September 22nd, 1833, Marquette.
The council room is stunned into silence after hearing my revelations. Ten years ago, I would have been ridiculed for stating those facts in public, in front of a ruling assembly. Now, my reputation lends credence to my words, and the resources at my disposal are second to none within the town. Even the mine consortium cannot match me in terms of military strength and influence. They know I speak the truth.
The mayor is the first to recover and passes a nervous hand in his thinning grey hair.
“Are you positive about their numbers?”
“Barring any major desertion, there should indeed be two hundred and fifty fighters at the very least, with a good fifth mounted.”
“I cannot believe it. Sullivan, what was he thinking?”
Silence reigns while members eye each other nervously. Holden, the banker and one of Sullivan’s previous supporters, steps forward. I have a good idea about what his argument will be and I need it to be stated and addressed here and now, lest it be mentioned later behind closed doors. We cannot afford dissent.
“Gentlemen, we are facing a destructive force but Sullivan himself is a known defender of the faith, if a bit misguided. Our first priority should be to enter into negotiation with them rather than seek bloodshed like savages.”
The owner of Marquette’s only luxury good store, an old man with a bushy white beard by the name of Dean, grumbles in the background.
“You call that misguided?”
“Please gentlemen, please, do not let fear and anger guide your mind. We are all civilized people here, I am sure that everything can be solved with just enough goodwill.”
“Easy for you to say,” replies the furious old man, “you licked his arse ‘till it shone like a freshly minted nickel!”
Oooh, good one.
“I am merely asking that we hear his demands and see if an understanding cannot be reached.”
His eyes bore into mine, or at least try to until he flinches.
“The sacrifice of the few to redeem the many is a small price to pay for peace and salvation.”
Jeers, insults and some cries of approval are exchanged by the participants until the mayor screams.
That… is the first time I have heard him raise his voice in all those years.
“This is pointless. Of course, there will be a discussion, and of course, it will be for nothing.”
The mayor stands up and walks through the room while we watch in wonder. He is usually such a stickler for protocol that even I find myself eager to see where this will all lead.
“I know what kind of man I am. During the seven years of my office, I have served as this city’s most senior public servant. The people have followed my recommendations not because of any sort of authority, but because I always found arrangements that would benefit everyone. I have always pursued concord and compromises in all my dealings. It was my goal to resolve issues in the most peaceful and agreeable way possible between the miners and the merchants, the rich and the poor, the farmers and the caravan hands, for the benefit of all. Oh, I know what they say behind my back. That I am meek and weak. And they are not wrong! I am not the blood of noble warriors and soldiers who carved this land and took it from the grasping hands of the old world like some of you here. I favour peace more than I favour victory, and I will admit it. And it is because of this that I tell you now, there will be no agreement here.”
By this time we are all drinking his words and the entire room watches, enraptured, as a leader is forged in a time of peril.
“Sullivan will not be content to close a bordello and bar a few drinking establishments. Do you believe a man who would forfeit due process and the rule of law so easily would be satisfied by a few concessions? Do any of you honestly think you will still have a voice in this council when he is done? No, I say. No. A man who is shunned and seeks to impose his will on the people not by his virtue or his ideas, but by the strength of his arms, will not stop until the world is broken and twisted to his vision. Sullivan will purge this city until its every responsibility, every position is filled by lackeys and sycophants. Even then, he will track opposition where he believes it may be. And if you ask for proof, ask yourself instead how he managed to rally so many men to his cause. Who backed up his claim with coin and arms? We do not know, but what I do know, Mr. Banker, is that an operation of this magnitude is an investment. And this investor will expect to be paid back. There is no wealth in Marquette but the one we created and own ourselves and mark my words, it will be taken.
“No, gentlemen, there will be no arrangement. There is only one word for a man who would impose his rule through strength and subjugation and that word is tyrant. As Jefferson once said, it is the blood of tyrants as well as ours that must from time to time refresh the tree of liberty. That time, gentlemen, is upon us, for I have not worked so hard and sacrificed so much to see my beloved city fall into the hands of a fanatic and a madman. Regardless of your decision tonight, I will fight this man to my last breath and send him and his minions to the depths of hell itself, one bullet at a time if I have to, for Marquette will stay free, no matter the cost.”
The room is so perfectly quiet you could hear the shadow of a pin drop, then old man Dean bursts from his seat and trumpets.
“Bloody well said!”
