Read an Excerpt
THE sword came down with a heavy thud on my breastplate, just as I turned. I heard its whistle through the air, the hiss of its tempered metal, and saw the glint of its thick blade from the corner of my eye. My avoidance was purely instinctive, for there were distractions all around me--the noise of men shouting; loud grunts of both pain and anger; the clang of sword upon sword; the rip of cloth and the hiss of hot blood on the sanded floor of the platform. And rising above all that, the undulating roar of the crowd down in the Arena, provoking and protesting in rhythm with the ebb and flow of their favorite Guard's progress up the Battle Horse.
The sudden turn threw me a little off balance and I dropped to one knee, wincing. The Silver Captain behind me was one I didn't know personally, but I could see immediately that he lacked experience of battle. The sudden gleam of triumph in his eyes was barely hidden under the brim of his ceremonial helmet, and I knew that he was a fool. A soldier at his feet--especially one who had been a Gold Warrior--was no measure of his victory. I lowered my shoulders as if in weariness and waited for him to lean over me. He thought he would place his sword on my Mistress's badge--the glinting triangle of polished metal at the shoulder clasp of my body armor--and that would signify his win. His thoughts were full of pride and excitement at the chance of bringing down a soldier of the Queen-Elect's own attacking force. Like I said, he was a fool.
I twisted under his body's shadow, startling him. His instinctive reaction was to follow my movement, turning sharply to the side away from his sword hand. The move was ill-considered andvery regrettable--for him, that was. His back bore the full brunt of the hot sun's heat, even at this late time of day, and his gaze was temporarily blinded by its reflection off my armor. To the far side of me, I heard the angry groan of another soldier taking or giving a final blow from his weapon, and I gave my own cry in tandem. I straightened up swiftly from my crouching position, concentrating my weight on my attacking side and bringing my sword up from the ground across my torso. It sang softly, catching the sunlight's low rays despite the dust and stains along its length, slicing in an arc that swung from the lower point of my opponent's hip and up through the exposed stretch of his sword arm. He cried out with shock and tried to lean back but he was impeded by another of his Guard, a man falling to the ground, flailing legs tangling with his. The Silver hadn't been aware of the activity around him--another ill-considered move. My sword tore at his clothing and cut easily through the edge of his leather breast plate, although I assumed from the lack of resistance to the end of its victory swing that the wound wasn't too deep into his flesh. He fell heavily, back down over the other fallen man, and I needed only a couple of steps forward to land the side of my blade on to his badge and cry for my win.
There was no time to relax, but for a second he stared up at me, his eyes full of both anger and fear. He glanced towards my bare ear where a Gold Warrior would normally wear the gold earring of his rank, then his eyes narrowed and his attention darted away again. We were both panting, our bodies still heaving from the heat of the battle, but our minds were clear. Although I had never seen him before, I knew that he recognized me--or recognized my reputation.
"Leave the Arena," I hissed. "You are defeated and must withdraw from the Battle. Deliver yourself to the Cage." That was the tradition, and all soldiers knew it. Defeated members of the Guard--any Guard--must quit the Arena as swiftly as possible and place themselves in the Cage of their victor's camp. They would receive medical treatment there if necessary, but their badges would be stripped from them and their names entered on to the list of the final victor's spoils.
Something flickered in his eyes that was far from fear. They were dark grey like the smoke of a night fire, shadowed by the turmoil of the battle around us and full of his exhaustion. Locks of his black hair stuck to his cheeks, escaping from under his helmet. He was a handsome young man, I saw that, though that had no bearing on his military skills. His badge was that of Mistress Flora, the only other one of my Mistress's sisters who might have claimed the title of Queen-Elect. She and my Mistress Seleste were the two eldest daughters of the current Queen, and both her favorites. I had never met Flora formally, though I had seen her in the Royal Household many times. Rumor told me that she was as high-spirited and determined as my own Mistress. All this went through my mind in a matter of seconds.
