Chapter 61: A Bridge to Nowhere
The Duchess’s white mare had just begun to settle into her new position, leading at the front of the organized swarm of Bastiallano’s calvary knights and the royal procession guarded safely within their ranks. Carina’s amused smile faded as every minute brought them closer to the lurking danger ahead she both dreaded and longed for.
After a mere three weeks, she still couldn’t shake the startling weight of her responsibilities as both Duchess and Commander of these knights, who seemed only too willing to follow her into the waiting trap ahead. But these soldiers were more than just numbers that made up units and companies, they were men, living and mortal, and—there was a genuine chance some of them would die out here among the verdant fields of wildflowers that curved beneath the swaying eastern green pines, red oak, and paper birch trees.
‘Strange. Every day since coming to Lafeara has been a constant battle to avoid danger—yet here I am leading an army toward a battle that I have no way of predicting the outcome of.’
Carina couldn’t quite pinpoint the moment it had happened, but—sometime after meeting Viktor and accepting the magic of his immortal heart—the crippling fear of death that had haunted her almost as long as Maura’s spirit had, appeared to have faded.
‘I’m still mortal, but also a witch, one with enough magic that hopefully makes me harder to kill.’
The Duchess gave herself a mental shake. While thinking of death when facing battle made sense, it would do her little good to lose focus now. She strained her eyes, then searched for her scriva hawks above, connecting to one to gauge the distance left before they reached the bridge and its waiting ambush.
‘Still no sign of either fire witch. As much as I’d like to think they went back to Ventrayna if their target was Eleanora, they won’t give up this last opportunity so easily.’
The ping of the second scriva hawk pulled Carina’s attention back to the bird’s eye view of the forest directly around them. She spotted the blurred figure that streaked beneath the tree branches, barreling in their direction, and quickly raised her hand in a fist as she disconnected.
“What is it?” Isaac asked quickly but found his answer soon enough as the fire witch blazed towards them, his feet exploding off the ground with powerful bursts of air that allowed him to sprint forward as fast as a horse. “Defensive formation!”
Even from a distance of ten yards, the ice witch could hear the roaring hiss and whistle of the two balls of flame that seemed to swallow each of the fire witch’s arms. The pureblood’s next powerful dash brought him hurtling toward the right flank, the first row still scrambling to form a shield wall to barricade the mounted knights and royal carriage behind them.
‘They won’t be ready in time.’
The cold current of Carina’s sharp breath flickered with a blue light that matched the curling mist coiling down her right arm as she flung her hand toward the quickly disappearing gap between their attacker and the Duchess’s knights. The ice wall rose, startling the knights and horses behind it as it spread like a tidal wave, arching over men, beasts, and carriage a mere second before the pureblood’s fists and flames exploded against it.
The Duchess exhaled slowly, relief fading as quickly as the frost spreading along her fingers. The Colonel’s orders echoed dully in her ears while her eyes trailed after the fire witch, who recoiled from the ice wall, sprinting back several yards before his burning amber gaze settled on the ice witch.
‘Damn it. Well—this is one hell of a way to out myself….’
Carina gritted her teeth and tightened her grip on the reins as the assassin pureblood sprinted sideways. The strange bursts of air ripped through grass and earth below his steps as he barreled clear of the first wave of arrows and then altered his direction, coming straight for her.
The ice witch encased her armor with a protective elemental barrier as she summoned a shield around her left arm and a glowing ball of whirling ice magic in her right hand. She aimed for the ground directly ahead of the fire witch just as he released a boulder-size fire bolt at her.
The white mare stared at the incoming ball of flames, exhaled forcefully as she tossed her head, and then bolted sideways, throwing off Carina’s aim and jostling her left foot from the stirrup. With both hands occupied, the ice witch could only swear as she shot the ice bolt, knowing it would miss its mark, and rolled with her shield toward the quickly rising ground. For a split second, the heel of her right foot refused to leave the stirrup—dragging the ice witch along the bumpy road behind the panicked white mare before liberating her.
With no time to contemplate how badly she had fucked up, the Duchess rolled upright behind her shield and flinched as a wall of flames engulfed her.
‘It’s okay. I’m on solid ground now—but I need to get this asshole away from the knights and the royal carriage!’
“Lumi!” Carina called as she summoned her spear, then lurched to her feet with the giant scriva at her side as they lunged forward to meet the charging pureblood. In what should have been a moment of victory, the ice witch could only watch as the same overwhelming burst of hot magic enabled the fire witch to dodge both Lumi’s fangs and the Duchess’s spear.
‘What the fuck is going on?’
“Your Grace, he’s likely using an air enchantment,” Colonel Isaac called out as he reigned in beside her. “What should we do?”
