It was, as battlefields went, a mire for the enemy. An empty square without any buildings in it at the middle, four major roads leading off from it, one from each corner, with tall buildings all around. The Academy was mobilizing from three separate directions; if the columns of soldiers were to meet in the middle, they would have formed a ‘y’, with a very narrow top two branches.
They didn’t meet in the middle, however. The mob turned on them as they entered the square, and the mass of monsters and crude stitched formed a wall. Countless novice experiments were gunned down as they closed the distance. Soldiers in the front ranks backed away, leaving stitched to face the initial charge.
The giants at the head of the one group used their shields to bar the way, limiting the initial impact, but the humans in the midst of the experiments had countermeasures at hand. They threw flammable liquids at the giants and the giants’ shields, and the ones that missed landed in the midst of the rank and file of the stitched in uniform.
The initial push was costly, but it did its work. The stitched on the Crown side had rifles and uniforms, and they were of a reliable stature and quality. But in the opening melee, the lesser experiments on the rebellion side had a slight advantage. They didn’t have guns. They had improvised weapons, sledgehammers, axes reserved for stitched labor, heavier than most ordinary people could heft, and they had picks and shovels.
It was a strange case, where the Crown stitched were meant to fight people as they kept the peace and went to war, and they were well equipped for the task, but those same guns and bayonets were bad against other stitched and experiments. This particular subset of the rebellion stitched were inferior and equipped with the tools and weapons this rebellion could scrounge up, and in the doing, they were better matched against their enemy than the enemy was against them.
More accident than intent, I believed.
The giants, now burning with ever-growing patches of flame, began to push back, forcing the assembled mob back, and giving the Crown stitched and soldiers room to aim and fire their rifles.
I had a sense of the flow of the battle now.
I glanced back at Jamie, then signaled.
I. Assist. Back.
I hesitated, glancing at Shirley.
Jamie gestured, Watch woman.
I measured the movements of the various groups, spotted one group of stitched, all of the same make, in the same style of dress, and followed them. Jamie followed several paces behind, Shirley keeping close to him.
One of the two giants, hit by what might have been one of Mauer’s noble-killing bullets, toppled. As he did, his weight came down on top of a number of the breakable containers beneath the waterproof covering that draped him. There was a pause before the smoke came rolling out as a thick wave.
As the smoke swept over a full half of the square, I watched to see who retreated, and who pushed forward. I could see some of the crude experiments flinging themselves forward, modified hounds and vat-grown beasts. None were large, many didn’t seem that much more effective for the alterations made to them, but they had been made aggressive and they were being pointed at the enemy.
They weren’t deterred by the smoke, and I had to lean on instinct to figure out how the lines were taking shape.
The billowing smoke obscured the still-standing giant, who held a great shield that was now almost entirely aflame. He was clumsily working at swinging the shield in the general direction of the enemy rank and file while using one hand to try to quash the flame at one of his legs. All he was doing was setting his sleeve on fire. As the smoke grew thicker around him, only the orange flame remained visible, and even that was obscured into a murky glow.
Glancing back at Jamie, who I could still see fairly clearly, I saw him bending down to pick up a rifle with a bayonet, while he ushered Shirley into cover.
“I’ll be back,” I said.
He nodded as he partially disassembled the rifle he’d claimed.
Running past Gordon, I plunged into the smoke, toward the battle lines, careful to use the thicker parts of the rebel ranks as cover, careful to stay low to the ground, moving forward often with both feet and one hand on the ground.
Gordon had pointed out to me, once upon a time, that the battlefield wasn’t generally a place where rage or justice reigned. No, it was a place of fear. I’d mused before about how this made stitched such a powerful asset on the part of the Crown.
I could tune out what my eyes were seeing to favor my ears, much as I had when I’d been on the lookout for the Falconer’s raptor. I could listen, use what little I’d retained in short term memory regarding the flow of the battlefield, and trust that some of those basic truisms held.
The smart enemies would retreat. The stitched would hold firm. The animals that could function without needing to see would attack.
Claws scratched against the road, moving fast, and I moved out of the way. I bumped into someone, and I made a small snarling sound, moving forward quickly, to suggest I was rebellion-created, advancing toward the enemy, rather than a Crown-made threat.
