoulder – just to get her attention, not to force her to stop. She paused and looked at him, impatiently tossing her head forward.

“I get it. You want revenge,” Havoc whispered. “Fall back with me to the rest of the squad, and we’ll do a tactical assault in formation. I don’t want you shooting any of my soldiers by mistake.”

She hesitated, then nodded.

“Do you know where the command tent is?” he asked quietly as they moved back to join the assault team. She nodded and pointed in the direction she had been heading before they started to back track.

Havoc positioned himself where he knew he would be visible to all of his unit leaders and most of his squad. He used hand signals to indicate the change of plan. They would begin the assault on the command tent, thanks to the intel provided by the former prisoner.

He motioned several of the soldiers forward, and they approached. Havoc pointed out the similarities in their garments – not distinctive enough to be a recognizable uniform, but enough to tell friend from foe in combat if you knew what you were looking for. The woman nodded.

“OK” Havoc whispered. “You lead us to their captain’s quarters, and then let my soldiers do their job. They are going to try to take out as many as possible without raising the alarm. You and I are going to watch their backs and silence anyone who tries to rouse the camp.”

The woman frowned, a recalcitrant expression in her eyes.

“Work with me on this, and I promise I’ll help you deal with anyone in particular you want to have a crack at.” Her face lit up and she smiled a lovely smile, with even white teeth visible in the moonlight. Her expression made Havoc slightly uncomfortable, knowing what she was looking forward to. He himself found satisfaction in killing his enemies, but the look on her face was pure pleasure, without a trace of fear.

The woman took point back towards the camp, Havoc at her shoulder. As they drew closer to the firelight, Havoc could see that her coloring was fair and her eyes light. Bruises of varying sizes, old and new, mottled her skin. If not for the dirt, he guessed her hair would be almost white, though her face looked young. He wondered what she would look like clean. After she’d had a few meals. Then he shook off his speculation and focused on the business at hand.

The woman again had three arrows at the ready, and Havoc wondered how she was going to manage to shoot.

She stopped at a tent that was slightly larger than the rest, but otherwise unremarkable. It was on the outskirts of the camp, and Havoc was glad that the woman had been able to point it out. The original plan was to attack close to the center of camp on the assumption that the leaders would be camped there. They wanted to cause as much chaos as possible with their initial strike, hopefully avoiding an organized counter-attack.

Havoc and the woman positioned themselves on either side of the command tent, while three squad members slit the side and crept in. There was a slight commotion as they dispatched the insurgents inside, but nothing loud enough to draw attention. The squad moved through the camp like ghosts, killing silently in tent after tent. Havoc sensed the woman’s restlessness, but she kept to their bargain. She moved as quietly as anyone in his squad, instinctively positioning herself to cover their flank as they moved.

Inevitably, someone in a tent saw death coming too soon and managed a shrill scream before he was silenced. His cry was taken up by another who popped out of a tent and spotted the invaders. Just as Havoc drew back a throwing axe, he saw what looked like a conjurer’s trick. Three shafts appeared in the man’s body simultaneously: the shaft of one arrow bloomed from the man’s throat, choking off his scream. Another arrow was in his stomach, and a third in his crotch. Havoc looked at the woman, who was standing straight up and firing almost too quickly to follow at insurgents who were now pouring from the tents. Her expression was serene, and at that moment – even dirty and in a borrowed tunic that hung to her knees – she was beautiful.

In the time Havoc had been gawking she dropped nine men. More were coming. Havoc positioned himself at her back, a long sword in his left hand and a throwing axe in his right. A bearded man with a pike charged, and Havoc sent the axe spinning towards him. Another insurgent with a broad sword closed in on the left. Havoc parried and thrust, angling his sword up under the ribs for a quick kill. He shoved the dying man sideways so he slid easily off the blade. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his thrown axe split the pike man’s forehead, bisecting his eyes. The axe shimmered, then reappeared in Havoc’s hand.

A third man had been closing in. When he comprehended the scene, he thought the better of it, turned and ran. Two arrows whistled after him, one striking between his shoulder blades and the other dipping down before ascending and impaling him in his sphincter.

Havoc assessed the melee. The insurgents were scattered and fleeing, so he bellowed orders for search and destroy units to mop up. He turned to the woman.

“Anyone else?”

