Authors: Craig Schaefer
Otto Blum often claimed he’d lost his taste for prayer. Years on the front lines against the Terrai, endless months of bloodshed and savagery, had turned the words to ashes in his mouth. Peacetime granted him an officer’s commission and a comfortable job behind a desk at Fort Blackwood, but along the way he’d swapped his childhood faith for a lifetime of nightmares.
Nightmares that came true, the moment a coarse burlap hood slipped over his head and rough hands dragged him from his bed in the still hours of the night.
They’d taken off the hood maybe an hour later, so he could see where he was going. It wasn’t a kindness. Now he clutched the bars of a wheeled wicker cage, drawn along the brambly forest trail by a tired nag. Ragged men with pale skin and hard eyes surrounded him.
Suddenly, the prayers of his childhood were all he had left.
“Gardener,” Otto whispered, “I am your son, fruit of your soil. Do not forsake me in my hour of distress—”
“Shut it,” one of the rebels said, slapping the side of the cage with the flat of a crudely hammered sword. “Your god’s forsaken you, fat little dog. You’re on the Lady’s sacred soil, where the wolves come out to play. And the wolves are
Otto heard howling up ahead, howling that devolved into braying, raucous laughter. As the cart slowly rounded a bend, a circle of yellow torchlight made Otto’s breath seize in his throat.
A man in the tatters of an Imperial uniform hung impaled on a tall wooden stake. He’d been skinned. They’d draped his skin and clothes back over his body, left to droop and puddle in pockets of decaying flesh. The corpse’s jaw drooped slack, most of the teeth crudely hammered out.
, Otto thought, his days on the front surging back to him. His sergeant, a man named Werner Holst, had ordered every soldier in his unit to carry a mercy knife—so if they were ever overrun they could slash their own throats rather than fall into the hands of the Terrai.
He wished he had one now.
More torches lit a forest clearing, and a bonfire sent thick plumes of black smoke up to kiss the face of the full moon. Terrai in gray furs danced and sweat and leaped around the flames, passing crusty bottles and spitting mouthfuls of wine into the fire. A musician played his panpipes, filling the air with discordant, jagged notes that echoed Otto’s fluttering heartbeat.
The cart stopped. Two of the rebels unlocked the cage and hauled him out, throwing him to his hands and knees on the wet grass. Otto looked up, slowly, at the man who stood before him.
He was slender, with sparse hair the color of straw and a long, narrow chin. He wore a mantle and cloak of gray wolfskin, the furred shoulders swallowing up his thin, almost emaciated body, and a pewter medallion resembling the face of a full moon.
“Do you know who I am, Imperial?” he asked.
Otto knew. He forced the words out, one by one. “Judicael Leclerc. Knight-commander of the Autumn Lance. Warlord.”
“And do you know where you are?”
“The Floating—” Otto stumbled over the words. “The Floating Court.”
Otto’s men thought it was a myth. The last remnants of Terrai royalty, driven from their ruined palaces, set adrift in their own homeland like nomads. He knew better. His own superiors had confirmed that the Floating Court existed; they just couldn’t
the damn thing. All they knew was that a train of partisan fighters followed it wherever it went—and wherever the Court went, loyal Imperials vanished and died. They died badly.
“Then you know,” Judicael said conversationally, “that things aren’t looking good for you right now.”
“N-no, sir,” he stammered.
Judicael flung out his arms, grinning at the rebels who surrounded them.
Sir, he calls me! They’ll invade our homes, smash our shrines, and butcher our children in their cribs, but get one alone and on his knees and suddenly it’s, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir!’ He’ll offer to suck my cock next.”
Otto winced. Cruel laughter echoed around him. He looked to the men’s faces, starving for a crumb of mercy in one rebel’s eyes, the tiniest hint of compassion. He found none.
“You forgot one of my titles,” Judicael said. “Acting regent, ever since King Bonnaire was drawn and quartered for your emperor’s pleasure. But it’s all right. We don’t stand on formality here. Do we, lads?”
More laughter. “N-no, sir!” one piped up, mocking Otto’s stammer.
Judicael leaned closer, looming over him. “What’s your name, dog?”
Otto squared his shoulders and looked him in the eye. He couldn’t keep the fear from his voice, but damned if he’d cower. “Otto. Sergeant Otto Blum, paymaster for Fort Blackwood.”
“You’re a very lucky man, Otto. You sound like a person who knows things, and that’s just what we need right now. Our scouts spotted a large detachment of soldiers leaving Blackwood this afternoon, heading northeast. Why?”
