Orbit is proud to present a major new epic by a sensational new talent.
Introducing legendary general Cold Zosia and her five villains in a fearless, wildly exuberant, and brilliantly imagined tale of revenge.
It was all going so nicely, right up until the massacre.
Sir Hjortt’s cavalry of two hundred spears fanned out through the small village, taking up positions between half-timbered houses in the uneven lanes that only the most charitable of surveyors would refer to as “roads.” The warhorses slowed and then stopped in a decent approximation of unison, their riders sitting as stiff and straight in their saddles as the lances they braced against their stirrups. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon in the autumn, and after their long approach up the steep valley, soldier and steed alike dripped sweat, yet not a one of them removed their brass skullcap. Weapons, armor, and tack glowing in the fierce alpine sunlight, the faded crimson of their cloaks covering up the inevitable stains, the cavalry appeared to have ridden straight out of a tale, or galloped down off one of the tapestries in the mayor’s house.
So they must have seemed to the villagers who peeked through their shutters, anyway. To their colonel, Sir Hjortt, they looked like hired killers on horseback barely possessed of sense to do as they were told most of the time. Had the knight been able to train wardogs to ride he should have preferred them to the Fifteenth Cavalry, given the amount of faith he placed in this lot. Not much, in other words, not very much at all.
He didn’t care for dogs, either, but a dog you could trust, even if it was only to lick his balls.
The hamlet sprawled across the last stretch of grassy meadow before the collision of two steep, bald-peaked mountains. Murky forest edged in on all sides, like a snare the wilderness had set for the unwary traveler. A typical mountain town here in the Kutumban range, then, with only a low reinforced stone wall to keep out the wolves and what piddling avalanches the encircling slopes must bowl down at the settlement when the snows melted.
Sir Hjortt had led his troops straight through the open gate in the wall and up the main track to the largest house in the village… which wasn’t saying a whole lot for the building. Fenced in by shedding rosebushes and standing a scant two and a half stories tall, its windowless redbrick face was broken into a grid by the black timbers that supported it. The mossy thatched roof rose up into a witch’s hat, and set squarely in the center like a mouth were a great pair of doors tall and wide enough for two riders to pass through abreast without removing their helmets. As he reached the break in the hedge at the front of the house, Sir Hjortt saw that one of these oaken doors was ajar, but just as he noticed this detail the door eased shut.
Sir Hjortt smiled to himself, and, reining his horse in front of the rosebushes, called out in his deepest baritone, “I am Sir Efrain Hjortt of Azgaroth, Fifteenth Colonel of the Crimson Empire, come to counsel with the mayor’s wife. I have met your lord mayor upon the road, and while he reposes at my camp—”
Someone behind him snickered at that, but when Sir Hjortt turned in his saddle he could not locate which of his troops was the culprit. It might have even come from one of his two personal Chainite guards, who had stopped their horses at the border of the thorny hedge. He gave both his guards and the riders nearest them the sort of withering scowl his father was overly fond of doling out. This was no laughing matter, as should have been perfectly obvious from the way Sir Hjortt had dealt with the hillbilly mayor of this shitburg.
“Ahem.” Sir Hjortt turned back to the building and tried again. “Whilst your lord mayor reposes at my camp, I bring tidings of great import. I must speak with the mayor’s wife at once.”
Anything? Nothing. The whole town was silently, fearfully watching him from hiding, he could feel it in his aching thighs, but not a one braved the daylight either to confront or assist him. Peasants—what a sorry lot they were.
“I say again!” Sir Hjortt called, goading his stallion into the mayor’s yard and advancing on the double doors. “As a colonel of the Crimson Empire and a knight of Azgaroth, I shall be welcomed by the family of your mayor, or—”
Both sets of doors burst open, and a wave of hulking, shaggy beasts flooded out into the sunlight—they were on top of the Azgarothian before he could wheel away or draw his sword. He heard muted bells, obviously to signal that the ambush was under way, and the hungry grunting of the pack, and—
The cattle milled about him, snuffling his horse with their broad, slimy noses, but now that they had escaped the confines of the building they betrayed no intention toward further excitement.
