Read an excerpt from the latest Deverry Cycle books.
Verrarc was puzzling over a strange passage in his dweomer scroll when Raena ran in, slamming the door behind her. She threw off her cloak and sank into her chair by the fire, then covered her face with trembling hands. For what seemed a long while she merely sat and shook.
“What be so wrong?” Verrarc said at last. “My love — ”
“That lass.” Raena let her hands fall into her lap and turned a dead-white face his way. “Niffa. She did come as close as close can be to saying I murdered her man.”
“What? How would — ”
“I ken it not! But she did let me see, oh and so full of hate she were as well, she did let me see that she thinks this ill lies at my door.”
Verrarc hesitated. All her life Raena had been prone to embroidering her truths to present them in the most exciting possible light, but this time there was no denying her terror. He stood and took a few steps toward her.
“Listen to me, Rae. The time be here for the truth. There be naught I can do to keep you safe without the truth.”
She leaned back in her chair and looked up at him, her lips trembling.
“Well, did you slay him?” Verrarc said. “You do have strong witchery, Rae, and I ken not its limits. Did you slay Demet?”
“Never!” Her eyes glazed with tears. “I swear it to you, Verro. Never would I do such a thing.”
“Then who did? Your Lord Havoc?”
“He were the one.” Raena started to get up, but she was shaking too hard. “Demet did come blundering in. The silver light, it were so strong I never did see nor hear him till there he was. And Havoc — I ken not what he did. But the lad screamed and fell back dead.”
Verrarc realized that he’d been holding his breath and let it out in a long sigh. Raena raised one hand as if she feared her would strike her. Sweat was beading on her upper lip and forehead.
“I do believe you,” Verrarc said. “But do you see what this means? Your Lord Havoc. He be no god, Rae, but an evil spirit indeed. It were best if never you invoked him again.”
“I must! You don’t understand! There be a need on me to find out what he does ken about — ” Her voice caught and stumbled. “About a certain matter.”
“Rae! These cursed secrets!”
She moaned and let her head flop back, then forward. For a moment he stood staring at her until he at last realized that she had fainted. He ran to the door that led to the back of the house and called for his manservant.
“Harl! Come here!” Verrarc shouted. “Your aid!”
Verrarc ran back to Raena, who lay sprawled in the chair. He knelt beside her and caught her cold hand between both of his. All at once her head jerked up, and she seemed to be looking about her.
“Rae?” he whispered.
Her head turned toward the sound, but her eyes — he’d never seen eyes so blank and dead. It seemed to him that her soul had fled, yet left her body still alive to move about and breathe like some mindless animal.
“Master!” Young Harl came running into the room. “What — Ye gods! Your lady!”
Raena’s head turned toward the sound of his voice, but her eyes stayed dead-seeming. Her mouth flopped open, and she began to make noises, first a sputter, then a gurgling ugly rumble in her throat that nonetheless had the cadence of words. Harl gasped and stepped back fast.
“Run get the herbwoman!” Verrarc snapped. “I’ll tend my lady.”
Harl nodded and raced out of the room. Verrarc squeezed Raena’s hand hard.
“Rae, Rae,” he whispered. “Come back!”
Her head flopped back with a long moist sigh. Verrarc stood, then picked her up, settling her head against his shoulder. Once she’d been a solid young woman, but now — he was shocked at how light she seemed. Without much difficulty he carried her into their bed chamber and laid her down on the bed. In the small hearth, wood and kindling stood stacked and ready. Verrarc hurried back into the reception chamber and grabbed a long splint from the woodpile.
“Master?” Old Korla came shuffling in. “Has Harl gone daft? He did come into my kitchen babbling of evil spirits.”
“Not daft in the least,” Verrarc heard his voice shaking. “Did he go fetch Gwira as I asked him?”
“He did, truly.”
“Good. My lady does lie in our chamber. Go sit with her whilst I take some of this fire.”
When Verrarc came in with the blazing splint, he saw that Korla had spread a blanket over Raena, who lay unmoving, her open eyes staring at the ceiling. For a horrible moment he thought her dead, but she moaned and stirred. He knelt down by the hearth and touched the splint to the kindling, blew on the tentative flames, and tossed the splint into the fire as it blazed up.
“Well, Korla?” Verrarc got up and walked over to the beside. “What might this be but evil spirits?”
“Ah, gods protect!” She crossed her fingers in the sign of warding off witchcraft and stepped back from the bedside. “I fear me you be right, unless Gwira does ken some other thing it might be.”
But the herbwoman had no other explanation to offer when she at last arrived. With Harl right behind, Gwira bustled in, carrying a big market basket crammed with little packets of medicaments. She took off her cloak and tossed it over a chair.
“Does she live?” Gwira snapped.
“She does,” Verrarc said. “I did hold my hand in front of her mouth, and I did feel her breath.”
Gwira set the basket down on the floor, then wrapped one hand around her chin and considered Raena, who lay unmoving, her pale face and her hair soaked in sweat. After a moment she walked over to the side of the bed.
“Harl did tell me that this came on all of a sudden, like.” Gwira laid a hand on Raena’s face. “Huh, I like not how cold she be.”
She leaned over and pried open the lids of Raena’s right eye. For a moment more Raena lay wrapped in her faint, but the fire crackled, a log burned through and dropped, and a brief flood of light leapt up and washed the room. Raena suddenly moaned. Gwira let her go and stepped back just as she woke, twisting under the blanket and moaning again. When she opened her eyes, Verrarc nearly wept with relief at seeing her soul look out of them. When he held out his hand, she worked hers free of the blanket and laid it in his grasp. It felt as cold and wet as if she’d grasped snow.
“The light upon the eye, it do work wonders,” Gwira said. “It does drive the spirit away.”
“Here!” Verrarc said. “You too think her possessed!”
“I ken naught else that it might be.” Gwira glanced at Korla. “Fetch me water, if you please. I can brew her up somewhat with a bit of strength in it, but after that, this be a matter for our Spirit Talker, not me.”
Korla shuddered and crossed her fingers again.
“So,” Verrarc whispered. “So! I wonder, then, if it truly were a spirit who did kill our Demet.”
“It may be,” Gwira said. “And if so, then it does threaten the town still.”
“Harl?” Verrarc turned to find him trembling in the doorway. “Go fetch Mistress Werda. It were best she knew of this and now.”
That night Niffa dreamt that a caravan came through the gates of the city. When she woke, she pulled on her pair of dresses, grabbed a chunk of bread and some cheese, then rushed out of the house. She ate while she walked down the twisting streets of Citadel. At the lakeshore, a scatter of little leather coracles sat drawn up, waiting for any citizen who needed one. For a moment she stood finishing the last of her bread and watching mist tendrils wreathe upon the water. Not since Demet died had she gone across to the town, and she hesitated now, her grief a thong that seemed to bind her hands. What if she should meet his mother or some other of his kin, who all looked so much like him?
Â‘Oh come now!Â’ she told herself. Â‘T’would be a wrong thing to hide on Citadel all your born days!Â’
Yet it was a moment more before she could make herself choose a coracle. She hiked her skirts up, shoved the boat out into the shallow water, then scrambled aboard. While she paddled across, she concentrated on the town looming out of the mists on its crannogs and pilings, and she took care to land her little boat far away from the weavers’ compound as well.
Cerr Cawnen sported two sets of gates in its high stone wall, a grand pair looking south and a smaller set facing east. Although logically Jahdo should return by the east gate, her dream had shown her the southern pair, Niffa realised — something of a puzzlement, and perhaps a disappointment as well, if the dream failed to prove a true one. Well, I’m across now, she told herself. We’ll just wait and see. As she made her way through the jumble of wood piers, houses, stairways, shops, and rickety bridges, the various townswomen she knew stuck their heads out of windows to hail her or came out to stand in their doorways and wave.
Â‘Niffa, tis so good to see you, lass! How do you fare, my friend? Ah, it warms my heart to see you out and about!Â’
The greetings were so cheerful, so sincere, that she suddenly realised that indeed, she had missed them too, shut up with only her grief for a companion. Laughing and smiling, she waved back, but with the dream urging her on, she had no time to stop and gossip. She hurried to the south gates, where running parallel to the wall stretched a narrow but long commons, pale green with new grass and dotted white with the first daisies. Niffa sat down cross-legged on the green to wait.
Some long while later a caravan did indeed turn up. Niffa was ready to give up her vigil and go home when she saw through the open gates travellers coming. First she saw dust pluming at the horizon. Slowly the cloud approached and finally resolved itself into pack horses, led by tall figures sporting masses of dark hair. Further back in the cloud she could see riders as well.
Â‘Gel da’Thae!Â’ The men on watch sang out the name. Â‘Gel da’Thae merchants!Â’
Silver horns rang out in greeting. A militiaman hurried down the ladder from the catwalk and raced for the lakeshore. The members of the Council of Five would need to know about this arrival. Niffa got up and stood watching the caravan come closer and closer, leisurely in the hot sun. Why had her dream foretold this? Surely it had naught to do with her. A crowd began to form behind her, as the town turned out to watch the first real event of the spring. She could hear the people murmuring to themselves, studying the caravan as it drew near and wondering if this arrival meant trouble or trade.
Calling out to each other, the council members hurried past, their streaky-red cloaks flapping behind them. First came Burra, a merchant not much older than Verrarc, with yellow hair and a thick yellow moustache to match. Stocky Frie hurried after, his shirt sleeves rolled up and his arms black with charcoal up to his elbows — he must have come straight from his forge. When Niffa saw Verrarc she started to turn away, but too late — he saw her, waved at her, then trotted on past. Last of all came the two elders, skinny grey Hennis and stout bald Admi, puffing in the hot sun. By then the caravan was ambling through the gates.
At its head rode two Gel da’Thae warriors, dressed in leather trousers, carrying spears, their bare chests covered with blue tattoos. Behind them came a long line of pack horses, led by human men wearing cloth trousers, each with an iron ring around one ankle — slaves, Niffa realised, not that they or their Gel da’Thae owners would ever admit such a thing whilst they were staying in this free city. In the middle of the line rode a richly dressed Gel da’Thae man on a roan gelding, most likely the merchant who owned this caravan. His huge mane of black hair, all braided and hung with little charms and talismans, hung down past his waist.
Following him on pure white horses came two women of his kind. Niffa caught her breath at a cold stab of magical certainty: here was the reason that her dream had driven her down to the gates. While the Gel da’Thae men wore their hair in braided manes, the women shaved every bit of theirs. This pair wore close-fitting leather caps, covered with little rounds of metal and glass, then a scant wrap of pale linen cloth about their upper bodies that left their arms bare, and leather trousers like the men. Where their eyebrows should have been they wore tattoos of flowering vines. Green tattoos covered the rest of their milk-white skin with pictures of animals, flowers, and landscapes in marked contrast to the abstract blue patterns decorating the men.
The gear their horses carried dripped with metal talismans, strands of beads, and leather ribands stamped with the same patterns as their tattoos. Niffa could hear the people in the crowd murmuring in surprise at their presence. When she turned to glance around, she saw Raena, resplendent in a fine green dress and a gold necklace, working her way through the townsfolk, while a disgusted-looking Harl walked behind her with a staff. Her position as a rich man’s wife demanded a guard whenever she walked abroad.
The caravan turned to follow the inside wall; the grassy commons formed the only caravanserai Cerr Cawnen could offer. The merchant, however, swung his horse out of line, then dismounted to bow to the Council of Five, who clustered round him to bow in return. Niffa ignored them and watched the two women. Often her bent toward the witch road gave her warnings of danger, but at the sight of the pair something in her mind seemed to say Â‘good! they got here safely.Â’ Who Â‘theyÂ’ were lay hidden, but not for long.
Â‘Niffa!Â’ It was Verrarc, striding up to her. Â‘A good thing it is that you be here. The older woman there, do you see? She be the mother of that Gel da’Thae bard who did take your brother off to the Slavers’ country. Her protector — Â‘ he gestured vaguely at the Gel da’Thae merchant, Â‘did tell us that she did come here to find news of her son, if there be any such.Â’
Â‘It be a long way she’s come, then, for disappointment.Â’ Niffa kept her voice as bland as she could.
Â‘Ah. No news, then, of Jahdo?Â’
Â‘Had there been, Councilman, you would have heard it long ere I did.Â’
For a moment Verrarc lingered, seemingly on the edge of prying. With a little shrug he turned away and walked off to join Raena, who was watching the Gel da’Thae women. Never had Niffa seen such hatred in another eyes. Raena’s skin had gone pale and her mouth twisted as she stared at the two women, her lips working as if to mutter an evil spell. Niffa stepped back into the crowd to lose herself among them before Raena could notice her . . .
The ancient Greggyn sage, Heraclidd, tells us that no man steps in the same river twice. Time itself is a river. When a man dies, he leaves the river behind, only to cross it again at the moment of birth. But betwixt times, the river has flowed on.
— The Secret Book of Cadwallon the Druid
Neb strode across the kitchen and stood next to the window, no more than a hole cut in the wall, open to the smell of mud and cows. Still, he found the air cleaner than that inside. Smoke rose from damp wood at the hearth in the middle of the floor and swirled through the half-round of a room before it oozed out of the chinks and cracks in the walls. Aunt Mauva knelt at the hearth and slapped flat rounds of dough onto the griddle stone. The oatcakes puffed and steamed. Neb heard his stomach rumble, and Clae, his young brother, took a step toward their aunt-by-marriage.
“Wait your turn!” she snapped. Her blue eyes narrowed in her bony face, and strands of dirty red hair stuck to her cheeks with sweat. “Your uncle and me eats first.”
“Give that batch to the lads.” Uncle Brwn was sitting at the plank table, a tankard of ale in his hand. “They’ve been pulling stones out of the west field all day, and that watery porridge you dished out this morning was scant.”
“Scant? Scant, was it?” Mauva turned and rose in one smooth motion. “You’ve got your bloody gall! Dumping more mouths to feed into my lap — ”
Brwn slammed the tankard down and lurched to his feet. “You miserly barren slut! You should thank the gods for sending you my nephews.”
Mauva squealed and charged, waving her fists in the air. Uncle Brwn grabbed her by the wrists and held on until she stopped squirming. He pushed her back, then set his thick and calloused hands on his hips, but before he could speak, she shoved her face up under his, and they were off again, screaming at each other, sometimes with curses, more often with meaningless grunts and squeals. Neb knelt down by the hearth, found a thin splint of wood, and flipped the oatcakes over before they burned.
“Get somewhat to carry these,” he hissed at Clae.
Clae glanced around the kitchen. On the sideboard stood an old flat basket; he grabbed it and held it up. Neb nodded, and Clae brought the basket over. Neb flipped the cooked cakes into the basket — three apiece, scant, but they would have to do. His screeching kin might quiet down before he could cook another batch. He stood up, grabbed the basket from Clae, and slipped out the back door. Clae followed, and together they slogged across the muddy farmyard and dodged round the dungheap. Skinny chickens came clucking, heads high and hopeful.
“Forgive me,” Neb said. “There’s barely enough for us.”
A packed earth wall surrounded house, barn, and farmyard. They hurried through the gate and trotted around the outside of the wall, where an apple tree stood to offer them some shade. They sat down, grabbed the still-warm cakes, and gobbled them before Mauva could come take them back. Above them little apples bobbed among the leaves, still too green, no matter how hungry they were. Clae swallowed the last bit of cake and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“Neb?” he said. “I wish Mam hadn’t died.”
“So do I, but wishing won’t bring her back.”
“I know. Why does Uncle Brwn put up with Mauva?”
“Because she lets him drink all the ale he wants. Are you still hungry?”
“I am.” Clae sounded on the edge of tears.
“Down by the river we can find berries.”
“If she finds us gone she’ll make Uncle beat us.”
“I’ll think of some way to get out of it. If we get back late enough, they’ll both be drunk.”