A jolt to my body brought my attention back to the current battle, as one of my own Silvers staggered against me. He was fighting sword to sword with two others of Flora's men. The soldier I had defeated eased himself to his feet, clutching at his torso. The blood seeped through his fingers, proving that I had wounded him, but he could still move unaided and didn't need to be removed from the field. I turned away from him, knowing that both the rules of the Battle and his own personal honor would not allow him to take any further part, and I lent my sword to my Silver's struggle. We stepped forward together, gathering around the two opponents and trapping them between us with swift, co-coordinated swordplay. I had practiced this move many times, and trained all my Guard in its execution. Despite my weariness, I felt a burst of new strength and determination, and Edrius, my Silver Captain, began to show more confidence alongside me. Together we forced the other men off balance and to their knees. At the same time, we brought our swords down flat upon their badges and they yielded.
I looked across at Edrius and he grinned back. His eyes were alight with excitement. This was the first Battle he had ever seen, let alone taken part in. He was some years younger than I was, but a very promising soldier. His youthful enthusiasm made him careless sometimes, but he was fiercely loyal and I'd found him a responsive and intelligent young man to train. It was critical that he remained concentrated on the combat, for there were still many enemy soldiers fighting with us on this last level, but I wouldn't deny him his triumph this time.
"A fine maneuver," I said.
He grinned more broadly. "There's only Flora left, sir," he gasped.
"Mistress Flora," I reminded him, sharply. The Mistresses, though we fought against their personal Guards today, must always be given our full respect.
Edrius flushed. "Of course, Mistress Flora, forgive me, sir. But Mistress Chloe and Mistress Nerisa have already surrendered. Their men are in the Cage." His eyes shone with his zeal, and maybe also with his anticipation of our Mistress's spoils at the end of the conflict. The victorious Household would gain weapons and treasures and servants, and also the first choice of all the best and most virile soldiers. One thing I knew about Edrius personally was that he was sexually enthusiastic--he enjoyed coupling as often as he could. He was Called frequently by several of the Ladies in the Household, but when they had other distractions, he sought the company of his fellow soldiers, as was the accepted custom, and as many as would indulge him. He was a popular man in the barracks for that, as much as for his lively, friendly nature.
I glanced around at the fighting that still raged. It was late in the afternoon by now and many of the fiercest skirmishes had ended. I myself had been drawn into a particularly ferocious fight in the early hours of the day, when the Guard had been fresh and the loyal fervor was high on all sides. The crowd had enjoyed the sight of over fifty soldiers in a pitched conflict for our platform on the first level. It was a magnificent sight, though I was in the thick of the fighting and struggling to protect myself and the life and security of my Guard. But I knew how the men would look to the crowd in the stands of the Arena--the strength and glory of armored men in full battle dress; the glint of their helmets and badges; the hungry shine of swords that many City dwellers only ever saw during tame ceremonies, and certainly never drawn against them or their enemies. We took our platform swiftly, defeating several challengers, but many others did not. It was always the first level that was the hardest, when all Guards were at their most aggressive and hadn't lost any men so far. At that stage, most of the sisters either withdrew their challenge through lack of support, or were defeated easily and persuaded to surrender.
There had been nine sisters at the start of the Battle, vying for the position of new Queen--all sisters of adult and near-adult age were required to take part, so long as they had some soldiers who could fight for them, even if they were very young. I had personally known a sister of the current Queen who had been only twelve years old but forced to take part, the last time the City had seen this Battle. Not surprisingly, she had been defeated in the very early stages and had taken flight from the City to avoid being murdered by her victorious sister. I'd not shared this knowledge with anyone, let alone my Mistress, who had always promised mercy and tender protection to any and all of her defeated siblings. Maybe it had been harshness on her Mother's part alone, and the retribution would not be repeated; or maybe after today's Battle, the sisters would settle peacefully to serve their conqueror, and would not pose any kind of a threat. Whatever the result, I didn't have time to spend on such thoughts now. After our first round, only four major Guards had shown themselves to be fit to fight for the final victory of their Mistress. The Battle had continued amongst these men.
