Fiction: Their Courts of Crows

Genre: Fantasy

Word Count: 4, 200 words

Content: The aftermath of and discussion about battle, war, transphobia, murder (it’s complicated), death, familial violence and familial conflict; also modern necromancy, modern zombies, a battered warrior prince and one hell of a mother.

Author’s Note: I don’t know about the habits of non-Australian eagles, so just in case this is a phenomenon that only makes sense to Australian readers: wedge-tail eagles (Aquila audax) are often seen by yours truly (as someone who has travelled around a great deal of mainland Australia) on the ground or perched on a fence/trees/telephone poles surrounded by a few, several or even an entire murder of crows.

This story happened because I was pondering the Evil Necromancer And Her Hordes Of The Risen Dead trope, a la Magic the Gathering’s Liliana Vess. It’s been a while since I’ve written a short story that doesn’t involve Steve and Abe, never mind a short story that’s not fluffy, so I thought I’d post it here in my quest to get back to Doing Things That Scare Me. It’s rather rough and I’ll probably go back and edit it later, but I want to get back into posting things.

Also, I’m well aware that necromancy in its traditional meaning is to tell the future via communing with the dead, and you bet I make a comment on that in my novel-in-progress, but since the archetype I’m playing with is very much Liliana Vess, I’m merely making this comment to be that fantasy writer.

(Although I haven’t been not posting from avoidance as much as I’ve just been sick, hurting and completing the first draft of every way-longer-than-anticipated short story in Three Live Mice. Half of which is even finished to just needing a final line edit. Go me.)

He wriggles up to the ridgeline and peers over. The battlefield stretches across the valley, a mess of trampled earth, broken bodies and rent banners that looks nothing like the gentle farmland of his memory. There should have been paddocks of green wheat and golden canola bordered by post-and-rail fences and sourgrass flourishing on the verge of the road; there should have been brown-and-white cows chewing cud, girls carrying baskets and farmers driving wagons. Now the river runs red and brown around the abandoned bodies of horses and men; arrows and spears, broken and whole, stick up into the sky, forming grave markers and perches for wedge-tail eagles and their courts of crows. Fences sag beside the blackened ruins of farmhouses and sheds, and although Paide is now too far away to hear, the screams and groans of wounded horses and men trying to rise from their muddy graves will haunt his nightmares—do haunt his nightmares.

He rubs his face on his blood-stiffened sleeve and wonders why he watches. What more can he learn, given that every battle has ended the same way—the innocent dead littering the ruined countryside? What point is there in indulging the helplessness of watching Ihrne’s dread commander dismount her horse, hand the reins to her shambling aide and walk the battlefield, barefoot, the eagles and crows abandoning their corpses and taking to the sky only to land a few feet away and tear into another meal, a once-human soldier? What can he possibly learn that changes the words he must speak?

What is he doing but delaying the inevitable?

Once the dead were hidden by swarms of feasting carrion birds taking full advantage of human folly, but the starving Arsha soldiers shoot and cook anything that flies; only a scattering of birds, the survivors of Arsh’s famine, feast here.

Paide doesn’t even know this valley’s name.

Zaishne, Queen-Regent of Ihrne, clad in a black velvet gown, the hems of her skirts and sleeves trailing in the bloody muck, pauses in her march, here and there, to brush her bare toes over the best—most unmolested, least broken—of the corpses. Paide is too far away to see her expression, just the glint of sunlight on the silver coronet resting entwined in her wiry dark hair, but he knows she looks upon the deaths she wrought with the same blank, soulless gaze she turned upon Paide’s father as her hands closed about his neck—the same gaze she turned on Paide when his father’s lifeless body slid to the bedchamber floor. Death didn’t touch her when she killed the man she married; why should it touch her now, even though she orchestrated the deaths of every woman, man and person who died here?

A trail of the risen undead, clad in the bloodstained green and yellow of Arsh or the soiled sky-blue of Ihrnein loyalists, all sworn to his service and all marked by the sacrament of a necromancer’s toes, follow in her wake. They surge up from the ground in some broken parody of the farms Paide’s soldiers destroyed, forming into lines about the woman who makes cold limbs stir and shuffle.

Paide turns his head and spits blood onto the clean grass underfoot.