Brwn’s farm, the last steading on the Great West Road, lay a mile beyond the last village. No one saw the boys as they hurried across the west field and jumped over the half-finished stone wall into wild meadow. It was a lovely warm afternoon, and the slanted light lay as thick as honey on the green rolling pasture land. Tinged with yellow clay, the river Melyn churned and bubbled over boulders. All along its grassy banks stood mounds of redberry canes, heavy with fruit, sweet from a long hot day. The boys gorged themselves, drank river water, and stuffed in a few more handfuls of berries. Clae would have eaten still more, but Neb stopped him.
“You don’t want the runs, do you?”
“I don’t, truly, but oh, it’s so good not be hungry.”
They sat down in the warm grass and watched the river gleam like gold in the afternoon light, gliding along south to join the great rivers of the kingdom of Deverry — or so they’d always been told. They’d spent their entire lives here in Arcodd province. Off to their east stretched half-settled farmland; to the west and north, wild country. Far away south from their rough frontier lay the rich fields of the center of the kingdom and the fabled city of Dun Deverry, where the high king lived in a reputedly splendid palace.
When Neb turned to the north, he could see, about half-a-mile away, the smooth rise of pale tan cliff that separated this valley from the high plateau beyond. The river tumbled down in a spray of white laced with rainbows. Above, the primeval forest, all tangled pines and scruffy underbrush, stood poised at the cliff edge like a green flood, ready to pour over the valley.
“Neb?” Clae said. “Can we go look at the waterfall? Can we go up to the top?”
“I don’t think so. We don’t want to be caught up there in the dark.”
“I guess not. Well, maybe Aunt Mauva will be drunk soon.”
Materializing as silently and suddenly as always, the Wildfolk appeared. Knee-high grey gnomes, all warts and spindly limbs, clustered around the two boys. In the air blue sprites flew back and forth, wringing their tiny hands, opening tiny mouths to reveal their needle-sharp fangs. At the river’s edge undines rose up, as sleek as otters but with silver fur. The gnomes grabbed the sleeves of Neb’s torn shirt and pulled on them while the sprites darted back and forth. They would start north toward the waterfall, then swoop back to buzz around the lads like flies. A big yellow gnome, Neb’s favorite, grabbed his hand and tugged.
Clae saw none of this, because he was pawing through the grass. Finally he picked out a bit of stick and began chewing on it.
“Get that out of your mouth,” Neb said. “And come on, we’re going to have a look at the waterfall after all.”
Clae grinned and tossed the stick into the river. An undine caught it, bowed, and disappeared into foam.
In a crowd of Wildfolk the two boys headed upstream, following a grassy path beside the noisy river. Now and then Clae seemed to feel the presence of the gnomes. When one of them brushed against him, he would look down, then shrug as if dismissing the sensation. For as long as he could remember Neb had seen the Wildfolk, but no one else in his family had the gift of the Sight. He’d learned early to keep his gifts to himself. Any mention of Wildfolk had exasperated his literal-minded mother and made the other children in town mock and tease him.
The two boys followed the river to the white water churning around fallen boulders. They panted up the steep path that zigzagged along the cliff face, then turned to look back. Under a black plume the distant village was burning. Neb stared, unable to comprehend, unable to scream, merely stared as the bright flower of flame poured black smoke into the sky. Little people, the size of red ants from their vantage point, scurried around and waved their arms. Larger ants chased them and waved things that winked metallic in the sun. A cluster of horses, the size of flies, stood on the far side of the village bridge. The farm — it too burned, a blossom of deadly gold among the green meadows. Two horses and riders circled the earthen wall.
“Raiders!” Clae’s voice was a breathy sob. “Oh Neb! Horsekin!”
Overhead a raven shrieked, as if answering him. The two riders suddenly turned their horses away from the farmstead. They broke into a gallop and headed upstream for the waterfall.
“Into the forest!” Neb said. “We’ve got to hide!”
They raced across the grassy cliff top, plunged into the forest, and ran panting and crashing through the underbrush among the pines and brambles. Twigs and thorns caught and tore his shirt and brigga, but Neb drove his brother before him like a frightened sheep until at last they could run no more. They burrowed into a thick patch of shrubs and clung together. If the slavers caught them, they would geld Clae like a steer. And they’d kill me, Neb thought. I’m old enough to cause trouble.
Neb could see nothing in the tangled mass of forest. He could hear over the waterfall, plunging down over rock. Had they run far enough? Voices — Neb thought he heard voices, deep ones, muttering in what sounded like anger, and a crash and a jingle, very faint, as if someone had dropped something metallic on to a rock. He did hear a shout that might turned to a scream. Clae stiffened and opened his mouth. Neb clapped a hand over it before he could speak.
Whether voices or not, the sounds died away, leaving only the chatter of the waterfall to disturb the silence. Slowly the normal noise of a forest picked up, the distant rustles of small animals, the chirping of birds. The yellow gnome appeared to perch in a nearby bush and grin. It patted its stomach as if pleased with itself, then disappeared. Slowly, too, the gray twilight deepened into a velvety night. They were safe for now, but on the morrow in the sunlight the Horsekin might return to search the woods. Neb realized that he and Clae had best be gone as soon as it was light enough to see.
Eventually Clae squirmed into his brother’s lap like a child half his size and fell asleep. Neb drowsed, but every snap of a twig, cry of an owl, or rustle of wind woke him in startled terror. When at last the gray dawn came, he felt as stiff and cold as an old man. Clae woke in tears, crying out at his memories.
“Hush, hush,” Neb said, but he felt like weeping himself. “Now we have to think. We don’t have a cursed bite to eat, and we’d best find something.”
“We can’t go down to the river. If the Horsekin are still there, they’ll smell us out.”
“Smell us out. They can do that.”
“How do you know?”
Clae started to answer, then looked away, visibly puzzled. “Someone must have told me,” he said at last.
“Well, we’ve heard plenty of tales about the Horsekin, sure enough. Speaking of noses, wipe yours on your sleeve, will you?”
Clae obliged. “I never thought I’d miss Uncle Brwn,” he said, then began to weep in a silent trickle of tears. Our uncle’s dead, Neb thought. The last person who would take us in, even if he was a sot.
“We’re going to walk east,” Neb said. “We’ll follow the rising sun so we won’t get lost. On the other side of the forest, we’ll find a village. It’s a long way, so you’ll have to be brave.”
“But Neb?” Clae said. “What will we eat?”
“Oh, berries and bird’s eggs and herbs.” Neb made his voice as strong and cheery as he could. “There’s always lots to eat in summer.”
He was, of course, being ridiculously optimistic. The birds’ eggs had long since hatched; few berry bushes grew in forest shade. At every step the forest itself blocked their way with ferns and shrubs, tangled between the trees. They had to push their way through, creeping uphill and hurrying down as they searched for the few herbs that would feed, not poison them. Water at least they had; they came across a good many rivulets trickling down to join the Melyn. By sundown, Clae could not make himself stop weeping. They made a nest among low-growing shrubs, where Neb rocked him to sleep like a baby.
As he watched the shadows darken around him, Neb realized that they were going to die. He had no idea of how far the forest stretched. Were they going straight east? Trying to follow the sun among trees might have them wandering around in circles. You can’t give up, he told himself. He’d promised his dying mother that he’d keep Clae safe. The one concern he could allow himself now was keeping them both alive. He fell asleep to dream of sitting at his mother’s table and watching her pile bread and beef onto the trencher he shared with Clae.
In the morning, Neb woke with a start. A gaggle of gnomes stood around them as if they were standing guard, while sprites floated overhead. The yellow gnome materialized and stood pointing to its stomach.
“Do you know where there’s food?” Neb whispered.
The gnome nodded and pointed off into the forest.
“Can you show me where it is?”
Again the gnome nodded. When Neb shook him, Clae woke with a howl and a scatter of tears. He slid off Neb’s lap and screwed his fists into his eyes.
“Time to get on the road,” Neb said with as much cheer as he could muster. “I’ve got the feeling we’re going to be lucky today.”
“My feet hurt. I can’t walk any more.” Clae lowered his hands. “I’ll just die here.”
“You won’t do any such thing. Here, stick out your legs. One at a time! I’ll wrap the swaddling for you.”
With the rags bound tight against his feet, Clae managed to keep walking. As they beat their way through fern and thistle, the Wildfolk led the boys straight into the forest, dodging around the black-barked pines and trampling through green ferns. Neb was beginning to wonder if the gnomes knew where they were going when he realized that up ahead the light was growing brighter. The trees grew farther apart, and the underbrush thinned. A few more yards, and they stepped out into a clearing, where a mass of redberry canes grew in a mound. Clae rushed forward and was already stuffing his mouth when Neb caught up with him. Neb mumbled a prayer of thanks to the gods, then began plucking every berry he could reach.
Red juice like gore stained their hands and faces by the time they forced themselves stop. Neb was considering finding a stream to wash in when the yellow gnome appeared again. It grabbed his shirt with one little hand and with the other pointed to the far side of the clearing. When Neb took a few steps that way, he realized that he could hear running water.
“There’s a stream or suchlike over yonder,” Neb said to Clae. “We’ll go that way.”
The gnome smiled and nodded its head. Other Wildfolk appeared and surrounded them as they crossed the clearing. They worked their way through forest cover for about a hundred yards before they found the stream, and just beyond that, a marvel: a dirt road, curving through the trees. When Neb sighted along it, it seemed to run roughly east.
“I never knew this road was here,” Clae said.
“No more did I,” Neb said.
“I wonder where it goes to? There’s naught out to the west of here.”
“Doesn’t matter. We can walk faster now, and a road means people must have made it.”
“But what about the raiders?” Clae looked nervously around him. “They’ll follow the road and get us.”
“They won’t,” Neb said firmly. “They’ve got those huge horses, so they can’t ride through the wild woods. They’ll never get as far as this road.”
Neb insisted they wash their hands before they scooped up drinking water in them. When they finished, he pulled a handful of grass, soaked it, and cleaned the snot and berry juice off Clae’s face.
All that day they tried to ignore their hunger and make speed, but now and again the road dipped into shallow ravines or swung wide around a mound or spur of naked rock — no easy travelling. As far as Neb could tell, however, it kept running east toward safety. Toward noon, the forest thinned out along a stream, where they found a few more berries and a patch of wood sorrel they could graze like deer. Then it was back on the road to stumble along, exhausted. Neb began to lose hope, but the sprites fluttered ahead of them, and the yellow gnome kept beckoning them onward.
Toward sunset, Neb saw thin tendrils of pale blue smoke drifting far ahead. He froze and grabbed Clae’s arm.
“Back into the trees,” he whispered.
Clae took a deep breath and fought back tears. “Do we have to go back to the forest? I’m all scratched up from the thistles and suchlike.”
The yellow gnome hopped up and down, shaking its head.
“We can’t stay on the road,” Neb said.
The gnome nodded a violent yes.
“Very well.” Neb gave in to both of them. “We’ll stick to the road for a bit.”
“My thanks,” Clae said. “I’m so tired.”
The gnome smiled, then turned and danced along the road, leading the way. In about a quarter of a mile, off to the left of the road, the forest gave way to another clearing. In the tall grass two horses grazed at tether, a slender gray like a lady’s palfrey and a stocky dun packhorse. Beyond them the plume of smoke rose up. Neb hesitated, trying to decide whether to run or go forward. The wind shifted, bringing with it the smell of soda bread, baking on a griddle. Clae whimpered.
“All right, we’ll go on,” Neb said. “But carefully now. If I tell you to run, you head for the forest.”
A few yards more brought them close enough to hear a man singing, a pleasant tenor voice that picked up snatches of songs, then idly dropped them again.
“No Horsekin would sing like that,” Neb said.
The yellow gnome grinned and nodded his agreement.
Another turn of the road brought them to a camp and its owner. He was hunkering down beside the fire and baking bread on an iron griddle. On the tall side, but slender as a lad, he had hair so pale that it looked like moonlight and a face so handsome that it was almost girlish. He wore a shirt that once had been splendid, but now the bands of red and purple embroidery were worn and threadbare, and the yellow stain of old linen spread across the shoulders and back. His trousers, blue brigga cut from once-fine wool, were faded, stained, and patched here and there — a rough-looking fellow, but the gnomes rushed into his camp without a trace of fear. He stood up and looked around, saw Neb and Clae, and mugged amazement.
“What’s all this?” he said. “Come over here, you two! You look half starved and scared to death. What’s happened?”
“Raiders,” Neb stammered. “Horsekin burned my uncle’s farm and the village. Me and my brother got away.”
“By the gods! You’re safe now — I swear it. You’ve got naught to fear from me.”
The yellow gnome grinned, leapt into the air, and vanished. As the two boys walked over, the stranger knelt again at the fire, where an iron griddle balanced on rocks. Clae sat down nearby with a grunt of exhaustion, his eyes fixed on the soda bread, but Neb stood for a moment, looking round him. Scattered by the fire were saddle-bags and pack panniers stuffed with gear and provisions.
“I’m Neb and this is Clae,” Neb said. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“Well, you may call me Salamander,” the stranger said. “My real name is so long that no one can ever say it properly. As to what I’m doing, I’m having dinner. Come join me.”
Shamelessly Neb and Clae wolfed down chunks of warm bread. Salamander rummaged through saddle-bags of fine pale leather, found some cheese wrapped in clean cloth, and cut them slices with a dagger. While they ate the cheese, he bustled around, getting out a small sack of flour, a silver spoon, and a little wood box of the precious soda, a waterskin. He knelt down to mix up another batch of bread, kneading it in an iron pot, then slapped it into a thin cake right on the griddle with his oddly long and slender fingers.
“Now, you two had best settle your stomachs before you eat anything more,” he said. “You’ll only get sick if you eat too much after starving.”
“True spoken,” Neb said. “Oh ye gods, my thanks. May the gods give you every happiness in life for this.”
“Nicely spoken, lad.” Salamander looked up, glancing his way.
His eyes were gray, a common color in this part of the country, and a perfectly ordinary shape, but all at once Neb couldn’t look away from them. I know him, he thought. I’ve met him — I couldn’t have met him. Salamander tilted his head to one side and returned the stare, then sat back on his heels, his smile gone. Neb could have sworn that Salamander recognized him as well. The silence held until Salamander looked away.
“Tell me about the raid,” he said abruptly. “Where are you from?”
“The last farm on the Great West Road,” Neb said, “but we’ve not lived there long. When our mam died, we had to go live with our uncle. Before that we lived in Trev Hael. My da was a scribe, but he died, too. Before Mam, I mean.”
“Last year, was it? I heard that there was some sort of powerful illness in your town. An inflammation of the bowels, is what I heard, with fever.”
“It was, and a terrible bad fever, too. I had a touch of it, but Da died of it, and our little sister did, too. Mam wore herself out, I think, nursing them, and then this spring, when it was so damp and chill — ” Neb felt tears welling in his voice.
“You don’t need to say more,” Salamander said. “That’s a sad thing all round. How old are you, lad? Do you know?”
“I do. Da always kept count. I’m sixteen, and my brother is eight.”
“Sixteen, is it? Huh.” Salamander seemed to be counting something out in his mind. “I’m surprised your father didn’t marry you off years ago.”
“It wasn’t for want of trying. He and the town matchmaker just never seemed to find the right lass.”
“Ah, I see.” Salamander pointed and smiled. “Look, your brother’s asleep.”
Clae had curled up right on the ground, and indeed he was asleep, open-mouthed and limp.
“Just as well,” Neb said. “He’ll not have to listen to the tale this way.”
Neb told the story of their last day on the farm and their escape as clearly as he could. When he rambled to a stop, Salamander said nothing for a long moment. He looked sad, and so deeply weary that Neb wondered how he could ever have thought him young.
“What made you go look at the waterfall?” Salamander asked.
