The Born Queen
The sky cracked and lightning fell through its crooked seams. With it came a black sleet tasting of smoke, copper, and brimstone. With it came a howling like a gale from hell.
Carsek drew himself up, clutching his bloody bandages, hoping they would keep his guts in until he saw the end of this, one way or another.
"She must order the charge soon," he grunted, pushing himself to his feet with the butt of his spear.
A hand jerked at Carsek's ankle. "Get back down, you fool, if you want to live until the charge." Carsek spared a glance at his companion, a man in torn chain mail and no helm, blue eyes pleading through the dark mat of his wet hair.
"You crouch, Thaniel," Carsek muttered. "I've done enough crouching. Fourteen days we've been squatting in these pig holes, sleeping in our own shit and blood. Can't you hear? They're fighting up front, and I'll see it, I will." He peered through the driving rain, trying to make out what was happening.
"You'll see death waving hello," Thaniel said. "That's what you'll see. Our time will come soon enough."
"I'm sick of crawling on my belly in this filth. I was trained to fight on my feet. I want an opponent, one with blood I can spill, with bones I can break. I'm a warrior, by Taranos! I was promised a war, not this slaughter, not wounds given by specters we never see, by ghost-needles and winds of iron."
"Wish you may and might. I wish for a plump girl named Alis or Favor or How-May-I-Please-You to sit on my lap and feed me plums. I wish for ten pints of ale. I wish for a bed stuffed with swandown. Yet here I am still stuck in the mud, with you. What's your wishing getting you? Do you see your enemy?"
"I see fields smoking to the horizon, even in this pissing rain. I see these trench graves we dug for ourselves. I see the damned keep, as big as a mountain. I see-" He saw a wall of black, growing larger with impossible speed.
"Slitwind!" he shouted, hurling himself back into the trench. In his haste he landed face first in mud that reeked of ammonia and gangrene.
"What?" Thaniel said, but then even the smoke-gray sun above them was gone, and a sound like a thousand thousand swords on a thousand thousand whetstones scraped at the insides of their skulls. Two men who hadn't ducked swiftly enough flopped into the mud, headless, blood jetting from their necks.
"Another damned Skasloi magick," Thaniel said. "I told you."
Carsek howled in rage and frustration, and the rain fell even harder. Thaniel gripped his arm. "Hold on, Carsek. Wait. It won't be long, now. When she comes, the magicks of the Skasloi will be as nothing."
"So you say. I've seen nothing to prove it."
"She has the power."
Carsek brushed Thaniel's hand from his shoulder. "You're one of her own, a Bornman. She's your queen, your witch. Of course you believe in her."
"Oh, of course," Thaniel said. "We believe whatever we're told, we Bornmen. We're stupid like that. But you believe in her, too, Carsek, or you wouldn't be here."
"She had all the right words. But where is the steel? Your Born Queen has talked us all right into death."
"Wouldn't death be better than slavery?"
Carsek tasted blood in his mouth. He spit, and saw that his spittle was black. "Seven sevens of the generations of my fathers have lived and died slaved to the Skasloi lords," he sneered. "I don't even know all of their names. You Bornmen have been here for only twenty years. Most of you were whelped otherwhere, without the whip, without the masters. What do you know of slavery? You or your redheaded witch?"
Thaniel didn't answer for a moment, and when he did, it was without his usual bantering tone. "Carsek, I've not known you long, but together we slaughtered the Vhomar giants at the Ford of Silence. We killed so many we made a bridge of their bodies. You and I, we marched across the Gorgon plain, where a quarter of our company fell to dust. I've seen you fight. I know your passion. You can't fool me. Your people have been slaves longer, yes, but it's all the same. A slave is a slave. And we will win, Carsek, you bloody-handed monster. So drink this, and count your blessings we got this far."
Excerpted from The Briar King by Greg Keyes Copyright© 2003 by Greg Keyes. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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