The next bard takes the rostrum. He is old and gray, leaning heavily on a cane on his right side. The wrinkles on his face suggest a hard life, but he has dignity in his stride. He wears the dress uniform of a member of the Unified Military, complete with Master Sergeant’s bars on his arm and a Mage Corps badge on his chest. Yet it is the symbol above it prompting whispers: A fearsome dragon curled around a shield — the insignia of the legendary Mighty 27th.
The man clears his throat. “I don’t have the flowery language or dramatic flair of my fellow bards,” he says. He takes out a worn pipe and fills it. “I’m just an old soldier, but I have what all old soldiers have: Stories about the brave legionaries I stood with in my time. Those still here, and those who’ve passed.”
He brings the pipe up to his lips. But instead of a match, he whispers a word to himself — and a spark of flame appears in the bowl of the pipe. A thrill runs through the crowd at this minor act of magic as he takes a long puff.
“This story is from decades past,” he says. Smoke billows from his mouth. “In the bad old days of Rorei the Young. Right when things started falling apart, and the Ecclesiarchs of Subaten declared their grand crusade against the ‘mad sorcerer king…’”
PART I: The Remnants
It was supposed to be a quiet scouting mission on the frontier.
They were to simply journey through Vitigis Pass and find a suitable location for a forward command base. Child’s play for a unit of the Mighty 27th.
Then a battalion of Subaten grenadiers appeared on the horizon, firing in perfect lines and lobbing balls of explosive powder. By the time they closed for a bayonet charge, the unit was already starting to rout. And when the sun set on their retreating forms, only three of the unit’s mages — Lieutenant Danil ‘ja Minaldi, Sergeant Sillato Redent, and Corporal Antin Rigo — were left.
Even now Antin could hear the screams of his comrades-in-arms when the first black powder bomb exploded in their ranks. It was his first taste of real combat; he’d only graduated from Basic a few months before. He had always imagined he would cut a striking figure, dashing and brave, as he clashed with the enemies of the Empire.
Instead, as soon as blood spurted from his neighbor’s throat and acrid smoke filled his nostrils, he broke and ran.
It was the only reason he was still alive. But the memory filled him with shame.
Antin snapped back to reality. Redent, breathing heavily from atop the horse, was leaning down close to Antin.
“Are you okay?”
Antin swallowed, nodded, and forced the memories down like a bad taste.
Lieutenant ‘ja Minaldi was talking to a woman they’d just awoken, still dressed in her nightshirt and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. With their torn clothes and bloodstained faces, the three of them must have made a sorry sight for this woman and the other villagers curious about the late-night disruption. Sergeant Redent was atop their exhausted horse, the only reason he’d made it this far with the nasty bullet wound on his leg.
“Welcome to the village of Rochdale,” the official said. “I’m the mayor.”
“I see.” The lieutenant’s head dipped a moment before he met the mayor’s eyes again. “I’m afraid I must request lodging for the night for myself and my men.”
The mayor hesitated and looked to the crowd behind her. Some whispered to each other while others pointed at the signet rings on the three soldiers’ fingers, one of the marks of members of the Imperial Mage Corps. Binders were rare on the Sindar Plains, and not always welcome. Yet there was no outcry amongst the villagers. Yet.
“Certainly, Lieutenant,” the mayor said. She was happy to avoid a conflict with armed soldiers, especially ones that knew how to Bind. “You’re welcome to stay in my home. I have a spare room my wife can make up for you” — an older woman in the crowd let out an irritated sigh the mayor ignored — “but I’m afraid we don’t have anything quite as comfortable for your men. They’re welcome to stay in my barn with your horse.”
“Perfectly okay, ma’am,” ‘ja Minaldi said, equally happy to avoid building resentment in a remote border town with so few men at his command. “The Empire thanks you for your hospitality.”
The woman led the three soldiers to their resting spots, and most of the crowd dispersed.
But when Antin happened to look over his shoulder, he saw one man stayed behind: A young man, but already years of hard labor had noticeably toughened him. His skin was tanned and his arms well-muscled, he was clearly a farmer. Yet the most striking thing about him was the look of hatred on his face.
He and Antin locked eyes briefly. The intensity of the man’s gaze unnerved Antin. He thought about the dead eyes of his comrades and the horrific shouts of the overwhelming Subaten forces, and wondered if this was the man who would kill him.
But then the young man turned and vanished into the night.
“A Subaten battalion so close to Vitigis Pass can only mean one thing,” ‘ja Minaldi said.
“They’re planning to seize a position on this side of the pass before we can fortify it,” Redent said.
‘Ja Minaldi nodded. “And then we’ll be hard-pressed to stop them from sweeping across the Sindar Plains. Now that they know we’re scouting, they’re likely to accelerate those plans.”
It was the morning after they’d arrived in Rochdale. They were in the barn where Antin and Redent had made their quarters. Now, Redent sat on a bale of hay, wincing as he cleaned and redressed his raging red-purple wound. Antin was brushing the Lieutenant’s horse.
