General Aife Crofadottir was acknowledged the greatest military mind of her generation—perhaps even her century. No wonder then that the sorcerer Balthus recruited her early in her career, setting her to rally armies of Beasts and magically-equipped soldiers, planning campaign after campaign, until finally he stood the ruler of a vast expanse of the continent’s northeastern corner. Once fertile lands, once countries, now only uncontested, devastated territories.
Three years after her death, she still labored in his service.
♦ ♦ ♦
Aife stood at the window of Balthus’s tower, looking out over the desolate countryside. Age and blight had stooped the apple trees dominating the view, and sticky webs clustered in the vees of the knobby branches. The dry grass tried to hold onto the dust, but here, as everywhere, drought and ash and the silty remnant of magic choked away all life. The chalky-white stones surrounding the dry well gleamed in the hostile sunlight.
Decades of sorcerous battle had warped the land. It was dead in patches, or so plagued by ghosts that no living soul could walk it and remain sane.
She rested her fingertips on the windowsill and contemplated her hand. The skin was gray and withered but still functioned. Sooner or later, Aife thought, it would rot away, despite Balthus’s preservative spells. What would happen then? Right now she could pass for a living but very ill person, could wrap herself in a cloak and whisper, make some claim to human company. What would happen when her bones began to show through?
Behind her, Balthus said, “You will become a skeleton, but one that walks and talks by magic means. The mere sight of you will strike fear in any heart. What a war leader you will be then, my darling!”
He touched her shoulder, closer than she had thought him. “You will make a beautiful skeleton. All clean-lined ivory. I will commission you a crown, gilt and amber, with the warhawk that shows you general.”
She was weary of him reading her mind.
At the thought, he removed his hand. “Is that what has concerned you lately? But I must know your mind, Aife, must be able to glimpse your plans in order to work to aid them.”
“Every creature in your employ,” she said, words thick. “I know, you must know them all.”
He let the room’s silence gather, then ventured, “Perhaps....”
She turned away from the window to contemplate him. She might be a monster, but he was little more: yellowed skin stretched drum-tight over his bones. His long, wispy hair was tied back with an embroidered ribbon the wrong color for the crimson robes he wore.
Blotches and scars marked his hands, the relics of past experiments. An olive-green patch covered the heel of one hand, an irregular oval resembling old mold or lichen.
He returned the gaze, eyes as glassy as an opium addict’s. What spells had he laid on himself, throughout the years? She wondered if he saw her as she truly was now. Or did he let the memory of her slip over it like a mask, making him see her when the blood still coursed through her veins, instead of the slow seepage it engaged in now, as though begrudging her body its energy.
“I will make you a charm,” he said. His voice was almost pleading. “One that keeps your thoughts hidden. No other man, woman, or Beast in my employ has that privilege. But I will give it to you.”
And with that promise, she gave him her hand, her gray and withered hand, and let him lead her to bed.
But again, she did not know whether he kissed her or the memory of what she had been to him.
♦ ♦ ♦
He kept his promise. The next day, beside her on the pillow he had left at dawn, a silver chain coiled, holding a dark gem, darker than death or the loss of memory.
She put it around her neck and went to do his business.
♦ ♦ ♦
Since her transformation, all living things shied away from her. She had become accustomed to that. But the Beasts accepted her more than the humans did. Most of them were creatures Balthus had created, sometimes by putting living things together to make something new, like the swan-winged woman that acted as scout and courier, or the great Catoblepas, blended of ox and wild pig and turtle and something Balthus would not name, whose breath withered whatever it struck. More often he transformed what he was given: stretching, pulling, augmenting, till something was created that the world had never seen before. If it showed promise that he could use it, he left it alive.
She did not seek the Beasts’ company deliberately, but rather, as a cat does, she would sit in a room where they were gathered, not part of the conversation, but letting it swirl around her. There but not there. It reminded her of long-ago barracks chatter, the taunts and gibes and affectionate mockery of fellow soldiers.
This day she sat in the corner near the fire, careful not to get too close, lest a spark singe her without her knowing, because her skin was dead now and only reported a little when pain struck it. Near her was the swan-woman, who they called Lytta, and the Minotaur who guarded the stables, and a man-wolf who had once been one of her finest soldiers. He was the only one who had looked at her when she entered, his eyes glinting sly green in the firelight as he half-nodded. She had not returned the gesture.
“They say the Falcon is making inroads near Barbaruile,” Lytta said to the wolf-man, who had refused any name other than “Wolf.”