The clawed thing joined the fight, and I could hear the grunts and the wordless shouts as the victim was attacked.
I could hear the shouts, the din of the battlefield, of bullets and calls to retreat and organize.
I drew near enough to the attacking warbeast that I could make out a general blur of its shape and motion. I felt bits of something strike my face, and I identified them by smell more than by touch. They smelled like preservatives and blood. The finer spray of gore from the attack on the stitched.
I navigated around the stitched and the attacking beast, into enemy lines. Muzzle flashes told me where other stitched were standing and firing openly in the general direction of the enemy. I stayed low, I used my ears, listened for the grunts, the heavy sound of boot on road, and weaved through their number, getting closer to the flailing giant.
The shouts, orders, and responses I heard were louder now. I listened intently, moving this way and that to stay out of people’s way, safely ensconced in the thick waves of cloying smoke.
I could make out the orders that were aiming to keep morale up, and I could make out the orders that were simpler, firm, and far less emotional. Not quite condescending, but speaking to lesser minds.
Only one of those six voices were regular generals, managing regular troops. The others were looking after the stitched.
I was mentally modeling the battlefield, paying special mind to the way the larger groups were moving. The enemy commanders were visualizing the battlefield as they had last seen it – a lot of dumb, brutish and crude enemies crashing against the front line.
They weren’t expecting an infiltrator in their ranks.
I moved around one cluster of soldiers who were huddled together, talking in tense tones, as much to remind each other where they were as it was to maintain sanity and share commentary on the goings-on.
I reached the first of the commanders, and found that he was atop a vehicle. The wagon provided cover to the front and sides, while giving him a window to see out and shout out commands to the stitched. From the smell of it, I knew it was occupied by several stitched guards. Reinforcements or helpers.
“Hold firm!” the man called out, sounding like a schoolteacher instructing small children. “Hold fast! Stay forward! Aim your rifles! Fire!”
I saw the light of the individual rifles firing.
The wagon wasn’t moving – moving would have been silly, given the lack of visibility. That meant I was free to climb the side of the wagon, very slowly and very carefully, so as not to scuffle or shake the thing.
High above, from a window overlooking this part of the battlefield, something fired down at the Crown forces. Bigger than a gun, it didn’t fire a singular shot, but something scattered. I could hear individual pellets or flechettes striking the side of the wagon, the road, and other things nearby.
I felt the sting as one caught me in the back of the head. Another in the lower back, where it produced a feeling like a spring coming free of the mechanism, or a guitar string snapping.
Mid-climb, I tensed, freezing, holding back all cries of pain and surprise.
I reached up to the back of my head, only recently stitched up, and I felt the site of the wound. As if I was popping a boil, I squeezed what might have been a small metal fragment free of my scalp. It fell between my collar and my neck.
The pain belatedly followed the sting in my lower back, spreading explosively along that plane of muscle and tissue, echoing into the surrounding area. I could compare it to being hit in the kidney; Gordon had done that often enough in our early sparring sessions. But where being punched in the kidney made it feel like I was venting my entire stomach’s contents out my ass in one brutal blast, except into my midsection instead, this was a simpler, more muscular kind of pain.
All around me and in the wagon I was climbing, others were cursing, swearing. Stitched were reacting as they were supposed to react, turning to face the direction they’d been hit from.
“Hold!” the man in the wagon hollered. “Prior facing!”
Trying to steer them back on course. If they started turning around or reacting in the midst of this smoke, getting them all facing the right direction would be like herding cats.
The second of the cannons up in the building, aimed out of a window or up on a balcony, opened fire. This one wasn’t aimed fully at us, but at the ranks behind. We weren’t the focus of the blast, but we were at the stray edges of it. I heard the sound of metal hitting the side of the wagon, wooden panels reinforced with metal strips.
“Watch for the next one. Take aim,” the man in the wagon ordered, in that tone reserved for stitched. “Sight them and open fire.”
“Sir,” I heard the voices reply. The clumsy tongues of stitched soldiers.
I continued my climb, more slowly as I gripped the top edge of the wagon’s side.
