Authors: Greg Keyes
The Charnel Prince
(Book Two ofThe Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Keyes was born in Meridian, Mississippi, to a large, diverse, storytelling family. He received degrees in anthropology from Mississippi State and the University of Georgia before becoming a full-time writer. He is the author ofThe Briar Kingand the Age of Unreason tetralogy, as well asThe Waterborn,The Blackgod, and theStar Wars®New Jedi Order novels:Edge of Victory I: Conquest,Edge of Victory II: Rebirth, andThe Final Prophecy. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.
Had laybyd hw loygwn eyl
Nhag Heybeywr, ayg nhoygwr niwoyd.
The Forest speaks with many tongues
Listen well but never answer.
—Nhuwd nhy Whadproverb, given as a warning to young children
“I HEAR A noise,” Martyn murmured, reining in his dappled gray stallion. “It is an unnatural sound.” The monk’s predatory blue eyes strained, as if trying to burn through the huge-girthed ironoaks and rocky slopes of the King’s Forest. Ehawk could see by the set of the man’s shoulders beneath his blood-red robe that every muscle in his body was tensed.
“No doubt,” Sir Oneu replied jovially. “This forest chatters like a woman who is half-mad with love.”
But despite his tone, Sir Oneu’s black eyes were serious when he turned to speak to Ehawk. As always, Ehawk was surprised by the older man’s face—soft and tapered it was, the corners of his eyes crinkled by fifty years of laughter. The knight hardly seemed to fit his reputation as a fierce warrior.
“What do you say, m’ lad?” Oneu asked.
“From what I’ve seen,” Ehawk began, “Brother Martyn can hear a snake breathe over the next hill. I haven’t such ears, and at this moment hear little. But sir, that’s strange of itself. There ought to be more birds singing.”
“Saint Rooster’s balls,” Oneu scoffed, “what do y’mean? There’s one warbling right now, so loud I can scarce hear myself.”
“Yes, sir,” Ehawk replied. “But that ‘un is anetechakichuk, and they—”
“In the king’s tongue, boy, or in Almannish,” snapped a dour, sallow-faced man. He wore robes of the same color as Martyn’s. “Don’t gabble at us in your heathen language.”
That was Gavrel, another of the five monks traveling with the party. His face looked as if it had been cut into an apple and left to dry.
Ehawk didn’t like Gavrel much.
“Mind your own tongue, Brother Gavrel,” Sir Oneu said mildly. “I’m the one speaking to our young guide, not you.”
Gavrel glared at the reprimand, but he did not challenge the knight.
“You were saying, m’ lad Ehawk?”
“I believe you call ‘em crow-woodpeckers,” Ehawk replied. “Nothing frightens them.”
“Ah.” Oneu frowned. “Then let’s have quiet, while Brother Martyn listens more closely.”
Ehawk did as he was told, straining his own ears to the limits, feeling an unaccustomed chill as the hush of the forest sank in. It was strange.
But these were strange days. Only a fortnight before, the crescent moon had risen purple, a dire portent indeed, and a weird horn had sounded on the wind, heard not just in Ehawk’s village but everywhere. The old oracle-women muttered prophecies of doom, and tales of awful beasts roaming and slaying in the King’s Forest grew more common each day.
And then these men had come from the west, a knight of the Church, resplendent in his lord’s plate, and five monks of the order of Saint Mamres—warriors all. They’d arrived in Ehawk’s village four days ago and bargained for a native guide. The elders had appointed him, for though Ehawk was scarcely beyond his seventeenth summer, there was no man more keenly gifted at hunting and tracking. He’d been excited to go, for strangers were uncommon here near the Mountains of the Hare, and he’d hoped to learn something of foreign lands.
He hadn’t been disappointed. Sir Oneu de Loingvele loved to talk of his adventures, and he seemed to have been everywhere. The monks were quieter and somewhat frightening—except Gavrel, who was outspoken and frightening—and Martyn, who was kind in his own brusque way. If he spoke laconically of his training and his life, what he did have to say was usually interesting.
But one thing Ehawk had not learned—what these men were searching for. Sometimes he thought they themselves did not know.
Sir Oneu doffed his conical helm and rested it under one arm. A stray beam of sunlight glinted from his steel breastplate as he patted the neck of his warhorse to calm it. He shifted his gaze back to Martyn.
“Well, Brother?” he asked. “What are the saints whispering to you?”
“No saints, I think,” Martyn said. “A rustling, many men moving over the leaves, but they pant like dogs. They make other strange sounds.” He turned to Ehawk. “What people live in these parts?”
Ehawk considered. “The villages of the Duth ag Pae are scattered through these hills. The nearest is Aghdon, just up the valley.”
“Are they warriors?” Martyn asked.
“Not usually. Farmers and hunters, same as my people.”
“Are these sounds drawing nearer?” Sir Oneu asked.
“No,” Martyn replied.
“Very well. Then we’ll go on to this village and see what the local people have to say.”
“Not much to look at,” Sir Oneu observed half a bell later, when they reached Aghdon.
To Ehawk’s eyes, Aghdon wasn’t that different from his own village—a collection of small wooden houses around a common square and a high-beamed longhouse where the chieftain lived.
The greatest difference was that his own village bustled with people, chickens, and pigs. Aghdon was empty as a Sefry’s promise. “Where is everyone?” Sir Oneu asked. “Hallo?Anyone there?” But there was no reply, and not a soul stirred.
“Look here,” Martyn said. “They were trying to build a stockade.” Sure enough, Ehawk saw that a number of fresh-cut timbers had been erected. Other logs had been cut, but never set up.
“On your guard, fellows,” Sir Oneu said softly. “Let’s ride in there and see what happened to these folk.”
But there was nothing to be found. There were no bodies, no signs of violence. Ehawk found a copper kettle with its bottom scorched out. It had been left on the cookfire, untended, until its contents had boiled away.
“I think they all left suddenly,” he told Martyn.
“Yah,” the monk replied. “They were in a hurry for certain. They didn’t take anything.”
“But they were afraid of something,” Ehawk said. “Those wreaths of mistletoe above their doors—that’s to ward against evil.”
“Yes, and the stockade they began,” Sir Oneu said. “The praifec was right. Something is happening here. First the Sefry abandon the forest, now the tribesmen.” He shook his head. “Mount up. We’ll continue. I fear our mission is more urgent than ever.”
They left Aghdon and struck off across the uplands, leaving the largest of the ironoaks behind them and entering a forest of hickory, liquidambar, and witaec.
Still they rode in eerie silence, and the horses seemed nervous. Brother Martyn wore a slight but perpetual frown.
“Ride up with me, lad,” Sir Oneu called back. Obediently, Ehawk trotted his own dun mare until he was abreast of the knight.
“Yes. Now would you like to hear the rest of that story?”
“Yes, sir. Indeed I would.”
“Well, you’ll recall that I was on a ship?”
“Yes, sir. On theWoebringer.”
“That’s right. We’d just broken the siege at Reysquele, and what was left of the Joquien pirates were scattering to the sea winds. TheWoebringerwas badly damaged, but so were a lot of ships, and no dearth of them ahead of us for repairs at Reysquele. The weather was calm, so we reckoned we could make Copenwis, where fewer ships go for dry-dock.” He shook his head. “We didn’t make it to Copenwis, though. A squall came up, and only the favor of Saint Lier brought us to a small island none of us knew, somewhere near the Sorrows. We made land in a longboat and gave offering to Saint Lier and Saint Vriente, then sent out parties to search for habitants.”
“Did you find any?”
“In a manner of speaking. Half the pirate fleet was camped on the leeward side of the island.”
“Oh. That must have been trouble.”
“Indeed. Our ship was too badly damaged for us to leave, and too big to hide. It was a matter of little time before we were discovered.”
“What did you do?”
“I marched over to the pirate camp and challenged their leader to a duel of honor.”
“He had to. Pirate chieftains must appear to be strong, or their men will not follow them. If he had refused me, the next day he would have had to fight ten of his own lieutenants. As it was, I relieved him of that worry by killing him.”
“And then what?”
“I challenged the second-in-command. And then the next, and so on.”
Ehawk grinned. “Did you kill them all?”
“No. While I fought, my men took possession of one of their ships and sailed away.”
“Yes. I’d ordered them to.”
“And so what happened?”
“When the pirates discovered what had happened, they took me prisoner, of course, and the dueling stopped. But I convinced them the Church would pay my ransom, and so they treated me pretty well.”
“Did the Church pay?”
“They might have—I didn’t wait to see. I had a chance for escape, later, and took it.”
“Tell me about that,” Ehawk pleaded.
The knight nodded. “In time, lad. But you tell me now—you grew up in these parts. The elders at your village told many strange tales of greffyns, manticores—fabulous monsters, never seen for a thousand years, now suddenly everywhere. What do you make of that, Ehawk, m’ lad? Do you credit such talk?”
Ehawk considered his words carefully. “I’ve seen strange tracks and smelled weird spore. My cousin Owel says he saw a beast like a lion, but scaled, and with the head of an eagle. Owel don’t lie, and he’s not like to scare or see things wrong.”
“So you do believe these tales?”
“Where do these monsters come from?”
“They’ve been’t sleep, they say—like how a bear sleeps the winter, or the cicada sleeps in the ground for seventeen years before comin’ out.”
“And why do you think they wake now?”
Ehawk hesitated again.
“Come, m‘ lad,” the knight said softly. “Your elders were tight-lipped, I know, I suspect for fear of being labeled heretics. If that’s your fear, you’ve no worry about me. The mysteries of the saints are all around us, and without the Church to guide, folk think odd things. But you live here, lad—you know things I don’t. Stories. The ancient songs.”
“Yah,” Ehawk said unhappily. He glanced at Gavrel, wondering if he, too, had keener hearing than a normal man.
Sir Oneu caught the look. “This expedition is my charge,” he said, softly still. “I give you my word as a knight, no harm will come to you for what you tell. Now—what do the old women say? Why do unholy things stalk the weald, when never they did before?”
Ehawk bit his lip. “They say ‘tis Etthoroam, the Mosslord. They say he woke when the moon was purple, as was foretold in ancient prophecy. The creatures are his servants.”
“Tell me about him, this Mosslord.”
“Ah . . . it’s only old stories, Sir Oneu.”
“Tell me nevertheless. Please.”
“In shape, they say he is a man, but made of the stuff of the forest. Antlers grow from his head, as on an elk.” Ehawk looked frankly at the knight. “They say he was here before the saints, before anything, when there was only the forest, and it covered all the world.”
Sir Oneu nodded as if he already knew that. “And why does he wake?” he asked. “What does prophecy say he will do?”
“It’s his forest,” Ehawk said. “He’ll do what he wants. But it’s said when he wakes, the forest will rise against those who have done it harm.” He cut his eyes away. “It’s why the Sefry left. They fear he will kill us all.”
“And do you fear that?”
“I don’t know. I only know . . .” He broke off, uncertain how to put it.
“I had an uncle. A sickness came to him. There was little to see—no sores nor open wounds, no marks of fever—but he grew more tired as the months passed, and his eyes dulled. His skin paled. He died very slowly, and it was only near the end that we could smell the death in him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Ehawk shrugged. “The forest—I think it’s dying like that.”
“How do you know?”
“I can smell it.”
“Ah.” The knight seemed to mull that over for a few minutes, and so they rode in silence.
“This Mosslord,” Sir Oneu said at last. “Have you ever heard him called the Briar King?”
“That’s what the Oostish call him, Sir Oneu.”
Sir Oneu sighed, and looked older. “I thought as much.”
“Is that what you’re looking for in the forest, sir? The Briar King?”
But Martyn cut him off suddenly. “Sir Oneu?” the monk’s face was set in hard lines.
“I hear them again.”
“Everywhere. In all directions now. Coming closer.”
“What is it, Martyn? Can you tell me what we face? Minions ofthe Briar King?”
“I don’t know, Sir Oneu. I only know we are surrounded.”
“Ehawk? Is there aught you can tell us?”
“No, sir. I can’t hear anything yet.”
But soon enough he did. The wood stirred all around them, as if the trees themselves had come alive. Ehawk felt as if the forest was tightening, the trees standing ever closer together, a great trap closing on the company. The horses began to whicker nervously, even Airece, Sir Oneu’s warsteed.
“Ready yourselves, lads,” Sir Oneu muttered.
Ehawk caught glimpses of them now, the figures in the trees. They grunted and growled like beasts, they croaked and mewed, but they looked like men and women, naked or wearing only the uncured skins of beasts.
Sir Oneu increased his pace to a trot, indicating that the others in the party should do the same. He lifted his heavy ashe spear. Ahead, on the trail, Ehawk saw that someone was awaiting them.
His heart was a cricket in his breast as they drew near. There were seven of them, some men, some women, cut and bruised and naked as the day they were born—all save one. He stood in front, a lion-skin thrown over one shoulder like a cloak. From his head grew spreading antlers.
“Etthoroam!” Ehawk gasped. He could no longer feel his knees clasping his horse.
“No,” Martyn said. “It is a man. The antlers are part of a headdress.”
Ehawk, trying to control his growing terror, saw that Martyn was right. But that didn’t mean anything. Etthoroam was a sorcerer. He could take any form.
“You’re certain?” Sir Oneu asked Martyn, perhaps sharing Ehawk’s doubts.
“He has the smell of a man,” Martyn said.
“They’re everywhere,” Gavrel muttered, jerking his head from side to side, peering at the forest. The other three monks, Ehawk noticed, had strung their bows and formed a loose perimeter around the group.
Martyn brought his mount alongside Ehawk’s. “Keep near me,” he said, voice very low.
“Ehawk, m‘ lad,” Sir Oneu said. “Could those be the villagers?”
Ehawk studied the faces of those who stood with the antlered man. Their eyes were very strange, unfocused, as if they were drunk or entranced. Their hair was matted and tangled.
“I reckon they might be,” he answered. “It’s hard to say, them lookin’ like that.”
Sir Oneu nodded and drew to a halt ten yards from the strangers. It was suddenly so still, Ehawk could hear the breeze in the highest branches.
“I am Sir Oneu de Loingvele,” the knight called in a clear, carrying voice, “a peer of the church on a holy mission. Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
The stag-horned figure grinned and raised his fists so they could see the snakes he held writhing in them.
“Look at their eyes,” Gavrel said, drawing his sword. He sounded grim. “They are mad.”
“Hold your hand,” Sir Oneu said. He rested his palm on his pommel and leaned forward. “That’s a clever reply,” the knight said loudly. “Most would give a name or speak some vapid greeting. You, with your deer-horn cap, you’re too clever for that. Instead, you shake snakes at me. Very cunning, I must say. A most excellent reply. I await your next witticism with utmost eagerness.”
The antlered man merely blinked, as if Sir Oneu’s words were so many raindrops.
“You’re quite senseless, aren’t you?” Sir Oneu asked. This time the horned man crooked his head back, so his mouth opened to the sky, and he howled.
Three bows hummed together. Ehawk jerked around at the sound and saw that three of the monks were firing into the forest. The naked and half-naked figures that had been drifting through the trees were suddenly charging. Ehawk watched as one of them fell, an arrow in her neck. She was pretty, or had been. Now she spasmed on the ground like a wounded deer.
“Flank me, Brother Gavrel,” Sir Oneu said. He dropped his lance level to the party on the trail. Like their brethren in the woods, they were unarmed, and the sight of a fully armored knight ought to have shaken them, but instead, one of the women sprang forward and ran upon the spear. It hit her with such force that the spearhead broke through her back, but she clawed at the shaft as if she might drag herself up its length to the knight who had killed her.
Sir Oneu cursed and drew his broadsword. He hacked down the first man leaping for him, and the next, but more and more of the madmen came pouring from the woods. The three monks kept firing at a rate Ehawk deemed impossible, yet already most of their shafts were hitting almost point-blank, and the sides of the trail were quickly heaped with dead.
Martyn, Gavrel, and Sir Oneu drew swords, now trading places with the archers, forming a circle around them to give them space to fire. Ehawk was crowded into the center of the ring. Belatedly, he took out his own bow and put an arrow to it, but with all the jostling chaos, it was hard to find a shot.
They had more attackers than Ehawk could count, but those were all unarmed.
Then that changed, suddenly, as someone seemed to remember how to throw a stone. The first rock belled from Sir Oneu’s helm and did no damage, but soon there came a hail of them. Meanwhile, the enemy had begun a kind of wordless chant or keening. It rose and fell like the call of the whippoorwill.
Brother Alvaer staggered as a stone struck his forehead and blood sprayed from the cut. He raised a hand to wipe his eyes, and in that brief pause, a giant of a man yanked at his arm, pulling him into the sea of rabid faces.
Ehawk had never seen the sea, of course, but he could imagine it from Sir Oneu’s vivid descriptions—like a lake that rose and fell. Alvaer was like a man drowning in such water. He fought his way above the waves and was pulled down again. He reappeared once more, farther away and very bloody. Ehawk thought the monk was missing an eye.
Alvaer struggled back up a final time—and then was gone.
Meanwhile, the other monks and Sir Oneu continued the slaughter, but bodies were piling too thick for the horses to move. Gavrel was next to die, pulled into the throng and torn limb from limb.
“They will overwhelm us!” Sir Oneu shouted. “We must break free.” He urged Airece forward, his sword arm rising and falling, hewing limbs that grappled at him and his mount. Ehawk’s pony screamed and pranced, and suddenly a man was there, tearing at Ehawk’s leg with filthy, ragged nails. He shouted, dropped his bow, and yanked out his dirk. He stabbed and felt rather than saw the blade cut. The man ignored him and leapt up, caught Ehawk by the arm, and began to pull with hideous strength.
Then suddenly Martyn was beside him, and the attacker’s head bouncing on the ground. Ehawk watched with detached fascination.
He looked back up in time to see Sir Oneu go down, three men attached to his sword arm and two more tugging at him. He shouted in anguish as they pulled him from his horse. The monks fought forward, moving with absurd speed, striking, it seemed, in all directions at once.
They did not reach Sir Oneu in time. A rock hit Ehawk in the shoulder; several struck Martyn, one in the head. He swayed for just an instant, but kept in his saddle.
“Follow me,” Martyn told Ehawk. “Do not flinch.”
He wheeled his horse away from his two brothers and plunged off the trail. Dazed, Ehawk never considered disobeying. Martyn’s sword whirled too quickly to be seen, and the monk had chosen his direction wisely, picking the point where the attackers were thinnest. Beyond the battle was a broad stream.
They plunged into the water, and their steeds sank deep and began to swim. They managed the other side, where the slope was gentle and their mounts found purchase.
A look back showed their attackers already following.
Martyn reached over and took Ehawk by the shoulder. “News of this must reach the praifec. Do you understand? Praifec Hespero, in Eslen. It’s much for me to ask of you, but you must swear to do it.”
“Eslen? I can’t go to Eslen. It’s too far, and I don’t know the way.”
“You must. You must, Ehawk. I lay it as a dyinggeison you.” Several of their pursuers splashed into the stream, swimmingclumsily.
“Go with me,” Ehawk desperately begged. “I cannot do it without you.”
“I’ll follow if I can, but I must hold them here, and you must ride as hard as that horse will take you. Here.” He detached a pouch from his belt and thrust it into Ehawk’s hand. “There’s coin there, not much. Spend it wisely. Within is also a letter with a seal. That will get you before the praifec. Tell him what we’ve seen here. Do not fail. Now go!”
Then he had to turn to meet the first of the madmen emerging from the stream. He split the fellow’s skull like a melon, then shifted his footing and prepared to meet the next.
“Go!” he shouted, without looking back. “Or we all have died in vain.”
Something snapped in Ehawk then, and he spurred his horse and rode until the mare stumbled in exhaustion. Even then, he did not stop, but kept the poor beast at what pace it could maintain. Sobs tore from his chest until it ached, and then the stars came out.
He rode always west, for he knew it was somewhere in that direction that Eslen lay.PART I
The Year 2,223 of Everon
The Month of Novmen
The last day of Otavmen is the day of Saint Temnos. The first six days in Novmen are, in their turn, Saint Dun, Saint Under, Saint Shade, Saint Mefitis, Saint Gavriel, and Saint Halaqin. Taken together, these are the Shadow Days, where the World of the Quick meets the World of the Dead.
—fromThe Almanack of Presson Manteo
And after twelve long months he grieved
His lover’s ghost rose from the deep
What do you want from me my love
That troubles my eternal sleep?
I want a kiss, oh love of mine
A single kiss from thee
And then I’ll trouble you no more
I’ll let you sleep in peace
My breath is ice and sea my love
My lips are cold as clay
And if you kiss my salt wet lips
You’ll never live another day
—from “The Drowned Lover,” a folk song of VirgenyaCHAPTER ONE
He shall be cursed to live, and thus bring ruin to life.
—translated from theTaflksTaceisorBook ofMurmurs
NEIL MEQVREN RODE with his queen down a dark street in the city of the dead. The tattoo of their horses’ hooves was drowned by hail shattering on lead cobbles. The wind was a dragon heaving its misty coils and lashing its wet tail. Ghosts began to stir, and beneath Neil’s burnished breastplate, beneath his chilled skin and cage of bone, worry clenched.
He did not mind the wind or frozen rain. His homeland was Skern, where the frost and the sea and the clouds were all the same, where ice and pain were the simplest facts of life. The dead did not bother him either.
It was the living he feared, the knives and darts the dark and weather hid from his merely human eyes. It would take so little to kill his queen—the prick of a tiny needle, a hole the size of a little finger in her heart, a sling-flung stone to her temple. How could he protect her? How could he keep safe the only thing he had left?
He glanced at her; she was obscured in a wool weather-cloak, her face shadowed deep in the cowl. A similar cloak covered his own lord’s plate and helm. They might appear to be any two pilgrims, come to see their ancestors—or so he hoped. If those who wanted the queen dead were grains of sand, there would be strand enough to beach a war galley.
They crossed stone bridges over black water canals that caught bits of the fire from their lantern and stirred them into gauzy yellow webs. The houses of the dead huddled between the waterways, peaked roofs shedding the storm, keeping their quiet inhabitants dry if not warm. A few lights moved elsewhere between the lanes—the queen, it seemed, was not the only one undeterred by the weather, determined to seek the company of the dead this night. The dead could be spoken to on any night, of course, but on the last night of Otavmen—Saint Temnosnaht—the dead might speak back.
Up the hill in Eslen-of-the-Quick, they were feasting, and until the storm came, the streets had been filled with dancers in skeleton costume and somber Sverrun priests chanting the forty hymns of Temnos. Skull-masked petitioners went from house to house, begging soulcakes, and bonfires burned in public squares, the largest in the great assembly ground known as the Candle Grove. Now the feasts had gone inside homes and taverns, and the procession that would have wound its way to the Eslen-of-Shadows had shrunk from a river to a brook in the fierce face of winter’s arrival. The little lamps carved of turnips and apples were all dark, and there would be little in the way of festival here tonight.
Neil kept his hand on the pommel of his broadsword, Crow, and his eyes were restless. He did not watch the moving light of the lanterns, but the darkness that stretched between. If something came for her, it would likely come from there.
The houses grew larger and taller as they passed the third and fourth canals, and then they came to the final circle, walled in granite and iron spears, where the statues of Saint Dun and Saint Under watched over palaces of marble and alabaster. Here, a lantern approached them.
“Keep your cowl drawn, milady,” Neil told the queen.
“It is only one of the scathomen, who guard the tombs,” she answered.
“That may or may not be,” Neil replied.
He trotted Hurricane up a few paces. “Who’s there?” he called. The lantern lifted, and in its light, an angular, middle-aged face appeared from the shadows of a weather-cloak. Neil’s breath sat a little easier in his lungs, for he knew this man—Sir Len, indeed, one of the scathomen who dedicated their lives to the dead.
Of course, the appearance of a man and what was inside him were two different things, as Neil had learned from bitter experience. So he remained wary.
“I must ask you the same question,” the old knight replied to Neil’s question.
Neil rode nearer. “It is the queen,” he told the man.
“I must see her face,” Sir Len said. “Tonight of all nights, everything must be proper.”
“All shall be proper,” the queen’s voice came as she lifted her lantern and drew back the deep hood of her cloak.
Her face appeared, beautiful and hard as the ice falling from the sky.
“I know you, lady,” Sir Len said. “You may pass. But . . .” His words seemed to go off with the wind.
“Do not question Her Majesty,” Neil cautioned stiffly.
The old knight’s eyes speared at Neil. “I knew your queen when she wore toddling clothes,” he said, “when you were never born nor even thought of.”
“Sir Neil is my knight,” the queen said. “He is my protector.”
“Auy. Then away from here he should take you. You should not come to this place, lady, when the dead speak. No good shall come of it. I have watched here long enough to know that.”
The queen regarded Sir Len for a long moment. “Your advice is well-intended,” she said, “but I will disregard it. Please question me no more.”
Sir Len bowed to his knee. “I shall not, my queen.”
“I am queen no longer,” she said softly. “My husband is dead. There is no queen in Eslen.”
“As you live, lady, there is a queen,” the old knight replied. “In truth, if not in law.”
She nodded her head slightly, and they passed into the houses of the royal dead without another word.
They moved under the wrought-iron pastato of a large house of red marble, where they tethered the horses, and with the turn of an iron key left the freezing rain outside. Within the doors they found a small foyer with an altar and a hall that led into the depths of the building. Someone had lit the hall tapers already, though shadows still clung like cobwebs in the corners.
“What shall I do, lady?” Neil asked.
“Keep guard,” she answered. “That is all.”
She knelt at the altar and lit the candles.
“Fathers and mothers of the house Dare,” she sang, “your adopted daughter is calling, humble before her elders. Honor me, I beg you, this night of all nights.”
Now she lit a small wand of incense, and an aroma like pine and liquidambar seemed to explode in Neil’s nostrils.
Somewhere in the house, something rustled, and a chime sounded. Muriele rose and removed her weather-cloak. Beneath was a gown of boned black safnite. Her raven hair seemed to blend into it, making an orphan of her face, which appeared almost to float. Neil’s throat caught. The queen was beautiful beyond compare, and age had done little to diminish her beauty, but it was not that which twisted Neil’s heart—rather, it was that for just an instant she resembled someone else.
Neil turned his gaze away, searching the shadows.
The queen started up the corridor.
“If I may, Majesty,” he said quickly. “I would precede you.”
She hesitated. “You are my servant, and my husband’s kin will see you as such. You must walk behind me.”
“Lady, if there is ambush ahead—”
“I will chance it,” she replied.
They moved down a hall paneled in bas-reliefs depicting the deeds of the house Dare. The queen walked with measured step, head bowed, and her footsteps echoed clearly, despite the distant hammering of the storm on the slate roof.
They entered a great chamber with vaulted ceilings where a long table was prepared, thirty places set with crystal goblets. In each, wine as red as blood had been poured. The queen paced by the chairs, searching, until she found the one she sought, and then she sat, staring at the wine.
Outside the wind groaned.
Long moments passed, and then a bell sounded, and another. Twelve in all, and with the midnight stroke, the queen drank from the cup.
Neil felt something pass in the air, a chill, a humming.
Then the queen began to speak, in a voice deeper and huskier than usual. The hairs on Neil’s neck prickled at the sound of it.
“Muriele,” she said. “My queen.”
And then, as if answering herself, she spoke in her more usual tone. “Erren, my friend.”
“Your servant,” the deeper voice replied. “How fare you? Did I fail?”
“I live,” Muriele answered. “Your sacrifice was not in vain.”
“But your daughters are here, in this place of dust.”
Neil’s heartbeat quickened, and he realized he had moved. He was standing near one of the chairs, staring at the wine.
“All of them?”
“No. But Fastia is here, and sweet Elseny. They wear shrouds, Muriele. I failed them—and you.”
“We were betrayed,” Muriele replied. “You did all you could, gave all you could. I cannot blame you. But I must know about Anne.”
“Anne . . .” The voice sighed off. “We forget, Muriele. The dead forget. It is like a cloud, a mist that eats more of us each day. Anne . . .”
“My youngest daughter. Anne. I sent her to the coven of Saint Cer, and no word has come from there. I must know if the assassins found her there.”
“Your husband is dead,” the voice called Erren replied. “He does not sleep here, but calls from far away. His voice is faint, and sad. Lonely. He did love you.”
“William? Can you speak to him?”
“He is too distant. He cannot find his way here. The paths are dark, you know. The whole world is dark, and the wind is strong.”
“But Anne—you cannot hear her whisper?”
“I remember her now,” Erren crooned, in the queen’s voice. “Hair like strawberry. Always trouble. Your favorite.”
“Does she live, Erren? I must know.”