Thundering applause turns to a standing ovation. I am quite proud of our little mayor, and when did he even grow a spine? His incisive words shattered the peace party’s fragile unity in under a minute, as even the most cowardly of them succumb to peer pressure. The rest follows with a degree of efficiency I am simply unused to. A town council resolution written in a single hour and voted unanimously? That is simply unheard of. In short order, the council mobilizes the militia and draws defensive lines that are quickly barricaded. The entire city helps with its erection while the mayor enchants the masses with rousing speeches, giving the entire affair an air of festival. I know what is coming and make my own preparations. The Order of Gabriel prefers covert methods, and my old spellcaster enemies are all broken including the Pyke clan. That leaves only one faction aggressive and powerful enough to commandeer an army like one does a wagon.
September 24th 1833, Marquette
A vampire is coming to Marquette. I have Harrigan, my head of security, scout their encampment. Since he already looks like a highwayman he will fit right in, and I make sure to remind him that the Dream will be burnt to the ground if Sullivan wins, and not to get any bright ideas.
My henchman confirmed it. An old acquaintance is on his way, and I am eager to receive him with all the respect he deserves. I am not confident that I can defeat him in single combat, but I can stall him long enough for his rabble to disintegrate. Their ragtag band expects to intimidate a hundred militiamen at most. They have no idea about the pyrotechnic devastation I will unleash upon their sorry hides.
In preparation for their arrival, I have taken a few additional measures. I expect the fight to extend during the night and my minions, hrm, I mean my troops will need some light to see, so we erected pyres covered with pitch that can be lit easily from afar. I am sure that my own security will fight as I recruited them myself with this possibility in mind. The great question is, will the Home Guard?
As I make my way to their training field where they conduct a late practice, I consider that they have trained to take potshots at marauders and cattle thieves, not to hold back a determined force.
The warehouses of the Northern District fall away and as I pass the last guarded barricade, I hear the sounds of marching troops and clamours.
The Home Guard is drilling in their usual spot but without the usual good humor. I have avoided their meetings so far and only now realize how many of my girls are in their ranks, some of them have not even retired from the Dream yet. Their expressions are grim and determined, though a few flinch when they look at the group of men arrayed at the edge of the grassy expanse. Those spectators wear clothes of varying quality, and the only thing really tying them together is the general sense of anxiety they display. A few of them spot me and a portly old man in a mended suit limps towards me, waving a cane in the air.
“It’s your fault, it’s all your fault!” he screams in a shrill voice.
John stops him casually with a hand to the chest. The man’s anger turns to my bodyguard for a fraction of a second before self-preservation kicks in, and he cautiously steps back. A few others pile on behind him to join their accusations to his.
“You and your silly ideas!”
“Not the role of the fairer sex!”
“Cease this nonsense forthwith.”
And so on. I can easily imagine the cause of their anger. The Home Guard would have perhaps disbanded were it not for my support, and though the initiative was not mine, I am an obvious and easy target for their recriminations.
I weather their insults with composure and the certitude that a solution will show itself very soon. In fact, it is currently crossing the field with thunder on its brows.
A heavyset woman walks around the small assembly and plants her feet before the old man who now looks like a child caught stealing eggs.
“Augustus Edmond Schrödinger Junior!”
What a mouthful.
“My little dove…”
“None of that! You dare shame me before the entire damn town?”
“The front line is no place for a cutesy darling like you, wife of mine.”
“Don’t you dare butter me up, do you think I’m stupid? Y’all think that you can just go to your homes and wait for it to blow over, huh? Let me tell y’all something. Jenny there, she was in Johnstown when it got taken over by a bandit group and I don’t expect things to go better here if they get their way. If y’all pull your pants and turn around now don’t expect us women to be safe because a winning army always needs to be entertained, got it? Now Augustus when you married me in a barn, I didn’t say nothing, did I?”
This is getting pleasantly personal. The men present recoil for they know that tone, but we gossip lovers lean forward with anticipation.
“No, my honey pot…” replies the poor sod.
“And when you were off to drink with your buddies while I was sick with the runs and taking care of the kids you did not hear me complain, did you?”
Ah, the wonders of selective memory.
“And when your ma came to live with us did I leave her out in the rain?”
“Then if you got to listen ONCE in your goddamn life it’s now because I sure as hell ain’t waiting for those clowns to walk around town like they own it.”
“But surely,” emerges a voice from the small crowd of men, “Mr. Sullivan wouldn’t let them…”
There is a precious, delicious moment of silence as the entire assembly looks at the culprit, a youngish man whose face turns red when he realizes that his neighbors have wisely decided to step away from him.
