Chapter 62: A Field of Corpses
The sounds of battle clamored over the soft but steady footfalls of the Duchess’s three scrivas. Carina tightened her grip on the elemental wolf’s slick snow-white hair as they rounded the bend in the road. Lumi’s claws dug into the hardened dirt surface, jostling the ice witch against his neck as they both took in the two sides of the battlefield.
The Crown Prince’s carriage stood directly before them, surrounded by the twenty royal knights’ double-layer shield wall. In the field to the carriage’s right, a grizzly scene of dismembered corpses stretched from the road to the forest tree line and beyond. To the left in the southern field, the towering figure of Beaumont in his blood-spattered armor and purple cloak stood out clearly as he single-handedly cut his way through the ranks of two hundred mercenaries.
‘What is he thinking?!’
The Duchess turned Lumi toward the left field, a row of dual-fanged spears appearing in the air above her as she directed them toward the nearest line of enemy forces with a wave of her hand. The two unforgiven quickly gave chase, tackling the enemy soldiers and ripping off their heads with unhinged savagery. Whatever bravery the Shadow Army had been clinging to until that moment shattered when they turned to find the ice witch and her snarling elementals at their back.
The desperate cry of a bugle sounding a retreat was all it took for the remaining ranks of soldiers to turn tail and run, many of them throwing down their shields, swords, and weapons, either to appear less threatening or lighten the weight on their feet. Unfortunately for the men around Captain Beaumont, this achieved neither as the Marquess’s dragon sword swiped through the back line of fleeing men, cleaving them in two, while a powerful wave of magic cut through the forest, decapitating and dismembering those that had reached its seeming safety.
The green pines, fur, birch, and oak trees within three yards of Beaumont’s attack trembled and toppled with thunderous groans as they yielded before the powerful knight’s fury.
‘What the hell is he if not a witch?’ Carina wondered in silent awe as the Marquess turned, his attention directed towards a group of maybe forty mercenaries who raced toward the river bank, throwing themselves into the strong current as they swam desperately toward the opposite shore.
The ice witch almost felt sorry for the poor mortals, as it appeared not all of them knew how to swim. Those that couldn’t stay above the surface panicked as they grabbed onto their comrades, dragging each other beneath the water as the rain-flooded currents carried them away.
‘At this rate, there will be no one left to fight by the time Colonel Isaac and his men get here.’
A flicker of flames pulled the Duchess’s gaze back to the road as Lumi growled. Only then did she notice the fire witch lying face down in the dirt just a few yards ahead of her. The pureblood rose sluggishly as if fighting some invisible weight. With a nudge of her knees, Carina urged Lumi toward their fallen prey, summoning an ice spear as they drew closer.
The fire witch continued to squirm, heedless of their approach, his burning gaze and right hand focused on the royal knights’ shield wall and the carriage they protected. He screamed as the Duchess’s spear pierced his right shoulder, pinning him to the ground and smothering the flames along his arm.
“Sorry, but I can’t let you do that,” Carina commented coldly, ignoring the stream of incoherent protests that poured from the pureblood’s lips as she dismounted and circled his prostrate body to stand between the fire witch and his target. “Now that your mission has failed, the only thing left for you to do is tell me, who sent you?”
The Ventrayna witch’s lips curled into a sinister snarl of hatred as he stared up at the ice witch. Another stream of incoherent words burst forth, even as his expression shifted between confusion and frustration. The Unforgiven appeared to grasp his meaning and snarled as they snapped their icy fangs dangerously close to his face. The Duchess quietly soothed the two smaller scrivas and sent them off to deal with the few surviving mercenaries who stumbled through the field of corpses toward the royal carriage.
“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Carina murmured with a shake of her head as her attention returned to the fire witch. “It doesn’t sound Ventrayian or like any language I’ve heard before.” She watched with growing impatience as the pureblood attempted to speak again, resulting in the same chaotic unintelligible results. “It appears you either can’t or won’t speak to me,” the Duchess commented dryly, then flinched as he beat his face into the ground in either frustration or desperation.
‘What the hell is this?’