“Very sorry, sir,” came a hillfolk-accented voice from somewhere nearby, and then a small, pale hand appeared amid the cattle, rising from between the bovine waves like the last, desperate attempt of a drowning man to catch a piece of driftwood. Then the hand seized a black coat and a blond boy of perhaps ten or twelve vaulted himself nimbly into sight, landing on the wide back of a mountain cow and twisting the creature around to face Sir Hjortt as effortlessly as the Azgarothian controlled his warhorse. Despite this manifest skill and agility at play before him, the knight remained unimpressed.
“The mayor’s wife,” said Sir Hjortt. “I am to meet with her. Now. Is she in?”
“I expect so,” said the boy, glancing over his shoulder—checking the position of the sun against the lee of the mountains towering over the village, no doubt. “Sorry again ’bout my cows. They’re feisty, sir; had to bring ’em down early on account of a horned wolf being seen a few vales over. And I, uh, didn’t have the barn door locked as I should have.”
“Spying on us, eh?” said Sir Hjortt. The boy grinned. “Perhaps I’ll let it slide this once, if you go and fetch your mistress from inside.”
“Mayoress is probably up in her house, sir, but I’m not allowed ’round there anymore, on account of my wretched behavior,” said the boy with obvious pride.
“This isn’t her home?” Hjortt eyed the building warily.
“No, sir. This is the barn.”
Another chuckle from one of his faithless troops, but Sir Hjortt didn’t give whoever it was the satisfaction of turning in his saddle a second time. He’d find the culprit after the day’s business was done, and then they’d see what came of having a laugh at their commander’s expense. Like the rest of the Fifteenth Regiment, the cavalry apparently thought their new colonel was green because he wasn’t yet twenty, but he would soon show them that being young and being green weren’t the same thing at all.
Now that their cowherd champion had engaged the invaders, gaily painted doors began to open and the braver citizenry slunk out onto their stoops, clearly awestruck at the Imperial soldiers in their midst. Sir Hjortt grunted in satisfaction—it had been so quiet in the hamlet that he had begun to wonder if the villagers had somehow been tipped off to his approach and scampered away into the mountains.
“Where’s the mayor’s house, then?” he said, reins squeaking in his gauntlets as he glared at the boy.
“See the trail there?” said the boy, pointing to the east. Following the lad’s finger down a lane beside a longhouse, Sir Hjortt saw a small gate set in the village wall, and beyond that a faint trail leading up the grassy foot of the steepest peak in the valley.
“My glass, Portolés,” said Sir Hjortt, and his bodyguard walked her horse over beside his. Sir Hjortt knew that if he carried the priceless item in his own saddlebag one of his thuggish soldiers would likely find a way of stealing it, but not a one of them would dare try that shit with the burly war nun. She handed it over and Sir Hjortt withdrew the heavy brass hawkglass from its sheath; it was the only gift his father had ever given him that wasn’t a weapon of some sort, and he relished any excuse to use it. Finding the magnified trail through the instrument, he tracked it up the meadow to where the path entered the surrounding forest. A copse of yellowing aspen interrupted the pines and fir, and, scanning the hawkglass upward, he saw that this vein of gold continued up the otherwise evergreen-covered mountain.
“See it?” the cowherd said. “They live back up in there. Not far.”
Sir Hjortt gained a false summit and leaned against one of the trees. The thin trunk bowed under his weight, its copper leaves hissing at his touch, its white bark leaving dust on his cape. The series of switchbacks carved into the increasingly sheer mountainside had become too treacherous for the horses, and so Sir Hjortt and his two guards, Brother Iqbal and Sister Portolés, had proceeded up the scarps of exposed granite on foot. The possibility of a trap had not left the knight, but nothing more hostile than a hummingbird had showed itself on the hike, and now that his eyes had adjusted to the strangely diffuse light of this latest grove, he saw a modest, freshly whitewashed house perched on the lip of the next rock shelf.
Several hundred feet above them. Brother Iqbal laughed and Sister Portolés cursed, yet her outburst carried more humor in it than his. Through the trees they went, and then made the final ascent.