“Peter Willikins, is that you I hear spouting nonsense?” screams an elderly voice from the back. Before the lynching can begin in earnest, Mrs. Schrödinger signals that she is not done.
“Sullivan is an asshole.”
“Aye, I said it! Whoever thinks he’ll hold his word has forgotten his vow to uphold justice? To protect the people? Can you explain how we’re protected with an army moving on us? Penelope dear, what is it you said?”
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” answers an owlish girl with a lecturing voice.
“…And they won’t get either,” Schrödinger continues with a deceptive calm. “Mark my words, those kind of people, once they have tasted power, they’ll never give it back without a fight. We might as well fight now while we still can win.”
A hum of approval comes from the female crowd and poor Augustus sighs, defeated.
“I understand, wife, not that I like it but… I understand. I’m just so worried… I suppose it can’t be helped then. We must do what we must do,” he replies, and walks away.
The crowd disperses soon after, and while the girls go back to training, Mrs. Schrödinger and Stetson stay next to me. I break the silence once we have enough quiet.
“I need to ask them.”
I expected arguments but I don’t get any.
“Aye, I suppose you do. Not that we need your approval to fight, you know?”
“Of course not. I just want those beside me to know what they are in for.”
“Yeah yeah, just… let’s get this over with.”
We walk slowly to the field and the nervous women gather around in a vague circle. Some look calm, some less, but unless I miss my guess they are all here. Well, better get it over with.
“There are many forms of courage, and not all of them require violence. There are many ways to serve, to be useful to a community in peril. In the coming days, we will need hands to work, to take care of the wounded and to repair the destruction that will be done. I want you to understand that this is all anyone can ask of you. Tomorrow, Sullivan’s troops will arrive and there will be a battle. I want you all to realize that in order to fight for the town and your sisters in arms, you must be willing to look a man in the eyes and pull the trigger to kill. You must be ready to see your friends bleed, suffer and die, perhaps even make the ultimate sacrifice yourselves. There is no shame in joining the nurses or the clean up crews and there is more than enough time to do so. Those of you who gather on the square tomorrow must be ready to go all the way, for our enemy will have no mercy. I will now leave you to make your choice and hopefully, we will all see each other at the end of this. That is all.”
When I leave, the silence is complete, but it does not take one minute before the drill resumes. I have my answer. They will fight.
September 25th 1833, Marquette.
The moon is full tonight, and its light shines on us with a pleasant glow. The visibility is so good that even mortals have no difficulties moving around. I wonder if this was intentional, just like the timing of the invading force is intentional. The troop was set to arrive at midday but was delayed by their inherent lack of organization. They set up camp at the northern edge of town at nightfall and have been recovering and eating ever since, laughing raucously and singing ribald songs as if victory was already assured. My men have spent the day making preparations and I have refrained from looking at them from my dream palace, though I knew I could. I would rather save my strength for the confrontation to come.
Now we stand on horseback facing the quickly assembling louts. There are three hundred of them in eclectic clothes, more a mob than a proper force. They gather around bandit lords and mercenary leaders in dense packs. An army from another age, as fierce and undisciplined as Germanic warriors facing the Roman legions.
Behind us, the warehouse district is heavily barricaded except for an obvious weak point, the main street only has basic fortifications that a man can climb in a few seconds, manned in part by, well, women. Our purpose should be obvious. We look weak, so that they do not split their force to besiege us from less defended districts. We want them to look down upon us and charge forward expecting to smash our resistance in one fell swoop. It is working. My hearing picks assailants already commenting on what kind of girl they prefer. Hopefully, their lack of discipline will deny any flexibility to their leadership. We, however, have a plan which relies on drawing them further into the warehouse square. It has the merit to be simple, like most of my plans, and involve exploding things… like most of my plans, actually. We also have other options if they do not take the bait.
The small delegation by my side shifts uncomfortably. I have always endeavoured to look proper and a bit meek to offset my position as Madame. No one can look meek atop Metis. The Nightmare is a foot taller than even the tallest stallion and it took her all of two seconds to cow every other horse here. I am wearing my combat dress, which is sleek and form-fitting and looks exactly like what it is, armor. I also took my hunting spear and rifle which hangs from Metis’ harness, and two pistols as well as a long knife.