That news interested Aife. She had pursued the bandit chief who called himself the Falcon for almost a year now and found him a more than adequate challenge.
“What does he fight for?” the Minotaur demanded, his voice as heavy as a sack of gravel. “He leaves things worse than they are, with no sorcerer to look out over the land.”
“He must have magic of his own,” Lytta said. “Look at how he has escaped capture, again and again.”
“They say it is no magic,” Wolf said, “but rather something that dispels magic.”
Aife had spent much time contemplating the same question. What was the source of the Falcon’s success? Spies sent to gather information never returned. Were never heard from again. Subverted or killed? She hoped, for their sake, that it had been the latter. When Balthus finally captured the Falcon—it was inevitable—he would take him and all his allies and make new things of them, things that they would not enjoy being.
Any more than she enjoyed the life he had given her.
♦ ♦ ♦
When she had first opened her eyes after her death, all she saw was Balthus’s face, like the full moon in the sky above her. She had shuddered then, not understanding why she continued to breathe.
She remembered dying. She remembered the cannonball slamming into her, the broken knitting needles of her ribs, bright stitches of pain weaving her a garment. Reeling back on unsteady legs—something in her spine was wrong, was numb. Slipping away, like retreating into sleep, defeated but not unhappily by dreams. It had been so restful.
She realized she no longer had to breathe.
“What have you done?” she tried to say, but Balthus’s hand pressed her back implacably on the bed.
“Rest, my dear,” he said. “You were too valuable to me to be laid beneath the earth.”
Her heart, she realized, had not been revived with the rest of her.
♦ ♦ ♦
When Balthus had first recruited Aife, she had stood straight as a spear, muscular but tall, carrying herself like a willow tree. She kept her hair short then, in the manner of foot soldiers, even though she had risen much further in the ranks than that. Her only scar was a burn along her left fore-arm where it had been caught by quick-fire in a southern sea battle against raiders.
They had heard of Balthus, of course. His demesne bordered the petty kingdom in whose service she battled. Rumors initially said he was a mage, but the stories had grown until they named what he really was: sorcerer, the sort that battled perpetually on these shores. The devastation had not yet spread across the continent. She had thought she could keep the kingdom safe for its Queen-Regent.
But in a single night, everything changed.
When she awoke that morning, the first thing she noticed was the silence. Then the smell of blood.
She alone was alive. She went through the castle, opening door after door to look in, seeing a gaping wound like a second mouth on each throat, the pool of spilled blood, the flies already gathering. In the Queen’s chamber, grief nearly brought her to her knees. She had promised to protect the woman who lay there. Now all that was alive in this place was her. Why had she been spared? Had she been merely overlooked, or was there some reason?
Finally she had entered the throne room, expecting no one there. A red-robed man sat alive on the gilded chair, watching her approach.
“Your fame has spread, Aife. Aife of the deadly sword and clever plan. I have come to collect you. Will you serve me, or must I coerce you?”
His eyes were deceptively kind; her mind numb. Her fingers curled around the hilt of the dagger at her waist, felt the ridges of the leather wrapping on the pommel. But what use was steel against a sorcerer?
At the time she agreed, she’d thought to catch him off-guard, kill him when he was unwary. She watched for opportunities, made her plans. She could not hope to escape alive after slaying him, but it would be worth it, to avenge her Queen. She waited patiently.
But a year passed, then another, and she found herself enjoying planning his campaigns, being able to use magics, technologies, of the sort her Queen never could have wielded. She had never been able to play at war on such a scale. Her victories pleased her. Made her even more famous.
Wolf had come to her then, sought her out, not as a lover but as a follower, and had been captured by Balthus. Brought to her, he had sworn to whatever changes the sorcerer thought might make him a more efficient soldier. The potion Balthus gave him twisted and elongated his skull, pulled his jaw forward, endowed it with canines the size of her thumb.
All the while he had stared into her eyes, trusting her.
By then it all seemed normal.
She’d been seduced by her pleasure in the puzzles Balthus had set her. How to coax an enemy from a walled tower. How to keep supplies from the coast from reaching their destination. As though the mental chessboard had been expanded, the rules not changed but become more complex. Challenge after worthy challenge, and she overcame them all.
And so when, the next night, he had kissed her, she had not resisted. She was not a virgin. Nor was she the only person to find themselves in his bed. She thought he would miss her companionship. Perhaps it would keep her safe; perhaps he’d hesitate to slay someone who’d touched him, cradled him. Loved him.
Had she known she would become so dear to him that he’d impose this existence on her, she would have tried to kill him that first moment in that echoing, empty throne room, even knowing it meant her death.