She walked over and examined the dead and dying. Havoc noticed that none of her targets would die quickly, though all had fatal wounds. She stepped over the scattered bodies to the pike man that Havoc had slain and nudged him onto his back with her foot. She nodded, walked back over to Havoc and smiled that fey smile of pure pleasure. Havoc grinned back.

“What is your name?” he asked.

She looked down and shook her head firmly.

“Can you speak?”

She met his eyes briefly, looked down again shrugged one shoulder.

Havoc looked around at the slaughter. “With your permission, I’ll call you Karma.”

She smiled an impish smile and nodded.

“I could use a warrior like you. Hell, I could use a battalion of warriors like you. Unless you have a home and family you want to get back to?”

Havoc found himself relieved when she shook her head decisively ‘no.’

“The pay isn’t great, but it’s always on time, and the food is as regular and decent as we can manage. After two weeks, if you want to join for good, I’ll swear you in to the service of the Empress Savant. All right?”

Karma stepped closer to him, laid her tiny hand on his arm and nodded her head. Havoc felt himself getting aroused by her closeness. He put his arm companionably about her shoulder and said “Come on. Let’s get washed up and have something to eat.” She nodded vigorously and he threw back his head and laughed, feeling as lighthearted as he had in a long time.

CHAPTER 2: HARLEQUIN

Harlequin looked critically at her makeup in the mirror. She had on white face with dark kohl emphasizing the hollows of her cheeks, the circles under her eyes, and a cleft was created on her chin. Dots and swirls in purple made the eye follow a strange path over her forehead and cheekbones. The symbols had soft magic that made people looking at her have extreme difficulty remembering anything recognizable about her features, her voice, or her build.

Harlequin used to wear masks. They took a lot less time and had more flexibility than makeup. But that was before the tragic occasion when the teenage boy thought he could get in good with the local street gang by learning the identity of the Harlequin. He had only started to rip off her mask and reveal her features when Harlequin stabbed him in the heart, protecting her identity and ending his hoodlum aspirations at the same time.

She regretted killing him, mainly because it didn’t serve any political purpose. She felt responsible for allowing him to get close enough to exposing her identity to warrant his death. Oh, he probably would have grown up to be a true threat to the good citizens of the kingdom, but even criminals had their uses to a wise ruler. And Empress Savant was a very wise ruler.

Which made the rebellion of Damien, the Empress’ son, that much more frustrating.

A year ago Prince Damien had married. It seemed a good match at the time. Pandora was eighteen years old and heir to Cambaria, a neighboring seaport duchy that straddled several trade routes, and was rich in gold and horses. Pandora was lovely and intelligent, and Damien fell madly in love with her. She came to live at the palace and quickly charmed many at court.

With Pandora at his side, Damien became more interested in affairs of state. He sat in on privy counsels and made his opinions known. Occasionally Empress Savant followed his suggestions. More often she did not. He was only twenty, and many of his ideas were impractical.

Pandora whispered in Damien’s ear that the Empire should be his by right. His mother should crown him, and retire to the role of advisor to the Emperor.

The next time Damien was thwarted in council, he insisted that the throne should be his. Empress Savant laughed off the idea, as did most of the lords and ladies. Damien was furious. Pandora made a clumsy attempt to poison Savant, which Harlequin thwarted before her sovereign was in any real danger. Panicked, Pandora accused Savant of trying to poison her, and convinced Damien to flee the palace with her.

The love-struck fool did, and the couple made haste back to Pandora’s homeland. From there they rallied the rabble and called it an army, and announced that Damien was the true Emperor in exile.

Pandora’s Duchy had just enough resources to make them a nuisance, but the pair didn’t have enough sense or experience to make them a viable threat.

For now.

Harlequin put the finishing touches on her makeup and pulled a jester’s cap over her black hair. It was getting longer now – she hadn’t had to pose as a boy in a while. She had enough vanity to like its straight waterfall down to her shoulders. She checked the blades in the heels of her boots, testing the springs that would force the blades to extend when she fully flexed her foot. The blades were hinged so she could still land on her feet without breaking them, and the blade would extend again for her next kick. When battle was done, she could retract each blade so the boots functioned normally.

Harlequin looked around the room to see if she left any telltale signs of her presence. This chamber was her favorite – positioned high in the west tower with two secret tunnels that could take her almost anywhere inside or outside of the castle walls. Plus, it had a balcony where a stone gargoyle crouched with wings folded behind it, overlooking the city. The statue was gray and weathered with words in the Old High Tongue carved into the base that translated “Here Sleepeth the Titan.”