The various people of the delegation force their eyes forward, then cannot resist and one by one, turn to me. They blink when their eyes confirm my appearance and then resume looking forward. After ten seconds or so, disbelief forces them to look at me again to confirm that those outrageous memories are true. It’s a circle. If their cats had come home dragging the corpse of the neighbor’s dog behind it, they would probably feel the same. It’s on my side but it is also much more dangerous than I anticipated.
I care little for we have reached the end game. No matter what happens here, I will be gone in a few days. I am beyond worrying about my image.
There are six of us, representing Marquette’s citizenry. Half the council is here as well as another woman who represents the gentry and would not spit in my face if it were on fire. A few riders emerge from the quivering horde facing us and make their lazy way across the plain. There are twelve of them, which is a clear message and the exact amount of petty intimidation I expected by the man facing me, on their right. Besides Sullivan, he is the only person who does not look like he attacks caravans for a living.
Riding a nightmare, he still wears a beige ensemble from another age like the first day I met him. His handsome face is still crowned by dark hair and his blue eyes still show the same utter lack of interest. The only difference comes from his aura.
Lambert of the Lancaster, Melusine’s counterpart and lady Moor’s enforcer is now a Master. He meets my eyes and the annoyance he conveys is the most overt display of emotion I ever felt from him.
The moment passes and he stares with condescending amusement at the town behind me. I have been dismissed.
Sullivan stops uncomfortably close to the mayor and his own men do not exactly surround us, but the message is clear. He sneers when he sees me, and the arrogance of self-righteousness is clear to all as he first speaks.
“I will be short. I am not here to negotiate but to offer an ultimatum. You will renounce your wicked ways, or your entire city will be purged from evil. To show your contrition and acceptance of the light and will of God, you will deliver this… woman, and her staff, to my custody. You will relinquish your weapons and direct yourself to the town church where you will await judgement in prayer. Do so and I shall be merciful. Even those who opposed me will be granted an opportunity to atone for their sins and keep their property and families mostly intact. Resist me, and I shall visit upon you the wrath of the Lord himself. We will track and punish evil and slay all in our path, for God is just and will sort you out. You have an hour, do not tarry.”
And with all the dignity of the consummate bloodthirsty lordling, he turns around and leaves. The men behind stay long enough to growl and spit out our feet, and a few even ask us to resist as their men need to ‘unwind’. Lambert was the second person to leave. I did not even warrant a word from him, apparently.
The mayor turns with as much disdain and dignity as his short, portly frame allows and we follow him quietly back to the barricade. The sentries open a short passage to let us through and close it immediately after. Still without a word, we follow our fearless leader to the command tent where captain Wallace, head of the militia and entirely in my pocket, awaits us.
Instead of speaking, Mr. Mayor walks to his corner and rummages through his personal effects until he finds a plump smoked sausage. The rest of the council surrounds him in a half-circle but still he does not speak. Instead, he takes out a pocket knife and unfolds it, then plops the sausage on the town map I generously provided and that had remained free of grease stains so far. He raises his eyes and starts in a calm voice.
“My grandfather taught me a story of England, it is a good one, and though you may think my timing is ill-advised, I beg you listen to me now as all will be made clear.
“In sixteen forty-nine, a man by the name of Cromwell managed to install a republic and though we Americans see such regimes with benevolence, I assure you, it was anything but. Grampa told me of how they took power by defeating the royalists. A victorious regime will of course, for the sake of stability, purge the opposition from its government, sometimes permanently.”
He cuts the end of the sausage and discards it on the side.
“‘Tis only natural after all, and so nobody helped. Then, the Republic had to be united so the Welsh were next to be brought into the fold, and who would even help them? The others were not Welsh, and so they did not help.”
A new slice joins the first one.
“But then dissenters surged in Scotland and they had to be put down as well. By then there were few people willing to help the Scots. And see, the proud highlanders stood alone and divided, and were defeated.”
By now, the plump sausage is less than half its original size.
“And of course the commonwealth extended to Ireland. Cromwell brought the secession war to a close and who helped the Irish? No one, for there was no one left.”
There is a fat third of the sausage remaining
“And of course, for the good of all and the salvation of their soul, attending the Church of England was made compulsory, and who would oppose it? No one. They had to bend or be fined for every transgression.”
The mayor drops one last slice on the discarded pile and raises the stump of the original piece between stubby fingers. It is barely larger than the other parts.
