They came upon the first corpse a mile inside Sentinel Forest.
He swung beneath the limb of an oak tree. The crows had been at work on his face, and wolves had taken their share of his lower legs. Only bones and tatters remained below his knees.
“What’s wrong with his veins?” Darza asked. Her hand went to the sword at her hip.
Aria looked up. The hanged man’s veins were thick as hempen rope and darker than soot. His jaw hung by a thread, pecked at by carrion crows. “The Lord of Morning,” Aria said. “This is his work.”
Twenty yards farther on, they spied a second body. The highwaymen had torn him down, so what little remained of him was strewn on the ground beneath a frayed rope.
After that, hardly fifty yards went by without a corpse. They dangled under ash and blackwood, beech and birch, oak and elm, willows and chestnut trees. Each man wore a noose about his neck, and swung from a length of rope, and every vein blacker than the darkest night. Some wore cloaks of grey or blue or crimson, though they had been so weathered that it was hard to tell one color from another. Others had badges sewn on their breasts. Black hands, with palms outstretched, dragons of crimson, some chased with gold. Hellhounds and wolves and black crowns. Broken men, Darza realized, stragglers from a dozen armies.
Some of the dead men had been bald and some bearded, some young and some old. Some short, some tall, some fat, some thin. They all looked the same in death. Swollen, with faces gnawed and rottened; and all of them with blackened veins.
She remembered what Mattias used to tell her if she were ever to be caught. On the gallows tree, all are kin.
It was Aria who said what the both of them were thinking. “These men died for me.”
“Their badges. Look at their sigils. They died for me. They’re belong to the Lions of Night. When they heard talk that I had returned, they took up arms against authority. She gestured at the bodies about them. “And look where it led them. Look where it may yet lead us.”
“Speak not such ills,” Darza said. She rode close to her lover, so that their legs were touching, and she lifted her chin up. “You never asked these men to die for you. They did this of their own accord. What they wrought is the fault of their actions.”
“And my birth,” Aria said. “No. Rebirth, sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize.”
“I wasn’t apologizing to you.”
The minds that are not hers, Darza remembered. Voices in her head of Shepherds come and gone. Darza wove her fingers through Aria’s hand and the two road on.
“Shall we keep a brisker pace?” Darza suggested. “The sun will soon be setting, and corpses make for ill company in the night.”
“Yes,” Aria said. Her voice was distant, and Darza was not sure if it were really her own thoughts her lover was speaking. “These were dark and dangerous men, alive. I have no doubt death has done little to improve them.”
Farther on the trees began to thin, but not the corpses. There were four men to a branch, now. Soon the woods gave way to muddy fields, tree stumps and gibbits. Clouds of crows and horseflies rose screeching from the bodies as the duo came near, and settled again once they had passed. These were vile men, Darza reminded herself, yet the sight still made her sad. She forced herself to look at every man in turn. Evil men who died for my lover. She did not ask for this. She did not ask to be the Shepherd of Night.
“We should find shelter, princess,” Darza said. The name made Aria smile, despite herself. And Darza hated herself all the worse for what she said next. “We know not if the Lord of Morning or his army still linger in these woods.”
“No,” Aria agreed. “We don’t.” She moved to spur her horse on, but Darza caught her wrist. “Don’t be afraid. You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Aria averted her gaze from Darza as she wiped away the tears. “Promise?”
“Promise.” Darza leaned over in her saddle and kissed Aria, felt her breath, and bit her lip at they parted. In the sudden reprieve, Darza almost missed the corpse hanging over their heads, twisting in the wind.
At length they came upon a large inn along the muddy road. It rose three stories. Its walls and turrets and chimneys were made of chalky white stone that glimmered pale and spectral against a gray sky. Its south wing had been built upon wooden pilings above an expanse of weeds and dead grass. A thatch-roofed stable and a bell tower were attached to the north side. The whole sprawl was surrounded by a low wall of broken white stones overgrown by moss. The sign swung in the wind, and looked as though an ax had bit its center. The Gibbet Inn, the sign read. Though by the look of it, the paint was fresh, though weather-stained. They have adopted a more appropriate name.