Silence then, and to his surprise Neil found the glass of wine in his hand. It was only distantly that he heard the reply.
“I believe she lives. It is cold here, Muriele.”
More was said, but Neil did not hear it, for he raised the cup before him and drank.
He set the cup on the table as he swallowed the bitter sip he’d taken. He stared into the remaining wine, which calmed and became a red mirror. He saw himself in it; his father’s strong jaw was there, but his blue eyes were black pits and his wheat hair ruddy, as if he examined a portrait painted in blood.
Then someone stood behind him, and a hand fell on his shoulder. “Do not turn,” a feminine voice whispered.
But now he saw her face instead of his mirrored in the wine. He smelled her lavender fragrance.
“I was called that, wasn’t I?” Fastia said. “And you were my love.” He tried to face her then, but the hand tightened on his shoulder. “Do not,” she said. “Do not look at me.”
His hand trembled the wineglass, but the image of her in it remained untroubled. She smiled faintly, but her eyes were lamps burning sadness.
“I wish . . .” he began, but could not finish.
“Yes,” she said. “So do I. But it could not have been, you know. We were foolish.”
“And I let you die.”
“I don’t remember that. I remember you holding me in your arms. Cradled, like a child. I was happy. That is all I remember, and soon I will not even remember that. But it is enough. It is almost enough.” Fingers traced chills on the back of his neck. “I must know if you loved me,” she whispered.
“I have never loved anyone as I loved you,” Neil said. “I shall never love another.”
“You will,” she said softly. “You must. But do not forget me, for I will forget myself, in time.”
“I would never,” he said, vaguely aware that tears were coursing down his face.
A drop fell into the wine, and the shade of Fastia gasped. “That is cold,” she said. “Your tears are cold, Sir Neil.”
“I am sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for everything, milady. I cannot sleep—”
“Hush, love. Quiet, and let me tell you something while I still remember. It’s about Anne.”
“The queen is here, asking about Anne.”
“I know. She speaks to Erren. But there is this, Sir Neil, a thing I have been told. Anne is important. More important than my mother or my brother—or any other. She must not die, or all is lost.”
“The age of Everon is ending,” she said. “Ancient evils and fresh curses speed it. My mother broke the law of death, did you know?”
“The law of death?”
“It is broken,” she affirmed.
“I don’t understand.”
“Nor do I, but it is whispered in the halls of bone. The world is now in motion, rushing toward its end. All who live stand at the edge of night, and if they pass, none shall follow them. No children, no generations to come. Someone is standing there, watching them pass, laughing. Man or woman I do not know, but there is little chance they can be stopped. There is only the smallest opportunity to set things right. But without Anne, even that possibility does not exist.”
“Without you, I do not care. I do not care if the world goes into oblivion.”
The hand came onto his shoulder and stroked across the back of his neck. “You must,” she said. “Think of the generations unborn and think of them as our children, the children we could never have. Think of them as the offspring of our love. Live for them as you would for me.”
“Fastia—” He turned then, unable to bear it any longer, but there was nothing there, and the touch on his shoulder was gone, leaving only a fading tingle.
The queen was still staring at her wine, whispering.
“I miss you, Erren,” she said. “You were my strong right hand, my sister, my friend. Enemies surround me. I don’t have the strength for it.”
“There is no end to your strength,” Erren replied. “You will do what must be done.”
“But what you showed me. The blood. How can I do that?”
“You will make seas of blood in the end,” Erren said. “But it isnecessary. You must.”
“I cannot. They would ever allow it.”
“When the time comes, they cannot stop you. Now hush, Muriele, and bid me peace, for I must go.”
“Do not. I need you, specially now.”
“Then I’ve failed you twice. I must go.”
And the queen, who these past months might have been forged of steel, put her head down and wept. Neil stood by, his heart savaged by Fastia’s touch, his mind burning with her words.
He wished for the simplicity of battle, where failure meant death rather than torment.
Outside, the sounds of the storm grew stronger as the dead returned to their sleep.
Sleep never came, but morning did. By the sun’s first light the storm was gone, and they began the ascent from Eslen-of-Shadows to Eslen-of-the-Quick. A clean, cold sea wind was blowing, and the bare branches of the oaks lining the path glistened in sheaths of ice.
The queen had been silent all night, but while they were still some distance from the city gates she turned to him.
“Sir Neil, I have a task for you.”
“Majesty, I am yours to command.”
She nodded. “You must find Anne. You must find the only daughter I have left.”
Neil gripped his reins tighter. “That is the one thing I cannot do, Majesty.”
“It is my command.”
“My duty is to Your Majesty. When the king knighted me, I was sworn to stay at your side, to protect you from all danger. I cannot do that if I am traveling afar.”
“The king is dead,” Muriele said, her voice growing a bit harsher. “I command you now. You will do this thing for me, Sir Neil.”
“Majesty, please do not ask this of me. If harm should befall you—”
“You are the only one I can trust,” Muriele interrupted. “Do you think Iwantto send you from my side? To send away the one person I know will never betray me? But that is why you must go. Those who killed my other daughters now seek Anne—I’m certain of it. She remains alive because I sent her away, and no one at the court knows where she is. If I trust any other than you with her location, I compromise that knowledge and open my daughter to even greater danger. If I tell only you, I know the secret is still safe.”
“If you believe her secure where she is, should you not leave her there?”
“I cannot be sure. Erren intimated that the danger is still great.”
“The danger to Your Majesty is great. Whoever employed the assassins that slew your husband and daughters meant to kill you, as well. They still do, surely.”
“Surely. I am not arguing with you, Sir Neil. But I have given my command. You will make ready for a long journey. You will leave tomorrow. Pick the men who will guard me in your absence—I trust your judgment more than my own in such matters. But for your own task you must travel alone, I fear.”
Neil bowed his head. “Yes, Majesty.”
The queen’s voice softened. “I am sorry, Sir Neil. I truly am. I know how badly your heart has been hurt. I know how keen your sense of duty is and how terribly it was wounded at Cal Azroth. But you must do this thing for me. Please.”
“Majesty, I would beg all day if I thought you would change your mind, but I see that you won’t.”
“You have good vision.”
Neil nodded. “I will do as you command, Majesty. I will be ready by morning.”CHAPTER TWOz’Espino
ANNE DARE, YOUNGEST daughter of the Emperor of Crotheny, Duchess of Rovy, knelt by a cistern and scrubbed clothes with raw and blistered hands. Her shoulders ached and her knees hurt, and the sun beat her like a golden hammer.
Only a few yards away, children played in the cool shade of a grape arbor, and two ladies in gowns of silk brocade sat sipping wine. Anne’s own dress—a secondhand shift of cotton—hadn’t been washed in days. She sighed, wiped her brow, and made sure her red hair was secure beneath her scarf. She sneaked a longing glance at the two women and continued her work.
She cast her mind away from her hands, a trick she was becoming quite adept at, and imagined herself back home, riding her horse Faster on the Sleeve or eating roasted quail and trout in green sauce, with gobs of fried apples and clotted cream for desert.
Scrub, scrub, went her hands.
She was imagining a cool bath when she suddenly felt a sharp pinch on her rump. She turned to find a boy about four or five years younger than she—perhaps thirteen—grinning as if he’d just told the best joke in the world.
Anne slapped the clothes onto the scrubbing board and spun on him. “You horrible little beast!” she shouted. “You’ve no more manners than—!”
She caught the women looking at her then, their faces hard.
“He pinched me,” she explained. And just to be sure they understood, she pointed. “There.”
One of the women—a blue-eyed, black-haired casnara named da Filialofia—merely slitted her eyes. “Who exactly do you think you are?” she asked, her tone quite flat. “Who, by all the lords and ladies in earth and sky, do you think you are that you can speak to my son in such a manner?”
“Wherever do you find such servants?” her companion Casnara dat Ospellina asked sourly.
“But h-he—” Anne stuttered.
“Be silent this instant, you little piece of foreign trash, or I will have Corhio the gardener beat you. And he will do quite more to youtherethan pinch it, I daresay. Forget not whom you serve, whose house you are in.”
“A proper lady would raise her brat to have better manners,” Anne snapped.
“And what would you know of that?” da Filialofia asked, crossing her arms. “What sort of manners do you imagine you were taught in whatever brothel or pigsty your mother abandoned you to? Certainly, you did not learn to mind your place.” Her chin tilted up. “Get out. Now.”
Anne picked herself up from her kneeling position. “Very well,” she said, facing them squarely. She held out her hand.
Da Filialofia laughed. “Surely you don’t think I’m going to pay you for insulting my house, do you? Leave, wretch. I’ve no idea why my husband hired you in the first place.” But then she cracked a faint smile that didn’t even hint at good humor. “Well, perhaps I do. He might have found you entertaining, in a barbaric sort of way. Were you?”
For a long moment Anne was simply speechless, and for a moment longer she was poised between slapping the woman—which she knewwouldearn her a beating—and simply walking away.
She didn’t quite do either. Instead she recalled something she had learned in her last week working at the triva.
“Oh, no, he has no time forme,” she said sweetly. “He’s been much too busy with Casnara dat Ospellina.”
And then she did walk away, smiling at the furious whispers that began behind her.
The great estates lay on the north side of z’Espino, most of them overlooking the azure water of the Lier Sea. As Anne passed through the gate of the house, she stood for a moment in the shade of chestnut trees and gazed out across those foam-crested waters. North across them lay Liery, where her mother’s family ruled. North and east was Crotheny, where her father sat as king and emperor, and where her love, Roderick, must be giving up hope by now.
Just a little water separating her from her rightful station and everything she loved, and yet that little bit of water was expensive to cross. Princess though she was, she was penniless. Nor could she tell anyone who she was, for she had come to z’Espino with terrible danger on her heels. She was safer as a washerwoman than as a princess.
“You.” A man on a horse rode up the lane and sat looking down at her. She recognized by his square cap and yellow tunic that he was anaidilo, charged with keeping order in the streets.
“Move along. Don’t tarry here,” he said brusquely.
“I’ve just come from serving the casnara da Filialofia.”
“Yes, and now you’re done, so you must go.”
“I only wanted to look at the sea for a moment.”
“Then look at it from the fish market,” he snapped. “Must I escort you there?”
“No,” Anne said, “I’m going.”
As she trudged down a lane bounded by stone walls topped with shards of broken glass to prevent climbing, she wondered if the servants who worked on her father’s country estates were treated so shabbily. Surely not.
The lane debouched onto the Piato dachi Meddissos, a grand court of red brick bounded on one side by the three-story palace of the meddisso and his family. It wasn’t so grand as her father’s palace in Eslen, but it was quite striking, with its long colonnade and terrace gardens. On the other side of the piato stood the city temple, an elegant and very ancient-looking building of polished umber stone.
The piato itself was a riot of color and life. Vendors with wooden carts and red caps hawked grilled lamb, fried fish, steamed mussels, candied figs, and roasted chestnuts. Pale-eyed Sefry, hooded and wrapped against the sun, sold ribbons and trifles, stockings, holy relics, and love potions from beneath colorful awnings. A troop of actors had cleared a space and were performing something involving sword fighting, a king with a dragon’s tail, Saint Mamres, Saint Bright, and Saint Loy. Two pipers and a woman with a hand-drum beat a fast melody.
In the center of the piato, a stern-eyed statue of Saint Netuno wrestled two sea serpents, which twined about his body and spewed jets of water into a marble basin. A group of richly dressed young men lounged at the edge of the fountain, fondling their sword hilts and whistling at girls in gaudy dresses.
She found Austra near the edge of the square, almost on the steps of the temple, sitting next to her bucket and scrub brush.
Austra watched her approach and smiled. “Finished already?” Austra was fifteen, a year younger than Anne, and like Anne she wore a faded dress and a scarf to cover her hair. Most Vitellians were dark, with black hair, and the two girls stood out enough without advertising their gold and copper tresses. Fortunately, most women in Vitellio kept their heads covered in public.
“In a manner of speaking,” Anne said.
“Oh, I see. Again?”
Anne sighed and sat down. “I try, truthfully I do. But it’s so difficult. I thought the coven had prepared me for anything, but—”
“You shouldn’t have to do these things,” Austra said. “Let me work. You stay in the room.”
“But if I don’t work, it will take us that much longer to earn our passage. It will give the men who are hunting us that much more time to find us.”
“Maybe we should take our chances on the road.”
“Cazio and z’Acatto say the roads are much too closely watched. Even the road officers are offering reward for me now.”
Austra looked skeptical. “That doesn’t make sense. The men who tried to kill you at the coven were Hansan knights. What do they have to do with Vitellian road officers?”
“I don’t know, and neither does Cazio.”
“If that’s the case, won’t they be watching the ships, as well?”
“Yes, but Cazio says he can find a captain who won’t ask questions or tell tales—if we have the silver to pay him off.” She sighed. “But that’s not yet, and we have to eat, too. Worse, I was paid nothing today. What am I going to do tomorrow?”
Austra patted her shoulder. “I got paid. We’ll stop at the fish market and the carenso and buy our supper.”
The fish market was located at the edge of Perto Nevo, where the tall-masted ships brought their cargoes of timber and iron, and took in return casks of wine, olive oil, wheat, and silk. Smaller boats crowded the southern jetties, for the Vitellian waters teemed with shrimp, mussels, oysters, sardines, and a hundred other sorts of fish Anne had never heard of. The market itself was a maze of crates and barrels heaped with gleaming sea prizes. Anne looked longingly at the giant prawns and black crabs—which were still kicking and writhing in tuns of brine—and at the heaps of sleek mackerel and silver tuna. They couldn’t afford any of that and had to push deeper and farther, to where sardines lay sprinkled in salt and whiting was stacked in piles that had begun to smell.
The whiting was only two minsers per coinix, and it was there the girls stopped, noses wrinkled, to choose their evening meal.
“Z’Acatto said to look at the eyes,” Austra said. “If they’re cloudy or cross-eyed, they’re no good.”
“This whole bunch is bad, then,” Anne said.
“It’s the only thing we can afford,” Austra replied. “There must be one or two good ones in the pile. We just have to look.”
“What about salt cod?”
“That has to soak for a day. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry now.”
A low feminine voice chuckled over their shoulders. “No, sweets, don’t buy any of that. You’ll be sick for a nineday.”
The woman speaking to them was familiar—Anne had seen her often on their street, but had never spoken to her. She dressed scandalously and wore a great deal of rouge and makeup. She’d once heard z’Acatto say he “couldn’t afford that one,” so Anne figured she knew the woman’s profession.
“Thanks,” Anne said, “but we’ll find a good one.”
The woman looked dubious. She had a strong, lean face and eyes of jet. Her hair was put up in a net that sparkled with glass jewels, and she wore a green gown, which, though it had seen better days, was still nicer than anything Anne owned at the moment.
“You two live on Six-Nymph Street. I’ve seen you—with that old drunkard and the handsome fellow, the one with the sword.”
“Yes,” Anne replied.
“I’m your neighbor. My name is Rediana.”
“I’m Feine and this is Lessa,” Anne lied.
“Well, girls, come with me,” Rediana said, her voice low. “You’ll find nothing edible here.”
“I’ll not bite you,” Rediana said. “Come.”
Motioning them to follow, she led the two back to a table of flounder. Some were still flopping.
“We can’t afford that,” Anne said.
“How much do you have?”
Austra held out a ten-minser coin. Rediana nodded.
“Parvio!” The man behind the tray of flounder was busy gutting a few fish for several well-dressed women. He was missing one eye, but didn’t bother to cover the white scar there. He might have been sixty years old, but his bare arms were muscled like a wrestler’s.
“Rediana,mi cara,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“Sell my friends a fish.” She took the coin from Austra’s hand and passed it to him.
He looked at it, frowned, then smiled at Anne and Austra. “Take whichever pleases you, dears.”
“Melto brazi, casnar,” Austra said. She selected one of the flounders and put it in her basket. With a wink, Parvio handed her back a five-minser coin. The fish ought to have cost fifteen.
“Melto brazi, casnara,” Anne told Rediana, as they started toward the carenso.
“It’s nothing, dear,” Rediana said. “Actually, I’ve been hoping for a chance to talk to you.”
“Oh. About what?” Anne asked, a tad suspicious of the woman’s goodwill.
“About a way you could put fish like that on the table every day. You’re both quite pretty, and quite exotic. I can make something out of you. Not for those oafs on our street, either, but for a better class of client.”
“You—you want us to—?”
“It’s only difficult the first time,” Rediana promised. “And not so hard as that. The money is easy, and you’ve got that young swordsman to look out for you, if you come across a rough customer. He works for me already, you know.”
“Yes. He looks after some of the girls.”
“And he put you up to this?”
She shook her head. “No. He said you would turn your noses up at me. But men often don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“He does this time,” Anne said, her voice frosty. “Thank you very much for your help with the fish, but I’m afraid we must decline your offer.”
Rediana’s eyes sharpened. “You think you’re too good for it?”
“Of course,” Anne said, before she could think better of it.
“No,” Anne said. “No, you don’t. I think you’re too good for it, too. No woman should have to do that.”
That put a queer little smile on Rediana’s face. But she shrugged. “Still you don’t know what’s best for you. You could earn more in a day than you do now in a month, and not ruin your looks with scrubwork. Think about it. If you change your mind, I’m easy enough to find.” With that, she sauntered off.
The two girls walked in silence for a few moments after Rediana left them. Then Austra cleared her throat. “Anne, I could—”
“No,” Anne said angrily. “Thrice no. I would rather we never made it home, than on those terms.”
Anne was still fuming when they reached the carenso at the corner of Pari Street and the Vio Furo, but the smell of baking bread put everything from her mind but her hunger. The baker—a tall, gaunt man always covered in flour—gave them a friendly smile as they entered. He was slashing the tops of uncooked country loaves with a razor while behind him his assistant slid others into the oven on a long-handled peel. A large black dog lying on the floor looked up sleepily at the girls and put his head back down, thoroughly uninterested.
Bread was piled high in baskets and bins, in all shapes and sizes—golden brown round loaves the size of wagon wheels and decorated with the semblance of olive leaves, rough logs as long as an arm, smaller perechi you could wrap one hand around, crusty egg-shaped rolls dappled with oats—and that was just at first glance.
They spent two minsers on a warm loaf and turned their feet toward the Perto Veto, where their lodgings were located.
There they walked streets bounded by once-grand houses with marble-columned pastatos and balconied upper windows, picking their way through a shatter of unreplaced roof tiles and wine carafes, breathing air gravid with the scents of brine and sewage.
It was four bells, and women with low-cut blouses and coral-red lips—ladies of Rediana’s profession—were already gathered on the upper-story balconies, calling to men who seemed as if they might have money and taunting those who did not. A knot of men on a cracked marble stoop passed around a jug of wine and whistled at Anne and Austra as they went by.
“It’s the Duchess of Herilanz,” one of the men shouted. “Hey, Duchess, give us a lass.”
Anne ignored him. In her month quartered in the Perto Veto, she had determined that most such men were harmless, though annoying.
At the next cross-street they turned up an avenue, entered a building through an open door, and climbed the stairs to their second-floor apartment. As they approached, Anne heard voices above—z’Acatto and someone else.
The door was open, and z’Acatto glanced up as they entered. He was an older man, perhaps fifty, a bit paunchy, his hair more gray than black. He sat on a stool talking to their landlord, Ospero. The men were of about the same age, but Ospero was nearly bald, and stockier yet. They both looked pretty drunk, and the three empty wine carafes that lay on the floor confirmed that impression. There was nothing unusual about that—z’Acatto stayed drunk most of the time. “Dena dicolla, casnaras,” z’Acatto said.
“Good evening, z’Acatto,” Anne returned, “Casnar Ospero.”
“You’re home early,” z’Acatto noticed.
“Yes.” She didn’t elaborate.
“We brought fish and bread,” Austra said brightly.
“That’s good, that’s good,” the old man said. “We’ll need a white with that, perhaps a vino verio.”
“I’m sorry,” Austra said. “We didn’t have money for wine.”
Ospero grunted and produced a silver menza. He squinted at it, then flipped it toward Austra. “That for the wine, my pretty della.” He paused a bit to leer at the two girls, then shook his head. “You know the place by Dank Moon Street? Escerros? Tell him I sent you. Tell him that will buy two bottles of the vino verio, or I’ll come crack his head.”
“But I was—” Austra began.
“Go on, Austra. I’ll cook the fish,” Anne said. She didn’t like Ospero. There seemed something vaguely criminal about him and his friends. On the other hand, z’Acatto had somehow managed to convince him to rent them their rooms on credit for a week, and he had never done more than leer at her. They relied on his good graces, so she held her tongue.
She went to the cramped pantry and took out a jar of olive oil and a pouch of salt. She put a little of the oil into a small earthenwarecrematro, sprinkled both sides of the fish with salt, and placed it in the oil. She stared despondently at the preparation, wishing for the hundredth time that they could afford—oreven find—butter for a change. Then she sighed, put the lid on thecrematro, and carried it back down the stairs, then through an inner first-floor door into the small courtyard that was shared by the building’s inhabitants.
A few women were gathered around a small pit of glowing coals. There wasn’t yet room for her dish, so she took a bench and waited, gazing absently around the dreary walls of flaking stucco, trying to imagine it as the orchard courtyard in her father’s castle.
A male voice foiled her attempt. “Good evening, della.”
“Hello, Cazio,” she said without turning.
“How are you this evening?”
She noticed there was room at the fire now, and stood to take the crematro over to it, but Cazio interposed himself.
“Let me,” he said.
Cazio was tall and lean, only slightly older than Anne, dressed in dark brown doublet and scarlet hose. A rapier in a battered scabbard hung at his side. His dark eyes peered down at her from a narrow, handsome face. “Your day didn’t go well?”
“Not as well as yours, I’m sure,” she replied, handing him the crematro.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean the work you’ve chosen must give you ample opportunity for refreshment.”
He looked puzzled.
“And don’t try to look coy,” she said. “I spoke with Rediana today. She told me what you’ve been doing.”
“Ah,” he said. He went over to place the roasting pan on the ashes and used a charred stick to bank them up around the edges. Then he came back and sat next to her. “You don’t approve?”
“It’s nothing to me.”
“It ought not to be. I’m doing this for you, remember? I’m trying to earn passage for us to escort you home.”
“And yet we seem no nearer to departing than we were a month ago.”
“Sea passage does not come cheap, especially when the cargo must remain secret. Speaking of which, take especial care. There are more men searching the streets for you than ever. I wonder if you know why.”
“I’ve told you, I don’t.” It wasn’t exactly a lie. She had no idea why there was a price on her head, but she figured it had to do somehow with her station and the dreams that troubled even her waking hours. Dreams that she knew came from—elsewhere.
“I took your word for silver,” he said, “and I still do. But if there is any suspicion you have . . .”
“My father is a wealthy and powerful man. That’s the only cause I can imagine.”
“Do you have some rival who vies for his affections? A stepmother, perhaps? Someone who would prefer not to see you return?”
“Oh, yes, my stepmother,” Anne said. “How could I have forgotten? There was that time when she sent me out with the huntsman and told him to bring my heart back. I would have died, then, if the old fellow hadn’t taken a shine to me. He took her back the heart of a boar instead. And then there was that other time, when she sent me to fetch water, never mentioning the nicwer that lived in the stream, waiting to charm me and eat me. Yes, those events should have been clues to my present situation, but I suppose I didn’t suspect her because dear father assured me she has changed so.”
“You’re being sarcastic, aren’t you?” Cazio guessed.
“This isn’t a phay story, Cazio. I don’t have a stepmother. There’s no one in the family who would wish me ill. My father’s enemies might, on the other hand, but I couldn’t say exactly who they are. I’m not very political.”
Cazio shrugged. “Ah, well.” Then a smile brightened his face. “You’rejealous,” he accused.
“I’ve just figured it out. You think I’m sleeping with Rediana’s ladies, and you’re jealous.”
“I am not jealous,” Anne said. “I already have a true love, and he is not you.”
“Oh, yes, the fabled Roderick. A wonderful man, I hear. A true prince. I’m sure he would have answered your letter, if given another few months to get around to it.”
“We’ve been around this before.” Anne sighed. “Escort whomever you wish, do with them what you will. I am grateful to you, Cazio, for all your help, but—”
“Wait.” Cazio’s voice was clipped now, his face suddenly very serious.
“What is it?”
“Your father sent you to the coven Saint Cer, didn’t he?”
“It was my mother, actually,” she corrected.
“And did your true love Roderick know where you were bound?”
“It all happened too quickly. I thought I was going to Cal Azroth, and told him that, and then that very night my mother changed her mind. I had no way to send him word.”
“He couldn’t have discovered it through gossip?”
“No. I was sent away in secret. No one was supposed to know.”
“But then you dispatched a letter to your beloved—a letter I delivered to the Church cuveitur myself—and in a matter of ninedays those knights came to the coven. Doesn’t that strike you as suspicious?”
It did strike—it struck like tinder in Anne’s breast.
“You go too far, Cazio. You have slandered Roderick before, but to suggest—to imply . . .” She stammered off, too angry to continue, all the more because it made a sort of sense. But it couldn’t be true, because Roderick loved her.
“The knights were from Hansa,” she said. “I knew their language. Roderick is from Hornladh.”
But silently she remembered something her aunt Lesbeth once told her. It seemed long ago, but it was something about Roderick’s house being out of favor at court because they had once supported a Reiksbaurg claim to the throne.
No. It’s ridiculous.
She was about to tell Cazio that when Austra suddenly burst into the courtyard. She was out of breath, and her face was flushed and wet with tears.
“What’s wrong?” Anne asked, taking Austra’s hands.
“It’s horrible, Anne!”
“I s-s-saw a cuveitur. He was giving out the news in the square, by the wine shop. He’d just come from— Oh, Anne, what shall we do?”
Her friend bit her lip and looked into Anne’s eyes. “I have terrible news,” she whispered. “The worst in the world.”CHAPTER THREEThe Composer
LEOVIGILD ACKENZAL STARED at the spear with a mixture of fear and annoyance.
The fear was entirely rational; the sharp end of the weapon was poised only inches from his throat, and the man holding the shaft was large, armored, and mounted on a ferocious-looking steed. His iron-gray eyes reminded Leoff of the pitiless waters of the Ice Sea, and it seemed to him that if this man killed him, he would not even remember him in the morning.
There was certainly nothing he could do to stop the fellow if murder was on his mind.
That he should also be annoyed was quite irrational, he supposed, but in truth it had little to do with the armored man. Days before—in the hill country—he’d heard a faint melody off in the distance. No doubt it had been some shepherd playing a pipe, but the tune had haunted him ever since, the worse because he’d never heard the end of it. His mind had completed it in a hundred ways, but none of them were satisfactory.
This was unusual. Normally, Leoff could complete a melody without the slightest effort. The fact that this one continued to elude him made it more tantalizing than a beautiful, mysterious—but reluctant—lover.
Then, this morning, he’d awoken with a glimmer of how it ought to go, but less than an hour on the road brought this rude interruption.
“I have little money,” Leoff told the man truthfully. His voice shook a bit as he said it.
The hard eyes narrowed. “No? What’s all that on your mule, then?”
Leoff glanced at his pack animal. “Paper, ink, my clothes. The large case is a lute, the smaller a croth. Those smallest ones are various woodwinds.”
“Auy? Open them, then.”
“They won’t be of any value to you.”
Trying not to take his gaze off the man, Leoff complied, opening first the leather-bound case of the lute, which sounded faintly as the gourd-shaped back bumped against the ground. Then he proceeded to unpack the rest of his instruments; the eight-stringed rosewood croth inlaid with mother-of-pearl that Mestro DaPeica had given him years ago. A wooden flute with silver keys, an hautboy, six flageolets of graded sizes, and a dark red krummhorn.
The man watched this with little expression. “You’re a minstrel, then,” he said at last.
“No,” Leoff replied. “No, I’m not.” He tried to stand taller, to make the most of his average height. He knew there was little intimidating about his hazel eyes, curly brown hair, and boyish face, but he could at least be dignified.
The fellow raised an eyebrow. “Then what exactly are you?”
“I’m a composer.”
“And what does a composer do?” the man asked.
“He composes music.”
“I see. And how does that differ from what a minstrel does?”
“Well, for one thing—”
“Play something,” the man interrupted.
“You heard me.”
Leoff frowned, his annoyance growing. He looked around, hoping to find someone else, but the road stretched empty so far as the eye could see. And here in Newland, where the terrain was as level as a sounding board, that was very far indeed.
Then why hadn’t he seen the approach of the man on a horse?
But the answer to that lay in the melody he’d been puzzling over. When he heard music in his head, the rest of the world simply didn’t matter.
