Chapter no 35 – Oathbreakers

Red Rising

My friends are with me. What would they mean by that? Which friends? The Sons of Ares? Or was the mystery friend being more general, alluding to those who support my chances at the Institute? Do they know the significance of the Pegasus? Or were they simply reuniting me with something they thought I might miss?

So many questions; none of them matter. They are outside the game. The game. What else is there but the game? All the true things in the world, all my relationships, all my aspirations and needs, are wrapped up in this game, wrapped up in me winning. To win, I’ll need an army, but it cannot be made of slaves. Not again. I now need, as I’ll need at the head of a rebellion, followers, not slaves.

Man cannot be freed by the same injustice that enslaved it.

A week after I inject Mustang and her fever fades, we set off to the north. Her strength grows the more we move. Her cough is gone and her quick smile returns. Sometimes she needs a rest, but soon she comes close to outpacing me. She lets me know it too. We make as much noise as possible when we move to draw our prey to us. On the sixth night of setting obnoxiously large fires, we get our first nibble.

The Oathbreakers come along a stream, using its sounds to mask their approach. I like them immediately. Were our fire not a trap, they would have caught us unawares. But it is a trap, and when two step into the light, we almost spring it. Yet if they are smart enough to come along the stream, they are smart enough to leave someone in the dark. I hear

an arrow nock on a bowstring. Then there’s a yelp. Mustang takes the one in the dark. I take the other two. I stand up from my snowpile, my wolfcloak shedding snow, and knock them down from behind with the flat of my bow.

Afterward, the one Mustang struck nurses his swollen eye by our fire as I speak with their leader. Her name is Milia. She’s a tall willow with a long horseface and a slight hunch to her shoulders. Rags and stolen furs cover her bony frame. The other uninjured one is Dax. Short, comely, with three frostbitten fingers. We give them extra furs and I think that makes all the difference in the conversation.

“You understand we could make you slaves, yes?” Mustang asks, brandishing her standard. “So you’d be twice Oathbreakers and twice shunned once this game is over.”

Milia doesn’t seem to care. Dax does. The other just follows Milia. “Could give a rat’s prick. No difference between once and twice,”

Milia says. They all bear the slave mark of Mars. I don’t recognize them but their rings say they are from Juno. “Rather bear shame than bruise my knees. Do you know my father?”

“I don’t care about your father.”

“My father,” she persists, “is Gauis au Trachus, Justiciar of the southern Martian hemisphere.”

“I still don’t care.” “And his father was—” “I don’t care.”

“Then you are a fool,” she drawls. “Twice a fool if you think to make me your slave. I will cut you in the night.”

I nod to Mustang. She stands suddenly with the standard and puts it to Milia’s head. The mark of Mars becomes that of Minerva. Then she erases the Minerva mark. Dax’s eyes widen.

“Even if I free you?” I ask Milia. “You’re still going to cut me?” She doesn’t know what to say.

“Mily,” Dax says quietly. “What are you thinking?”

“No slavery,” I elaborate. “No beatings. If you dig a shit pit, I dig two shit pits for the camp. If someone cuts you, I rip them apart. So, will you join our army?”

His army,” Mustang corrects. I look over at her with a frown. “And who’s he?” Milia asks, her eyes not leaving my face.

“He’s the Reaper.”

It takes a week to gather ten Oathbreakers. The way I look at it is those ten already made it clear they don’t want to be slaves. So they might like the first person who will give them purpose, food, furs, who is not demanding that they lick a bootheel. Most of them have heard of me, but all are disappointed that I don’t have the famous slingBlade I used to beat Pax. Apparently he’s become quite the legend. They say he picked up and threw a horse and rider into the Argos as Mars’s slaves fought Jupiter’s.

As we grow, we hide from the larger armies. Mars may be my House, but with Roque dead and Cassius an enemy, only Quinn and Sevro are left as friends. Pollux perhaps, but he’ll go whatever way the wind blows. Rat bastard.

I cannot be with my House. There’s no place for me there. I may have been their leader, but I remember how they looked at me. And now it is crucial they know I am alive.

Despite the war between Mars and Jupiter, stalwart Ceres stands unconquered by the riverside. Behind their high walls, bread smoke still rises. Mounted warbands from both armies roam the plains around Ceres, crossing the frozen Argos at will. They carry low-charged ionSwords now, so they can electrocute and maim one another with a brush of metal. MedBots scream over the battlefield when skirmishes break into pitched frays, healing wounded students as they bleed or moan from broken bones. The champions of each army wear ionArmor to protect themselves against the new weapons. Horses smash together. IonArrows fly. Slaves mill about hitting each other with older, simple weapons across the wide plain that separates the highlands from the great river Argos. It is a spectacular thing to see—but foolish, so foolish.