“How long before they get here, sir?” Antin asked.
“A week, perhaps,” ‘ja Minaldi said. His face was grim. “Two, if we’re very lucky.”
“And how long would it take us to get the army here?”
‘Ja Minaldi frowned. “If the three of us march to the point of exhaustion, and the army musters at the drop of a hat? Possibly in a month.”
Redent laughed, long and loud.
Antin gaped. “But then… what should we do?”
“A rider on a strong horse,” ‘ja Minaldi said carefully, “could make the journey much quicker, and potentially get the army here in half the time. But we’ve only one horse. And considering the mayor’s relatively prosperous position in town” —he gestured toward the two old nags that were the only horses in the barn besides their own — “we’re unlikely to find any suitable replacements.”
“So one of us rides ahead while the other take a longer march?”
Redent snorted. “Corporal, did you get knocked in the head? A nice little town, right on the Boern with nothing but farmboys and old wives living there? Leave that undefended, we might as well surrender the pass to the Subatens.”
Redent yelped as he tightened his fresh bandages.
When he caught his breath, he continued: “I’d never make the trip with my leg, and you’re so green the commanders would laugh you out of their tent. There’s only one man anyone would listen to who’d survive the ride.”
Antin blanched. The panic he felt yesterday when the first shots were fired started to rise in his chest.
There was a long pause as Redent and ‘ja Minaldi listened to Antin struggle to control his breathing.
“This is the only chance to prevent the Subatens from securing control of the Sindar Plains,” ‘ja Minaldi said. “It sickens me to give this order. I’ve thought about it all night. And if there was another way—”
“Lieutenant,” Redent said. His voice was firm. “We knew what we signed up for when we enlisted.”
‘Ja Minaldi nodded.
Antin could only sit silently. He thought he only had a long march ahead of him to reflect on his shame. Now he was assigned a suicide mission. Had he escaped from the chaos of battle only to die in some backwater anyway?
‘Ja Minaldi put a hand on Antin’s shoulder.
“It heartens me to know such fine soldiers made it out of the ambush,” he said. “However. In case I do not return in time… We are empowered to temporarily conscript any citizen of the Empire in times of crisis. But such a militia would need training from real soldiers like yourselves.”
“Sir,” Antin said, “We have no supplies, or weapons to arm them with. What could we possibly teach them that would make any difference?”
The Lieutenant’s face stiffened. Redent chuckled without mirth.
“The one weapon we’ve got that the fanatics in Subaten refuse to use, Corporal,” Redent said. He spun his silver signet ring around his finger. “We teach them Binding.”
At noon, Antin and Redent were standing in the town square as the villagers gathered around them. Lieutenant ‘ja Minaldi had left hours earlier, after explaining the situation to the mayor and requesting she call a town meeting.
Now it was up to the two of them to recruit their militia. Antin paced while Redent bit into an apple, sitting on a crate to keep his weight off his wounded leg.
“Sergeant,” Antin said through clenched teeth, “once again I must—”
“Your objections are noted, Corporal,” Redent said lazily.
“I doubt they can even do addition, let alone plot a Course! What if they think Binding is evil?”
“All the more reason to get started as soon as possible,” Redent said. “And if they did, they would have killed us in our sleep.”
Antin sputtered. “But — sir—”
“You have your orders, Corporal,” Redent said, spitting out an apple seed.
Antin clenched his teeth and faced the crowd. Most of the town had gathered. The crowd’s chatter was building as it grew more restless, so Antin took a deep breath and stepped forward.
“Thank you all for coming,” he said, running through the speech he and Redent had prepared together. “I’m sure you’re wondering what’s going on, so let me be blunt: The Subaten military will be marching through the Vitigis Pass within the next two weeks.”
Gasps shot through the crowd. People talked at once, shouting over each other in confusion, fear, and anger. Word of Subaten’s proclamation had apparently not yet reached this corner of the Empire.
“Our commanding officer left this morning to rally nearby forces of the Unified Military and bring them here,” Antin shouted over the uproar. The crowd quieted once more. “But it’s likely they won’t make it here before the first Subaten forces arrive.”
“What good are you imperial roughnecks then?!” someone shouted from the crowd.
Antin’s simmering anger leapt into his throat. “Who said that?” he demanded.
“Corporal,” Redent warned behind him.
“Show yourself!” Antin said.
One man stepped forward. Antin started, recognizing him as the man who had stared at him the previous night.
“Here I am,” the man said. He crossed his arms. “Are you going to stop me like you’ve so far stopped the Subatens?”
What rage Antin felt was tempered by his own shame. With difficulty, he swallowed his anger and continued with his speech.
“Sergeant Redent and I were left behind to man the defenses until reinforcements arrive. To help shore up our defense of the village, we’re asking for volunteers.”
“You’re joking,” the man said. The crowd echoed his incredulity.
The man stepped up to Antin, so close that Antin could feel the heat coming off the man’s body. He had to tilt his head up to meet the slightly taller man’s gaze.
“You want us to do your work for you?” the man said. “Why should we?”