There are too many things, he thinks as he tries his hardest to hide the shaking besetting his hands and legs, that he would give his life to forget. That his kinsfolk and allies are forced to betray everything they hold dear once breath leaves their bodies, thanks to the whims of a murderous necromancer, isn’t even the worst of his nightmares. He tried, at Hill Vhrai, to defend the corpses: Ihrnein cavalry retreated with bodies slung over the manes of their mounts, fleeing the remorseless combatants who had died in turn to the risen generals and their mounts once entombed at Hallow Hin, their bones preserved in the darkness for five hundred years and more until Zaishne’s magic summoned them to the light of day. Three bodies burdened his own labouring mount; he left a wounded woman to stumble her way off the battlefield, gambling her life on the fact that, if she makes it to safety, she’ll face three fewer thralls during Zaishne’s next attack. He tried, only to lose the living for the sake of the dead, only for Zaishne to resurrect those bodies—too many to recover and burn—in her inexorable sweep toward the Arsha border.

Paide severed that woman’s head from her undead neck at Unen, but he sees her desperate gaze as he spurred his mount and left her to crawl through the mud every night before he, finally, with the aid of as much wine as he can procure, slips into sleep.

He would give his life to forget, but his mother will just animate his corpse and turn him into one of her undead thralls, so what’s the point?

“Your highness.” Sunen’s hoarse voice holds more politeness than most: few Arsha officers have much patience left for a desperate Ihrnein prince trying to avenge his father, not now they’ve lost the best part of their third regiment to a force that suffers negligible losses in return. Sunen stands, not caring for the fact that Zaishne’s sentries will mark his position; indeed, there’s no particular reason Zaishne will attack, for she must read the tides of war as well as Paide and General Thereva. She must know, even as she wades through the mud pretending otherwise, threatening otherwise, what will happen. “Might we leave?”

It’s not a suggestion, for all that the phrasing is couched in courtesy.

Thereva outlined all the reasons Arsh should surrender before Zaishne launched her attack on the valley and sent her revenants stumbling across Arsh soil, the most important fact being that Arsh doesn’t much care who rules, necromancer or Paide, and if Zaishne swears to abide by her promise to forgive Arsha involvement with Ihrnein rebels—loyalists, Paide screamed at her—then why should Arsh suffer ongoing losses in a war they can’t win? What does this war, against a necromancer queen who commands an unconquerable army and seems immune to assassination, gain the people of Arsh beyond loss, starvation and death?

He knows what truth lurks in Thereva’s eyes when she speaks of Zaishne’s rule; he can’t miss the hope in her voice. He can’t even begrudge her that hope, for all that her honour means she must remain this side of the lines.

He had and has no answer.

Politics, he thinks, is viler than necromancy, for what does it matter when a murderer has taken the throne? Even when it’s not quite that simple?

He knew, though, when the Arsha soldiers—and those few Ihrnein loyalists who have survived every failed attack and lost battle—fell back beyond the valley, only one option remained to him.

Or Thereva will publicly disavow their alliance and set her forces to hunting Paide and the Ihrnein survivors as traitors rebelling against Ihrne’s rightful queen.

How long will a handful of loyalists last with the entire nation of Arsh turned against them?

Not long enough.

Paide doesn’t stand, however; he wriggles back through the long grass, his teeth pressing against his lip in an effort to silence his pain, until the ridgeline of the hill conceals his movements from watchers in the vale below. Only then does he rise, biting back another groan as he moves stiff, reluctant limbs in some semblance of walking the strides necessary to reach his horse. A cut on the outside of his right thigh pulls at the movement, causing warm blood to seep down his leg; the act of swinging into his saddle causes further bruises and cuts to flare, and for a moment he grips the cantle in aching fingers, praying to angels and demons alike that he stays this side of unconsciousness. He grits his teeth, well aware that once—back when he had a father, back when he had a family, back when he knew the measure of the world—he’d have complained about such things. Now, pain and dirt and suffering are old companions. Not liked companions, but familiar nonetheless.

His guard, a scattering of loyalists bolstered by reluctant Arsha soldiers, mount and wait.

He tries to ignore the concern burning in the eyes of his kinsfolk.

“To General Thereva,” he says, feeling nauseated by the very words, but he looks his kin in the eyes regardless. Eishne ai Iteme. Jaienva and Geruin ein Hraita. Cousins and second-cousins, the remnants of families, a scattering of survivors. They were never many, but how did they become so few? “We will discuss the terms of surrender.”