The third grapeshot cannon fired down on the street, this one aimed even further back, with no chance of catching us in the midst of it.
“Sight and fire!” the man in the wagon called out.
The stitched aimed and fired up at the side of the building. The rifles flashed with each shot, and in the gloom, it afforded me a glimpse of them and their faces. I could see my target, within arm’s reach.
The man, middle-aged, with an impressive beard and mustache, turned away from the sound and flash of the rifles, one hand covering one ear. In the doing, he fixed his eyes on me. Peering through the smoke, he could no doubt see the rough appearance of an older boy’s face staring up at him.
Hooking one leg over the top of the wagon, I reached out with one hand to grab his collar, pulling him toward me while I thrust my knife out in his direction.
He wasn’t watching for an attack. His hands went out in my direction, nothing more than a push. My grip on his collar and the pull only helped keep me from being shoved down toward the ground. My stab of the knife found its way to his throat.
I felt the strength go out of his arms, and I stabbed again, repeatedly, being careful not to stab my hand as I gripped his collar.
When he collapsed down onto the floor of the wagon, I landed on top of him. I saw the shadows of a recess in the wagon, and I rolled off him and toward it, looking up at the stitched.
Their eyes were on their target as they systematically reloaded and fired in the general direction of the grapeshot cannons.
I quickly ran my hands over the man, found his pistol and slipped it into my belt, and then took to searching the wagon.
A loose crate of ammunition.
I picked it up, slipped behind the stitched who were lined up at one side of the wagon, and made my way toward the giant, who was still fighting, his shield held high as a barrier against the noble-killing bullets.
My back hurt where I’d been struck by the second pellet, and the pain was particularly pronounced as I hefted the crate. It wasn’t large, small enough to be tucked under one arm by a larger man or stitched, but the contents were heavy and dense.
As the giant struggled, hefting its shield, Crown soldiers, wagons, and stitched had formed a line in front of it. It was being made to stay still and given a wide berth while the smoke cleared up. Wouldn’t do to have it trample friendlies.
Getting closer to it meant that I was more visible, the smoke around me tinted orange and red by the flames that lit up the still-burning shield, the burning fuel mingling with rainwater to dribble down and form burning puddles on the ground. But eyes weren’t particularly on me.
I heaved the crate, letting go. It hit the ground and slid along the road, skidding through oil-slick puddles, hopefully stopping somewhere beneath the giant’s flaming shield. It made more noise than I’d anticipated: heads turned. I was already moving away, running as quietly as I could toward the largest concentration of Crown forces.
There were shouts, questions, but in the din and the blind chaos, nobody singled me out.
I was halfway back to Jamie by the time the box of bullets caught fire. The effect wasn’t pronounced – hardly a rollicking explosion, but when the fire dribbled down off of the shield and onto the box, the contents were partially gunpowder. The bullets did ping this way and that, at a considerably lower velocity than they might have moved if they’d been pushed out the barrel of a rifle.
I’d hoped to get the giant’s handler, where possible, or disrupt the giant stitched in much the same way the scattershot had disturbed the lesser stitched. Failing either, I’d hoped the crate of bullets would go up in flame and the resulting explosion, small or big, would draw attention.
I achieved my second goal, in spades. The flying bullets must have struck home near the giant’s left foot, because it shifted its weight dramatically, stumbling, eliciting shouts and screams. It brought its shield around as a kind of crutch, slamming it into the ground to the extent that I could feel it, twenty-five paces away.
Damaged by fire, the shield cracked and creaked, threatening to fold in two.
It didn’t come to that. Distant rifles fired, and the giant toppled violently, hands letting go of the shield as the giant crumpled to the ground.
Higher up the building, the grapeshot fired again. I could hear the commotion as a soldiers made their way into the building proper. Fighting their way up.
The smoke wasn’t getting much thicker as a result of the second giant falling. It looked as if it had been the one to lob most of the containers up to this point, and thus it had less to break.
Diverting forces into the building, stopping, and losing the momentum of the giant had had an impact. The stitched I moved past on my way back to Jamie were disoriented, without the leadership of the man who’d been in the wagon. I had little doubt someone else would recognize the need and step up, once the smoke was gone.