“You are all brilliant men, I do not need to expand on this fable too much. Know this, when Sullivan realizes that the disappearance of Mrs. Lethe has not brought about the divine kingdom he envisioned, he will seek who he perceives as the nearest agent of corruption, then the next, then the next. By the time he is done, not one of you will be left whole. I will not even discuss his proposal with you for it is not a compromise but terms of surrender with a side of threats. Now, does anyone object? Speak now without fear.”
Nobody speaks, even the supporters of peace can feel the coming of pitch and gallows, and although some would disagree in other circumstances, they now keep their peace.
“Then it is decided. Mr. Wallace, we will proceed as planned. I will personally, and alone, deliver our decision to Sullivan. Gentlemen, it has been an honor.”
“With all due respect sir,” I object and everyone freezes, “I may have a safer and more obvious way to convey our refusal.”
“Do you, now?”
“Yes. I assure you, the message will be clear as day.”
“Very well. Gentlemen, return to your position and make ready. We shall express our opinion on Sullivan’s offer shortly and God help us all. Dismissed!”
Would the Christian God help me against another vampire? An interesting perspective.
The council files out of the room in order and they spread around. I step out with the mayor at my side. All the present troops mill around with no clear purpose, throwing furtive glances at us as if I could not see them all waiting for us to speak. Those mortals are so cute, pretending to be busy like that. THEY ARE MINE. WE KILL TOGETHER. I make a gesture and they slowly gather around me with a mix of determination and shyness. John takes his place by my side with a serious air and the heavy wolf slayer in his oversized paws. A full quiver hangs from his shoulders.
It takes a good minute for the bashful group to shuffle itself. The odd squad is spread around town, ready to suppress those I suspect of turning coat with only the Creek brothers present. The rest of my forces are all here.
From my right to my left, I find my security detail led by an eager Harrigan literally covered in arms. Then comes a group of armed volunteers who joined us at the last hour, led by Mr. Schrödinger who would not, and I quote, “leave my wife to give those ruffians what for.” Finally, the Home Guard is here dressed in their Sunday best of all things. Everyone is wearing blue armbands for easy identification.
I turn to the mayor and see him sneakily eat a piece of sausage. When he realizes I noticed, he shrugs and adds in a quiet voice.
“Eating always helps me settle down, sorry.”
Well, that explains his gut, and now his magnificent demonstration is ruined by the suspicion that he might have had further motives when savaging that poor snack.
“Would you like to do the honours?” he adds with a quiet voice.
Why, I am impressed! I never expected him to let me have command, for this is surely what he meant.
I move to the side and climb atop Metis. My persona goes from overdressed madame to warlord in a second and when Metis takes one step forward, they recoil. She snorts in what I could swear is amusement.
They are all waiting, and I need to be convincing, for the Lancaster’s speciality is their influence on mortals. Those bandits and mercenaries outside have been gathered under his orders and he will motivate them to unheard-of displays of savagery, I just know it. Lambert has always been the very essence of arrogance and petty destruction. It is not enough that I am taken out or captured, he will destroy everything I have ever built, erase each of my achievements from the map. That is who he is, and what his men are here for.
I take a deep breath and channel my inner predator. Tonight, I am no longer the hand behind the scene. I am Ariane of the Nirari, Princess of the Blood. I belong to the oldest clan that was ever made, and my essence is that of the conquerors. I have killed hundreds and carved a path of blood to survive, to free myself and now to rule. This LITTLE MONGREL cannot possibly understand what I have gone through. This field trip of his will be his last.
I smile wide and in one fell swoop, capture the entire crowd. My eyes find Harrigan first and I use what I learned from Loth.
“And where are my men, my keepers of the dream, gamblers and drinkers, fighters and killers one and all? Where are my rascals?”
They roar as I wake their bloodlust and their will to destroy and dominate. I turn next to the armed citizen of Marquette.
“And where are the militia volunteers? The fathers and workers of our city? Who took arms to defend their homes and their families? Where are the stalwart defenders of Marquette?”
Another roar joins the first, this one made of pride and determination. They are the peaceful men driven to violence by circumstances, and like all those unused to violence, tonight they will know no restraint.
“And finally, where are the women of Marquette, my Amazons? Where are the frontier harridans, the unbowed and unconquered? Where is the Home Guard?”
The third roar is shrill and high-pitched until a shriller voice yet interrupts it.
“Brave defender, pick your flintlock…”
And a hundred voices echo.
“AND REMEMBER, AIM FOR THE COCK.”