Antin was furious. He wanted to strike this man down, burn him to a crisp, wash away his ashes in a flood.
And then Antin was no longer there, but back on the battlefield from which he’d fled. The screams of his fellow soldiers rang in his ears, and the coppery taste of blood was on his tongue. Instinctively, he reached for the musket slung across his back —
But Redent grabbed Antin’s jacket and threw him to his ass.
Antin blinked to see the taller man’s smirk, and then Redent was between the two of them. Antin wiped the moisture coating his face — sweat or tears or both, he couldn’t tell.
“You’re right, my boy,” Redent said. “You get squeezed dry by the taxman for some distant emperor, and now that you actually need him he’s nowhere to be seen. I’d be angry too!”
The crowd grew confused, and Antin was incredulous. Was Sergeant Redent really speaking this treason?
“But let’s consider your options,” Redent said. “You could beat us up, take us prisoner, or hang us. And when the Subatens get here, they’ll see you’re on their side and spare you a sacking.”
Redent put his arm around the shoulder of the angry young man, who was so surprised by Redent’s words he didn’t even resist.
“The Subatens will set up camp,” Redent continued. “They’ll commandeer your homes, eat your crops, expect you to serve them. It’ll be humiliating, but no one will get hurt. Then when they’re ready to march, they’ll take as much of your harvest as they can carry with them. It’ll be a hard winter after that.”
The young man tried to jerk away, but Redent held him close.
“You could evacuate, I suppose,” Redent said. “Then all that still happens, but also you’re homeless. Oh, and you’re heretics to the Subatens.” Redent shrugged, like he didn’t much care what they did. “They’re not perfect options, but what is?”
“And trying to fight is better?” the man asked.
“I don’t know about better,” Redent said. “I can tell you Corporal Rigo and I can whip every person who volunteers into a halfway decent soldier by the time the Subatens get here. And with enough of you, we might have a chance.”
The mood of the crowd had shifted during Redent’s speech. Some still looked skeptical; several nodded slowly. But the young man wasn’t ready to give up.
“We don’t even have any weapons,” he said, defeat already in his voice. “Alvari has an old hunting blunderbuss, but other than that all we have are pitchforks and knives.”
“We’re not expecting you to bring your own weapons. Not entirely.” Redent raised his hand up and let the sun glint off his silver signet ring. “All volunteers will be taught how to Bind.”
The crowd exploded, shouting with more fervor than ever. Redent stood there, unmoving, until things quieted enough for him to speak again.
“It’ll be basic Binding. Nothing fancy,” he said. “Hard work not everyone will be up for. But no Subaten soldier knows how to do it. Their Inquisitors make sure of that. It will give us the edge we need.”
“I heard binding burns away your soul!” someone shouted.
“I heard Uncannies can take over your mind through your Rend!” another cried.
“I heard it fills your body with chaos until you dissolve!” a third yelled.
“Subaten heresies,” Antin sniffed.
The angry young man gazed at Antin as Redent pointed to the windmill atop a nearby hill.
“You use that to grind up your grain?” Redent asked.
There were murmurs of assent.
“And you only use the wind, right? There’s no failsafe Binding on it to keep it turning?”
The silence told Redent he was right.
He then pointed at a modest necklace one woman was wearing. “Doesn’t look like you have any jewelers here. You trade with the steamships that sail up the Boern, right?”
Once again, there were nods.
“Those ships wouldn’t work without their boiler mages. Probably wouldn’t see boats all the way up here more than once a year without them.”
Some in the crowd looked chastened. Others still looked unsure.
“I could list a hundred more examples, but the point is Binding is a tool like any other. Is it dangerous? Sure. So is an ox if you aren’t careful. Doesn’t mean everyone should till the soil themselves.”
Redent returned to Antin’s side.
“We’re not promising you anything,” Redent said. “Could be there’s no point in fighting. But you wanted to know what the Empire would do for you? Here we are. And if you stand with us, we’ll give you every chance we can.”
The square was silent. No one moved. Antin knew they had failed yet again.
And then the angry young man stepped forward. He eyed Antin for a moment, then turned to Redent and stuck out his hand out.
“Name’s Kosti,” he said.
Antin couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
PART II: A Flame Flickers
“You’ll teach the Binding lessons.”
Redent was sitting on a crate, out of breath and covered in sweat. He’d led their dozen volunteers in simple physical drills since the meeting ended, but his wound was taking its toll.
Antin saw the blood soaking through Redent’s bandages. He looked away before the memories of their retreat overwhelmed him.
“I don’t know how to talk to these people,” he said.
“Learn,” Redent ordered.
Antin sighed and walked to the recruits. Except for the old hunter Alvari, they were all younger members of the village.
“Sergeant Redent has put me in charge of your Binding training, which starts now,” Antin said. “Everyone, sit.”
The volunteers didn’t move. One turned to look at Kosti, who merely shrugged.
“I said sit!” Antin barked.
The volunteers, more amused than intimidated, sat down on the grass.
Antin took a deep breath.
