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The Price of Valor

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The Price of Valor

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Author: Django Wexler
Publisher: Roc, 2015
Series: The Shadow Campaigns: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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In the wake of the King's death, war has come to Vordan.

The Deputies-General has precarious control of the city, but it is led by a zealot who sees traitors in every shadow. Executions have become a grim public spectacle. The new queen, Raesinia Orboan, finds herself nearly powerless as the government tightens its grip and assassins threaten her life. But she did not help free the country from one sort of tyranny to see it fall into another. Placing her trust with the steadfast soldier Marcus D'Ivoire, she sets out to turn the tide of history.

As the hidden hand of the Sworn Church brings all the powers of the continent to war against Vordan, the enigmatic and brilliant general Janus bet Vhalnich offers a path to victory. Winter Ihernglass, newly promoted to command a regiment, has reunited with her lover and her friends, only to face the prospect of leading them into bloody battle.

And the enemy is not just armed with muskets and cannon. Dark priests of an ancient order, wielding forbidden magic, have infiltrated Vordan to stop Janus by whatever means necessary...




Such pretty country, to be soaked in blood.

South of the city of Desland, the valley of the river Velt flattened out into a rolling carpet of fields, gridded by neat hedgerows and punctuated by tiny orderly hamlets, each with its tall-spired church tipped by a golden double circle. The river itself traced out a series of lazy curves, as though exhausted by its frantic descent from the highlands, and it flashed like molten silver in the warm autumn sun. Here and there, lone hills rose from the endless flat farmland like islands jutting out of the sea, crowned with gnarled, ancient trees, the last remaining strongholds of the great forests that had covered this land before the arrival of men.

Atop one of those hills, at the edge of one of those primeval woods, a man sat cross-legged on a boulder and stared down at the plain below. He was a young man, barely out of boyhood, with nut-brown hair and a wispy mustache. Dressed in leathers and homespun, he could have been mistaken for a native, the son of a peasant farmer come to trap or gather wood in the old forest.

In fact, he was a very long way from home, and he had no interest in firewood or game. His name was Wren. In his saddlebags, carefully folded and secured inside a lockbox, he carried a velvet mask sewn with a layer of glittering, clicking obsidian. It marked him as a servant of an order out of legend, one that was supposedly a hundred years dead: the Priests of the Black, fell agents of the Elysian Church, its spies and inquisitors.

Even within the hidden fraternity who carried out the will of the Black Priests, Wren was of a special breed. He had spoken the true name of a demon, and would play host to the creature until the end of his days. When his death came, he would be condemned to eternal torment for daring to traffic with the supernatural. He had accepted this burden, and the certainty of this ultimate fate, to serve the Church and save others from suffering similar punishment. He was one of the Ignahta Sempria, the Penitent Damned.

* * *

Wren stared down at the plain, across the miles, to a place where many campfires had lately burned like fireflies. At that distance, most men would have seen nothing but the fields and the rivers, but Wren's demon was with him. He could feel it in his eyes, a tight feeling like someone twisting knotted cords around his skull, and it sharpened his vision to excruciating precision. Tiny men in blue milled and marched and formed ranks, teams of horses were harnessed to cannon, and cavalrymen checked their saddles and mounted. An army, preparing for battle.

The brush beside him rustled. With his demon's strength wholly poured into his eyes, Wren's hearing was no better than a normal man's, and only the discipline of long training kept him from starting at the sound. Instead he let out a long breath and forced himself to relax, letting his demon return to its resting state. Between blinks, the clarity of his vision faded, though it still would have put any hawk to shame. Sound rushed back in, every tiny rustle and animal noise of the forest now as obvious as a fanfare. He could hear the heartbeats of the two men who now stood beside him, and their breathing was as loud as the rasp of a bellows.

"The Vordanai are breaking camp," he said. He spoke in Murnskai, the native tongue of those raised in the fortress-temple of Elysium. "But not to retreat. Vhalnich will offer battle to di Pfalen."

"Bold," said the man on his left.

He was much older than Wren, well into middle age, with a bald dome of skull sticking up from a ring of black and gray. His name, the only one that Wren had ever heard anyone use, was the Liar. Like Wren, he was dressed in simple peasant garb, but his hands might have invited comment: his nails were each at least an inch long, and painted with gleaming white resin.

"Di Pfalen has the numbers," Wren said. "He has broken his force into three columns to attempt to cut off Vhalnich's escape."