I watch with Mustang and Milia as two armored warbands of Mars and Jupiter streak toward each other across the plains in front of Phobos Tower. Pennants flap. Horses trample the deep snow. It’s a clash of armored glory when the two metal tides collapse into one another. Lances spark with stunning electricity on broad shields and armor. Dazzling swords slam other blades like their own. HighDrafts battling highDrafts. Slaves run in scores to smash into each other, pawns in this giant chess match.

I see Pax in a rusty bulk of crimson armor so ancient it looks like a

frysuit. I laugh as he tackles a horse and rider. But if ever there was a picture of a perfect knight, it would not be Pax. No, it’d be Cassius. I see him now. His armor glows as he stuns opponent after opponent, galloping through the enemy, his sword humming left and right, flickering like a tongue of fire. He can fight, but I’m shocked at how foolishly he chooses to—diving nobly into the enemy’s gut with a force of lancers, capturing enemies. And then the surviving troops regroup and do the same to him. Over and over, neither side taking substantial advantage.

“What idiots,” I say to Mustang. “All that pretty armor and swords blind them. I know. Maybe if they slam into one another three or four more times, it may just work.”

“They’ve got tactics,” she says. “Look, a wedge formation there. And a feint there that’ll turn into a flank sweep.”

“Yet I’m right.”

“Yet you’re not wrong.” She watches for a moment. “Like our little war all over again, except you’re not running around howling at people like a moontouched wolf.” Mustang sighs and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Ah, the good old days.”

Milia watches us with a wrinkled nose. “Tactics win battles. Strategy wins wars,” I say.

“Oooo. I am Reaper. God of wolves. King of strategy.” Mustang pinches my cheek. “You are just too adorable.”

I swat her away. Milia rolls her eyes.

“So, what is our strategy, milord?” Mustang asks me.

The longer I draw out any conflict with an enemy, the more chances the Proctors will get to ruin me. My rise must be meteoric. I don’t tell her this.

“Speed is our strategy,” I say. “Speed and extreme predjudice.”

The next morning, House Mars’s warband finds their bridge across the Metas blocked by trees felled in the night. As expected, the warband turns around and rides back to the castle, fearing some sort of trap. Their watchmen in Phobos and Deimos cannot see us; they peer down and send smoke signals that there is no enemy in the barren deciduous woods around the bridge. They do not see us because we have been

bellydown in the same position in the woods fifty yards from the bridge since black dawn. Each of my Oathbreakers has a white or gray wolfcloak now. It took a week to find the wolves, but perhaps that was for the better. The hunt created a bond. My ten soldiers are a scrappy lot. Liars, wicked cheats who would rather ruin their futures than be slaves in this game. So a proud, practical but not very honorable lot. Just the sort I need. Their faces are painted white with bird dung and gray clay, so we’ve the look of spectral winter beasts as breath billows from our grinning maws.

“They like being valued by someone fearsome,” Milia told me the night before, her voice as cold and brittle as the icicles hanging from the aspen trees. “As do I.”

“Mars’ll take the bait,” Mustang whispers to me now. “Not so much brainpower left in the House.” Not with Roque gone. She chose a place close to me in the snow. So close that her legs stretch along mine, and her face, twisted sideways as she lies on her belly, is only inches from my own underneath our white cloaks. When I inhale, the air is already warm from her breath. I think this is the first time I’ve thought of kissing her. I chase the thought away, and summon the sight of Eo’s mischievous lips.

It is midday when Cassius sends troops—mostly slaves, for fear of an ambush—to clear the felled trees from the bridge. In fact, Cassius plays too clever a game. Since he believes he is fighting Jupiter, his assumption is that the ambush will be a sudden cavalry charge once the bridge is clear. So he has his horses go around the river, south through the highlands, and loop around on the far side of the bridge near Phobos to spring an ambush on the cavalry he assumes will come from the Greatwoods or the plains. Milia, the shifty girl, brings me news of this movement of horse in the form of a howl from her perch nearly a mile off, where she serves as lookout in the high pines. It is time to move.

We do not howl or shout as we ten sprint through the leafless woods toward the toiling slaves. Four highDrafts sit on horses watching the work. One is Cipio. We sprint faster. Faster through the barren trees, coming from their flank. They do not see us. We fan out. Racing one another to make the first strike.

I win.

Jumping five meters forward in the lowGrav, I fly out of the woods

like a demon possessed and take Cipio at the shoulder with a blunted sword. He spills from the saddle. Horses whinny. Mustang takes down another highDraft with her standard. My troops swarm forward, silent and shadowed with white and gray. Two more of my Oathbreakers leap onto the highDrafts’ horses and bludgeon the riders with clubs and blunted axes. I ordered no killing; it’s over in four seconds. The horses don’t even know where their riders went. My troops flow past the horses into the slaves as they clear the bridge of the felled logs. Half don’t even hear us till Mustang has turned six into Minerva slaves and ordered them to help us subdue the rest. Then there’s shouting and the Mars slaves turn their axes against my troops.