“Binding is all about channeling the ambient chaos of the world into order, in whatever form you choose,” Antin said, channeling his old Binding drill instructor from Basic Training. “I’m sure you all know the Chaotic Realm leaks into our own Ordered Realm where the boundary between them is weak. We all know where Uncannies come from. Well, the Meridian isn’t a solid boundary, even where it’s strongest. There’s always a bit of the Realms leaking into each other. Binding is just the art of taking advantage of that. Close your eyes.”
The volunteers just stared at him again. Some of them once more turned to Kosti, who this time scowled at Antin.
“We’re never going to get anywhere if you don’t listen to me!” Antin said, fighting off the rising heat inside him. He tried to stare Kosti down. But meeting Kosti’s gaze for so long made Antin’s cheeks flush. He turned away and said, “Please.”
After a moment, Kosti closed his eyes. The other volunteers followed his lead.
“Good,” Antin said. “Take deep breaths in and out. Picture the flow of forces through the Meridian. It doesn’t matter what you think it looks like,” he said, cutting off the question he knew were coming. “What matters is you know that’s what you’re picturing.”
Chests rose and fell in rhythm.
“Now,” Antin said, “as you picture that flow, think of a symbol. It can be anything, but it works best if it’s simple and meaningful to you. Picture the flow happening through that symbol.”
The deep breathing continued.
“Keep doing that for a couple hours, and we’re done for the day.”
Eyes shot open. The volunteers looked around, unsure if he was joking.
Kosti shot to his feet and stomped up to Antin.
“We don’t have time for you to jerk us around!” he said.
“Don’t question my orders,” Antin said sharply.
Kosti grabbed the collar of Antin’s shirt. The rush of adrenaline brought Antin’s mind back to the battle: choking black smoke, ringing gunshots, rising bile. His body moved without his command. He felt suddenly saddled with a heavy weight. And then something was beneath him, shaking and moaning.
Antin blinked. He saw his left knee pinning Kosti to the ground, Kosti’s left arm locked in his own, and his right hand gripping Kosti’s shoulder. He felt Kosti’s tendons grinding as they stretched too far. Kosti gasped as rapidly as he trembled.
“Shit!” Antin leaped off Kosti’s back. Kosti rolled over. “I’m sorry,” Antin said, “are you—”
Kosti jumped to his feet and shoved Antin away.
“That hurt!” Kosti screamed.
And Antin was gone again. He heard the screams as if they were right beside him, the howls of agony, the shrieks for a friend or a far-away loved one, the dying sobs of comrades who realized there was no hope. He knew he had to run. He knew he had to live somehow, but he was paralyzed and frozen—
“Are you all right?”
It was Kosti. His face was too close. Antin scrambled backward, his heart was racing.
“I’m fine!” he said. He forced his body to calm down. “I’m fine.” He took another moment. “Are you okay?” he asked Kosti.
“I’m okay,” Kosti said.
Antin had to get them back on track. But how? Their eyes were burning through him. He wiped the sweat from his brow, and a lesson from his mother crossed his mind: You can always make friends with a personal story.
“I’m not trying to waste your time,” he said. “You know you need a Rend to Bind, right?” He pulled down the collar of his shirt to show his own Rend, a simple tattoo of a bird swooping over his heart. “Well they don’t just work automatically. The whole process is far too complicated for our minds to understand, so your body needs to know the symbol is where you channel through the Meridian. Meditating like this gets it to make the association without you having to think about it.”
“Two hours, though?” Kosti asked.
“You’re lucky this is quick and dirty training,” Antin said, calm again. “At Basic, they make you do it every day for a month to make sure it works. And I hear at the University you don’t get a Rend until your second year.”
Kosti whistled. He thought for a moment, then nodded to the others and returned to his place. Soon they were all meditating. But after a minute, Kosti opened one eye back up to look at Antin.
“Why is your Rend a bird?”
“That’s none of your business, private,” Antin said stiffly. “Get back to your training.”
And with a shrug, Kosti went back to it.
Antin decided two days was all the time they could spare on meditating. Next, he gave the volunteers a piece of parchment with a bit of coal and told them to sketch the symbols they’d been imagining.
Then they found Redent sitting on a stool by a fire while Antin heated a metal bar with his swooping bird etched into it.
Antin was thankful the sergeant was feeling well enough to join him for the lesson today. Things had been better since his confrontation with Kosti, but he couldn’t tell if that was because the volunteers trusted him or feared him.
“Your Rends won’t be the strongest with such little preparation,” Antin said, “but that can’t be helped.” He took the metal bar out of the fire and examined the red-hot end at a careful distance. Then he nodded and motioned for a volunteer.
One approached, a tailor’s son who had barely entered adulthood.
Antin took the parchment from his hand and examined the boy’s etching: a simple needle and thread. He whispered something under his breath, and the end of the metal bar twisted into the same shape with an iron squeal. Antin brushed a few flakes off his copper ring, which had grown more tarnished from fueling his spell.
“Well,” Redent said to the boy, “show the corporal where you want your Rend.”