“Stick to the plan.”
“And what if the other one shows up while you’re gone?”
‘Shit. That’s right. There are two of them. And the shadow witch is probably going to be harder to spot.’
“I’ll try to create some distance,” Carina muttered tensely, watching the pureblood as he bolted from side to side with a sprays of dirt, avoiding the knight’s attempt to pin him down with arrows. “If the second one doesn’t show himself soon, we continue forward.”
“Everyone, get down and stay below the level of their shields!” Major Garrett bellowed, seemingly unphased by the sudden wall of ice that still barricaded the royal carriage.
“Listen to him, Acheron,” Attwood snapped, shaking the Rogue from his stupor as the young nobleman attempted to stand up in his saddle to watch the witch fight that had moved ahead of them.
“Mercy’s tit—did you see that? Lady Kirsi used ice magic?”
‘Saints—this—changes everything….’ Acheron shook his head uneasily as he slowly dismounted.
“We all saw it, and thank the Saints she did,” Attwood growled, glancing at the shocked and terrified expressions of the nobles behind them. “There’s no telling how much damage that fire witch would have done if the Duchess had not acted in time.” The Prime Minister frowned as Earl Coldwell pushed his horse through the thin line between the Bastiallano defensive line and the tense Kensington knights.
“What do we do? What if there are more of them?” Coldwell blurted out, sweating profusely as he clutched his hunting bow.
“You stay put and keep out of her way,” Captain Beaumont snapped, shifting restlessly on his speckled gelding as his eyes returned to the fight ahead. “If there are more, you’ll only make yourself a target by breaking rank.”
“Speak for yourself, you giant bastard,” Coldwell spat back, flinching as the new Marquess turned to glare in his direction. “It’s clear their target is the royal carriage. The rest of the nobles should withdraw to safety. Perhaps the Kensington Knights or some of Bastiallano’s troops could escort us—”
“Are you actually requesting permission to abandon his Majesty?” Attwood demanded incredulously.
“The Crown Prince should make a break for it as well,” interjected Viscount Kendall, squeezing in behind the Earl. “Vesper Bridge is just ahead, and the Capital’s not far beyond. He can have my horse—”
“The royal knights and Duchess will handle any decision regarding his Majety’s safety—”
“That bitch is a witch!” Coldwell retorted shrilly. “We all saw her use her magic just now!”
“To protect her knights and the royal carriage!”
“Let them be father,” Acheron interrupted with a wry smile. “If the cowards want to run, let them run.”
The Prime Minister drew himself up as the nobles gathering behind Coldwell whispered hopefully. “Very well, I cannot compel you to remain, but if you abandon his Majesty’s side, I will ask for your chains of office come dawn tomorrow morning.”
‘Well played, old man.’
“Calm yourselves, gentlemen!”
Acheron’s face soured as Viscount Norley approached behind the left flank of knights, leading his horse on foot. “We all know witches exist in Lafeara. It’s just a shame Earl Hawthorne and his faction chose to leave before us. They might have had one or two witches to tip this battle in our favor. In either case, what is one witch against five hundred of Bastiallano’s finest?”
Strangely enough, the Viscount’s words appeared to have a calming effect on the nobles, several of whom sheepishly retreated to their place in line.
“You have a point, Lord Norley,” Coldwell replied reluctantly. “All the same, should any member of the Royal Faction die today, I will be holding the Duchess personally responsible.”
“Why don’t you cover that balding head of yours before someone decides to use it for target practice,” Acheron shot back, lifting his hunting bow suggestively before the Prime Minister kicked his shoulder.
“Must I remind you all that you are the proud lords of Lafeara?” Attwood seethed, his words and expression rippling with disgust. “Try to remember that while getting back in line wh—”
An eerie whistle that seemed to glide over the Rogue’s head ended with a thud as the Prime Minster’s words cut off sharply. Acheron turned to look up in confusion and stared into the stunned steel-blue eyes of his equally befuddled father as Attwood raised a trembling hand toward the smoldering black arrow embedded between his neck and shoulder.
The Prime Minister’s gaze rose unsteadily toward the terrified expression on Acheron’s face. His lips moved feebly into garbled sounds, and then Attwood’s chin dropped to his chest, eyes glazing over as his rigid body slid forward, stumbling out of the saddle into his son’s waiting arms.
A second arrow, this one coated in flames, launched from the shadows of the forest and pierced through the curtains of the royal carriage, prompting a scream from the woman within.
“They must have a marksman hiding in the trees, possibly more than one,” Major Garrett called out sharply as he moved to cover the window with his shield. The nobles quickly scampered to dismount and cowered behind the knights.