At this time of day, however, there were few participants with the energy and appetite left to fight on at that early pace. I was therefore very proud to see most of my Guard still intact and active. Their faces were smeared with dirt and sweat and some blood, too, but it was never the prime intention of this event to kill, only to win. It was a ceremonial occasion, though no less fierce for that--it wasn't uncommon for men to die, on both the winning and losing side. I hadn't lost any soldiers to death today, though I'd lost a few of my Silvers to the Cage, some through their own inexperience or mistakes, and some through the bad luck of those who fought around them. But when we won the Battle, they would be released and returned to my Mistress.
When we won ... I knew I'd never considered any other outcome from this day; from the Battle for Queenship. My Mistress Seleste would win the Battle and be crowned Queen, and the old Queen--her Mother--would retire swiftly and peacefully to a retreat in the Household of Devotions. Seleste's defeated sisters would enter her service as Ladies, with whatever official duties or position she might grant them, and the whole of the Royal Household would become hers to command. That had been Seleste's objective since she grew into puberty; since she tasted the power of being titled Queen-Elect; since she took me from my previous Household and Mistress, and demanded that I train her Guard to win this Battle at all costs. Seleste was single-minded and aggressive to the point of matching her own Guard: she was beautiful and terrible and arrogant and disgracefully selfish. She was a true Mistress, and she was my Mistress.
A couple of my men ran across in front of me, looking for orders, and I directed them towards the top of the Battle Horse. It was no Horse in reality, of course--the Arena was filled solely with men and weaponry--but that was its common name. It was a tall, sturdy structure, built of wood on a metal frame, and the size of a small dwelling; it had taken the servants from the House of Construction many weeks to build. The Arena was large enough to take its size, although the fighting often spilled over on the floor and the stands, if the number of combatants was high in that year. It had four sides built up in steps, each level consisting of a wide platform all around its diameter, these platforms reducing in area as they climbed in height, like a four-sided cone. There was a flat dais at its peak. My Guard had started at the base of the structure at daybreak, aiming their attack at the north side, fighting men from all the other Guards with similar aspirations. At the same time, our defensive force took up position on the west face, and sought to hold back attacks on that side of the Horse. With this combined approach, the idea was to divide and conquer. This had worked well in previous Battles, for I had studied the strategy, and it worked well again for us today. My force broke through the other soldiers and moved up to the next level, and the other half of our Guard followed. At once, we had an advantage, leaving the others behind us. Our defense held back the attacks from the stronger Guards, and my attack cut through the weaker defenders. We worked together--the attacking and the defending force--and moved together, gradually, climbing up each of the platforms to the top. It was a complex strategy, but one we'd been well trained in. The critical thing was to move in tandem, as the number of challengers reduced each time. It would take hours--it had taken hours--but eventually there would be just one remaining Guard. When they reached the top, they would be declared the winners and their Mistress crowned as the new Queen.
Edrius had confirmed that the other remaining sisters had left the Battle, leaving only Flora. I tried to assess the number of enemy soldiers still in the Battle, for Flora's Guard and our own had been well matched at the start, but it seemed she had suffered more casualties. The fighting still continued around me, but everyone knew we were in the final stages. I glanced at the stands of the Arena, taking a moment's break from my attention to duty. The stone steps were filled with rows of people, a sea of white faces with nothing but blurred red spots for features. There was wave upon wave of pale, ceremonial clothing from the City dwellers, dyed with clumsy decoration or draped with garlands that they'd made from waste cloth and animal fur. All of this was broken up with the brighter garments of the Ladies and their assistants. Occasionally a row of spectators would rise up and cheer, their flags fluttering in the sparse breeze of the hot day, but overall they were quieter than before. This was partly because of the heat and the weariness of the long day--many of the spectators had arrived long before daybreak, to find the best seats--but also because of the atmosphere of increasing tension. The Battle was drawing to its close, but we all knew that some of the fiercest fighting might burst out again in the dying moments.
