The man blinked, and a different kind of sadness seemed to burden him than had troubled him when he’d strode past the car.
“I know the name, Sheriff. Mister Bascombe spoke highly of you.”
“And of you, Marc. Which is why I’m confused about a few things.”
Friedle’s eyes narrowed. “What things might those be?”
“Is there somewhere we could talk?” Jackson asked.
The man arched an eyebrow and looked at Sara. She realized that it was the first time he had focused on her since she and the sheriff had walked up behind Friedle together. A shudder went through her. Already the details of that face had begun to fade from her mind. She had caught only a momentary glimpse and it had disappeared in an eye blink. Sara had to consider that it had only been her imagination, the stress of the past few months, and her inner conviction that Friedle was some kind of monster.
But she’d never had hallucinations before, nor seen visions, so she couldn’t brush it off so easily.
“I had just been going to the café for a sandwich and coffee. You’re welcome to join me, and I’ll answer whatever questions you’ve come so far to ask. But, first, who is your lovely companion?” the man asked, and his accent became stronger. Where did you get an accent like that? Switzerland? Denmark?
“This is Sara Halliwell,” the sheriff said. “Her father was—is—my best detective. He’s gone missing, just like Oliver and Collette Bascombe.”
Friedle gave her a sympathetic look. “Ah, yes. He’d gone to England with Julianna. I’m very sorry. It appears that I must add your name to the list of people I have failed.”
Sara stared at him. “What do you—”
Jackson shot her a look that reminded her that he was the sheriff and would ask the questions.
The man they had come so far to speak with saw the moment of tension between them and nodded as though in approval. “Perhaps you could both do with a bite to eat as well. We can find a comfortable booth and discuss all of the mistaken assumptions that have been made about Max Bascombe’s murder, and the fate of those who’ve vanished.”
That sounded good to Sara, in spite of the fact that she did not want to move any closer to the man who sometimes had the face of a monster.
But Sheriff Norris took insult at the man’s words.
“What mistaken assumptions?”
Friedle did not smile. Instead, he gnawed his lower lip and such sadness came over him that his eyes grew moist and a tear slid down his cheek.
“Oh, nearly all of them, I’d say. Come along, my friends. I’ll give you the truth. You won’t accept it, but telling it is the least I can do. I owe them all that much.”
The man turned and started away from them. After a few steps, he glanced back and Sara flinched, afraid she would see that hideous face again. But he looked perfectly normal, now.
“Come along, Sheriff, Miss Halliwell. It’s a story that could cost my life, and it’s what you came for, so you’d best pay attention.”
The Twillig’s Gorge militia marched southwest on the Orient Road, dust rising in their wake. They were a motley crew of men, women, and legends, carrying a broad array of weaponry, but still Ovid Tsing felt proud of them.
They would follow the Orient Road toward the Isthmus of the Conquistadors, and the moment they found a detachment of Hunyadi’s army, they would pledge themselves to the commander of that force. Whatever it took to defend Euphrasia, they would do. In all his life, Ovid had never done anything as important. The Atlanteans had attempted genocide against the Borderkind. They had shattered the Truce. They had murdered the King of Yucatazca and invaded the Two Kingdoms.
They had to be stopped.
The Jokao marched behind the Twillig’s Gorge militia. The Stonecoats had rendezvoused with them when they left the gorge, coming across the plateau with a rumble that shook Ovid’s heart in his chest. Some of them had designs engraved in the stone that armored their bodies, dyed deep, natural colors. He had not been with them long enough to recognize any hierarchy dependent upon these sigils, but knew their leader from the three ochre-painted furrows on his chest.
Ovid would have preferred to have the Jokao at the front of their force, but the Stonecoats’ thunderous passing raised a great deal of dust. Also, their presence seemed to unnerve the human members of the militia. Legends were often formidable, but rarely came in such large numbers. There were perhaps one hundred and fifty Jokao marching with them—an enormous number, far greater than Ovid had hoped—and they had sworn the same vow as the militia had, to drive the Atlanteans from the Two Kingdoms.