Those from Minerva recognize Mustang and are set free when she clears away the mark of Mars. It’s like a shifting tide. Six slaves are ours. They tackle Mars’s other slaves and pin them down as Mustang runs over and converts them. Eight, by the same process. Ten. Eleven, till only one offers trouble. And he’s the prize. Pax. He doesn’t have his armor, thank God. He’s here for labor, but it still takes seven of us to take him to the ground. He’s roaring and screaming his name. I dive at him and take a fist to the face. I’m spitting and laughing as we pile on till there’s twelve of us holding the genetic monster down. Mustang frees him of the mark of Mars and his roars become laughter so high pitched, it sounds like a girl’s.

“Freeeeeedom!” he roars. He jumps up, looking for someone to maim. “Darrow au Andromedus!” he shouts at me, ready to break my face till Mustang shouts him down.

“He’s on our side,” Mustang says.

“The truth?” Pax asks. His giant face splits into a smile. “What news!” And he’s got me in a bear hug. “Freeeedom, brothers … and sisters! Sweet freedom!” We leave Cipio and the other highDrafts moaning on the ground.

The smoke signals plume up from Phobos and Deimos as we sprint through the vale’s woods into the dwarf mountains to the north before the horsemen of Mars can loop back around the blocked bridge to assail us. The watchmen saw it all. And they must be horrified. It happened in less than a minute. Pax won’t stop laughing like a girl.

House Mars will be confused by the sudden depletion of their ranks. But I need more than that. I need them to replace the vision they have of

me, one of a flawed leader, with something supernatural, something beyond their understanding. I need to be like the Jackal—nameless and superhuman.

That night, I slither through the snow north of Castle Mars. Riders patrol the glen. Their hooves are soft on the grass in the night. I hear their bridles clinking in the darkness. I do not see them. My wolfcloak is white as the falling snow. I’ve pulled its head up, so I look like a guardian creature from the colder levels of hell. The rock face is steeper than I remember. I nearly fall as I pull myself along the snowy vertical. I reach the castle wall. Torches flicker on the ramparts. Wind whips the flames about. Mustang should be about to light the blaze.

I strip away my cloak and ball it up. My skin is coated in charcoal. I push the metal tongs into the spaces between the stones. It is like climbing my drill again except I’m stronger and I’m not wearing a frysuit. Easy. The Pegasus bounces against my chest as I pull myself up. I’m not even panting when I reach the top six minutes later.

My fingers cling to the stone just beneath the ramparts. I hang, listening to the passing sentry. Of course it is a slave. And she’s not stupid. She sees me as I pull myself over the rampart and shoves a spear against my throat. I flash my Mars ring and hold my finger to my lips.

“Why should I not call out?” she asks. She was once of Minerva.

“Did they tell you to guard the wall for enemies? I’m sure they did. But I’m of House Mars. The ring says so. I can’t be an enemy then, yes?”

She frowns. “The Primus told me to watch the walls for intruders and to kill or call out …”

“This is my home. I am rightful Primus of House Mars. I am your master and I demand you continue to watch the wall for intruders. It is imperative.” I wink. “I swear Virginia would be happy if you followed your orders to the letter.”

She cocks her head at Mustang’s real name and looks me over. “My Primus is alive?”

“House Minerva has not yet fallen,” I say.

The girl’s face almost breaks she smiles so hard. “Well … then … I suppose this is your home. Can’t stop you from entering it. Bound by oath to obey, I am. Wait … I know you. They said you were dead.”

“Thank your Primus that I draw breath.”

I learn from her that the Housemembers sleep while the slaves guard

the fortress at night. That is the problem with slaves. They are so willing to find a way around their duty, and so excited to share secrets. I leave her behind and steal into the keep using a key she accidentally dropped into my hand.

Sneaking through my home, I am tempted to pay Cassius a visit. But I’m not here to kill him. Violence is the fool’s way out. Sometimes I’m the fool, but tonight I’m feeling smart. I’m also not there to steal the standard. They will be guarding that. No. I’m there to remind them that they once were afraid of me. That I am the best of them all. I can go where I please. Do what I please.

I stay in the shadows even though I could use the same argument on every slave guard they have. Instead, I carve a slingBlade on every door in the keep. I slip into the warroom and carve a slingBlade into the huge table there to create the myth. Then I carve a skull into Cassius’s chair and slab a knife deep into the back of the wood chair to create the rumor.

As I leave the way I came, I see the hillside north of the castle erupt in flame. The brush stacked in the shape of the Reaper’s slingBlade burns hot in the night.

Sevro, if he is still with Mars, will find me. And I could use the little bastard’s help.

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