A warning prickle of magic tickled down her neck, and the ice witch narrowed her eyes as heat rippled through the air above the fire witch, slowly melting the ice spear that impaled his right shoulder. With an annoyed sigh, the Duchess bathed the smoldering flames coiling along his leather armor with a heavy blanket of frost. Just when she managed to extinguish the flickering sparks, the fire witch’s entire body seemed to ignite as crimson flames roared and whipped chaotically around the pureblood, turning him into a literal living pillar of fire.
“Has he gone mad?” Kirsi hissed tensely as the startled ice witch rose and backed cautiously away. “You need to contain him or run—now, Carina. He’s going to blow himself up, and he’s trying to take us with him.”
‘What? Shit! Is there any way to stop him?’ As little as Carina cared about the assassin, she wouldn’t get any answers from a dead man.
“This isn’t like dealing with one of those bombs from your world. There are no wires, codes, or built-in fail safes. If this coward gets access to enough of Kritanta’s magic, he could blow up half a fortress. That’s the sort of danger we’re dealing with.”
‘Like a suicide bomber?’
‘Exactly. No sane fire witch would choose this method unless they were truly desperate and more afraid of living with the consequences of their failure.”
‘But what about the knights and the carriage? I can’t just abandon Nicholas and Eleanora.’
“We don’t have time to worry about them, Carina!”
‘Understood. Then, I just need to contain the blast.’
Ignoring Kirsi’s very loud and rather unhelpful protests, the Duchess dismissed Lumi and the Unforgiven to the safety of the frozen cortex. She then focused on channeling her ice magic, pulling liquid tendrils of water from the river and injecting them with Viktor’s cold magic. The frigid tendrils wrapped themselves around the man of flames. Steam hissed and billowed as the cocoon of arctic elements wove itself into layers, like a python wrapping around its prey.
The pureblood appeared to comprehend her intent as he turned and moved stiffly toward the terrified knights and royal carriage. Carina quickly froze his feet against the ground, only to shudder as he ripped his right leg free, leaving the smoldering stump of his foot behind.
The ice witch gritted her teeth as she opened the floodgates to Viktor’s immortal power further, weaving three and then six tendrils of ice-cold water around the pureblood until he stood entombed in an elemental pillar of frigid magic. After a few moments, the pureblood assassin and his flames vanished beneath the hardened freezing layers, and the Duchess breathed a small sigh of relief. Then a quiet but distinct pop snapped her gaze to where a crack emerged along the interior walls of the ice prison and quickly spread.
“It’s not enough. Raise a barrier, Carina. Now!” Kirsi screamed urgently as black flames licked against the continuously widening cracks.
The Duchess hurriedly complied, summoning the first ice barrier between the ticking firebomb and the royal carriage. Before she could raise a second one for herself, Beaumont tackled Carina off her feet and quickly rolled on top of her as chunks of ice shrapnel exploded through the air above them.
Carina blinked as the autumn blue sky transformed into a river of flames that shrieked as they coiled overhead. For a moment, the torrent of fire seemed to merge into the shape of something demonic as a pair of burning eyes stared down at the ice witch over the Marquess’s shoulder. Then the flames rapidly retreated as quickly as they had appeared, as if being sucked back into the vacuum of hell, leaving only the charred scorched earth and burning fields around them.
“Really?” Kirsi muttered in exasperation. “That’s all you have to say for yourself?”
“Your Grace?” Beaumont murmured worriedly as he eased himself off the winded ice witch. “Are you alright?”
“Yes, I—think so,” Carina whispered, her voice slightly strained as she tried to push him away further, only to realize his left arm was trapped beneath her head. “Thank you—again.”
“If you keep making this a habit, I might have to resign as a royal knight and Marquess to become your personal bodyguard,” Beaumont growled with only the hint of a laugh as he sat up and absently smothered the burning patch of fire on the shoulder of his purple cloak.
The Duchess laughed weakly, then sat up slowly before extinguishing his cloak in a mist of frost. The Marquess stared down at her for a moment before offering his hand, which she readily accepted. They both stood and turned to gaze across the smoke-filled planes of burning corpses around them that spread to the edge of the forest.
Carina shook her head, feeling slightly lightheaded as she moved around the Marquess to check on the royal carriage. She breathed a sigh of relief at her mostly still intact ice barrier until a flicker of flame beyond the chipped scorched wall caught her attention.
