"I--I need you with the rear guard," I say to cover my awkwardness. "If something does go wrong, I'll need you to get the men back to Antium."
Our next assault comes just before dawn, when the Barbarians are still scrambling from our earlier attack. This time, I lead a group of a hundred men armed with arrows and flame.
But almost before the first volley flies, it is clear that the Karkauns are ready for us. A wave of more than a thousand of them on our western side breaks off from the main army and surges upward in orderly, organized lines that I've never seen in a Karkaun force.
But we have the higher ground, so we pick off as many as we can. They have no horses, and these mountains are not their land. They don't know these hills the way we do.
When we've exhausted our arrows, I signal the retreat--which is when the unmistakable thud of a drum thunders out from the rear guard. Avitas's troops. One deep thud--two--three.
Ambush. We worked out the warnings ahead of time. I spin about, my war hammer in hand, waiting for the attack. The men close ranks. A horse screams--a chilling and unmistakable sound. Curses ring out when the drum sounds again.
But this time, the drum is unceasing, a frantic call for aid.
"The rear guard is under attack," Dex calls out. "How the hells--"
His sentence ends in a grunt as he parries a knife that comes flying out at him from the woods. And then we can think of nothing but surviving, because we are suddenly surrounded by Karkauns. They rise up from well-hidden traps in the ground, drop down from trees, rain down arrows and blades and fire.
From the rear guard, we hear the unholy howling of more Karkauns as they pour down the mountain, from the east. Thousands of them. More still approach from the north. Only the south is clear--but not for long, if we don't clear this ambush.
We're dead. We're bleeding dead.
"That ravine." I point to a narrow path between the closing pincer of the approaching forces, and we make a break for it, sending arrows back over our shoulders. The ravine follows the river, leading down to a waterfall. There are boats there--enough to take the remaining men downstream. "Faster! They're closing!"
We run full force, grimacing at the screams of the rear guard dying swiftly as they are inundated by our enemy. Skies, so many men. So many Black Guards. And Avitas is up there. Something feels wrong to me. If he'd been with us, he might have seen the ambush. We might have retreated before the Karkauns attacked the rear guard.
And now . . .
I look up the mountain. He could not possibly survive that onslaught. None of them could. There are too many.
He never told Elias that they are brothers. He never got to speak to Elias as a brother. And skies, the things I've said to him in moments of rage, in anger, when all he did was try to help keep me alive. That spark between us, extinguished before I could put a name to it. My eyes burn.
"Shrike!" Dex screams and knocks me to the ground as an arrow cuts through the air, nearly impaling me. We scramble up and stumble on. The ravine finally appears, an eight-foot drop into the remnants of a creek. A hail of arrows comes down as we approach it.
"Shields!" I shout. Steel thunks on wood, and then my men and I run again, years of training pushing us into neat rows. Every time a soldier is picked off, another moves to take his place so that when I look back, I can count almost exactly how many are left.
Only seventy-five--of the five hundred Marcus sent.
We hurtle down the path beside the falls, and the thunder of the water drives away any other sound. The path curves back and forth on itself until it drops into a dusty flat where a dozen long boats are beached.
The men need no orders. We hear the chants of the Karkauns behind us. One boat launches, then another and another.
"Shrike." Dex pulls me toward a boat. "You have to go."
"Not until the rest of the boats launch," I say. Four hundred and twenty-five men . . . gone. And Avitas . . . gone. Skies, it was so quick.
The sounds of swords clashing echoes from the path above. My hammer is in my hand, and I am racing up the path. If some of my men are still up there, then by the skies, I will not let them fight alone.
"Shrike--no!" Dex groans, draws his scim, and follows. Just beyond the entrance to the path, we find a group of Martials, three Masks among them, battling the Tundarans but being inexorably shoved back by the sheer number of them. A group of auxes supports a fourth Mask, blood pouring from his neck, from a wound in his gut, from another in his thigh.
Dex grabs him from the auxes, staggering under his weight as he carries him down toward the last boat. The auxes arm their bows and fire over and over until the air is buzzing with arrows, and it is a miracle I am not hit. One of the Masks turns--it is Baristus, my cousin.
