Smoke crawled up the side of the bluff, carrying with it the screams of the dying. Alix strained her eyes, trying to pierce the swirling black folds, but all she could make out was the occasional gleam of metal or flicker of flame far below. It was impossible to tell how the battle fared. The cries of men mingled with the screams of horses and the baying of dogs, sounds of triumph and terror indistinguishable from one another.

The only thing Alix could see clearly was the neatly formed ranks of the White Wolves, holding their position on the western fringe.

“Why don’t they attack?” She started to uncoil from her crouch.

A hand shot out and seized her wrist. “What are you doing? Get down!” Liam glared up at her, punctuating his words with a sharp tug.

“What does it matter who sees us now?” Without waiting for a reply, Alix twisted out of his grasp and started along the edge of the bluff. A muttered oath and the creak of leather told her that Liam was following.

She moved with more haste than care, springing between the frost-slick stones and shooting the occasional harried glance at the Wolves. Their ranks remained unmoved—horses reined in, swords sheathed, bows lowered. Their standard flapped bravely at the lip of the bluff, the pole as straight and still as if it had been driven into the ground.

What in the gods are they waiting for? The enemy had long since moved into position. Arran Green had struck, leading his battalion down the eastern fringe to drive like a spear into the Oridian flank. The Wolves should have mirrored the attack from the west. Instead, Prince Tomald White simply sat astride his horse, immovable as a statue, looking on as his brother’s army battled the enemy below.

A gust of wind nudged the curtain of smoke aside, offering the first clear view of the battlefield since the barricades were set alight. Alix lurched to a halt and sucked in a sharp breath. “They’re falling back.”

“Already?” Liam scrambled closer to the edge of the bluff, his eyes widening in horror. Beyond the writhing knot of men at the centre of the melee, the rear lines of the Kingswords had begun to blur, their ranks disintegrating under the pressure of the Oridian onslaught. They were outnumbered, but the Wolves were supposed to make up the difference.

Except they weren’t.

Something cold and bitter rose at the back of Alix’s throat, but she swallowed it down. “I’m going,” she said, stepping toward the edge of the bluff.

“Alix . . .” Liam grabbed her arm again. “What do you think you’re going to accomplish down there? You’re a scout.”

“What of it? You’re a scout, and you’re a better sword than half the king’s knights. I can handle myself, Liam.”

He hesitated. “Our orders were to stay here.”

“And their orders were to attack.” She stabbed a finger in the direction of the Wolves.

“What are you saying?” He knew the answer—Alix could see it in his eyes.

The king is betrayed. The words burned on her tongue, but for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to speak them. “Look,” she said, “you can either regret not following orders, or regret standing up here watching our brothers get slaughtered. Your choice.”

Liam paused another few precious seconds before his gaze hardened. “Let’s go.”

They threw themselves down the slope, skidding sideways to keep their footing as loose rock tumbled out from under them. They moved as fast as they dared; Alix had to lean into the hillside, her fingers brushing the dirt, just to keep from rolling an ankle. Even so, the descent seemed to take forever. Alix’s thighs burned, and her breath came in short puffs of vapour. Still the slope went on and on. Gradually, however, the clamour of battle grew louder, the smoke thicker and blacker. And then they plunged into the dense wood at the base of the hill, and an eerie hush swallowed them.

Alix trailed Liam through the pines. A light snow had begun to fall, lending the scene a surreal aura of peace. Only the occasional cry or ring of metal reached back through the veil. Alix slowed to a jog, chain mail jingling, breath harsh in her ears. Liam bounded ahead.

A ghostly silhouette materialised through the trees. A horse, riderless, its white war paint spattered with blood. Liam faltered briefly as he watched it go by. Then another figure appeared, weaving erratically among the drifting snowflakes. A man this time, a soldier, both hands clamped against his neck as he tried in vain to staunch a gushing wound. Liam went for his sword, but the man staggered past without even registering his presence. Moments later, another soldier appeared, and another—Kingswords all, their faces taut with fear. Soon, the shadows swarmed with fleeing men.

Liam drew up short, throwing a grim look over his shoulder. It was worse than they’d thought. “Let’s find Green,” was all Alix could think to say.

Liam nodded and turned to go.


He looked back. Alix hesitated, the words dying on her lips.

A tense smile flickered across Liam’s face, as though he understood. “Just be careful, all right?”

They pushed past the tree line, and hell erupted before them.

The valley surged like the sea under a storm. A riot of bodies heaved according to some unfathomable rhythm, steel and leather and blood and hide flowing around each other in dizzying tides of silver and crimson. Alix froze, momentarily overwhelmed under the assault of sound and motion. Then something crashed against her shoulder, knocking her to the ground, and she found herself lying amid a tangle of bodies. A young man with wide blue eyes stared vacantly in her direction. Shuddering, Alix scrambled to her feet.

She looked about wildly. Liam was nowhere to be seen. Hardly a glimpse of White heraldry anywhere. They had hoped to find Arran Green and the rest of their comrades, but instead Alix was adrift in a sea of Oridians. She needed to move; if she didn’t regroup with the others, she was as good as dead. She backed up, keeping to the fringe of trees, her gaze raking the field for allies.


A small island of Kingswords fought in a tight cluster nearby. Alix started toward them, but she didn’t get far before an Oridian soldier blocked her path. He made straight for her, eyes glazed with battle lust. At his side dangled a massive sword stained with death. Alix gripped her own blade—light, but bloodforged—and gritted her teeth against the inevitable spike of fear.