“Why…” puffed Iqbal, the repurposed grain satchel slung over one meaty shoulder retarding his already sluggish pace, “in all the… devils of Emeritus… would a mayor… live… so far… from his town?”
“I can think of a reason or three,” said Portolés, setting the head of her weighty maul in the path and resting against its long shaft. “Take a look behind us.”
Sir Hjortt paused, amenable to a break himself—even with only his comparatively light riding armor on, it was a real asshole of a hike. Turning, he let out an appreciative whistle. They had climbed quickly, and spread out below them was the painting-perfect hamlet nestled at the base of the mountains. Beyond the thin line of its walls, the lush valley fell away into the distance, a meandering brook dividing east ridge from west. Sir Hjortt was hardly a single-minded, bloodthirsty brute, and he could certainly appreciate the allure of living high above one’s vassals, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of creation. Perhaps when this unfortunate errand was over he would convert the mayor’s house into a hunting lodge, wiling away his summers with sport and relaxation in the clean highland air.
“Best vantage in the valley,” said Portolés. “Gives the headperson plenty of time to decide how to greet any guests.”
“Do you think she’s put on a kettle for us?” said Iqbal hopefully. “I could do with a spot of hunter’s tea.”
“About this mission, Colonel…” Portolés was looking at Sir Hjortt but not meeting his eyes. She’d been poorly covering up her discomfort with phony bravado ever since he’d informed her what needed to be done here, and the knight could well imagine what would come next. “I wonder if the order—”
“And I wonder if your church superiors gave me the use of you two anathemas so that you might hem and haw and question me at every pass, instead of respecting my command as an Imperial colonel,” said Sir Hjortt, which brought bruise-hued blushes to the big woman’s cheeks. “Azgaroth has been a proud and faithful servant of the Kings and Queens of Samoth for near on a century, whereas your popes seem to revolt every other feast day, so remind me again, what use have I for your counsel?”
Portolés muttered an apology, and Iqbal fidgeted with the damp sack he carried.
“Do you think I relish what we have to do? Do you think I would put my soldiers through it, if I had a choice? Why would I give such a command, if it was at all avoidable? Why—” Sir Hjortt was just warming to his lecture when a fissure of pain opened up his skull. Intense and unpleasant as the sensation was, it fled in moments, leaving him to nervously consider the witchborn pair. Had one of them somehow brought on the headache with their devilish ways? Probably not; he’d had a touch of a headache for much of the ride up, come to think of it, and he hadn’t even mentioned the plan to them then.
“Come on,” he said, deciding it would be best to drop the matter without further pontification. Even if his bodyguards did have reservations, this mission would prove an object lesson that it is always better to rush through any necessary unpleasantness, rather than drag your feet and overanalyze every ugly detail. “Let’s be done with this. I want to be down the valley by dark, bad as that road is.”
They edged around a hairpin bend in the steep trail, and then the track’s crudely hewn stair delivered them to another plateau, and the mayor’s house. It was similar in design to those in the hamlet, but with a porch overhanging the edge of the mild cliff and a low white fence. Pleasant enough, thought Sir Hjortt, except that the fence was made of bone, with each outwardly bowed moose-rib picket topped with the skull of a different animal. Owlbat skulls sat between those of marmot and hill fox, and above the door of the cabin rested an enormous one that had to be a horned wolf; when the cowherd had mentioned such a beast being spied in the area, Sir Hjortt had assumed the boy full of what his cows deposited, but maybe a few still prowled these lonely mountains. What a thrill it would be, to mount a hunting party for such rare game! Then the door beneath the skull creaked, and a figure stood framed in the doorway.
“Well met, friends, you’ve come a long way,” the woman greeted them. She was brawny, though not so big as Portolés, with features as hard as the trek up to her house. She might have been fit enough once, in a country sort of way, when her long, silvery hair was blond or black or red and tied back in pigtails the way Hjortt liked… but now she was just an old woman, same as any other, fifty winters young at a minimum. Judging from the tangled bone fetishes hanging from the limbs of the sole tree that grew inside the fence’s perimeter—a tall, black-barked aspen with leaves as hoary as her locks—she might be a sorceress, to boot.