“Anything interesting happening out there, Titan?” Harlequin asked, stroking the masonry of the gargoyle’s thigh. She looked over the city, matching his gaze, then reached up absently to cup his cheek with her hand. She had an affection for the stone creature, with its larger than life muscles and the exaggerated features of his face. She fantasized about him coming to life and feeling his rock-hard arms embrace her, imagined the size of his member that was artfully disguised in the position of the statue’s legs. She leaned against his cold hardness and collected her thoughts for her imminent conference with her sovereign. She gave Titan’s thigh a final pat before turning to leave.

Striding down the hall, she passed one of her body doubles lounging in an alcove and nodded. This harlequin was a teenage girl, and she made the subtle hand gesture that acknowledged the true Harlequin and indicated “nothing to report.”

Harlequin nodded and gestured toward the chamber she had exited. The body double strolled in and closed the door.

Harlequin had six subordinates that were her body doubles – three males and three females, who were similar to her height and build: about five feet, eight inches, slender and athletic. Only a select few knew who the true Harlequin was. It cut down on assassination attempts.

All the harlequins were highly trained in martial arts, slight of hand, languages, disguise, and poisons. Each had a handful of alter egos that they used to function in society and gather more intelligence. They wore their harlequin guises to remind people of their existence – to remind people that they didn’t know whose face was behind the makeup. It tended to keep the malcontents properly hesitant to plot against the crown.

It hadn’t been enough lately, though. Not since the crown prince and his new bride decided they didn’t want to wait until Empress Savant died a natural death before they assumed the throne.

Harlequin walked noiselessly across the stone foyer towards the throne room. She passed servants and courtiers, nobles and flunkies. She knew most of their histories, their families and lovers, from the lowest to the highest. She carefully watched their reaction to her passing without seeming to pay any particular attention. Even the Empress’ closest allies were unnerved by her proximity. Everyone has secrets.

Harlequin flowed around the chamber towards the throne. Empress Savant held court from a raised dais. Harlequin knew the Empress was at least forty years of age, but she looked like she was in her early twenties at the most. Her long black hair was held by a simple coronet, and her clothes were the silks favored in the East. Trousers allowed free movement underneath a slitted skirt that was her fashion of choice. Rare magic kept her appearance ageless. This magic didn’t extend her life, but Harlequin believed that Savant’s youthful appearance contributed to her son and daughter-in-law’s decision not to wait for nature to take its course so they could assume the throne in the fullness of time.

Empress Savant nodded an acknowledgment to Harlequin without taking her attention away from the Exchequer, who was giving his weekly report. The public one. Harlequin moved quietly enough to catch whispers of conversation not meant to be overheard, but didn’t learn anything she didn’t already know.

She moved past the guards next to the throne and they let her. Only harlequins were permitted to be behind the throne when the Empress was seated. She watched the crowd. Watched who spoke to whom, who watched, who spoke, who avoided.

When the audience was finished, Harlequin joined Savant in her private chambers. The ceiling was high, with strange artifacts decorating the wall. A fire was roaring, with cushioned sofas scattered near. It was a comfortable room, designed to make its inhabitants relax. Harlequin wasn’t foolish enough to do so. She stood while Savant sat elegantly curled at one end of a sofa.

“What news?” Savant asked.

“More graffiti. We’re using work gangs from the prisons to scrub it off.” Damien and Pandora had adopted a symbol: a crescent moon with a shooting star. Since the crown prince’s rebellion, sympathizers had been painting that symbol on public buildings.

“A few neighborhood groups meeting in ‘secret’ to get drunk and feel important while they gripe about the Empress’ iron fist,” Harlequin continued. “We’re keeping an eye on them. I don’t expect any real threat from any of them. If any of them get to the action stage, we can make an example of them.”

She looked closely at Savant as she spoke, trying to gauge her sovereign’s emotions. As usual, she could detect none. But this was her only son they were discussing. The enemy. Surely Savant must feel something. Harlequin needed to know whether Savant would be more prone to harshness or to leniency, so she could counter-balance Savant’s tendency.

So far, Savant’s orders had been cool, clinical, and measured. No reprisals, but no forbearance.