“W-what?” the boy stammered. “You’re going to brand us? I thought Rends had to be tattoos!”
Redent chuckled. “A lot of cunning tattoo artists have swindled rich idiots who thought that. No, just a mark on your body in the right shape. Tattoos are the easiest, least-painful way.”
“Can’t we do that then?” the boy asked, staring at the hot metal.
“You got surgical needles? Tattoo ink?”
The boy shook his head.
“Then this is the best option we got,” Redent said. “Now hurry up, before the metal gets cold and he has to do it twice. Over the heart is traditional, but it doesn’t really matter.”
The boy hesitated, but rolled up his sleeve and offered his upper arm. Redent grabbed his arm, and Antin pressed the improvised brand into the boy’s flesh. His cries of pain made the other volunteers wince, but no one left.
They proceeded that way through the rest of the volunteers, most offering their arms.
Then Kosti stood in front of Antin and removed his shirt.
Antin stared at him.
“You said over the heart is traditional, right?” Kosti said.
Antin nodded, suspicious he wasn’t putting up a fight. He took Kosti’s parchment and saw a bird with its wings spread. He whirled on Kosti, incensed.
“Is this some kind of joke?” he said.
“Why did you think I asked about yours?” Kosti said. “It seemed a weird coincidence to me.”
Redent cleared his throat, holding out the heated metal brand.
Antin snatched it and pressed the hot end into Kosti’s well-muscled chest. Kosti’s lip quivered from the pain, but he was the only one of the volunteers who didn’t scream. Instead, he stared at Antin until the corporal looked away.
The next day, Antin handed out unlit wax candles to all the volunteers.
“Normally the next step would be learning to create Binds on objects so you can Draw from them for your spells, but your Rends aren’t yet strong enough to create proper Binds. So, your bodies will have to power anything you do.”
“Isn’t that how mages kill themselves?” someone asked.
“Only if they’re not careful with their Courses,” Antin said.
“I heard if you die that way, the spell burns your soul until there’s nothing left to pass through the Bone Gates.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Antin snapped. “Binding burns the calories in your body. If you don’t have enough calories left, you die. There’s nothing mystical about it.”
The recruits didn’t look convinced.
Kosti cleared his throat and said, “Only a damn fool would burn himself up anyway. So just don’t be a damn fool and listen to the corporal and you’ll never have to find out.”
Everybody sighed. Kosti had been generally supportive of Antin lately, which had helped a lot. And even though Antin resented needing the help at all, he felt his lips curling into a smile.
To hide it, he took out his own candle and whispered something. The wick suddenly lit with a gentle flame.
“This is what we’ll be working on now,” Antin said. “Creating heat and fire is easy and a good place to start. Once you’re good enough, you can write out a Course in your head and activate it like I just did. But first we’re going to learn how to write a Course on paper.”
Antin blew out his candle, then handed out pieces of parchment.
There was an awkward shuffling.
“Corporal Rigo,” one of the recruits said, “I— I can’t—”
“It doesn’t matter if you can’t read or write,” Antin said gently. “The Meridian doesn’t care about language, only intent. That’s why Binding is all about symbols. If you know what your symbols mean, it doesn’t matter if anyone else does. In fact, it’s usually better if they don’t.”
Antin scrawled on his own parchment with a bit of coal, writing out the Course he used to light the candle.
“It’s a common mistake for beginners to think if all that matters is intent, the Meridian automatically knows what you mean,” he said. “That sort of thinking will get you killed.”
He flipped his parchment to show what he’d written. After a sketch of his Rend, a complicated series of symbols flowed across the page.
“That’s how specific you need to be,” he explained. “If you’re not, you might end up burning through all the wick at once. Or lighting every candle in a ten-mile radius. Or just exploding the candle. Each of which will demand far more of your energy than you can give.”
From the blank stares in the crowd, Antin could tell they were completely lost. He sighed, anticipating the headache he would feel by the end of the day.
“Let’s get started.”
After several difficult days, Antin next had to teach them how to use their equations to create a Course.
He walked among them, checking their work and correcting errors. Fortunately, they had not yet learned how to trigger the Act and cast a spell. There had been many improperly prepared Courses already, including one that would have set the entire village on fire.
“What does this symbolize?” Antin asked, pointing at one part of Kosti’s Course.
“That’s the limit of how much of my energy it should use.”
“And this one?” Antin asked, pointing at another.
“The position on the wick where the fire should start.”
Antin scrutinized the Course as closely as he could. He tried to find some flaw with it, some error he could use to tell Kosti to start again. But the brash young man had managed to grasp the basic principles.
“The work is adequate,” he said.
Kosti grinned. “So can you teach me how to use it?”
“Ah, well,” Antin said, trying to think of some excuse to put it off. Despite Kosti’s softened attitude, Antin still felt uncomfortable around him even though — strangely — Antin liked being around him.
“Fine,” Antin said. “Take your candle and a knife.”
Kosti grabbed the tools and looked at Antin.
