The Road to Rivense

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The Road to Rivense

Samuel Marshall
Part 1

Elise staggered to a halt against the rough wooden wall of somebody’s abandoned street-corner home. Leaning against the slats, she cautiously inched her head past their edge. Blood trickled into her left eye, stinging, and she blinked it away.

Enemy soldiers blocked the road ahead, standing in a disciplined line behind a hastily-constructed defence of crates and barrels. She yanked her head back, cursing softly. The Pathars guarded outwards, intending to keep reinforcements from entering this central area; even though she planned to leave it, there was no way she could pass them. Perhaps, if she could clamber between the deserted houses and across rooftops, she could find a way past the cordon – but her strength, fitness, and swordsmastery did not sum to skill in such things, especially in fading daylight. And she was injured.

Time wasted; her head ached, each pulse of blood a pounding reminder. She would die, she resolved, but die fighting, die where the action was. For that she turned, nearly stumbled, caught herself. Heavy boots dug into the dirt and held her feet stable. Lifting them again was an effort, but she forced it; willpower was one skill she did own. Forced herself further, into a half-run, uneven at first then better balanced as reflexes grabbed control over strained muscles.

The street steadied around her, unfolded in familiar sequence of the last two weeks. A baker’s. Intersection with the dead-end alley where rats still lurked, though all else had fled. Old Duchess Ivory’s three-storey townhouse, proud and tall on the corner towards the square.

Once there she paused, peered around. Smoke hazed the area in a confusion of flickering light and shadow, buildings afire – likely a war-wizard sowing destruction. Screams and defiant yells rent the air in equal measure, echoing her internal bursts of pain. The sound and scent of warfare matched her mood, quickened her heart, strengthened her resolve. She was not yet too late.

The sword came easily to her hand, renewed clarity to her head. She pounded down the street in a full-blown charge this time, intent on meeting an enemy, securing at least one more kill. The square opened up just ahead, still unclear through clouds of smoke that tore at her throat, but she was beside the church now. The prisonlike stone of its flank loomed into the dusk at her right–

–and she saw a firefly, one speck of light rimmed in halo from the smoke-filled air, but it moved impossibly fast, flying true for the wall at her right–

–and exploded, burst into a huge fierce ball of flames and light that seared her eyes and flesh, crashed like thunder thrown from heaven, flung her body aside. She fell heavily against the opposite wall, felt something else break inside.

Her ears sensed deafening nonsense, eyes saw only red. Stubbornly she shoved herself up, rocked back onto her feet, managed to stand. She had withstood the mage’s fire, a knowledge which gave her stubborn pride. The new pain in her side almost seemed diminished, one more injury to enrich her catalogue.

Sight cleared and she saw through blurring tears the gaping hole that now marred church walls. Saw it, then lurched toward it because a confused thought told her she should be in the centre of the road, approaching death head-on.

She staggered too far and almost reached the gap, turning only then toward the square. It was still clouded, covered in billows of darkness, unless that was her sight. The smoke seemed all around now; reality or illusion, who knew.

Another mote of light flew from some distance, this time well to her left. If the wizard had any idea of her, he was casting blind. She still had the presence of mind to turn away, shielding her face and closing her eyes. The blast seemed quieter this time, but even so it grabbed her like a parent might a child, lifted and – most unloving – launched her through the air once more.

She hit the ground untidily and with a stabbing burst of pain, staggered to her feet in sudden darkness. Not blind – inside the church. More blood; she blinked it from her eyes. Darkness and a patch of white – clothes, a person. One more… one more to kill, that was all she would manage, she was fading now… she held up her sword and launched into a charge. Screamed in defiance, and didn’t hear it. The enemy was frozen, unmoving, scared of something, maybe her. She twisted mid-run, bringing her arm back and around for that final swing, a final death.

Then a crumbling sound she did hear, just barely. An instant shock of agony. And nothing.

Hazy light filtered through a blur of dust. Morning. She should get up, break camp with the others, ready to lay her life down in the hopeless defence of Leabridge – but, wait, that had already happened. Hadn’t it?

Elise blinked in confusion, clearing the sleep from her eyes. There wasn’t too much to see; a wood-and-tile roof lay slanted at an odd angle only a few handbreadths above. A beam of light shone through a crack in the peculiar ceiling, providing the limited illumination that had woken her.

Pain registered and she shut her eyes, wincing. Her left leg and her chest throbbed with agony. There should be more, she realised, as last night’s events seeped gradually into her consciousness. She’d been clubbed around the head, fireballed, and finally – in a church – the building had given way, literally fallen on top of her. She should be dead.

But this was the collapsed church, the remains of its roof slanting precariously above her prone form. And her head didn’t hurt. At all.

She experimentally moved her leg. Pain shot through her, but it worked. Not broken, then. Good. She’d bear it. Carefully, she opened her eyes again, noticed this time the fragments of stone that lay scattered across the flagstones. One lay close; she reached out, pulled it close enough to see. It was part of a fallen arch, stained dark with blood. Most likely hers.