***

Harlequin walked through the narrow tunnel. The pitch-black passage smelled musty, and the uneven slate floor made walking hazardous. She had scars from when she was learning each crack and step, twist and turn of the lightless tunnel system that snaked through the Palace. Now she navigated them without need of light.

Irritation quickened her pace. Someone had drugged an army messenger, causing troop movements to be delayed. As a result, Prince Damien’s main force had slipped through the net she had been preparing for weeks.

All of Harlequin’s intelligence pointed to an insurgent plant in the palace. She was sure it was old Lord March, who was still holding a decades-old grudge against Empress Savant for turning down his marriage proposal. Of course, there was the more recent snub when the Empress refused to consider Lord March’s eldest daughter for the prince’s hand in marriage.

That Prince Damien didn’t want to marry March’s daughter was beside the point. In Lord March’s mind, Savant had cheated him out of his rightful place of influence in the Empire: in command. If he couldn’t weasel a place at Savant’s side, or as Damien’s father-in-law, he would try to do it by becoming a trusted ally of the rebel prince.

Unfortunately, Harlequin didn’t have any proof that this sabotage was March’s doing. Nonetheless, she knew. But would Savant take her word for it? No. Despite nine years in charge of intelligence with a perfect record (well, almost perfect), Savant wouldn’t take action without ‘proof.’ March was still a Lord, and certain formalities must be observed before he could be executed for high treason.

Harlequin heard the echo of her own footsteps, and forced herself to move more quietly. She was confident that she was perfectly safe within her tunnels, but there was no excuse for noise. One of her harlequins might be roaming down here, and she had to set a good example.

She came to the hidden door that led to the guest wing of the palace. It was usually empty, so it was useful for entering and exiting the tunnel passages.

She needed to regain her composure. Her irritation with March had made her move carelessly, and that was unacceptable. She stood still and did breathing exercises until she was perfectly relaxed. Only then did she move the peg that covered the peephole in the door.

All was clear. She carefully opened the door and stepped out.

As her left leg moved forward, she felt a whisker of pressure on her left ankle. Without thought, she back flipped to the right, landing in a crouch flush against the wall in the tunnel.

‘What the . . .?’ Her mind replayed her sensory input as she spider-crawled backwards in the blackness. The pressure on her ankle. Her reaction. The sound of a missile weapon firing. A whoosh of air under her in the middle of her flip – right where her heart would have been if she had followed through with that step. A clatter as the projectile hit the ground behind her, skidding along the floor before it came to a rest. And then . . . nothing.

She stopped ten yards from the door, which was still ajar, and stayed still, counting to one thousand as she listened.

On count seventeen, she became aware of the faintest trace of a smell. She opened her mouth to inhale the scent more fully.

She smelled the vinegar and musk scent of venom. Specifically, the venom oftheblack asp that was common in the swamps to the southeast of the capital. It was easy enough to procure – there was probably some in the armory. Footsoldiersliked to use it on their weapons, because it gave a little extra insurance that their battle strikes would be fatal. It was illegal for civilians to own in any quantity, but that didn’t keep it from being readily available for the right price.

The scent had faded by the count of one hundred and twenty one.

She heard no other sound, registered no other sensory input besides the venomous odor that had now dissipated.

The missile must have come from a booby trap. No one else could have stayed as silent for as long as she had. Therefore, there was no one there. She crept deeper into the tunnel until she reached the point where she heard the missile land. She tasted the air. Her nose led her un-erringly to where the projectile lay, and she picked it up by the shaft. It was a crossbow bolt, thickly coated at the point with asp venom.

She moved back to the doorway, and peered around to the hall of the visitor’s wing. Light filtered in from a distant window. Her eyes followed the trajectory that the bolt had traveled.

There. If she hadn’t known exactly where to look, she would never have seen the crossbow.

She looked down. The trip wire she triggered was still intact, although she was pretty sure it was designed to break when she stepped out of the passage. Whoever set up the trap made it too sensitive. A rodent or even a change in the humidity could have triggered the bolt.

She stalked to the crossbow, and examined the workmanship without touching it. It looked like the work of Master Stelton, or one of his journeymen. She peered underneath for the brand that would reveal the craftsman.

It had been sanded off. No matter. Stelton would recognize the product of his guild.