♦ ♦ ♦
This half-life dragged at her. She felt weary all the time, a chilled-bone sluggishness of motion that belied the quickness of her thoughts. It was not painful to breathe, but it was tiring, and she began to eschew it when alone and unworried about frightening the living.
She touched the silver chain at her throat. Was it real or some trick? A trinket that did nothing but give her peace of mind? She thought, though, that he would deal squarely with her. Of all his creations, she was the most his.
In the chambers she inhabited, she unrolled the massive map that showed Balthus’s territory and spread it on the table. She used a copper coin to mark each site where a raid had occurred and studied them, trying to puzzle out the pattern by which the Falcon determined his targets. There was always a pattern, even when people were trying to avoid it.
The Falcon seemed to be working north, but in the past he’d doubled back on occasion, hit a previous target or something near it. When would he do it again? What prompted the decision each time?
Discover that and she’d have him.
♦ ♦ ♦
She had always walked among her troops, late at night, getting a feel for their worries, their fears. She could do that no longer. She frightened them too much.
So now she relied on her three troop leaders, all uneasy-looking men Balthus had recruited from the Southern Isles. One told her he had come thinking this war-torn continent would provide easy pickings for a man of war. Then once here, he had realized, as had the others, the importance of placing himself under a sorcerer’s command. There was no other way to survive.
Unless you were the Falcon, it seemed. Was it true, was he a sorcerer himself?
If so, only Balthus could catch him.
But her employer– her lover, her resurrector—seemed more preoccupied with the waters to the north and skirmishes with the Pot-King, who might actually be the Pot-King’s son, according to one set of rumors.
“A minor bandit,” Balthus said dismissively.
“A troublesome one,” she said. “He burned your granary at Vendish.”
A bold move, but a strategic one. Hungry troops were inefficient troops, whether Human or Beast.
Balthus shrugged. “Is that not why I have you, for matters of this sort?”
♦ ♦ ♦
Her fearsome nature had its advantages. She could not move easily among her soldiers, but she could walk the land around the castle. No creature would trouble her; no predator would sniff her and think of food. No ghost would attack her, knowing her somewhat closer than kindred.
Sometimes Wolf trailed her, never speaking but always guarding. It was a comfort, even if unnecessary, to feel him in the shadows, a guardian presence at her back.
She did not take a torch. Her eyes were well-adjusted to the darkness—indeed, most times she preferred it.
In a glade, she found a doe and her fawn, part of the herd of Riddling Deer Balthus had loosed on the orchard. They lay in a drift of fresh green grass. Red poppies bloomed around them, rare vegetation in this scorched land.
The doe’s eyes were dark as forest pools. Her nostrils flared and her head jerked, testing the air, as Aife approached. But the wind reassured her; she settled back.
The fawn spoke—how had Balthus managed that? The Deer were his unique creation. He had wanted oracles, had not realized how enigmatic and troublesome they would prove.
“Inside you is your worst enemy,” it said.
She did not move, but looked at the fawn, hoping for additional details.
They were not forthcoming. But perhaps –
A branch snapped under Wolf’s foot in the underbrush. The wind changed. Jack-knife sudden, doe and fawn were on their feet.
They flickered away into the night, taking with them the answers she sought.
♦ ♦ ♦
She came back to her quarters, smelling of grass and thyme, knowing the boundaries were unchallenged except by the Deer’s troublesome words. She unslung her heavy cape, velvet folds as soft as a baby’s earlobe. Her boots were black leather with gilt buckles. She undid them one by one and slipped the footwear off by the fire before padding over to the table to contemplate the Falcon’s patterns anew.
A black-barred feather lay on her map.
She picked it up with some difficulty. Cold made her fingers stiff.
Who would have dared to leave it here? The Falcon had some ally—perhaps even allies, for she reckoned him her equal in cunning, in planning out each move in a long game, and she would have never betrayed just one ally, unwilling to lose the advantage it gave her, unless she had others in place.
Twirling the feather, she watched its dance. She would use it as her test of the amulet. Surely if Balthus plucked it from her thoughts, it would spur him to some action.
But he did nothing when he saw her the next morning. Instead she laid the feather beside the map and continued her study of the Falcon’s appearances. She tracked the phases of the moon, the weather, anything that might prompt his decisions.
It seemed to Aife that in the last few months, such a pattern had emerged. But why, puzzlingly, had one recently appeared?