He picked up the lute. It had gone out of tune, of course, but not badly, and it was only a moment’s work to set it right again. He plucked out the melody line he’d been working on. “That’s not right,” he murmured.
“Youcanplay, can’t you?” the mounted man challenged.
“Don’t interrupt me,” Leoff said absently, closing his eyes. Yes, there it was, though he’d lost the end.
He started into it, a single line on the top string, rising in three notes, dropping into two, then tripping up the scale. He added a bass accompaniment, but something about it didn’t fit. He stopped and started again. “That’s not very good,” the man said.
That was too much, spear or no. Leovigild turned his eyes on the fellow. “It would bequitegood if you hadn’t interrupted me,” he said. “I almost had this in my head, you know, perfect, and then along you come with your great long spear and . . . What do you want with me, anyway? Who are you?” He noticed distantly that his voice wasn’t shaking anymore.
“Who areyou?” the man asked placidly.
Leoff drew himself up straight. “I am Leovigild Ackenzal,” he said.
“And why do you approach Eslen?”
“I have an appointment to the court of His Highness, William the Second, as a composer. The emperor has a better opinion of my music than you do, it seems.”
Bizarrely, the man actually smiled. “Not anymore, he doesn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s dead, that’s what I mean.”
Leoff blinked. “I . . . I didn’t know.”
“Well, he is. Along with half the royal family.” He shifted in his saddle. “Ackenzal. That’s a Hanzish-sounding name.”
“It is not,” Leoff replied. “My father was from Herilanz. I myself was born in Tremar.” He pursed his lips. “You aren’t a bandit, are you?”
“I never said I was,” the fellow replied. “I haet Artwair.”
“You are a knight, Sir Artwair?”
Again, that ghost of a smile. “Artwair will do. Do you have a letter proving your claim?”
“Ah, yes. Yes, I do.”
“I would very much like to see it.”
Wondering why Artwair should care, Leoff nevertheless rummaged through his saddle pack until he found a parchment with the royal seal. He handed it to the warrior, who examined it briefly.
“This looks in order,” he said. “I’m returning to Eslen just now. I’ll escort you there.”
Leoff felt the muscles of his neck unknotting. “Very kind of you,” he said.
“Sorry if I gave you a fright. You shouldn’t have been traveling alone, anyway—not in these times.”
By noon, the infant-eyed sky of morning was cataracted an oppressive gray. This did nothing to improve Leoff’s mood. The landscape had changed; no longer totally flat, the road now ran alongside some sort of embankment or ridge of earth. It was so regular in shape, it seemed to him that it must be man-made. In the distance he could see similar ridges. The strangest things were the towers that stood on some of them. They looked as if they had huge wheels fixed to them, but with no rims, only four big spokes covered in what looked like sailcloth. They turned slowly in the breeze.
“What is that?” Leoff asked, gesturing at the nearest.
“First time in Newland, eh? It’s a malend. The wind turns it.”
“Yes, I can see that. For what purpose?”
“That one pumps water. Some are used to grind grain.”
“It pumps water?”
“Auy. If it didn’t, we’d be talking fishling right now.” Sir Artwair gestured broadly at the landscape. “Why do you think they call this Newland? It used to be underwater. It would be now, but the malenden keep pumping it out.” He pointed to the top of the embankment. “The water is up there. That’s the great northern canal.”
“I should have known that,” Leoff said. “I’ve heard of the canals, of course. I knew that Newland was below the level of the sea. I just—I suppose I thought I wasn’t that far along yet. I thought it would be more obvious, somehow.”
He glanced at his companion. “Does it ever make you nervous?”
Sir Artwair nodded. “Auy, a bit. Still, it’s a wonder, and good protection against invasion.”
“We can always let the water out through the dikes, of course, so any army marching on Eslen would have to swim. Eslen itself is high and dry.”
“What about the people who live out here?”
“We’d tell them first. Everyone knows the way to the nearest safe birm, believe me.”
“Has it ever been done?”
“Auy. Four times.”
“And the armies were stopped?”
“Three of them were. The fourth was lead by a Dare, and his descendents sit yet in Eslen.”
“About that—about the king—” Leoff began.
“You’re wondering if there’s anyone left to sing to for your supper.”
“I’m not unconcerned with that,” Leoff admitted, “but clearly I’ve missed a great deal of news while on the road. I’m not even sure of the date.”
“It’s the Temnosenal. Tomorrow is the first of Novmen.”
“Then I’ve been on the road longer than I thought. I left in Seftmen.”
“The very month the king was killed.”
“It would be a kindness . . .” Leoff began, and then, “Could you please tell me what happened to King William?”
“Surely. He was set upon by assassins while on a hunting expedition. His entire party was slain.”
“Assassins? From where?”
“Sea reavers, they say. He was near the headland of Aenah.”
“And others of the royal house were slain with him?”
“Prince Robert, his brother, was slain there, as well. The princesses Fastia and Elseny were murdered at Cal Azroth.”
“I don’t know that place,” Leoff said. “Is it near to where the king was killed?”
“Not at all. It’s more than a nineday’s hard riding.”
“That seems a very strange coincidence.”
“It does, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, it is the case, and it doesn’t go well for those who suggest otherwise.”
“I see,” Leoff said. “Then can you tell me—who rules in Eslen now?”
Artwair chuckled softly. “That depends on whom you ask. There is a king—Charles, the son of William. But he is, as they say, touched by the saints. He must be advised, and there’s no lack of advice available to him. The nobles of the Comven give it most freely and at every opportunity. The praifec of the Church has much to say, as well. And then there’s William’s widow, the mother of Charles.”
“Ah, so you know something, at least,” Artwair said. “Yes, if you had to pick one person to say rules Crotheny, she would be the best choice.”
“I see,” Leoff said.
“So you say you’re worried about your position?” the knight said. “Are positions for your sort rare?”
“There are other patrons who would have me,” Leoff admitted. “I am not without reputation. I last served the Greft of Glastir. Still, a royal appointment . . .” He looked down. “But that’s a small thing, isn’t it, in all this mess.”
“At least you have some sense, composer. But cheer up—you may have your position yet—the queen may honor it. Then you’ll be right in the thick of things when the war starts.”
“War? War with whom?”
“Hansa—or Liery—or perhaps a civil war.”
“Are you joking with me?”
Artwair shrugged. “I have a sense for these things. All is chaos, and it usually takes a war to sort things out.”
“Saint Bright, let’s hope not.”
“You don’t fancy marching songs?”
“I don’t know any. Can you sing some?”
“Me, sing? When your mule is a warhorse.”
“Ah, well,” Leoff sighed. “Just a thought.”
They traveled in silence for a time, and as evening came, a mist settled, made rosy by the waning sun. The lowing of cattle sounded in the distance. The air smelled like dried hay and rosemary, and the breeze was chill.
“Will we reach Eslen tonight?” Leoff asked.
“Only if we travel all night, which I don’t fancy,” Sir Artwair replied. He seemed distracted, as if he were searching for something. “There’s a town where the road crosses the canal up here. I know an inn there. We’ll take a room, and with an early start we’ll be in Eslen by midday tomorrow.”
“Is something wrong?”
Artwair shrugged. “I’ve an itchy feeling. It’s likely nothing, as in your case.”
“Were you searching for anything in particular when we met?”
“Nothing in particular and everything out-of-place. You were outof place.”
“And what’s out of place now?”
“Did I say anything was?”
“No, but something is—it shows in your face.”
“And what would a minstrel know about my face?”
Leoff scratched his chin. “I told you, I’m not a minstrel. I’m a composer. You asked what the difference was. A minstrel—he goes from place to place, selling songs, playing for country dances, that sortof thing.”
“And you do it for kings.”
“There’s more. You’re from hereabouts? You’ve been [missing].”
“Minstrels might travel in a group as large as four. Two on the croth, one on a pipe, and another to play the hand-drum and sing.”
“I’m with you so far.”
“There’s a tune—‘The Fine Maid of Dalwis.’ Do you know it?”
Artwair looked a bit surprised. “Yah. It’s a favorite at the Fiussanal.”
“Imagine it. One crother plays the melody, then another comes in, playing the same tune, but starting a bit after, so it makes a round. Then the third joins, and finally the singer. Four voices as it were, all at counterpoints to one another.”
“I don’t know counterpoint, but I know the song.”
“Good. Now imagine ten croths, two pipes, a flute, an hautboy, a greatpipe, and every one playing something different.”
“I reckon it would sound like a barnyard full of animals.”
“Not if it’s written right and the musicians perform it fair. Not if everything is in its place. I can hear such a piece, in my head. I can imagine it before it’s ever been played. I have a fine sense for things like that, Sir Artwair, and I can see when someone else does, whether it’s for music or not. There’s something bothering you. The trick is, do you know what that thing is?”
The knight shook his head. “You’re a strange man, Leovigild Ackenzal. But, yes—this town I mentioned, Broogh—it’s just ahead. But what do you hear, with those musician’s ears of yours?”
Leoff concentrated for a moment. “Sheep bleating, far away. Cows. Blackbirds.”
“Raeht. By now we ought to hear children hollering, wives yelling at their men to lay off the ale and come home, bells and horns sounding in the field, workers. But there’s none of that.” He sniffed the air. “No smell of cooking, either, and we’re downwind.”
“What could it mean?”
“I don’t know. But I think we won’t go in by the main road.” He cocked his head. “What use are you if there’s trouble? Can you use a sword or spear?”
“Then you’ll wait here, up at the malend. Tell the windsmith that Artwair said to look after you for a bell or so.”
“Do you think it’s that serious?”
“Why would a whole town go silent?”
Leoff could think of a few reasons, all bad. “As you say,” he sighed. “I’d only be in the way if there’s trouble.”
After ascending to the birm of the dike, Leoff stood for a moment, musing at what a few feet in altitude did to transform Newland.
Mist collected in the low places like clouds, but from his heightened vantage he could see distant canals dissecting the landscape, coral ribbons that might have been cut from the dusky sky and laid on those amber fields by the saints themselves. Here and there he could even make out moving slivers that must be boats.
Lights were beginning to appear, as well, faint clusters of luminescence so pale, they might be the ephemeral dwellings of the Queer-folk rather than what they must be—the candlelit windows of distant towns and villages.
At his feet lay the great canal itself, broader than some rivers—but indeed, it must be a river, probably the Dew, caught here in walls built by human hands, kept here by ingenuity. It was indeed a wonder. Finally he studied the malend, wondering exactly how it worked. Its wheel was turning in the breeze, but he couldn’t see how it was keeping the water from drowning the land below. It squeaked faintly as it rotated, a pleasant sound.
A cheerful yellow light shone through the open door of the malend, and the smell of burning wood and fish grilling wafted out. Leoff got down off his mule and rapped on the wood. “Auy?Who is it?” a bright tenor voice asked. A moment later a face appeared, a small man with white hair sticking out at all angles. Age seemed to have collapsed his face, so wrinkled it was. His eyes shone, though, a pale blue, like lapis bezeled in leather.
“My name is Leovigild Ackenzal,” Leoff replied. “Artwair said to kindly ask if I might rest here a bell or so.”
“Artwair, eh?” The old man scratched his chin. “Auy. Wilquamen. I haet Gilmer Oercsun. Be at my home.” He gestured a bit impatiently.
“That’s very kind,” Leoff replied.
Inside, the lowest floor of the malend tower was a single cozy room. A hearth was set into one wall, where a cookfire crackled. An iron pot hung over the flame, as well as a spit that had two large perch skewered on it. A small bed was butted up against the opposite wall, and two three-legged stools sat nearer the fire. From the roof beams hung nets of onions, a few bunches of herbs, a wicker basket, swingle-blades, hoes, and hatchets. A ladder led to the next floor.
In the center of the room, a large wooden shaft lifted in and out of a stone-lined hole in the floor, presumably driven somehow by the windwheel above.
“Unburden ‘zuer poor mule,” the windsmith said. “Haveth-yus huher?”
“I beg your pardon?” Artwair’s dialect had been strange. The windsmith’s was nearly unintelligible.
“Yu’s an faerganger, eh?” His speech slowed a bit. “Funny accent you have. I’ll try to keep with the king’s tongue. So. Have you eaten? You have hungry?”
“I don’t want to inconvenience you,” Leoff said. “My friend ought to be back soon.”
“That means you’ve hungry,” the old man said.
Leoff went back out and took his things off the mule, then let her roam on the top of the dike. He knew from experience that she wouldn’t go far.
When he reentered the malend, he found one of the fish awaiting him on a wooden plate, along with a chunk of black bread and some boiled barley. The windsmith was already sitting on one of the stools, his plate on his knees.
“I don’t have a board just now,” he apologized. “I had to burn it. Wood from upriver has been a little spotty, these last few ninedays.”
“Again, thank you for your kindness,” Leoff said, picking at the crisp skin of the fish.
“Nay, think nothing of it. But where is Artwair gang, that you can’tgo?”
“He’s afraid something’s wrong in Broogh.”
“Hm. Has been quiet there this even’, that’s sure. Was wonderin’ about it minself.” He frowned. “Like as so, don’t think I even heardthe vespers bell.”
If that brought Gilmer any further thoughts, he didn’t share them, but tucked into his meal. Leoff followed suit.
When the meal was done, Gilmer tossed the bones in the fire. “Where’ve you come from, then?” he asked Leoff.
“Glastir, on the coast,” he replied.
“That’s far, auy? Mikle far. And how do you know Artwair?”
“I met him on the road. He’s escorting me to Eslen.”
“Oh, gang to the court? Dark times, there, since the night of the purple moon. Dark times everywhere.”
“I saw that moon,” Leoff said. “Very strange. It reminded me of a song.”
“An unhealthy song, I’ll wager.”
“An old one, and puzzling.”
“Sing a bit of it?”
“Ah, well . . .” Leoff cleared his throat.
Riciar over fields did ride
Beneath the mountains of the west
And there the palest queen he spied
In lilies fair taking her rest
Her arms shone like the fullest moon
Her eyes glimed like the dew
On her gown rang silver bells
Her hair with precious diamonds strewn
All hail to thee, oh my great queen
All hail to thee he cried
For thou must be the greatest saint
That ere a man has spied
Said she truly I am no saint
I am no goddess bright
But it’s the queen of Alvish lands
You’ve come upon tonight
Oh Riciar welcome to my fields
Beneath the mountains of the west
Come and take with me repose
Of mortal knights I love thee best
And I will show thee wonders three
And what the future holds
And I will share my wine with thee
My arms wilt thou enfold
And there beneath the western sky
She showed him wonders three
And in the after bye and bye
She gave him Alvish eyes to see
Oh Riciar stay with me awhile
Keep here for an age or two
Leave the lands of fate behind
And sleep with oak and ash and yew
Here’s my gate of earth and mist
Beyond my country fair
Of all the knights upon the earth
Thou art most welcome there
I will not go with thee great queen
I will not pass thy gate
But will return unto my liege
In the lands of Fate
If thou wilt not stay with me
If thou art bound to leave
Then give to me a single kiss
And I’ll remember thee
So he bent down to kiss her there
Beneath the mountains of the west
She pulled a knife out from her hair
And stabbed it through his chest
He rode back to his mother’s home
His heart’s blood pouring true
My son, my son, you are so pale
What has become of you
O mother I am wounded sore
And I shall die today
But I must tell you what I’ve seen
Before I’ve gone away
A purple scythe shall reap the stars
An unknown horn shall blow
Where regal blood spills on the ground
The blackbriar vines shall grow
Leoff finished the song, Gilmer listening in evident pleasure. “You’ve a fine voice,” the old man said. “I don’t cann of this Riciar fellow, but all he said has come to pass.”
“Well, the purple scythe—that was the crescent moon that rose last month, as you said. And a horn was blown—it was heard everywhere. In Eslen, at the bay, out on the islands. And the royal blood was spilled, and then the brammel-briars.”
“Auy. You aens’t heard? They sprang up first at Cal Azroth, where the two princesses were slain. Sprouted right from their blood, it’s said, just as in your song. They grew so fast, they tore down the keep there, and they creep still. They spell the King’s Forest is full of ‘em, too.”
“I haven’t heard that at all,” Leoff said. “I’ve been on the road from Glastir.”
“Sure the news has been up the road by now,” Gilmer said. “How did it miss you?”
Leoff shrugged. “I traveled with a Sefry caravan, and they spoke to me very little. This past nineday I was alone, but I was preoccupied, I suppose.”
“Preoccupied? What with the end of the world coming, and all?”
“End of the world?”
Gilmer’s voice lowered. “Saints, man, don’t you know anything? The Briar King has wakened. That’s his brammels eating up the land. That washishorn you heard blaw.”
Leoff stroked his chin. “Briar King?”
“An ancient demon of the forest. The last of the evil old gods, they say.”
“I’ve never—no, wait, thereisa song about him.”
“You’re right full of songs.”
Leoff shrugged. “Songs are my trade, you might say.”
“You’re a minstrel?”
Leoff sighed and smiled. “Something like that. I take old songs and make them into new ones.”
“A songsmith, then. A smith, like me.”
“Yes, that’s more the case.”
“Well, if it’s a song about the Briar King, I don’t want to hear it. He’ll kill us all, soon enough. No need to trouble over him before it happens.”
Leoff wasn’t sure how to react to that, but he felt sure that if the world were about to end, Artwair would probably have mentioned it. “Very well,” he said at last, gesturing above. “Your malend. May I ask, how does it work?”
Gilmer brightened. “You saw the saglwic outside, auy? The wind spins it, which turns a shaft up there.” He pointed toward the roof. “Then there’s wooden cogs and gears, takes that turning and makes this shaft go up and down. That runs the pump, down under. I can show you tomorrow.”
“That’s very nice of you, but I won’t be here tomorrow.”
“You may be. Artwair has had time to gang and come from Broogh twice now, so something must be keeping him there. And I’m needin’ min rest. And judging by the way the Kuvoolds are pulling at your eyelids, I’d say you need a rest, as well.”
“I am rather tired,” Leoff realized.
“You’re welcome to stay until Artwair gets back, as I said. There’sanother bed, on the next floor, for just such a purpose. Take it, if you’d like.”
“I think I shall, even if it’s only for a short nap.” He climbed the ladder to the next level and found the bed, just under a window. It was well dark now, but the moon was out, and up the canal some half a league he saw what must be Broogh, a collection of house-shaped shadows, a wall, and four towers of varying height. He saw no light, however, not even so much as he had made out in the far more distant—and probably smaller—villages.
With a sigh he lay on the rough mattress, listening to the wolf-wings and nighthawks singing, tired but not sleepy. Above, he could hear the gears Gilmer had mentioned clattering and clucking, and somewhere near, the trickling of water.
The end of the world, eh? That was just his luck. At the age of thirty-two he had a royal appointment in his grasp, and the world was going to end.
If he still had a royal appointment.
His thoughts on the matter were interrupted by the sudden breathy voice of a recorder. It was so clear and beautiful, it might have been real, but he’d lived long enough with his gift to know it was in his head.
A melody began, and he smiled as his body relaxed and his mind went to work.
The malend was teaching him its song.
It came easily, first the alto recorder, the wind coming along from the east across green plains. And now the drum, as the wheel—saglwic?—began to turn, and croths—plucked here rather than bowed—began playing the melody in unison with the flute. Then joined the low strings of the bass croths, the vast waters beneath the earth responding, but still all melody, of course—and now water flowing into the canal, a merry trickling on a flageolet, as the malend became the union of air, earth, water, and craft.
Now the variations began, each element acquiring its own theme—the earth a slow pavane on the deep instruments, but on the pipes a mad, happy dance as the wind quickened, and the strings bowing nearly glissando arpeggios . . .
He blinked. His candle had gone out, and it was pitch-black. When had that happened?
But the concerto was finished, ready to go to paper. Unlike the melody in the hills, the dance of the malend had come to him whole.
Which was perhaps why he only now realized that someone was in the room below, talking.
Two voices, and neither belonged to Gilmer Oercsun.
“. . . don’t see why we had got picked to dothisjob,” a voice said. It was a tenor voice, scratchy.
“Don’t complain,” another said. This one was a booming baritone. “Especially don’t complain aroundhim.”
“It’s just that I wanted tosee,” the first replied. “Don’t you want to be there, when they bust through the dike, and the water goes all a-rushin’ out?”
“You’ll see it,” the baritone replied. “You’ll see it well enough. You’ll be lucky not to swim in it.”
“Yah, I suppose. Still.” A cheerful tone crept into his voice. “But won’t it be fun, rowing a boat over all of that down there? Over the roofs of the houses? I’m going to row right over . . . what was the town?”
“Where the girl said you had a nose like a turtle’s prickler?”
“That’s the one.”
“Right. Hey, a turtle’s prickler is the best she’ll be getting, after tonight.”
“Still better than yours, from what I’ve heard,” the baritone said. “Now let’s be done here. We’ve got to burn every malend for four leagues before morning.”
“Yah, but why?”
“So they can’t pump the water back up, you dumb sceat. Now, come on.”
Burn?Leoff’s heart did a triple-quick-step.
The top of the stairway suddenly appeared, an orange rectangle, and he smelled burning oil.CHAPTER FOURThe Praifec
ASPAR WHITE FOUGHT to draw a breath, but he felt as if a giant hand were clenched around his throat. “Sceat, thiscan’tbe right,” he managed to gasp out. “Winna—”
Winna rolled her blue eyes and shook her honey locks. “Hush, Asp,” she admonished, “don’t be such a kindling. Haven’t you ever worn a Fading collar before?”
“I’ve never worn any damn sort of collar before,” Aspar grunted. “What’s the point?”
“The point is, you’re in Eslen, in the royal palace, not tramping through a heath in the uplands, and before the next bell you’re going to see His Grace, the Praifec of all Crotheny. You’ve got to dress for the occasion.”
“But I’m just a holter,” he complained. “Let me dress like one.”
“You killed the Black Warg and his bandit band, alone, with nothing but your bow, ax, and dirk. You fought a greffyn and lived. You mean to say now you’re afraid to wear a simple set of weeds?”
“They aren’t simple, I look stupid, and I can’t breathe.”
“You haven’t even seen yourself, and if you’ve got enough breath to whinge so, I’d say you’re doing fine. Now here, come to the mirror.”
He raised his eyebrows. Winna’s young face was broad with smile. Her hair was caught up in a black net of some sort, and she wore an azure gown that—to his mind—was cut far too low at the bodice. Not that the view didn’t please, but it would please every other man who saw it, too.
“Well, you look—ah—pretty, at least,” he said.
“Surely I do. And so do you. See?” She turned him toward the mirror.
Well, he recognized the face, even with it shaved clean. Burned dark by the sun, scarred and worn by forty-one years of hard living, it might not be pretty, but it was the sort of face the king’s holter ought to have.
From the neck down, he was a stranger. The tight, stiff collar was merely the most torturous part of a doublet made of some sort of brightly patterned cloth that ought to have ended up as a drape or a rug. Below that, his legs felt naked, clothed as they were in tight green hose. He felt altogether like a candied apple on a stick.
“Who ever thought of dressing like this?” He grunted. “It’s as if some madwoman tried to think of the most ridiculous outfit imaginable, and—Grim’s eye—succeeded.”
“Madwoman?” Winna asked.
“Yah, well, no man would ever invent such a clownish suit. It must have been some sort of evil trick. Or a dare.”
“You’ve been at court long enough to know better,” Winna said. “The men here love their plumage.”
“Yah,” he conceded, “and I’m damn ready to be away from here, too.”
Her eyes narrowed a little, and she wagged an accusing finger. “You’renervousabout meeting the praifec.”
“I’m no such a thing,” he snapped.
“Youaresuch a thing! A nervous little kindling thing!”
“I haven’t had much to do with the Church, that’s all,” he grumbled. “Other than killing a few of their monks.”
“Outlaw monks,” she reminded him. “You’ll do fine, just try not to blaspheme—in other words, try not to talk at all. Let Stephen do the talking.”
“Oh, yah, that will be a comfort,” Aspar muttered sarcastically. “He’s the soul of tact.”
“He’s a churchman, though,” Winna pointed out. “He ought to know more about talking to a praifec than you do.”
That brought a sharp little laugh from near the door. Aspar glanced over to see that Stephen had entered and was leaning against the frame, clad much as he was but appearing far more comfortable. His mouth was quirked in a smile, and his brown hair was swept back in something approaching courtly fashion. “Iwasin the Church,” Stephen said. “Before committing heresy, disobeying my fratrex, getting him killed, and fleeing my monastery. I doubt much that His Grace the Praifec will have many good things to say to me.”
“Like as not,” Aspar agreed, “we’ll end this meeting in a dungeon.”
“Well,” Winna said, primly, “at least we’ll go well-dressed.”
Praifec Marche Hespero was a tall man of upper middle years. He had a narrow face made sharper by a small black goatee and mustache. His black robes were draped on a body to suit—thin, almost birdlike. His eyes were like a bird’s, as well, Aspar reflected—like a hawk’s or an eagle’s eyes.
He received them in a somber, spare room of gray stone with low-beamed ceilings. In the baroque splendor of Eslen Castle, it seemed very much out of place. The praifec sat in an armchair behind a large table. To his left sat a dark-complexioned boy of perhaps sixteen winters, looking at least as uncomfortable in his courtly garb as Aspar felt. Other than that, Aspar, Winna, and Stephen were the only people in the chamber.
“Sit, please,” the praifec said pleasantly.
Aspar waited until Stephen and Winna took their chairs, then settled in the one that remained. Grim knew if it was the right one. If there was a right one. He still smarted from an incident with spoons at a banquet the nineday before. Who needed more than one sort of spoon?
When they were seated, the praifec rose and clasped his hands behind his back. He looked at Aspar. “Aspar White,” he said in a soft voice, soft as the fabric of Winna’s dress. “You’ve been the royal holter for many years.”
“More years than I care to remember, Your Grace.”
The praifec smiled briefly. “Yes, the years chase us, do they not? I put you at a man of some forty winters. It’s been some time since I saw that age.” He shrugged. “What we lose in beauty, we gain in wisdom, one hopes.”
“Ya—yes, Your Grace.”
“You’ve a distinguished career up until now, all in all. Several acts of an almost impossible sort—did you really sort out this Black Warg all by yourself?”
Aspar shifted uncomfortably. “That’s been made a bit much of,” he said.
“Ah,” the praifec said. “And the affair of the Relister?”
“He’d never fought a man with dirk and ax, Your Grace. His armor slowed him down.”
“Yes, I’m sure.” He glanced at a paper on the table. “I see a few complaints, here, as well. What’s this about the Greft of Ashwis?”
“That was a misunderstanding,” Aspar said. “His lordship was mad with drink, and taking a firebrand to the forest.”
“Did you really bind and gag him?”
“The king saw it my way, sir.”
“Yes, eventually. But there’s this thing with Lady Esteiren?”
Aspar stiffened. “The lady wanted me for a holiday guide, Your Grace, which is in no way my charge. I tried to be polite.”
“And failed, it seems,” the praifec said, a touch of amusement in his voice.
Aspar started a reply, but the praifec held up his hand, shook his head, and turned to Stephen.
“Stephen Darige, formerly a fratir at the monastery d’Ef.” He peered down his nose at Stephen. “You’ve made quite an impression on the Church during your very brief tenure with it, haven’t you, Brother Stephen?”
Stephen frowned. “Your Grace, as you know, the circumstances—”
The praifec cut him off. “You’re from a family of good standing, I see. Educated at the college in Ralegh. An expert in antique languages, which you put to use at d’Ef translating forbidden documents, which translation—as I understand it, correct me if I get this wrong—led both to the death of your fratrex and the commission of unspeakable acts of dark sorcery.”
“This is all true, Your Grace,” Stephen replied, “but I did my work at the command of the fratrex. The dark sorcery was practiced by renegade monks, led by Desmond Spendlove.”
“Yes, well, you see, there’s no proof of any of that,” the praifec pointed out. “Brother Spendlove and his compatriots are all dead, as is Fratrex Pell. This is convenient for you, as there is no one to contradict your story.”
“And yet you admit to summoning the Briar King, whose appearance is said to foretell the end of the world.”
“It was an accident, Your Grace.”
“Yes. That will be small comfort if the world is actually in the process of ending, will it not?”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Stephen replied miserably.
“Nonetheless, your admission of guilt in that case goes far to suggest that you’re telling the truth. Privately, I confess I had long suspected something was awry at d’Ef. The Church, after all, is made up of men and women, all of whom are fallible, and as prone to corruption as anyone. We are doubly on the watch now, you may be assured.”
He turned at last to Winna.
“Winna Rufoote. Hostler’s daughter from Colbaely. Not a holter, not in the Church. How in Heaven did you become involved in all this?”