Time to move, whatever had happened. With both arms she levered herself up into a crawling position, ignoring the agony it brought.

Now that she could see ahead, she almost let herself collapse again in surprise. A small woman lay there, her body arranged in the opposite direction but close enough to touch. In fact, the woman’s arms were reached out, almost as if she had been touching Elise. She was dressed in nun’s robes, once-white but now stained with blood and dirt that was visible even in the shadowy light. Her chest rose and fell; she lived.

Hah, Elise thought, the one I tried to kill. It didn’t seem so important as it had in last night’s confusion; one unarmed nun, among the ruins of a defeated town. The nun could live.

Elise looked for her sword anyway, spotted it a short way to the right. She crawled across carefully – the roof became even lower in that direction – and retrieved the familiar weapon. Enemy bloodstains sullied its blade and her own marred the hilt, dried patterns that trickled around the ridged metalwork. It definitely needed cleaning.

A sound, and she twisted round as quickly as she could, holding back a gasp at the agony from her chest and foot.

The nun looked back, head twisted to face her, expression inscrutable in the shadow. ‘How are you feeling?’

‘Alive,’ Elise said shortly. She brandished the sword, as best she could manage on hands and knees. ‘Keep quiet. If you call for help…’

‘You could free me,’ the nun suggested, ignoring the threat.

The other woman’s legs were, Elise realised, trapped beneath a stone column that crossed the small space. Beyond the fallen pillar, the church had collapsed completely, leaving only rubble.

She laughed quietly. ‘Why would I do that? Be thankful you’re not already dead.’

‘I could say the same,’ the nun retorted. ‘Your head wounds…’

You cured them?’

‘Indeed I did. And I might heal the rest, if I could reach.’ The nun shot a backwards glance at her pinned legs.

Elise paused a moment. This nun couldn’t be sympathetic to the cause; the religion she represented was a large part of the stick Pathar leaders used to beat Elise’s Nysen kin into the ground. But perhaps, as one low in the Church hierarchy, she actually believed in its precepts. That might mean she could be trusted.

And the pain in the swordswoman’s chest wasn’t getting any easier to bear.

‘Promise you won’t reveal me to your army.’

The nun inclined her head, almost scraping the floor with her chin. ‘A promise it is.’

Elise crawled to the offending column. It wasn’t over-thick – decoration, rather than structure – but stone was stone. With the leverage of her sword, and all her strength, she managed to lift it perhaps two fingerbreadths. That was enough for the nun to wriggle free; the pillar crashed back into place, resting on some other debris.

The nun curled around, massaging the feeling back into her abused feet. ‘That’s better… Since you don’t seem about to kill me, give me your name, if you would. I’m Charity.’

Elise snorted. ‘A nun’s name indeed. I’m Elise.’

‘And is that a fair enough name for a ruthless swordswoman?’ the nun – Charity – mused, half to herself.

The pain in Elise’s chest had become almost impossible to ignore, worsening with every movement, and she ignored the question. ‘Will you heal me?’

‘Lie on your back,’ the nun instructed. ‘Carefully.’

She did so, feeling uncommonly powerless as Charity knelt close beside her. What if the nun lied? In this position it would only take a moment, the smallest of daggers, and…

‘Close your eyes.’

Worse still. Even so, she obeyed; too late to change her mind now. A thought crossed her mind. ‘Didn’t the Archbishop ban magical healing as ungodly?’

‘News travels slowly in the provinces,’ Charity murmured serenely. Her voice sharpened. ‘Now, be silent! And try to relax. This is hard enough in any case.’

Elise honestly tried. She still couldn’t help but twitch at the nun’s touch, a light pressure through her clothing below her left breast. It persisted, strengthened slightly, and a strange numbing warmth spread gradually from that point. Within the warmth something began to happen, something she could only vaguely feel, an unawareness that left her faintly disturbed.

Eventually, it stopped, and the warmth began to fade. ‘Easier when you were unconscious,’ Charity muttered. Her voice was strained. ‘Hold still, there’s your foot to be dealt with.’

Elise felt the nun’s fingers vanish, heard her shuffle over slightly. Then her foot was being shifted, very gradually, and she felt her boot loosened. Charity must be unlacing it. And – ah! – she gasped involuntarily, pain lancing through her as the nun gripped her ankle and pulled the boot loose.

‘Sorry. I’m being as careful as I can.’

She was, too, easing it the rest of the way as gently as possible, but it still hurt. There was a pause.

‘What a mess…’

That was reassuring, Elise thought, just as the nun began to remove her sock. To begin with, it didn’t hurt; but then scabs tore off with the fabric, reopening last night’s wounds. She bit her lip and lied to herself: it wasn’t that bad, not that bad…

Blessed relief spread through her foot, a warmth so strong that she finally noticed the cold elsewhere. The flagstones on which she lay sucked heat from her body, and the collapsed roof above blocked the sun’s rays. Summer had fled, autumn taking its place, with the cooler air as evidence. Nights camped rough, hiding from government soldiers, would become much less pleasant from now on.