Harlequin smiled to herself. It was time to set a snare to catch the booby-trapper. Sooner or later someone would come to see if the trap had been successful. She went back to the doorway and sprawled on the floor as comfortably as she could while maintaining a fair range of visibility, and still looking like a corpse.

***

The guard at Empress Savant’s door knocked quietly. The rhythm signaled that the Harlequin sought an audience. An extra rap at the end indicated that Harlequin was accompanied by one person.

“Enter,” Savant called from within her records room, and the guard opened the door. Harlequin twisted the wrist of the man at her side and maneuvered him into Savant’s chamber. He was taller than Harlequin and about 60 pounds heavier, but she controlled his movements with a firm wristlock. When they faced Savant at her desk, Harlequin executed a jaunty bow that was quickly copied by the man in her grip when she gave his wrist an extra twist.

“My liege,” Harlequin announced, as though she had an audience of hundreds. “It is my honor to present Maxwell, who was, until very recently, indentured to Lord March as his Captain of the Guard.” Harlequin smiled broadly and nodded to the man at her side, whose face was a sickly shade of green. His fast, shallow breaths created a miasma of halitosis. “Try not to pass out,” she said to him in a stage whisper. “You would regret it very much when you had the misfortune to regain consciousness.

“Maxwell has a most interesting tale to tell,” Harlequin continued. “Full of intrigue and daring. Loyalty betrayed by treachery. And the redemption of a lowly servant who sees the error of his ways, choosing the good of the Empire over the orders of a harsh master. It’s well worth hearing, if I may be so bold. Perhaps your Highness would care to take a short break from your duties to hear his tale?”

Savant smiled wickedly at Harlequin. “You are very bold, indeed. Few would dare such a presentation, and fewer still would survive it.”

Harlequin nodded cheerfully. “As it should be, my lady. Shall I leave Maxwell here to regale you with his story?” She gave his wrist another little twist. “I wouldn’t want my presence to interfere with his recall.”

Savant rose, and stretched out her hand. “I would find that most agreeable. Tell me your tale, Maxwell, over here where we can be comfortable.”

Harlequin felt the man sway, and she reached up and twisted his ear hard. “Obey your Empress, Max. And remember. Don’t pass out.” She gave him a nudge in Savant’s direction, and he staggered towards her. Harlequin bowed low, and Savant nodded. Harlequin exited with a jaunty spring in her step.

 

CHAPTER 3: HAVOC

Havoc looked around the former insurgent camp. The bodies had been collected, searched and buried. The few prisoners were being interrogated, and his sentries were posted, watching for rebel messengers or hunters returning to camp. He didn’t want word of the attack reaching the enemy if it could be avoided. Let them think their army was deserting.

Everything was in order. The sun would be up soon. The teamsters had arrived with the pack animals, and the scent of a meal being prepared was starting to pervade the camp. There should be a little bit of meat left from when they last had a chance to hunt, but it would be a lean breakfast. Havoc pursed his lips and whistled a scale of notes. He waited, then repeated the trill.

A moment later there was a soft rush of wings, and a large gray hawk flew in low and landed on Havoc’s outstretched wrist. He waited for her to settle and then brought her head to his. She leaned in and they touched foreheads.

“Hello, Gypsy. How is my girl? Do you feel like hunting?” Gypsy fluffed her feathers and looked around, as if expecting to see the prey he had in mind. She was a Pale Chanting Goshawk, an elegant bird of prey with light gray feathers on her body and white on her upper wings. She was almost a foot and a half in length, with a three-foot wingspan. Her beak was bright orange with a black tip, and her black eyes were large, taking up most of her face. A small fluff of feathers above her beak gave her the expression of a haughty lady of fashion. Havoc had raised her from a chick, and she had been his constant companion for five years. In Pale Chanting Goshawk years, she was still an adolescent.

Havoc held his wrist high and Gypsy turned to face forward, leaning and dancing impatiently from claw to claw.

“Gypsy . . . hunt food!” Havoc commanded, and she launched into the air. Havoc watched her for a moment and then strolled over to his designated cook fire.

Van Zant was there, stirring a pot hung over the small blaze. He was a small, wiry man who had been in the service of the Empress almost three decades – ever since he was fourteen. Van Zant was proud of the fact that he had almost been killed in the service of the Empress seventeen times, and he worked that information into conversation whenever possible.