When the last of his militia had passed, Ovid nodded at the leader of the Jokao and fell in with the final line of his recruits—the seven archers he had helped to train. They greeted him cheerfully, and that gave him heart. The march had already been long, but enormous distance still separated them from the Isthmus. It gladdened him to see that none of the militia were flagging.
They marched on. From time to time he saw someone sip from a water-skin. In another hour, they would stop for a brief rest and dry rations. No full meals would be eaten until they camped tonight. It had been planned fairly well, he thought. The help he’d received from his lieutenants had been invaluable, but he would be relieved to hand over command of the militia to the king’s army. They would know how best to utilize volunteers, as well as how to keep them fed and armed.
Such thoughts occupied much of Ovid’s thinking as his feet rose and fell. The march became a numb monotony, but they were traveling to war, and there would be no monotony once the arrows began to fly and the steel to sing.
The day grew warmer. As they continued southwest, the heat would only increase, but he didn’t mind. Ovid liked the way heat settled into his skin and then down into his bones. It made him feel alive and vital. Death always seemed close by when the snow fell.
A voice shouted his name, shaking him from his reverie. Ovid glanced to his left and saw LeBeau, the swordsman among his lieutenants, hurrying along at the edge of the road even as the militia marched on. The troubled expression on the swordsman’s face forestalled any greeting.
“What is it?” Ovid demanded as he stepped out of the ranks.
“Another army awaits us on the road ahead. A rabble, I’d say, but I don’t see Hunyadi’s colors anywhere.”
“Damn it.” Ovid slipped his bow from where it had been slung across his chest, then caught up to the other archers who made up his personal guard. “Come with me.”
The archers hurried out of the marching ranks. Ovid and LeBeau led the way, running alongside the rest of the militia. As they neared the front of the march, Ovid shouted for them all to halt, waving his bow in the air to draw their attention over the stomping of the Stonecoats at the rear. Men and women, and the handful of legends that’d joined them, came to a stop. Some watched him curiously, but the front line knew exactly why Ovid had halted them.
Two hundred yards ahead, an army camped on the road. They flew no colors that might have proclaimed their allegiance to any king, but there were a great many of them—perhaps three hundred—and a third of those had horses. Where in a thousand Hells had they come from?
“What will you do?” LeBeau asked.
Ovid stared at the men and women blocking their path. The horsemen were all mounted. Some of the foot soldiers, however, had been resting on the side of the road as he arrived at the front of his volunteers. Now they all began to rise. From what he could see there were no legendary among them, only Lost Ones.
“Bows,” he said.
His seven archers unslung their bows and drew arrows from their quivers, preparing to fire at his order.
“LeBeau, with me,” Ovid said, slipping his own bow across his back once more. “Archers, if we fall under attack, you are to respond in kind.”
“Yes, sir,” Yangtze replied curtly. Of all of the archers, he was the only one with any military training.
Ovid studied the road ahead, tempted to bring the Jokao up to approach this motley army with him. But he worried that the approach of Stonecoats might incite violence, and he wanted to find out if these were enemies before slaughter ensued. He had certainly not expected to meet armed resistance until they had traveled much further south.
LeBeau fell into step beside and slightly behind him. The lieutenant did not draw his sword, but kept his hand upon the pommel of the weapon. Ovid held his own hands out, palms up, in a gesture he hoped would be seen as peaceful. Together they crossed half the distance between his militia and the soldiers who blocked their path. There, he stopped. LeBeau shot him a quizzical look, but Ovid ignored it.
After perhaps twenty seconds, a woman—an officer, it seemed—dismounted from her horse and handed the reins to another. A gray-haired, bearded man kept pace with her and the two walked out to where Ovid and LeBeau waited. Wariness flickered on their faces; they weren’t any more certain what to make of this meeting than Ovid.
The woman and the gray-bearded man approached. Ovid could feel the combined attention of the soldiers on both sides, and knew he was just as much a target as those he now faced.
“We are in range of your archers,” said the graybeard. His accent was unmistakably Spanish, tinged with humor. “I hope that you do not intend for them to kill us.”
Ovid raised his eyebrows. “We are soldiers and citizens, not killers.”
“I am pleased to hear it,” the older man said. He executed a small bow. “Do I have the honor of addressing the leader of the Twillig’s Gorge militia?”