"We'll hold them off," he shouts. "Go, Shrike. Warn the city. Warn the Emperor. Tell them there's another--"
And then Dex is dragging me away, shoving me down the path and into the boat, sharking through the water as he pushes off. Tell them what? I want to scream. Dex rows with all his might, and the boat is through the falls and moving swiftly down the fast-flowing river. I kneel beside Harper.
His blood is everywhere. If it weren't me in this boat beside him, he would be dead in a matter of minutes. I take his hand. If it weren't for Baristus's sacrifice, we'd all be dead.
I expect to search for Harper's song. He is the consummate Mask, his thoughts and emotions buried so deeply that I assumed his song would be equally opaque.
But his song is near the surface, strong and bright and clear as a star-filled winter sky. I delve into his essence. I see the smile of a dark-haired woman with wide-set green eyes--his mother--and the strong hands of a man who looks strikingly similar to Elias. Harper walks Blackcliff's dark halls and endures day after day of the hardship and loneliness I know so well. He aches for his father, a mysterious figure who haunts him with an emptiness he can never quite fill.
He is an open book, and I learn that he did set Laia free months ago, when we ambushed her. He set her free because he knew I would kill her. And he knew Elias would never forgive me for it. I witness myself through his eyes: angry and cold and weak and strong and brave and warm. Not the Blood Shrike. Helene. And I would be blind not to see what he feels for me. I am woven into his consciousness the way Elias used to be woven into mine. Harper is always aware of where I am, of whether I am all right.
When his wounds have closed and his heart beats strong, I stop singing, weakened. Dex looks at me with a wild, questioning expression but says nothing.
I adjust Harper's head so he is more comfortable, and his eyes open. I am about to scold him, but his harsh whisper silences me.
"Grimarr and the men who hit the rear guard came from the east, Shrike," he rasps, determined
to deliver the message. "He attacked me--would have killed me . . ."
All the more reason to hate that swine. "They must have snuck around us somehow," I say. "Or perhaps they were waiting--"
"No." Avitas grabs a strap on my armor. "They came from the east. I sent a scout because I had a hunch. There's another force. They split their army, Shrike. They don't have just fifty thousand men marching on Antium. They have twice that."
At first, I don't know what to say to Cook. Mother. Mirra. I watch her with wild eyes, part of me desperate to understand her story and the other part wanting to scream out the pain of a dozen years without her until she throbs with it.
Perhaps, I think to myself, she will wish to talk. To explain why she survived. How she survived. I do not expect her to justify what she did in the prison--she is not aware that I know of it. But I hope she will tell me why she kept her identity hidden. I hope she will at least apologize for it.
Instead she is silent, all her thought bent on moving swiftly across the countryside. Her face, her profile are burned into me. I see her in a thousand ways, even if she doesn't see herself. I find myself drawn to her. She was gone for so many years. And I do not wish to hold on to my anger. I do not want a fight with her like the one I had with Darin. On the first night we travel together, I sit down beside her by the fire.
What did I hope for? Perhaps for the woman who called me Cricket and rested her hand on my head, heavy and gentle. The woman whose smile was a flash in the dark, the last joyful thing I could remember for years.
But the moment I get close, she clears her throat and shifts away from me. It's only a few inches, but I understand her meaning.
In her rasping voice, she asks me about Izzi and about what has happened to me since I left Blackcliff. Part of me doesn't want to answer. You don't deserve to know. You don't deserve to have my story. But the other part--the part that sees a broken woman where my mother once lived--is not so cruel.
So I tell her of Izzi. Of her sacrifice. Of my foolhardiness. I tell her of the Nightbringer. Of Keenan and how he betrayed not just me but our entire family.
What must she think of me, to have fallen in love with the creature whose deceit led to those dark days in Kauf Prison? I wait for her judgment, but she offers none. Instead she nods, her hands curled into fists, and disappears into the dark night. In the morning, she says nothing of it.