“Oh, just a whim.”
The yellow gnome materialized, gave Neb a sour look, then climbed into his lap like a cat. Salamander pointed to the gnome with his cooking spoon.
“It’s more likely he warned you,” Salamander said. “He led you here, after all.”
Neb found he couldn’t speak. Someone else with the Sight! He’d always hoped for such. The irony of the bitter circumstances in which he’d had his hope fulfilled struck him hard.
“Did anyone see you up on the cliff?” Salamander went on.
“I think so. Two Horsekin rode our way, but they were too far away for me to see if they were pointing at us or suchlike. We ran into the forest and hid.” Neb paused, remembering. “I thought I heard voices, but the waterfall was so loud, it was hard to tell. There was a scream, too. It almost sounded like someone fell of the cliff.”
The yellow gnome began to clap its hands and dance in a little circle.
“Here!” Salamander said to it. “You and your lads didn’t push that Horsekin down the cliff, did you?”
The gnome stopped dancing, grinned, and nodded. Salamander, however, looked grim.
“Is he dead?” Salamander said.
The gnome nodded yes, then disappeared.
“Ye gods!” Neb could hear how feeble his own voice sounded. “I always thought of them like little pet birds or puppies. Sweet little creatures, that is.”
“Never ever make that mistake again!. They’re not called the wild folk for naught.”
“I won’t, I can promise you that!” Neb paused, struck by his sudden thought. “They saved our lives. If that Horsekin had gotten to the top of the cliff . . .” His voice deserted him.
“He would have found you, truly. They have a nose as keen as a dog’s.”
“Well, that’s one up for Clae, then. He told me that. But sir, the Wildfolk — what are they?”
“Sir, am I?” Salamander grinned at him. “No need for courtesies, lad. You have the same odd gift that I do, after all. As to what they are, do you know what an elemental spirit is?”
“I don’t. I mean, everyone knows what spirits are, but I’ve not heard the word elemental before.”
“Well, it’s a long thing to explain, but — ” Salamander stopped abruptly.
With a whimper Clae woke and sat up, stretching his arms over his head. Conversation about the Wildfolk would have to wait. Salamander flipped the griddle cake over with the handle of the spoon before he spoke again.
“May the Horsekins’ hairy balls freeze off when they sink to the lowest hell,” Salamander said. “But I don’t want to wait that long for justice. Allow me to offer you lads my protection, such as it is. I’ll escort you east, where we shall find both safety and revenge.”
“My thanks! I’m truly grateful.”
Salamander smiled, and at that moment he looked young again, barely a twenty’s worth of years.
“But sir?” Clae said with a yawn. “Who are you? What are you really?”
“Really?” Salamander raised one pale eyebrow. “Well, lad, when it comes to me, there’s no such thing as really, because I’m a mountebank, a traveling minstrel, a storyteller, who deals in nothing but lies, jests, and the most blatant illusions. I am, in short, a gerthdyn, who wanders around parting honest folk from their coin in return for a few brief hours in the land of never-was, never-will-be. I can also juggle, make scarves appear out of thin air, and once, in my greatest moment, I plucked a sparrow out of the hat of a fat merchant.”
Clae giggled and sat up a bit straighter.
“Later,” Salamander went on. “After I’ve eaten, I shall tell you a story that will drive all thoughts of those cursed raiders out of your head so that you may go to sleep when your most esteemed brother tells you to. I’m very good at driving away evil thoughts.”
“My thanks,” Neb said. “Truly, I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you for all of this.”
“No payment needed.” Salamander made a little bob of a bow. “Why should I ask for payment, when I never do an honest day’s work?”
Just as twilight was darkening into night, Salamander built up the fire and settled in to tell the promised story, which fascinated Neb as much as it did young Clae. Salamander swept them away to the far-off land where great sorcerers fought with greedy dragons over treasure, then told them of a prince who was questing for a gem that had magic, or dweomer, as Salamander called it. He played all the parts, his voice lilting for the beautiful princess, snarling for the evil sorcerer, rumbling for the mighty king. Every now and then, he sang a song as part of the tale, his beautiful voice harmonizing with the wind in the trees. By the time the stone was found, and the prince and princess safely married, Clae was smiling.
“Oh, I want there to be real dweomer gems,” Clae said. “And real dweomermasters, too.”
“Do you now?” Salamander gave him a grin. “Well, you never know, lad. You think about it when you’re falling asleep.”
Neb found a soft spot in the grass for his brother’s bed. He wrapped Clae up in one of the gerthdyn’s blankets and stayed with him until he was safely asleep, then rejoined Salamander at the fire.
“A thousand thanks for amusing my brother,” Neb said. “I’d gladly shower you with gold if I had any.”
“I only wish it were so easy to soothe your heart,” Salamander said.
“Well, good sir, that will take some doing, truly. First we lost our hearth kin, and now our uncle. It was all so horrible at first, it had me thinking we’d escaped the raiders only to live like beggars in the streets.”
“Now here, the folk in this part of the world aren’t so hard-hearted that they’ll let you starve. One way or another, we’ll find some provision for you and the lad.”
“If I can get back to Trev Hael, I can make my own provision. After all, I can read and write. If naught else I can become a town letter-writer and earn our keep that way.”
“Well, there you go! It’s a valuable skill to have.” Salamander hesitated on the edge of a smile. “Provided that’s the craft you want to follow.”
“Well, I don’t know aught else but writing and suchlike. I’m not strong enough to join a warband, and I wouldn’t want to weave or suchlike, so I don’t know what other craft there’d be for me.”
“You don’t, eh? Well, scribing is an honorable sort of work, and there’s not many who can do it out here in Arcodd.”
Neb considered Salamander for a moment. In the dancing firelight it was hard to be sure, but he could have sworn that the gerthdyn was struggling to keep from laughing.
“Or what about herbcraft?” Salamander went on. “Have you ever thought of trying your hand at that?”
“I did, truly. Fancy you thinking of that! When my da was still alive, I used to help the herbwoman in Trev Hael. I wrote out labels for her and suchlike, and she taught me a fair bit about the four humors and illnesses and the like. Oh, and about the four elements. Is that what you meant by elemental spirits?”
“It is. The different sorts of Wildfolk correspond to different elements. Hmm, the herbwoman must have been surprised at how fast you learned the lore.”
“She was. She told me once that it was like I was remembering it, not learning. How did you — ”
“Just a guess. You’re obviously a bright lad.”
Salamander was hiding something — Neb was sure of it — but probing for it might insult their benefactor. “Govylla, her name was,” Neb went on. “She lived through the plague. Huh — I wonder if she’d take us in, Clae and me, as prentices? Well, if I can get back there. Some priests of Bel were travelling out here, you see, and so they took us to our uncle.”
“And some might well be travelling back one fine day. But for now, we need to get the news of raiders to the right ears. I happen to have the very ears in mind. I’ve been traveling along from the east, you see, and the last place I plied my humble trade was the dun of a certain tieryn, Cadryc, noble scion of the ancient and conjoined Red Wolf clan, who’s been grafted upon the root of a new demesne out here. When I left, everyone begged me to come back again soon, so we shall see if they were sincere or merely courteous. I have a great desire to inform the honorable tieryn about these raiders. Oh, that I do, a very great desire indeed.”
As he stared into the fire, Salamander let his smile fade, his eyes darkening, his slender mouth as harsh as a warrior’s. In that moment Neb saw a different man, cold, ruthless, and frightening. With a laugh the gerthdyn shrugged the mood away and began singing about lasses and spring flowers.
Down the hill behind Tieryn Cadryc’s recently built dun lay a long meadow, where the tieryn’s warband of thirty men were amusing themselves with mock combats in the last glow of a warm afternoon. Two men at a time would pick out wooden swords and wicker shields, then face off in the much-trampled grass. The rest of the troop sat in untidy lines off to either side and yelled comments and insults as the combat progressed. Gerran, the captain of the Red Wolf warband, sat off to one side with Lord Mirryn, Tieryn Cadryc’s son. Brown-haired and blue-eyed, with a liberal dusting of freckles across his broad cheekbones, Mirryn was lounging full-length, propped up on one elbow, and chewing on a long grass stem like a farmer.
“One of these days our miserly gwerbret’s bound to set up a proper tourney,” Mirryn said. “Although everyone knows you’d win it, so I doubt me if I can get anyone to wager against you.”
“Oh here,” Gerran said. “It’s not that much of a sure thing.”
“Of course it is.” Mirryn grinned at him. “False humility doesn’t become you.”
Gerran allowed himself a brief smile. Out in the meadow a new fight was starting. The rest of the warband called out jests and jeers, teasing Daumyr for his bad luck in drawing a sparring partner. Daumyr, the tallest man in the troop at well over six feet, stood grinning while he swung his wooden sword in lazy circles to limber up his arm. His opponent, Warryc, was skinny and short — but fast.
“Ye gods, Daumyr’s got a long reach!” Mirryn said. “It’s truly amazing, the way Warryc beats him every time. Huh — there must be a way we can use this at the next tourney.”
“Use it for what?” Gerran said.
“Acquiring some hard coin, that’s what, by setting up a wager, getting some poor dolt to bet high on Daumyr.”
“The very soul of honor, that’s you.”
Gerran was about to say more when he heard hoofbeats and shouting. A young page on a bay pony came galloping across the meadow.
“My lord Mirryn! Captain Gerran!” the page called out. “The tieryn wants you straight away. There’s been a raid on the Great West Road.”
Mirryn led the warband back at the run. Up at the top of a hill, new walls of pale stone, built at the high king’s expense, circled the fort to protect the tall stone broch tower and its outbuildings. The men dashed through the great iron-bound gates, stopped in the ward to catch their collective breath, then hurried into the great hall. Sunlight fell in dusty shafts from narrow windows, cut directly into stone, and striped the huge round room with shadows. Gerran paused, letting his eyes adjust, then picked his way through the clutter of tables and benches, dogs and servants. The warband followed him, but Mirryn hurried on ahead to his father’s side. When he saw Gerran lingering behind, Mirryn waved him up with an impatient arm.
By the hearth of honor, Cadryc was pacing back and forth, a tall man, tending toward stout, with a thin band of gray hair clinging to the back of his head and a pair of ratty gray moustaches. Perched on the end of a table was the gerthdyn, Salamander. Mirryn and Gerran exchanged a look of faint disgust at the sight of him, a babbling fool, in their shared opinion, with his tricks and tales. When Gerran started to kneel before the tieryn, Cadryc impatiently waved him to his feet.
“Raiders,” Cadryc said. “Didn’t the page tell you? We’re riding tomorrow at dawn, so get the men ready.”
“Well and good, your grace,” Gerran said. “How far are they?”
“Who knows, by now?” Cadryc shook his head in frustrated rage. “Let’s hope they’re still looting the village.”
“Bastards,” Mirryn said. “I hope to all the gods they are. We’ll make them pay high for this.”
“You’re staying here, lad,” Cadryc said. “I’m not risking myself and my heir both.”
Mirryn flushed red, took a step forward, then shoved his hands into his brigga pockets.
“For all we know, the raiders have set up some sort of ruse or trap,” Cadryc went on. “I’ll be leaving you ten men to command on fort guard. Your foster-brother here can handle the rest well enough.”
“Far be it from me to argue with you,” Mirryn said. “Your grace.”
“Just that — don’t argue,” Cadryc snapped. “And don’t sulk, either.”
Mirryn spun on his heel and stalked off, heading back outside. Cadryc muttered a few insults under his breath. Gerran decided a distraction was in order and turned to the gerthdyn.
“Little did I dream our paths would cross so soon,” Salamander gave him a fatuous smile. “An honor to see you, captain.”
“Spare me the horseshit,” Gerran said. “Did you see this raid or only find a burned village or suchlike?”
“Ah, what a soul of courtesy you are.” Salamander rolled his eyes heavenward. “Actually, I found refugees, who escaped by blind luck.”
When Salamander pointed, Gerran noticed for the first time a tattered dirty lad and an equally ragged little boy, kneeling by the corner of the massive stone hearth. Dirt clotted in hair that was most likely mousy brown, and they shared a certain look about their deep-set blue eyes that marked them for close kin. Skinny as a stick, the older lad was, with fine, small hands, but the younger, though half-starved from the look of him, had broad hands and shoulders that promised strong bones and height one day.
“They lost everything in the raid,” Salamander said. “Kin, house, the lot.” He pointed. “Their names are Neb and Clae.”
“We’ll give them a place here.” Tieryn Cadryc beckoned to a page. “Go find my wife and ask her to join us.”
When the page trotted off, Neb, the older lad, watched him go with dead eyes.
“How many of them were there?” Gerran asked him. “The raiders, I mean.”
“I don’t know, sir,” Neb said. “We were a good distance away, up by the waterfall, so we could see down into the valley. We saw the village burning, and our farm, and then a lot of people just running around.”
“Cursed lucky thing you were gone.”
The lad nodded, staring at him, too tired to speak, most likely.
“The raiding party won’t be travelling fast, not with prisoners to drag along,” Cadryc broke in. “I’ve sent a message to Lord Pedrys, telling him to meet us on the road with every man he can muster. I’d summon the other vassals as well, but they live too cursed far east, and we’ve got to make speed.”
“Your grace?” Gerran said. “Wasn’t there a lord near this village?”
“There was. What I want to know is this: is there still?”
Neb watched the captain and the tieryn walk away, talking of their plans, both of them tall men, but red-haired Gerran was as lean as the balding tieryn was stout. Neither would be a good man to cross, Neb decided, nor Lord Mirryn, either. Salamander left his perch on the table and joined the two boys.
“Well, there,” the gerthdyn said. “Your uncle will be avenged, and perhaps they’ll even manage to rescue your aunt.”
“If they do,” Clae said, “we won’t have to go back to her, will we?”
“You won’t. Judging from what you told me on our journey here she doesn’t seem to be a paragon of the female virtues, unlike the tieryn’s good wife.” Salamander glanced over his shoulder. “Who, I might add, is arriving at this very moment.”
Salamander stepped aside and bowed just as the lady hurried up, a stout little woman, her dark hair streaked with grey. She wore a pair of dresses of fine-woven blue linen, caught in at the waist by a plaid kirtle in yellow, white, and green. Two pages trailed after her, a skinny pale boy with a head of golden curls and a brown-haired lad a few years older.
“My lady, this is Neb and Clae,” Salamander said. “Lads, this is the honorable Lady Galla, wife to Tieryn Cadryc.”
Since he was already kneeling, Neb ducked his head in respect and elbowed Clae to make him do the same.
“You may rise, lads,” she said. “I’ve heard your terrible story from young Coryn, here.” She gestured at the older, brown-haired page. “Now don’t you worry, we’ll find a place for you in the dun. The cook and the grooms can always use an extra pair of hands.”
“My thanks, my lady,” Neb said. “We’ll be glad to work for our keep, but we might not be staying — ”
“My lady?” Salamander broke in. “Luck has brought you someone more valuable than a mere kitchen lad. Our Neb can read and write.”
“Luck indeed!” Lady Galla smiled brilliantly. “My husband’s had need of a scribe for ever so long, him and half the nobleborn in Arcodd, of course, but what scribe would be wanting to travel all the way out here, anyway, if he could find a better place down in Deverry? Well and good, young Neb, we’ll see how well you form your letters, but first you need to eat from the look of you and a bath wouldn’t hurt either.”
“Thank you, my lady.” Clae looked up with wide eyes. “We’ve been so hungry for so long.”
“Food first, then. Coryn, take them to the cook house and tell Cook I said to feed them well. Then do what you can about getting them clean. Clothes — well, I’ll see what I can find.”
The food turned out to be generous scraps of roast pork, bread with butter, and some dried apples to chew on for a sweet. The cook let them sit in the straw by the door while she went back to work at her high table, cracking dried oats with a stone roller in a big stone quern. Coryn helped himself to a handful of apples and sat down with them. He seemed a pleasant sort, chatting to the brothers as they wolfed down the meal.