The relief in the eyes of the Arsha soldiers is as nothing to the pain carved into the faces of his kin and the loyalists—the men and women who deserve to be governed by a monarch free of the stain of murder, the men and women who deserve to be protected, the men and women who deserve something in return for their suffering, sacrifice and loyalty. He should have done them better, should have found a way, should have—should have done what, Paide doesn’t know, for he knows of no way to counter Zaishne’s necromancy, and the angels, for all that he’s spent thirty years on his knees worshipping their magnificence, have provided no answer.

All Paide knows is that he will not become his mother.

Nobody says anything as they ride down the hill into the cut that houses the remains of Thereva’s army—a cluster of the bloody and the battered and the moaning, largely tended by those who walked away by means of determination if not luck. Thereva, as bloody and battered as the remnants of her command, awaits him on her horse, surrounded by an aide, a scribe and the most able of her soldiers to serve as an honour guard—a token, almost a joke, since nothing and no one will protect them if Zaishne ignores the white flag. She looks tired, her reins held in shaking hands, dried blood plastered along her hairline and down her left cheek, her shoulders slumped. She sits up as Paide approaches, though, and straightens her helmet, her sharp brows underneath angled at him in question: will he abide, or must she change the terms of her alliance with him to preserve her people?

“General.” The words are bitter on Paide’s tongue. His head spins; he threads his fingers through his gelding’s filthy mane and prays the movement is mistaken for restlessness. “I will ride with you and discuss the terms of the loyalist surrender.”

Thereva’s gaze lingers long enough that Paide knows she hears what he didn’t say—nothing, in point of fact, about a willingness to surrender. “Indeed, your highness.” She squares her shoulders. “Onwards.”

The formation of her honour guard and his is a pretence at such a thing, a scattering of soldiers fore and aft, her bannermen carrying the flags of Arsha’s Third and Thereva’s insignia. Eishne ai Iteme, swaying in her saddle, claps her hands about the pole flying Paide’s own arrow-on-blue, the flag of the Ihrnein heir. Her chin is hard and her eyes are set, and Paide knows she’ll fall before she lets her cousin’s colours slip from her hands.

They’re drowned out, those battered flags, by the wind cracking against the great white banners of surrender.

Those are, at least, borne by Arsha women and men.

Crows scatter as they ride out onto the battlefield. Horses stumble over hoof-sucking mud and half-visible bodies, but despite the noise of still-dying beasts and crying birds, never mind the sickening iron-mud-rot reek of war, they don’t shy, as tired and aching as their riders. Paide leans back in the saddle, gives his gelding his head, and watches as Zaishne stops and turns to face the oncoming guard.

Her revenants swarm about her, but they make no move to attack.

Only when they are within calling distance does Thereva signal a halt. It’s a relief: the gelding’s swaying steps cause jolts of pain racing down his right leg. “Your majesty, Queen-Regent Zaishne ai Iteme, I, General Thereva Asigne of the Third, in representation of His Grace the Archduke of Arsh, offer to discuss Arsh’s conditional surrender. To indicate our good faith, we offer unconditional repudiation of the so-called Ihrnein loyalists and acknowledge and affirm your majesty’s claim to Ihrne until Crown Prince Einas ein Iteme comes of age.”

Prince. Paide’s hands tremble about the reins, although he can’t expect anything less from Thereva.

Nor should he.

Zaishne, surrounded by her dead, inclines her head, her gaze resting on Thereva’s face. “I am willing to entertain discussion, General Thereva, and I accept your acknowledgement.” She shifts her eyes, and all at once she looks less like a fearsome necromancer and more like a mother, tired beyond measure, as her gaze rests on Paide’s face. “How do you answer, Prince Paide ein Iteme?”

How does he answer? How does a son answer when he sits there and stares his father’s murderer in the face? How does a son answer when he has been stripped of inheritance because he cannot, will not, accept her crime? “I see,” he says, scanning the ranks of the walking dead, “that none support you save undead thralls, slaves to your will. How can it be the will of the living Ihrnein people that you serve as regent when none are here to support you?”

Zaishne doesn’t flinch or blink. She just stands, confident, lordly, the sunlight—so incongruous given the death, animate and not, that surrounds them—glinting on the silver embroidery about her collar despite the muck that coats her feet and smears her dress. The lines about her eyes and lips, though, betray that she is as hard-used as the rest of them, and Paide wonders, for the first time, what it takes from her to give bodies void of breath the shambling semblance of life. “I will not risk,” she says without awkwardness or hesitation, “the living of Ihrne in war, not when I have a choice to do otherwise. Can you say the same, my son?”