“I’m in love with this great lump of a holter, Your Grace,” she replied.
Aspar felt his face color.
“Well,” the praifec said. “There’s no accounting for such things, is there?”
“Likely not, Your Grace.”
“Yet you were with him when he tracked the greffyn, and at Cal Azroth when the Briar King appeared. You were also a captive of the Sefry, Fend, said to be responsible for much of what happened.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Well.” His lips pressed into a thin line. “I give you a choice, Winna Rufoote. We are about to speak of things that cannot go beyond the walls of this room. You may remain and become a part of something which could prove quite dangerous in several different ways—or you may leave, and I will have you escorted safely back to your father’s inn in Colbaely.”
“Your Grace, I’m a part of this. I’ll stay.”
Aspar found himself standing suddenly. “Winna, I forbid—”
“Hush, you great bear,” Winna said. “When could you ever forbid me?”
“This time I do!” Aspar said.
“Silence, please,” the praifec said. He focused his raptor eyes on Aspar. “It’s her choice.”
“And she’s made it,” Winna said.
“Think carefully, my dear,” the praifec said.
“It’s done, Your Grace,” Winna replied.
The praifec nodded. “Very well.”
He placed his hand on the shoulder of the boy, who had sat silent through all of this. He had black hair and eyes to match, and his skin was dark, darker than Aspar’s.
“Allow me to present Ehawk, of the Wattau, a tribe from the Mountains of the Hare. You know of them, perhaps, Holter White.”
“Yah,” Aspar answered curtly. His mother had been Wattau, his father an Ingorn. The child they bore had never been welcome in either village.
The praifec nodded again. “The events you three have been a part of are of great concern to the Church, most especially the appearance of the so-called Briar King. Up until now, we have considered him to be nothing more than a folktale, a lingering superstition, perhaps inspired by an illiterate memory of the Warlock Wars or even the Captivity, before our ancestors broke the shackles of the demons who enslaved them. Now that he has appeared, of course, we must reassess the state of our knowledge.”
“If I may, Your Grace, my report—” Stephen began.
“I have read your reports, of course,” Hespero said. “Your work on the subject is laudable, but you lack the full resources of the Church. There is, in holy z’Irbina, a certain set of volumes which may be read only by His Holiness the Fratrex Prismo. Immediately on hearing of the events at Cal Azroth, I sent word to z’Irbina, and word has now come back to me.” He paused.
“Word and more,” he continued. “I will explain that later. Anyway, at the time I did not feel that I could wait to hear from z’Irbina. I sent, under Church auspices, an expedition to track this—creature, and to learn more of it. The expedition was a strong one; a knight of the Church and five monks of Mamres. They hired Ehawk in his village to act as a guide. Ehawk will now relate what he saw.”
“Ah,” Ehawk said. His accent was thick, and it was that of someone not used to speaking the king’s tongue. “Hello to you.” He fixed his eyes on Aspar. “I’ve heard of you, Sir Holter. I thought you’d be taller. It’s said your arrows are the size of spears.”
“I’ve shrunk down for His Grace,” Aspar grunted. “What did you see, boy, and where did you see it?”
“It in the territory of the Duth ag Pae, near Aghdon. One of the monks—Martyn—heard something. And there they were.”
“Men and women, but like beasts. They wore nothing; they carried no weapons. They tore up poor Sir Oneu with their bare hands and teeth. A madness was upon them.”
“Where did they come from?”
“They were the Duth ag Pae, I’m sure of it. Maybe all of them, except no children. There were old people, though.” He shuddered. “They ate the monks’ flesh as they killed them.”
“Do you know what might have driven them to madness?”
“It’s not just them, Sir Holter. As I fled, I came across village after village, all abandoned. I hid in holes and under leaves, but they found my horse and tore her up. I heard them at night, singing songs in no speech of the mountains.”
“But you escaped them.”
“Yah. When I left the forest, I left them. I came here because Martyn wished it.”
“Martyn was one of my most trusted servants,” the praifec amplified, “and very powerful in Mamres.”
“What sort of madness sweeps whole villages?” Stephen wondered.
“The old women . . .” Ehawk began; then his voice trailed off.
“It’s all right, Ehawk,” the praifec said reassuringly. “Speak what you will.”
“It’s one of the prophecies. They said that when the Etthoroam wakes, he will claim all in the forest for his own.”
“Etthoroam,” Stephen said. “I’ve seen that name. It’s what your people name the Briar King.”
“Aspar,” Winna murmured. “Colbaely is in the King’s Forest. My father. My family.”
“Colbaely is far from the country of the Duth ag Pae,” Aspar said.
“How does that matter, if what this boy says is true?”
“She has a point,” Stephen said.
“They are not confined to the depths,” the praifec said. “We’ve had reports of fighting in towns all along the edge of the King’s Forest, at least in the east.”
“Your Grace, you must pardon me,” Aspar said.
“For what crime?”
“Pardon me to leave. I’m the king’s holter. The forest is in my charge. I have to see this for myself.”
“Yes, to that second point I agree. As to the first—you are no longer the king’s holter.”
“I petitioned His Majesty to have you placed under my command. I need you, Aspar White. No one knows the forest as you do. You’ve faced the Briar King and lived—not once, but twice.”
“But he’s been a holter all his life!” Stephen exploded. “Your Grace, you can’t just—!”
The praifec’s voice was suddenly not soft. “I most certainly can, Brother Darige. I can and I have. And in point of fact, your friend is still a holter—the Church’s holter. What greater honor could he hope for?”
“But—” Stephen began again.
“If it’s all the same, Stephen,” Aspar said quietly, “I can speak for myself.”
“Please do,” the praifec urged.
He looked the praifec straight in the eye. “I don’t know much about courts or kings or praifecs,” he admitted. “I’m told I have few manners, and those I have are bad ones. But it seems to me, Your Grace, that you might haveaskedme before telling me.”
Hespero stared at him for a moment, then shrugged. “Very well. You have a point. I suppose I was letting my anxiety for the people of Crotheny and the greater world muddy my concern for the personal wishes of one man. I can always ask the king to change his decree—so I’ll ask you now.”
“What exactly is it Your Grace is requesting?”
“I want you to go to the King’s Forest and discover what is really happening there. I want you to find the Briar King, and I want you to kill him.”
A moment’s silence followed the praifec’s words. He sat there, watching them as if he had just asked that they go hunting and return with some fresh deer meat.
“Kill him,” Aspar said carefully, after a moment.
“Indeed. You killed the greffyn, did you not?”
“And it nearly killed Aspar,” Winna interjected. “Itwouldhave killed him, except that the Briar King somehow healed him.”
“You’re sure of that?” the praifec said. “Do you discount the saints and their work so easily? They do keep an eye on human affairs, after all.”
“The point is, Your Grace,” Stephen said, “that we do not know precisely what happened that day, what the Briar King is, or what he truly portends. We don’t know that the Briar King should be slain, and we do not know if hecanbe slain.”
“Hecanbe slain, and he must be slain,” Hespero said. “This can slay him.” He lifted a long, narrow leather case from behind his desk. It looked old, and Aspar saw some sort of faded writing stamped on it.
“This is one of the most ancient relics of the Church,” the praifec said. “It has been waiting for this day, and for someone to wield it. The Fratrex Prismo cast the auguries, and the saints have revealed their will.”
He opened one end of the case and gingerly withdrew an arrow.
Its head glittered, almost too brightly to be looked at.
“When the saints destroyed the Old Gods,” Hespero said, “they made this and gave it to the first of the Church fathers. It will kill anything that has flesh—beast canny or uncanny, or ancient, pagan spirit. It may be used seven times. It has already been used five.”
He replaced the arrow in the case and folded his hands before him.
“The madness Ehawk witnessed is the doing of the Briar King. The auguries say it will spread, like ripples in a pool, until all the lands of men are engulfed by it. Therefore, by command of the most holy senaz of the Church and the Fratrex Prismo himself, I am ordered to see that this shaft finds the heart of the Briar King. That, Aspar White, is the charge and the duty I am asking you to take up.”CHAPTER FIVEThe Sarnwood Witch
“WE CAN’T TAKE THEM ALL,” Anshar said grimly as he drew back the string of his bow. There was nothing to hit—the wolves were nothing more than shadows in the trees, and he was certain every shaft he had fired thus far had missed its mark. The Sarnwood was too dense, too tangled with vines and creepers for a bow to have much worth.
“Well, no,” the one-eyed Sefry to his left said coolly. “I don’t imagine we can. But we didn’t come here to fight wolves.”
“Perhaps you haven’t noticed, Fend,” Brother Pavel said, pushing wet brown bangs from his gaunt face. “We haven’t a choice.”
Fend sighed. “They aren’t attacking, are they?”
“They tore Refan to shreds,” Brother Pavel observed.
“Refan left the path,” Fend said. “We won’t be so foolish, will we?”
“You really think we’re safe if we stay on the path?” Anshar asked, looking down dubiously at the narrow trail they all three stood on. There seemed no real boundary between it and the howling wild of the forest, just a muddy mingling of earth and leaves.
“I didn’t say we were safe,” Fend amended with a grim sort of humor. “Only that the wolves won’t get us.”
“You’ve been wrong before,” Brother Pavel pointed out.
“Me?” Fend wondered. “Wrong?”
“At Cal Azroth, for instance,” Pavel persisted.
Fend stopped suddenly, focusing his single eye upon the monk. “In what way was I wrong?” the Sefry asked.
“You were wrong about the holter,” Pavel accused. “You said he wasn’t a threat.”
“Me, claim Aspar White wasn’t a threat? The one man who ever gave me a real wound in single combat? The man who took my eye? I don’t think I ever claimed, in anyone’s dreams, that Aspar White wasn’t a threat. I believe that might have been your friend Desmond Spendlove, who swore he would stop the holter ere he reached Cal Azroth.”
“He ruined our plans,” Pavel grumbled.
“Well, let’s see,” Fend said. “I’m confused by your wordruined. We killed the two princesses, didn’t we?”
“Yes, but the queen—”
“Escaped, I grant you that. But it wasn’t because I was wrong about anything—it was because we were outfought.”
“If we had stayed—”
“If we had stayed, we’d both be dead, and our cause would have two fewer champions,” Fend said. “Do you think you know the mind of our master better than I, Brother?”
Pavel kept his brow clenched, but finally he nodded. “No,” he admitted.
“No. And see? While we’ve been arguing, where are the wolves?”
“Still out there,” Anshar answered, “but not coming any closer.”
“No. Becauseshewants to know what we’ve come for. As long as she’s curious about us—as long as we obey her rules and stay on the path—we’ll be fine.” He clapped Pavel on the back. “Now will you stop worrying?”
Brother Pavel managed a fretful smile.
Anshar had heard about the business at Cal Azroth, but he hadn’t been there. Most of the monks involved in that conflict had been from d’Ef. He’d taken his training at the monastery of Anstaizha, far to the north in his native Hansa. He’d been sent south only a few ninedays ago, told by his fratrex to lend whatever aid he could to the strange Sefry and Brother Pavel.
He’d been told specifically that the Sefry, though not a churchman, was to be obeyed at all times.
So he had followed Fend here, to the place where all the most frightening children’s stories of his youth were supposed to have taken place—to the Sarnwood—in search of none other than the Sarnwood Witch herself.
The trail took them deeper, into a cleft between two hills which soon became a gorge rising in sheer walls on either side. He’d been raised in the country and was familiar with trees, and at the outskirts of the Sarnwood, he’d been able to name most of them. Now he knew almost none of them. Some were scaled and looked as if they were made of smaller snakes joined to larger ones. Others soared incredibly high before spreading spidery foliage. Yet others were less strange in appearance, but just as unidentifiable.
At last they came to a spring-fed pool of clear water whose banks were thick with moss and pale—almost white—ferns. The trees here were black and scaled, with drooping leaves that resembled saw-toothed blades. Empty gazes stared down at him from the human skulls nestled in the crooks of the branches. Anshar felt himself trying to back away, and he crushed the instinct with his will.
He smelled something musky and bitter.
“This is it,” Fend murmured. “This is the place.”
“What do we do now?” Anshar asked.
Fend drew a wicked-looking knife. “Come here, both of you,” he said. “She’ll want blood.”
Obediently, Anshar stepped to the Sefry’s side. Pavel did, too, but Anshar thought he saw hesitation there.
Meanwhile, Fend drew his blade across his palm. Blood welled from the line, and Anshar was half-surprised to see it was red as that of any human.
He glanced at the two of them. “Well?” he said. “She’ll want more than this.”
Anshar nodded and drew his own blade, and so did Brother Pavel.
Anshar was cutting his palm when he caught a peculiar motion from the corner of his eye.
Brother Pavel still stood there, his knife across his palm, but he was jerking oddly. Fend was facing him, holding his hand to Pavel’s head, as if to hold him up . . .
No.Fend had just thrust a knife through Brother Pavel’s left eye. Now he removed it and wiped it on Pavel’s habit. The monk continued to stand there, twitching, the remaining eye fixed on his half-cut palm.
“A lot more blood,” Fend amplified. He gave Pavel a push, and the monk toppled face-first into the pool. Then the Sefry looked up at Anshar. He felt a chill, but stood his ground.
“You aren’t worried you might be next?” Fend asked.
“No,” Anshar said. “If my fratrex sent me here as a sacrifice, a sacrifice I’ll be.”
Fend’s lips twisted in a grudging smile. “You Churchmen,” he said. “You have such belief, such loyalty.”
“You don’t serve the Church?” Anshar asked, surprised. Fend just snorted and shook his head. Then he sang something in a peculiar language Anshar had never heard.
Something moved in the trees. He didn’t actually see the motion, but he felt and heard it. He had the impression of vast, scaly coils dragging themselves through the forest and contracting around the pool like a great Waurm of legend. Soon, he knew, it would poke its head through the tree trunks and open its vast, toothy mouth.
But what did step from the trees was very different from what his impressions had led him to imagine.
Her skin was whiter than milk or moonlight, and her hair floated about her like black smoke. He tried to avert his eyes because she was naked, and he knew he shouldn’t gaze upon her, but he couldn’t help it. She was so slim, so exquisitely delicate, that he first thought she was a child. But then his eyes were drawn to the small cups of her breasts and the pale blue nipples that tipped them. To his surprise he saw she had four more, smaller nipples arranged down her belly, like on a cat, and he suddenly understood that she was Sefry.
She smiled, and to his shame, he felt a surge of lust equaled only by his terror. She lifted a hand toward them, palm up, beckoning, and he took a step forward.
Fend stopped him with a hand on his chest.
“She’s not calling you,” he said, pointing to the pool.
Pavel suddenly gathered his arms and legs beneath him and pushed himself clumsily to his feet. He turned to face them.
“Why have you come, Fend?” Pavel croaked.
“I’ve come to speak to the Sarnwood Witch,” Fend replied.
“You’ve found her,” Pavel said.
“Really? I’d always heard that the Witch was a terrible ogress, a giant, a thoroughly ugly creature.”
“I have many appearances,” Pavel’s corpse said. “And there are many foolish stories told of me besides.” The woman cocked her head. “You killed the Dare princesses,” she said. “I smell it on you. But there were three daughters. Why didn’t you kill the third?”
Fend chuckled. “I thought my sacrifice entitledmeto havemyquestions answered.”
“Your sacrifice only ensures that I won’t slay you without hearing what you have to say. From here on out, you’ll have to stay in my good graces if you want anything more than that.”
“Ah,” Fend said. “Very well. The third daughter—I believe her name was Anne—was not present at Cal Azroth. Unknown to us, she was sent away.”
“Yes,” the corpse said. “I see. Others found her in Vitellia, but they failed to kill her.”
“So she’s still alive?” Fend asked.
“Was that one of your questions?”
“Yes, but it sounds as if it’s someone else’s problem now.”
“Earth and sky are being bent to find her,” Pavel said. “She must die.”
“Yes, well, I know that,” Fend replied. “But if, as you say she has been found—”
“And lost again.”
“Can you tell me where she is?”
“There, then,” Fend said. “The others lost her—they can find her again.”
“You had the queen in your grasp and did not kill her,” Pavel said.
“Yes, yes,” Fend replied. “It seems someone is always reminding me of that. An old friend of mine showed up and put something of a damper on the whole business. But as I understand it, the queen is not as important as Anne.”
“She is important—and have no fear, she will die. Your failure there will cost you little. And you are correct in one thing—the daughter iseverything, so far as your master is concerned.”
For the first time, Fend seemed surprised. “I wouldn’t call him amaster—you know whom I serve?”
“He came to me once, long ago, and now I smell him on you.” The woman lifted her chin, as did Pavel, in grotesque parody. “Is the war begun?” the corpse asked.
“How is it you know so much concerning certain matters and nothing concerning others?”
“I know much of the large, but little of the small,” Pavel said, and chuckled at the word play. Behind him, the woman just stood there, but Anshar could see her eyes now, a startling violet color.
“I can see the sweep of the river, but not eddies and currents, not the ships upon it or the leaves following it seaward. Your words supply me with that. You say one thing, and I see those things connected to it—and thus I learn the small things. Now. Has the war begun yet?”
“Not yet,” he replied, “but soon, I’m told. A few more pieces are moving into place. Not really my focus, that.”
“What is your focus, Fend? What did you really come here to discover?”
“They say you are the mother of monsters, O Sarnwood Witch. Is it true?”
“The very earth is pregnant with monsters. What do you seek?”
Fend’s smile spread, and Anshar felt an involuntary chill. When Fend answered her, he felt another, deeper one.CHAPTER SIXThe Eyes of Ash
IT WAS ONLY MOMENTS BEFORE smoke started boiling up through the stairwell and the crackling of flame rose over all other noises. The floor began to heat, and Leoff realized that if the malend were an oven, he was just where the bread ought to be.
He went to the window, wondering if the fall would break his leg, but jerked his head back when he saw two figures watching the malend burn, their faces ruddy in the light spilling from the door.
The brief glimpse he got wasn’t reassuring. One of them was nearly a giant, and Leoff could see the glint of steel in both their hands. They hadn’t searched the malend—they were letting the fire do it for them.
“Poor Gilmer,” he murmured. They had probably killed the little man in his sleep.
Which would probably be an easier fate than what lay in store for Leoff. It was already getting difficult to breathe. The flame was climbing for him, but the smoke would surely find him first.
He couldn’t go down; he couldn’t go out the window. That left only up, if he wanted to live even another few moments.
He found the ladder and climbed it to the next level. It was already smoky there, too, but not nearly so much as the level he had just left.
And it was dark, very dark. He could hear the gears working again, and something squeaking nearby. He must be in the machinery of the thing now.
He found the final ladder and went up it with trembling care. He had an image of getting a hand—or worse, his head—caught in an unseen cog.
The final floor wasn’t very smoky at all. He faintly made out a window and went to it hopefully. But they were still down there, and now the drop was ridiculous.
Trying to calm himself, Leoff felt around in the dark, and nearly shrieked when he touched something moving. He caught himself as he realized it was a vertical beam, turning—probably the central shaft that drove the pump.
Except that the shaft he’d seen on the first floor wasn’t rotating; it was moving up and down. The motion must be translated somehow on the floor just below.
That still didn’t seem right. The axis of the—what had Gilmer called it? The big veined spokes? Saglwic. Their axis would have to be horizontal, sothatmotion must be translated tothisshaft.
Which meant that there was something still above him.
Groping carefully above, he found a great-toothed wheel of wood at the top of the shaft. It was rotating. A little more feeling about, and he discovered the second wheel, set above the first and at right angles, so that the teeth meshed at the bottom of the second wheel to turn the first. Leoff figured that the shaft turning the second wheel must be connected to the windwheel itself.
He found that and followed it, not sure what he was looking for. The smoke had discovered him again, as had the heat.
The shaft passed through a greasy hole in the wall only incrementally larger than the smoothed beam itself.
He began to understand what he was looking for.
“There must besomeway to repair the saglwic— Yes!”
Below the shaft he found a latch, and lifting it allowed him to open a small square door. He cracked it open and peered out.
A pale moon sat on the horizon, and by its light he saw the spokes of the malend turning in the wind, and beyond that the waters of the canal, shining like silver. He saw no one below, but there were shadows enough to hide anything.
A shudder ran through the building, then another. Beams were collapsing below. The tower ought to stand, though, since it was made of stone.
A blast of hot air and a fist of flame followed the thought and came punching up through the ladder hole.
Saints, I don’t want to do this!he thought.But it’s this or burn.
Holding his breath, he followed the slow rhythm of the rotating spokes until he felt it with everything he had. The song of the malend came back to him, filled him up, and now he breathed in time with it.
He jumped on the downbeat. His legs jerked when he did it, and he nearly didn’t make it, but one hand caught the wooden latticework of the windsail. Without warning he found himself turning upside-down, but he managed to claw his other hand into the fabric. His stomach churned with fear and disorientation as the landscape retreated impossibly far below him. Then it was rushing back at him again, and he started climbing down the vane.
As it dipped near the ground, he hastened his pace, fearing to make another rotation, but it was still too far away. He clung tight as his perch swung up again, and oddly enough, his fear began to turn into a sort of exhilaration. His head was toward the axis now, and something seemed to be tugging at his feet, even when his feet were pointed toward the sky, as if the saints didn’t want him to fall. He went with the tug, climbing on even while upside-down, and when next the vane moved earthward, he was low enough to drop.
He hit the ground hard, but not breaking hard, and lay there in the grass for a moment.
But not for long. Keeping low, he moved away from the burning malend and toward the canal. He had almost reached it when a strong hand gripped his arm.
“Ssh!” a low voice commanded. “Quiet. It’s just me, Gilmer.”
Leoff closed his eyes and nodded, hoping his heart would not explode through his breastbone.
“Follow,” Gilmer said. “We’ve got to get away from here. The men who did this—”
“I saw them, on the other side of the malend.”
“Auy. Stupid, they are.”
“Well, there are no windows on this side to watch.” They reached the canal. Leoff saw that a small rowboat was moored there.
“Quickly,” Gilmer said, untying the rope. “Get in.” Only a few moments later they were out in the center of the canal, with Leoff pulling on the oars as hard as he could. Gilmer had taken the tiller.
“I was afraid you were dead,” Leoff said.
“Nay. I’d stepped outside to watch her turn. Heard ‘em come in and what they were talking about. I didn’t reckon I could stop ‘em.” He looked back at the malend. Flames were bursting from the top, and the windsails had caught like torches. They were still turning. “Sorry, love,” Gilmer said softly. “Rot ‘em for doing that to you. Rot ‘em.” Then he turned away.
“What now?” Leoff asked.
“Now we go to Broogh and see what mischief is goin’ on there.”
“But Artwair didn’t come back.”
“Then he may need our help.”
It seemed to Leoff that any trouble Artwair couldn’t get himself out of was likely tobefartoo much for the likes of a composer and a windsmith. He started to say as much, but then another thought occurred. Gilmer must have seen it on his face. “What?” the old man asked.
“My instruments. My things!”
The old man nodded sadly. “Auy. We’ve both lost today. Now think about what those folk down there will lose if these villains break the dike.”
“I just wonder what we can do. I can’t fight. I know nothing of weapons.”
“Well, me neither,” Gilmer replied, “but that doesn’t mean I’ll just let it happen.”
As if mourning the malend, the wind dropped, and stillness settled on the canal, broken only by the liquid pull of oars through water. Leoff watched the banks anxiously, fearing that the men might be following them along it, but nothing stirred through the stately silhouettes of the elms that bordered the waterway.
Soon the trees were joined by larger shadows—cottages at first, then tall buildings. The canal narrowed.
“The gate is ahead,” Gilmer whispered. “Be ready.”
“For what?” Leoff asked.
“I’ve no cann,” the elder man said.
The Watergate was a simple one made of wrought iron, and it was open. They passed almost noiselessly through it and into the town of Broogh.
The strange silence of the night was thicker there than it had been farther down the canal, as if Broogh were the very heart of the stillness. Neither did the faintest candle illumine the windows. They were filmed with moonlight like the eyes of the blind.
Quietly, Gilmer guided the small boat to a quay.
“You first,” he told Leoff. “Careful not to rock me.”
Leoff stepped gingerly from the boat and onto the stone landing, and a shiver ran up his spine as his feet touched solid ground.
Artwair had been right—something was terribly wrong here.
“Hold her steady for me,” Gilmer said. “Be useful, auy?”
“Sorry,” Leoff whispered. Even his faint reply seemed to echo in the silent town. He held the edge of the boat while the windsmith tied her off, feeling the pulse in his throat.
Broogh was beautiful, cloaked in moonlight. The tall, narrow buildings were leafed in silver, and the cobbles of the streets seemed liquid while the waters of the canal had become a sheet of mica. The bridge that must have given the town its name arched strong and elegant a few paces away, a saint sleeping in stone at each pillar. Beyond, across and down the canal, rose the bell tower of the church.
Just next to him, on the street parallel to the canal, a wooden sign was barely readable in faint light. It proclaimed the door beneath as the entrance to the paiter’s fatem. Beneath the words was a small wooden bas-relief of a fat sacritor filling a cup from a cask of wine.
When Gilmer finished with the boat, he pointed at the Paiter’s Fatem. “There,” he said. “That’s the busiest tavern in town, and it should be awful busy right now.”
Like every other building in Broogh, it was quiet and dark.
“We’ll have a look inside,” Gilmer murmured. “If everyone is hiding, you can bet half the town is hiding in there. In the cellar, maybe.”
“Hiding from what? A few rascals like the ones who burned your windmill?”
“No,” Gilmer said. “Broogh has a reputation.”
“What do you mean?”
“Evildoers have sought out this town in the past. Its location is perfect—break the dike here, and the water won’t stop for sixty leagues. It’s been tried. Thirty years ago, a renegade Hansan knight—Sir Remismund fram Wulthaurp—came here with twenty horse and a hundred foot. He installed himself in this very inn and sent letters to Eslen, threatenin’ to open the waters unless he was given ransom.”
“But he didn’t?”
“Nay. A girl, the daughter of a boatwright, the fairest in town, was to be married the next day. She put on her weddin’ gown and went to Wulthaurp, up there, in that topmost apartment. She kissed him, and as they kissed, there, near that window, she wound the train of her dress about his neck and threw herself from the buildin’. They made a bloody mess almost where you’re standin’. At that signal, the rest of the folk turned against his men. The army had to fight its way out the gate, leaving nearly a hundred Brooghers dead in the streets.” He shook his head. “Nor was that the first time such a thing has happened. No, every boy and girl who grows up in Broogh thinks of the dike and the bridge as a holy trust. They all yearn to be the hero of the next story.”
“And yet you think something has frightened them into hiding?”
Gilmer shook his head. “No,” he said sadly, “I fear they’re nay hidin’ at all.”
The door opened with no more protest than a faint creak, but their entry drew no response. Muttering to himself, Gilmer took out his tinderbox and struck light to a candle.
“Holy saints!” Leoff gasped, when the light fell about them.
There were indeed a lot of people in the Paiter’s Fatem, or what had once been people. They lay or slumped in groups, unmoving. Leoff had no doubt whatever that they were dead. Even in the warm light of fire, their flesh was whiter than bone.
“Their eyes,” Gilmer said, his voice thick with emotion.
Leoff noticed then, and he doubled to the floor, retching. The very earth seemed to reel beneath him and the sky to press down.
None of the dead in the tavern had eyes, only ashy pits.
Gilmer clapped his hand on Leoff’s shoulder. “Easy,” he said. “We don’t want them as did this to hear us, do we?” The old man’s voice was quavering.
“I can’t . . .” Another wave of nausea came over Leoff and he pressed his forehead to the hardwood floor.
It was many long moments before he could look up again.
When he did, it was to find Gilmer studying the corpses.
“Why would they burn out their eyes?” Leoff managed.
“Saints know. But they didn’t do it with brands or hot irons. The eyes are still there, just gone to charcoal.”
“Shinecraft,” Leoff whispered.
“Auy. Shinecraft most foul.”
Gilmer straightened, his face grim. “So’s they can break the dike and have no hindrance or witness.” His lips puckered. “But they aens’t broken it yet, have they? There’s still time.”
“Time to do what?” Leoff asked incredulously.
Gilmer’s face went flat. “These people were my friends,” he said. “You stay here, if you please.”
He searched through the corpses for a moment and finally came up with a knife.
“Whoever did this aens’t counted on anyone living now. They don’t know about us.”
“And when they do, we’ll end just like these,” Leoff said desperately.
“Auy, could well be,” Gilmer said, and walked toward the door.
Leoff looked again at the dead and sighed. “I’m coming,” he said.
When they were back on the street, he glanced again at the cobbles. “What was her name?” he asked.