Otto spent a lifetime believing he was a man of honor. Before that moment, though, he’d never been put to the test.
Breathing one word of the news he’d received, the orders he’d been given, would be high treason. He’d be spitting on his command, his honor, and every ideal he’d sworn to uphold as a soldier for the Murgardt Empire.
On the other hand, he was a prisoner of the Terrai. The Wolves in the West. And he knew what they did to their prisoners.
They’ll make you talk
, he told himself.
Hours, or days, or weeks, one way or another, you’ll talk. All you’re doing is saving yourself some pain
Otto’s shoulders slumped. “Reinforcing our borders. There was…an incident in the desert.”
“Oerran soldiers attacked al-Tali. Little trading post on the edge of no-man’s-land. They sacked it and burned it with no provocation. Only a few settlers escaped to tell the tale.”
Judicael took a step back. He rubbed his chin, thinking.
“So it’s war then, is it?”
“No one knows.” Otto shook his head. “I imagine Emperor Theodosius is deciding on his response. He has to do
“Mm, and Theodosius the Lesser is hardly known for his diplomatic skills, is he? Tell me, how many other garrisons in Belle Terre are sending troops to the border?”
“I don’t know.” Otto’s eyes widened. “Truly! I—I truly don’t know. They don’t tell us that. All I know is…at Blackwood this morning we had five hundred men. Now we have a hundred and fifty.”
Judicael fell silent. He studied Otto for a moment, and glanced over at a nearby rebel.
“Fetch my wife.”
The Terrai ran off. A minute later, a tall woman approached, silhouetted by the roaring bonfire. She wore high furred boots and a robe of gray wolfskin, its fringe trimmed with silver thread. A silver circlet bearing an image of the crescent moon adorned her brow, a wave of black ringlets cascading down around it. Black smudges stained her eyelids and lips, and she’d powdered her already-pale skin corpse white.
“Ophelie, meet our guest, Otto. Otto, this is Ophelie, my wife. Ophelie is a moonseer. Do you know what a moonseer is?”
“One of your…heathen witches,” Otto said, clinging to what little defiance he could muster.
Ophelie stood over him, imperious, chiseled from ice.
“I am a priestess,” she told him. “Chosen of the Lady of Five Hundred Names, and a spiritual advisor to my people. I was a prisoner of war once, Imperial. I wonder: should we treat you with the same hospitality
was treated with?”
Otto did his best to meet her cold glare, but he bowed his head and stared down at the grass. “I’m certain it was leagues better than what you do with
“Let’s see if you change your mind in an hour or two.” She looked to the closest rebel. “Bring me fourteen volunteers.”
Judicael held up his hand. “Now, now, love. Let’s not be hasty. Otto here has some useful information. He might even know more than he thinks. You see, Otto, my wife is a skilled diviner. She has a knack for…getting the truth out of people. This is a situation where, I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s
important that we know the truth.”
“I’ve told you everything I know,” Otto said. He slumped down, pressing his hands to the damp ground. “Please.
. I don’t know anything else. I can’t help you. Just let me go.”
“I think he’s gonna cry,” one of the rebels said, snickering.
“Two coppers says he wets himself first,” muttered another.
“Few people fathom the full extent of their own memories,” Ophelie said. “But as my husband said, I am a skilled diviner. My specialty is what the ancient people of Cypri called osteomancy. I read the future in the fall of bones. Their patterns tell me secrets.”
Otto looked up slowly and let out the breath he’d been holding. The woman was babbling about heathen nonsense, but she sounded as harmless as the old cook at Fort Blackwood who claimed to read futures in playing cards.
I might actually live through this
, he dared to believe.
Then he saw the long, wickedly sharp bronze knife held loosely in Ophelie’s hand.
“It works best,” she explained, “if the bones are fresh.”
The rebels fell on him, forcing him onto his belly, shoving his face into the dirt. They wrenched one arm behind his back and held the other fast. Calloused hands tugged off his boots and clasped his ankles.
“Small bones,” Ophelie circled him. “Fingers. Toes. Sometimes ribs.”
Otto tried to plead, to beg, but his words were lost in a sudden maelstrom of hopelessness. He sobbed into the dirt, and all he could manage to blurt out was a single ragged cry.
Judicael shook his head. His wife crouched down and took hold of Otto’s big toe, pressing the tip of her knife to the pad of tender flesh.
“I’ve heard rumors that your pope is dead,” Judicael said. “And there is silence in the cathedrals. Who speaks for your god now, I wonder?”