It took a quarter hour of Aria muttering to the voices in her head and Darza Vale knocking on the front gate with a gauntleted fist before a woman poked out of the window above them to demand their business. She had a crossbow levelled against the windowsill.
“We are honest travelers,” Darza said. “We seek shelter from the rain, and a place by your fire for the night.”
The woman stared back with all the emotion in her face of a stone slab. “The closest inn is five leagues from here, to the west,” she replied. “We want no strangers here. Begone.” And at once she vanished.
“Wait!” Darza hammered on the door until her fist was raw. It was like to start bleeding when Aria caught her wrist. “She’s not coming out, sweetling.” Her voice was calm, and seemed to spread a wave of serenity over her lover. Darza relaxed and lowered her arm. “Why don’t we have a look around,” Aria suggested.
There was life about The Gibbet. Even before they rounded the inn, Darza heard steel on steel. For a moment, she worried there was a duel. But the sound of laughter convinced her otherwise.
They rounded the corner, and saw two men sparring. One with a sword, the other with a longaxe that held a crescent spike on one end. They were clad in whites and silver, and the both of them bore the sigil of a white hart on their breasts.
“I don’t like them,” Aria said. She had drawn up the hood of her cloak. “The one with the axe is Lord Jerim, First General of the Bringers of Morning. He’s also King of Gane.”
“And the other?”
“Fourth General Azoc. King of Keor.”
“If they each rule a part of Erehwon, what does the Lord of Morning rule?”
“Everything,” Aria said with a shrug. “Not all Generals are Kings, you know.” Belatedly, she added, “We should keep going.”
The two began to pass the sparring generals. It was all Darza could do to keep from looking. She focused on the muddy path ahead of her when she heard a metallic clang far and away. And then another. They echoed in the distance, thrumming like a heartbeat. Soon the Generals heard it.
“A forge,” the Lord Jerim said. “They have themselves a smith, don’t they?”
“Could be an old blacksmith’s spirit is haunting the forge.” the Lord Azoc said.
“Shall we put that in the inspection report?” Jerim laughed.
“They haven’t been here much longer than us,” Darza said, but when she turned to Aria, she saw that her eyes were white. “Sweetling,” Darza whispered, “What are you doing?”
“Only a slight pull on the Tethers,” she muttered. Though she had lost her breath. “Perhaps they’ll go off in search of that forge.” She breathed deep and the sound faded as her pupils returned.
“You made that sound?”
“That was unwise.”
“Then why did you do it?”
“They anger me. Come, let us be off.”
The inn’s yard was a sea of brown mud that sucked at the horse’s hooves. There were four girls on The Gibbet’s porch, watching them. The youngest was no more than three, while oldest was ten, by Darza’s count. She stood with her arms protectively about the little one.
“Girls,” Darza Vale called to them, “run and fetch your mother.”
The four girls stood fidgeting, unsure of what to say. After a moment one answered, “We have no mothers,” and another said, “My mother is away.”
“Where?” Darza asked.
She pointed to Sentinel Forest. “She’s tied to a tree.”
The oldest of the three stepped forward, pushing the little one behind her skirts. “Who are you?”
“Honest travelers seeking shelter. My name is Darza, and this is Aria.”
The eldest of the three looked them over with bright blue eyes that seemed to bulge from her head. “I’m Alisan. Will you be wanting beds?”
A voice spoke from behind Darza. “Beds, wine, and hot food to fill our bellies,” the First General as he dismounted. “My name is Lord Jerim. Are you the innkeep?”
Alisan trembled. “N-no, sir. My sister is. But she’s not here. We have little to eat, and the nearest whores are leagues away. But we have beds.”
Lord Jerim knelt to be at eye level with Alisan. “Don’t be afraid, child.” He reached out and passed a gentle thumb along her cheek. It did not seem unkind. “I do not seek to harm you. We are the Bringers of Morning. We serve the Will of the World. You’re safe with us.”
“Do you have coin to pay? Silver dragons?”
“Alas, we have no silver,” Lord Jerim said. “My friend and I have brought none. We can write up notes to repay you after the war—”
That gave him pause. He was silent for a time, as if unsure of how to respond to such a flat denial. “Bronze then?”
