It felt like someone had toppled the world over its axis, as if the sights and the sounds of the battlefield had clustered together and were spinning rapidly in a glass jar. Evian did not know how he managed to climb back up the hill, except that somehow, he had. The wind struck his cheeks like thorny bristles and the night air seemed to pierce through his lungs, in talons of solid ice. He shivered. It was a cold night, for early Autumn, but that was not why his hands quivered.
He looked straight ahead, trying to erase the image of the burning child from his mind. Don't look back, he told himself feverishly. Don't--don't look back. But somehow, Evian could not forget the look on the child's face, even from so far away: eyes glassy and emotionless, as though a film of dust had been breathed onto them by the ancients, and a vacant, pained gaze that spoke of the kind of suffering that even mere human expression could not throttle itself to show. His face was pale. His arms and legs were cobweb-white, but hanging dry and brittle, like yellowing grass in harsh summer heat. What had they done to his parents? To his family? Why were they treating him so?
Evian's stomach rolled in and out of itself in a blanket of thunder. He felt queasy. What kind of magic did the Blacksmiths have on their side, he thought, that they could burn a child, yet still keep him alive?
Before him, Arrowroad's walls grew closer and closer, seeming to him like a palm that would close around him and take him away--from the sheer, terrible darkness of it all. The Blacksmiths had never been described in such detail in the books he had read, never with such clarity and atrocity as to make him realise what they were capable of. His eyes watered; he leaned forward, gnashing his teeth, ramming his ankles into the chestnut's flanks. 'On!' he shouted. 'On!' The gates were close. The archers--assembled, Ixisters and vampires shoulder to shoulder, surrounded by makeshift walls of sheer, buzzing energy. Ixister magic. The domes would part, cleaving into arrowslits for the men. This was how war worked when demons fought together. This was how it had been narrated, in the tales that filled the scribes' finest goldspun scripts, in the legends that Evian had grown up listening to, even so far out at sea.
The realisation sunk into Evian's chest--all too quick for him to digest; hard and heavy, it fell like an anchor on his heart. War. It was here, finally here, and it had arrived before he had even allowed himself to contemplate the possibility of its existence. Death haunted the Blacksmith lines; it clung to their helms and streaked their banners red against the inkwashed sky. It stagnated the very air with its foreboding presence, foreshadowing grim events to come. The stars shone like warning nights. Pitch-black and purple: the hills were bruised. And on top of the tallest hill--their safety, their solace. Arrowroad, the town they were meant to have left under cover of night.
For how long could it stand?
Lira and Edith followed close behind him. He could hear Edith bellowing oaths, but the offending nature of her words was drowned out by the rush of the wind in his ears, and the pounding of his horse's hooves against the ground. And over the din, a much louder sound--that of the approaching Blacksmith army--made all other noises seem meaningless, paltry, like grains of sand rubbing against one another in an hourglass.
In a kerfuffle, they entered the city's west gates. Pedra was busy shouting orders to the soldiers, who had arranged themselves in ranks and files and listened to her attentively. Ixisters, vampires, men--chainmail and armour took away their differences, their chests bearing the same brand: two dragons knotting into one another, with a single amethyst flower set in between their flickering, scarlet snouts. No matter who they were, they fought against the Blacksmiths; their seal was the seal of Adreitus, and the seal of the king.
The iron gates clanged with a decisive shut. The Ixisters' magical shields rose higher, flashing and changing colour as swiftly as a dragon draws breath, so that one second they were blue--the next blinking a bright shade of amber. Everywhere around Evian, people were clutching weapons--both Ixister and human-made, some of steel, some of fizzling energy, but all meant to maim, to injure, to kill. Gaslamps had been turned on all over town, and more men had joined the ranks--even boys as young as Tom, and women who could fight—and chose to.
Evian swung himself off his horse, his fingers tapping a nervous rhythm against the saddle. Edith was sputtering behind him—she still hadn’t dismounted her horse, her gaze fixed firmly at a patch of sky beyond the walls. Lira looked at her puffed-out cheeks and scarlet face with worry; Evian shook his head slightly at her. Leave her be, he thought. Edith had a nasty temper when she was upset, Evian knew—he had been on the receiving end of it many a time: it flared up violently, like a bonfire, but guttered almost as quickly.
Now, however, was the most upset he had seen her since Eleanor had died. Her eyes streamed violently, veritable rivers gushing down her cheeks. Her nose was as red as a firecracker ricocheting off the inside of a dragon’s stomach, but it was her expression that scared him—bloodlust drawing on her features. Thin brows arched, stance rigid, curly hair tossed and turned by the wind: she looked like a huntress from legends of old.
She looked ready to kill.
‘A child!’ Edith repeated, over and over again. She swung herself off her horse and marched towards him. The disgust hung thick and livid about her. ‘They set fire to a child—the damn wretches—of all the—a child.’ She entwined her fingers with the horse’s mane, and when she turned her glare on Evian, he couldn’t help but flinch. Bloody murder dripped from her eyes; her pupils were dilated and her breathing funny as she stared at him. ‘Evian,’ she said, much more calmly than before. ‘You have to take Lira and leave. I’m going to stay and—no, shut up, listen to me—I’m going to stay and fight, but you—you have to—’ She sucked in a deep breath and Evian took the chance to interrupt.