“Experienced Binders don’t need to, but it’s much easier and safer to write your Course on the object you’re casting the spell on. Carve your Course into the wax of the candle.”
Kosti chipped away at the wax.
Alarmed, Antin grabbed his hand. “No, no,” he said, “not so fast! Slowly, deliberately. Focus on what each symbol means as you write it. It’s like your Rend. Put your whole mind on that meaning or else the Meridian won’t understand you.”
Antin waited for Kosti to start over, only to realize he was still holding Kosti’s hand. He blushed and drew back.
Kosti didn’t move. Then he turned his head, slightly, toward Antin. And then he got to work slowly chipping his Course into the candle.
When he was done, he turned again to Antin.
“Now you must trigger the Act,” Antin said. His heart was racing, even though the battle was the furthest thing from his mind. “Concentrate on the spell and say a word. Doesn’t matter what, doesn’t even need to be real, so long as you’re concentrating on the spell when you say it.”
Kosti nodded and concentrated deeply. Then, straining, he whispered, “Fly.”
A small flame burst to life on his candle. Kosti cried out in joy, sweat beading along his brow. The spell hadn’t been very efficient if a little fire like that took so much out of him.
But Antin found he couldn’t say this. When he saw the look of joy on Kosti’s face, he met it with his own smile.
It had been a week since Lieutenant ‘ja Minaldi left. There was still no sign of the Subatens, and half the recruits were able to do basic Binding now.
Antin taught them how to write a Course into their melee weapons to augment the force, and Alvari was learning the Course all soldiers add to their muskets to make them more effective.
With all this progress, Redent had allowed a night of celebration. Six volunteers carved a Course into logs and threw them together to start a bonfire, their combined spells creating a huge bonfire. The others cheered, though the energy this took made all six collapse to the ground.
Antin laughed to himself on a log nearby. They were so proud of such meager efforts. But they had gotten much farther than he ever thought they would. Maybe he’d underestimated them.
But the fire in front of him killed the smile on his lips. Its hissing and cracking reminded him of muskets firing; the burning wood smelled like the smoke from a black powder bomb. He squeezed his eyes shut and wrapped his arms around himself.
The burning fear spread through his mind and made him bolt. He heard the yells of his comrades, first demanding his return and then in agony as they were bathed in flame and steel. Hot blood splashed across his back and neck. He kept running. He forgot to use any of his Binds. After all his training, all his bravado, when he finally faced a real battle, he could not fight. He could only survive.
The memory melted away. Antin felt the heat of the recruits’ bonfire — not that of the Subaten bombs — against his face. He wiped his face and found tears. He choked out a sob and took a deep breath. He opened his eyes.
And saw Kosti sitting beside him, silent and chipping on a stone.
Antin was flush with embarrassment. He sprang to his feet to get away.
“You don’t have to go,” Kosti said.
Antin stopped. He looked back at Kosti, but Kosti did not look back at him.
Antin felt suddenly too hot by the fire. But he sat back with Kosti, anyway.
They sat there in silence as the others drank ale and laughed around them. Kosti continued chipping at the stone in his hands.
“What is that?” Antin finally asked.
Kosti looked up. “You said the Subatens use black powder bombs, right? I figured I could make something similar with binding.”
“In theory,” Antin said. He braced himself for the sound of bombs in his mind, but for some reason they did not come. “But you don’t have any Draws besides your own body. An explosion of any consequence would kill you and probably not hurt them much.”
Kosti just shrugged and continued working.
Antin felt a pressure in his chest, as if something was aching to burst out of him.
“Why have you been so much nicer to me lately?” he said.
“Are you complaining?” Kosti asked without looking up.
“No,” Antin said.
Kosti sighed and put the rock away. He turned to fully face Antin. Their knees brushed against each other.
“I see when you go somewhere else,” Kosti said. “I thought you were some pampered prissy mage looking down on all of us. But when you’re like that — well, I can see you’ve been through the shit.” He shrugged. “It would be better to listen than argue.”
Antin looked away. Kosti’s knees were still against his. His chest grew tighter.
“It’s because of my mother,” he said.
“What?” Kosti said.
“My Rend,” Antin said. “Whenever she baked bread, she spread the crumbs along the windowsill so the pigeons would come and she could hear them coo.” He rubbed his hand along the Rend on his chest. “It’s my strongest memory of her before I enlisted. I didn’t want to forget that.”
The silence between them stretched for a long time.
“For me,” Kosti said, “I can see the birds flying when I’m out in the fields. When I’m exhausted and sick of this place, I look up and think about what it would be like to fly away.”
Silence fell between them again.
“When you first got here,” Kosti said, “I was angry because I thought the outside world didn’t care about us. But I was wrong. I’m glad you’re here.”
Antin held onto Kosti’s words for a moment.
“I was afraid,” Antin said, “of what could happen here. I blamed you because I thought you needed protecting. But now I know it’s not that I’m protecting you. It’s that we’re protecting us. I’m glad I’m here too.”
This time, their silence went unbroken.