“We will take silver, else you will sleep beneath the dead men.” Alisan glanced at the stables. Darza followed her eyes. Lord Jerim and Lord Azoc had left their horses in their and about their backs they had lashed casks and bedrolls.
“Is that food?” Alisan asked, pointing to the mounts.
Lord Azoc cut in. “It is yours if you’ll allow us to bed down for the night.
Alisan nodded and the two smaller girls rushed to open the door for them.
Darza and Aria dismounted, but the ten year old stopped them. “Are you with the Bringers of Morning?”
Darza groped for words, but the Lord Jerim spoke for them. “They are.” He winked at Darza. “Come, take shelter from the rain.”
Within, Darza found that aside from Aria and the generals, there was not a grown man among them. Children scurried about the inn. The smaller ones chased each other, some smacking and wrestling, while the older ones set down dishes and prepared the food for all of them.
“All these children,” Aria said to Alisan. “Are they your sisters? Brothers? Kith and kin?”
“No.” Alisan was staring at her in a way that Darza did not like. She suspects the truth of us, Darza thought. She would not be studying us if she did not.
“Their parents, too, are in the trees,” Alisan said. “We’re all that’s left.” She bit her lower lip, paused, and then said, “We’ll show you to your rooms, now.”
She whistled, and more children appeared as if by magic; ragged boys with tangles of hair like straw. They crept from under the floor. More girls accompanied them, springing from the banister overlooking the common room. Some clutched crossbows, wound and loaded.
“Excuse us for being wary of travelers,” Alisan said.
“I don’t blame you,” Darza muttered.
Alisan set about ordering the children. Some helped with the horses, others were to tend the fire, and more still were to grab the food
In the end there were three rooms adjoining one another, each boasting a featherbed, a chamber pot, and a window. Darza’s room had a hearth as well. She paid a few copper dragons more for some wood.
The common room was crawling with children. They had pushed the tables together in three long rows, and the older boys were wrestling benches from the back. Alisan shouted orders all the while.
By the time the food was on the table she had four greasy candles lit and told the girls to keep the hearth fire burning high and hot. “My father used to bring crops here, all the way from Keor,” the Lord Azoc said. “Alas, Keor has been burnt badly in the war. I doubt I will bring many crops here for a long while.” He turned to a young boy. “Have you ever had a peach, lad? A fresh one, with sticky juice that runs down your fingers?” The boy shook his head no, and the King of Keor ruffled his hair. “I’ll bring you one after the war, if you’ll be a good boy and help your friends ready the food.”
The children fell upon the supper like wolves upon a wounded hart, quarreling over salmon, tearing the bread to pieces, Even the huge wheel of cheese did not long survive. Outside, a rain began to fall. Inside, the fire crackled, and the common room was filled by the sounds of chewing, and Alisan smacking children with a wooden spoon whenever they gave any sign of misbehaving.
They do not seem bad men, Darza thought. She remembered Averon Thorn, and felt a pang of pity. I have forgotten how to trust men, she mused. But now is not the time for learning. Suddenly, she did not feel hungry. Yet she wolfed down her supper all the same, as quickly as the children. She held Aria’s hand under the table as they dined on sausages, cheese, bread and boiled potatoes. She finished before Aria. I must know if they suspect us, she thought. “I’m going to have a look around. Stay safe, sweetling.” She kissed her on the cheek and went over to the common room.
The First General, Lord Jerim sat in front of the hearth. He had pulled off his boots to warm his feet by the fire. Darza sat down next to him to do the same. For a time, neither of them spoke, and Darza flinched when he broke the silence.
“What is a woman,” he mused, “doing with a sword? You’re like to cut yourself on that pretty thing.”
Do not misstep, else you will fear this pretty thing. Darza did not give her thoughts a voice, so the First General spoke again.
“Are you afraid, sweet one?”
Darza shook her head no.
“Then why are you so silent?”
“I—I’m thinking of the children. They have lost their mothers and fathers. Some saw them slain with their own eyes.
Lord Jerim groaned. “I forgot that I was talking to a woman. You truly must carry your sword as a decoration. You saw them, yes? They were rebels. Agents of the Shepherd of Night, fighting against the order that the Lord of Morning has brought to the land. Or is there another reason? Do you have children, my Lady?”