Havoc leaned over the cook pot and inhaled deeply. “Mmmmm. That smells like . . .” Havoc leaned over and took another sniff. “Grass. Boiled grass. Is there any protein in there?”

“Nope. And there won’t be unless you want to throw in some Rebel. They ain’t been buried too long.”

“I wouldn’t put it past you, you sick puppy. Gypsy is hunting. If she finds something it will go in the pot.”

“No skunks. I got my limits, ya know.”

“Don’t lie, Van Zant. You think I just met you?”

“Hmmph.”

Havoc tossed a little more fuel for the cook fire, then raised his head at the soft sound of wings. Gypsy’s melodious chant announced her success: ‘kleeeu kleeeu klu klu klu.’

Havoc mimicked “Klu klu klu” and stepped back so she would have room to drop her prize. She swooped in and released her catch, and large rat rolled right to his feet.

Van Zant snickered. “Her aim’s real good. A gourmet, she ain’t.”

Havoc ignored Van Zant and addressed his hawk, who had circled around and landed on his shoulder. “Don’t listen to him, Gypsy. You’re a brilliant hunter and this cretin is lucky you’re willing to share.” Gypsy watched as he sliced some choice pieces out of the carcass. He fed her and launched her for a second foray before skinning and de-boning it. “It’s almost a pound of meat. You want it for your pot or should I share it with someone who has a less sophisticated palate?”

“Drop it in. Tastes like chicken, anyhow.”

Gypsy’s second kill was a small opossum, which followed the rat into the stew. When it had cooked long enough to be edible, Havoc filled two bowls, and went in search of Karma.

He found her sitting on a small knoll at the edge of camp. A torch driven into the ground illuminated her. She had bathed in a nearby stream, and her pale hair was still damp. She was concentrating on a sheet of parchment spread out in front of her and marking it with what looked like a lump of charcoal. She looked up at his approach. Smiled.

He offered her one of the bowls. “I brought you something to eat.” He looked down at the parchment. It was a detailed drawing of the battle they had just fought. As he looked closer he could make out individual people, including Karma and himself fighting back to back, with their enemies falling before them.

“Hey – that is really amazing! I’ve seen work by Royal Portrait Painters that isn’t this good.”

Karma smiled and patted the ground next to her. Havoc again offered her one of the bowls. She peered into it and sniffed, then wrinkled her nose and shook her head.

Havoc laughed. “I know it’s terrible, but you need to eat. Don’t worry, after the first few mouthfuls, your sense of smell will shut down in protest and the rest will go down easier. Come on. I’ll go first.” He put her bowl down next to her and took a swallow of the stew. Years of bad food on the march allowed him to look pleased and say “Mmmmmm,” as he chewed and swallowed.

Karma shook her head again and reached for a tiny woven pouch. Havoc recognized it as the one she recovered from the armory tent. She emptied it out in her hand, and displayed a handful of almonds. She offered the bag to Havoc, and he held his hand out, bemused. When she placed it in his hand, it felt like there was something in it. He looked at her, puzzled. She gestured for him to pour it into his hand, then took two rocks laying nearby and expertly cracked one of the almonds open.

Havoc put down his bowl and upended the pouch over his hand. Out flowed a handful of walnuts, leaving the bag empty. He looked at Karma and raised his eyebrow. She popped a nut into her mouth and gestured for him to pour the bag again. He did so, and out flowed a handful of cashews.

“Hah!” He carefully piled up his nuts. He took both bowls of stew and dumped them out, then reached for a cashew. Karma giggled.

He forced himself not to react to her laughter. It was the first sound he had heard her make, and he didn’t want to make a big deal about it.

They crunched in companionable silence for a while. Havoc uncapped the flask at his side, took a swig of whiskey, and as an afterthought offered it to Karma.

She sniffed it, blinked, then took a small swallow. She shook her head and made a face.

He grinned sheepishly. “It’s the best whiskey for five miles around. I guarantee.”

She gave him a narrow look, took another sip, and handed the flask back. The torch popped and crackled, although the rising sun made its glow unnecessary.

Havoc took a last handful of nut out of the bag and handed it back to her. “Where did you get this? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She reached for her drawing of the battle, and turned the page over to the blank side. In the top left corner she sketched a small image of herself with a wound in her abdomen. With just a few strokes it was obvious what she was portraying. Havoc admired the economy of her work, and glanced at her midriff with concern. The drawing didn’t show how she received the wound, but it looked serious. To the right of that sketch, she drew a dividing line and started another image, this one of Karma pouring the contents of a small vial onto her wound. The next image showed the wound, healed, and Karma holding an almost-empty vial.