I looked up towards the top of the Battle Horse--we were on the last platform before the dais. I saw Zander with his back to the last flight of steps leading to the top, in charge of our defense. His helmet bore a favor from the Queen-Elect herself, Seleste's own scarf that fluttered raggedly but brightly in the sunshine. He was her best and favorite Gold Warrior, and he knew it. He fought so very fiercely, and in so tightly controlled a manner that it had concerned me in the past. He was very skilled and very aggressive, but I had been afraid that his lack of imagination would compromise him if he faced anything unfamiliar. I'd once reported it to my Mistress. Seleste had smiled at my concern and thanked me for it, and so I knew that she had no intention of doing anything about it. She liked Zander as he was, and would keep him so. He was often in her bed, and very proud of it.
I was often there, too, but less proud.
There was a cry to my left and a group of men passed me, knocking me further back against the metal struts of the wall. The final stages of the Battle meant that both attacking and defending forces met on this higher platform and there was a renewed energy to their conflict. I saw Edrius pushing forward with Linar and Raneld, other men I admired, cleaving through a cluster of Flora's men. I saw the glint of sunlight on badges, the purple enameling of my Mistress's Household and the dark green of her sister Flora's. I heard cries of fury and grunts of pain. The hot air shimmered with the dust and the song of swords. I had many good Silvers in the battle, moving with confidence and purpose, and my heart swelled at the sight of them forging ahead. There was an unusual ferocity in their combat today, a strength and a wildness that had startled even me, who knew their capacity well. They fought as if possessed. But there was also a firm discipline to their attacks; they would win, I knew that without a doubt. For a moment, I remembered the pride I'd felt as a newly promoted Gold Warrior in the Household of the Exchequer, when I'd been given my very first group of Silvers to train and lead. And Bronzemen too, the new, raw recruits who needed so much attention yet showed so much promise at the beginning of their lives of service. Each year, they arrived in the Household just out of their boyhood, scared and flushed with devotion to the Household, full of eagerness and strength and fierce naivete...
"Maen!" It was Zander's voice, loud and urgent, ringing out over the sounds of battle. I didn't need his warning, though it was well judged. A soldier from Flora's Guard had broken away from the throng and approached me from behind. I don't know how I heard him over the clamor but the hairs rose on the back of my neck and I knew he was there, even before he'd had time to swing his sword. I spun around and struck, my aim blind but true. The soldier was a Gold Warrior and one whom I recognized--maybe I had seen him at a domestic tournament, or on the Royal Household training ground where Mistress Flora would prepare her Guard for traveling elsewhere in the City. Wherever and whenever it was, I knew enough of his style to anticipate his defense. I thrust straight through it, the force of my strike spinning his body back and the glinting edge of my blade slicing smoothly through the flesh of his upper arm. He cried out; blood welled suddenly and richly from the wound, and his sword fell to the ground. Edrius and Raneld were on him immediately, one with a sword to his throat, the other forcing him down to his knees, blade to his badge.
I did nothing more than nod to them, pleased with the result. I started to turn around to find out where I was needed next.
The sudden sound from the crowd startled me, because it was extraordinary: people rose from their seats in blocks and their voices seemed to swell tenfold. It was a cry of relief and delight and magnificent triumph. For a moment, I was confused, and then I realized that they could see the whole Horse, whereas I had been restricted to the north face alone. There were a few of Flora's soldiers still standing, but now they dropped to their knees and bowed their heads, acknowledging our victory. Zander leapt up to the top of the Horse and raised his sword high: the Guard around him followed with a loud cheer.
"Seleste!" came the cry, and I heard it reverberate around the Arena. "Hail to the Queen! Hail to Mistress Seleste!"
Edrius turned to face me, his face pale and sweat-streaked but glowing with delight. "Flora's finished! She's surrendered, too. We've won!"
"The Mistress has won," I answered, but there was no anger to my automatic rebuke, I was smiling along with him. "Let's get our men back down to the ground."