“Ah. Lihta. Lihta Rungsdautar.”
“And her fiancé? What became of him?”
Gilmer’s mouth quirked. “He never married. He became a windsmith, like his father. Hush, now—the floodgate isn’t far.”
They passed more dead in the streets, all with the same empty gaze. Not just people, but animals, as well—dogs, horses—even rats. Some had expressions of terror frozen on their faces, while others looked merely puzzled. Some—the worst somehow—seemed to have died in rapture.
Leoff noticed something else, as well—a smell, a faint odor of putrefaction. Yet it did not have the scent of the grave or butcher shop. There was no hint of maggots or sulfury gases. It reminded him of dry rot—subtle, not really unpleasant, with a faint perfume of burnt sugar.
As he progressed, he made out a noise, as well—a rhythmic hammering—not like a single hammer, but like many, all beating the bass line of the same dirge.
“That’s them working at the wall!” Gilmer said. “Hurry.”
He led them to the city wall and the stone stairs that went up it. They stepped over dead guardsmen to reach the top. From there they looked down.
Newland was moon-frosted to the horizon, but just below them, the wall cast a shadow down the embanked dike it stood upon. Torches burned there, flames straight and unwavering in the windless dark. Five men stripped to their waists were working at a stone section of the dam, hacking away with picks. Another five or six looked on—it was hard to tell exactly how many.
“Why is that one section made of stone?”
“It’s a cap. Most of the dike is banked earth. It would take too long to dig through it if the kingneededto have Newland flooded, as has happened now and then. But it’s never been done at royal behest without warning to the low-dwellers.”
“But won’t they be drowned when they cut through?”
“Nay. They’re digging a narrow hole, see? The water will come out in a jet and tear the hole bigger as it goes, but it’ll give them time to move.”
“Who do you think it is?”
“Well, what can we do?”
Leoff strained his eyes to understand more of the scene. There was a pattern down there. What was it?
He settled his mind. There was the landscape, and the dike. They were like the staff that music was written on. Then there were the men digging, like the melody line, and the men silently standing guard, like the low throbbing bass notes of a pavane.
And that was all . . .
“No,” he whispered.
Leoff pointed. “Look, there are dead down there, too.”
“Not surprising. Anyone alive would try to stop ‘em.” The windsmith squinted. “Right, see? They came around from the gate and attacked ‘em from behind.”
“But see how they’re lying, in a sort of arc? As if something simply struck them down when they got too close.”
Gilmer shook his head. “Aens’t you ever seen battle? If they formed their line there, that’s where they’d fall.”
“But I don’t see any signs of a fight. We haven’t seen any signs of battleanywherein town, yet everyone is dead.”
“Auy. I noticed that,” Gilmer said dryly.
“So they form an arc. Look to the center of the arc.”
“What do you mean?”
“A lantern casts light in a circle, yes? Pretend where the corpses are is the edge of a circle of light. Now look for the lantern.”
With a skeptical grunt, Gilmer did that. After a moment, he whispered, “There is something. Some sort of box or crate with a cloak over it.”
“I’m willing to bet that it’s what struck down the people of Broogh. If we go down there—if they see us at all—they’ll turn it on us.”
“I don’t know. I don’t have any idea. But it’s covered up, and there has to be some reason. Something tells me we can’t do anything as long as they have that.”
Gilmer was silent for a long moment. “You may be right,” he said, “but if you’re wrong . . .”
“I don’t believe I am.”
Gilmer nodded solemnly and peered back down. “It aens’t far from the wall, is it?”
“Not too. What do you have in mind?”
The little man gingerly searched the guardsmen for weapons, but found their scabbards empty—small wonder, considering the cost of a good sword. Then he guided Leoff along the top of the wall to a small storehouse. They had to step over six dead bodies along the way.
Gilmer opened the door, stepped into shadow, and stepped out again, grunting. He held a rock the size of Leoff’s head. “Help me with this.”
The two of them wrestled the stone to the parapet.
“Reckon we can toss it out far enough?” Gilmer asked.
“There’s a slope,” Leoff replied. “Even if we miss, it will roll.”
“Might not destroy that shinecrafting box, then. We’ll have to heave together.”
Leoff nodded and put both hands on the stone. When they had it aimed, Gilmer said very softly, “On three. One, two—”
“Hey! Hey there!” A shout went up, farther along the wall, not far from them at all.
“Go!” Gilmer shouted.
They heaved. Leoff wanted to watch, but someone was running along the battlement toward them, and he didn’t think it was for a friendly chat.CHAPTER SEVENDiscovered
THE RIVER ZA DISSOLVED Anne’s tears and swept them gently toward the sea.
Canaries sang in the olive and orange trees that struggled up through the ancient cracked flagstones of the terrace, and the wind was sweet with baking bread and autumn honeywands. Dragonflies whirred lazily in the pour of golden sunlight, and somewhere nearby a man strummed liquid chords on a lute and crooned softly of love. In the city of z’Espino, winter came gently, and this first day of Novamenza was especially kind.
But Anne’s reflection in the river looked as cold as the long, bleak nights of northernmost Nahzgave. Even the red flame of her hair seemed a dark shadow, and her face as pallid as the ghost of a drowned girl.
The river saw her heart and gave her back what was in it.
“Anne,” someone behind her said quietly. “Anne, you should not stay out in the open so.”
But Anne did not look up. She saw Austra in the river, too, looking as spectral as she did.
“I don’t care,” Anne said. “I can’t go back to that horrible little place, not now, not like this.”
“But it’s safer there, especially now . . .” Her voice faltered as Austra began to cry, too. She sat next to Anne, and they held each other.
“I still can’t believe it,” Austra said after a time. “It seems impossible. Maybe it’s not true. Maybe it’s a false rumor. After all, we are far and far from home.”
“I wish I could believe that,” Anne said. “But the news came by the Church cuveiturs. And know that it’s true. I can feel it.” She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. “It happened the same night they tried to kill us, you know. The night of that purple moon, when the knights burned the coven. I was meant to die with them.”
“Your mother lives yet, and your brother Charles.”
“But my father is dead. And Fastia, Elseny, Uncle Robert, all dead, and Lesbeth is missing. It’s too much, Austra. And all the sisters of the coven Saint Cer, killed because they stood between me and—” She shuddered back off into sobs.
“Then what shall we do?” Austra said after a time.
Anne closed her eyes and tried to sort through the phantoms that whirled behind her lids. “We have to go home, of course,” she said at last. It sounded like a weary stranger talking. “Everything she said . . .”
“Who?” Austra asked. “Who said? What’s this, Anne.”
“Nothing. A dream I had, that’s all.”
“It’s nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.” She tried to smooth her cotton dress. “I don’t want to talk about anything for a while.”
“Let’s at least go someplace more private. A chapel, perhaps. It’s almost three bells.”
The city was already waking up around them from its daily siesta. Traffic along the riverside was picking up as people returned from naps and long lunches to their shops and work, and the illusion of solitude was wiped away.
The Pontro dachi Pelmotori spanned the Za a few tens of perechi to their right. Quiet a few moments before, it was already humming with activity. Like several of the bridges in z’Espino, it was really more like a building, with shops of two and three stories lining both sides, so they couldn’t actually see the people walking on the span. All that was visible was the red-stuccoed outer façade with its dark mouths of windows. The bridge belonged to the butcher’s guild, and Anne could hear their saws cutting, their boys haggling prices. A bucket of something bloody flew out one of the windows and splashed into the river, narrowly missing a man in a boat. He began shouting up at the bridge, waving his fist.
When another bucket of the same stuff came even closer, he seemed to think better of it and returned to earnestly rowing.
Anne was about to agree with Austra when a shadow fell across them. She looked up and saw a man, dark of complexion—like most Vitellians—and rather tall. His green doublet was faded and a little threadbare. He wore one red stocking and one black. His hand rested on the pommel of a rapier.
“Dena dicolla, casnaras,” he said, with a little bow. “What makes such beautiful faces so long and sorrowful?”
“I do not know you, casnar,” Anne replied. “But good day to you and the saints bless you.”
She looked away, but he did not take the hint. Instead, he stood there, smiling.
Anne sighed. “Come,” she said, plucking at Austra’s dress. The two of them rose.
“I mean you no harm, casnaras,” the man said hastily. “It’s just that it is so unusual to see hair of copper and gold here in the south, to hear such charming northern accents. When such treasures of the eye present themselves, it behooves a man to offer whatever services he may.”
A small chill ran up Anne’s spine. In her grief, she had forgotten to keep her head covered, and so had Austra.
“That’s very kind of you,” she said quickly, “But my sister and I were just returning home.”
“Let me escort you, then.”
Anne let her gaze travel around. Though the streets above were now beginning to bustle, this part of the terrace was something like a park, and it was still relatively quiet. To reach the street, she and Austra had to travel some ten yards and climb a dozen stone stairs. The man stood between them and the nearest stair. Worse, another fellow sat on the stairs themselves, taking a more than casual interest in the conversation.
There were probably others she didn’t see at all.
She stood straighter. “Will you let us pass, casnar?”
He looked surprised. “Why shouldn’t I let you pass? I told you, I mean no harm.”
“Very well.” She started forward, but he backed away.
“Somehow we’ve started off on an ill footing,” he said. “My name is Erieso dachi Sallatotti. Won’t you tell me yours?”
Anne didn’t answer, but kept walking.
“Or perhaps I should guess?” Erieso said. “Perhaps one of the birds will tell me your names?”
Anne was now certain she heard someone behind them, as well. Rather than panicking, she felt a swift anger take her grief for wings and rise high. Who was this man, to bother her on this day, to interrupt her mourning?
“You are a liar, Erieso dachi Sallatotti,” she said. “You most certainly mean me harm.”
The humor vanished from Erieso’s face. “I mean only to collect my reward,” he said. “I do not see what anyone would want with such a pale and disagreeable catella, but there is silver to be had. So come, will you walk or be dragged?”
“I will call out,” Anne replied. “There are people all around.”
“That might deprive me of my reward,” Erieso said, “but it will not save you. Many in the streetguard seek you, as well, and they might well use you before claiming their silver. That I will not do, I swear by Lord Mamres.” He proffered his hand. “Come. Take it. It is the easiest way for you, and for me.”
“Is that so?” Anne said, feeling her anger blacken. But she reached for his hand. As their fingers touched, she felt his pulse, the wet flow of his insides.
“Cer curse you,” she said. “Worms take you.”
Erieso’s eyes widened. “Ah!” he croaked. “Ah, no!” He clutched at his chest and sank down to one knee, as if bowing. He vomited.
“Be glad you did not meet me by the light of the moon, Erieso,” she said. “Be gladder still that you did not meet me in the dark of it.” And with that she stepped past him. The man on the steps stood and stared at her wide-eyed. He said nothing, and he didn’t bar their way as they went up to the street.
“What did you do?” Austra asked breathlessly as they slipped into the crowd on the Vio Caistur.
“I don’t know,” Anne replied.
By the time they reached the stairs, almost all her anger and courage had burned out of her, leaving only fear and confusion.
“It was like that night at the coven, when the men came,” Anne said.
“When you blinded the knight.”
“Something in me—it frightens me, Austra. How can I do these things?”
“It frightens me, too,” Austra agreed. “Do you think you killed him?”
“No, I think he will recover. We must hurry.”
They turned from the Vio Caistur into a narrow avenue, hurrying past stocking shops and a tavern that smelled of grilled sardines, through the Piata da Fufiono with its alabaster fountain of the goat-legged saint and on until the streets grew smaller and more tangled until at last they reached the Perto Veto. The women were already out on their balconies, and several groups of men sat drinking on the stoops, just as they had been the day before.
“They’re still following us, I think,” Austra said, glancing behind.
Anne looked, too, and saw a group of men—five or six of them—rounding the corner.
“Run,” Anne said. “It’s not far.”
“I hope Cazio is there,” Austra said.
“Figs for Cazio,” Anne muttered.
The girls started running. They had gone only a few yards when Erieso stepped from a side street, pale but angry, another man by his side.
Erieso drew his rapier, a narrow, wicked length of steel. “Sorcel this, witch,” he snarled. “I’ve word that they’ll pay every bit as much for you dead, and my goodwill is all worn away.”
“What a big prickler for such little girls,” a woman taunted down from her balcony. “It’s good to see thatrealmen have come to our street.”
“Rediana!” Anne called up, recognizing the woman. “They mean to kill us!”
“Oh, the duchess likes me now, does she?” Rediana called down. “Not like at the fish market yesterday, eh?”
Erieso snorted. “You’ll get no help here,cara,” he said.
An instant after he said it, an earthen crock full of something odious struck his companion squarely in the skull. The fellow dropped, squealing and pressing his head with his hands. Erieso yelped and began to dodge as he was pelted with rotten fruit and fish bones from more than one window.
His other men had arrived now, though, and they spread out to encircle the girls. They were forced to the middle of the street, where heavy objects couldn’t be thrown.
All the women on the street were shouting now.
“I’ll wager he’s got a limpet in his breeches,” one shouted. “Or a wet little snail, all curled for fear in its shell.”
“Go back to Northside, where you belong!”
But Erieso, safely out of range of anything dangerous, had ceased paying attention to the ladies of the neighborhood. He advanced on Anne and Austra once more.
“You can’t kill us, not in front of all these people,” she said.
“There are no people in the Perto Veto,” he said. “Only vermin. Even if someone here bothered to tell the tale, no one would listen.”
“A pity,” a new voice said. “For this tale shall have an interesting ending.”
“Cazio!” Austra cried.
Anne didn’t look—she could not take her gaze from the tip of Erieso’s sword, and she knew Cazio’s voice well enough by now.
“And who in the name of Lord Ondro are you?” Erieso asked.
“Why, I’m Cazio Pachiomadio da Chiovattio, and I’m the protector of these two casnaras,” he said. “And this is turning out to be a fine day, for I have someone to protect them from. I only wish you were not so clearly cowards—it cheapens my joy. But, no matter.”
Anne heard steel snick free of leather.
“Caspator,” Cazio said, speaking to his sword, “let’s us to work.”
“There’s six of us, you fool,” Erieso said.
Anne heard a quick motion behind her, a gasp, a gurgle.
“You count poorly,” Cazio said. “I make only five. Anne, Austra, come back. Quickly.”
Anne did as he instructed, nearly brushing Cazio as he slid past her, his sword held out in a level guard.
“Stay behind me,” he said.
Now the women were cheering. The fellow Cazio had already run through was dragging himself pitifully off the street as the swordsman engaged Erieso and the rest of his men. Anne wasn’t fooled by Cazio’s bravado, though—five were too many, even for him. As soon as they surrounded him . . .
But he showed little concern, fighting languidly, almost as if he were bored. He danced in, out, around, and for a moment actually had his opponents standing in a clump, all defending themselves at the same time.
But then their advantage sank in, and they began to flank him. Cazio parried one attack and did a strange sort of twist, binding up his opponent’s blade and forcing the point out to the side, where it pricked another of Erieso’s men. At the same time, Cazio’s point drove hard into his original target’s shoulder. Both men cried out and backed away, but neither seemed mortally injured.
“Za uno-en-dor,”Cazio told them, “my own invention. I—”
He broke off to parry a furious attack by Erieso, then quickly ducked a thrust from another quarter. He scuttled back, but wasn’t fast enough to avoid a third thrust, which hit him in the left shoulder. Cazio grunted and grabbed the blade to hold it there, but didn’t have time to run the fellow through, for they were all converging on him again.
“Cazio!” Austra cried in pure anguish.
Then a bottle struck one of the men in the head, bursting his ear into a red mess.
Anne looked to see who had thrown it and discovered around thirty men of the neighborhood standing behind her, armed with knives and wooden clubs.
One of them was Ospero. He flicked his thumb at Erieso.
“You there!” Ospero grated. “What do you want with these girls?”
Erieso’s lips tightened. “That’s my business.”
“You’re in the Perto Veto, pretty boy. That makes it our business.”
Erieso’s able men had withdrawn to stand near him. One held his ear, and blood flowed between his fingers. Anne suddenly felt as if she were caught between a pair of lions.
Erieso’s face worked through several expressions before he finally sighed. “That one, the one with red hair. She’s betrothed to Prince Latro, but the stupid little catella is smitten with this fellow here and ran off. I’ve been sent to get her back.”
“Is that so?” Ospero said. “Is there a reward for her return?”
“Then why would you be so stupid as to follow her down here?”
“My honor demands it. I promised to get her back.”
“Uh-huh. Prince Latro, eh? The same Prince Latro that put the tariff on our fish, so he can sell his cheaper? The same Prince Latro that hanged Fuvro Olufio?”
“I know nothing of these things.”
“Then you don’t know much. But I’ll tell you this—if cutting off my nose would bring pain to Latro da Villanchi, I’d do it gladly. He’ll get his girl back. From us. In pieces.”
Erieso’s face reddened even further. “You won’t do that. The prince’s wrath would be terrible. He would have the meddisso send troops here. You want that?”
“No,” Ospero allowed. “But we’re modest, down here in the Perto. We don’t much care if we get credit for this sort of thing, only that it happens.”
“But how will you—” Erieso’s eyes widened as the men suddenly surged forward. “No!”
He turned and ran, and his men ran with him.
Ospero laughed as he watched them vanish from sight. Then he turned back to Anne, Austra, and Cazio.
“He was lying, so I guess thereisa reward for you,” he said to Anne. “I think you’d better tell me what it is, and I think you’d better do it now.”
As if to emphasize his point, Ospero’s men drew nearer.CHAPTER EIGHTThe Basil-nix
I’M GOING TO DIE, LEOFF THOUGHT. It seemed a slow thought, as everything seemed slow, and limned in a peculiar golden light. He could see everything about the man who was approaching him all at once. His hair was light, cut in uneven bangs. It was too dark to tell the color of his eyes, but they were set wide on his face. His jerkin was open almost to his belly. His ears stuck out. He had a rag tied around his head.
And there was the sword, lovely as a viper in the moonlight.
He’d meant to run, but when he looked up and saw how close death was already, he knew he didn’t want it in the back.
Then something came sailing past him, another shard of moonlight, and it hit the man high in the chest. That stopped him. He yelped and looked down. Something metal hit the ground and sang a perfect note. It seemed to hang there, undergirded by a strange set of harmonies.
“Damn,” Gilmer said.
“Silly bugger,” the man said, lifting his sword again. “I’ll have your testicles for that before you die.” But then he hesitated.
The singing Leoff had heard hadn’t been in his head. It was there, below the wall, a spine-chilling sound. It was only reluctantly that he recognized it as men screaming—or crying out, at least, at the tops of their lungs.
The man with the sword was standing just next to the edge, and he looked over.
Then he tried to join the song. His mouth gaped, and the cords of his neck stood out like wire. Finally, he simply collapsed.
“What?” Gilmer started forward to look, as well, but Leoff tackled him to the stone and lay there, trying to hold him down.
“Don’t,” he gasped. “Don’t.I don’t know what was in that box, but I know we mustn’t look at it.”
The man with the sword had fallen so his head was turned toward them. Even in the moonlight they could see that his eyes had gone to ash, just like the eyes of the other dead in Broogh.
There was still shouting below.
“Don’t look at it!”
“Cover your eyes! Let Reev and Hilman get it.”
“It didn’t get them all,” Leoff whispered.
“Whatdidn’t get them all?” Gilmer asked.
Leoff noticed that the old man was trembling.
A stronger, more commanding voice rose over the others: “That came from the wall. Someone’s still in there. Find them. Kill them.”
“That means us,” Leoff said. “Come on. And don’t look!”
The two men scrambled down the stairs and back into the silent town.
“How long will it take them to come around?” Leoff huffed, as they raced over rough cobblestones.
“Not long. They’ll come in by the south gate. We’d better hide. Come on, this way.”
He led Leoff through several turns, across the square below the bell tower, and up another street.
“I wonder how many it got, whatever it was?”
“Shsst!” Gilmer said. “Stop. Listen.”
Leoff did, and though the sounds of his breath and heart cloyed in his ears, he could make out what Gilmer had stopped for—the footsteps of several men approaching the spot where they stood.
“Come on, in here,” Gilmer said. He unlatched the door of a three-story building, and they entered it. They took the stairs to the second story, to a room with a bed and a curtained window. Gilmer went to the window.
“Take care,” Leoff said. “They might have it with them.”
“Auy, raeht. I’ll just peek.”
The smaller man went to the window. Leoff was watching him nervously when a hand clapped over his mouth from behind.
“Shh,” a voice said in his ear. “It’s me, Artwair.”
Gilmer turned at even that faint sound.
“My lord Artwair!” he gasped.
“Hello, windsmith,” Artwair said. “What sort of trouble have you gotten us into?”
“Mylord?” Leoff repeated.
“You didn’t know?” Gilmer said. “Sir Artwair is our duke, cousin to His Highness, Emperor Charles.”
“No,” Leoff said. “I did not know that. My lord—”
“Hush,” Artwair said. “This is of no importance now. They’re coming, close on your heels, and they will find you. The basil-nix has a keen nose.”
“Auy. Our darkest legends come to life, these days.”
“That’s what was in the box?”
“Auy.” He grinned tightly. “When I arrived, they were walking the streets with it, shining it about like a lantern. I saw the last of the townspeople die. I have my old nurse to thank for my life, for only from her tales did I understand what was happening. I averted my eyes before its gaze turned my way. Of course, when you burst its cage, I nearly died again, because I was watching. Still, that was clever. I think you killed more than half of them before they got the thing covered again.”
Artwair nodded. “I was watching from the south tower.”
“How did they manage to capture and cover the thing?”
“They have two blind men with them,” he said. “They serve as its handlers. The rest walk behind. The cage is like an aenan lamp, closed on all sides but one. It makes a light, this thing, and once you have seen it, you can resist only through the greatest contest of will.”
“But the cage is shattered now.”
“Auy. And so they must take greater care, and so must we.”
“We must flee, before they find us.”
“No,” Artwair said softly. “I think we must fight. Two men remain at the dike. It will take them longer, but they will still open it if we give them time. We can’t allow that.”
“No,” Gilmer agreed. “Not after Broogh gave its life.”
“But how can we fight something we cannot look at?” Leoff wondered.
Artwair lifted something near the door. Two flasks of blue glass, filled with liquid. Bags had been stuffed in the top.
“Here is my plan,” Artwair said.
Moments later, Leoff stood facing down the stairs. Artwair stood below him on the first landing, a shadow with a bow held before him, and an arrow nocked. Gilmer crouched behind Leoff at the window, with his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
“They’re here,” Artwair’s voice came up. “Be ready.”
Leoff nodded nervously. He gripped a candle in one hand and one of the flasks of oil in the other. Gilmer was similarly armed.
Leoff heard the door open, and the bow sang a low pitch.
“They have a bow!” someone yelped.
“Move up!” another voice commanded. “They can’t hit what they can’t see. If they open their eyes, they’ll die.”
Footsteps started up the stairs. The bow whined again, and again, and someone shouted in pain.
“A lucky shot,” shouted the person who seemed to be their leader. “Up, and quickly.”
“Now!” Artwair hollered, and ran back up the stairs.
Leoff lit the oil-soaked rag.
And he saw a light suffusing the landing. It was beautiful, golden, the most perfect light he had ever seen. A promise of absolute peace filled him, and he knew that he could not live without seeing the source of that light.
“Now, I say!” Artwair shouted.
Distantly, Leoff heard glass breaking and a renewal of shouts from below. Gilmer must have thrown his flask, aiming for the entrance to the house. But Gilmer didn’t see the light, didn’t understand . . .
Leoff suddenly remembered the corpses in the inn. He remembered their eyes.
He threw the flask at the landing Artwair had just vacated. The light was brighter now, more beautiful than ever. Even as flame blossomed like a many-petaled rose, Leoff leaned out to catch a glimpse, just a small glimpse—
And then Artwair knocked him roughly to the floor.
“By all the saints, what do you think you’re doing? Youcannotlook!” he snarled.
More screams. It was a night for screams. The oil burned quickly, and so did the mostly timber house.
“Gilmer!” Artwair shouted. “Did you hit the doorstep?”
“Auy, that I did,” Gilmer replied. “I reckoned it was worth risking a peek, since they had the thing on the stairs. My aim was true.” He scratched his head. “‘Course, now we’re trapped in a burning house.”
“So are they,” Artwair said. He went to the window, pushed open the curtain, and set an arrow on the bow. “Now is the reckoning,” he said. “Watch the stairs. If any get through, call out.”
The stairwell was already an inferno, and choking smoke boiled up. This was also a night for fire, Leoff mused. He was destined to burn, it seemed.
He heard the bow twang over the roar and over the screaming. And again, as Artwair fired at something in the street.
A shadow came up through the flame then, something the size of a small dog, but serpentine. The flames turned golden.
Leoff snapped his eyes shut.
“Close your eyes,” he screamed. “It’s come up.”
“Follow my voice,” Artwair returned. “The window. We have to jump.”
“Here,” Gilmer said. He grasped Leoff’s hand and pulled him up. The smell from earlier was all around, and he felt his skin tingle from more than the heat.
Then he touched the window frame, and driven by terror he gripped it, stepped through, hung for an instant by his fingers, and dropped.
His belly rose to his head, and then the ground seemed to explode under his feet. A pain brighter than any sun lit him up.
Someone tugged at him. Gilmer, again.
“Get up,” the small man said.
Leoff tried to answer, but he gagged on his tongue instead.
Artwair’s face appeared in the ruddy firelight.
“He’s broken his leg. Help me move him.”
They dragged him away from the fire, which had begun to spread. Darkness crept in with the pain, and Leoff lost track of what was happening a time or two. The next thing he knew clearly was that they were in a boat, on the canal.
“Stay with him, Gilmer,” Artwair said grimly. “I’ve two more to deal with. Then we can go.”
“Go where?” Gilmer said, and for the first time despair colored his voice. “My malend, my town . . .” He was weeping now.
Leoff lay his head back, watched the smoke rise against the stars as the boat rocked gently on the canal. He tried not to think about the pain.
“How’s the leg?” Artwair asked.
“A dull ache,” Leoff replied, glancing at his limb. It had been splinted tight, but even so, every jounce the wagon made in the deeply rutted road sent a throb up his thigh, even with the hay bales to cushion it. Artwair had hired the cart and the untalkative fellow who drove it.
“It was a clean enough break, and should heal well,” Artwair said.
“Yes, I suppose I’m lucky,” Leoff said glumly.
“I mourn for Broogh, too,” Artwair said, his voice gentling. “The fire claimed only a few buildings.”
“But they’re all dead,” Leoff said.
“Most are, auy,” Artwair allowed. “But some were afar, or late in the fields.”
“And the children,” Leoff said. “Who will look after them?”
Gilmer and Artwair had made a house-to-house search the morning after the fire. Thirty children they had found in all, still in cribs or abed. Those old enough to be out had shared their parents’ fate. “They will be cared for,” he said. “Their duke will see to it.”
“Yes, that,” Leoff sighed. “Why did you not tell me who you were,my lord?”
“Because one learns more, sees more, lives more when people aren’t constantly calling him ‘my lord,’” Artwair replied. “Many a greffy and kingdom has come to ruin because its lord had no knowledge of what went on in its roads and on its streets.”
“You’re an unusual duke,” Leoff said.
“And you’re an unusual composer—I suppose, though I’d never heard of one before I met you. You’ve done me—and this empire—a great service.”
“It was Gilmer,” Leoff said. “I didn’t understand. I would have run far away, if it had been just me. I’m no hero, no man of action.”
“Gilmer has lived here all his life. His obligations and duty are rooted deep in his bones. You are a stranger, and owe this place nothing—and as you say, you aren’t a warrior. Still you risked all for it. You are a hero, sir, the more because you wished to run and did not.”
“And yet we saved so little.”
“Are you mad? Do you have any idea how many would have perished had they broken the dike? What cost to the kingdom?”
“No,” Leoff said. “I know only that an entire town has died.”
“It happens,” Artwair said. “In war and famine, in flood and fire.”
“But why? What were those men about? Where did they get that terrible creature?”
“I wish I knew,” Artwair said. “Iverymuch wish I knew. When I returned to the dike, the last two men had fled. The rest were killed by the fire or by the basil-nix.”
“And the creature,” Leoff asked. “Did it escape?”
Artwair shook his head. “It burned. That’s it on Galast, there.” Leoff looked. The packhorse had an irregular bundle on it, wrapped in leather.
“Is it safe?” he asked.
“I wrapped it myself, and have suffered no ill.”
“Where did such a thing come from?”
The duke shrugged. “Some months ago a greffyn was slain at Cal Azroth. A year ago I would have sworn all such creatures were nothing but children’s alvspellings. But now we have a basil-nix, as well. It’s as if a whole hidden world is waking around us.”