Enthralled, Havoc watched her draw.

The following panel showed Karma walking through the woods. Next, she came across a trap with a squirrel caught in it. The teeth of the trap had torn open the squirrel’s belly, but some motion lines showed that there was still life. The next frame showed her prying open the jaws of the trap, and pouring the last of the liquid from the vial onto the injured squirrel. The penultimate frame showed the squirrel healed and alert. Havoc noticed that in the background there was a small pixie, wiping away a tear.

Havoc looked again at the preceding drawings, and now that he knew what to look for he saw the small pixie in every frame with the squirrel, her expression distraught and helpless.

In the final frame, the pixie handed Karma the pouch that was now attached to her belt. Karma put the finishing touches on her drawing, and held it out for inspection.

Havoc, who had watched every line being drawn, looked at the whole sequence again. Then he looked at Karma.

A lock of her hair shining like platinum had fallen forward over her eye. Havoc gently brushed it back, out of her face. She looked down quickly, then looked him in the eyes. He liked the silky feel of her hair. Emboldened by her acceptance of his touch, he stroked her hair again.

“Your drawings are beautiful. The story they tell is beautiful.” He cupped her cheek with his hand. She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. His voice husky, he said “You . . . are beautiful.”

Her eyes opened and locked on his. He held perfectly still. She leaned towards him, until her torso touched his. He yielded to her pressure, and lay back on the ground. Her body followed his and she swung her right leg over his hips. He lay on the ground, and she straddled him, her face inches from his. She tilted her head and ducked under his chin. Her mouth locked on his neck, and he tipped his head back to allow her easier access. He carefully reached for her, touching her waist. She leaned harder into her kiss, and he groaned and wrapped his arms around her. She sucked on his neck until he was afraid he would end the interlude prematurely.

He took three deep breaths.

It wasn’t enough.

He took his hands from her waist and gently grasped her head, raising her to face him. Her eyes were as glazed as his were. She focused on him, and reached to cradle his head in a gesture mirroring his.

He felt his pulse pounding.

She hooked her right leg around his left, and rolled sideways. He let her pull him towards her, until their positions were reversed. She opened her legs and he settled between them. She leaned up and kissed him hard on the mouth, licking at his tongue. He felt a rush of exultation, and kissed her back, hard, leaning his hips into hers. She opened wider. He felt the friction of their clothes, and was irritated by their interference.

That tiny distraction was enough to remind him of the context. She’d been abused. He didn’t want to compound it.

His kiss gentled. She demanded. He soothed.

He moved his kiss from her mouth to her cheek, to her jaw, to her neck. He cradled her head with one hand, and stroked her cheek with the other. He trailed his fingers down the side of her throat, across her collar bone, around the outside of her breast, down her ribcage to her waist and hip and thigh. Then he kissed her gently on the lips and his fingers began their journey again at her hair, down her cheek . . .

At first she was tense and frustrated, squirming furiously against him, trying to arouse him to impatience.

But he was bigger than she was. And he was on top. He kept himself under control and continued her seduction.

She stopped fighting him, and lay still. He could still feel the tension in her body.

He continued to stroke. He continued to kiss.

Eventually she grew languid and relaxed.

He continued to kiss. He continued to stroke.

He felt her breathing begin to grow ragged. ‘Thank God,’ he thought.

He wrapped his left hand under her hips, his right hand still cradling her head. He rolled backwards, reversing their positions. She was again straddling him.

He laid still, waiting for her to act.

She held herself still. She tensed, almost glaring at him.

Dammit, he thought. I should have gone for it when I had the chan . . .

Karma pounced and kissed him hard. He tried not to groan out loud, but the sound escaped. It seemed to spur her on, and she ground her hips against his. Encouraged, he spoke the words running through his head.

“Karma! I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone. Please, please . . .”

She covered her mouth with his, devouring his tongue. He felt her move and without realizing how she managed it, he felt the cool morning air on his

 

[explicit content redacted]

 

Gently, he began working his hips against her. Her eyebrows flew up in surprise.

“We’re not done,” he whispered in her ear.

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