The Liar snorted. "I might not be so confident in his place, given Vhalnich's reputation."

Wren shrugged. The Liar liked to pass himself off as an expert in military matters, as in everything else, but the basic situation was simple enough. The revolution that had broken out after the death of King Farus VIII had shocked the civilized world, placing a sacred monarch in thrall to a mere elected parliament. With due encouragement from Elysium, the great powers of the west--Borel, Murnsk, and the Free Cities League--had gone to war to restore the rightful order. But declaration of war was one thing, and action another. Seafaring Borel preferred the slow weapons of blockade and economic warfare, while vast, backward Imperial Murnsk could take months to assemble her armies.

The League, on the other hand, was not a nation but a bickering, fractious collection of semi-independent polities. Vheed, Norel, and the more distant cities had sent only token contingents or empty promises to the supposedly common cause. Only Hamvelt and its close allies had leapt at the chance to defeat their longtime rival. So it was here, to familiar plains between Essyle and Desland, where the ever-shifting border between Vordan and the League ran, that the Vordanai had sent their newly minted hero. Janus bet Vhalnich. Conqueror of Khandar, vanquisher of the Last Duke, savior of Vordan. Heretic. Sorcerer.

"We will observe the result," the Liar said. "If Vhalnich falls, or is taken, our task is simplified. If not..."

The third man grunted. He stood with his arms crossed over his massive chest, more than a head taller than either of his companions. His craggy face was made ferocious by a thick, unkempt black beard like wild thornbush, and his small dark eyes glared out ferociously from deep, sunken sockets. While he was dressed like the other two, no one would ever take him for a simple laborer. Quite aside from his enormous frame, the air of menace he projected was unmistakable. His name was Twist. Wren had rarely heard him speak more than a single word at a time, and often he was not even that voluble.

"Either way," Wren said, "we'll need to get closer." They were still a solid day's ride from the place that would soon become a battlefield.

The Liar nodded. "We will seek another vantage. Ready the horses."

Wren got to his feet, legs aching from too long spent absolutely still, and suppressed a frown. The Penitent Damned had no formal hierarchy among themselves, no ranks or chain of command apart from their shared obedience to the Pontifex of the Black. On the rare occasions when they did not work alone, their orders made it explicit who was to lead. The Liar was an agent of many years' standing, and this was Wren's first mission outside Murnsk, so it made sense that the older man was in charge. But Wren occasionally suspected the Liar of harboring a taste for idleness and worldly pleasures that was inappropriate for his position, and it led him to treat Wren like a servant instead of an equal. It was something to raise with the pontifex on their return.

They had six horses, enough to carry their gear and provide remounts if they needed a burst of speed. Wren went through the familiar ritual of preparing saddles and tack, loading the camp supplies, and fixing each animal with his supernatural senses for a few moments, listening to their breathing and heartbeats. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, he led them one by one to the edge of the woods. Last in line was Twist's mount, a huge, stocky gelding matched to the big man's weight.

Twist took the reins from him with another grunt and heaved himself gracelessly into the saddle, provoking a snort of complaint from the animal. The Liar mounted more skillfully, a testament to half a lifetime spent in the saddle in the service of the order. Wren paused in front of his favorite mare, staring out to the north.

"Wren?" the Liar said. "Is something wrong?"

Wren closed his eyes and let the demon rush to his ears. The sounds that had been barely a shiver in the air a moment ago were now loud and distinct, low crumps and rumbles like distant thunder. In between, he could even hear the faint skirl of drums.

"Wren?" the Liar repeated, words booming in Wren's ears like the voice of God.

Wren opened his eyes and let the demon slither away inside his skull.

"It's begun," he said.

Part One

Chapter One


"Keep it up! They're giving way!" Winter Ihernglass shouted.

The air was thick with acrid smoke, slashed by the brief brilliant flares of muzzle flashes. Musketry roared around Winter like a continuous crackling peal of thunder, and she had no way of knowing whether her soldiers could hear her. Her world had contracted to this small section of the line, where a dozen young women of the Girls' Own stood behind the shot-torn hedgerow, each going through the drill of loading her musket: ramming the ball home, priming the pan, and bringing the weapon back up to firing position.

The Hamveltai were unseen in the murk, visible only by the flash of their own muskets. But they were weakening--Winter could feel it--the return fire becoming more scattered and sporadic. Just a minute more. She walked along the line, shouting herself hoarse and slashing the air with her sword, while the constant din of the muskets rattled the teeth in her skull.