Iqbal returned her welcome, calling, “Well met, Mum, well met indeed. I present to you Sir Hjortt of Azgaroth, Fifteenth Colonel of the Crimson Empire.” The anathema glanced to his superior, but when Sir Hjortt didn’t fall all over himself to charge ahead and meet a potential witch, Iqbal murmured, “She’s just an old bird, sir, nothing to fret about.”
“Old bird or fledgling, I wouldn’t blindly stick my hand in an owlbat’s nest,” Portolés said, stepping past Sir Hjortt and Iqbal to address the old woman in the Crimson tongue. “In the names of the Pontiff of the West and the Queen of the Rest, I order you out here into the light, woman.”
“Queen of the Rest?” The woman obliged Portolés, stepping down the creaking steps of her porch and approaching the fence. For a mayor’s wife, her checked dirndl was as plain as any village girl’s. “And Pontiff of the West, is it? Last peddler we had through here brought tidings that Pope Shanatu’s war wasn’t going so well, but I gather much has changed. Is this sovereign of the Rest, blessed whoever she be, still Queen Indsorith? And does this mean peace has once again been brokered?”
“This bird hears a lot from her tree,” muttered Sir Hjortt, then asked the woman, “Are you indeed the mayor’s wife?”
“I am Mayoress Vivi, wife of Leib,” said she. “And I ask again, respectfully, to whom shall I direct my prayers when next I—”
“The righteous reign of Queen Indsorith continues, blessed be her name,” said Sir Hjortt. “Pope Shanatu, blessed be
“I see,” said the mayoress. “And in addition to accepting a rebel pope’s resignation and the promotion of his kin to the same lofty post, our beloved Indsorith, long may her glory persist, has also swapped out her noble title? ‘Queen of Samoth, Heart of the Star, Jewel of Diadem, Keeper of the Crimson Empire’ for, ah, ‘Queen of the Rest’?” The woman’s faintly lined face wrinkled further as she smiled, and Portolés slyly returned it.
“Do not mistake my subordinate’s peculiar sense of humor for a shift in policy—the queen’s honorifics remain unchanged,” said Sir Hjortt, thinking of how best to discipline Portolés. If she thought that sort of thing flew with her commanding colonel just because there were no higher-ranked clerical witnesses to her dishonorable talk, the witchborn freak had another thing coming. He almost wished she would refuse to carry out his command, so he’d have an excuse to get rid of her altogether. In High Azgarothian, he said, “Portolés, return to the village and give the order. In the time it will take you to make it down I’ll have made myself clear enough.”
Portolés stiffened and gave Sir Hjortt a pathetic frown that told him she’d been holding out hope that he would change his mind. Not bloody likely. Also in Azgarothian, the war nun said, “I’m… I’m just going to have a look inside before I do. Make sure it’s safe, Colonel Hjortt.”
“By all means, Sister Portolés, welcome, welcome,” said the older woman, also in that ancient and honorable tongue of Sir Hjortt’s ancestors. Unexpected, that, but then the Star had been a different place when this biddy was in her prime, and perhaps she had seen more of it than just her remote mountain. Now that she was closer he saw that her cheeks were more scarred than wrinkled, a rather gnarly one on her chin, and for the first time since their arrival, a shadow of worry played across the weathered landscape of her face. Good. “I have an old hound sleeping in the kitchen whom I should prefer you left to his dreams, but am otherwise alone. But, good Colonel, Leib was to have been at the crossroads this morning…”
Sir Hjortt ignored the mayor’s wife, following Portolés through the gate onto the walkway of flat, colorful stones that crossed the yard. They were artlessly arranged; the first order of business would be to hire the mason who had done the bathrooms at his family estate in Cockspar, or maybe the woman’s apprentice, if the hoity-toity artisan wasn’t willing to journey a hundred leagues into the wilds to retile a walk. A mosaic of miniature animals would be nice, or maybe indigo shingles could be used to make it resemble a creek. But then they had forded a rill on their way up from the village, so why not have somebody trace it to its source and divert it this way, have an actual stream flow through the yard? It couldn’t be that hard to have it come down through the trees there and then run over the cliff beside the deck, creating a miniature waterfall that—
“Empty,” said Portolés, coming back outside. Sir Hjortt had lost track of himself—it had been a steep march up, and a long ride before that. Portolés silently moved behind the older woman, who stood on the walk between Sir Hjortt and her house. The matron looked nervous now, all right.