“I do like our lady,” Coryn said. “She’s ever so kind and cheerful. And our lord’s noble and honorable, too. But watch your step around Gerran. He’s a touchy sort of man, the Falcon, and he’ll slap you daft if you cross him.”
“The Falcon?” Neb said with his mouth full. “What — ”
“Oh, everyone calls him that. He’s got a falcon device stamped on his gear and suchlike.”
“Is it his clan mark?”
“It’s not, because he’s not noble-born.” Coryn frowned in thought. “I don’t know why he carries it, and he probably shouldn’t, ’cause he’s a commoner.”
The cook turned their way and shoved her sweaty dark hair back from her face with a crooked little finger. “The mark’s just a fancy of Gerran’s,” she said. “After all, he was an orphan, and it’s a comfort, like, to pretend he’s got a family.”
“Still,” Coryn said, “it’s giving himself airs.”
“Oh get along with you!” The cook rolled her eyes. “It comes to him natural, like. He was raised in the dun like Lord Mirryn’s brother, wasn’t he now?”
“Why?” Clae said with his mouth half-full.
The cook glared narrow-eyed.
“Say please,” Neb muttered.
“Please, good dame,” Clae said. “Why?”
“That’s better.” The cook smiled at him. “When Gerran was but a little lad, his father was killed in battle saving the tieryn’s life, and the shock drove his poor mother mad. She drowned herself not long after. So our Cadryc took the lad and raised him with his own son, because he’s as generous as a lord should be and as honorable, too.”
“That’s truly splendid of him,” Neb said. “But I can see why Gerran’s a bit touchy.” He wiped his greasy mouth on his sleeve. “I’ll do my best to stay out of his way.”
“Now you’ve got dirt smeared in the grease.” Coryn grinned at him. “We’d better get you that bath.”
Rather than haul water inside to heat at the hearth, they filled one of the horse troughs and let it warm in the hot sun while Coryn pointed out the various buildings in the fort. Eventually Neb and Clae stripped off their clothes and climbed into the water. Neb knelt on the bottom and kept ducking his head under while he tried to comb the worst of the dirt and leaves out of his hair. They were still splashing around when Salamander came strolling out of the broch with clothing draped over his arm.
“Well, you look a fair sight more courtly,” the gerthdyn said, grinning. “Lady Galla’s servant lass has turned up these.” He held up a pair of plain linen shirts, both worn but not too badly stained, and two pair of faded gray brigga. “She says you’re to give her the old ones to boil for rags.”
“My thanks,” Neb said. “Our lady’s being as generous as the noble-born should be, but truly, I’d rather go back to Trev Hael.”
“Ah, but here is where your wyrd led you. Who can argue with their wyrd?”
“But — ”
“Or truly, wyrd led you to me, and I led you here, but it’s all the same thing.” Salamander gave him a sunny smile. “Please, lad, stay here for a while, no more than a year and a day, say. And then if you want to move on, move on.”
“Well and good, then. You saved our lives, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
“No need for eternal gratitude. Just stay here for a little while. You’ll know when it’s time to leave.”
“Will I?” Neb hesitated, wondering if his benefactor were a bit daft. “You know, I just thought of somewhat. The lady wants to see my writing, but I’ve got no ink and no pens, either. I saw some geese over by the stables, but the quills will take a while to cure.”
“So they will, but I’ve got some reed pens and a bit of inkcake, too.”
“Splendid! You can write, too?”
“Oh, a bit, but don’t tell anyone. I don’t fancy having some lord demand I stay and serve him as a scribe. Me for the open road.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you a question, truly. Why have you come all the way to Arcodd? There’s not a lot of folk out here and most of them are too poor to pay you to tell them tales.”
“Sharp lad, aren’t you?” Salamander grinned at him. “Well, in truth, I’m looking for my brother, who seems to have got himself lost.”
“Just that. He was a silver dagger, you see.”
“A what?” Clae broke in. “What’s that?”
“A mercenary soldier of a sort,” Salamander said. “They ride the countryside, looking for a lord who needs extra fighting men badly enough to pay them by the battle.”
Clae wrinkled his nose in disgust, but Neb leaned forward and grabbed his arm before he could say something rude. “Your hair’s still filthy,” Neb snapped. “Wash it out.” He turned to Salamander. “I’ll pray your brother still rides on the earth and not in the Otherlands.”
“My thanks, but I truly do believe he’s still alive. I had a report of him, you see, that he’d been seen up this way.”
Neb found himself wondering if Salamander were lying. The gerthdyn was studying the distant view with a little too much attention and a fixed smile. He refused to challenge the man who’d saved his life. Besides, having a silver dagger for a brother was such a shameful thing that he couldn’t begrudge Salamander his embarrassment.
“I’ll just be getting out,” Neb said. “Come on, Clae. We’ll have to help the stableman empty this trough. Horses can’t drink dirty water.”
Neb hoisted himself over the edge and dropped to the ground. He shook himself to get the worst of the water off, then still damp put on the clothes Salamander handed him. The baggy wool brigga fit well enough, but when he pulled the shirt over his head, it billowed around him. The long sleeves draped over his hands. He began rolling them up.
“We can find you a bit of rope or suchlike for a belt,” Salamander said. “And eventually, a better shirt.”
Later that afternoon, with pen and ink in hand Neb went into the great hall and found Lady Galla waiting, sitting alone at the table of honor. She’d gathered a heap of parchment scraps, splitting into translucent layers from hard use. A good many messages had been written upon them, then scraped off to allow for a new one.
“Will these do?” Galla was peering at them. “I looked all over, because I did remember that I had the accounts from our old demesne in a sack or suchlike, but I couldn’t find it. These turned up lining a wooden chest.”
“I’m sure they’ll do, my lady.” Neb searched through them and found at last a scrap with a reasonably smooth surface. “Now, what would you like me to write?”
“Oh, some simple thing. Our names, say.”
Neb picked the script his father had always used for important documents, called Half-inch Royal because the scribes of the high king’s court had invented it. Although she couldn’t read in any true sense of the word, Galla did know her letters, and she could spell out her name and Tieryn Cadryc’s when he wrote them.
“Quite lovely,” she announced. “Very well, young Neb. As provision for you and your brother, you shall have a chamber of your own, meals in the great hall, and a set of new clothing each year. Will that be adequate?”
Neb had to steel himself to bargain with the noble born, but he reminded himself that without tools, he couldn’t practice his craft. “I’ll need coin as well, for the preparing of the inks and suchlike. I could just mix up soot and oak gall, but an important lord like your husband should have better. A silver penny a year should be enough. I hope I can find proper ink cakes and a mixing stone out here.”
“The coin we have, thanks to the high king’s bounty.” Galla thought for a moment. “Now, I think you might find what you need in Cengarn. His grace my husband has been talking about riding to the gwerbret there, and so if he does, you can go with him.”
“Splendid, my lady, and my thanks. But then there’s the matter of what I’m going to write upon. Fine parchments cost ever so much if you buy them, and I don’t know how to make my own. Even if I did, could you spare the hides? You can only get two good sheets from a calf skin, and then scraps like these.”
“Oh.” Galla paused, chewing on her lower lip. “Well, I’d not thought of that, but if you can find parchment for sale, I’m sure we can squeeze out the coin to buy some, at least for legal judgments and the like.”
“We can use wax-covered tablets for ordinary messages, if you have candle wax to spare. I can write with a stylus as well as a pen.”
“Now that I can give you, and a good knife, too, for cutting your pens.” Much relieved, Galla smiled at him. “I’ve got a very important letter to write, you see. My brother has a daughter by his first wife, who died years and years ago. So he remarried, and now he and his second wife have sons and daughters of their own. The wife — well. Let’s just say that she’s never cared for her stepdaughter. There’s only so much coin at my brother’s disposal, and she wants to spend it on her own lasses. the wife wants to, I mean, not little Branna. That’s my brother’s daughter, you see, Lady Branna, my niece. So I’m offering to take the lass in, and if we can’t find her a husband, then she can live here as my serving woman.” Lady Galla paused for a small frown. “She’s rather an odd lass, you see, so suitors might be a bit hard to find. But she does splendid needlework, so I’ll be glad to have her. It’s truly a marvel, the way she can take a bit of charcoal and sketch out patterns. You’d swear she was seeing them on the cloth and just following along the lines, they’re so smooth and even. And — oh here, listen to me! A lad like you won’t be caring about needlework. You run along now and make those tablets. I’ll have Coryn bring you wax and knives and suchlike.”
“Very well, my lady, and my thanks. I’ll go hunt up some wood.”
Neb took Clae with him when he went out to the ward, which, with the dun so newly-built, lacked much of the clutter and confusion of most strongholds. Behind the main broch tower stood the round, thatched kitchen hut, the well, and some storage sheds. Across an open space stood the smithy, some pigsties and chicken coops, and beyond them the dungheap. A third of the high outer wall supported the stables, built right into the stones, with the ground level for horses and an upper barracks for the warband and the servants.
“Neb?” Clae said. “We’ve found a good place, haven’t we?”
“We have.” Neb looked at him and found him smiling. “I think we’ll do well here.”
“Good. I want to train for a rider.”
“I want to learn swordcraft and join the tieryn’s warband.”
Neb stopped walking and put his hands on his hips. Clae looked up defiantly.
“Whatever for?” Neb said at last.
“You know.” Clae shrugged and began scuffing at one of the cobbles with his bare toes. “Because they killed everyone.”
“Ah. Because the raiders destroyed our village?”
Clae nodded, staring at the ground. Ye gods! Neb thought. What would Mam say to this?
“Well, I can understand that,” Neb said. “I’ll think about it.”
“I’m going to do it.”
“Listen, I’m the head of our clan now, and you won’t do one wretched thing unless I say you may.”
Clae’s eyes filled with tears.
“Oh ye gods!” Neb snapped. “Don’t cry! Here, it’s all up to the captain, anyway. The falcon. Whats-his-name.”
“Gerran.” Clae wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “He’s too busy now. I’ll ask him when they get back.”
“Very well, but if he says you nay, there’s naught I can do about it.”
“I know. But he lost his mam and da, didn’t he? I bet he’ll understand.”
“We’ll see about that. Now help me find the woodpile and an ax.”
They found the woodshed behind the cook house and an ax as well, hanging inside the door. Neb took the axe down and gave it an experimental swing. In one corner lay some pieces of rough-hewn planks, all of them too wide and most too thick, but Neb couldn’t find a saw. He did find a short chunk of log, some ten inches in diameter, that had the beginnings of a split across the grain.
“Here!” A man’s voice called out. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Neb turned around and saw a skinny fellow, egg bald, hurrying toward them. Above his bushy grey beard his pale blue eyes were narrowed and grim.
“My apologies, sir,” Neb said. “But I’m about Lady’s Galla’s business.”
“If she wanted a fire,” the fellow said, “she could have sent a servant to ask me. My name is Horza, by the by, woodcutter to this dun.”
“And a good morrow to you, sir. I’m Neb, and this is my brother, Clae. I’m the new scribe, and I need wood for tablets. Writing tablets, I mean. They need to be about so long and — ”
“I know what writing tablets look like, my fine lad. Hand me my ax, and don’t you go touching it again, hear me?”
“I do. My apologies.”
Horza snorted and grabbed the axe from Neb’s lax grasp. For a moment he looked over the wood stacked in the shed, then picked up a short, thin wedge of stout oak in one hand. He set the thin wedge against the crack in the log and began tapping it in with the blunt back of the axe head. His last tap split the dry pine lengthwise. He left one half fall, then flipped the axe over to the sharpened edge and went to work on the other half. A few cuts turned it into oblongs of the proper length and thickness.
“I’ll make you two sets, lad.” Horza picked up the remainder of the log. He treated it the same while Neb watched in honest awe at his skill.
“These’ll have to be smoothed off and then scoured down with sand,” Horza said. “That’s your doing.”
“It is, and a thousand thanks!” Neb took the panels with a little bow. “You’re a grand man with an ax.”
“Imph.” Horza tipped his head to one side and looked the boys over. “Scribe, are you? What sort of name is Neb, anyway? Never heard it before.”
“Well, it’s short for somewhat. My father was a man of grand ideas. He named me Nerrobrantos, for some Dawntime hero or other. And my brother’s name is truly Caliomagos.”
“Or Neb and Clae, and the shorters are the betters, true enough. Now run along, lads. I’ve got work to do.”
“My thanks. I’ll take these back to the great hall and work on them there.”
As soon as Horza was out of earshot, Clae turned to Neb. “He’s got his gall talking about our names,” he said. “What kind of a name is Horza, anyway?”
“A very old one,” Neb said, smiling. “His ancestors must have been some of the Old Ones, the people who already lived here when our ancestors arrived.”
“Well, it sounds like a lass’s name.”
“Their language must have been a fair bit different than ours, that’s all.”
“Oh.” Clae considered this information for a moment, then shrugged. “Can I go play White Crow with the pages? Coryn asked me.”
“By all means. I’ll not need any help with this, anyway.”
Neb took his tablets to a table by the servants’ hearth, where a bucket of sand stood ready to smother any sparks that found their way onto the straw-covered floor. He fetched some water in a pottery stoup, helped himself to a handful of sand, grabbed some straw from the floor and set to work. He sprinkled the sand on the wood, then wet down the straw and used it to scour the splinters away.
As he worked, he found himself wondering about this lass, Branna, whose life was going to be decided by the letter he would write on these tablets. Would anyone ask her opinion about being packed off to the rough border country? No doubt she’d have no more choice about it than he and Clae had had about Uncle Brwn’s farm. He felt a sudden sympathy for her, this lass he didn’t know, and found himself wondering if she were pretty.
That night Neb and Clae shared a comfortable bed in a wedge-shaped room high up in the broch tower. They also had a wobbly table and two stools, a carved wooden chest to store whatever possessions they might someday have, and a brass charcoal brazier for the winter to come. The curved arc of the stone outer wall sported a narrow window, covered by a wooden shutter. In Arcodd at that time, these furnishings all added up to a nicely appointed chamber, suitable for an honored servitor to the noble-born.
Although Clae fell asleep immediately, Neb lay awake for a little while and considered this sudden truth: he was indeed a tieryn’s servitor now, the head of what was left of their family and a man who could provide for that family, as well. He only wished that Uncle Brwn’s death hadn’t been the price. If they rescue Mauva, he thought, I’ll see if I can get her a place in the kitchen. Brwn would like that, knowing I’d taken care of her.
When he fell asleep, he dreamt of Lady Branna, or rather, of a beautiful lass that his dream labelled Lady Branna. He could see her clearly, it seemed, in the great hall of some rough, poor dun. She sat in a carved chair near a smoky hearth, her feet up on a little stool to keep them from the damp straw covering the floor. A little gray gnome crouched by her chair. In the dream some man he couldn’t see announced, ‘the most beautiful lass in all Deverry.’ Neb moved closer, smiling at her. She looked up, saw him, and smiled in return.
“My prince, is it you?”
Her voice sounded so real that he woke, half sitting up in bed. In the darkness Clae muttered to himself and turned over, sighing. Neb lay down again, and this time when he slept, he dreamt of nothing at all.
Gerran woke well before dawn. Since he’d laid out his clothing the night before, he could dress by the faint starlight coming through the window. Even though he would have preferred sleeping out in the barracks with the other common-born riders, Tieryn Cadryc had insisted on giving him a chamber in the broch tower. Gerran was just buckling on his sword belt when he saw a crack of light beneath his door. Someone knocked.
“Gerro?” Mirryn said.
“I’m awake, truly.” Gerran swung the door open. “I wondered if you’d be up and about.”