“I thought so. You’d need a man for that, and I saw your companion.” His eyebrows shot up like a volley of arrows. “I could be your man.”
This took Darza by surprise. “I—I don’t—do you mock me? Have you a wager to win?”
“What I want to win is you. You are a beautiful thing, as I’m sure you know. And if you were to wed me, you would be the Queen of Gane. Servants would bow before you, and you would want for nothing.”
“Is it a wedding you seek?” Darza asked. “Or a night in bed?” I shouldn’t have said that she realized, instantly. “Forgive me,” she said. “Those were hasty words.”
Lord Jerim laughed at that. “Wise words, I call them. As to your question, which one would you prefer?”
Darza stood. “Play your game with someone else, sir”
“So speaks a maid who has never played the game. I know the look in your eye. Men have sought you in jest, no doubt. Now when one comes to you truly, you deny him. You distrust him. Play the game, my lady, and you will look at nothing the same. In the dark, you may even find me handsome.” He laughed. And then he stopped, tilting his head as he looked her in the eye. The firelight glimmered in his pupils. Daza took two steps back.
“Your lips were made for kissing.” He sprang up and started forward.
Darza pulled back. “They are lips. All lips are the same.”
“I’m afraid I must disagree, my Lady,” Lord Jerim said, not unkindly. “How many lips have you tasted?”
One, Darza thought, thinking of Aria. She wished she had not left her. One, and that is all I need.
The First General spoke in the absence of an answer. “Leave your chamber door unbarred tonight and I will prove the truth of my words to you.”
Try and I’ll make you a eunuch. Darza walked away from him—
—And saw Aria in the doorway. Darza said her name, but her lover stood there, her lower lip quivering. “Aria,” Darza said again.
“Aria!” Darza started after her. “Aria, wait!”
The rain came without warning, falling in sheets out in the yard. This is her doing, Darza thought. She pulled her hood over her head and followed Aria’s tracks into the stables. Some of the horses whinnied at her entrance.
Aria curled up on her side in the corner of an empty stable, muttering alien words to herself. Darza couldn’t tell if the dampness on her forehead was rain or sweat.
Outside, thunder roared.
Darza curled up next to Aria, and hugged her.
“What—what—what do you want?” Aria said, through sobs. Her eyes had long since turned white.
The rain fell harder. The wind screams the way she wishes she could, Darza thought.
“I want to know what you saw, that I may tell you the truth of those happenings.”
“I saw the First General, Lord Jerim offer you his bed.”
“I didn’t accept, sweetling.”
That gave Darza pause. She relaxed her hold on her lover. “What do you mean?”
“Why didn’t you accept his offer? You like men and women, do you not? He is a strong man, and a warrior, like you. Why didn’t you desert me?” The wind rattled the stables, and rain thumped on the roof, heavy as hoofbeats. “Why didn’t you take his bed and desert me? You court death by my side. You spend your days footsore—a companion to a freak! A nobody! An outcast, hated by all and feared by the world. Why me over him? Who doesn’t wish to be Queen of Gane? Why did you choose the freak?”
Gingerly, Darza turned Aria to face her. She kissed her and kissed her and kissed her so that when they parted she stopped for breath. “You are not a freak. You are Aria. I would trade you for no one. I love you, which is why I do not leave you.” She stroked her cheek, leaned in and kissed her neck. “You are beautiful,” she whispered into her lover’s ear. “And I will protect you to whatever end. Do you understand?”
Aria nodded. “The voices disagree.”
“Listen to me—” Darza began. Before she could finish she heard voices outside. “Shit. Someone’s coming.”
“The Kings. Jerim and Azoc,” Aria said. I see them. Even here I see them. They are armed.
“I must go face them.” She started to stand, but Aria caught her, nails digging into the flesh of her forearm.
“Stay here. You’ll meet them soon enough.”
Darza looked through a crack in the stables. There were riders who accompanied the two Kings. She could hear the faint clink of swords and mail from beneath their war-torn cloaks. She counted them as they came. Three, six, seven, nine. All the riders had their hoods up against the lashing rain.
Darza sucked a breath through her teeth. Too many, she thought. Her hand went to her pommel, tracing the lion etched into it. They are too many.