“As much as I’d hate to raise the suggestion again,” Viscount Norley growled out as he glanced from the dead Prime Minister over to Captain Beaumont. “Are you sure you can keep his Majesty safe if we remain standing here?”
The Marquess scowled at the Viscount, then glanced from the smoke rising through the carriage’s curtain to the trees from which the arrow had come.
Luring the annoying fire witch away from the royal carriage and knights proved trickier than Carina had anticipated. The pureblood appeared to be deliberately maintaining a certain distance so that he was far enough away to avoid the knight archer’s arrows, which he dodged quite easily while luring Lumi into their path, and close enough that the Duchess couldn’t recklessly unleash her magic without endangering her men or the nobles.
Just as the ice witch contemplated turning the whole right side of the forest road into an ice patch to freeze him in place or at least trip him up, sudden shouts and the sound of horses and carriage wheels jerked her attention over to where the royal knights led by Captain Beaumont had forced their way through Bastiallano’s knights and now charged ahead.
“What—the fuck?” The Duchess hissed, wincing and raising another ice wall to cover the royal carriage’s retreat from the fire witch’s renewed attacks. It became crystal clear who the pureblood was aiming for when he snarled and sprinted after the fleeing knights.
“Your Grace,” Colonel Isaac called out as the ice witch quickly climbed onto Lumi’s back, summoning two of the Unforgiven to chase after the fire witch.
“What happened to waiting?” Carina demanded furiously.
“The Prime Minister is dead,” Lieutenant Quinn explained as he rode up between them. “An arrow from the trees. Probably our shadow witch. They took aim at the royal carriage.”
“So, then you cover the carriage windows with shields—never mind. They’re headed straight for the Marquess’s ambush!”
“Lieutenant Quinn, take half your unit and cover the nobles who stayed behind. Everyone else comes with me!” Isaac roared as his two Lieutenants quickly broke away to gather their men.
The Duchess took a moment to slow her breathing, unable and unwilling to focus on the news of Attwood’s death. She attempted to pinpoint the second fire witch but quickly gave up as the fire witch and royal carriage got further away. Nicholas and Eleanora had to come first, and she couldn’t—wouldn’t leave Beaumont to fight an entire army alone.
Carina quickly pushed Lumi to their front, the elemental wolf’s longer limbs easily leaving them behind as she chased after the pureblood and his fleeing prey.
Beaumont pulled the silver gelding to the side of the road, allowing the royal knights and carriage to pass as he glanced over his shoulder to confirm the assassin fire witch was hot on their trail.
With a soft whistle, the Marquess encouraged the gelding into a gallop, gliding effortlessly through the tall grass alongside the royal knights and carriage as he studied the landscape ahead. Just around the bend in the road, he caught a glimpse of sunlight dancing on the rippling current of Vesper River. Soon enough, the bridge came into view, and with it came the curious sight of two wooden barrels stacked on each corner of the crossing.
‘That wasn’t there when we rode by a week ago.’
Beaumont quickly raised his hand and closed it into a fist as he swung the gelding in front of the knights and carriages, cutting them off.
“Why have we stopped?” Nicholas shouted from inside the carriage. “What’s going on?”
“That blasted fire witch is gaining on us!” Lieutenant Olund shouted from behind the carriage.
“Captain, up there, on the ridge!” another royal knight shouted, drawing the Marquess’s attention to the tree line on their right, where rows of men in black uniforms surged down through the trees in their direction. A quick glance to the left revealed a similar situation. “We’re surrounded!”
“Isn’t that the Marquess’s Shadow Army?”
“Get into formation!” Beaumont shouted as he quickly jumped down from the gelding, turning it toward the bridge.
“We can outrun them. Why would we stay here?” Olund protested, dismounting reluctantly as the other royal knights hastily followed orders.
The Marquess ignored the question as he whispered a quick prayer of safety over the calm speckled gelding’s muzzle, then smacked the horse’s flank to send it over the bridge. The gelding picked up speed, following its master’s instructions faithfully as its hooves clattered loudly across the wooden bridge, nearly reaching the other side—before both horse and bridge vanished in an explosion of gunpowder, flames, and smoke.
Beaumont clenched his jaw, turned away, and freed his dragon sword. The royal knights fell wordlessly into a shield formation around the royal couple, two of them securing the carriage’s startled horses.
“Okay, so the bridge was a bad idea,” Lieutenant Olund muttered as he jogged behind the Marquess. “But we can’t hold off six hundred mercenaries with only twenty men. And what about that bloody fire witch?”
“Leave him to me.”
The lieutenant nodded tensely and quickly left to take his place in the shield wall. He smacked the rumps of a few lingering horses, sending them off toward the river away from the approaching chaos of the roaring Shadow Army.