A small part of me is horrified while the other only thinks, GOOD, MAIM AND TERRORIZE. When did they even… Never mind. Let me just continue.
“No army will come and save us. No miracle will sweep our enemies from the field. Look at those around you. This is it. We are what stands between the ravenous horde outside and your loved ones, your families and your homes. Some of us will bleed and some of us will die, and it is up to everyone to make sure that this sacrifice will not be in vain. So take your muskets and aim to kill. Tonight, you are not wives, husbands and citizens. Tonight you are warriors, fighting for each other and for your town. So tell me, what are you tonight?”
“Then warriors, remember the plan! Men in front, women behind, sharpshooters to the sides. Fight without fear and slay without mercy, and any wanker that shoots before I order, I’ll shove their muskets up their arse!”
The roar that follows is deafening and I can see from here the enemies hastily form ranks. No fighters will surrender, who can make such a cry. YES, COME TO THE SLAUGHTER, PREY.
I turn to my artillery assistant, an old man with a serious expression.
“Let’s give them our formal reply. Half a mile mark, fire at will.”
The man turns and whistles, before shaking a red flag at someone far behind us. A moment later, it begins.
I always found the mortars make a deeper, more quiet sound than field guns. Few things offer a clearer refusal than indirect artillery fire. The first boom resounds behind us and makes the dust on the ground vibrate.
The shell climbs to the zenith of its trajectory, leaving behind a red trail and a whistle like the world’s angriest teapot. A few seconds later, the projectile hits the earth with a resounding boom that even distance cannot dull. A beautiful fiery plume erupts in the middle of the encampment, setting tents and supplies ablaze. Some men scream as they are torched by the Skaragg magical shell, the same one Ascendency used against us at the battle of Black Harbor.
I really much prefer to be on the side that does the bombardment. I only wish I could see Lambert’s face right now.
The mass of enemies is now running forward, a stupid maneuver that will have them exhausted before they reach us. Ah, but Lambert brought highwaymen to a war. I brought soldiers.
Our line waits silently in front of the barricade in orderly ranks.
“Check range and adjust,” I tell the spotter, and leave him to do his job. Merritt is good at what she does and with the support of the borrowed Rosenthal mage, they will be able to fire quite a few shells from the protection of a circle.
I signal the Creek brothers immediately after.
“Light them up.”
Soon enough, flaming arrows land on the prepared pyres. The pitch goes off in an instant and a reddish glow lights the field. My mortals will have perfect visibility.
We wait in silence and I turn with curiosity to the mayor. He is mumbling a prayer under his breath which irritates my ear. In his hands, he holds a Bible and a pistol.
“Praying for forgiveness, Mayor?”
“No Milady, I am praying for courage. Forgiveness will come later.”
He returns a wan smile and I tap his shoulder as a sign of support. He is here, it is all that matters.
The foes are still trotting towards us. Their screams and jeers offer a stark contrast with our own disciplined ranks. No one speaks, no one moves. There are only hard faces all around.
The mortar fire now falls behind the assembled mass until the spotter raises another flag and the next screaming shell lands this time a bit short, still blocking the path with an incandescent crater. Somewhere to my left, a man throws up, only to be offered a handkerchief by his neighbour.
The next shell lands squarely in the middle of the enemy. Two dozen men are instantly slain and their dismembered limbs rain on their comrades in arms, who remain unfazed. Lambert’s work, no doubt. It will take a lot to shock them.
“Hot out there, innit.” whispers one of my bouncers. A few dark chuckles welcome the comment.
In a few more moments, the first foes reach the halo of light. The blaze reflects in their manic eyes and the glint of their weapons. A low roar starts as we finally come in their view. The first few start running again towards us as the rest spread in the semblance of a line.
One hundred and fifty yards.
The first rank lifts their muskets.
A forest of steel-tipped branches leans down and forward. One hundred yards.
The roar of the volley makes my ears tingle. The blue cloud of spent powder rises towards the sky as the first rank kneels and reloads without a word. In front of us, only a fraction of the men fell but the advance slows as even the most brainwashed moron hesitates to walk towards their death. A few of the rowdiest bandits return fire with little effect.
“Come on you bastards, you want to live forever?” screams a man in fancy clothes looking vaguely like a uniform. He raises a sabre and the foes resume their advance, faster still.
“Ready!” I yell again.
The Home Guard fires at a range where most can hit a target the size of a small mirror. More than twenty men fall instantly while others scream, holding mangled parts of their anatomy. The man with the sabre lets out a horrendous scream and falls to the side, holding what is left of his manhood. A girly titter with just a touch of insanity caresses my ears.