She cut him off. ‘You have to take her somewhere safe. You promised her and--look, I can stay, I can fight, and you—you’re a pirate, you’re good at sneaking out of places and … and running away and—Evian, you have to leave. I—’
‘Edith. I am not going anywhere.' Evian grabbed her firmly by the shoulders, wanting to shake some sense into her. ‘I am incapable of going anywhere, seeing as a—a legendary liege of powerful warriors are about to trample all over our city and perhaps leave nothing but a defacement on the surface of the earth where we currently stand, and it’s quite probable they’re going to be here a while, even if we do manage to keep them out, so—how do you suggest I leave again? Assuming I would in the first place. I’m not going to leave you behind; you’re being—’ He hesitated. ‘An absolutely unreasonable goose. Yes, that. A goose. An unreasonable one.’
From the corner of his eye, he could see Lira watching them bemusedly. His temper swelled. Lira was not safe here, he knew. But he couldn’t leave Edith behind. He tutted and tugged at his collar. ‘It’s not like we can leave anyway,’ he repeated lamely.
Edith glared at him. She grabbed his arm with an alarming amount of strength and wrenched it upwards. ‘Up,’ she said tersely. ‘Look up.’
Evian looked. The sky looked like a thin layer of mist had suffused the blackness, so that the clouds appeared to be grey rags swimming in the pitch of a dyer’s vat. Every few seconds, the clouds would appear to dwindle as dark shapes flitted across them—dark, gleaming bodies, with serpents’ bellies and the heavy, horned tails of land lizards. Earlier, Evian had only seen one, but now, there were what looked to five of them—dragons, rolling in the clouds, flicking their tongues and rearing their fantastic heads. Evian couldn’t help but watch them, enthralled, lost for a moment in the sheer wonder of what he was seeing. What did storms compare? What did enchanted ships and the boom of cannons have to this absolute marvel of magic?
Slowly, it dawned on him what Edith was trying to say. His gaze dropped to her face and he shook his head in silent horror. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, no, no, no.’
‘Yes.’ A gleeful smile spread across Edith’s face. ‘Yes, yes, yes. Dragons, Evian! You can fly over the lot of them!’ Her nails dug into his wrist. ‘It’s so easy! So simple! You’ll be out of here in a jiffy, and you can take your vampire friend with you, too.’
‘I’ve never—I’d rather die with both feet on the ground than dangling from the jaws of some beast, thank you, Edith. And I thought you didn’t like Aid—the vampire.’
Her eyes narrowed into slits. ‘You might just die at my hands, you stubborn mule.’ She stamped her foot on the ground. ‘Don’t be stubborn, Evian. Look’—she dropped the volume of her voice a notch, shifting closer to him so he could hear—‘look, I know, I know Lira’s important.’ She threw the girl in question a sidelong glance; she’d managed to wriggle her way off the horse and stood next to it, awkwardly, but with an expectant gleam in her eye. ‘I may not know everything, but I’m not an idiot—what she did, the kind of strange magic she has, even if she insists it’s normal where she comes from, I can tell it’s not. Wouldn’t we have heard of it—rumours, at least? And you can’t blame the girl for lying, I mean, it’s obviously difficult for her to trust us, but…’ Edith trailed off, her hands reaching up to fidget with Evian’s collar. ‘The vampires arrived before you did. The first thing they do is call you to talk to them, and you return with a vampire escort at your heels. It’s strange. And you need to protect her.’
‘Edith,’ Evian said, gently, ‘if this is because of Eleanor…’
‘It’s not.’ She pushed Evian roughly, laying her forehead against his chest. ‘There are things you aren’t telling me, Evian.’ Her voice came out strangled, but she went on: ‘I don’t blame you. You’ve had this haunted, half-dazed look on your face since you came back from town hall. You can tell me—everything, every last detail, inlay it with metaphor and gild it with gold when this is over. But right now—right now.’ She lifted her face and looked at him with beseeching eyes. ‘Go. I can swing a sword. I can cut into a butterfly with an arrow. I may be short on practice, but you never forget these things. And I—I remember.’
Evian looked at her sadly. ‘You’re still an army brat.’
‘And you’re still a runaway deckhand, you great pile of sop.’ She smiled. ‘I’m going to go get myself a sword. You’—she pointed at Pedra; the ex-Queen was now deep in conversation with the mayor, who twiddled his moustache and looked worried, and frowned whenever required—‘talk to the … vampire leader? Get a dragon. Go.’ She turned her gaze towards the sky, nose scrunching up. ‘Where is your vampire friend anyway?’ she asked.
As if on cue, a man came flying over the west wall, his scarlet cloak flapping around him. His dark hair was wild and a pained grimace painted his handsome face. A grimace wasn't all that painted his face, however, Evian was quick to notice--his cheek was smeared with blood.