The Grey March
Tendrils of smoke twisted up her nostrils and seemed to tug, burning, at her brain, forcing her back into consciousness.
Smoke. Smoke, and beneath it something cruel and sinister, if yet unplaced. Gods above, Aema knew the scent well, green though she was. She had been raised at her father's knee, and even if battle was new, the tragedy of slaughter was not.
Her eyes sprang open, and the pounding in her head seemed to immediately billow out around her. It took a long moment to recognize the dull thudding was audible, and another to realize it was the sound of hooves on packed soil.
"Laoch," she said, and was surprised to find her voice little more than a croak. She cleared her throat, then coughed once, twice, thrice, and rolled over onto her stomach to wretch into a patch of grass. Smoke burned in her lungs and roiled her gut and she knew instinctively the fire, wherever it was, had been going on sometime now, she in the middle of it, or near enough. Her eyes and nose were burning with it by the time she finished vomiting and lurched unsteadily to her feet.
Where once everything around her had been a cold, but vibrant array of blues and greens, the world was now a heartless monotone, like someone had taken a dirty rag and dragged it over the face of the earth leeching color and warmth. All around, the sky was thick with gray-black smoke, and the earth under her feet had been trampled to mud. It clung to her face and hair, turning even the vibrance of her fire-red locks to ash. The pounding in the ground grew closer, and through the smoke, Laoch emerged, eyes wide with fear, mouth foaming. His reins were trailing on the ground beneath him, and it was a wonder he had not choked himself in his panic.
Instinctively, Aema put out a hand to stop him, uttering soothing words as her bloodied fingers stroked his neck absently.
What had happened here? Last she remembered, she'd been scouting the edges of her father's camp, near where they had been attacked yesterday--yesterday?--when a man stumbled out of the forest and collapsed. She'd gone to check on him...then nothing.
Now, the man was gone, the air was thick with smoke, and the throbbing in her skull would put a headless man to shame.
And none of this was more pressing than the feeling of icy dread crawling from her gut and up her throat, threatening to stop her heart.
"Come, Laoch," she said, again with the voice of someone deep in sleep, though her concussed resolve was threatening to crack. She calmed the great steed and began to lead him through the smoke, toward her father's camp. She knew the way without looking, as one knows how to find their bed in a darkened room. Her muscles ached, and she walked with a hand on Laoch's side to keep from falling over. Her back felt stiff where she must have fallen on her short bow; fortunately, the sturdy thing was still whole, and her quill and arrows showed no sign of damage. Just as well. She'd have to...share them with anyone that came along.
That dirty lying bastard of a whoreson. He'd tricked her. She'd known he was a liar from the very moment she'd seen him stumble from the words, haggard and unresponsive. She should have killed him then and there. Instead, curiosity had gotten the best of her, and she'd been attacked. Her father would never--
She stopped abruptly, and Laoch reared high into the air, whinnying loudly, threatening to tear the leather reins from her hand. For once, she did not scold him. The scent of smoke had grown stronger as she neared the Company's camp, and now it was accompanied by the crackle--and heat--of fire.
"Father?" she said, ignoring the pain in her throat as she rushed forward, Laoch galloping behind her.
It was not possible. In all her twenty years, she had never seen her father ill, so much as defeated. The camp could not have been raided. they were attack only yesterday, and he and his men had swiftly beaten back the monsters with all the care of a child swatting at a fly. She had been there herself, had watched one or two of the black riders fall onto the shafts of her arrows. There was no way--
"Father!" For the first time in many years, Aema sounded her age as she emerged upon the clearing where the Grey Company stood. Had stood.
It was now little more than a mass graveyard, dotted by dying fires and dead soldiers. Corpses.
Beside her, the scent of death struck Laoch hard. He reared again, though he did not run. If he screamed into the dusk of smoke, Aema did not hear.
Fida’ for the first time since the king himself had earned a slap from an outraged orphan, was angry. She was livid. Her Prince’s forces were decimated, his confidence and his pride were deeply wounded and she knew, despite her carefulness and avoidance of whole truths, she knew she had caused some of the damage. She had, for as long was safe, hidden her ability, lucky accidents and sneaky kills but in the midst of such a heinous battle what was she to do? Her prince was a capable fighter but with none to guard his rear it was inevitable she’d either lose him to the enemy or be found out.
The latter was her preferred option but he could barely look at her right now, his warriors killed, his own body saved by a serving girl, a peasant. She had told him nothing of import, that she had been raised a fighter despite the oddness of that in their culture and her father had died in the kings service so the King had given her employment. She couldn’t tell him the rest, for despite his strong confident eyes she could see how wounded he was and a further hit would knock him out. There’d be a time for truth and a time for honesty but it wasn’t now and didn’t seem to be in the foreseeable future.