Mirryn gave him a sour smile. He carried a pierced tin candle lantern inside, then put it down on top of the wooden chest that held the few things Gerran owned. Neither of them spoke until Gerran had shut the door again.
“I know it aches your heart,” Gerran said. “But I can understand why your father’s making you stay behind.”
“Oh, so can I, but it doesn’t lessen the ache any.” Mirryn leaned against the curve of the wall. “The men are going to start thinking I’m a coward.”
“Oh here, of course they won’t! They heard your father give the order.”
Mirryn cocked his head and considered him for a moment. “It’s an odd thing, the way you say that. Your father. He’s yours, too, a foster father truly, but — ”
“I’m not nobleborn, and that makes all the difference in the world. It was a honorable fancy of the tieryn to treat me like one of his own when I was a lad, but I’m grown now.”
“You’re still my brother in my eyes.”
“And you in mine.” Gerran hesitated, then merely shrugged. “I’m grateful for that, but — ”
“But in the eyes of everyone else,” Mirryn said, “you’re not?”
“Just that. Which is why your father will risk my life but not yours.”
“I know that, and I suppose everyone else does, too, but ye gods, Gerro! What’s going to happen when I inherit the rhan? If I’ve never ridden to war, who’s going to honor me?”
“It’s too cursed bad the gods saw fit to give you naught but sisters.”
Mirryn laughed with a shake of his head. “I’ve never known any one who could parry questions like you can.” He glanced out of the window. “Sky’s getting gray.”
“I’d best get down to the stables. It’s not truly my place, but if I’m given the chance, maybe I can have a few words with his grace.”
“Talk some sense into him.” Mirryn looked away with a sigh. “I might as well be another useless daughter if he’s going to keep me shut up in the dun.”
By the time that Gerran saddled his horse, twenty men from the warband had begun to assemble in a ward flaring with torchlight. Gerran rode through the mass of men and horses, sorted out the riding order, and decided which men would lead the pack horses with the supplies. Behind them would come ox-carts with full provisions, but the carts traveled so slowly that they would doubtless only catch up to the troop in time to provision their ride home. Gerran was just telling the head carter about the route ahead when he saw the gerthdyn, mounted up and walking his horse into line. Gerran assigned him a place at the end of the riding order, and Salamander took it cheerfully with a small bow from the saddle. Gerran jogged back up the line and fell in next to Cadryc.
“Your grace?” Gerran said. “What’s that magpie of a minstrel doing along?”
“Cursed if I know,” Cadryc said. “He begged me to let him ride with us for vengeance. Must be a good heart in the lad, for all he dresses like a stinking Deverry courtier.”
“Vengeance? For what?”
“Now, that’s a good question.” Cadryc paused, chewing on his moustaches. “He must have lost kin or suchlike to the raiders.” He shrugged the problem away. “I don’t see your foster-brother anywhere. I thought he’d have the decency to come see us off at least.”
“Well, your grace,” Gerran said, “suppose he’d been happy to stay behind? Wouldn’t that have ached your heart?”
Cadryc turned in the saddle, stared at him for a moment, then laughed, a rueful sort of mutter under his breath. “Right you are, Gerro,” the tieryn said. “Let’s get up to the head of the line. Sun’s rising.”
Panting, swearing, the ten men left behind on fort guard hauled on the chains that opened the heavy gates. With one last heave and a curse, they swung them ajar, then dropped the chains and ran out of the way. Cadryc yelled out a command and waved his men forward at the trot.
The warband travelled south through the tieryn’s rhan, that is, the vast tract of half-wild country under his jurisdiction, within which he could bestow parcels of land in return for fealty and taxes. Near the dun, the freeholds of the local farmers stood pale green with wheat, but ahead lay the pine forests, covering the broken tablelands of Arcodd province and beyond. The plateau itself stretched for nearly two hundred miles. To the west, it sloped down into lands marked on no Deverry map. To the north it steadily rose until it became the foothills of the Roof of the World.
To the south, where the warband was heading, lay the rich farmland of the Melyn Valley, but once the men reached the edge of the forest cover, they turned west onto the dirt road that had so surprised Neb. Cadryc had levied a labor tax on his farmers to hack it out of the forest. No one had grumbled. They could see that its purpose was their safety.
A few hours before sunset, the warband rode up to an open meadow. Cadryc called a halt, then leaned over his saddle peak to stare at the trampled grass.
“Someone’s been here recently,” the tieryn said. “Ye gods! If the raiders have found this road — ”
“Your grace?” Salamander trotted his horse up to join them. “Allow me to put your mind at rest. I’m the culprit. It was on this very spot, it was, that Neb and Clae found me.”
“Ah. Well, that’s a relief!” Cadryn turned in the saddle. “Gerran, have the men make camp.”
They’d just gotten settled when Lord Pedrys, one of Cadryc’s vassals, rode in to join them. He brought ten men and supplies with him, and as usual, the young lord was game for any fight going. When Cadryc, Pedrys, and Gerran gathered around the tieryn’s fire to discuss plans, Pedrys had an inappropriate grin on his blandly blonde face.
“I wonder if we’ll catch them?” Pedrys said. “If the bastards are this bold, we’ve got a chance.”
“Just so,” Cadryc said. “If nothing else, we can see if Lord Samyc’s still alive. He’s only got five riders in his warband, but I can’t see him sitting snug in his dun while scum raid his lands.”
“True spoken,” Pedrys said. “Five riders! And you’ve got thirty all told, and me fifteen, and we can’t even spare of all them for rides like this. How by the black hairy arse of the Lord of Hell does our gwerbret expect us to defend the valley?”
Cadryc shrugged and began chewing on the edge of his mustache. “We’re going to have to ask him just that. We need help, and that’s all there is to it.”
“It’s all well and good to say that, your grace, but what can he do without an army?”
“He’s going to cursed well have to send messengers down to Dun Deverry and beg the High King for more men.” Cadryc slammed one fist into the palm of his other hand. “I don’t give a pig’s fart if it aches his heart or not.”
“I don’t understand why it does.” Pedrys sounded more than a little angry. “Ye gods, his own father was killed by Horsekin!”
“True spoken. But the gwerbrets of Cengarn used to rule Arcodd like kings, didn’t they? Oh, they sent taxes to the high king’s chamberlain, and they made a ritual visit to court once a year, but still — ” Cadryc shrugged. “The king never cared what they did out here. Now — well, by the hells! Everything’s changed.”
Both Pedrys and Gerran nodded their agreement.
Some thirty years before, the high king had begun encouraging his subjects to settle the rich meadowlands of south-western Arcodd. Doing so meant creating many a new lordship and marking out many a new rhan. Technically, of course, all these new lords owed direct fealty to the gwerbrets of Cengarn, but it was the high king, not the gwerbret, who produced the coin and the men to turn these holdings into something more than lines on a map. Royal heralds had travelled throughout Deverry, offering freehold land to farmers and craftsmen if they would emigrate to Arcodd. A good many extra sons, who stood no chance of inheriting their father’s land or guild shop, were glad to take up the challenge, and a good many extra daughters, whose dowries were doomed to be scant, were glad to marry them and emigrate as well.
Men who could ride in a warband were harder to come by, but the lords put together the biggest troops they could. Everyone remembered the Horsekin, who years before had ridden out of nowhere to besiege Cengarn itself. Yet at first, the settlement of the Melyn Valley proceeded so easily that it seemed the Horsekin had forgotten about Deverry. Farms spread out, villages grew among them. The virgin land produced splendid crops and the farmers, plenty of children. It seemed that the gods had particularly blessed the valley and its new inhabitants.
Then, some fifteen years before Neb and his brother came staggering out of the forest, the raiders struck at a village near Cengarn in the first of a series of raids. Each time they slaughtered the men, took the women and children as slaves, looted, and burned what they couldn’t carry off. Finally the gwerbret in Cengarn and his loyal lords had caught them and crushed them. Gerran’s father had come home from that battle wrapped in a blanket and slung over his saddle like a sack of grain. Gerran could remember rushing out into the ward and seeing two men lifting the corpse down. His mother’s scream when she saw it still seemed to ring out, loud in his memory.
“What’s wrong with you, captain?” Pedrys said abruptly. “You look as grim as the Lord of Hell himself!”
“My apologies, my lord,” Gerran said. “I was just thinking about the raiders.”
“That’s enough to make any man grim, truly,” Cadryc said, then yawned. “We’d best get some sleep. I want to be up at dawn and riding as soon as we can.”
“Very well, Your Grace.” Gerran stood up. “I’ll just take a last look around the camp.”
Scattered across the meadow, most of the men were asleep in their blankets by dying campfires. The warm night was so achingly clear that the stars hung close like a ceiling of silver. Nearby, guarded by a pair of sentries, the horses stood head-down and drowsy in their hobbles. Gerran was starting out to have a word with the sentries when he saw someone coming toward him. He laid his hand on his sword hilt, but it was only the gerthdyn, his pale hair strikingly visible in the dark.
“Lovely night, isn’t it?” Salamander said.
Although Gerran had been thinking just that, hearing this unmanly sentiment voiced annoyed him.
“Warm enough, I suppose,” Gerran said. “Tell me somewhat. What made you ride with us?”
“I’m not truly sure,” Salamander said.
“You told our lord that you wanted vengeance.”
“Well, that’s true enough. The Horsekin killed a good friend of mine some years ago. And I’m looking for my brother, of course. You may remember that when I last passed your way, I told you — ”
“– about your brother the silver dagger. What is this? Do you think you’re going to find him just wandering around the countryside?”
“Imph, well, you never quite know where he’ll turn up.”
Gerran waited, then realized that Salamander was going to tell him no more unless he pried.
“Well, now that you’re here, you’re riding under my orders,” Gerran said instead. “I want you to stay well back out of the way if it comes to battle.”
“Fair enough.” Salamander bowed, took a few steps away, then suddenly stooped down and picked something up from the grass. “One of the lads is getting careless. I wonder whose bridle this belongs on?”
When he held up a brass buckle, Gerran could barely see it. Salamander pressed it into his hand, then walked on with a cheery good-night. Gerran rubbed the buckle between his fingers as he watched him go. So, he told himself, that’s why he’s so cursed odd! There’s Westfolk blood in his veins.
Around noon on the morrow, the combined warbands reached a stone marker beside the road. The tieryn called a halt to rest the horses and let the men eat a scant meal from their saddlebags. Although the cairn, a mere heap of gray stones, carried no inscriptions, those who had been let in on its secret knew that a shallow canyon nearby led straight south. The road itself ended at the marker, because extending it south would have given their enemies an easy path to the tieryn’s lands.
At the head of the canyon, a small waterfall trickled down over ragged shelves of dark rock, fringed at the edges with long streamers of ferns. The men dismounted and led their horses down a narrow path to the reasonably flat floor of the canyon, where a faint trail led along the edge of a stream through pine forest. After a mile or so of this difficult travelling, the canyon walls grew lower and began to splay out. The trail widened just enough to allow the men to mount up and ride single file. They could see bright sunlight and open space ahead through the trees where the trail widened once again. Gerran yelled at his men to fall into their regular riding order, two abreast and ready for trouble, as he remarked to Lord Pedrys.
“Do you think the Horsekin would lay an ambuscade?” Pedrys said.
“I don’t know, my lord, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”
In dappled sunlight the men rode through the last of the pines. No one spoke; everyone kept one hand on his sword hilt and the reins of his horse in the other. Cut stumps appeared among the grasses and weeds of second growth. One last bend in the trail brought them to the long broad valley, green with ripening wheat and meadowland. A couple of miles off to the west the Melyn ran, a thin sparkling line at their distance. Gerran could just make out a patch of black beside it — Neb’s farm, he assumed.
“I don’t see any Horsekin,” Cadryc remarked. “Don’t see much of anything but grass.”
“True spoken, your grace,” Gerran said. “Most likely the bastards are long gone.”
“We’ve got to get more fighting men down here. All there is to it!”
“Or else stop these cursed raids once and for all, your grace,” Gerran said. “If the king would lend us an army — ”
“That’s in the laps of the gods,” Cadryc said. “We’ll worry about the grand schemes later. We’ve got a hard job to do right now.”
With a wave of his arm the tieryn led them forward. They rode on down to the smoking tangle of wood and ashes that had once been Brwn’s farm. The fire had leapt to the apple tree outside the earthen wall and left it as black and gaunt as a dead sentry, but the damp grass still grew green beyond. Nearby lay the corpse of a tall, burly man, its head torn half off its shoulders. In the hot sun he lay swollen and stinking. Birds and foxes had eaten a good bit of him. Salamander rode up to join Gerran and the noble-born.
“Neb’s uncle,” Salamander said. “What’s left fits the description anyway.”
“Let’s get him buried,” Cadryc said. “There’s naught else to do for him.”
“We might as well wait and dig one long ditch,” Pedrys said. “I’ll wager there’s more dead men ahead of us.”
Unfortunately, Pedrys had spoken the truth. When they rode up to the ruins of the village, they found the first corpses about three hundred yards from the bridge. Four men lay in a straggling line, cut down as they tried to flee. Another twelve lay in the village square, either rotting and spongy or half-burnt. The latter had most likely been killed in their houses, then caught under burning beams and walls.
“But who pulled them free?” Pedrys said. “What is this? Did the raiders want to count their kills?”
“Most likely they just wanted to make sure they’d slaughtered the lot,” Gerran said.
“If so, they did a bad job of it,” Salamander said. “Neb told me how many men and lads were in the village, you see. The women and children are long gone by now, of course, prize booty, all of them. So there should be twenty dead, not counting Neb’s uncle.”
“Then that leaves four men missing,” Pedrys said. “Maybe they got away in time.”
But three of the men turned up lying dead, clustered together by the village well where, apparently, they’d tried to make a stand. One corpse still clutched a hay rake.
“Why didn’t the raiders put these men with the others?” Salamander said. “I wonder if someone interrupted them?” He looked up as if he were studying the sky.
“I doubt me if the gods came down to help,” Gerran said. “Come along. There’s one villager still missing.”
Although the men searched the village thoroughly, they never found that last corpse. By the time they finished, the younger men in the warband had turned white-faced and shaky; a few had rushed off to vomit. It was the pity of it more than the stench and rot that troubled Gerran: peaceful farmers, slaughtered like their own hogs as they tried to defend themselves and their women with sticks and axes against swords and spears.
Yet even though they’d lost the fight in the end, the farmers had gained one small victory. Pinned under a half-burnt roof beam lay the charred corpse of Horsekin warrior. Gerran found him as he searched the ruins of the village smithy. At his shout Daumyr strode over with Warryc trotting after. The three of them fell silent, staring at the corpse.
Like most of his kind, he was well over six feet tall, broad in the shoulders, long in the arms. What was left of his skin was milk white, but heavily decorated with blue and black tatoos. Some designs portrayed animals; others seemed to be letters of some sort. He sported a huge mane of dark hair, braided into many strands, tied off with amulets and studded with charms, but the magicks had failed to protect him. Daumyr picked up a nearby plank and used it as a lever to turn him over. He’d been killed by the thrust of three sharp prongs — a pitchfork, Gerran assumed — into the middle of his back.
“Haul him out,” Gerran said. “We’ll leave him for the ravens.”
“Good idea!” Daumyr tossed the plank back down. “May he freeze to the marrow in the deepest hell.”
Warryc stooped, brushed away cinders with one hand, grabbed something from the rubble, then stood back up, clutching his prize. “This must have fallen off the bastard’s jerkin.” Warryc opened his hand to show a golden arrow, about four inches long and backed with a heavy pin. “I’ve seen somewhat like it before, somewhere.”
“A clan marker?” Gerran said. “Maybe a troop badge?”
Warryc shook his head and studied the arrow; his narrow dark eyes narrowed further, nearly to slits. “Somewhat to do with their religion,” he said at last. “The cursed Horsekin, I mean.”