Paide lets out a sharp breath. Blood trickles down his side, wetting and warming his undershirt. His gloveless hands and booted feet feel cold despite the sunshine, though, strange given how not so long ago he was fighting for breath while thrusting at the dead in the weight of a padded gambeson and leather. Then again, how are such contrasts any odder than everything else here? “You say that as you leave my father’s blood in your wake?”

There’s no shame in the proud set of her chin and defiant brown eyes. Grief, yes, but no shame or guilt. “I would do the same again to protect my son, should it be sadly necessary.”

My son. The words are a slap to the face, because he remembers those words, said in the same quiet voice, as Zaishne gave her testimony to Parliament and to the Convocation of Deities: a husband who sought to punish his younger son for refusing to know his place as a daughter, a husband who threatened his younger son for not wishing to marry the chosen prince, a husband who wrought violence on his younger son for his insistence on that title.

Parliament wants to see it as regicide and treason.

The Convocation sees it as a mother defending her child.

Even Parliament quails before the grey area of a king harming one of royal blood, however, at least if the protector happens to be the most powerful mage in the country, and the reasons Paide’s father wed a necromancer still hold true even if Zaishne, murderer, stands as regent. Hasn’t this war proved that Ihrne, with Zaishne as guardian, need fear no armies? If Zaishne is unreachable by assassins, won’t she extend that same protection to Ihrne’s heirs?

They stood there, the nobility of Ihrne, and they looked at the most dangerous woman in Ihrne, and they gave her, with nothing more than whispered complaints, the regency.

Paide rode, that day, with those retainers, nobles and kin who dared do more than whisper about the crime of appointing the king’s murderer queen-regent.

One by one, over the weeks since, he watched them die.

‘“You did not,” Paide says, looking at the ranks of revenants and not his mother’s eyes, “protect me when you murdered my father in cold blood. You did not protect me and my kin when you slaughtered us with your thralls.” He laughs, but there’s no humour in the sound. “You hold lords and charwomen and generals in thrall; where’s my father?”

Zaishne’s eyes don’t shift in their calm, unrelenting stare.

Her hands, long, elegant and filthy, tremble.

“You expect me,” she says, her voice rising, “to look on the remains of a man who could not love and nurture and cherish our son? Even knowing that this is flesh and bone, that the soul is gone—you expect me to look on him and be reminded of his hate and to where that hate has brought us?” She sighs, a rise and fall of chest her companions don’t imitate. “His hate cost me one of my sons—cost us innocent lives, cost us livelihoods, cost us peace. None of this, Paide, could have happened if only he loved.”

His own hands, he realises, are by no means steady on the reins. He draws a breath that’s accompanied by a new stabbing pain in his side. “None of this could have happened if you did not murder him.”

It occurs to him, as she stands flanked by her thralls, undead semblances of human beings that stand with bent limbs and slumped shoulders but are no less dangerous, that his mother is by no means a tall woman, and she seems somehow smaller, more fragile, as she shakes her head. “What could I have done, Paide, to halt a king whose word is law?”

Those words rattle him as no others have since the day of the Convocation’s pronouncement and the resulting submission from Parliament—or what remained of Parliament. What would he have done, if he had known, if he had to make a choice between his brother and his father? Take up his sword, he supposes; threaten civil war, because Paide has always been loved, loved enough that his people follow him into death and despair—loved enough, even now, that his own people won’t touch those white banners, and his own people have nothing to say against his fight, for all their losses. Turn the kingdom into chaos, perhaps, for the sake of one boy, well knowing that people will die for that boy’s safety.

It’s not, he thinks, so very different from a man turning two countries into chaos for the sake of one, well knowing that people will die—and worse—for a small matter of choice.

What does that say about everything he’s done since Zaishne let her hands fall away from a lifeless corpse?

He doesn’t know what to say, although he’s only dimly aware of the living audience, loyalist and Arsha soldiers alike, to this conversation. When the anger raged hot and fresh he doubted: did his father carry out the violence Zaishne claims? Is a princess-who-is-a-prince, flying in the face of everything Paide assumed about gender, even something that can exist? Is a matter of gender worth everything that happened since a king’s murder? How can one person’s freedom justify the ruination of so many lives? How can one prince justify the creation of a world where a country is too afraid to say no to the rule of the woman who murdered their king?