Beaumont drew in a slow breath, pushing down the foolish mortal emotions that sometimes rose to cloud his vision. He took in the advancing army of overly confident fools, veiled in death yet to come, the vibrant color of their souls’ aura slowly fading until their mortal husks were little more than shadows that lingered between life and death.
“That which is dead cannot be saved,” the Marquess murmured as he cleared his thoughts and focused on the vibrations of nature and earth around him, pinpointing each bursting step of the fire witch until a pattern emerged, then setting his trap with a single twitch of his left eye.
The pureblood assassin stumbled and fell, rolling head over heels down the dirt road before an immense pressure flattened him against the ground and shattered the enchanted garnet jewels sewn into the cuffs of his boots.
With the burning torch momentarily immobilized, the Knight Captain quickly turned, leveraging the ancient magic coursing through his veins to enchant his movements as he sprinted towards the north field and charged into the front lines of mercenaries, unleashing a tidal wave of earth magic with the swing of his dragon sword.
The dragon steel blade sang hauntingly as it swung wide, slicing through metal, flesh, and bone with barely a whisper. The upper torsos of the first ten soldiers in the front line lifted and spiraled away from their collapsing lower limbs, a spray of blood and entrails splattering on the twenty men behind them, who were knocked back by the current of earth magic that followed the Knight Captain’s first attack.
The third and fourth row, who tripped and fell over the bodies of their stunned and dismembered colleagues, staggered to a halt as Beaumont reversed his swing, and Minerva’s sword cried out its mournful dirge as it cleaved through the living, leaving only the souls of the dead in its wake.
Standing behind his riflemen at the edge of the forest tree line, Captain Weylin could barely comprehend the massacre taking place before his very eyes. He’d heard rumors of the Duke’s bastard offspring shortly after Weylin had been dishonorably discharged for failing to follow the orders of some unschooled, upstart noble officer. Through the few surviving battle friends still employed by Lafeara’s military, the veteran had heard of the pale-haired bastard that rose quickly through the ranks. A feat often attributed to his father’s bloodline and connections, though stories calling him the grim reaper of the battlefield spread like wildfire.
Weylin had assumed those tales were fake, especially given how quickly Captain Beaumont’s military career ended when he was recalled to the palace to serve as bodyguard to the second prince. But the carnage left in the wake of the bastard’s longsword, which moved like a harvesting scythe, cutting back and forth through the heart of his forces—was like something out of a nightmare.
The mercenary captain tore his eyes away, focusing on the silent pale riflemen waiting in three rows on either side. “First rank, prepare to fire on my command.”
The marksmen adjusted their positions and steadied themselves as they focused on the closest target, some flinching at the visible spray of blood and guts that came with each swing of the pale giant’s sword.
“Let’s put that bastard in the ground,” Weylin muttered darkly as he raised his hand and dropped it sharply. “Fire!”
The deafening volley of musket balls pierced through the chaos of battle, peppering some of their own men who fled before the Knight Captain’s ruthless pursuit. The mercenary captain quickly raised his binoculars and stared into the battle reaper’s violet eyes as the giant glanced briefly in their direction before dismissing them to charge into another cowering unit of mercenaries.
“Why the fuck is he still standing? Did anyone even hit him?” Weylin snarled, gripping the binoculars tightly as he lowered them. “First rank withdraw and reload. Second rank, advance and prepare to fire! Don’t fucking miss this time!”
“Sir!” One of the marksmen in the third row gestured toward the road’s western end. Even at this distance, the small Duchess’s silver armor, white hair, and the giant ice wolf she road were easily identifiable. The mercenary captain also noted the two other wolves trailing behind, only slightly smaller in size.
“Fuck this. Right rank, prepare a cover fire. Left rank, aim for the Duchess. If she falls, that will pull the Bastard Captain away from our men and give them a chance to escape.”
‘There was no point in staying if they had no chance of succeeding. Survival was more important.’
The three left rows of marksmen quickly adjusted their position, spreading out to merge two longer lines. Weylin gave them as much time as possible before prompting them with, “Ready, take aim and—”
A deafening roar of doom buried the Captain’s final command as Weylin whipped about to stare at the crashing figure of the terrifying elemental bear. He scrambled for the musket pistol at his belt, even managed to pull it free and cock the firing hammer, before a swipe of the bear’s claws ripped the weapon away, slicing the mercenary’s stomach open in the process.
The riflemen scattered as their Captain fell. From the south end of the woods, Weylin heard his second in command blowing the horn, calling for retreat. But even that fading note held little meaning as his dying gaze beheld the brutal and total annihilation of his men by the bear and the four deadly wolves that followed it. Their beautiful white fur, like the color of freshly fallen snow, soon glittered with the crimson spray of blood and defeat.