“Well, hand it over,” Gerran said. “The tieryn might know.”
Gerran set the warband to digging a long mass grave outside the earthwork, then rejoined the tieryn, who was standing by the line of corpses and talking with the Salamander. Gerran was honestly surprised to see the gerthdyn so calm in the midst of so much death. His opinion of Salamander rose.
“We never found that last man,” Cadryc said. “Well, we’ll be riding downriver to Lord Samyc’s dun. If he’s hiding somewhere, perhaps he’ll hear or see us and come running.”
“We can hope, your grace,” Salamander said. “I’m more afraid of what else might appear along the way.”
“Naught good or so I’d wager.” Gerran fished the gold arrow out of his pocket and held it out. “One of the men found this. He was thinking it had somewhat to do with their wretched gods.”
Cadryc held out empty hands to show his ignorance, but the gerthdyn took the arrow and weighed it in his palm.
“It most assuredly does,” Salamander said. “It’s the token of a goddess, actually, Alshandra, huntress of souls, the archer who dwells beyond the stars, the hidden one.”
“I’ve heard of her before,” Cadryc said. “It’s a pity she’s not a fair bit more hidden than she is.”
“Oh, absolutely. Her worshippers, alas, are both conspicuous and near to hand.” Salamander glanced at Gerran. “Does the fellow who found this want it?”
“Probably. For the gold, most likely.”
“I think I’ll ask him to sell it to me. Somewhat tells me that I should keep it. Might be useful, like.”
“Useful for what?” Cadryc snorted.
“I know not, but I have a feeling, a deep hunch, hint, or portent that I should own this little bauble. Which man was it, Captain, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Not at all.” Gerran pointed to the men digging the trench. “It’s Warryc, the skinny short fellow with the brown hair down at the very end. Next to the tall blond fellow, Daumyr his name is.”
Salamander trotted off, and Gerran and the tieryn followed more slowly. The warband swung the remains of the villagers into the trench, then covered it over with earth, a brown scar in the green meadow. They finished just at sunset, and off to the cloudy west the light blazed red like a funeral fire. For lack of a priest, the tieryn tried to say a few reverent words. For a long moment he stood at the head of the trench and struggled with this unfamiliar activity while the men watched in silence.
“Ah horseshit,” Cadryc said at last. “There’s only one thing to say: vengeance!”
The warband shouted back the word. “Vengeance!” rolled across the farmlands to echo back from the distant cliffs.
As they walked back to their horses, they passed the corpse of the Horsekin warrior, left sprawled in the open air for the ravens as a final insult. Salamander paused for a moment to contemplate him, and Gerran stopped to see what the gerthdyn was up to.
“Doesn’t this strike you as odd, captain?” Salamander said. “The Horsekin never leave their dead behind.”
“So I’ve heard, truly,” Gerran said. “He was killed by a farmer, though. Maybe they see that as a dishonor.”
“Maybe, but I have my doubts. And then they didn’t finish searching the village. I wonder, I truly do.”
“Why else line up the dead? Were they trying to make sure they’d killed everyone or was it mayhap a certain person? I don’t know, mind. I’m merely considering possibilities.”
The warband camped that evening a spare mile downriver from the ruins, just far enough to leave the smell of the dead village behind. The missing villager never appeared, even though they built campfires in the hopes of drawing his attention should he be hiding nearby. On the chance that the raiders were lingering out to the west, Gerran doubled the usual number of sentries. He also had his men hobble their horses as well as tethering them, a precaution that proved wise on the morrow.
Toward dawn Gerran woke abruptly. He could have sworn that he’d heard someone calling his name. He sat up in his blankets and looked around, but in the cold gray light of first dawn he saw nothing but the sleeping camp. He pulled on his boots and got up, buckling on his sword belt. He was planning on relieving the sentries out by the tethered horses, but when he glanced at the river, he saw Salamander standing on the bank. He picked his way through the sleeping men and walked down to join the gerthdyn.
“You’re up early,” Gerran said.
“I am, and so are you.” Salamander glanced at him and smiled, then returned to staring out across the river.
“Someone out there?”
“Not a Horsekin in sight, but look, there’s some odd thing in the sky. A flock of ravens perhaps, most deeply grieved with us for burying their gruesome feast.”
Gerran followed his point and looked up to see, far off to the west, a flock of birds flying toward them in the brightening dawn. Or was it a flock? He heard a distant sound, a thwack and slap like a hand hitting a slack leather drum. The supposed flock looked remarkably like one bird, one enormous bird, flying steadily on huge silver wings. The sound swelled into a boom as the enormous wings carried the creature straight for them. He could see its long neck, its massive head with flaring nostrils and deep-set eyes, the silver scales touched about the head and spiked tail with iridescent blue, glimmering in the rising sun.
“It can’t be,” Gerran muttered. “Ye gods, it is! It’s a dragon!”
Behind him the camp exploded with noise — men yelling and cursing, horses whinnying in terror. Gerran knew he should turn and rush back, should impose some kind of order or at the least guard the horses, but he stayed, staring at the huge silver wyrm. It was so strong, so powerful, and beautiful, as well, in his warrior’s eyes, with the sun glistening on its smooth skin, stretched and supple over immense muscles. It reached the river, dipped one wing, then sheared off, heading north. On its side, just below the wing’s set, Gerran saw a smear of reddish black — old blood from a wound.
“Rhodry!” Salamander started yelling at the top of his lungs. “I mean, blast it, Rori! It’s me, Ebany! Rori, come back! Rhod — I mean Rori! Wait!”
Screaming like a madman, waving his arms, Salamander raced down the riverbank, but the dragon flapped his wings in a deafening drumbeat and rose high, banking again to head back west. Gerran set his hands on his hips and glared as the gerthdyn came jogging back to him.
“And just how did you know its name?” Gerran said.
Salamander winced, tried to smile, and looked away. “Actually, you see, well, um, er — that’s my brother. He was a silver dagger named Rhodry, but now that he’s a dragon, he’s known as Rori. I keep forgetting to use the right name.”
Gerran started to speak, but his words twisted themselves into a sound more like a growl.
“I’m not a dragon,” Salamander said hastily. “Neither was he originally.”
“What? Of all the daft things I’ve ever heard — ”
“Scoff all you want. He was turned into a dragon by dweomer.”
“Dafter and dafter! What are you, a drooling idiot? There’s no such thing as dweomer, and a witch could never have down aught as that.”
“I should have known you’d take it this way.” Salamander looked briefly mournful. “I’m telling you the exact truth, whether you believe it or no. So I thought I’d best find him and see how he was faring and all that. It seemed the brotherly thing to do.”
“Daft.” Gerran was finding it difficult to come up with any other word. With a last angry shrug he turned on his heel and ran back to camp.
It took till noon for Gerran and the two lords to transform the warbands from a frightened mob of men and horses into an orderly procession. Even then, as they rode south along the riverbank, the men kept looking up at the sky, and the horses would suddenly, for no visible reason, snort, toss their heads, and threaten to rear or buck until their riders calmed them. To set a good example Gerran kept himself from studying the sky, but he did listen, waiting for the sound of wings beating the air like a drum.
In mid-afternoon they stopped to water their horses at the river. As soon as his horse had finished drinking, Salamander handed its reins to one of the men and went jogging eastward into the meadowlands.
“What in all the hells does he think he’s doing?” Gerran said. He tossed his reins to Warryc and ran after the gerthdyn.
Not far off a small flock of ravens suddenly sprang into the air, squawking indignantly. With his Westfolk eyes, Salamander must have seen them from the riverbank, Gerran realized, and sure enough, he found the gerthdyn standing by the scattered remains of the ravens’ dinner, a dead horse, or to be precise, the mangled bones, tail, and a few scraps of meat of what had once been a dead horse. Lying around it in the tall grass were torn and broken pieces of horse gear. Salamander nudged a heavily painted leather strap, once part of a martingale, perhaps, with his toe.
“Horsekin work,” Salamander said. “They decorate all their horse gear. I think we now know what disturbed the raiders at their foul, loathsome, and heinous work.”
“The dragon?” Gerran said.
“Exactly. Their horses doubtless panicked as ours did at the thought of ending up in a great wyrm’s stomach. I wonder if dragons follow the Horsekin around? Where else are you going to find heavy horses like theirs?”
“The best meal going, eh? It could well be, but come along, we’ve got to keep moving today.”
When the sun was getting low, the warband came to another burned village, a tangled heap of ruins spread out over a charred meadow. Once again the horses began snorting and trembling. Swearing under their breaths, Cadryc, Pedrys, and Gerran dismounted some distance away and walked over to the ruin, expecting the worst, but they found no corpses, not even a dead dog, among the drifting pale ash.
“Well and good,” Cadryc said. “I’ll wager they got to Lord Samyc’s dun in time.”
“And I’ll wager they’re still there, your grace,” Gerran said. “One way or another.”
“Just so. Let’s get on the road.”
Lord Samyc’s dun stood on a low artificial hill, guarded by a maze of earthworks on the flat and a stone wall at the top. Not far away lay a patch of woodland. As the warbands rode up to the earthworks, Gerran saw a straggle of farmers leaving the trees with a cart full of firewood and an escort of two mounted men. When Tieryn Cadryc rose in his stirrups to hail them, the riders whooped with joy and galloped straight for the warbands waiting on the flat. One man dismounted and ran to grab Cadryc’s stirrup as a sign of fealty. A dark-haired young lad, he grinned from ear to ear.
“Ah thank every god, your grace,” the rider said. “How did you get the news?”
“Someone from the farther village escaped,” Cadryc said. “How fares your lord?”
“That’s a tale and a half, my lord. Here, the farmers from our village got to the dun in time. One of the lads was out looking for a lost cow, so he saw the Horsekin coming and raised the alarm.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Truly, your grace. So, the first thing we knew about it was when the whole cursed village comes charging up to the gates and yelling about raiders. So we let them in, and Lord Samyc wanted to ride out, but his lady begged him not to. There’s a woman for you, but anyway, cursed if the whole stinking village didn’t take her side.” The lad looked retrospectively furious. “They stood in front of the gates, and our lord was yelling and swearing, but they wouldn’t move, and all for her ladyship’s sake. So in the end Lord Samyc gave in.”
“It gladdens my heart to hear that,” Cadryc said. “This raiding party must have been a large one.”
“It was, your grace. Cursed if thirty Horsekin didn’t ride up to the maze here.” The lad gestured at the earthworks. “We could see them from the top of the wall, and they were yelling back and forth in that cursed ugly language of theirs, as bold as brass they were.”
Cadryc glanced Gerran’s way with troubled eyes.
“We’ve not seen that many in a long time, your grace,” Gerran said.
“Indeed.” Cadryc raised one hand to get everyone’s attention. “All right, men, let’s get this wood up to the dun.”
The villagers had turned Lord Samyc’s small ward into a camp, crammed with their cows, children, poultry, dogs, and heaps of household goods. When the warbands rode in, the men and horses filled the last available space. As he dismounted, Gerran saw a pair of hysterical servants rushing around and yelling back and forth about trying to feed so many guests. Red haired, freckled, and a fair bit younger than Gerran, Lord Samyc ran out of the broch and knelt before the tieryn.
“It gladdens my heart to see your grace,” Samyc said. “Even though you have every right to despise me for my dishonor.”
“Suicide brings little honor, my lord,” Cadryc said. “Now get up and stop brooding about it.”
Startled, Samyc scrambled to his feet and glanced over his shoulder. In the doorway of the broch, a young woman, so great with child that she’d slung her kirtle over one shoulder rather than wrapping it round her middle, stood watching the confusion in the ward. Gerran was surprised that Lord Samyc’s lady hadn’t delivered under the stress of the raid. She needed the help of a servant girl to curtsey to the tieryn.
“Have I done a wrong thing, your grace?” she said. “Have I truly ruined my husband’s whole life by refusing to let him die?”
“Oh horse — oh nonsense,” Cadryc said. “He’ll get over his sulk in time.”
Since Lord Samyc had no room to shelter everyone, Lord Pedrys and Tieryn Cadryc stayed in the broch while Gerran led the warbands down to the riverbank to camp. On the off-chance that the raiders would try a night strike, Gerran posted guards. When the gerthdyn offered to stand a watch, Gerran’s first impulse was to turn him down, but then he remembered Salamander’s formidable eyesight. Gerran gave him the last watch and decided to stand it with him.
Some while before dawn, they walked down to the river together. Flecked with starlight, the water flowed broad and silent. Off to the west the rolling meadowlands lay dark. Somewhere out there the Horsekin were camping with their miserable booty.
“On the morrow, captain,” Salamander said, “do we ride after the raiders?”
“I hope so,” Gerran said. “We doubtless don’t have a candle’s chance of warming hell, but it would gladden my heart to get those women and children back. Better a free widow than an enslaved one.”
“True spoken. You know, there’s somewhat odd about this raid, isn’t there? At least thirty fighting men and their heavy horses — that’s not an easy lot to feed on a long journey. And they’ve travelled all this way to glean a handful of slaves from a couple of poor villages?”
“Huh. I’d not thought of it that way before. I suppose they brought a good number of men because they knew we’d stop them if we could.”
“Mayhap. But why run the risk at all? Now, far to the south, down on the seacoast, there are unscrupulous merchants who’ll buy slaves at a good price, transport them in secret, and sell them in Bardek. But that’s a wretchedly long way away, and how could the Horsekin move a small herd of slaves unnoticed? They’d have to ride through Pyrdon and Eldidd, where every lord would turn out to stop them, or else travel through the Westfolk lands. The Westfolk archers would kill the lot of them on sight. They hate slavery almost as much as they hate the Horsekin.”
“So they would. I’ve got a lot of respect for their bowmen. Your father’s folk, are they? Or your mother’s?”
Salamander tipped his head back and laughed. “My father’s,” he said at last. “You’ve got good eyes, Captain.”
“So do you, and that’s what gave you away. But here — ” Gerran thought for a moment. “The Horsekin have plenty of human slaves already, from what I’ve heard, and they let them breed, to keep the supply fresh, like. They don’t need to raid. You’re right. Why are they risking so much for so little?”
“It’s a question that strikes me as most recondite, but at the same time pivotal, portentous, momentous, and just plain important. Tell me somewhat. These raids, they started when farmers began to settle the Melyn river valley, right?”
“A bit later than that. When the farms reached the river.”
“Oho! I’m beginning to get an idea, Captain, but let me brood on it awhile more, because I might be wrong.”
At dawn, Gerran joined the nobleborn for a council of war over breakfast in Samyc’s great hall. The three lords wanted to track the raiders down, but they ran up against a hard reality: they lacked provisions for men and horses alike. The crop of winter wheat was still two weeks from harvest. After a bit of impatient squabbling, someone at last remembered that the farther village’s crops would be milk-ripe and of no use to the poor souls who’d planted them.
“Here, what about this?” Lord Samyc said. “I’ll give you what supplies I’ve got left from the winter. Then my farmfolk can go harvest the milk-ripe crops to feed my dun when I get back to it.”
Cadryc glanced at Gerran. Over the years, whether as father and stepson or tieryn and captain, they’d come to know each other so well that they could exchange messages with a look and a gesture. Gerran, being common-born, had no honor to lose by suggesting caution, and since he was the best swordsman in the province, no one would have dared call him a coward. The other two lords were also waiting for him to speak, he realized, though no doubt they would have denied it had anyone pointed it out.
“Well, my lord,” Gerran said, “Didn’t Lord Samyc’s man tell us that thirty Horsekin rode to the dun?”
“He did,” Cadryc said.
“So I’ll wager their warband numbers more than that. Someone must have been guarding the prisoners from the first village while the raiders rode to the second one. We’ve got thirty men ourselves, and Lord Samyc can give us only a few more.”