“A world of evil,” Leoff said.
“The world has always had plenty of evil in it,” Artwair said. “But I’ll admit, its face seems to be changing.”
By noon, Leoff saw what he thought at first was a cloud hunkered on the horizon, but he gradually made out the slim towers and the pennants upon them and realized that what he saw was a hill rising up from the great flat bottom of Newland.
“Is that it?” he asked.
“Auy,” Artwair replied. “That’s Ynis, the royal island.”
“Island? It looks like a hill.”
“It’s too flat here to see the water. The Warlock and the Dew meet on this side of Ynis, and divide around it. On the other side is Foambreaker Bay, and the Lier Sea. The castle there is Eslen.”
“It looks big.”
“It is,” Artwair said. “They say Eslen Castle has more rooms than the sky has stars. I don’t know—I’ve never counted either.”
Soon they came to the confluence, and Leoff saw that Eslen was indeed on an island of sorts. The Dew—the river they had crossed at poor, doomed Broogh—ran into another bediked river, the Warlock. The Warlock was enormous, perhaps half a league in width, and together the rivers formed a sort of lake from which the hills of Ynis rose precipitously.
“We’ll take the ferry across,” Artwair said. “Then I’ll make certain the right introductions are made. I’ve no way of knowing if your position is secure, but if it is, we’ll find out. If it isn’t, come to my estates at Haundwarpen, and I’ll find a place for you.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Call me Artwair—it’s how you came to know me.”
When they came in sight of the ferry crossing, Leoff feared they had come up on an encamped army. As they drew nearer, he saw that if it was an army, it was a terribly patchwork and unorganized one. Tents and wagons had formed themselves into a sort of maze with narrow avenues and squares, almost a makeshift city. Smoke curled from a few cookfires, but not as many as he might have expected. He remembered what Gilmer had said about wood being scarce.
People certainly weren’t scarce, though. Leoff guessed that several thousand were gathered there, and most of them weren’t in wagons and tents but were disposed upon blankets or the bare ground. They watched the cart pass, and their faces showed many expressions—most commonly greed, anger, and hopelessness.
At the heart of this ragtag encampment was a more orderly one, with tents all flying the king’s colors and no lack of armed men wearing them. As they approached the camp, a man of middle years stepped out into the road, a hard look of determination reflected in his eyes.
“Clear off,” the driver said.
The man ignored him, looking up instead at Artwair. “My lord,” he said. “I know you. I worked in your city guard when I was younger.”
Artwair peered down at him. “What do you want?” he asked.
“My wife, my lord, and my children. Take them into the city, I beg you.”
“And put them where?” Artwair asked softly. “If there were room in the city, you wouldn’t have been stopped here. No, they’re better off outside, my friend.”
“They are not, my lord. Terrors stalk this land. Everyone talks of war. I am not a man easily frightened, my lord Artwair, and yet I fear. And it’s damp here. When the rains come, we will have no shelter.”
“You would have none in the city, either,” Artwair said regretfully. “Here you have the water to drink, and soft ground, and some food at least. In there you would have nothing but beds of stone and piss thrown from windows to lick up for your thirst.”
“But we would have the wall,” the man said, his voice pleading now.
“The things you fear will not be stopped by walls,” Artwair said. Then he straightened. “Remind me of your name, sir.”
“Jan Readalvson, my lord.”
“Come into the city with me, Fralet Readalvson. You’ll see for yourself it’s no place for your family, not at the moment. Furthermore, I’m going to give you a charge—distributing food, clothing, and shelter to these people. I trust that after you provide for your family, you will be fair in your disbursements. I will check on you, from time to time. It is the best I can do.”
Readalvson bowed. “You are very generous, lord.”
Artwair nodded. “We’ll move along, now.”
They boarded the ferry and began their short journey across the water. Above them, the castle rose like a mountain, and the city rolled down like its slopes, an avalanche of black-roofed houses stopped only by the great wall that encircled it.
As they neared the broad stone quay, Leoff saw conditions there were much as they were on the side they’d just left. Hundreds of people were huddled on the far side of the quay, though these were without wagons or tents, and their expressions held less hope.
“You said you served in my guard.” Artwair spoke to their new companion. “From whence do you hail now?”
“I heard there was steading in the east, near the King’s Forest. I took a wain there ten years ago and built a farm.” His voice seemed broken. “Then the Briar King woke, or so they say, and the black vines came—and worse.” He looked up. “There are times I can still hear the shrieks of my neighbors.”
“They were killed?”
“I don’t know. The tales—I could not risk to see, do you understand? I had my children to think of. I still feel them at my back, though, I still feel the shiver in my bones.”
Leoff felt a shiver in his bones, as well. What was become of the world? Was the end truly at hand, when the heavens would splinter and fall like shards of a broken pot?
When they reached the quay, the crowd pressed toward them, but the city guard pushed them back, and a path cleared. A few moments later, the gate creaked wide, and they entered the city itself.
Their way led them into a courtyard, and beyond that, through a second gate. The walls above them bristled with guards, but clearly they recognized Artwair, and so the inner gate was opened.
The main thoroughfare to the castle wound through the city as if it were a great snake crawling up the hill. Leoff propped his back against the wagon to sit for a better view as they jounced past chapels of ancient marble streaked and decayed by a thousand years of rain and smoke, houses with steepled roofs stabbing skyward, low cottages with white walls and red trim crammed tightly together save where narrow alleys divided them. Most buildings were of two stories, with the upper stories overhanging a bit—some few were of three.
They rolled into another plaza, in the center of which stood a weathered bronze statue of a woman with her foot upon the throat of a winged serpent. The beast coiled and writhed beneath her boot, and her face was as cold and imperious as the north wind.
Near a hundred people were gathered in the square, and for a moment, Leoff thought it a mob, but then he heard a bright soprano and pulled himself up farther. On the broad pedestal of the statue, a troop of players was performing, accompanied by a small ensemble of instrumentalists and singers. The instruments were simple—a lesser and bass croth, a drum and three pipers. When Leoff arrived, a woman had just finished singing as another woman in a green gown and gilt crown acted out her words. The player seemed to be addressing a man on a throne. Leoff had missed the words of the song, for the crowd roared in response and drowned her out, but the tune was a simple one, a well-known tavern ballad.
The man on the throne drew himself up, grinning stupidly. “Hold a moment,” Leoff said. “Can I hear a bit of this?”
Artwair shot him an ironic look. “You may as well have your introduction to the court, I suppose. The lady in green represents our good queen Muriele, I believe.”
The man coughed, as if to clear his throat. Down among the musicians, a chorus of three men sang.
He is the King,
Ha, ha, ha,
He is the King,
Tee, hee, hee
What shall he do,
Ha, ha, ha
Touched by the Saints,
Tee, hee, hee
The player broke off into the helpless laughter of an idiot and gamboled a bit while the chorus repeated its verse. A ridiculous figure in a huge hat joined the “king” in his dance.
“Our good king Charles,” Artwair said wryly. “And his jester.”
The instruments fell silent, and the player acting the king suddenly spoke what seemed to Leoff to be gibberish.
A sinister figure in black robes with a long, ridiculous goatee ran onto the stage. He fawned up to the queen. He did not sing, but spoke in a theatrical fashion that resembled chant.
“Let me interpret!” the black-robed figure cried. “Good Queen, your son has proclaimed, in the voice of the saints, that I should be given the whole of the kingdom. That I should be handed the keys to the city, that I should have leave to fondle your—”
The audience finished his sentence for him in a roar.
“Our beloved praifec Hespero,” Artwair explained.
“What’s this!” A group of three men dressed as ministers rushed up, tripping and bumbling into one another. Below them, a chorus began singing,
Here, here are nobles three
Who claim the Praifec wrong, you see Charles speaks in Fing, not Churchalees,
And they say that his thoughts are these . . .
They paused, and the music changed meter, became a rather jolly dance.
Raise the taxes,
Draw the gates,
Bring them damsels, bring them calces
War’s a bother
They don’t see,
They are nobles foolish three!
The “nobles” covered their eyes, and the chorus began another verse as they capered around the queen.
“Our wise and beloved Comven,” Artwair said.
The queen drew herself up in the midst of this.
“The Queen implores!” she chanted. “Is there no one to save us in our time of darkness?”
The chorus then launched into a song of loss and mourning for the queen’s children, while she danced a pavane for the dead, and the other songs came back as counterpoint.
“Is that the sort of thing you compose?” Artwair asked.
“Not really,” Leoff murmured, fascinated by the spectacle. “Is that the sort of thing that’s common around here?”
“Thelustspell?Auy, but it’s a thing for the street, you understand. The common folk like it. The aristocracy pretends it doesn’t exist—save when it goes too far in mocking them. Then the players might have a more tragic end to their play.”
He glanced back at the singers. “We’d best move on.”
Leoff nodded thoughtfully as Artwair spoke to the driver and the wagon creaked back to life, climbing through steadily wealthier neighborhoods.
“The people seem to have scant faith in their leaders,” Leoff remarked, reflecting on the content of the tale.
“Times are hard,” Artwair answered. “William was only a middling-good king, but the kingdom was prosperous and at peace, and everyone liked him. Now he’s dead, along with Elseny and Lesbeth, who were truly beloved. The new king, Charles—well, the portrayal you just saw of him was not unfair. He’s a nice enough lad, but saint-touched.”
“Our allies, even Lier, have turned against us, and Hansa threatens war. Demons come from the woodwork, refugees crowd the streets, and the marshwitches all foretell doom. People need a strong leader in times like this, and they don’t have one.” He sighed. “Would that unflattering portrayals of the court were the worst of it, but the guilds are up in arms, and I fear bread riots are not far away. Half the crops withered in the field the night of the purple moon, and the sea catch has been bad.”
“What of the queen? You said she was strong.”
“Auy. Strong and beautiful and as distant from her people as the stars. And she’s Lierish, of course. In these times, with Liery making renegade noise, some don’t trust her.”
Leoff absorbed that. “The news from Broogh won’t make things any better, will it?”
“Not a bit. But better than if Newland had been drowned.” He clapped Leoff on the shoulder. “Worry not. After what you’ve done, we’ll find you a stipend of some sort.”
“Oh,” Leoff said. He hadn’t been thinking about his own worries.
The eyes of Broogh would not let him.CHAPTER NINEProposals
THE VIEW FROM THE THRONE was a long one, a vista of knife-points and poison.
The buttresses of the greater hall rose like the massive, spreading trunks of trees into a pale haze of cold light coming from the high window slits. Above that smoky atmosphere lay another, deeper vault of darkness. Pigeons cooed and fluttered there, for they were impossible to keep out of the vast space, as were the cats that prowled behind the curtains and tapestries in search of them.
Muriele often wondered how such an immense space could feel soheavy. It was as if—in entering the great bronze valves that were its entrance—one were transported so far beneath the earth that the very air itself became a sort of stone. At the same time, she felt perilously high, as if in stepping through one of the windows, she might find herself falling from a mountaintop.
It seemed like all the worst of Heaven and Hell were present in the symmetries of the place.
Her husband—the late King William—had seldom used the great hall, preferring the lesser court for his audiences. It was easier to heat, for one thing, and today the great hall was freezing.
Let them freeze, Muriele thought of the assembled faces.Let their teeth chatter. Let pigeon shit fall upon their brocades and velvets. Let this place crush them down.
Examining the people who had gathered before the throne, she hated them all. Someone—probably someone who was out there staring up at her now—had arranged or helped to arrange the murder of her children. Someone out there had killed her husband. Someone out there had left her withthis, a life of fear and grief, and as far as she was concerned, it might as well have been all of them.
Knife-points and poison. Five hundred people, all wanting something from her, some wanting her very life.
A few of the latter were easy to spot. There was the pale face of Ambria Gramme, the black lace of mourning on her head, as ifshehad been the queen and not merely the king’s mistress. There was Ambria’s eldest bastard, Renwald, dressed as a prince might dress. There were Gramme’s three lovers from the Comven, pressed near as if to hold her up above the crowd, blissfully unaware—or perhaps uncaring—that each was cuckold to the other.
Gramme would kill her in a heartbeat if she thought she could get away with it.
To Muriele’s left stood Praifec Hespero in his black robes and square hat, hand lifted idly to stroke his narrow goatee, his eyes nearly unblinking as he absorbed each word around him and arranged them in his plans. What did he want? He played the friend, of course, the advocate, but those who had slain her daughters had worn churchly robes. They were said to have been renegade, but how could she take anything for granted?
And here, just approaching her feet, a new pack of dogs dressed in silk were crouching, peering at her, looking to see if her neck was exposed to their teeth. She wished she could have them killed out of hand, slaughtered like animals and fed to pigs.
But she could not. Truly, she had few weapons.
And one of them was her smile.
So she smiled at the leader of the pack and nodded her head, and to her left, her son on the emperor’s throne copied her by nodding his head, indicating that the dog could rise from his bended knee and bark.
“Your Majesty,” he said, speaking to her son, “it is pleasing to see you in good health.”
Charles, the emperor—her son—widened his eyes. “Your cloak is pretty,” he said.
It was indeed. The archgreft Valamhar af Aradal liked his clothes. The cloak her son so admired was an ivory-and-gold brocade worn over a doublet of sea green that matched the archgreft’s eyes. It did not, however, match his florid pink face with its standing veins or his corpulent form.
His guard, in black-and-sanguine surcoats, were trimmer but no less garish.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” he said in a tone of absolute seriousness, ignoring the snickers, as if that were a perfectly reasonable response from an emperor.
But she saw the ridicule hiding in his eyes.
“Queen Mother,” Aradal purred, bowing now to Muriele, “I hope I find you well.”
“Very well indeed,” Muriele said brightly. “It is always a pleasure to welcome our cousins from Hansa. Please convey my delight at your presence to your sovereign Marcomir.”
Aradal bowed again. “In that I will not fail. I hope to convey more to him, however.”
“Indeed,” Muriele said. “You may convey my condolences on the recent death of the Duke of Austrobaurg. I believe the duke was a close friend to His Majesty.”
Aradal frowned, very briefly, and Muriele watched him closely. Austrobaurg and her husband had died together on the windswept headland of Aenah in some sort of secret meeting. Austrobaurg was a Hansan vassal.
“That is most gracious, Your Majesty. The whole matter is as puzzling as it is tragic. Austrobaurg will be missed, as shall Emperor William and Prince Robert. I hope—as I know you hope—that the villains behind that atrocity will be brought soon to light.”
As he said it, he cast a brief glance at Sir Fail de Liery. The corpses on the headland had been riddled by Lierish arrows.
Sir Fail purpled, but said nothing—which for him showed admirable and nearly unheard-of restraint.
Muriele sighed, wishing she still had Erren by her side. Erren would have known in an instant whether Aradal was concealing something. To Muriele he sounded sincere.
“There has been much regrettable loss of life, these past months,” he continued, glancing back at Charles. He bowed. “Your Majesty, I know your time is valuable. I wonder if I might come directly to the point.”
“So I command,” Charles said, looking slightly aside at Muriele to see if he had spoken properly.
“Thank you, Your Majesty. As you well know, these are unsettling times in many other ways. Uncanny things walk in the night, terrible prophecies seem to be fulfilled. Tragedy looms everywhere, most terribly for your family.”
My face is stone, Muriele told herself.
But even stone would melt if it contained her fury. She didn’t know for certain who had arranged the slaughter of her husband and daughters, but there could be little doubt that Hansa was involved, despite the puzzle of Austrobaurg. Hansan kings had once sat the throne her son now occupied, and they never ceased dreaming of taking it back and placing it once more beneath their buttocks.
But if there was little doubt of their involvement, there was also little proof. So she did her best to keep her composure, but worried that she was not entirely succeeding.
“His Majesty sent me here to offer our friendship in these troubled times. We are all one beneath the eyes of the saints. We would hope to put any past unpleasantness behind us.”
“It is a commendable gesture,” Muriele said.
“My lord offers more than gesture, milady,” Aradal said. He snapped his fingers, and one of his servants placed a box of polished rosewood in his hands. He bowed, and handed it toward Muriele.
“Surely that is meant for my son, archgreft,” Muriele said.
“Present?” Charles mumbled.
“No, milady. It is for you. A token of affection.”
“From King Marcomir?” she said. “A married man? Not too affectionate, I should hope.”
Aradal smiled. “No, milady. It is from his son, Prince Berimund.”
“Berimund?” She had last seen Berimund when he was five, and it didn’t seem that long ago. “LittleBerimund?”
“The prince is now twenty and three, Queen Mother.”
“Yes, and so I could easily behismother,” Muriele said.
A chuckle went around the court at that. Aradal’s face reddened.
“Dear Aradal, I am only joking,” she said. “Let us see what the prince has sent us.”
The servant opened the box, revealing an exquisite chatelaine of formed gold set with emeralds. Muriel widened her smile, allowing her teeth to show a bit. “It is exquisite,” she said. “But how can I accept it? I already wear the chatelaine of the house Dare. I cannot wear two.”
Aradal’s face finally colored a bit. “Your Majesty, let me be frank. The friendship my lord Berimund offers is of the most affectionate sort. He would make you his bride, and one day Queen of Hansa.”
“Oh, dear,” Muriele said. “More and more generous. When did the prince conceive this great love for me? I am flattered beyond all words. That a woman of my years can excite such passions—” She broke off, knowing that she was only seconds away from saying the words that might start a war. She stopped, and breathed deeply before continuing.
“The gift is exquisite,” she said. “Yet I fear that my grief is too fresh for me to accept it. If the prince is honest in his intentions, I beg that he give me time to recover before pressing his suit.”
Aradal bowed, then stepped nearer, lowering his voice. “Majesty,” he whispered, “do not be unwise. You may not believe me, but I not only respected your husband, I liked him. I am only a messenger—I do not set in motion the affairs of state in Hansa. But I know something of your situation here, and it is a tenuous one. In these times, you must look to your security. It is what William would have wanted.”
Muriele dropped her voice low to match the archgreft’s. “Do not presume to speak for my husband’s ghost,” she said. “He has not been cold for very long. This offer, at this time, is inappropriate. You know that, Aradal. I have told you I will consider it, and I will. That is the best I can do, for the moment.”
Aradal’s voice dropped still lower, as everyone in the chamber strained to perceive the faint conversation. Muriele felt five hundred gazes needling at her, looking to see what new advantage they might find in this.
“I agree, lady, that the timing is inopportune,” Aradal admitted. “It is not how I would have chosen to do things. But time is against us all. The world brims with war and treachery. If you will not think of your security, think of your people. With everything that has happened, does Crotheny need a war?”
Muriele frowned. “Is that a threat, archgreft?”
“I would never threaten you, lady. I feel nothing but compassion for your situation. But it is not a threat to look at dark clouds and guess that a storm is coming. It is not a threat to council a friend to seek shelter.”
“You are a friend,” Muriele lied. “I see that. I will consider your council most sincerely, but I cannot, will not give you an answer today.”
Aradal looked grim, but he nodded. “As you wish, Majesty. But if I were you, Your Highness, I would not delay for long.”
“You will not delay another second,” Sir Fail de Liery roared, his face so red with fury that his hair might have been a plume of white smoke drifting up from it. “You will tell that puffed-up oyster from Hansa that you utterly reject any overture from his thimble-headed prince.”
Muriele watched her uncle pace like a chained birsirk for a moment. The court was over, and they were in her private solar, a room as airy and open as the court was cold and hard.
“I must appear to consider all offers,” she said.
“No,” he replied, pointing a finger, “that is certainly not true. You cannot contemplate delivering—or evenappearto consider delivering—the Kingdom and Empire of Crotheny to Marcomir’s heir.”
Muriele rolled her eyes. “What heir? Even if I were to marry him, I would still have to produce one. Even if I had a mind to—and I do not—do you honestly think I could, at my age?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sir Fail snapped. “There are wheels within wheels turning here. Marrying you gives them the throne in all but name.” He pounded the casement of the window with the heel of his hand. “You must marry Lord Selqui,” he snapped.
Muriele raised an eyebrow. “Must I?” she said coldly.
“Yes, you must. It is entirely the best course of action, and I should think you would see that.”
She rose, her fists balling so tightly that her nails cut into her palms. “I have listened now to five marriage proposals, with William’s breath still warm on the wind. I have been as patient and gracious as I can be. But you are more than a foreign envoy, Fail de Liery. You are my uncle. My blood. You put me on your knee when I was five and told me it was the waterhorse, and I laughed like any child and loved you. Now you have become just one ofthem, another man coming into my house, telling me what I must do. I will not have this fromyou, Uncle. I am no longer a little girl, and you willnotimpose upon my affection.”
Fail’s eyes widened, and then his features softened a bit. “Muriele,” he said, “I’m sorry. But as you say, we are blood. You are a de Liery. The rift between Crotheny and Liery is growing. It isn’t your fault—something William was up to. Did you know he lent ships to Saltmark in their battles against the Sorrow Isles?”
“That is a rumor,” Muriele said. “It is also rumored that Lierish archers killed my husband.”
“You cannot believe that. The evidence for that was obviously contrived.”
“At this point, you cannot imagine what I would believe,” Muriele said.
Fail seemed to bite back a retort, then sighed. He suddenly looked ancient, and for a moment she wanted nothing more than to hug him, feel that rough old cheek against hers.
“Whatever the cause,” Fail said, “the problem remains. You can heal this wound, Muriele. You can bring our nations back together.”
“And you think Liery and Crotheny together can stand against Hansa?”
“I know that alone, neither of us can.”
“That isn’t what I asked.”
He puffed his cheeks out and nodded.
“I am a de Liery,” she said. “I am also a Dare. I have two children left, and both are heirs to this throne. I must protect it for them.”
Fail’s voice gentled further. “It is well known that Charles cannot get a child.”
“Thank the saints, or I should be dealing with proposals forhishand.”
“Then when you speak of heirs, you mean Anne. Muriele, William’s legitimization of his daughters has little precedent. The Church is against it—Praifec Hespero has already begun a campaign to annul the law. Even if it stands, what if Anne . . .” He stumbled, his lips thinning. “What if Anne is also dead?”
“Anne is alive,” Muriele said.
Fail nodded. “I dearly hope Anne is still alive. Nevertheless, there are other heirs to consider, and you know theyarebeing considered.”
“Not by me.”
“It may not be up to you.”
“I will die long before I see one of Ambria Gramme’s bastards put on the throne.”
Fail smiled grimly. “She is a very political animal,” he said. “She has won over more than half the Comven to her cause, as you must know. Muriele, you must be reconciled, both with the Comven and with your father’s people. This is not the time to further divide Crotheny.”
“Nor is it the time to return it to Lierish rule,” she said.
“That is not what I am proposing.”
“That is precisely what you are proposing.”
“Muriele, dear, something must be done. Things cannot continue as they are. Charles does not—will never—hold the people’s trust. They know the saints have touched him, and in gentler times, they might not care. But terrible things are happening, things beyond our understanding. Some say the end of the world is upon us. They want a strong leader, a certain one. And there is still the fact that he cannot father an heir.”
“Anne could be a strong leader.”
“Anne is a willful child, and all the kingdom knows it. Besides, with each passing day, the rumor is growing that Anne shares her sisters’ fate. The dangers on your borders are multiplying. If you do not give Hansa the throne by marriage, they will take it by force. Only their hopes and the feeble worry that the Church might intervene have delayed them this long.”
“I know all of this,” Muriele said wearily.
“Then you know you must act, before they do.”
“I cannot act rashly. Even if I were to marry Selqui, it would anger as many as it would please. More. If I spurn the offer from Hornladh, they might well join Hansa against us. There is no clear course for me here, Sir Fail.”
“Yourcourse is made clear by your loyalties. Mine is made invisible by mine. I need real council, real options, not this continued pressure from every direction. I need one single person I can count on, one person who has no loyalties other than to me.”
“No. You know you cannot be that. Lierish seawater flows in your veins. As much as I love you, you know I cannot trust you here. I wish I could, but I cannot.”
“Then whom can you trust?”
Muriele felt a solitary tear start in her eye and roll down her cheek. She turned so he would not see it. “No one, of course. Please leave me, Sir Fail.”
“Muriele—” She could hear his voice break with emotion.
“Go,” she said.
A moment later, she heard the door close. She went to the window, gripped the frame with her fingers, and wondered how sunlight could seem so dark.CHAPTER TENOspero
CAZIO STEPPED BETWEEN ANNE and Ospero. He didn’t raise his sword to guard, but he did keep it in front of him.
“As I told those other fellows,” he said firmly, “these ladies are under my protection. I am no more willing to give them up to you than I was to them.”
Ospero’s eyes tightened, and he suddenly seemed very dangerous indeed, even without the twenty-odd men gathered behind him.
“Careful how you talk to me, boy,” he said. “There are many things you do not know.”
“There certainly are,” Cazio responded. “I do not know how many seeds there are in a pomegranate. I do not know what sort of hats they wear in Herilanz. I’ve no understanding whatever of the language of dogs, and I cannot tell you how a water pump works. But I know I have sworn to protect these two ladies, and protect them I will.”
“I’ve made no threat to your charges,” Ospero said. “On the other hand, they have become a threat to me. When swordsmen from Northside come intomytown, I am very much concerned. When I am forced to act against them, it is even more my concern. Now I have to kill them all and sink their bodies in the marsh, and I need to know if anyone will miss them. I need to knowwhowill miss them, and who, if anyone, will come to look for them. And most of all, I need to know why they came here in the first place.”
“And the reward does not concern you?” Cazio asked skeptically.
“We haven’t gotten to that yet,” Ospero said.
“Nor shall we,” Cazio replied. “Now, kindly send your men away.”
“Boy—” Ospero began.
“I don’t know who they were,” Anne blurted. “I only know someone wants me dead and is willing to pay for it. I can’t answer any of your other questions, because I don’tknowthe answers. I thank you for your help against those men, Ospero. I believe you are a gentleman at heart, and that you will not take advantage of the situation.”
Ospero graveled out a laugh, and many of his men echoed it. “I’m no gentleman,” he said. “That, above all, you can be sure of.” Cazio raised his sword deliberately. “You don’t want to do that, boy,” Ospero said.
“I think I know better than you what I want to do,” Cazio replied haughtily.
Ospero nodded slightly. Then he moved with astonishing speed, dropping and whipping his leg out so that he clipped Cazio’s leading foot. Cazio spun half around, and Ospero stood and almost lazily took his sword arm and twisted it so the sword fell clattering to the ground. As if by magic, a knife appeared in his other hand and flashed up to Cazio’s throat.
“I think,” Ospero said, “you’ve need of a lesson in respect.”
“He’s in need of many lessons of that sort,” a new voice said.
“Z’Acatto!” Austra shouted.
It was indeed the old man, shuffling down the street toward them. “What do you plan to do with him, Ospero?” z’Acatto asked.
“I’m just deciding whether to bleed him out quickly or slowly.”
“Do your worst,” Cazio gritted.
“I’d say to do it quickly,” z’Acatto advised. “He’s likely to make a long-winded speech otherwise.”
“I can see that,” Ospero mused.
“Z’Acatto!” Cazio yelped.
The old man sighed. “You’d better let him go.”
Anne braced herself. She knew that despite his appearance,z’Acatto was a mestro of the sword, and also that he had a deep love for Cazio. He wouldn’t let the younger man die without a fight. Could she summon the power of Cer again, blind Ospero, and make him drop the knife? She would have to try, for all their sakes.
But to her surprise Ospero took the knife away and stepped back. “Of course, Emratur.”
Cazio looked shocked. “Emratur?” he asked. “What is this? Emratur?”
“Hush, boy,” z’Acatto muttered. “Just be glad you’re alive.” He turned to Ospero. “We’ll need to talk in private,” he said.
Ospero nodded. “It would seem there are things you did not tell me.”
Z’Acatto nodded, too. “Cazio, take the casnaras back to the room. I’ll join you there shortly.”
“Don’t argue for once,” z’Acatto said bluntly.
Ospero’s men dispersed as the two older men walked off together.
Cazio watched them go, sighed, and sheathed Caspator. “I wish I knew what that was about,” he said.
“What was that name Ospero called z’Acatto?” Anne asked. “Emratur? I’ve never heard you call him that.”
“Come on,” Cazio said. “We’d better do what he said.” He started walking.
Anne followed. “Cazio?” she persisted.
“Cazio’s just saved our lives,” Austra reminded her. “Again.”
Anne ignored her. “You looked surprised,” she said.
“It’s not a name,” Cazio grunted. “It’s a title. The commander of a hundred men.”
“You mean as in an army?”
“Yes, as in an army.”
“Was z’Acatto an emratur?”