For now, however, it posed another obstacle for me. The rebel stitched and beasts were pressing forward, using the gap that had been made by disorientation. It wasn’t a particular organized attack, not clever or refined or anything like that. Dumb stitched and dumb beast hurled themselves forward, saw a weakness, and attacked, hacking, biting, and tearing past whatever was in their way.
In the thinner smoke, here, I could make them out, large muscular stitched fighting with thinner ones with crude weapons, or wrestling with dogs that had exoskeletons, and things that looked like a cougar had been starved for two weeks with the resulting mass stretched out to twice the height and length, a spindly, clawed, fanged thing, swiping at the stitched in its way, darting back, lunging in again to swipe again.
I was in their way, and I doubted either beast nor brute could discern me as a friend, in the midst of this.
I moved closer to the building, looking for any window I could enter, in hopes of finding a shortcut around to the back of the battle lines.
A rifle fired, and the dog with the exoskeleton fell. It fired again, and the stitched the dog had been chewing on tumbled to the ground as well.
I ran through the gap.
“Thought that was you,” Jamie said.
I grinned, panting.
“Wanted to get more of the people guiding the stitched, but… no. Too spread out, too time consuming, too dangerous, I’m hurt.”
“You’re speaking in short fragments. How hurt?”
I turned, lifting up my shirt.
“I can barely see,” he said.
“Grapeshot pellet. I don’t think it hit anything vital, but it doesn’t feel good.”
“Okay. We’ll get that looked after, after.”
I nodded. I looked at Shirley, who was huddled in an alcove. “How are you finding your first battlefield?”
“Terrifying,” she said.
She reminded me of Lillian in that moment, and in the moment immediately following that thought, I badly wanted to hug her.
In the moment following that, I felt mingled loss at Lillian’s absence and frustration at the way things had gone.
“You’re more terrifying like this than you were standing on that rooftop, acting like you were out of your mind, Sylvester. Because that, at least, it was something I could almost understand. But you seem even further away when you’re in a place where people are dying left and right and you barely even flinch.”
“I’m flinching a bit,” I said. “I got shot a little. I’m afraid for your well being. For Jamie’s. I don’t know if that makes me easier to understand.”
She didn’t have an immediate answer for me.
“Part of the reason I came back. I was worried,” I said.
“Thank you,” Jamie said. “It’s frustrating, being stuck like this, waiting for you. Can’t go far, can’t do much. But I understand it’s… you.”
“It’s me,” I said. “Sorry.”
The smoke was clearing now. The sources of the smoke had dried up and been washed away, and while the second giant dying had made for a renewed source of the stuff, it was no longer enough to stall the enemy lines.
It was a weakness on the part of the Crown. That they put forth these great creations, and failed to account for what happened when one died.
But as weaknesses went, it was a small one. Stalled, key pieces knocked down, their front ranks thrown into disarray and mauled by the initial attack and the disorganization I’d helped promote, they were still a rank and file. The smoke rolled past some of their rows and columns of men, but I could make out the general shape of them. Two or three companies, extending down the street. Three or four hundred men, women, and stitched.
That didn’t count the others, the ones who had entered buildings to clear them of rebels and secure the flanks. It didn’t count the innumerable men that had been taken out of action in the rolling explosions and detonating ammunition carts, from my methane stitched.
“How many of them are there?” I asked. “Three, four hundred, then another three or four-”
“Six hundred, coming from the other side,” Jamie said. “Not counting the one or two regiments waiting out in the wings. Depends if the Infante wanted to keep one closer to home in case this was all a ploy to distract, or if he really wanted to get Mauer.”
“How many in a regiment?”
“Close to a thousand, mixed number of soldier and stitched.”
I looked at the scene, and saw how the soldiers were gathering together. Stitched pushed mobile forms of cover, covered wagons with raised walls provided shelter for the commanding officers.
It was as if no damage had been done, no losses sustained. The army marched on, over the bodies, and into the square, diverting fifty or more people to break into each building the greater army moved past, troops sweeping through.