Still, she was there, in the village he had half-burned before, lying in wait, when he doubled back. She had sent the surviving townspeople away, filled the houses with archers and swordhands. In the remnants of the town hall, the Catoblepas crouched, waiting for her orders.
She chose the Mayor’s house for her headquarters, finding it the best appointed for her needs. She told herself the decision was not motivated by the way the man had flinched when she first rode in.
As expected, in the night the bandit band appeared, slinking in through the shadows, slipping into houses. Their deaths would be as quick and as silent as she could manage. She had ordered them killed; she had no need for anyone alive but the Falcon.
But she waited in vain, and the breath in the Catoblepas’s lungs withered only the small grasses among the stones where it crouched. When her archers and soldiers came, they said the Falcon’s men had been only illusory wraiths, melting through their steel.
At that, she expected the courier’s arrival to bring word that the castle was under siege. It did. She had been outmaneuvered. It was not a customary sensation for her.
By the time she arrived, several dozen of Balthus’s choicest Beasts were dead, and a full troop’s worth of seasoned mercenaries who would be difficult to replace. Balthus uttered no reproach, but she felt the weight of his unspoken disapproval and disappointment. For the first time, she wondered if there were worse things than the life he had given her.
♦ ♦ ♦
In the months that followed, she found herself experiencing another uncustomary sensation: irritation. She played a game where her opponent had her outwitted at every turn, as though he could read her mind. As Balthus once had.
Her opponent taunted her. Every few days another feather appeared. Laid atop her pillow, on the tray beside her breakfast, drifting on the windowsill. A marker in her book, turned a few pages beyond where she had been reading.
She burned them in the fireplace but said nothing to Balthus.
Inside you is your worst enemy. What did that mean? The thought ate at her like a parasite. Was she at odds with herself? Was she overlooking the obvious, making mistakes she should have realized? She found herself outside her actions, watching them with a critical eye.
She faltered sometimes. The fine lines around Balthus’s eyes meshed and deepened when he frowned at her, but he said nothing aloud.
But he wanted the Falcon captured, and soon. He was angry about the losses, the time that would be necessary to create more Beasts. For the first time he did not communicate his plans but expected her to guess them in a way that left her scrambling to catch up at times, trying to figure how to incorporate each creature he created. He did not consult her. She could have used more winged Beasts, to replace lost scouts, but she did not dare request them.
♦ ♦ ♦
It shocked her when Balthus, finally making a move, caught the quarry she had sought so long. Little consolation that his victory came by cheating, not the sort of thing she would have ever embarked upon.
She could see why Balthus had moved with such efficiency, though. Was not all fair in war, as in love?
It was through an exchange of hostages, one of the sacred customs. By doing it, she thought to pay the Falcon tribute, let him see she respected him as an opponent, perhaps lure him into complacency. It was not until they had been dispatched that Balthus revealed that one had been a Siren, a woman created to entice, who would cast her magic over them.
“She even looked a little like you,” he said with a smile. Then added, “As you were, I mean.”
She made no reply aloud, but had he been able to read her thoughts, his smile might have faltered.
♦ ♦ ♦
Aife went to the cell where they kept the Falcon. She took two guards with her, trailing her as she made her way down spirals of stone. On the third landing, a torch burned beside his door.
Her hand spread like an elderly starfish on the door’s surface as she leaned forward. She found herself trembling like a hound ready to be loosed on the scent.
He had been sitting on the bunk. He sprang up as her shadow crossed the rectangle of light on the stone floor, approached the door till he was inches away from the bars and the hood’s edge shrouding her face, but not far enough. He recoiled as he saw her fully, recovered, stood still, but this time not as close.
She looked at him all the while. Rumors had not lied about his handsomeness. Slim and brown-skinned, his hair as black as ink, a few white strands at the temples somehow making it seem even darker.
Aife could have loved this man, long ago, in her soldier days, before the weight of death had settled on her shoulders. He was young and beautiful, so beautiful. So alive. She wanted him as she had not wanted anything for so long. She put a hand to the bars, looked at him, hoping to see the same recognition there.
Only horror and revulsion
She had thought her heart dead, but that was not true, else how could she feel it aching now?
Still, she had to question him. She took two guards in with her but motioned them back when they would have seized him. Leave him his dignity for now.
“How did you know what I was doing for so long?” she said.
He sneered. “Are you not a dead thing, to be commanded by magic, like all dead things that walk must be? I had my necromancer working for months, trying to find a way inside your mind. On the night of the year’s third moon, he succeeded.