“If he was, I’ve never known it.”
“I thought you had known him all your life.”
They had reached the steps to their apartment, and Cazio started up. “I have. Well, sort of. He was a servant of my father’s. He taught dessrata to my brothers and me. But sometimes, when I was young, he would leave for months at a time. I suppose he might have been off fighting. My father had many interests in those days. He might have commanded a hundred men.”
“But z’Acatto still serves your father.”
“No. My father fell on hard times, and eventually was killed in a duel. I inherited z’Acatto, along with a house in Avella. They are all that remain of my father’s estate.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Tears welled in Anne’s eyes. In the excitement, for just a few moments, she had forgotten to grieve.
Cazio stopped, looked a little puzzled at her expression, and put a hand on her shoulder. “It happened a long time ago,” he said. “There’s no reason for you to cry.”
“I just recalled something,” Anne murmured, “that’s all. Someone I lost.”
“Oh.” He looked down at his feet and then brought his gaze back to hers. “I’m sorry to be so brusque,” he said. “I’m just—well, I wish I knew what was going on. I thought something was strange when z’Acatto got us lodging here, that he must have known Ospero before—it was too easy, and he even gave us credit. Now I’m sure of it. I just don’t know what it means.”
“Then you don’t trust z’Acatto?”
“I don’t think he would ever betray me, if that’s what you mean,” Cazio said. “But his judgment is sometimes poor. He let my father get killed, after all.”
“How was it z’Acatto’s fault? What happened?”
“I don’t know what happened, but I know that z’Acatto feels guilty about it. It was after that he started drinking all the time. And he doesn’t have to stay with me—I haven’t the money to pay him. Yet he does, and it must be out of guilt.”
“Maybe he stays out of love,” Austra suggested.
“Hah,” Cazio replied, waving the possibility aside with his hand.
“But who is Ospero? I thought he was just our landlord.”
“Oh, yes—he’s landlord for most of the Perto Veto. He also controls a lot of what happens at the docks. And the ladies I escort. They call himzo cassro, around here—‘the boss.’ Not a pocket gets picked without him knowing about it.”
“He’s a criminal?”
“No. He’s the prince of criminals, at least in this quarter.”
“What are we going to do?” Anne said.
“Until the right ship comes along, and we have enough to pay passage for it, there’s nothing we can do. They’re looking for you everywhere now. We’re safer here than anywhere.Ifz’Acatto knows what he’s doing.”
“I’m sure he does,” Austra said.
“Let’s hope so.”
Anne didn’t say anything. She knew very little about z’Acatto other than that he stayed drunk most of the time. Now, as it turned out, Cazio didn’t know as much about the old man as he thought he did.
It might be true that z’Acatto would never betray Cazio. But that didn’t mean Austra and Anne were safe—not in the slightest.PART II
The Year 2,223 of Everon
Prismo, the first mode, is the Lamp of Day. It invokes Saint Loy, Saint Ausa, Saint Abullo, and Saint Fel. It evokes the bright sun and the blue vault of Heaven. It provokes optimism, ebullience, restlessness, brash behavior.
Etrama, the second mode, is the Lamp of Night. It invokes Saint Soan, Saint Cer, Saint Artumo. It evokes the Moon in all of her phases, the starry sky, gentle night breezes. It provokes weariness, rest, and dream.
—fromThe Codex Harmonium of Elgin Widsel
Prismo, the first parry, is so called because it is the easiest one to do on drawing the sword from its sheath. The riposte is awkward.
Etrama, the second parry, is named this for no particular reason, but it is a strong parry against flank attacks.
—translated fromobsao dazo chiadio(“work of the sword”), by Mestro Papo Avradio VallaimoCHAPTER ONEA Joust
“I THINK THIS MAN WANTS TO KILL US, Hurricane,” Neil told his mount, patting the stallion’s neck. Then he shrugged, took a deep breath, and studied the sky.
He’d always reckoned the sky was the sky—changeable with weather, yes, but essentially the same wherever you went. But here in the south, the blue of it was somehow different, bolder. It went with the rest of the strangeness—the rambling sun-drenched fields and vineyards, the white-stuccoed houses with their red tiled roofs, the low, gnarly oaks and slender cedars that spotted the landscape. It was hard to believe that such a region existed in the same world as his cold, misty homeland—especially now, with the month of Novmen half-done. Skern was probably under a king’s yard of snow right now. Here, he was sweating lightly beneath his gambeson and armor.
The wonder of it did not escape Neil. He remembered his awe at first seeing Eslen, how big the world had seemed to a boy from a small island in the Lier Sea. And yet these last months the world had seemed to shrink around him, and Eslen Castle had become little more than a box.
Now the world seemed larger than ever, and that brought for him a sort of melancholy happiness. In a world this spacious, the sadness and fears of Neil MeqVren were not so large a thing.
Even that mixed pleasure brought with it a certain amount of guilt, however. The queen lived in constant danger, and leaving her for any reason felt wrong. But she had chosen this road for him, she and the shades of Erren and Fastia. Surely they knew better than he what was the right thing to do.
Still, he ought not to enjoy himself.
He heard shouting, and realized that the man in the road didn’t care to be ignored in favor of the sky.
“I’m sorry,” Neil called back, in the king’s tongue, “but I can’t understand you. I am not educated in the speech of Vitellio.”
The man replied with something equally unintelligible, this time addressing one of his squires. At least Neil guessed they were squires, because he reckoned the shouting man to be a knight. He sat upon a powerful-looking horse, black with a white blaze on the forehead, and it was caparisoned in light barding.
The man also wore armor—of odd design, and awfully pretty, with oak leaves worked at the joints, but lord’s plate nevertheless. He carried the helmet under his arm, but Neil could see that it was conical in shape, with a plume of bright feathers arranged almost like a rooster’s tail. He wore a red-and-yellow robe instead of a tabard or surcoat, and that and his shield bore what might be a standard—a closed fist, a sunspray, a bag of some sort—the symbols meant nothing in the heraldry familiar to Neil, but he was, as he had been reflecting, very far from home.
The knight had four men with him, none in armor, but all wearing red tabards with the same design sewn on them as the shield. A large tent had been erected by the side of the road, flying a pennant with the sunspray alone. Three horses and two mules grazed in the pastures along the side of the rutted red road.
One of the men shouted, “My master asks you to declare yourself!” He had a long, bony face and a tuft of hair on his chin trying to pass for a beard. “If you can do so in no civilized language, then speak what babble you will, and I shall translate.”
“I’m a wanderer,” Neil replied. “I may tell you no more than that, I fear.”
A brief conversation followed between the knight and his man; then the servant turned back to Neil.
“You wear the armor and bear the weapons of a knight. In whose service do you ride?”
“I cannot answer that question,” Neil said.
“Think carefully, sir,” the man said. “It is unlawful to wear the armor of a knight in this country if you do not have the credentials to do so.”
“I see,” Neil answered. “And if I am a knight, and can prove it, then what will your master say to that?”
“He will challenge you to honorable combat. After he kills you, he will take possession of your armor and horse.”
“Ah. And if I am merely masquerading as a knight?”
“Then my lord will be forced to fine you and confiscate your property.”
“Well,” Neil said, “there is not a large difference in what I call myself then, is there? Fortunately I have a spear.”
The man’s eyes went round. “Do you not know whom you face?”
“I would ask, but since I cannot give my name, it would be impolite to require his.”
“Don’t you know his emblem?”
“I’m afraid I do not. Can we get this over with?”
The man spoke to his master again. For answer, the knight lifted his helmet onto his head, couched his lance beneath his arm and lifted his shield into position. Neil did the same, noticing that his own weapon was nearly a king’s yard shorter than his foe’s.
The Vitellian knight started first, his charger kicking up a cloud of red dust in the evening sun. Neil spurred Hurricane into motion and dropped the point of his spear into position. Beyond the rolling fields, a cloud of blackbirds fumed up from a distant tree line. For a moment, all seemed very quiet.
At the last moment Neil shifted in the saddle and moved his shield suddenly, so the enemy iron hit it slantwise rather than straight on. The blow rattled his teeth and scored his shield, but he swung his own point to the right, for his enemy was turning in a similar maneuver. He hit the Vitellian shield just at the edge, and the whole force of his blow shocked into the knight. Neil’s spear snapped, its head buried in the shield. As he went by, he saw the Vitellian knight reel back in the saddle, but as he turned, he discovered that the fellow had somehow managed not to fall.
Neil grinned fiercely and drew Crow. The other knight regarded him for a moment, then handed his lance to one of his men and drew his blade, as well.
They came together like thunder, shield against shield. Crow beat over and rang against the Vitellian’s helm, and the strange knight landed a blow on Neil’s shoulder that would certainly have taken the arm off if not for the steel it was sheathed in. They tangled like that for a moment, horses crushing their legs between heaving flanks, but they were too close for hard blows.
Hurricane broke free, and Neil wheeled him around, cutting almost instinctively. He caught his foe right at the neck and sent him crashing to earth. The black horse stamped fiercely and stood to protect his master.
Amazingly, the knight came shakily to his feet. His gorget and the thick cloth wrapped beneath it had stopped the edge, but it was a miracle that his neck wasn’t broken.
Neil dismounted and strode toward his opponent. The Vitellian cocked his sword back for a swing, but Neil shield-rushed him, sending him staggering back a step. Neil used the opening in distance to make a cut of his own, hitting the shoulder of the man’s weapon arm. The armor rang like a bell, and the foe’s blade clattered to the ground. Neil waited for him to pick it up. Instead, the knight dropped his shield and pulled off his helmet, revealing a face rounded by middle age, tousled black hair streaked silver, a well-tended mustache and goatee. His nose was a bit shapeless, as if it had been broken too many times.
“You are a knight,” the man admitted, in accented but comprehensible king’s tongue. “Even though you will not name yourself, I must yield to you, for I believe you have broken my arm. I am Sir Quinte dac’Ucara, and I am honored to have faced you in combat. Will you guest with me?”
But before Neil could answer, Sir Quinte fainted, and his men rushed to his side.
Neil waited as Sir Quinte’s men peeled him out of his armor and washed him with a perfumed rag. The shoulder bone was indeed broken, so they made a sling for the arm. Sir Quinte revived during the process, but if the shattered bone caused him pain, he showed it only a little, and only in his eyes.
“I did not speak your tongue before,” he said, “because I did not know you, and it would not be meet to speak a strange language in my native land. But you have bested me, so Virgenyan shall be the language of this camp.” He nodded at his dented armor. “That belongs to you,” he managed. “As doeszo Cabadro, my mount. Treat him well, I beg you—he is a fine horse.”
Neil shook his head. “You are generous, Sir Quinte, but I have no need for either. I must travel light, and both would slow me.”
Quinte smiled. “You are the generous one, sir. Will you not extend that generosity to telling me your name?”
“I may not, sir.”
Sir Quinte nodded sagely. “You have taken a vow. You are on secret business.”
“You may guess as you like.”
“I respect your wishes,” Sir Quinte said, “but I must call you something. SirzoViotoryou shall be.”
“I don’t understand the name.”
“It is no more than you named yourself, ‘the wanderer.’ I put it in Vitellian so you can explain who you are to less educated folk.”
“Thank you then,” Neil said sincerely.
Sir Quinte turned to one of his men. “Arvo, bring us food and wine.”
“Please, I must be going,” Neil told him. “Though I thank you for the offer.”
“The hour is late. Lord Abullo dips his chariot to the world’s end, and even you—great warrior though you may be—must sleep. Honoring my hospitality could not hinder your quest by much, and it would give me great pleasure.”
Despite Neil’s protests, Arvo was already spreading a cloth on the ground.
“Very well,” Neil relented. “I accept your kindness.” Soon the cloth was covered in viands, most of which Neil did not recognize. There was bread, of course, and a hard sort of cheese, and pears. A red fruit revealed countless tiny pearl-like seeds when husked. They were good, if a bit of a bother to eat. A yellowish oil turned out to be something like butter, to be eaten with the bread. Small black fruits were salty rather than sweet. The wine was red and tasted strongly of cherry.
It occurred to Neil only after they began eating that the food might be drugged or poisoned. A year earlier, he would never have even imagined such a dishonorable thing. But at court, honor and the assumptions it carried were more a liability than anything else.
But Sir Quinte and his squires ate and drank everything Neil did, and the thought left him. However strange his appearance and standard, Sir Quinte was a knight, and he behaved like one—he would no more poison Neil than would Sir Fail de Liery, the oldcheverwho had raised him after his father had died.
Vitellio suddenly did not seem so strange, after all.
The Vitellians ate slowly, often pausing to comment or argue in their own language, which to Neil’s ears sounded more like singing than speaking. Dusk gave way to a pleasant, cool night. Stars made the heavens precious, and they, at least, were the same stars Neil remembered from home.
Except that in Eslen one rarely saw them. Here, they dazzled.
Sir Quinte switched back to the king’s tongue somewhat apologetically. “I am sorry, Sir Viotor,” he said, “to leave you outside of the conversation. Not all of my squires speak the Virgenyan tongue, nor does my historian, Volio.” He gestured at the oldest of his men, a square-headed fellow with only a fringe of gray hair on his scalp.
“Yes, of course. He records my deeds—my victories and losses. We were arguing, you see, about how my defeat today shall be written—and what it portends.”
“Is it so important that it be written at all?” Neil asked.
“Honor demands it,” Quinte said, sounding surprised. “Perhaps you have never lost a duel, Sir Viotor, but if you did, could you pretend that it never happened?”
“No, but that is not the same as writing it down.”
The knight shrugged. “The ways of the north are different—there is no arguing that. Not every knight in Vitellio is answerable to history, either, but I am a Knight of the Mount, and my order demands records be kept.”
“You serve a mountain?”
The knight smiled. “The mount is a holy place, touched by the lords—what you call the saints, I believe.”
“Then you serve the saints? You have no human lord?”
“I serve the merchant guilds,” Sir Quinte replied. “They are pledged to the mount.”
“You serve merchants?”
The knight nodded. “You are a stranger, aren’t you? There are four sorts of knight in Vitellio, all in all. Each overguild has its knights—the merchants, the artisans, the seafarers, and so on. Each prince—we would saymeddissio—each meddissio also commands knights. There are the knights of the Church, of course. Finally, the judges are served by their own knights, so they cannot be intimidated by any of the others to render corrupt decisions.”
“What about the king?” Neil asked. “Has he no knights?”
Sir Quinte chuckled and turned to his squires. “Fatit, pispe dazo rediatur,” he said. They took up his laughter.
Neil held his puzzlement.
“Vitellio has no king,” Quinte explained. “The cities are ruled by meddissios. Some meddissios rule more than one city, but no one rules them all. No one has ruled them all since the collapse of the Hegemony, a thousand years ago.”
“Oh.” Neil could imagine a country with a regent, but he had never heard of a country without a king.
“And,” Sir Quinte went on, “since I serve the merchant overguild, they want records to be kept. Thus I have my historian.”
“But you also said something about portents?”
“Ah, indeed,” Sir Quinte said, raising a finger. “A battle is like the casting of bones or the reading of cards. There is meaning in it. After all, it is the saints who choose which of us defeats the other, yes? And if you have defeated me, there is meaning in it.”
“And what does your historian see in this?”
“A quest. You are on a most important quest, and much hangs upon it. The fate of nations.”
“Interesting,” Neil said, trying to keep his face neutral, though inwardly, his curiosity was aroused.
“Therefore, of course, I must join you. The saints have declared it.”
“Sir Quinte, there is no need to—”
“Come,” the knight said. “We have banqueted. I am injured and weary. You must at least be tired. I beg you, share the hospitality of my camp for the night. Tomorrow we shall make an early start.”
“I must travel alone,” Neil said, though more reluctantly than he might have expected.
Sir Quinte’s face flattened. “Do you mistrust me? You have defeated me, sir. I could never betray you.”
“Sir Quinte, I have learned to my great chagrin that not all men—and I mean no disrespect—but not all men who lay claim to honorable behavior do follow it. My destination is secret, and must remain so.”
“Unless your destination is the hamlet of Buscaro, I cannot imagine what it might be, whether secret or no.”
“Buscaro?” Neil had a map, but he wasn’t very good at reading it. He had been a little uncertain of his route since leaving the Great Vitellian Way.
“That’s the only place this road goes. Are you certain you don’t need a native guide?”
Neil considered that a moment. If he was lost, he’d lost more than just his way—he’d also lost time. If he had gone astray, he would eventually have to ask directions of someone.
But not necessarily a group of armed men.
Still . . .
He returned his gaze to Sir Quinte’s earnest-looking face and sighed. “You do not deceive me, sir?”
“Echi’dacrumi da ma matir.By my mother’s tears.”
Neil nodded. “I’m searching for the coven Saint Cer,” he said reluctantly, “also known as the Abode of Graces.”
Sir Quinte whistled. “Then you see, it is the will of the saints that you should meet me. You chose the wrong path several leagues ago.” He waggled his finger at Neil. “It is no shame to admit you need a guide.”
Neil considered that. If Sir Quinte was an enemy, he could easily follow him, and with his men take Neil whenever it was his pleasure—at night, with no warning. At least if he was among them, he knew where they were. And he would know if they sent a messenger with the news.
“I accept your offer, sir,” Neil replied. “I would be happy of your help.”
Still, he slept very lightly that night, with his hand on the pommel of Crow.
The next morning dawned cool and clear, with a slight frost on the grass. Sir Quinte’s squires had his camp broken down and packed before the sun even cleared the horizon. They followed back down the road Neil had come up, and within two bells had turned onto a track that might have been left by a few goats.
“This is the road to the coven Saint Cer?” Neil asked, trying to hide his skepticism. He was still more than uneasy with his decision to confide in the Vitellian, and was careful not to let any of the knight’s men entirely out of his sight.
“A shortcut,” the knight explained. “You went wrong back at the crossroads after Turoci, on the river. This will take us to the proper road in half the time. And my guess is that time is not your ally.”
“You are right there,” Neil replied earnestly. The sooner he found Anne and returned to Eslen, the sooner he could resume his protection of the queen.
“Never fear, then. I’ll have you at the coven before the stars come out tonight.”
The cultivated landscape grew wilder as they went on. One of Sir Quinte’s squires produced a stringed instrument that resembled a small lute with too few strings and began to sing a jaunty melody Neil understood not a word of. Still, the tune was pleasing, and when the lutist finished, he struck up another.
“It’s a tragedy, this song,” Sir Quinte explained, “about the doomed affair between a knight and a lady in a coven. Very sad.”
Neil felt a melancholy smile flit across his face.
“Ah!” Sir Quinte exclaimed. “There is a lady involved then! In the coven?”
“No,” Neil said. “A lady, yes, but she is very far from the coven.”
“Ah.” Sir Quinte chewed on that a bit. “I am sorry, Sir Viotor, for my questions. I did not see the pain in you before. Now it marks you like a coat-of-arms.”
“It’s nothing,” Neil replied.
“It is far from nothing. I fear no sword or lance, Sir Viotor, not even yours. But love—that can lay the tallest giant low.” He frowned and started to say something, then began again, much more softly. “Take care, Sir Viotor. I know nothing of your love, and would ask no further questions, but it seems to me that your lady must be forever lost, perhaps passed beyond these fields we know. If that is the case, you must be certain you know your heart, for your heart will hear her voice and try to answer. It may betray you to Lord Ontro and Lady Mefita and their dreary kingdom when you still have many deeds to accomplish here among us.”
Neil felt a sudden catch in his throat, and for a terrible moment thought he might weep. He swallowed it down. “You seem to think you know a lot about me, Sir Quinte.”
“I know that I presume. Let me presume one thing more, and then I shall remain silent. If you seek audience with the departed through the sisters of the coven, I would advise against it. The price is terrible.”
“You’ve lost me entirely now,” Neil admitted.
“Do you know nothing of where you go? Lady Cer and Lady Mefita are aspects of the samesahto, what you call a ‘saint’ in the king’s tongue. The ladies who dedicate to her—while holy, and of the Church—learn the arts of murder and the language of the dead. You will never in your life want to cross even an initiate of that order, Sir Viotor.”
Neil had a sudden vision of the lady Erren, in the fortress of Cal Azroth, surrounded by the slain bodies of her enemies, most with no visible mark upon them. He remembered that she had trained at Saint Cer.
“That I believe most sincerely, Sir Quinte,” he replied.
They entered a region of vineyards, rows of vines that stretched to the tops of the hills surrounding them, and Sir Quinte changed the topic to wine, about which he seemed quite knowledgeable. Dusk approached, and Neil’s doubts about his companions crept and faded, then crept back again. But, if they meant him harm, why had they not seized the opportunity? He was outnumbered.
Perhaps they still needed something from him. Anne, for instance. If the women of Saint Cer were all as fearsome as Erren, they could not walk or fight their way in. They would need Neil to bring her out with the queen’s word.
That would be the time to be wary.
Sir Quinte was as good as his word on one issue, at least—before the sunset, they followed a curve around the base of a hill and came upon the coven Saint Cer.
Or, rather, the ruins of it, for the coven had been put to the torch. At first sight, Neil kicked Hurricane into a gallop, but he had ridden only a hundred paces when he slowed the horse to a walk.
There was no smoke. This place had burned long ago.
But was this even the coven Saint Cer? He had only Sir Quinte’s word.
Behind him he heard the faint snick of steel coming from scabbard, and he realized that he had finally put Sir Quinte and the others at his back.CHAPTER TWOReturn to the Forest
WHEN THE PLAIN OF MEY GHORN gave way to the King’s Forest, Aspar White stopped and stared, and wished he were [missing].
“We came this way just two months ago,” Stephen whispered.
“I don’t remember much of what happened then,” Winna said. “But I would have rememberedthis.”
“Quiet, the both of you,” Aspar snapped.
Winna’s eyes rounded with surprise and hurt, and he couldn’t look at them.
Ehawk, the Wattau boy, just stared at the ground.
“I’ve got to . . .” Aspar tried to explain, but he couldn’t think of anything to say. “Just wait here,” he muttered instead. “I’ll be back.”
He gave Ogre a switch with the reins, and the massive horse started forward—reluctantly, it seemed. Aspar didn’t blame him—Ogre was a killer, a beast with very little fear, but he and Aspar were alike in this. What they rode toward now ought not to be.
As Stephen had said, they had been here scarcely two months before. Then, it had been forest fringe, meadows and small trees, a few giant oaks and chestnuts, their leaves touched with fall color.
Now all was black. From a distance it looked almost like smoke, billowing yet strangely anchored to the ground. Close up, you could see what it really was. Vines as thick as ferry cables wound about the trees and writhed across the ground, sending thousands of smaller shoots to grapple with every limb and twig they could reach—which was all of them. The tops of the tallest trees had bent or snapped beneath their clinging weight. And everywhere, thorns—from stickers no longer than his fingernail to woody daggers more than a hand span long.
“Grim,” Aspar muttered. “Haergrim Raver, what is happening to my forest?”
Stephen cast a glance at Winna. “He didn’t mean—”
“I know,” she said. “His hardness comes from habit, not from his heart. It’s like those metal shells the knights in Eslen wear.” She kept her eyes on the holter as his figure grew smaller against the loom of black. “He loves this forest,” she said softer. “More than anything. More than he loves me.”
“I doubt that,” Stephen said.
“Don’t,” she replied. “It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t make me jealous. It’s good to know a man can feel so much, even one who has been through what Aspar has. It’s good to know a man has a passion, and not just hollow bones in him.” She glanced at Stephen, and her green eyes looked almost gray in the overcast morning. “I love these woods, too—I grew up at the other edge of them. But you and I can never know what he feels for this place. That’s the only thing that I’m jealous of—not that he feels it, but that I don’t.”
Stephen nodded. “What about your family? Are you worried about them?”
“Yah,” she said. “Oh, yah. I try not to think of it. But my father, he’d be the first to leave, if things went too wrong. If he had notice. If he had time.”
Aspar had dismounted now, some distance away. Stephen heard the squeak of him coming off the leather saddle. As a novice priest, Stephen had walked the faneway of Saint Decmanis. The saint had improved his senses, his memory—and other things. He heard Aspar curse, too, invoking the Raver.
“Do you have an explanation for this?” Winna asked. “Why this is happening? What those thorns are, exactly? Did you find anything in the royal scriftorium?”
“I know little more than you do,” Stephen admitted. “They are connected in folklore and legend to the Briar King, but that much we already know from experience.”
The fortress of Cal Azroth was still visible behind them, across the Warlock River, a mass of twining thorns and little more. That was where they had last encountered the Briar King. A path of the vines led here, to the forest, where they seemed to have taken hold.
“Why would he destroy his own forest?”
“I don’t know,” Stephen said. “Some stories say he will destroy everything, make the world new from the ashes of the old.” He sighed. “Half a year ago I considered myself learned, and the Briar King was no more than a name in a children’s song. Now nothing I know seems true.”
“I know how you feel,” Winna replied.
“He’s motioning us forward,” Stephen said.
“Are you sure?”
Aspar watched his companions approach. He calmed his breathing.
Sceat on it, he thought to himself.What is, is. No use getting all mawkin’ about it. That won’t help a thing. I’ll find the Briar King, kill him, and put an end to this. That’s that.
By the time they’d arrived, he even managed to force a smile.
“Fast-growin’ weed,” he said, tilting his head at the dying forest.
“That it is,” Stephen allowed.
“I reckon all of this sprang from his trail,” Aspar said. “That makes him easy to track, at least. Unless this stuff has already spread everywhere.”
It hadn’t. Only a bell later, they found trees that were only half covered with the stuff, and finally not at all. Aspar felt relief sink down his body and toward his toes. There was still time to do something. It wasn’t all lost yet.
“Let’s see,” Aspar said. “We’ve another two hours of daylight yet, but I expect rain at dusk. Stephen, since we’re working for the praifec now, I reckon you ought to mark all this on your maps—how far this stuff has spread. Winna and I will set up camp, meantime.”
“Where do you think we are?” Stephen asked.
Aspar took a slow look around. His bearings had been thrown off a bit by the unfamiliarity of what they had seen earlier.
The forest was more or less west of them, running north-south. East were the rolling fields of the Midenlands. He could make out five or six small farmsteads, a scattering of sheep, goats, and cows on the gentle hills. The tower of a small country church stood perhaps a league away.
“Do you know what town that is?” Stephen asked.
“I make it to be Thrigaetstath,” Aspar said.
Stephen had his map out and was scrutinizing it. “Are you sure?” he asked. “I think its more likely Tulhaem.”
“Yah? Then why ask me? I’ve only traveled these woods my whole life. You,you’vegot a map.”
“I’m just saying,” Stephen said, “that this is only the third town I’ve seen since passing Cal Azroth, which ought to make it Tulhaem.”
“Tulhaem’s bigger than that,” Aspar replied.
“It’s hard to tell how big a town is,” Stephen said, “when you can only see the top part of a bell tower. If you say it’s Thrigaetstath, I’m happy to mark it that way.”
“Werlic. Do it then.”
“Still, Thrigaetstath ought to be nearer—”
“Winna,” Aspar asked, “where are you going?” She had quietly started her mount walking down the hill, away from the forest.
“Toask,” she said. “There’s a farmstead just down there.”
“Bogelih,” Aspar grunted. “Are you sure?”
The boy—a straw-headed lad of fourteen or so named Algaf—scratched his head and seemed to think hard about the question.
“Well, sir,” he said at last, “I’ve spent my whole life here and never heard it called nothin’ else.”
“It’s not on my map,” Stephen complained.
“How far are we from Thrigaetstath?” Aspar asked.
“Ogh, near a league, I reckon,” the boy said. “But ain’t nobody living there now. Them black brammels grew over it.”
“The whole town?” Winna said.
“I always said it was too near the forest,” a female voice added. Aspar’s gaze tracked the sound to a woman of perhaps thirty who was clad in a brown homespun dress and standing near the stonewalled pigpen. Her hair was the same color as the boy’s, and Aspar reckoned her for his mother.
“Pride, that’s what it was,” she went on. “They went over the boundary. Everyone knew it.”
“How long ago was this?” Stephen asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Before my grandmother’s grandmother. But the forest thinks slow, my grandmother said. It doesn’t forget. And now the lord Brammel has waked, and he’s taking back what was his.”
“What happened to the folk of Thrigaetstath?” Aspar asked.
“Scattered. Went to their relatives, if they had any. Some went to the city, I reckon. But they’re all gone.” Her eyes narrowed. “You’re him, aren’t you? The king’s holter?”
“I’m the holter,” Aspar acknowledged.
The woman nodded her head at the small buildings of her farm. “We built outside the boundary. We respected his law. Are we safe?”