An allegory for the Crown, for the seeming immunity of it. They could be made to bleed, but the consequences… so rarely felt. Kill fifty or a hundred men, and another fifty or a hundred advanced to take their place. Deal with one set of nobles, and the Crown sent a smattering of young nobles, the Infante, and the Infante’s favored two young nobles overseas to handle matters.
“Mauer lost,” I said.
“As grim as it might look in the here and now, Mauer does have others in other neighborhoods and blocks. Flanking, attacking the Crown’s battalions in the rear. They have weapons, and some will be chemical. There are people in the buildings with cannons and grapeshot,” Jamie said.
I looked at it all. There were a thousand experiments and rebels in the square. Mauer was in the midst of it all, organizing them. His soldiers and lieutenants were managing things in much the same way the stitched overseer had been commanding the stitched. Keeping people pointed in the right direction.
“It’s not as one sided as you’re saying,” Jamie said.
“He lost,” I said, again, “Back when he faced down Augustus. Augustus challenged him to a contest, and he failed to place the bullet. Lieutenants saw that, and I think it might have affected Mauer too.”
Jamie and Shirley were quiet.
The Academy forces I’d been interfering with were starting to move again. We double checked we had sufficient cover along the sides of the street, and ducked away, leading Shirley away and around a corner.
“Maybe,” Jamie said. A single word, as the result of a solid minute of consideration about what I’d said.
“He’ll fight, but he fights because he has no other choice. This doesn’t end well, Jamie.”
“There’s other cards to play,” Jamie said.
But his hand moved in a gesture, negating part of what he said.
Brave words for Shirley, but he was uncertain, his feelings echoed my own.
At the far end of the square, the column was advancing, shooting and fighting their way in.
The regiment was supported by three giant stitched, much like the one I had felled. Each carried a shield, only these shields were less wood, more metal. Never intended to be disguised as part of a wagon.
They hurled objects, and those objects exploded on impact, in the midst of the throng -and there was no better word than throng for Mauer’s assembled army-, sending bodies of human, stitched, and beast flying from the epicenter of each blast.
More than just Augustus’ pets, then. Or less than. They weren’t a rare thing, here.
One of the three stumbled, knees buckling, before it fell, dropping dead where it stood.
The explosives it carried didn’t go off like the smoke had for the other giants, sadly.
The other two raised their shields, protecting themselves while they stampeded into Mauer’s lines, scattering people and making room for the Crown to advance unimpeded.
Jamie’s head turned, and he pulled Shirley and I deeper into cover.
Leaping down from a higher vantage point, the Falconer had made her appearance.
She had a hood up, protecting her hair from the rain, wore a jacket, skirt, and high boots, and even without her raptor’s company, she wore the falconer’s glove on one hand, carried the saber in the other.
People at the fringes saw her, and people fired.
Each bullet that struck home made her move, by the sheer weight of impact, but it didn’t stop her. She crossed the short distance to the edge of the enemy group, and then she began cutting the rebel forces down.
Bullets didn’t stop her. At best, they carved away half of a handful of flesh.
She didn’t have as much flesh to spare as Augustus or the Infante might, but she didn’t need it. Once she was in the midst of the rebel forces, she was shot far less. They needed to use knives, axes, shovels, and bayonets instead, and in every case, they failed.
Every swing in her direction was deftly evaded, frequently punished by death.
She had no less than twenty fresh corpses behind her before nerve started breaking. People saw her coming, backed away and backed into others, and they aimed and shot. They didn’t care anymore that there were people on the far side. That every miss was liable to kill one of their own.
They cared that a number of others before them had tried to match the young woman in melee and failed. She was a reaper, death imminent, and they were using the most lethal means they had at their disposal to try to postpone or gamble against that death.
She was cutting a swathe through the crowd, heading for Mauer and the rest of the rebel leadership.
As heavier munitions were turned her way, she ducked low, hiding among the people she was killing. Smoke billowed in her wake as she used canisters of gas or something like the stitched giants had been deploying.
She was getting harder and harder to track as she built up steam.
I saw, through the crowd, at a distance, only a glimpse of her face. Through the rain and residual smoke, there was only a general sense of her expression. Serious, grim, determined.