“My husband Leib, Colonel Hjortt. Did you meet him at the crossroads?” Her voice was weaker now, barely louder than the quaking aspens. That must be something to hear as one lay in bed after a hard day’s hunt, the rustling of those golden leaves just outside your window.
“New plan,” said Sir Hjortt, not bothering with the more formal Azgarothian, since she spoke it anyway. “Well, it’s the same as the original, mostly, but instead of riding down before dark we’ll bivouac here for the night.” Smiling at the old woman, he said, “Do not fret, Missus Mayor, do not fret, I won’t be garrisoning my soldiers in your town, I assure you. Camp them outside the wall, when they’re done. We’ll ride out at first”—the thought of sleeping in on a proper bed occurred to him—“noon. We ride at noon tomorrow. Report back to me when it’s done.”
“Whatever you’re planning, sir, let us parley before you commit yourself,” said the old woman, seeming to awaken from the anxious spell their presence had cast upon her. She had a stern bearing he wasn’t at all sure he liked. “Your officer can surely tarry a few minutes before delivering your orders, especially if we are to have you as our guests for the night. Let us speak, you and I, and no matter what orders you may have, no matter how pressing your need, I shall make it worth your while to have listened.”
Portolés’s puppy-dog eyes from over the woman’s shoulder turned Sir Hjortt’s stomach. At least Iqbal had the decency to keep his smug gaze on the old woman.
“Whether or not she is capable of doing so, Sister Portolés will
The old woman looked back past Portolés, frowning at the open door of her cabin, and then shrugged. As if she had any say at all in how this would transpire. Flashing a patently false smile at Sir Hjortt, she said, “As you will, fine sir. I merely thought you might have use for the sister as we spoke, for we may be talking for some time.”
Fallen Mother have mercy, did every single person have a better idea of how Sir Hjortt should conduct himself than he did? This would not stand.
“My good woman,” he said, “it seems that we have even more to parley than I previously suspected. Sister Portolés’s business is pressing, however, and so she must away before we embark on this long conversation you so desire. Fear not, however, for the terms of supplication your husband laid out to us at the crossroads shall be honored, reasonable as they undeniably are. Off with you, Portolés.”
Portolés offered him one of her sardonic salutes from over the older woman’s shoulder, and then stalked out of the yard, looking as petulant as he’d ever seen her. Iqbal whispered something to her as he moved out of her way by the gate, and wasn’t fast enough in his retreat when she lashed out at him. The war nun flicked the malformed ear that emerged from Iqbal’s pale tonsure like the outermost leaf of an overripe cabbage, rage rendering her face even less appealing, if such a thing was possible. Iqbal swung his heavy satchel at her in response, and although Portolés dodged the blow, the dark bottom of the sackcloth misted her with red droplets as it whizzed past her face. If the sister noticed the blood on her face, she didn’t seem to care, dragging her feet down the precarious trail, her maul slung over one hunched shoulder.
“My husband,” the matron whispered, and, turning back to her, Sir Hjortt saw that her wide eyes were fixed on Iqbal’s dripping sack.
“Best if we talk inside,” said Sir Hjortt, winking at Iqbal and ushering the woman toward her door. “Come, come, I have an absolutely brilliant idea about how you and your people might help with the war effort, and I’d rather discuss it over tea.”
“You said the war was over,” the woman said numbly, still staring at the satchel.
“So it is, so it is,” said Sir Hjortt. “But the
She balked, but there was nowhere to go, and so she led Sir Hjortt and Brother Iqbal inside. It was quiet in the yard, save for the trees and the clacking of the bone fetishes when the wind ran its palm down the mountain’s stubbly cheek. The screaming didn’t start until after Sister Portolés had returned to the village, and down there they were doing enough of their own to miss the echoes resonating from the mayor’s house.