“Captain?” Lieutenant Olund and several knights circled the ice barrier warily with their swords drawn.
“I’m fine, we’re both fine,” Beaumont retorted, moving beside the Duchess toward the carriage. “How is his Majesty?”
“The carriage is on fire!” shouted one of the knights still behind the frozen barrier. Lieutenant Olund whipped around as the four horses pulling the royal vehicle reared and bucked in panic as the flames spread rapidly across the silver-painted ornamental wooden roof.
“Hold them!” the Marquess yelled in frustration even as the driver abandoned his seat, which quickly caught fire, still clinging to the reigns.
Carina hastily raised her hands to extinguish the flames, only to recoil as Lieutenant Olund stepped towards her with his sword raised.
“What do you think you’re doing, witch?” Olund demanded sharply.
“Idiot,” Beaumont growled, knocking the lieutenant’s blade away with the smack of his gloved hand. “She’s only trying to help!”
Carina gasped as the carriage horses lunged forward, shaking off the knights and dragging along the driver for several yards before he rolled off into a burning ditch. “Damn it. Lumi!”
The scriva appeared beside the ice witch, snarling at Lieutenant Olund, who backpedaled so quickly he tripped and fell over. The Duchess ignored the lieutenant as she climbed onto the elemental wolf’s back, absently noting the late arrival of Colonel Isaac and the rest of the Bastiallano knights. She turned and offered her hand to the Marquess, who smiled before jumping up behind her unassisted.
“Hold on,” Carina warned as Lumi took off after the burning carriage rattling toward the destroyed bridge. She did her best to ignore the pressure of Beaumont’s arm around her waist as she focused on the more immediate danger of the churning river directly in front of the panicked horses.
A simple but functional ice bridge quickly formed in Carina’s mind before taking physical shape as it stretched out across the roaring river currents, even as the royal carriage thundered across. One of the passenger doors burst open, and the ice witch barely caught a glimpse of the Crown Prince before Nicholas dove head-first into the river to escape the flames clinging to his back and arms.
“I’ve got him,” Beaumont growled, releasing the Duchess’s waist as he jumped off the racing scriva and slid to the edge of the bridge before diving into the currents after the gasping monarch. Carina stared after them for a few seconds until a woman’s panicked scream snapped her attention back to the carriage.
“Help me! Please—somebody help me!”
Lumi lengthened her strides, overtaking the panicked horses with some difficulty, given the narrow width of the road and the carriage’s erratic movements. The burning carriage door clipped a low-hanging tree branch and snapped off, bouncing dangerously toward them, but the elemental merely snatched it up with her icy jaws and tossed it aside like a toy.
Soon after, they drew up beside the burning carriage. The Duchess quickly extinguished the blaze, coating the carriage’s exterior in frost before jumping over onto the driver’s seat. The slick, icy surface of the box seat nearly sent Carina careening off the other side before the ice witch caught hold of the rails and managed to take a seat, only to stare down at the twisted reins that dangled uselessly between the team’s thundering hooves far from her reach. Gritting her teeth, Carina focused on the harnesses of the four horses, linking her ice magic to them and creating her own temporary reins that she quickly yanked back on, pulling the team to a slow but gradual halt.
With a tired, shaky breath of relief, Carina dismissed the reins and formed a sword, which she used to sever the team of horses from the carriage just to be safe. She quickly jumped down and rushed to the carriage door, extinguishing the lingering flames within before crawling inside to kneel beside the sobbing, whimpering woman.
The visible burns on the Crown Princess’s hands and arms quickly pulled the Duchess’s attention to her face, hidden beneath a tattered scorched hood, where the visage of nonother than Lady Priscilla stared back at her beneath charred red skin that covered half the noblewoman’s face.
“He—he left me!” Priscilla sobbed hoarsely before collapsing onto the carriage floor at the ice witch’s feet.
Nicholas coughed and gagged, gasping for air as Beaumont dragged him out of the river before dragging the limp monarch up the rocky riverbank onto the grassy leaf-covered shoreline. The Crown Prince sank weakly down onto his hands and knees as the Marquess released him and then firmly patted the still coughing monarch’s back as the drenched prince heaved up the portions of river water he had inhaled.