Lightning cracked behind them as one swung down off his horse. For half a heartbeat darkness turned to day. An axe gleamed silvery blue, light shimmered off mail and plate. They met the Kings and saluted.
“We need to leave.” Her mouth had turned dry as dust. “Wait…” The children, she thought.
Through the crack, she could see that Alisan had stepped out into the rain, a crossbow in her hands. The girl was shouting at the riders, but a clap of thunder rolled across the yard, drowning out her words. As it faded, Darza heard one of the riders call out. “You loose one quarrel, bitch, and I’ll shove that crossbow up your bloody arse!” The fury in the man’s voice drove Alisan back a step, trembling.
Lord Jerim smacked the rider with a gauntleted fist. The blow pitched him off his horse and into the mud in the mud. He shouted an order to his men. Through the cacophony Darza only discerned something about chains.
“…was only joking!” the man protested, as the soldiers put him in irons
“Your words are marred by hate. Such threats are reserved for the Lions of Night. I will have no one taint the men under my command.”
“The words of the Lions?” Aria echoed from the stables. “THE WORDS OF THE LIONS?” the wind lashed the stables, and her grip on Darza’s arm tightened enough to draw blood. The stables shattered as though they were made of straw.
The Bringers of Morning turned as one. There were scattered murmurs of “The Shepherd of Night.”
“Aria, let me go,” she said. “Aria, please.” Her lover unwound her grip so quickly that Darza stumbled back. Regaining her balance, she saw that the man who had threatened Alisan had drawn a sword and was charging for Aria, despite his irons. He was so intent on slaying the Shepherd of Night that he did not notice Darza, who unsheathed her blade in an arc that cut his throat. Blood flowed down his neck and spilled over his gorget, and a moment later he was face down in the mud.
She turned to the others. “I will kill you if you touch her!” Darza growled.
Lord Jerim stared, eyes wide as saucers. “You—”” He hefted his axe and started for her. “Fuck that. I’m going to cut your bloody fucking legs off, then make you watch as I—” The wind shrieked and snatched away the last of his words.
Lightning cracked and the rain fell down in near-sheets. “Awww, are you sure?” she said. “What happened to making me Queen of Gane?”
She meant it to provoke him, and it did. He came at her, bellowing curses. His feet sent up sheets of black water as he charged. The others stood back to watch the show, as she had prayed they might. Darza stayed as still as stone, waiting. My shield is in my saddlebag, she thought. My sword must be enough. The yard was dark, the mud slippery underfoot. Better to let him come to me. With any luck he’ll slip onto that axe of his.
But he didn’t fall. He counted his swings, measured his distance and readied herself. Five…four…now! Darza stepped back and away from his thrust down. Lord Jerim overswung, and Darza was ready. Her blade bit through his doublet and the ringed mail underneath. His axe came crashing down again as she danced aside, slashing his chest again as she retreated.
He followed, staggering and bleeding and roaring. “Whore!” he boomed. “Freak! I’ll give you to my men to fuck, you bloody bitch!” His axe whirled in murderous arcs, a brutal black shadow that turned silver-blue every time the lightning flashed. With no shield to catch the blows, all she could do was slide away from him, darting this way and that as his axe flew at her.
Once, the mud gave way but by a miracle she recovered. Lord Jerim seized this opportunity and his axe hit her shoulder. It was a glancing blow, but enough to dent the armor. The pain came, then. “Dance away from that one,” Lord Jerim growled.
She did. Better the shield-shoulder than the sword. Mattias whispered in her ear from beyond the grave. Wait and watch, girl, wait and watch. Your time will come. When it does, do not flinch.
She waited, watching, moving sideways, then backwards, then sideways again, attacking where he left himself open. Once at his face, then his arm. Wherever her sword could reach. His blows came slower as his axe grew heavier. Darza’s dance turned him so the rain was in his eyes.