“Sy,” Jamie said.
I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding.
“I can see why you said you were captivated by her,” he said.
I nodded, trying to process.
I could see the Lambs in the crowd. As if they were waiting for us to join them.
We had to follow, had to stop her. Mauer had lost, in my estimation, yet there was a chance, and if this wasn’t to be a complete rout, a loss that would be another mark in the nobles’ favor, another reason for people to never ever strike out against the Crown, we had to stop this. Scare her off, if nothing else.
Everything about the scenario demanded we move forward, yet Jamie and I remained rooted to the spot.
“Jamie,” I said. “She-”
“You saw it too?” he asked. His hands clutched the rifle he held in much the same way that Jamie the first used to clutch his journals to his chest. Insecurity. Regression of a sort.
“I think,” I said. letting out another one of those heavy exhalations. It was as if I’d forgotten how to breathe automatically.
“It’s my first good look at her,” Jamie said. “Sy, if this is what-”
Shirley interrupted, breaking the spell. “She’s going to kill Mauer!”
A belated realization. She didn’t have the sense of the battlefield, where the key players were. To her, this was only madness and violence.
But she’d realized, and in speaking it aloud, she gave us a push.
We ran, my hand reaching out for and pulling at Shirley’s. We ducked low as we crossed open space to reach the fringes of the group, and we reached the trail of bodies she had left behind her.
With Shirley in tow, it was slower to weave through the crowd, chasing. The Falconer wasn’t slow, either. She was graceful as she killed, her economy of actions efficient.
If she killed or even hurt Mauer, then it would be a devastating blow to everyone present. They would know that even the greatest of them, in the midst of an army, would be vulnerable. That the enemy was that dangerous, that relentless and hard to stop.
I let go of Shirley’s hand, leaving her to Jamie as I ran ahead, accelerating my pace, dodging past people and experiments to close the distance, striving to catch up.
More bodies. And people were retreating from her and from Mauer, to better save their own skin, which meant there were areas I was free to run forward without having to pause, without having to duck left or right or keep my head down to keep from braining myself on the butt end of a rifle someone was holding.
The increments were small, but I was gaining ground on her.
I saw snippets of her through the crowd, moving in the midst of rain and mob and sprays of blood. Her wounds were superficial, her eyes wide, entirely the eyes of a predator and killer. She didn’t look directly at those she killed, but, airborne in a leap, saber held high, she spared a moment’s glance at me, meeting my eyes.
As if to let me know that she had seen me. She had seen my efforts, and the actions that followed would prove them vain.
Mauer led his army, and was yet unaware of what was tearing his way.
The moment ended. The Falconer swooped down. Three people died in that swing of a saber, by my estimation.
Mauer was perhaps fifty paces ahead of me. Thirty paces ahead of her.
Black smoke billowed here and there. The same stuff the giants had used. I could tell by the size of the clouds how fresh they were.
I could tell, as I came across the latest, that it was only two or three seconds old.
She should have been further ahead of me.
I turned around, looking, my first thought being that she’d seen me, she’d ducked through the crowd to circle around, and she would be coming at me now, from an unexpected angle.
An unexpected angle, yes.
I looked past the people who were scattering. I saw Jamie and Shirley, running toward me. Confusion on Jamie’s face as he saw that I’d stopped.
The Falconer practically materialized behind them. Stepping out of the crowd, silently killing two people as she did it.
Black haired, black garbed, with eyes like a hawk, spelling only cold death, she loomed behind them. I saw Jamie’s expression change, as he registered my expression.
Jamie couldn’t react in time. Let alone me.
With all of the Lambs but one standing in the crowd, watching, I cried out.
The Falconer heard me, and she hesitated.
Jamie turned, swinging his rifle, and slashed the blade of the bayonet across the Falconer’s eyes, blinding her.
She swung her saber, blind, and he held up his rifle. Metal cut into metal, almost but not quite severing the rifle in half.
Jamie and Shirley backed away from the blinded noble, to my side.
And then, by unspoken agreement, we fled the battlefield.
This battle could be won, now, and this battle could be lost.
But what we’d just seen and given evidence to… we couldn’t die and take it to our graves.