“What—” Nicholas spat out weakly once he caught his breath, “—took you so long?”
“You’re alive and in one piece,” Beaumont retorted bluntly as he sat down to pull off his boots, emptying the river water from them. “Let me know when you’re ready to start walking. There might still be a few mercenaries lurking about in these woods.”
The Crown Prince’s hazel-blue eyes hardened as he wiped his chin and then rolled over to sit and stare in the direction of the ice bridge. “Borghese,” he growled quietly. “That fucking animal! To think he would go this far, even after I offered him a dignified retreat.”
“He’ll be less of a threat to you now that his Shadow Army’s been reduced to a mere handful of men.”
“I suppose so,” Nicholas mused darkly before lifting his gaze to the dripping knight beside him. “Thank you, friend. You’re more valuable than you realize—”
“Which is why you keep coming up with new ways to keep me by your side,” Beaumont observed cynically as he pulled his boots back on and shook out his damp blonde hair.
Nicholas didn’t bother to deflect the accusation. ‘Who better than the reaper of the battlefield to keep me safe.’ “And now it seems we’ve uncovered yet another mask from your secretive Duchess.”
The Marquess frowned before the sound of thundering hooves turned their gaze toward an approaching group of horses and riders. The prince stiffened and then scrambled to his feet to cower behind the unflinching giant, who stood up calmly.
“It’s alright, your Majesty,” Beaumont commented as he gestured toward the female rider at the head of the Kensington Knights. “It’s the Crown Princess.”
“Thank the Saints!” The Crown Prince exhaled in a rush of relief as he pressed a hand to his chest, composed himself, and then stepped forward to greet his anxious wife.
“Your Majesty!” Eleanora called out frantically as she reined in her horse, removed her helm, and then hurriedly dismounted. “Are you alright?”
“I think so,” Nicholas replied wearily, grimacing as the princess, garbed in the uniform of the Kensington knights, hugged him fiercely. “I might have a few mild burns and some bumps and bruises, but nothing serious.”
“Gods—I can’t believe Percy was right,” Eleanora whispered tensely as she stepped back to examine his face and garments. “Oh—your jacket—it’s burned! So, it’s true then that your carriage caught on fire.”
“Yes, it did.” The Crown Prince smiled as the princess turned him around to check his back from head to toe. “We should head back to the royal knights and the Duchess. My Captain is worried more mercenaries might be lingering about in the forest.”
“I know,” Eleanora muttered unhappily. “We captured a few of them on our way towards you.” Her amber eyes briefly darted over at the Knight Captain before returning to the prince. “I guess that means Marquess Borghese went back on his word.”
“So it would seem,” Nicholas growled, shaking his head in frustration and then nodding to where his father-in-law approached. “Viscount Kensington. Thank you for keeping her safe.”
“You need never thank me for that. Eleanora is my child, after all,” Alastair murmured quietly as he removed his protective chest plate and then offered it to the monarch. “Here, your Majesty, just to be safe.”
“I appreciate your concern, but—”
“Father, you mustn’t!” Eleanora quickly protested, ignoring her husband’s hurt expression. “I mean—surely one of the knights can offer theirs.”
“I’ll be fine, my dear,” Alastair responded calmly as he assisted the Crown Prince into the stylish chest plate embellished with the seal of a crow. “Though we appear to be short on horses.”
“I can ride with Eleanora,” Nicholas replied adamantly, grinning at the princess’s uncertain pause before turning to where the new Marquess was already trudging his way back upriver. “Though my Captain will need a horse of his own.”
“No need,” Beaumont replied as he raised his fingers to his lips. A sharp whistle echoed out across the loudly churning river, and a moment later, the speckled gray gelding appeared, trotting happily along the opposite embankment, where it greeted its master with an almost reproachful neigh before crossing.
“That settles that,” Nicholas stated, grimacing as he stretched out his back and then moved to claim Eleanora’s horse. “We should return to the nobles and Prime Minister to deal with our unruly prisoner.”
“Before that—there is something you should know,” Eleanora said hesitantly, glancing over at her father before she moved to join her husband. The Crown Prince raised his brows in confusion as his wife wrapped her arms around his neck and then whispered in his ears.
“I’m sorry, your Majesty, but—Prime Minister Attwood—is dead.”