“After that, all was clear to me. His magic let me take control of you from time to time. We could not risk it for long, though, so I used it to trouble you, making you lay down clues for yourself: a feather to stir your thoughts, send them in the wrong direction. And it worked, until your master chose to trust you no longer.”
Had Balthus realized what had happened? That closing her mind to him had opened it to other magical controllers? Surely he had not known it at first but only later, had used it to infiltrate the Falcon’s camp, to discover his plans in order to catch him?
“Your compatriots,” she said, “including any magickers with them, are dead. You are here in Balthus’s castle, and will be wrung of information as a sponge is of water. Will you yield it up easily or will you force him to twist you hard?”
She watched him as he considered her words. She thought that it would be hard to kill him, but she’d do it nonetheless. She had killed pretty men before, and seen many of them used to coaxing their way from women die as quick and efficiently as the ugliest man.
Sometimes they were a little more theatrical about it all. He seemed like he would be the theatrical sort.
She touched the silver chain. She had refused jewelry for so long. It was something that made you a target, or gave enemies a chance to grab at it. And here it had happened, just as she had always feared. Her worst enemy had been in her head, and it was not herself.
She thought, though, that if she could have freed him, she might have. He was that pretty. It would have made her happy, to know that he lived somewhere, that he knew it was by her mercy. If only that was possible.
Footsteps, coming down the stairs. Who?
The Falcon twisted at the air with his hand. She felt the chain constrict around her throat, puppet fingers slipping into her brain.
“It seems my necromancer’s magic lingers after all, after all,” he said. “I suspected you could not resist coming close enough that I could control you, even without his assistance. What shall I have you do? Kill your master seems the most obvious step, doesn’t it?”
“Perhaps,” Balthus said from where he stood on the stairwell.
Aife was pulled upward, her limbs someone else’s, a loathsome intimacy that made bile burn in her throat. The guards were on their knees, choking, hands at their throats, trying to pry away invisible cords. She was thrust towards the door, trying to keep her arms out to maintain balance.
Balthus raised his hand, palm towards her. The green blotch had grown like a bracelet around his wrist. A blob of silvery liquid covered the center of his hand like the moon, pulling her forward, a mystical tide washing through her, making her heavy, restoring her to herself. She shuddered, shaking off the last of the netting over her senses.
“You are not one sixteenth as clever as you think you are, puppy,” Balthus said.
“Enough to rid you of your most powerful tool!” the Falcon exclaimed. She twisted away as he flung something at her that dispersed in the air, a handful of motes. She felt it settling on her back and shoulders, saw red sparkling dust riding the breeze, falling on her gray skin and setting it smoldering wherever it landed.
Where was water, anywhere close at hand? The privy pot in the cell was dry. The guards were recovering, as she had, and so she discarded the thought of quenching anything in their blood.
Fire blazed along her skin, burning deep, too deep to extinguish. She staggered towards the door, where Balthus stood. His face was stricken. She saw herself, a fiery angel, reflected in his pupils, saw the thick velvet of the cloak gone lacy with flame. She opened her mouth to appeal to him and felt it fill with flaming dust, go hiss-flickering out, the heat stealing any chance at words.
Fire, and more fire, and then final darkness.
♦ ♦ ♦
Only to awake, agonized. Balthus’s face above her yet again.
Was that all it would ever be, from now on?
She was bone now. Bone and some sort of spectral, invisible flesh that netted her limbs into order and gave her the power of sight. She moved her fingers and they clacked and clicked against the planes of her face as she tried to touch whatever held her together.
Opposite her a standing mirror, green-lit, presenting her rippled and obscured as though drowning. Her skull, wavering in the reflection, capped with a tiara— a golden hawk, wings stretched out to cup the bone.
Wolf was there past the mirror, pressed against the wall of the chamber. Watching her with loyalty. Whatever she became, he would follow. It was reassurance. She would always be a leader, no matter what.
Truly a monster now. She would have to give up some of her illusions: the pretense of meals and cosmetics and clothing. What good would armor be, except to hang on her as though she was some sort of display rack?
“I have made you a present, my dearest,” Balthus said. His fingers stroked her skull, bumped along her teeth. He released her and stepped aside.
Undead, skin already graying. Ah, the fine dark hair, the silver strands like penmarks in reverse. The once-piercing eyes now blue and cloudy marbles.
Marbles full of hate and spite and helpless malice. Hers forever more, her handsome toy, given her by her master, perhaps to torment, perhaps from love and an impulse to please. Would she ever know his motives, would she ever understand if she was puppet or lover, source of amusement or font of something else?
Endless days stretched before her, in which she would never find the answer.