I turn to the mayor.
“It’s Stetson. She has a fixation.”
He just nods, looking quite pale. The forward line is now in full sprint and even the humans should be able to hear their many feet pounding the ground, the heavy breaths from their chest and the yells from their lips. They are like a gigantic creature with a hundred hearts, bleeding and hurting but quite alive and very dangerous. A maddened grizzly. We are a steel line in ties, hats and frills. And they will not break us.
The first rank stands back up except a few too nervous to reload.
This time the volley is devastating. Dozens of men fall and roll to the ground, only to be trampled by the rest as they have worked themselves up to a frenzy. The fastest warriors sprint towards us with abandon.
“First rank, fix bayonets! Second rank, fire at will!”
With practised ease, the men turn their line into a deadly expanse of sharpened steel. The Home Guard behind is reloading frantically. The mortar falls silent after one last shell as the enemy is now too close to us.
And then it is too late to plan. The melee is joined when the first fighters jump over the barricade. The first ones end impaled but some manage to smash into our ranks, felling men here and there. It only takes a few seconds for the line to be bogged in heavy combat. Immediately after, the pressure is lessened when the Home Guard start firing on assailants as they climb the barricade. I see a man climb up and take aim at our line. I blow his brains out just as a quarrel from John’s own crossbow sends a pair of ruffians flying back over the edge. After that, the other foes get the message.
The barricade lessened the initial shock and my first line holds fast. On the left, the citizens fight defensively, covering each other with care and fighting with unity. To the right, my own security detail just makes use of the arsenal I put at their disposal to dispatch their foes with matchless savagery. Knives and balanced war axes fly through the air to catch the bandits as they pass over the barricade. Pistols are unloaded at point-blank range, more often than not in someone’s face. The supporting fire from the Home Guard makes a real difference but there are still almost two hundred and fifty enemies and little by little, they push through. Before long, too many men are atop the barricade for our muskets to dispatch them fast enough and it is the scoundrel’s turns to shoot into our ranks. The first female screams join the chorus of pain and fury. A girl beside me gets shot in the heart, fires her muskets and falls dead. Wounds accumulate and we are steadily pushed back. I reload my pistol almost inhumanly fast and take out officers and sharpshooters but it is not enough.
Then it happens.
A highwayman covered in clay pots climbs on a crate and holds two of his grenades to the cigar on his cracked lips.
“Damn it.” I curse with dismay. I need to… but no time… I grab a knife until a crack from my side surprises me.
The madman covered in grenades falls with a surprised look and a deep hole in his chest. The mayor looks at the spent pistol in his trembling hands. Nice shot.
I think it is time.
I whistle and get the attention of the spotter. He nods and takes a trumpet hanging from his side. The clear sound of a horn covers the din of the battle.
“Alright lads, lob it!”
Sparks emerge from deep within our ranks and soon, our own grenades arc overhead before falling amongst the chaos of the opposing side. The attackers mill around in despair. Some fall to their knees in an attempt to seize the bombs before they can detonate.
I turn around and gallop to a side alley with the mayor and John on my heels. Our troops use the confusion to run, clinging to the side of the street.
In the alley, Marquette’s entire mounted detachment awaits with impatience. Anxiety has been replaced by anticipation in the eyes of those men, and they are more than eager to join the fray.
“It’s about damn time,” grumbles their commander, “gentlemen, forward.”
I follow them as they slowly make their way into the main street. In front of us, men and women flee in disorder but as planned, they leave the centre of the main street free. The chaos from the explosions and relative lack of visibility allow most to slip away safely.
The riders form a tight wedge behind their leaders. LEAD, CRUSH AND SUBJUGATE. No, let them do their job. If I charge now, I won’t hold back. Lambert is still missing.
“Swords out, CHARGE!”
The entire detachment jumps forward without restraint, men scream at the top of their lungs and somewhere in the middle, a musician with a trumpet is having the time of his life.
How does a disorganized infantry hold a cavalry charge? The answer is, they do not. The tightly grouped spear tip cleaves its way through the bandits, crushing them underfoot.
I do not follow. I move around, picking stragglers with my spear. Some of my mortals are on the ground and beyond my help. I still spot a figure in a brown dress leaning against the wall to the side. She is the last one.