She walked behind her prince, despite the injury he had taken to his leg he refused to allow her to aid him any further. He had sounded like a wounded tiger cub and she was frightened not by him but for him. To her his back looked ever so lonely, so lonely she wished to cry for him, instead she spoke not a word and watched that back. She protected not just because the King had asked it to be done but for him, no matter how poorly he’d treat her he was such a bright hope and his father, the country, had such aspirations for him. Idly she prayed to the sun that one day there’d be a woman to help him shoulder his burdens, an equal that could keep their country protected and in turn protect the prince.
Before her mind slipped fully into a fantasy world she drew her gaze from the wounded prince to glance around the remains of their camp. It was a bloody and scorched mess, bodies and pieces of bodies were everywhere, enemy and ally and the stench was as thick as the fog that threatened to roll in and cover the crime. Her blades, still gripped by slender handles remained at her sides, partially hidden by the cloth of her sleeves now stained pink and black with blood. She had taken a blade beneath the eye, a shallow cut that went straight across her cheek, an inch higher though and it may well have cost her sight.
“I will check for survivors my king.” She stated in little more than a whisper, bowing with one blade crossing her stomach, the black and red of enemies blood glistening on the sharp stiletto’s. She did not of course wait for the permission of her Prince, the enemy were long gone, any that were left were dying and should any make a move to the Prince she was likely to see them easily. Turning to slip between the bodies of the fallen and check the remains of tents for any who might still be drawing breath, no matter how hopeless it all seemed.
Miles was sure things were going in tight terrible circles. He was repeating a nightmare. With a small group of survivors from the once loved land of Faernia he had spent days trying to erase the battle scene that sent them running. He knew it would never be forgotten. But he was trying hard to get the sink from his lungs and the taste out of his mouth. His eyes still burned from the things he saw, from the tears he couldn’t cry.
Miles was not a squeamish man. He had seen blood and guts before. He had killed a man or two. But the battle that burned his homeland was beyond even his darkest imagination. The shadows other lands only whispered about fell full force upon Faernia. In hordes of relentless attacks by well managed Orcs and Grolms the castle was destroyed and the land burned. There were no captives. The was no mercy. All that managed to survive only did so by realizing the doom and running from it. Everyone else was consumed.
A small group followed Miles. It was not his intention to lead them from one battle scene to the next. He would fight. The loss of all he had set him on the course of revenge. But he wasn’t a fool and knew he could do nothing alone. Besides, some of those who had no choice but to flea with him should be directed someplace safe. If there was someplace safe.
Miles had been sure The General would take him as one of his warriors and send others back to Shara. All through the escape he had played the story of revenge by the famous leader’s side. He would fight bravely. Never did he believe any of it would bring back his life or his homeland. But it was now all he had.
Or it was before he stumbled on the obvious defeat of what he now feared was the rumored Grey Company. The feel he had hoped to escape with distance, time and a dream of revenge stab him deeply as he slowly made his way into the stench of corpses and dying fires. He walked slowly with his blade at his side until he heard a crush upon the ground.
With his blade up he spun around the tree, ready to attack. There was a horse stomping the ground beside a small figure. Not seeing anyone else alive in the immediate area he cautiously approached. Closer his lowered his blade and quietly watched a child, no, a woman in her grief.
The glint of flame was reflected in her eyes. This... this was brilliant.
Akhlys stood upon a grassy hill, overlooking the scene from a distance. Her white gown was dotted with blood; a canvas, she thought, to commemorate the end of a very large thorn in her master's side. She snorted aloud; so much for the legendary Grey Company. This had not been a battle. This was not even a massacre. It was annihilation.
Death hung heavy on the air. The pain. The fear. The blood. If there was anything more worthy of his praise, she could not fathom it. Her arms rose up as if to greet the sky above, and she inhaled deeply. It was intoxicating; the rush of victory, the excitement of chaos- it coursed through her trembling limbs. This, surely, was what true power must be.
A contented sigh fell on the breeze. If she could only stay here, in this moment, keep this feeling forever...
The attendant behind her cleared his throat, "We must depart soon, m'lady. The master awaits our report."
"In a moment," she hissed. She took another breath. She held it, savored its taste. Simply... delightful.
What would master say? Would he smile? Oh, she hoped so. Perhaps he would grant her a request; but what would she ask for? She could nobly turn it away, and insist that she only wished to serve him. Or maybe... maybe she would ask for his attention for an evening. A blissful night alone, with her master. She turned scarlet at the thought and shook her head, recalling that she was not alone.
She turned away from the scene abruptly, brimming with elation and pride. The skirt of her dress swirled elegantly around her, and her lengthy black hair flew up in the motion, coming to rest over her shoulder. Facing the division of men at attention before her, she squared her shoulders and stood tall. They, too, were colored with specks of red. Some were positively dripping, in fact. She smiled giddily, contrasting their neutral expressions; it was like a painting, and she never wanted to forget.
"Move out," she commanded, suppressing a joyful giggle. The small unit of twenty or so turned on their heel and marched eastward in unison, Akhlys skipping alongside them. The journey home was not far, and she was eager to tell of her success. Her master would be pleased, indeed.