By Trine Toft Schmidt
Max sat amongst the dead, whistling to herself. Blue and orange clad bodies littered the road, the smell of blood was heavy in the air and flies were already buzzing around her.
But Max minded none of it. She was busy cleaning the bloodstained handle of her battle axe, using the torn cape of a young soldier, who had lost his head in a rather unfortunate run-in with the same axe. Her ear was still ringing with the sounds of clashing metal and the death cries of the men around her, but her heart had stopped racing.
She smiled and lithely unfolded from her cross-legged position and slipped the axe into its holster on her back. She made sure she still had the satchel with her and then she stepped over the headless soldier and started to walk away. Her job was done, her bulging satchel would soon be empty and she would be one debt poorer.
She cast a last look back. The queen was still alive, her chest was rising shallowly with breath. Her gray silk dress was black with blood, but she would live. On Commander Alax’s orders. But she had left her mark. The queen could well live with only one ear but it made wearing a crown difficult. Max rubbed the ridge of skin where her left ear had once been and smiled again. Killing two birds with one stone. Paying her debt to King Davion and getting her revenge.
The sky was tinged with gold and birds were calling out in the chill morning air when the pillars of Lancashire Pass came into view. Max was exhausted, her feet sore and her knee burning where she fallen on a stone, diving for cover when a messenger had barreled past her on a wheezing horse. But she would not slow down, not until she was on the other side of the pass, and had found suitable cover. The road was empty, but it would soon change, now that the sun was rising. On the other side of the pass King Davion’s army would be waiting, holding its breath for the war that until now had seemed inescapable. There was no need to be seen by them, when they marched down this road toward the Queen Catiana’s army. Being alone on the road meant speed and stealth, but it also made you vulnerable to the battle hungry men even if you could fend very well for yourself. She picked up her pace and kept her eyes on the pillars growing taller and taller ahead of her.
The sun had cleared the horizon and far below her soldiers were kicking dust clouds into the still air, already on the march up the western rim road, when she spotted a crevice in the dark brown rock. A spearhead shaped stone tilted in front of a dark hole twenty feet above her. A narrow path, barely visible in the rubble, lead up to the crevice. The cave was probably home to a mountain cat, but with all the traffic on the road it had surely retreated temporarily to other hunting grounds. Without hesitation she turned off the road and made her way upwards.
The cave was indeed empty and Max fell asleep with the reek of rotting flesh and the musky spray of mountain cat in her nose. Her hand was clenched around her knife and her axe lay right by her head. The satchel was tucked under her head as a pillow, the cube cutting into the back of her neck. It was not comfortable, but it would suffice.
When she woke the road below her was ringing with the feet of hundreds of men. Some were singing and talking, but most were grunting with effort and nerves. The Middle Kingdom had not been to war in five hundred passes and the army was barely more than a gathering of farm boys. The only practical experience a Middle Kingdom soldier was likely to get was if he was stationed in the border towns along the rims. And with five hundred years of peace even that amounted to less than nothing when the experienced army of Queen Catiana decided to beat down upon you.
Max massaged the nub of her ear absentmindedly. Having been a slave soldier for the queen had given her skills not many Middle Kingdom men had, the loss of half her hearing only a small part of the price it had cost. Being rescued from the queen’s clutches had given her freedom, but had also presented her with another price to pay, to commander Alax, but also to King Davion. A price she was well on her way to repay with what was in her satchel.
She pulled the satchel closer and looked inside. She had not allowed herself time to think about the cube before, she had just twisted it from the queen’s hands and stowed it away, but now she pulled it out and examined it, holding her breath. But it was nothing special. Just a piece of black rock. The slumbering stone dragons of the Middle Kingdom had been enough to deter the rim kings and queens for years beyond count, and that this little black thing was enough to tip the scales enough to favor anyone seemed impossible.
Max held the rock up toward the sliver of light that cut in from the cave opening. Nothing shined from within. She held it to her ear, but nothing hummed or sang within it either. It was just a cube of stone. And for this she had slain a dozen men? She shook her head and stuffed the cube back into the satchel. But then she allowed a grin to break through her frown. She had killed a dozen men AND cut off the queen’s ear. Who cared about the power of objects when the power of revenge was so satisfying?