Kosti reached out and placed his hand atop the Rend on Antin’s chest. And Antin placed his hand atop the Rend on Kosti’s.
The bonfire burned bright beside them.
PART III: Wounds Too Deep
Redent shook Antin awake the next morning.
“Subaten forces spotted,” Redent said. “They’ll arrive within the hour.”
Antin shot up, the weariness banished from his body.
For the next hour, the two soldiers and their twelve recruits raced to prepare for the Subatens’ arrival. Fearful residents gathered their children and holed up in their houses, hoping the worst would pass them by.
Antin and Redent raised palisades of packed earth on the side of the river opposite the enemy approach. Metal flakes fell freely from their rings as they did, the effort of the spellcasting taking a toll on their standard Draws. The strain even reopened Redent’s wound
Meanwhile, the recruits checked and double-checked the Courses written on their weapons. Alvari cleaned his old musket, while another farmer carved a Course into every arrow in his quiver. Everyone was anxious; no one said as much.
The hour came and went.
Alvari, the oldest of the recruits, and Redent, his leg still too injured to move freely, had holed up on nearby roofs.
Antin commanded the troops at the palisades, crowded in a half-circle around the edge of the bridge in the middle of town. He tried to control his breathing. If he panicked or showed fear, he knew the others would break. But it was impossible not to think about his last battle. How could he stop himself from giving in again?
He felt a hand on his shoulder and saw Kosti. Kosti nodded, and Antin nodded back. The time had come.
They heard a bugle echo throughout the village. The Subatens had arrived. There were at least fifty of them, marching in perfect rows of ten to the beat of a drum. Five rode horses at the sides of the infantry, including the bugle player. Their elaborate uniforms — blue-dyed coats and plumed helmets — made for a sight both absurd and intimidating.
One of the soldiers on a horse shouted something in an unfamiliar language as the platoon neared the bridge. They halted and raised their guns. After a long, tense moment, the same soldier spoke in accented Common.
“I am Prelate Fredegar of the Knights of Saint Alisa-Styphia. This village has now been requisitioned by the Holy Righteous Army of Subaten and its Ecclesiarchs. Submission will bring you no harm. Resistance to our divine mission will bring you death. The choice is yours.”
The calm that followed yawned like a chasm. Antin could scarcely hear anything over the sound of his own heartbeat, his back pressed against the palisade and his hands gripping his musket.
Then two shots rang out. One missed, raising a cloud of dirt near the Prelate. Another struck a soldier in the third row. He fell to the ground with a gush of blood.
The Subatens didn’t flinch. They returned fire.
Their rifled muskets packed surprising power despite the lack of Binds augmenting their shots. Dirt and dust exploded with impact upon the palisades. As soon as the first row was done, the Subatens fell to one knee to reload while the second row fired, creating a continuous barrage.
After the fifth volley, the sound of boots rushed toward the villagers.
Under the cover of smoke and dirt, the first row was charging the palisades. Antin looked up just long enough to squeeze off a shot.
He could hear sporadic gunshots from nearby roofs — Redent and Alvari doing what they could to arrest the charge.
To the side, the archer loosed arrows upon the Subatens. Every time one landed, the spell on it activated, setting it alight and spreading fire through the ranks.
Yet none of this stopped the soldiers. Already the first row was on the bridge, charging across it under supporting fire as the other soldiers reloaded quickly — unbelievably quickly.
Antin fumbled with his powder, his shaking hands spilling the substance everywhere but his musket.
Then that first row of Subatens reached the bridge’s midpoint. There was a great cracking noise.
Redent had carved a Course into the planks of the bridge, to be triggered the next time someone attempted to cross. When they did, the wood withered and splintered, and the bridge collapsed from the middle. The soldiers that made it that far plunged into the Boern below. Even if they didn’t drown or get swept away with the current, the water would render their gunpowder useless.
A cheer erupted from the recruits. But another volley of bullets rang out, hitting one of the revelers in the chest. He fell to the ground, and Antin stared at the man’s unseeing eyes. He saw the faces of all his old comrades.
Kosti’s sudden shouting brought him back.
“—nothing you can do for him!” Kosti screamed at two recruits trying to rouse the dead man.
“Form up!” Antin barked. “They’re charging again!”
The Subatens’ second row was at the hole already, with collapsible ladders to bridge the gap.
The archer focused fire on these ladders, trying to set them ablaze. But the wood was fireproofed and wouldn’t ignite.
Antin, Redent, and Alvari felled a few crossing Subatens with their muskets, but it was not enough.
At Antin’s command, the remaining volunteers squared up on the palisades with their pitchforks and knives while he reloaded. He fixed his own bayonet to the end of his musket, praying they could withstand a charge. That Kosti could withstand a charge.
That he could withstand a charge.
And the Subatens crashed against the palisade with suicidal zeal.
The volunteers thrust their weapons, Courses activating at a whisper and multiplying their force. Pitchforks swung at unbelievable speeds, easily piercing the chests of Subaten soldiers despite their dullness.