In the wandering of her mind, the magic had faded. She came gradually back to the present. The foot still hurt, but not much more than the cuts, scrapes, and bruises that covered her.


No response. She opened her eyes, lifted her head. The nun knelt amidst the gloom, head bowed as if in devotion, hands slack by her sides. It wasn’t a prayer; she’d merely collapsed in exhaustion.

Convenient. Elise experimentally sat up – everything seemed to work – and scrambled around in the confined space, recovering her footwear. She twisted about to put on the sock and boot, bearing the much-reduced pain in silence, and then crawled towards the likeliest exit, a shaft of light large enough that she might squeeze through its hole.

‘Next time we meet, it’ll be as enemies,’ she whispered toward the sleeping nun, a respect to mark the completed agreement–

–then Charity coughed, blinked from the darkness, and exclaimed fuzzily, ‘You can’t just leave me here!’

‘I didn’t know how long you’d rest,’ Elise said defensively. What was with this damned nun? (If that was the right word, where nuns were concerned.)

‘You managed to break three bones in your foot. Did you think that easy to mend?’

Elise shrugged, held up her hands. ‘Well, then. Come over here, I’ll help you up.’

She reached up herself, standing from her crouch for the first time. Dazzling sunlight flooded onto her face; through half-closed eyes, she saw what looked to be a solid roof beam. She gripped it, tested the strength, and hauled herself up, scrambling over onto the tiles outside. A few slipped through their placing, shattering on the stone below.


Charity stood beneath, smaller and barely able to reach the beam. Elise took one outstretched arm, rocked back to brace herself, and hauled. That was enough to support the nun’s own efforts; she rolled, ungainly, onto the roof.

The wood beneath them creaked alarmingly, and another handful of tiles clattered loose. A quick glance showed solid ground only a few metres distant. Elise ran along the line of the beam, yanking her charge behind by one hand, and jumped the short distance back to earth.

Safe. She stood in the town square, as had been… and with the immediate danger gone, released her tight focus to survey the scene.

What she saw reignited her fury. There were only charred wrecks that had once been buildings, a few blackened support beams jutting into the air like ribs of some long-dead giant. The desolation extended as far as she could see through air still hazed with smoke; nothing stood, nothing had been saved. Morning sunlight cast only a slight shadow from the base of the town’s market cross, a monument which had been toppled and shattered. The square itself was littered with corpses and discarded, ruined armour and weapons. Most of the bodies were barely recognisable, burnt and blackened, the war-wizard’s work.

She cursed, turned to look at the church. From here, it seemed merely a pile of rubble; nobody would have guessed that it could hide survivors. Stone construction meant it had avoided the fires that spread quickly through the rest of the town, but it hadn’t fared too much better. The mage’s indiscriminately-thrown fireballs must have weakened its structure, causing the collapse.

The church’s sign-stone, a circled star that had ornamented the peak of its roof, lay shattered to one side. Elise felt a slight satisfaction, that the religion forced upon her people had shared in their destruction, but it was precious little payment for the wilful levelling of an entire town.

She swore again, fiercely, picked a direction. She’d follow after the enemy army, see if she couldn’t kill a few from its rear patrols, maybe link up with the defence at the next town to be attacked.


The nun. Elise turned abruptly, drawing her sword in a hiss of steel. ‘I’ve no time for your words, nun! Go hide.’

She didn’t, but bent her head, more respectful than before, and spoke softly. ‘Please– I surely can’t travel on my own. The roads are dangerous… I did heal you…’

‘We had a deal. It’s complete.’ Elise gestured with her sword.

Charity knelt, performing a strange curtsey in her soiled, torn robes. ‘I beg you… I did also mend your head wound, last night…’

It was true. Her life had surely been saved. Perhaps the nun did have some kind of claim. Exasperated, Elise sheathed her sword – in this one case, she probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘I must return to the abbey at Rivense. It is but a few days’ travel.’

‘And you want an escort?’ Elise kicked a stone, hard, watched it bounce to rest against a corpse halfway across the square. ‘Curse your thrice-damned God…’

She looked for an outraged response, didn’t get one. Smart nun. ‘Get up, come on. And don’t annoy me.’ She shook her head in a vain attempt to loosen its blonde curls: stained as they were by dust and blood and grime, they still marked her Nysen origin. ‘These days, I’m only too happy to kill anybody with hair darker than mine.’

‘Oh, I know,’ Charity said clearly. Pathar-born, her close-cropped hair was jet-black, save for specks of dirt. She didn’t seem scared, not in the least, and her attitude felt less subservient than a moment ago.

‘Fine,’ Elise muttered shortly, and turned to leave northward, along a street strewn with fallen debris and lined with the burnt carcasses of homes. The inhabitants had, if they were sensible, left Leabridge days ahead of the invading army, left to struggle without shelter as the winter approached. If they weren’t sensible… nobody could have survived this desolation.

Nobody, that was, except herself. And one irritating nun.