Ahead, she saw one of the casualty teams, made up of girls too young or too small to carry a musket. They worked in threes and fours, running up to the hedge whenever a soldier went down and dragging her back a few paces to assess the injury. As Winter watched, the team ahead of her abandoned a woman who'd taken a ball high in the chest and leaked a wide swath of blood into the muddy earth, and went back to retrieve a plump, matronly woman who'd fallen on her side, clutching a shattered hand. As they got her to her feet, one of the smaller girls suddenly doubled over, clutching at her gut with both hands. One of her companions looked her over, shook her head, and left her where she fell.

Brass Balls of the Beast. It was a scene Winter had witnessed before, but she couldn't get over how quickly girls who'd been selling flowers in Vordan not three months earlier had adapted to the brutal necessities of the battlefield. She thrust away a pang of guilt. There wasn't time for that. No time for anything but survival.

Winter hurried past the casualty team, stepping quickly around the dying girl, and continued down the line looking for Bobby. The young woman, who'd been a corporal in Winter's company on Janus' Khandarai campaign, now sported white lieutenant's stripes on her shoulder. A knot of women were gathered behind a dense spot in the hedge, loading awkwardly while crouched and then standing to loose another shot into the thickening bank of smoke.

"Bobby!" Winter said, grabbing her arm and pulling her close enough to hear over the din. "Go to Jane, tell her to move in!"

Bobby's pale skin was already grimed with powder residue. Like Winter, she was one of the few in the Girls' Own to have an honest-to-goodness regulation uniform; unlike Winter's, hers was no longer tailored to conceal the truth of her gender from prying eyes. When Janus had created the all-female Fifth Volunteer Battalion from the ragtag group of volunteers Winter and Jane had led into battle at Midvale, Bobby had elected to discard her disguise. She had been the one who'd taken the nickname "Girls' Own"--a play on the name old royal regiments, the King's Own, and the Boy's Own Guide series of books for children--and turned it from mockery into a badge of honor. Next to Winter and Jane, she was probably the most respected officer in the battalion.

She was also--cursed, enchanted, Winter didn't know what to call it--by the Khandarai naath that had saved her life. Winter knew that the scars of her wounds had healed, not in puckered skin, but as smooth, glittering stuff like living marble.

Bobby saluted to acknowledge the order, handed her musket to the nearest soldier, and hurried off to the right, bent double to keep her head from sticking above the hedge. For all the good that will do. A hedgerow might deflect a musket ball, but mostly it was good for hiding behind, and that only mattered against aimed fire. Nobody was aiming now; if not for their muzzle flashes and the accompanying noise, Winter wouldn't have been able to say whether the enemy was still there. She turned back in the other direction, keeping her eyes open for any signs of wavering or incipient panic, and was pleased to find her soldiers still firmly committed to their bloody work. The Hamveltai were laying down a hot, heavy fire, but for the moment the Girls' Own seemed to be standing up to the pressure.

As she moved toward the left, she could hear the deeper growl of artillery underneath the musketry. The hedge led to a small hamlet in that direction, no more than a dozen buildings, which was defended by a battalion of volunteers and half a battery of guns. Something was on fire--she could see the glow, even through the smoke--but the noise indicated the men there were still fighting hard.

On the right side of the line, the hedge took a dogleg forward a hundred yards before ending at a wide dirt path. Jane was waiting on the far side of that angle with another four companies, hunkered down and silent up until now, waiting to execute the trap. Winter didn't want her troops going toe-to-toe with a battalion of regulars longer than they had to.

Reaching the center of her line, Winter pressed herself against the hedge between a pair of soldiers and listened. A couple of minutes for Bobby to run to Jane, a couple of minutes to get ready...

A chorus of hoarse battle cries, identifiably feminine even through the rattle and bang musketry, rolled out of the smoke on the right. All along the line, Winter's soldiers echoed the cheer, which was followed in quick succession by a blaze of new firing. More flashes stabbed through the smoke, at right angles to the Hamveltai position, as Jane led her troops in a charge with fixed bayonets that took the enemy line end-on. As Winter had guessed, that convinced them that their position was untenable, and before another minute had passed there was no more shooting to her front. Along the hedgerow, the women of the Girls' Own were cheering themselves hoarse.

"Make sure those muskets are loaded!" Winter shouted, over the celebration. "They'll be back."

Copyright © 2015 by Django Wexler


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