Surprised, Ovid blinked. “You do. Ovid Tsing, sir. My lieutenant is Andre LeBeau.”
The man inclined his head. “Then we are in time, after all. I had begun to fear you had passed by before we arrived. If it pleases you, sir, I am Cristobal Aguilar, Mayor of Navarre.”
In confusion, Ovid stared at the man. “You have me at a loss. Do you mean to say you’ve been waiting for us?”
“Indeed,” Mayor Aguilar said. “Word reached Navarre of your militia. Many of the men and women of our town had been talking about volunteering for the king’s service. When we learned of your march, it…how do I say it? We were inspired. Preparations were swiftly made, and now we are here, General.”
Ovid shook his head. “I am no general, Señor Aguilar.”
“Ah, but it seems you are,” the mayor replied, gesturing to the troops aligned behind Ovid. “We offer you our services, if you will have us.”
For a moment, nothing seemed real. Ovid glanced at the army ahead and the one behind. He wondered how word had traveled so fast, and if it was spreading. Would other Lost Ones—other ordinary subjects of King Hunyadi—come to join the fight when they heard?
A smile touched his lips. His mother had been right all along, and now her dream was coming to life. He only wished she were alive to see it.
“We’re honored to call you allies and friends, Mayor Aguilar.”
Damia Beck let out a battle cry. Her sword flickered in the shafts of sunlight that came down through the branches of the Oldwood. All through the forest around her, combat raged. The company of soldiers she had sent to bait the southern invaders into the wood had succeeded. Cernunnos had commanded that the creatures of the Oldwood allow them to pass, waiting to attack until Commander Beck herself gave the word.
Now the word had been given. Blood flew, dappling leaves and soaking into the ground. The stink of the Battle Swine filled her nostrils. She had never been so close to one of them before and the stench nearly crippled her. The Swine brought its axe around in an arc meant to cleave her head from her shoulders. Damia grunted with effort as she dropped into a crouch, avoiding the blade, then rolled out of the way as the stinking, sweating boar kicked her. Its heavy boot caught her in the side, but added to her momentum as she rolled away.
The commander leaped to her feet. Pain spiked through her side where the Swine had kicked her, but she ducked behind a tree even as the boar swung its axe again. The blade bit deep into the wood and lodged there. The Battle Swine squealed in rage.
“Die, wretched beast!” Damia snarled, and drove the point of her sword toward the Swine’s throat.
It dodged enough that the blade only slashed the side of its neck. Blood flowed over the heavy, leather armor that covered its chest. Its eyes gleamed yellow in the shade of the tree and it glared at her, snorting breath even more rancid than the stink of its body.
It lunged. Damia sidestepped to put the tree between them. Branches shook and leaves drifted down. A flutter of bright, tiny creatures darted into the shade—some breed of pixies whose wings were lavender, bottle green, and eggshell blue. They attacked the Battle Swine’s eyes, distracting it. The idiot thing squealed and batted at the pixies, striking itself in the face.
Damia glanced around in search of help. A single human soldier against a Battle Swine might as well be suicide. But there would be no help coming. Corpses littered the forest, some in the colors of King Hunyadi and many more in the uniforms and helmets of the army of the south. Some of the dead, clad in Yucatazcan garb, had the unmistakable features of Atlantis. Dead goblins had been flung against trees or broken beneath the tread of the invaders. Strigae had been shot from the sky with arrows, plummeting to the ground as black-feathered lumps. Other wild things from the Oldwood lay dead as well, but far more—brownies and hobs, owl-men and a massive spirit bear—continued the fight alongside Damia’s own troops.
Horses thundered through the wood, splintering branches and driving up divots from the earth. Her cavalry hacked at the Yucatazcans with their swords. As she spotted a handsome young horseman from Galacia, a Battle Swine emerged from between two trees and took hold of his mount, dragging soldier and horse together to the ground, hacking downward with his axe.
No help. Not now. Not in time.
Pixies shrieked and died. The Swine she’d been battling snatched one from its snout and thrust the brilliant little creature into its mouth. The pixie died between its teeth even as the Swine swept the others away and launched itself at Damia. Blood still flowed from the wound on its neck.