Now, he draws a breath, bites his lip against the pain and wonders.

When the spasm passes he looks at Thereva, who manages to appear as though she’s listening to a conversation about crop yields, something irrelevant and impersonal. She might be bored, weary and impatient; she looks nothing like a woman who must have been aching throughout this entire campaign and now must endure another blow to the face with every exchange of words.

There’s no privacy on a battlefield, and even less in a surgeon’s tent, so he knows, even if the Archduke discourages the conversation, why Thereva Asigne commands the force given over to fighting the war the Arsha nobility disdains if not ignores.

It’s a cruel thing to give her the command of a force fighting against a woman who seeks only to protect her son.

Paide breathes, slowly, deliberately. It doesn’t help the pain any, but it gives him space to think. None of this, though, has anything to do with his brother … and perhaps not his father. Who deserved to die more—a man who couldn’t love his family for who they are, or a woman who loved her country and her prince so much she gave her life for both, even when said prince betrayed her to her death? So what is it, then, besides rage and hurt and betrayal? What is it besides too many nightmares to count?

“Ihrne,” he says, urging his gelding to step forwards and biting back tears at the pain flaring into being at that small movement of heels and seat, “cannot be ruled by a person whose power is so vast everyone but a handful, a handful who gave their lives, is too afraid to speak their truth.” He waves a hand at the thralls, who might well have protected a portion of Ihrne’s innocent from dying in battle, but the fact those thralls are nothing more than bone and flesh doesn’t lessen the horror of seeing one’s shambling kin bearing down on one—or the threat that one woman has the power to take life and bestow its broken semblance upon anyone she chooses. “Mamman, I will fight you for the people I love, the people who fear this, until you take my life—your hands or a thrall’s, it is still the same. Mamman, I will not let you rule Ihrne.”

He knows, too, from the fierce look in Zaishne’s eyes above her hawk nose, that she will kill him—weep, perhaps, and live with a lifetime of nightmares and regret, but kill him—if he offers any threat to his brother.

They’ve both paid too much to live with surrender, as much as Paide will give anything and everything to see Zaishne concede her claim to the regency.

Does she, he wonders, fall asleep seeing her husband’s dying face?

“I will change the law,” he says. The gelding takes another limping step over a patch of sucking mud. “I will make it so no parent works violence upon their children. I will make it so that no parent has the right to choose whom their child might wed. I will make it so that Parliament recognises the validity of a person’s choice in title and gender. I will make it so that my brother can be who he is. I will make it so that, one day, you need never choose your son over your husband because there is no law to police his actions. I swear on the Hundred Thousand Names of Angels that I will make it so, but I will rule by law, not death.”

Zaishne’s dark face holds no expression Paide can read. “And what will your law make of me?”

It’s not, he thinks, as though he is any more innocent than she.

“Our hands are covered in blood.” He breathes a sigh, drops the reins and wipes his hands on his surcoat only for red streaks to mar his brown palms. There’s no escaping it, it seems. “What would the world be if all mothers worthy of the name had the threat of conjuring thralls to defend their children?”

She pauses, her dark brows knit into a frown. “Not all who learn will be worthy of the name.”

“I know,” Paide says, drawing in a sharp breath, pausing to allow the pain to crest and ebb, “that those mothers who are will protect the children of those who aren’t, for we will make it so.” He leans over the gelding’s shoulder and bites his lip as he holds his hand outstretched. “I think, perhaps, that the man who fears you so little he rides to war against you will not be assumed, by Parliament or Convocation or farmers, to be your thrall, should we be co-regents until someone whose hands are clean can assume the throne.”

I hope.

Zaishne steps forwards, reaches up and clasps her dirt-soiled fingers around his. Her hands are startlingly warm and soft, and he wonders, then, as his head spins and his breaths cause sharper, stabbing pains in his side and chest, how long it has been since he last felt her touch. “I am,” she murmurs, in words drowned out by the soft thudding noises of revenants collapsing to the ground, the rain of rotting flesh returning to its cradle of earth, the harsh racking cough bringing a froth of blood to his lips, “so sorry.”

“So am I,” Paide whispers as he falls from his horse into a necromancer’s waiting hands.