She danced backward. His lips curled back in a snarl and he wrenched his axe up, cursing, and lurched after her. But one foot slid through the mud, and he stumbled forward. Darza’s blade was ready. She thrust as he fell forward and her sword punched through ringed mail, wool, flesh, bone, and through his back. She could feel his spine as he lurched unsteadily on the blade. He dropped his axe and slammed into her, as if in one last attempt at a kiss. Rain and red rivers ran down her blade. His weight sagged heavily against her, and all at once she embraced his corpse, there in the black rain. She stepped back and let him fall…
…and the Fourth General, Lord Azoc, came crashing into her, shrieking.
He fell on her like an avalanche of wet armor. He lifted her off her feet in a primal fury and slammed her into the ground, driving her breath from her body. She fell face first into a puddle. Mud sprayed into her nose and eyes.
“No!” It was all that she had time to say before he fell on top of her, his weight driving her deeper into the mud. One of his hands was in her hair, pulling her head back. The other groped for her throat. She had lost her sword, so she slammed a fist into his face, but it was useless as punching a ball of dough. He hissed at her.
She hit him again, again, again, smashing the heel of her hand into his eye, but he did not seem to feel her blows. “You…killed…Lord Jerim! The King of Gane!” He seemed to glow, then, and Darza wondered if the Lord of Morning had somehow intervened. His flesh seemed alight. She had to squint, for he was bright as a beacon.
The more she clawed at his arms the tighter his grip turned. Blood ran down his arms. His knees fell onto her torso and in desperation she pushed at his shoulders, uselessly.
Lord Azoc locked both his hands about her neck and began to slam her head against the ground. The lightning flashed again, this time inside her skull. “KILLED THE KING OF GANE!” The rain ran off his hood as he leaned closer. His breath stank like corpses.
Darza felt as if she were floating above herself, watching the horror as if it were happening to some other woman, to some stupid girl who thought she was a knight. It will be finished soon, she told herself. Then it will not matter. I will not matter. Nothing will. Lord Azoc threw his head back and howled. He turned to her and opened his mouth wide in a primal shriek. He stuck his tongue out, but it did not look like a tongue. It was sharp and dripping with blood. Red and wet and glistening. It seems almost a sword…
And then she could breathe. She rose, groggily to her feet to see the Fourth General, dead with her own sword through the back of his head.
Aria held the hilt and stood over him. His blood dribbled into the puddles. Yet his preternatural glow burned brighter. “Long have I searched for you, Shepherd,” the Fourth General said in a voice that was not his own. Darza’s eyes went wide. The Bringer of Morning… “Long have I hunted you. Long have you eluded me. But that is changed. I have finally found you. And soon you will be—”
Lightning crashed down like another blade through his mouth, and when it was gone, his skull was burning.
“Shut up,” Aria said.
She turned to the others. “Go now,” she said in her own voice and many others. “I care not whose side you have taken. Whether you rebel against the Lord of Morning or enforce his will. Leave, and you shall not be harmed. I will not warn you a second time.”
They obeyed, much to Darza’s surprise.
Darza remembered little of what came after that. Horses squelching through the mud. Spending the night retching up the last good meal she could remember. Apart from that, nothing.
When she awoke, she was on a hilltop, with Aria kneeling over her. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“That depends,” Darza murmured, “How long has it been since The Gibbet?”
“Two days. I—I…here’s your sword. You dropped it after you passed out.” Aria had cleaned and polished it. It looked as if she’d even taken the time to sharpen it. I’d no idea she knew how to use a whetstone…
“I’m not sure how well I took care of it. I probably didn’t do well, but I…I thought you might like it.”
Darza pushed Aria’s chin up to face her. “It’s perfect,” she said, leaning in to kiss her. “It’s beautiful. Don’t be afraid, my love.” She kissed up Aria’s neck until their lips met, and then Aria rose to her feet, helping Darza up as she did so.
Darza only opened her eyes for a moment, but that was long enough. She glimpsed over Aria’s shoulder and realized they were on a hill outside of the town. Their vantage point overlooked The Gibbet, and she could just see the Bringers of Morning wrapping the two Kings in burial shrouds and loading them onto a cart.
A pang of guilt overtook her, and her knees buckled. She dropped her sword and watched as the Bringers of Morning carted off the corpses.
He knows where you are, Aria, Darza thought. And it’s my fault. Sobs wracked her body and the tears came hot as they streaked her face. She was dimly aware that Aria held her.
She thought she heard her crying, too.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.