Finally out of the apothecary’s cellar today, a bloody transit. Four people, not soldiers, not even Valish, came to the keep to get me and my knights out. And while we swam along the wall of my father’s keep I saw it. Birds.
Burning scraps of paper. The little birds were paper. Fluttering and flickering and growing, falling motes and frenetic sheets, some smoking, corners scorched, flaring in the air until there was nothing but a thin dark edge . . . and then gone, a hole and nothing but the faint memory of smoke and poetry. Behind the burning flock came a great wail as seething black unfurled, the world inside out, birds beating against a madding sky and in that moment everything that was not smoke was paper.
And it was beautiful. A pyre for Vroedvrouw, a flare for my people, a summons, a call to battle, a declaration of war and a loss of knowledge so complete that the void will exist not as sadness, but as grief, true grief. Sadness can heal, but grief, grief is like losing a limb. You do not learn how to grow your arm back. You learn how to tie your shoes with one hand.
Vroedvrouw is dead now, beaten by a poxmarked Gallowglass footlicker. And I killed him, I put my smallsword to his eye and saw the lid flutter against the steel thrice before his spirit unraveled. And that did not change anything, it did not make my people happier, it did not break a chain or feed a vassal or knit a friend’s soul back to its wrinkled whole. I killed a man. Then I killed another. Did I need to? These men are not my brother, that Bastard, these men are wayward boys, whelpish warriors who, when the rebellion grabbed the edge of Ackenzal and shook, did not have a farm or home to hold to. They were buffeted across the land till Red Asha’s honey, her gold, gave them a place to stick. Now the Bastard promises them more, fills them with a fire of misplaced vengeance and a promise of a home.I hope that my brother be put in a cauldron of soldier’s lead and usurer’s grease, amongst a whole score of his brigands, and there boil like a gammon of bacon that will never be enough. I hope that my father lives long enough to bring our Vale back to peace, and that these four are enough to strike at the dark heart of these foes. There is more afoot here, a subtle game Red Asha plays and we know not the rules or goal, only a few of the pieces. And I think the Bastard is just a pawn.
And these new four, one like me, one like the Gallowglass mercenaries, another a moon-eyed foreigner with a recycled soul and another a lovely song of violence given flesh. What pieces are they in her game? Are they players, or pawns?