“Ah!” Samyc held up one hand to interrupt. “But some of my villagers have been training with the longbow.”
“Splendid, my lord!” Gerran said. “How many?”
“Well, um, two.”
“We’re badly outnumbered.” Pedrys leaned forward. “Is that it, Captain?”
“It is, my lord, though it gripes my soul to admit it. We’ve all faced the Horsekin before. They know how to swing a sword when they need to. If we had more than two archers to call upon, the situation would be different.”
The three lords nodded agreement.
“So, I don’t think it would be wise to follow them, your grace,” Gerran said. “What if they have reinforcements waiting farther west?”
Cadryc stabbed a chunk of bread with his table dagger and leaned back in his chair to eat it.
“It gripes my soul,” Pedrys snarled, “to let them just ride away with our people.”
“It gripes mine, too,” Cadryc said, swallowing. “But what good will it do them if we ride into a trap? We’ve got to think of the rest of the rhan, lads. If we’re wiped out, who will stand between it and the Horsekin?”
“That’s true,” Samyc said. “Alas.”
Cadryc pointed the chunk of bread at the two lords in turn. “We need more men, that’s the hard truth of it. I know I’ve said it before, but it’s the blasted truth.”
“Just so, your grace,” Gerran said. “It’s too bad we don’t have wings like that dragon.”
“Indeed.” Cadryc glanced at Samyc. “Do you know you’ve got a dragon in your demesne?”
“It’s not mine, exactly,” Samyc said with a twisted grin. “It comes and goes as it pleases.”
“When did you first see it, my lord?” Gerran said. “If I may ask.”
“Well, it was a bit over a year ago, just when the snow was starting to melt. It came flying over the dun here, bold as brass. I’d heard of dragons before, of course, but seeing a real one — ye gods!”
“Truly,” Cadryc said. “I don’t mind admitting that the sight was a bit much excitement at the start of a day.”
“Let’s hope it likes the taste of Horsekin,” Gerran said.
Cadryc laughed with a toss of his head. “I’ve got a scribe now,” he said with a nod at the two lords. “So I’ll send a letter to the gwerbret and see what kind of answer he has for us. Get the warbands ready to ride, Gerro, will you? We’re going home.”
“I will, your grace,” Gerran said. “One thing though, that last man from Neb’s old village.” He looked Samyc’s way. “Did he take shelter with you, my lord?”
“Not that I know of. Did someone escape, you mean?”
“Just that. I’d like to hear what he has to say. Any information we can get about the raid is all to the good.” Gerran stood up. “I’ll ask around out in the ward.”
Unfortunately, no one, not farmer nor member of the warband, had seen any escapee arrive at the dun, nor had the wood-cutting expedition turned him up that morning in the coppice. It was possible, one farmer pointed out, that the man or lad was hiding in the wild woods across the river to the west.
“They’re not far, about three miles,” Gerran told Cadryc. “Do you think it’s worth a look?”
“I do,” Cadryc said. “I want to hear what he can tell us.”
When they rode out, the warbands clattered across Lord Samyc’s bridge, then headed out into the meadowland on the western side of the river. They found the last man from the village long before they reached the wild wood, along with the site of what must have been one of the raiders’ camps, judging from the trampled grass, firepits, scattered garbage, and the like.
The villager, however, could tell them nothing. About a hundred yards west of the camp, they found a lumpish low mound covered with blankets that had been pinned down at each corner with a wooden stake. They all assumed that it was a dead Horsekin, covered to protect him from scavengers. With a dragon hunting their mounts, the Horsekin would have had no time for a proper burial.
“Let’s take those blankets off,” Cadryc said. “Let the ravens pull him to pieces.”
Gerran dismounted, and Salamander joined him. Together they pulled up the wood stakes and threw back the blankets. Flies rose in a black cloud of outraged buzzing. For a moment Gerran almost vomited, and Salamander took a few quick steps back.
The corpse was human, naked, lying on his back, and he’d been staked out with thick iron nails hammered through the palm of each hand and each foot. Judging from the amount of dried blood around each stake, he’d been alive for the process and perhaps a little while after. He was bearded in blood, too, because he’d gnawed his own lips half away in his agony. Where his eyes had been black ants swarmed. At some point in this ghastly process the Horsekin had slit him from breech to breastbone and pulled out his internal organs. In a pulsing mass of ants they lay in tidy lines to either side of him, bladder, guts, kidneys, liver and lungs, but the heart was missing.
“What — who in the name of the Lord of Hell would do such a thing?” Gerran could only whisper. “Ye gods, savages! That’s all they are!”
“In the name of Alshandra, more likely.” Salamander sounded half-sick. “I’ve heard about this, but I’ve never seen it before, and I thank all the true gods for that, too.”
“What have you heard?”
“That they do this to selected prisoners, always men, and usually someone who’s been stupid enough to surrender. They send them with messages to Alshandra’s country. That’s somewhere in the Otherlands, I suppose.” Salamander paused to wipe his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt. He swallowed heavily, then turned away from the sight. “As the prisoner’s dying, they tell him he’s lucky, because their goddess will give him a favored place in her land of the dead.”
“I hope to every god that he lied when he got there.”
“That’s why they keep the heart. If he lies, they say, they’ll torture it, and he’ll feel the pains in the Otherlands.”
Gerran tried to curse, but he could think of nothing foul enough. He turned away and saw that even Cadryc had gone white about the mouth.
“Let’s bury him,” the tieryn said. “And then we’re heading home. There’s naught else we can do for him or any of the other poor souls they took.”
“Good idea, your grace.” Gerran pointed to a pair of riders. “You — take the latrine shovels and dig him a proper grave.”
As they dismounted, Gerran heard a raven calling out from overhead. He glanced up and saw a single large bird circling — abnormally large, as he thought about it. With a flap of its wings it flew away fast, heading east. Gerran turned to mention it to Salamander, but the gerthdyn had walked some yards away and fallen to his knees. He appeared to be ridding himself of his breakfast in a noisy though understandable fashion. And after all, Gerran told himself, there’s naught strange about a corpse-bird come to carrion. He put the matter out of his mind.
Everyone was very kind. Perhaps that was the most painful thing of all, this unspoken kindness, or so Neb thought. None of the other servants resented his sudden arrival into a position of importance. They gave him things to put in his chamber — a pottery vase from the chamberlain, a wood bench from the cook, a wicker charcoal-basket from the head groom’s wife. One of the grooms gave Neb a nearly-new shirt embroidered with the tieryn’s blazon of a wolf rampant; his wife gave Clae a leather ball that had been her son’s before he went off to his prenticeship. Neb saw every gift as an aching reminder that he’d been stripped of kin the way he stripped a quill of feathers when he made a pen.
But it’s better than starving, Neb would forcibly remind himself. It was also better than being enslaved by Horsekin, but Neb did his best to keep from thinking about that. In the farming village he’d had two friends, boys his own age who were most likely dead now, and their mothers and sisters enslaved. At times, memories crept into his mind like weevils into grain, but he picked them out again. Now and then he indulged himself with the hope that at least one friend had managed to escape, but he never allowed the hope to blossom into a full-fledged wish.
To distract him he also had work to do. With the winter wheat almost ripe for harvest, the tieryn’s farmer vassals would soon owe him taxes in kind — foodstuffs, mostly, but also some oddments such as rendered tallow for candles and soap. The elderly chamberlain, Lord Veddyn, took Neb out to the storehouses, built of stone right into the dun’s walls.
“I must admit that it gladdens my heart you’re here,” Veddyn said. “I used to be able to remember all the dues and taxes, store them up in my mind, like, but it gets harder and harder every year. I’ve been wishing I knew a bit of writing myself, these past few months.”
“I see,” Neb said. “Well, we can set up a tally system easily enough, if you’ve got somewhat for me to write upon. Wax on wood won’t do.”
“I’ve got a bit of parchment laid by. It’s not the best in the kingdom, though.”
In a cool stone room that smelled of onions Veddyn showed him a wooden chest. Neb kicked it a couple of times to scare any mice or spiders away, then opened it to find a long roll of old vellum, once of a good quality, now a much-scraped palimpsest.
“It’s cracking a bit, isn’t it?” Veddyn said. “My apologies. I thought it would store better than this.”
“We can split it into sheets along the cracks. It’ll do.”
Out in the sun Neb unrolled about a foot of the scroll and released a cloud of dust and ancient mould. He sneezed and wiped his nose on his sleeve, then held the roll up to the light.
“This must have been a set of tax tallies,” Neb said. “I can just make out a few words. Fine linen cloth, six ells. Someone someone ninety five bushels of somesort barley.”
“It’s from our old demesne — what’s that noise?”
Neb cocked his head to listen. “Riders coming in the gates,” he said. “I wonder if his grace has ridden home.”
“Not already, surely!”
They hurried around the broch to find a small procession entering the ward. Four armed men with oak leaf blazons on their shirts escorted a heavily laden horse cart, driven by a stout middle-aged woman, while behind them came a person riding a gray palfrey. Taxes, Neb thought at first, here early.
As the pages and a groom ran out to take the horses, the rider dismounted with a toss of her long blond hair, caught back in a silver clasp. A pretty lass, though not the great beauty he’d seen in his earlier dream, she was wearing a faded blue dress, caught up at her kirtled waist, over a pair of old torn brigga. The Wildfolk of Air, sylphs and sprites both, flocked around her, and perched behind her saddle was a little gray gnome, who looked straight at Neb, grinned, and waved a skinny clawed paw. The gnome looked exactly like the little creature in Neb’s dream.
“It’s Lady Branna!” Veddyn said. “Here, greet her and her escort, will you? Where’s Lord Mirryn, I wonder? He’s always off somewhere when you need him! And the pages have their hands full. I’d better go tell Lady Galla her niece has arrived.”
When Neb walked up, the lady turned around and smiled at him, a distant but friendly sort of smile such as she doubtless would give to any stranger, but Neb felt his heart start pounding. Instantly he knew two things so crucial that he felt as if he had waited his entire life for this lass to appear. One, he loved her, and two, she shared all his secrets, perhaps even secrets he hadn’t realized he was keeping. He tried to speak but felt that he was gasping like a caught fish on a riverbank.
Fortunately Branna appeared just as startled. Her smile vanished, her eyes grew wide, and she stared at him unspeaking. He studied her face with a feeling much like hunger: narrow mouth, snub nose, a dusting of freckles over her high cheekbones, dark blue eyes. He had never wanted anything more than to reach out and take her hand, but someone behind them called her name and sharply. Branna flinched and looked away.
“Here, who are you?” The stout woman who’d been driving the cart came striding over. A widow’s black scarf half-covered her gray hair, and she wore gray dresses, much stained. She pointed a calloused finger at Neb.
“My name is Nerrobrantos, scribe to Tieryn Cadryc,” Neb said. “And you are?”
“Her ladyship’s servant.”
“More like my guardian dragon,” Branna said, then laughed. Her voice was pleasantly soft. “Don’t be so fierce, Midda. A scribe may speak to a poverty-stricken lady like me.” She turned back to Neb. “Do people really call you Nerrobrantos all the time?”
“They don’t.” Neb at last remembered how to smile. “Do call me Neb, my lady.”
“Gladly, Goodman Neb. Here comes Aunt Galla, but maybe we’ll meet again?”
“I don’t see how we can avoid meeting in a dun this size.”
She laughed, and he’d never heard a laugh as beautiful as hers, far more beautiful than golden bells or a bard’s harp. For a long time after Lady Galla had led her inside, Neb stood in the ward and stared out at nothing. He was trying to understand just what had convinced him that his entire view of the world was about to change.
Mirryn brought him out of this strange reverie when the lord hurried over to the men of the lady’s escort, who were waiting patiently beside their horses.
“What’s this?” Mirryn said. “I see our scribe’s just left you all standing here.”
“My apologies, my lord,” Neb said. “I don’t have the slightest idea of where to take them. I’ve never lived in a dun before.”
Mirryn’s jaw dropped. Neb had never seen anyone look quite so innocently surprised. The lord covered it over with a quick laugh.
“Of course not,” Mirryn said. “You’re a townsman, after all, or you were.”
Neb smiled, bowed, and made his escape. He carried the roll of parchment up to his chamber, where he could cut it into sheets with his new penknife, but even as he worked, he was thinking about Lady Branna.
In some sense, every magician is a weaver, merely one who works with invisible strands of the hidden light. With it we weave our various forms, just as a weaver produces cloth, and then stitch them into the images we desire, just as a tailor sews cloth into a tunic or robe. If we be journeymen in our craft, forces will come to inhabit our forms, just as a person will come to buy the tunic and place it over his body. But if we have plumbed the secret recesses of our art, if we are masters of our craft, then we can both weave the forms and place our own bodies within them.
The Pseudo-Iamblichos Scroll
Two men of the Mountain Folk sat on a ledge halfway up a cliff and took the sun. Below them, at the foot of a cascade of stone steps, a grassy park land spread out on either side of a river that emerged from the base of the cliff. Just behind them, a stone landing led to a pair of massive steel-bound doors, open at the moment to let the fresh summer air into the rock-cut city of Lin Serr. Kov, son of Kovolla, was attending upon Chief Envoy Garin, son of Garinna, while this important personage nursed a case of bad bruises and a swollen ankle. A few days previously Garin had been talking to a friend as they hurried down these same steps; a careless engrossment in the conversation had sent him tumbling down two full flights.
“Sunlight’s the best thing for the bruises,” Kov told him. “Or that’s what the healers told me, anyway.”
Garin muttered a brief oath, then continued blinking and scowling at the brilliant summer light. He’s getting old, Kov thought, ready to stay in the deep city forever, like all the old people do. At a mere eighty-four years, Kov was young for one of the Mountain Folk and still drawn by life above ground.
“Well,” Kov continued, “the sun’s supposed to help strengthen your blood.”
“Doubtless,” Garin said. “I’m out here, aren’t I?”
Kov let the matter drop. From where they sat, Kov could look across the park land and watch the workmen raising stone blocks into position on the new wall. The city sat in the precise middle of a horseshoe of high cliffs, dug out from the earth and shaped by dwarven labor. Eventually the wall would run from one end of the horseshoe across to the high watchtower at the other, enclosing the park land. Until then, armed guards stood on watch night and day. Everyone in Lin Serr knew that the Horsekin had been raiding farms on the Deverry border. Although no Horsekin had been sighted up on the Roof of the World in forty-some years, the Mountain Folk always prefer safe to sorry.
“What’s that noise?” Garin said. “Sounds like shouting.”
Kov rose to his feet and listened. “It’s the guards.” He shaded his eyes with his hand and gazed across to the wall. “Strangers coming.”
A cluster of guards surrounded the strangers and led them across — four human men, leading riding horses and a packhorse. As they drew near, Kov recognized the sun blazons of Cengarn. One of the humans, a dark-haired fellow, shorter than his escorts, with the squarish build of someone whose clan had mountain blood in its veins, also looked familiar.
“It’s Lord Blethry, isn’t it? The equerry at Cengarn.”
“I think you’re right.” Garin held out his hand. Kov handed him his walking stick. With its help Garin hauled himself to his feet and looked out toward the wall. “Yes indeed, that’s Blethry. Those other fellows look like a servant of some sort and then an armed escort.”
Kov rose, too, and watched as dwarven axemen marched the human contingent across the park land. At the foot of the stairs, they paused and allowed Blethry to shout a greeting in Deverrian. “Envoy Garin! May I come up?”
“By all means!” Garin called back in the same. “What brings you here?”
Blethry waited to answer till he’d panted his way up to their perch, some hundred and twenty steps high. He wiped the sweat off his face with one hand and snorted like a winded horse.
“War, that’s what,” Blethry said. “The Horsekin are building a fortress out in the Westlands. We figure they want a staging ground for a strike at our borders.”
“And if they take over your lands,” Garin said, “they’ll be heading north, no doubt, for ours.”