I push Metis forward and we pick up the girl, who I remember is Penelope. She grabs my arm with a blood-stained hand. Her head rests against my shoulder. Somewhere in the melee, she lost her hat. Her brown hair tickles my nose as we ride back to warehouse square. We do not speak.
She spasms one last time in my arms. When I lower her lifeless body in the arms of nurses behind our back up barricade, they too say nothing. There will be time to honour the fallen after.
Warehouse square is the largest open space in the entire city. My mortals have regrouped and reformed rank behind a last barricade. Some are missing. Some others wear bloodied bandages if their wounds are not too serious. The wails of pain behind us comes from the infirmary. They remind everyone that there are no other fallback positions.
A minute passes and the cavalry detachment emerges in disorder from the main street, before turning right to their assigned position. The enemy does not follow.
You smell blood in the water.
You want to follow us.
Soon enough, a sound reaches my ears and explains the delay. Thundering hooves make the earth shake and raucous screams leave us with no doubt. Their cavalry is in the city. They must have taken the time to clear the barricade and allow themselves in.
The sound of the charge grows louder and louder. The Dream security, citizen and Home Guard cling to their muskets with determination. They are bloodied but not down. Some look with undisguised anticipation at the piece beside them.
The line of cavalry emerges from the darkness in one great torrent, with Sullivan at the head. He holds a crucifix in one hand, his face a mask of exaltation. He screams with fervour when he spots us.
“It is God’s will!”
I could not have put it better myself.
At the head of the charge, the riders show me a unique gamut of expression as they notice the gaping maw of the twenty-four pounder facing them. Curiosity, surprise, horror and even, acceptance. They all disappear as the field gun opens into them with a canister shot at optimal range.
The world goes deaf. The cannon vomits a storm of fire and steel that takes the charge in enfilade. Tens of men are turned to red mist and flying organs in a moment, and the survivors can only look in terror as they bleed and die from musket fire. To the sides, the cavalry detachment and a militia squad that was waiting in reserve for this exact moment maul the foe in a deadly crossfire. YES, PERFECTLY EXECUTED. WELL DONE, MY MORTALS.
“They have a fucking cannon!?” screams a mercenary with dismay.
Indeed not, silly human, indeed not.
We have two.
“Battery two, fire!”
The second field gun reaps a bloody harvest at another angle. Those who escaped the devastation of the first blow crumble and die. Panic spreads and for the first time, uncertainty pierces through the veil of fanaticism that Lambert placed there. They are RIPE FOR THE TAKING.
Sullivan looks askance at the bolt nailing his cross to his palm, courtesy of John who can certainly be petty when he wants to.
Our eyes meet.
I did not shred their ranks with my claws, I did not engage Lambert in a battle of Charm. I fought like a queen, and now, I WIN. Sullivan, you were outplayed from the very beginning.
The lead ball catches the fallen judge under the nose. His corpse leans back, spread eagle on top of his panicked horse as it flees the carnage.
“Now lads and lasses, let’s kick them out!”
The order to charge comes from everywhere. Militia and cavalry sweep through the disoriented attackers like a tidal wave. Citizens and guards push forward with a great cry, eager to reclaim their land and the bodies of their friends, eager to exorcise the fear that had gripped their gut for days. It is too much for the bandits who expected easy prey. They disintegrate and run away with all the speed they can muster.
And yet, the battle is not over. Musket shots ring from our left and I realize the issue immediately. A significant part of Sullivan’s men, maybe half, went to the side. They probably expected to flank us.
I rally the militia, still fresh and out for blood. Their officer already feels the danger and rushes to their aid. I open the way with the ever-faithful John by my side, until I see him.
Lambert stands in the middle of a deserted shopping road. His usual air of arrogant nonchalance is gone, replaced by frustration. He is so emotionally dead that I wonder if anger is beyond him.
The militia behind me instinctively turns to a side alley to go on.
“You go as well my friend, this is my battle.”
John nods and reluctantly rides away.
This is it.
I climb down from Metis. Vampires are too fast to make mounted battle practical, and I do not want her to be harmed needlessly.
The street is empty. The shops there are barred and their goods hidden. It almost looks like a ghost town, but the red glow of fires and the cracks of discharging firearms belies the sense of calm that permeates it.
Lambert walks to me, he the Master and the enforcer, me the one who escaped and prospered. He thinks me weak, still. Even with his men fallen and his plans in tatters, his prideful demeanour is unchanged. He does not understand yet, but he will. I am Queen here, and he is PREY.