He came at her with a sloppy swipe, his shoulder too low to get much force behind it, and Alix turned the stroke aside easily. It was then she noticed the blood darkening the man’s leathers. The injury prevented him from raising his sword arm properly, and Alix took full advantage. She feinted, and when he committed himself to parry, she twisted out of the way and landed a solid blow to his flank, her blade biting neatly through boiled leather. The man cried out, folding over himself, and Alix came in again, driving the point of her sword under his armpit. She waited until his knees buckled before yanking the weapon free, the blade trailing a thick ribbon of gore.

She paused; she’d lost the knot of Kingswords in the commotion. Then she spied a flash of white in the corner of her eye and turned. A White banner mounted atop a golden spear pitched forward in the crowd, collapsing under an invisible assault. If the standard-bearer had fallen, his commander could not be far behind. Alix craned her neck to catch a glimpse of the coat of arms as it went down.

Gods preserve us, she prayed in horror.

It was the king’s.

A horse screamed, and then Alix spotted him, just a flash of reddish-gold hair beneath a shining white half helm. His destrier reared, driving back the crowd with its reaching hooves. Alix could see him clearly now: surrounded, alone, his jaw set grimly as he swivelled his horse’s head and pointed it toward the trees. The animal surged beneath him, and he broke away, half a dozen Oridians in pursuit. They were on foot, but even so, the king would not get far, not with the steep slope ahead. Horses were not meant for climbing, especially not heavy warhorses covered in plate. It would be hard enough just manoeuvring between the trees.

Alix felt herself running. She twisted and dove through the bodies, friend and foe alike, making for the spot where King Erik had disappeared into the trees. The snow fell more heavily now, flaying her cheeks with icy barbs as she veered back into the wood.

He wasn’t hard to find. Alix could hear the cries of his attackers, high-pitched and jubilant, like a pack of coyotes harrying an injured stag. The clang of metal told her that the king lived yet.

Get there. Get there!

She burst through a dense copse of pines to find King Erik and his destrier beset by four Oridian soldiers. A fifth lay dead nearby. Erik alternated blows between a pair of attackers at his left flank, trying to keep them both at bay. A third was circling around the horse’s rump, while an archer readied his bow a few feet away. An arrow already protruded from the destrier’s unprotected foreleg, and its haunch bled from an invisible wound.

The Oridian circling behind the destrier was too busy trying to avoid the horse’s hooves to notice Alix closing in. She slammed into him from behind, running him through before he even realised she was there. His death cry was lost beneath the scream of his comrade as the king hacked into the shoulder of one of his foes, splitting him like firewood. But the move left him open, and his other attacker landed a hard blow to the king’s ribs. The sword rang off Erik’s armour, doubling him over just as an arrow hissed through the air where his head had been. The destrier skittered sideways. Alix flew at the king’s attacker in a frantic attempt to drive him back.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the archer taking aim. Alix was on the opposite side of the horse; she knew she would never reach him in time. She did the only thing she could think of: She leapt at the king and tried to pull him down behind the horse’s bulk. But the destrier was still off balance, and with an outraged scream, the warhorse pitched sideways, crashing to the ground and pinning the king and his attacker both. Alix swore viciously even as she plunged her sword through the Oridian lying prone at her feet. Then she dropped to her knees to help her king. He lay unconscious, his helm knocked askew. The destrier struggled to stand. Alix dragged the king from the stirrups just as the animal righted itself and bolted away through the trees, leaving Erik exposed.

The archer nocked an arrow. Alix had only one course left to her. She charged.

The archer drew. A feral scream tore from Alix’s throat as she bore down on him, sword flashing.

The man flinched. The arrow flew wild.

Alix drove into him blade-first, toppling them both to the ground with such force that the air was blasted from her lungs, and just for a moment, everything went black.

*   *   *

Erik White awoke to darkness and the smell of blood. Something was lying on top of him. A corpse. His head ached, and his left leg was a pulsing beacon of agony. He tried to move.

“Shh,” a voice whispered in his ear. “Be still.”

Erik froze. Shuffling sounded nearby, and low voices, speaking in a foreign tongue. Oridians.

He could feel warm breath on his neck. Whoever was lying on top of him was not dead after all. She was quite alive, though doing her best to pretend otherwise. She was covering his body with her own, so the Oridians would not notice him amid the clutter of anonymous dead. Clever, he thought.

He lay still, trying to ignore the pain in his leg. It was broken, if not worse. His ribs throbbed. He tried to piece together what had happened, but the last thing he remembered was being hunted down like wild game. And before that, the relentless tide of Oridians, and the sickening realisation that his army was losing. Something had gone terribly wrong.

A long time passed. Erik shivered with cold. Eventually, the weight on top of him shifted, and he squinted in the light. Hazel eyes stared down at him. A curtain of copper hair framed a lovely face etched with concern. He knew this face, but for a moment his sluggish mind would not surrender the information.

Black, he recalled finally. She was unbuckling his armour.

“Er,” he began, but whatever he had intended to say dissolved into a gasp as a spasm of pain seized his ribs.

She removed his cuirass and cast it aside, then made short work of the smaller pieces. That done, she dropped to one knee, grabbed his arm, and slung him over her shoulder. She staggered to her feet, swaying a little, but managing to keep upright. She started to walk.

When his head quit swimming from the pain, Erik marvelled that she could bear his weight. That’s why she took off the armour. Clever indeed.

Yet even so, she was clearly hard-pressed; each step was a lurch, painful to both of them. Erik wanted to say something, but he had to clench his teeth to keep from crying out. Eventually he gave up, letting himself slip in and out of consciousness. Each time he opened his eyes, he saw only the frozen ground passing slowly below.

After what seemed like an eternity, Erik heard voices.

“The king! Look to the king!” And then there were hands everywhere, and he was being lifted, gently but surely, away from his rescuer. Darkness began to take him again. The last thing he saw was Alix Black, standing unnoticed amid a gaggle of soldiers, her legs giving way beneath her.