Others wielded knives so quickly they surprised their attackers, closing the distance and stabbing heads and necks and chests before the Subatens could react.
But the attackers were still professional soldiers. Some fell, but none wavered. They thrusted forward with their bayonets.
Three recruits dropped, blood pouring from large punctures.
Antin avoided the bulging eyes of the recruit beside him — the son of a tailor, he vaguely recalled — as he stabbed the murderous soldier with his own bayonet. The fear rose up, but Antin choked it down quicker this time.
Then, with no fanfare, the last Subaten soldier in that first charge fell.
They were alone on this side of the bridge, ducking back behind the palisades.
Antin dared a glance to his side and saw Kosti, weary but grinning. Antin smiled back.
Then a black metal ball landed nearby.
Explosions rang out, shattering the palisades and ripping anyone too close to them apart.
Antin’s ears rang. He saw recruits and villagers with missing limbs screaming in pain, only to be silenced as the grenadiers followed up with their muskets. The acrid smell of the black powder bombs filled the air. Every bit of resistance he’d built up failed him.
It was all happening again.
“Fall back!” Antin screamed. He could barely hear himself.
He and the surviving recruits scrambled towards the nearby homes, seeking any shelter they could.
Bullets whizzed by. He heard others crash to the ground. But by some miracle, he was still whole when he took cover from the Subaten gunfire.
He looked around. Two recruits crouched down near the building on the other side. Kosti was beside him. Everyone else was dead or dying.
The Subatens had taken casualties, but at least half of them were still standing. Even now, the grenadiers were establishing their own line on this side of the bridge while the rest of the platoon was marching across the ladders. The mounted officers stood on the bridge as well, directing their troops.
“How does it look?” Kosti asked.
Antin could see now the battle had always been hopeless. Two soldiers and a dozen poorly trained recruits against a Subaten battalion — what had Lieutenant ‘ja Minaldi been thinking? They couldn’t stop the attack. They couldn’t hold the village. All they could do was die a pointless death.
He gazed at Kosti. A fierce desire to live welled up in him. He didn’t care if it was cowardly. He wanted to tell Kosti they had to leave. Right now. That they’d done everything they could. Now they must run and run and run and never look back.
But Antin found he couldn’t say a word.
Kosti nodded. “That bad, huh?” He pulled a stone out of his pocket. “Time to see if this works, then.” And before Antin realized what he meant, Kosti dashed onto the field.
Antin yelled. He reached for Kosti. He only grasped air.
Kosti barreled forward. He wound up for a throw as the Subaten soldiers shouted.
Antin threw himself after Kosti. They still had time. They could still escape.
And then he saw one Subaten raise his gun and take aim.
Kosti’s fingers released the stone.
Antin tackled him from the side.
The Subaten soldier pulled the trigger.
But the stone sailed through the air unimpeded, landing amongst the soldiers.
Kosti hit the ground. He whispered: “Fly.”
The explosion was massive. It consumed the entire bridge, engulfing the screams of men and the whinnies of horses. Smoke plumed across the battlefield, survivors choking on and coughing from the thick black cloud. When it cleared, more than a dozen Subatens lay dead, including the Prelate.
The rest, drenched in blood and grime, were fleeing.
But Kosti noticed none of this. He was cradling Antin’s body against his chest, watching the blood seep out of the corporal’s chest. Kosti was more exhausted than he’d ever been, and a terrible pain shot through his leg, but he ignored all of this as he held Antin’s gaze.
“How… are you… alive?” Antin asked. His voice was wet and sticky. Blood was filling his lungs.
“You said they all had black powder bombs,” Kosti said. He couldn’t stop from crying. “I made a Course to set all of the nearby ones off.”
“Smart,” Antin said. He coughed. “But still—”
“I set the Course like you taught me,” Kosti said. “Take as much energy from me as I could stand, then start drawing from my muscles.” He drew up a pant leg to show his right leg, its muscles withered all the way down to his bones. “Took a little more than I meant it to, though.”
Antin smiled. “You’re pretty smart.”
“I had a good teacher,” Kosti said.
“Thank you,” Antin said. The blood he coughed up was the deepest red Kosti had ever seen.
Kosti brought Antin’s face to his. Anything else, he kept thinking. Anything else but this.
He stayed there for a while, long past the time Antin had grown still in his arms.
Eventually he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“There’s still a war on, Private,” Sergeant Redent said above him.
Kosti noticed the sergeant refused to look at Antin’s body. But he stood there, waiting for Kosti to be ready for the next battle.
Soon, Kosti nodded and stood, keeping the weight off his right leg.
There was still a lot of work to do.
“The army arrived a few days later,” the bard concludes, taking another puff from his pipe. “Subatens never did make it through Vitigis Pass. ‘Course, just a month later, Subaten gunboats smashed the Mede Sea Armada and could land troops anywhere they wanted. Probably why this little skirmish never made its way into the history books.”
He chuckles to himself, emptying the ashes from his pipe and filling it up again.
“It does make a fine story, though, eh?”
And then he brought the pipe up to his lips and whispered: “Fly.”