“No doubt. Gwerbret Ridvar’s hoping we can count on your aid to destroy the place. It’s called Zakh Gral.”
“Our High Council will have the final word about that. Now, as for me personally, I hope his grace Gwerbret Cengarn doesn’t take this as a slight, but I’ll have to send my apprentice here to Cengarn with the news, whatever it may be. I can barely walk.” Garin used his stick to point at his wrapped and swollen ankle.
“I’m sure young Ridvar will understand.” Blethry turned to Kov and bowed. “My thanks for accompanying us.”
“Most welcome,” Kov glanced at Garin, who was smiling in what appeared to be relief. It’s not the ankle, Kov thought, he just doesn’t want to leave the safety of the dark.
“Kov,” Garin said, “go down and help his lordship’s men tether their animals and set up their tents and suchlike. Then join us in the envoy’s quarters.”
Lord Blethry had visited Lin Serr several times, but the sheer size of the place always left him awed. The steel doors led into a domed antechamber that could have held Cengarn’s great hall twice over. The shaft of sunlight from the open doorway cut across the polished slate floor and pointed like a spear to a roundel, inlaid with various colors of stone to form a maze some twenty yards across. Beyond it, on the curved far wall, tunnels opened into distant gloom and led down to the deep city, forbidden to strangers.
Some ten feet in, well before they reached the floor maze, Garin turned left, hobbling along with his stick, and led Blethry down a short side tunnel that ended in a tall wooden door, carved in a vertical pattern of chained links. Yet for all its massive appearance, when Garin poked it with his stick it swung open without a sound to reveal a small room, bright with sunlight.
“Here we are,” Garin said. “You’ve stayed here before, haven’t you?”
“I have,” Blethry said. “It’s a comfortable place.”
A big window made the small room seem large and airy, thanks to its view of the green park land far below. Tucked against the inner wall stood a bed, and near it a table and a pair of wooden chairs. On the walls hung steel panels, chiseled and graved into hunting scenes. Garin shoved a chair in to the most shadowed corner of the room, then lowered himself into it with a grunt of pain. Since the last time Blethry had seen him, a thick streak of white had appeared in Garin’s close-cropped hair. His short beard had turned entirely gray.
“I’ll have Kov bring in another chair,” Garin said. “Brel will want to join us once he hears the news.”
Indeed, Brel, the avro, to give him his dwarven title of ‘warleader’, arrived at the same time as Kov and the third chair. He strode in, stood for a moment to glower at Garin, then sat down in a chair near the window and stretched his legs out in front of him.
“The Council’s called an emergency meeting,” he said to Blethry. “They meet down in the deep city, of course, so you’re to describe the situation to me, and I’ll relay it to them.”
“Very well,” Blethry said. “In that case, I’d better speak formally.” He cleared his throat. “I come in the name of Ridvar, Gwerbret Cengarn, to call in the aid owed to us in time of war from the Mountain city of Lin Serr. By treaty and solemn oath we are bound together to render assistance to one another for our mutual benefit.”
“He speaks the truth.” Garin joined this recitation of ancient formulae. “We did renew our pact on its prior terms after the hostilities known as the Cengarn War, concluded at the date 1116, as is written in the — ”
“Worms and slimes!” Brel broke in. “I know all that. If the Council can’t remember it, they have gravel where their intellect ought to be.”
“It’s a question of the proper wording,” Garin snapped. “The Council needs to know that we’ve heard Lord Blethry speak the proper wording, and that I responded in the same way.”
Brel growled and cross his arms over his chest.
“As is written in the documents pertaining to that war, that time of blood and darkness.” Blethry took over again. “In that most solemn instance we did celebrate a victory over the army of the peoples known to us as Gel da’Thae or Horsekin, when they made so bold as to besiege our city of Cengarn. In thankfulness for that aid, we did renew our bonds with the Mountain Folk who do inhabit the city of Lin Serr.”
“I too did witness this,” Garin said. “So be it.”
“Are you two done now?” Brel said.
“We are.” Blethry grinned at him. “You can tell the Council that we brought a sacrifice to the temples of proper manners.”
“Huh!” Brel snorted profoundly. “Oh, and welcome! It’s good to see you, by the way.”
“My thanks.” Blethry smiled again. “It’s good to see you too.”
Young boys carrying trays of food marched in and began to lay a meal upon the table: a platter of bats, disjointed and fried, a soft mushroom bread, and stewed purple roots of a sort new to Blethry. Kov shut the door after them, then sat on the floor for want of another chair. Garin poured everyone pewter stoups of a thick brown liquor, which Blethry had encountered before. He drank it in small sips and made sure he stopped well before he finished it. He noticed Kov doing the same.
While they ate, Blethry expanded upon his reason for coming to Lin Serr. Some of the savage Horsekin of the far north had turned themselves civilized — they’d become Gel da’Thae, as settled Horsekin called themselves — but living in cities hadn’t slaked their thirst for war. They were building a fortress, Zakh Gral, on the edge of the grassy plains that belonged to the Westfolk.
“How did you find it?” Kov said. “Or was it the Westfolk?”
“Not us nor them,” Blethry said. “But a gerthddyn name of Salamander. He — ”
“Never mind that now,” Brel cut in. “What matters is that they found it. Details later.”
“We figure that it’s only the point of a salient,” Blethry went on. “Other fortifications will follow, I’ll wager. Apparently they want to take over the western grasslands. They need pasturage for those heavy horses of theirs. And of course, they claim that their wretched fake goddess wants them to have it.”
“Alshandra yet again?” Brel said.
“The very one. They refuse to believe she’s dead.”
“How convenient for them,” Garin muttered. “It’s amazing how these gods and goddesses always appear when someone wants someone else’s land.”
“My thought exactly.” Blethry nodded Garin’s way.
“They won’t stop at the Westlands,” Brel said. “But no doubt you realize that, or you wouldn’t be here. What’s this fortress like?”
In as much detail as Blethry could remember, he repeated Salamander’s description of the place.
“It sits on the edge of a cliff over a river gorge,” Blethry finished up. “Clever scum, the Horsekin.”
“Wooden walls, did you say?” Brel shot a significant glance Garin’s way.
“For now,” Blethry said. “They’re working hard at replacing them with stone.”
“Huh,” Brel said. “We’ll see how far they get. I take it that your lords have worked out some sort of plan to bring this fortress down.”
“They have. Gwerbret Ridvar’s calling in all his allies, and what’s more, Voran, one of the princes of the blood royal, is on hand with fifty of his men.”
“Only fifty?” Garin said.
“At the moment. He’s sure his father will send reinforcements. The messages may have reached Dun Deverry by now, for all I know. I left Cengarn weeks ago. As for the Westfolk, Prince Daralanteriel’s keen to join the hunt.”
“He should be,” Brel said drily. “He stands to lose everything if the Horsekin move east.”
“True spoken, of course. He’s promised us five hundred archers. Ridvar can muster at least that many riders.”
Brel winced. “Is that the biggest army you can put together?”
“Until we hear from the high king.”
“And how long will it take to get a full army up here from Dun Deverry?” Brel went on and answered his own question. “Too long. With what you have, you’ll never take the place. You’ll have to lay siege and hope you can hold it.”
“I know,” Blethry said. “Till those reinforcements arrive from Dun Deverry.”
“The Horsekin are likely to see a relieving force before you do. All it’ll take is one messenger to slip through your lines when you’re investing the fortress. If they’ve got a town up in the mountains, they doubtless keep a reserve force there. I hate the filthy murderers, but I’d never say they were stupid.” Brel paused to pick a fragment of fried bat out of his grey-streaked beard. “So I wouldn’t plan on a siege. With us along, you won’t have to.”
“Sir?” Kov spoke up from his place on the floor. “What can we — ”
“Think, lad!” Brel snapped. “This fort’s perched on the edge of a cliff.”
Kov suddenly grinned. “Tunnels,” he said. “We’ve got sappers.”
“They’re our main hope,” Blethry said. “If the High Council allows you to join us.”
Brel snorted profoundly. “They will. There’s not a family in Lin Serr that didn’t lose someone in the last Horsekin war.”
“Kov.” Garin turned to his apprentice. “What do we owe Cengarn by treaty?”
“Five hundred axemen, sir,” Kov said, “and a hundred and fifty pikemen, along with provisions for all for forty days.”
“Very good.” Garin nodded at him, then glanced at Blethry. “Do you think the gwerbret will be offended if we replace those pikemen with sappers and miners?”
“Huh! If he is, and I doubt that with all my heart, then Lord Oth and I will talk some sense into him.”
“Good,” Garin smiled briefly. “The council meets tomorrow morn. We should know by noon.”
On the morrow, Blethry woke at first light and spent an anxious hour or so pacing back and forth in his quarters. Every now and then he stuck his head out of the window and tried to judge how long he had till noon came around. Well before then he heard a knock on the door. He flung it back to find Garin, stick raised to strike again, with young Kov behind him.
“Ah, you’re awake!” Garin said. “I thought you might be asleep still.”
“Not likely, is it?” Blethry said. “Well?”
“The Council saw reason quickly, for a change,” Garin said. “They’re organizing the muster now, and the army will march at dawn on the morrow. Five hundred axemen and a full contingent of sappers and miners with all their gear and the like. Oh, and provisions for twice forty days.”
“Splendid!” Blethry said, grinning. “And my thanks. I’ll go down and tell my men the good news.”
Kov slept little the night before the march out of Lin Serr. He packed up his gear, worried about what he might have left out, unpacked the lot, added things, took things away, then packed it all up again. Although he’d visited Cengarn several times, he’d never gone farther west than that city. He’d never seen a war, either. When he finally did fall asleep, he had troubled dreams of shouting and bloodshed.
Just before dawn, Garin woke him when he arrived to give him some final instructions. As well as his walking stick, the elder dwarf carried some long thing wrapped in cloth.
“You’re not the apprentice any longer,” Garin said. “You’re the envoy now. Remember your dignity, lad. Speak slowly, listen when you’re spoken to, and think before you answer. Follow those simple precepts, and you’ll do well.”
“I hope so.” Kov caught his breath with a gulp. “I’ll do my best.”
“I know you will. Now, you’ve got your father’s sword belted on, I see, so here’s something to go with it.”
The long bundle turned out to be a staff, blackened and hard with age, carved with runes. Kov took it with both hands and turned it to study the twelve deep-graved symbols. He could recognize Rock and Gold as Mountain runes, and two others as Deverry letters, but he’d never seen the rest.
“Do you know what those mean?” Garin said.
“Neither does anyone else. They’re very old, but we do know that they once graced the door of Lin Rej.”
“Lin Rej? The old city?”
“The very one. It had carved wooden doors. When the Horsekin arrived, back in the Time of Death, they didn’t hold. The besiegers lit a fire in front of them, and when the doors burned through, they finished the job with axes. But one of our loremasters carved these runes here — ” Garin pointed at the staff ” — on a scrap of wood so they’d be remembered. Over the years, they’ve been carved on other staffs, but this one came to me from my father’s father. It was a hundred years old when he received it as a child.”
“It must be nearly a thousand now, then.”
“Yes. There’s a superstitious legend about the runes, too. They’re supposed to contain a dweomer spell.” Garin rolled his eyes heavenward. “Anything that’s no longer understood is supposed to contain a dweomer spell, of course. Don’t take it seriously.”
“Oh, don’t worry! I won’t. But now I know why Lin Serr has steel on its doors.”
“We may learn slowly, but in the end, we learn.” Garin paused for a smile. “Now, spell or no spell, I’m letting you borrow that staff because I can’t go to the battle myself. We’ve never had a formal badge for our envoys, but you’re new on the job.”
“Very new.” Kov could hear his voice shake and coughed loudly to cover it.
“Just so.” Garin smiled at him. “So I decided you might need something to mark your standing and keep your spirits up. This staff’s never left the city since the day my father’s father brought it inside. Carry it proudly, and never shame it.”
“I’m very grateful for the honor. I’ll do my best to live up to it.”
“That’s all any man can do, eh? Now get on your way. There’s a mule for you to ride, by the by, down at the muster.”
Out in the meadow, five hundred dwarven axemen drew up in marching order, followed by a veritable parade of carts, each drawn by two burly menservants. The sappers and miners were milling around, scrutinizing each cart, repacking some, adding wrapped bundles to others. Kov invited Lord Blethry to come along as he and Brel Avro inspected the muster. Blethry murmured his usual polite remarks until they came to the line of carts. Most carried provisions, ordinary stuff all of it, but those at the head of the line were loaded with mysterious-looking crates, barely visible under greased wraps of coarse cloth that would keep them dry during summer rains. Embroidered runes decorated each cloth. Blethry fell silent, studying the runes, craning his neck to get a better look at the crates.
“Can your read our runes?” Kov said with a small smile.
“I can’t, truly,” Blethry said. “I was just noticing the wheels of your carts here. The design is quite striking.”
Good parry! Kov thought. Aloud, he said, “A little innovation of ours.”
Blethry nodded, and indeed, to his eyes the wheels must have possessed a fascination of their own. Instead of the solid slab wheels of Deverry carts, dwarven craftsmen had lightened these with spokes radiating from a metal collar that attached them to the axles. Strakes, that is, strips of metal studded to give them a grip on the road, protected the wooden rims.
“Much lighter,” Kov said, “but just as strong. Easier to fix, too.”
“Stronger, I should think. I trust you’ll not be offended if our cartwrights look them over when we reach Cengarn. I shan’t be able to keep them away.”
“Of course not. I’m sure our men would take it as an honor if they should copy them.”
“Would you two stop jawing?” Brel turned on them both impartially. “The sun’s up, and it’ll be hot soon. Mount up, both of you! Let’s march!”
Kov and Blethry followed orders. During the long ride down from the mountains, whenever the contingent camped, Blethry found excuses to walk by the dwarven carts that contained the wrapped bundles and crates, but, Kov could be sure, no one would ever give him one word of information about their contents. The design of a set of wheels they were willing to share, but the formula for the mysterious cargo was going to remain a secret forever, if the Mountain Folk had their way.
They reached the border of Gwerbret Ridvar’s rhan when they came to the dun of one of his vassals, a small broch tower inside a high stone wall, perched on a hill wound around by a maze of earthworks. All around it stretched litter from a military camp — firepits, garbage, broken arrows, broken tent pegs, and assorted ditches, hastily filled in. The dwarven contingent drew up to camp some distance away in a cleaner area. Kov remembered this dun as belonging to the clan of the Black Arrow, but men wearing Cengarn’s sun blazon on the yokes of their shirts came trotting over to greet them.
“What’s happened to Lord Honelg?” Kov asked Blethry.
“I don’t know yet.” Blethry gave him a grim smile. “But I’m assuming he’s dead. He turned traitor, you see. When I left Cengarn, the gwerbret was getting ready to march on him. From the look of things, Ridvar took the dun.”
Cengarn’s men, left on fort guard, confirmed Blethry’s guess. Lord Honelg was dead, his lands attainted, his young son a hostage, his widow gone back to her father’s dun.
“Who’s the new lord here?” Blethry said. “Or has Ridvar reassigned the lands yet?”
“He has, my lord,” the fortguard captain said. “Lord Gerran of the Gold Falcon. You might remember him as the Red Wolf’s common-born captain, but he’s a lord now.”
“I do indeed, and he’s a grand man with a sword and a good choice all round.”
“We all feel the same, my lord. Are you marching down to Cengarn on the morrow?”
“His grace may have left already. He’s mustering his allies at the Red Wolf dun for the march west.” The captain turned to Kov and bowed. “It gladdens my heart to see your people, envoy, with a war about to start.”
“My thanks,” Kov said. “But it sounds to me like the war’s already started.”
“You could look at it that way, truly,” the captain said, grinning. “But either way, we’re glad you’ve come in on our side.”