Aspar sighed and shook his head. “That I don’t know. But I intend to find out.”
“I’ve ney husband ner family that will take me,” the woman said. “I’ve only the boy there. I can’t leave this place.”
Stephen cleared his throat. “Have you heard anything about other villages being abandoned? About people who run—pardon me—naked, like beasts?”
“A traveler from the east brought tales like that,” the woman said. “But travelers often bring tales.” She shifted uncomfortably. “Still, thereissomething.”
“What?” Aspar asked.
“Things come out of the brammels. The animals smell them. The dogs bark all night. And yesterday I lost a goat.”
“I saw it,” the boy said eagerly. “I saw it at the edge of the woods.”
“Algaf,” the woman snapped. “I’ve told you not to go there. Ever.”
“Yes, Mum. But Riqqi ran up there, and I had to go after him.”
“We can get another dog, if it comes to that,” the woman said. “Never, you hear me?”
“But what did you see, boy?” Aspar asked.
“I think it was an utin,” the boy said cheerfully. “He stood taller than you, but he was all wrong, if y’kann me. I only saw him for a minute.”
“An utin,” Aspar grunted. Once he would have gruffly dismissed the boy’s words. His whole life he had heard tales of utins and alvs and boygshinns and all manner of strange beasts in the King’s Forest, and in almost four decades he had never seen any sign of them.
But he’d never seen a greffyn before this year, either, or a Briar King.
“I can take you there, master holter,” Algaf said.
“Your mother just told you to stay away from the forest,” Aspar said. “It’s fine advice. You just tell me where, and I’ll have a look before sundown.”
“You’ll stay with us, will you?” the woman asked.
“I wouldn’t impose,” Aspar said. “We’ll pitch a camp in your field, if we may.”
“Stay in the barn,” the woman said. “It won’t be an imposition—it’ll be a comfort.” She couldn’t quite meet his eyes.
“Well enough,” Aspar said. “Thank you for your kindness.” He motioned to the Wattau. “Ehawk, you come with me. We’ll go see if this thing left any sign.”
Aspar wrinkled his nose at the smell.
“Don’t touch it,” Aspar warned Ehawk, who had bent to trace the track with his finger.
“Why, Master White?”
“I touched a greffyn track once, and it made me ill. Killed smaller creatures outright. I’ve no idea what left that, but it’s nothing I know, and when I see things I don’t know in the King’s Forest, I’ve learned to be careful about ‘em.”
“It’s big,” Ehawk observed.
“Yah. And six toes, yet. Do they have anything leaves tracks like this up your way?”
“Mine either,” Aspar said. “And that smell?”
“I’ve never smelled the like,” the boy admitted. “But it is foul.”
“I’ve known that scent before,” Aspar said. “In the mountains, where I found the Briar King’s barrow.” He sighed. “Well, let’s go back down. Tomorrow we’ll track this thing.”
“Something’s tracking it already,” Ehawk said.
“Eh? What do you see?”
The boy knelt and pointed, and Aspar saw he was right. There was another set of tracks, small, almost child-size, these in soft-soled shoes. The prints were so faint, even his trained eye had skipped over them.
“Those are good eyes you have there, Wattau,” Aspar said.
“They might be traveling together,” the boy allowed.
“Yah. Might be. Come along.”
Brean was the woman’s name, and she served them chicken stew, probably better than she and the boy had eaten in months. Aspar ate sparingly, hoping to leave them some when they’d gone.
That night they slept in the barn. The dogs, as Brean had claimed, did bark all night, for leagues in all directions and probably out of earshot, too. There was fear in their voices, and Aspar did not sleep well.
The next day they rose early and went utin-hunting.
Unfortunately, the tracks didn’t go far—they vanished about twenty yards into the woods.
“The ground is still soft,” Aspar said. “And this beast is heavy. There ought to be tracks.”
“In the stories I heard growing up, utins could shrink to the size of a gnat or turn into moss,” Winna said. “It could be hiding right beneath our feet.”
“That’s just stories,” Aspar said.
“Greffyns used to be just stories, too,” she replied.
“But the stories didn’t have it all right,” Stephen pointed out. “Each tale and account I read of the Briar King had only a few words of truth about him. And the real greffyn was very different from phay-story greffyns.”
“But real, yah?”
“Werlic,” Aspar agreed. “I never trusted those stories.”
“You never trust anything except what you see with your own two eyes,” Winna shot back.
“And why should I? All it ever took to convince me there was such a thing as a greffyn was to see one. All it will ever take to convince me a beast that weighs half a ton can turn into moss is to see it. I’m a simple man.”
“No,” Stephen said. “You’re a skeptical man. That’s kept you alive when others would have died.”
“Are we agreeing about this?” Aspar asked, one eyebrow raised.
“More or less. It’s clear that many things we once considered legend have a basis in fact. But no one has actually seen a greffyn or an utin since ancient times. Stories grow and change in the telling, so no, we can’t trust them to be reliable. The only way to sort out truth from invention is with our own senses.”
“Well, use your senses,” Winna said. “Where did it go?”
It was Ehawk who answered, solemnly pointing up.
“Good lad,” Aspar said. He motioned to where Ehawk had indicated. “The bark is scraped there, see? It’s traveling in the trees.”
Stephen paled and stared up at the distant canopy. “That’s almost as bad as being able to turn into moss,” he said. “How will we ever see it?”
“Is that a riddle?” Aspar asked. “With our eyes.”
“But how to track it?”
“Yah, that’s a problem. But it seems to be going along the forest edge where the briars are, which is where we’re going, as well. The praifec didn’t send us out here to hunt utins. I reckon we’ll keep on with what we were hired for, and if we run across it again, all well and good.”
“That’s not at all well and good by my sight,” Stephen said, “but I take your point.”
They traveled in silence for a time. Aspar kept his eyes searching the treetops, and his back itched constantly. The smell of autumn leaves was almost overpowering. Long experience had taught him that the smell was a sign that murder was coming. The Sefry woman who had raised him had told him the strange sense came from Grim, the Raver, for Aspar had been born at a place of sacrifice to Grim. Aspar didn’t necessarily believe that, nor did he care—he cared only that it was usually true.
Except in autumn, when the smell was already there . . .
But once again, his nose was right. Approaching a clearing, the scent intensified.
“I smell blood,” Stephen said. “And something very foul.”
“Do you hear anything with those saint-blessed ears of yours?”
“I’m not sure. Breathing, maybe, but I can’t tell where.” They advanced a little farther, until they saw the crumbled, torn body in the clearing.
“Saints!” Winna gasped.
“Saints bless,” Stephen said. “The poor lad.” Blood soaked the leaves and ground, but the face was clean, easily recognizable as Algaf, the boy from the homestead.
“I guess he didn’t listen to his mother.” Aspar sighed. Stephen started forward, but Aspar stopped him with an outstretched arm.
“No. Don’t you see? The boy is bait. It wants us to walk in there.”
“He’s still alive,” Stephen said. “That’s him I hear breathing.”
“Asp—” Winna began, but he hushed her. He walked his gaze through the treetops, but there was nothing but bare branches and asigh of wind.
He sighed. “Watch the trees,” he said. “I’ll get him.”
“No,” Stephen said. “I will. I can’t use a bow the way you can. If it’s really hiding in the trees, you’ve got the best chance of stopping it.”
Aspar considered that, then nodded. “Go, then. But be ready.” As Stephen advanced cautiously into the field, Aspar nocked an arrow to his bow and waited.
A flight of sparrows whirred through the trees. Then the forest was eerily silent.
Stephen reached the boy and knelt by him. “It’s bad,” he called to them. “He’s still bleeding. If we bandage him now, we might have a chance.”
“I don’t see anything,” Ehawk said.
“I know,” Aspar said. “I don’t like it.”
“Maybe you were wrong,” Winna suggested. “We don’t know that an utin—or whatever it is—is smart enough to set a trap.”
“The greffyn had men and Sefry traveling with it,” Aspar reminded her. He remembered the footprints. “This thing might, too. It doesn’t have to be smart enough itself.”
He was missing something—he knew it. It had to have come into the clearing on foot. He had found only the one set of tracks in. He’d assumed it had left on the other side, then taken to the trees.
“Utins could shrink to the size of a gnat or turn into moss,” Winna had said.
“Stephen, come here,now,” Aspar shouted.
“But I—” His eyes widened, and his head nearly spun from his shoulders; then he lurched to his feet.
He hadn’t gone a yard when the ground seemed to explode, and in a cloud of rising leaves, something much larger than a man leapt toward Stephen.CHAPTER THREEMery
LEOFF’S FINGERS DANCED ACROSS the red-and-black keys of the hammarharp, but his mind drifted into daymarys of corpses with eyes of ash and a town gone forever still beneath the wings of night. Darkness crept through his fingers and into the keyboard, and the cheerful melody he had been playing suddenly brooded like a requiem. Frustrated, he reached for his crutches and used them to stand, wincing at the pain from his leg.
He considered returning to his room to lie down, but the thought of that small dark chamber depressed him. The music room was sunny, at least, with two tall windows looking out across the city of Eslen and Newland beyond. It was well furnished with instruments, as well—besides the hammarharp, the were croths of all sizes, lutes and theorbos, hautboys, recorders, flageolettes and bagpipes. There was an ample supply of paper and ink, too.
Most of these things lay under a fine layer of dust, however, and none of the stringed instruments had been tuned in years. Leoff wondered exactly how long it had been since the court had employed a resident composer.
More pointedly, he wondered if the court employed onenow.
When would he hear from the queen?
Artwair had as been as good as his word, finding Leoff quarters in the castle and getting him permission to use the music room. He’d had a very brief audience with the king, who had hardly seemed to know he was there. The queen had been there, beautiful and regal, and at her prompting, the king had commended him for his actions at Broogh. Neither had said anything about his appointment. And though a few suits of clothes had been made for him and meals came regularly to his chambers, in twice ninedays he had been given no commission.
So he had dabbled. He’d written down the song of the malend, arranging it for a twelve-piece consort and then—dissatisfied with the result—for thirty instruments. No consort so large had ever played, to his knowledge, but in his mind that was what he heard.
He’d made another stab at the elusive melody from the hills, but something kept stopping him, and he had laid that aside, instead beginning a suite of courtly dance music, anticipating the hoped-for commission—for a wedding, perhaps.
Through it all, the dead of Broogh haunted him, crying out for a voice. He knew what he needed to do, but he hesitated. He was afraid that the composition of so powerful a work as was forming in his mind might somehow drain him of his own life.
So he fretted, and poked about the music room, exploring the manuscrifts in its cabinets, tuning the stringed instruments, then tuning them again.
He was staring out the window at distant barges on the Dew when he heard a muffled sneeze. He turned to see who was there, but there was no one in the room. The door was ajar, and he could see ten yards of the hall beyond.
The hair on his neck pricking up, he walked slowly around the room, wondering if he had imagined the sound.
But then it came again, louder, from one of the wooden cabinets.
He stared at the source of the noise, fear waxing. Had they found him, the murderers from Broogh? Had they come for revenge, sent an assassin, fearing he might reveal them?
Carefully, he picked up the nearest thing at hand, an hautboy. It was heavy—and pointed.
He glanced back out into the hall. No guard was to be seen. He considered going to find one, and almost did, but instead, he steeled himself, advanced on the cabinet, and brandishing the hautboy, quickly grabbed the handle and yanked it open.
Wide eyes blinked up at him, and a small mouth gave a little gasp. The child within stared at him a moment, as Leoff relaxed.
The cabinet held a little girl, probably no more than six or seven years of age. She wore a blue satin gown, and her long brown hair was rather disarrayed. Her blue eyes seemed guileless.
“Hello,” he said after a moment. “You gave me rather a fright. What’s your name?”
“It’s Mery, please,” she replied.
“Why don’t you come on out, Mery, and tell me why you’re hiding in here.”
“Yes, please,” she said, and scooted out of the cramped space. She stood and then backed away from him.
“I’ll go now,” she said.
“No, wait. What were you doing in there?”
“Nobody used to be in here,” she said. “I would come in and play with the hammarharp. I like the way it sounds. Now you’re here, and I can’t play it, but I like to listen to you.”
“Well, Mery, you might have asked. I wouldn’t mind you listening sometimes.”
She hung her head a little. “I just try to stay quiet and not be seen. It’s best that way.”
“Nonsense. You’re a beautiful little girl. There’s no reason to be shy.”
She didn’t answer, but stared at him as if he were speaking Vitellian.
He pulled another stool up to the hammarharp. “Sit here. I’ll play you something.”
Her eyes widened further, and then she frowned, as if doubting him. “Truly?”
She did as he said, settling on the stool.
“Now, what’s your favorite song?”
She thought for a moment. “I like ‘Round the Hill and Back Again.’”
“I know that one,” he said. “It was a favorite of mine when I was your age. Let’s see—does it go like this?” He picked out the melody line.
“I thought so. Now let me play it with two hands.” He started a simple bass line and played through again, and on the third pass added a counterpoint.
“It’s like a dance now,” she observed.
“Yes,” he said. “But listen, I can change it into a hymn.” He dropped the moving bass line and went into four-part harmony. “Or I can make it sad.” He shifted into a more plaintive mode.
She smiled again. “I like it like that. How can you make one song into so many songs?”
“That’s what I do,” he said.
“Well—imagine you want to say something. ‘I want some water to drink.’ How many ways could you say that?”
Mery considered. “Some water I want to drink?”
“Right. How else?”
“I’d like some water to drink, please.”
“Just so. Politely.”
“I want some water,now.”
“Commanding, yes. Angrily?”
“Give me somewater!”She suppressed a giggle at her feigned rage.
“And so on,” Leoff said. “It’s the same with music. There are many ways of expressing the same idea. It’s a matter of choosing the right ones.”
“Can you do it with another song?”
“Of course. What song would you like?”
“I don’t know the name of it.”
“Can you hum it?”
“I think so.” She concentrated, and began humming.
Two things struck Leoff immediately. The first was that she was humming the main theme from the “Song of the Malend,” which he’d just written down only a few days before.
The second was that she was humming it exactly in key, with perfect pitch.
“You heard that in here, didn’t you?”
She looked abashed. “Yes, please.”
“How many times?”
“Once.” Interest went quicker in his chest. “Mery, would you play something on the hammarharp for me? Something you used to play when you came in here alone?”
“But you’re so much better.”
“But I’ve been playing longer, and I was trained. Have you ever had a lesson in music?” She shook her head.
“Play something, then. I’d like to hear it.”
“Very well,” she said. “But it won’t be good.” She settled onto the little stool and spread her tiny fingers on the keyboard and began to play. It was just a melody, a single line, but he knew it immediately as “The Fine Maid of Dalwis.”
“That’s really very good, Mery,” he said. He pulled up another stool next to her. “Play it again, and I’ll play with you.”
She started again, and he added only chords at first, then a walking bass line. Mery’s smile grew more and more delighted.
After they were done, she looked at him, her blue eyes glittering. “I wish I could play with both hands,” she said, “the way you do.”
“You could, Mery. I could teach you, if you would like.”
She opened her mouth, then hesitated. “Are you sure?” she asked.
“It would be my honor.”
“I’d like to learn.”
“Very well. But you must be serious. You must do what I say. You have an excellent ear, but the way you’re using your hands is wrong. You must place them thusly—”
Two bells passed almost without Leoff’s realizing it. Mery picked up the exercises quickly. Her mind and ear were quite amazing, and it delighted him to see her progress.
He certainly didn’t hear anyone approaching, not until they were rapping on the open door.
He swiveled in his chair. The queen, Muriele Dare, stood there. She wasn’t looking at him, but at Mery. The girl, for her part, hopped down quickly and bent her knee. Belatedly, Leoff overcame his surprise and tried to do the same, though his splint spoiled the effect.
“Mery,” the queen said in a soft, cold voice, “why don’t you run along?”
“Yes, Majesty,” she said, and started to scuttle off. But she turned and looked shyly at Leoff. “Thank you,” she said.
“Mery,” the queen said, a little more forcefully.
And the little girl was gone.
The queen turned an icy eye on Leoff then. “When did Lady Gramme commission you to teach her child music?” she asked.
“Majesty, I know no Lady Gramme,” Leoff said. “The child has been hiding here because she likes music. I discovered her today.”
The queen’s face seemed to relax a bit. Her voice softened incrementally. “I shall make certain she bothers you no more.”
“Majesty, I find the child delightful. She has an excellent ear, and is quick to learn. I would teach her without compensation.”
“Would you?” The chill was back, and Leoff suddenly began wondering who exactly Lady Gramme was.
“If it is permitted. Majesty, I know so little of this place. I do not even know, frankly, if I am employed here.”
“That is what I have come here to discuss.” She took a seat, and he stood watching her nervously, the crutches tight under his arms. In the hall, a guard stood at either side of the door.
“My husband did not mention hiring you, and the letter you had from him seems to have left your possession.”
“Majesty, if I may, the fire in the malend—”
“Yes, I know, and Duke Artwair saw the letter, and that is good enough for me. Still, in these days, I must take great care. I made inquires about you in various places, and that took some time.”
“Yes, Majesty. Of course I understand.”
“I do not know much about music,” the queen said, “but I am given to understand you have an unusual reputation, for a composer. The Church, for example, has censured your work on several occasions. There were even allegations of shinecraft.”
“I assure you, Majesty,” Leoff began quickly, “I have done nothing heretical, and am certainly no shinecrafter.”
“Yet that opinion comes from the clergy in Glastir. They said that your works were often indecently orchestrated.” She shrugged. “I do not know what that means. They also report that one of your concerts provoked violence.”
“That is true in only the most abstract way, Majesty. Two gentlemen began arguing about the worth of one of my compositions. They did come to blows over it, and they had—friends—who joined them.”
“So there was a brawl.”
Leoff sighed. “Yes, Majesty.”
“The attish of Glastir said your music had a corrupting influence on the crowd.”
“I do not believe that to be true, Majesty.”
She smiled faintly. “I think I understand why my husband offered you this position, though it went long unfilled. He was somewhat at odds with the Church, and especially with Praifec Hespero. I suppose he did this to devil him a bit.” The smile vanished. “Unfortunately, my son is not in the position my husband was. We cannot afford to provoke the Church—at least not much. On the other hand, you did prove yourself a friend to this kingdom, and Duke Artwair’s good word in your behalf is worth its measure in gold.” Her brow creased slightly. “Tell me what the Church dislikes about your music. Precisely.”
Leoff considered his words carefully. “Majesty, your last court composer—what was your favorite of his works?”
She blinked, and he suddenly felt cold, for presuming to answer her question with a question.
“I really cannot say,” she said. “I suppose it may have been one of his pavanes.”
“Can you hear it in your head? Can you hum it?”
Now she looked annoyed. “Is there a point to this?”
He balanced on the crutches so he could clasp his hands in front of him. “Majesty, music is a gift of the saints. It has the power to move the human soul. And yet for the most part it does not. For almost a hundred years, music has been written not with the heart, but with the mind, almost arithmetically. It has become sterile, an academic exercise.”
“A pavane should sound like a pavane, should it not?” the queen asked. “And a requiem like a requiem?”
“Those areforms, Majesty. Within those forms, such sublime things could be done—”
“I don’t understand. Why does the Church object to your philosophy?”
And now Leoff knew he must choose his wordsverycarefully.
“Because some members of the clergy confuse habit with doctrine. There was a time before the invention of the hammarharp—it was hardly a hundred years old. Two hundred years ago, it was unheard-of for two voices to sing different parts, much less four, yet hymns in the Church are now routinely written in four parts. And yet, for whatever reason, for the last hundred years, music has changed not at all. It has inertia, and familiarity. Some people fear change—”
“I asked you to be specific.”
“Yes, Majesty. Forgive me. Take, for instance, the separation of instrumental and vocal music. The music of the Church is of the voice only. Instruments never accompany a requiem. A concerto, on the other hand, never has a human voice added to it.”
“Minstrels play and sing,” the queen said.
“Yes. And the Church mislikes it. Why? I have never been shown a written doctrine to explain it.”
“Then you want to compose for both the voice and instruments?”
“Yes! It was done in ancient times, before the reign of the Black Jester.”
“He banned it?”
“Well—no. He encouraged it, actually, but like everything else he touched, he corrupted the form. He made music a thing of terror—torturing singers to scream in unison, that sort of thing.”
“Ah,” the queen said. “And when the Hegemony defeated him and imposed the peace, they banned such music because of its association, just as they banned everything else associated with the Black Jester.”
“Including artifice,” Leoff said. “If all such bans were still in effect, the malends that drain your Newland would never have been invented.”
The queen smiled again. “Don’t think the Church didn’t try to stop that,” she said. “But to return to your own assertion—you say music has the power to move the human soul, and now you mention the Black Jester. It is said that in his reign, music was written which drove whole nations to despair, which could provoke madness and bestial behavior. If so—if music can move the human soul toward darkness—is it not better that it remain, as you say, sterile and harmless?”
Leoff unclasped his hands and sighed. “Majesty,” he said, “the world is already full of the music of despair. Songs of woe are always in our ears. I would counter that with joy, pride, tenderness, peace—and above all, hope. I would add something to our lives.”
The queen looked at him for a long moment without showing a readable expression. “Move my soul,” she said finally. “Show me what you mean. I will judge how dangerous it is.”
He hesitated a moment, knowing this was the moment, wondering what to play. One of the stirring airs he had written for the court at Glastir? The victory march of Lord Fell?
He had chosen that last, and set his fingers to the keyboard, but something else happened. He began playing the thing he had been avoiding, the part that had already formed in his head. Softly at first, a song of love and desire, a path to a bright future. Then the enemy, discord, terror, dark clouds blotting the sun. Duty, grim duty but through it all, the melody of hope returned again and again, unconquerable, until in the end, after death and grief, only it remained, triumphant despite everything.
When he finished, he felt his own eyes were damp, and he gave silent prayer to the saints for what they had given him.
He turned slowly from the keyboard, and found the queen staring at him. A single tear was working down her cheek.
“What is it called?” she asked softly.
“I have never played it before,” he said. “It is a part of something larger, a distillation of it. But I might call it the ‘Tale of Lihta.’”
She nodded thoughtfully. “I see why the Church does not like your music,” she said. “It does indeed move the soul, and they would claim our souls as their own. But the saints speak through you, don’t they, Leovigild Ackenzal?”
“I believe so, Majesty. I hope so.”
“So do I.” She lifted her chin and stood. “You are in my employ,” she said. “And I would like to commission something from you.”
“These are dark times. War threatens, and creatures of terror that should not exist walk the land. Much has been lost, and as you say, despair is all around us. I had thought to commission from you a requiem for the dead—for my husband and daughters. Now I think we need something greater. I want you to write something—something like I just heard—not for me, or the nobles of the court. I want you to write something for this country, something that will unite the most humble servant with the highest lord. I want something for all of my people, do you understand? A music that can fill this whole city, that can float into the countryside beyond and will be whispered of over the gray seas.”
“That would be—” Leoff couldn’t find words for a moment. “Majesty,” he began again, “you have named my heart’s desire.”
“I’d like it performed on Wihnaht, in the Yule season. Could you have it ready by then?”
She nodded, turned, and began to leave, but she stopped.
“You are dangerous, Mestro Ackenzal. I take a great risk with you, much greater than you can ever know, but since I take it, I take it fully and with conviction. If you do this, you cannot hold back from fear of the Church. You must do as I have asked to the best of your abilities and with all of your invention. Do it understanding that I may not be able to protect you, though I will do my best. If you are not willing to burn for this, tell me now.”
A chill of fear went through Leoff, but he nodded. “I was as you know, Majesty, in Broogh,” he said. “I saw the price they paid there for your kingdom. I am no warrior. In my heart I am not brave. But for what you ask—for the chance to do what you ask—I will risk burning. I only hope I am worthy.”
“Very well,” she said. And then she was gone.CHAPTER FOURGuest of the Countess
NEIL SPUN IN HIS saddle, fearing treachery in the sound of steel behind him, but the Vitellian knight and his retainers weren’t threatening him. Instead, he realized, they had noticed what he had not—a group of armed horsemen off to the right, riding their way.
They were dressed all alike, in sable surcoats and crimson robes over armor. None had donned their helms.
Sir Quinte resheathed his sword, and his men did likewise. “Knights of the Church,” he said. “The order of Lord Tormo.”
Neil nodded and said nothing, but he kept his hand near his sword. While he trusted the saints, he’d learned the hard way that their human servants were as corruptible as anyone.
They sat their horses and waited for the knights to arrive.
The leader was a giant of a man, with bushy black beard and swell-green eyes. He held up his hand in greeting and spoke in clear Vitellian. Sir Quinte answered, and they seemed to have a brief argument. Then the knight of Tormo turned to regard Neil.
“I am Sir Chenzo,” he said, in the king’s tongue now, “a knight in service of our holy Fratrex Prismo in z’Irbina. Sir Quinte tells me you came in search of this coven?”
“I did,” Neil replied.
“Did you know of its condition?”
“No, sir, I did not.”
“Then for what purpose did you travel here?”
“I am sorry, Sir Chenzo, but I’m afraid I cannot tell you that. But please, I must know—what happened here? Where have the sistersof the coven gone?”
“They have gone to their lady Cer,” the knight replied. “All were slaughtered.”
Neil felt light, as if he were falling. “All, Sir Chenzo? None survived?”
Sir Chenzo narrowed his eyes. “A terrible crime has been committed here. I must ask you again, why did you come to this place?”
“Sir Viotor is sworn to secrecy,” Sir Quinte explained, “but I will vouch that he is a most gentle and honorable knight.”
“Come, come,” Sir Chenzo said to Neil. “Tell me generally. Did you come to deliver a message? Did you come for one of the sisters? A rendezvous, perhaps?”
Neil felt his chest tighten. “I am sorry, sir. Sir Quinte is right. I have taken a vow.”
“As have I,” the knight replied. “I have vowed to find the perpetrator of this obscenity. Anything you know may be of use to me.”
“Have you no clues?” Sir Quinte asked.
“A few. It was done by foreign knights bearing no standard or markings, like your friend here. They slaughtered the sisters and then rode off in different directions.”
“As if they were searching,” Neil muttered.
“Yes, as if searching for someone,” Sir Chenzo affirmed. “But searching for whom, Sir Viotor? That is the question, and I suspect you have some inkling of the answer.”
Neil averted his eyes, trying to think. He could not imagine that the slaughter at the coven and the murder of the royal family in Eslen were coincidence. Whoever had sent the assassins to slay his beloved Fastia had also sent killers here, to murder her sister.
If Anne were dead, then he could justifiably consider himself released from his vow. He could return to the queen and protect her.
But the queen’s conversation with the shade of Erren indicated that Anne was still alive only two weeks ago. Judging from the ruins, the coven looked to have been burned longer ago than that. So she must have escaped the general slaughter, and was being pursued by the perpetrators.
That meant that her pursuers already knew who she was. The secret he was sworn to protect was no longer a secret at all.
If that was so, the only things that remained secret were his identity and what his mission was. He had to preserve his anonymity; if Anne was still alive, he might be her only hope. He could not allow himself to be waylaid.
And so, saying a silent prayer to Saint Freinte, Neil lied.
“I see that I must trust you with my secret,” he sighed. “My name is Etein MeqMerlem, from the isle of Andevoi. There is a young lady whom I love, but her parents disapproved of our affections. They sent her to a coven to keep us apart. I know not which coven, but for three years now I have searched for her, from Hansa to Safnia, thus far without success.”
“Now I have come here, and you tell me of this terrible thing.” He sat straighter in his saddle. “I know nothing of these murders, but I must know if she was here. If she lives, I will find her. If she is dead, then I will avenge her. I pray that you will help me in my quest.”
“I knew it!” Sir Quinte said. “I knew your quest was for the sake of love.”
Sir Chenzo studied Neil with one eyebrow upraised. “What was the lady’s name?” he asked.
“Muerven de Selrete,” he replied. Then, anxiously, “Please, was she here?”
The knight shrugged. “The records of the coven were burned along with everything else. I’m sorry, but there is no way of knowing.”
“Yet the bodies—”
“Long buried, and—you’ll forgive me—mostly unrecognizable, in any case.”
“I know that she lives,” Neil said. “I feel it in my heart. Can you at least tell me the direction the largest group of searchers went in?”
Sir Chenzo shook his head. “I am sorry, Sir Etein, I have my own vows and duties. But please, accompany us to the place where we are guested. Take ease for the night. Perhaps you will remember something there that will be of use to us.”
“I’m afraid I must decline,” Neil replied. “I must renew my search immediately, especially now.”
“Please,” Sir Chenzo said. “I insist.”
The look in his eye made it clear to Neil that he was not merely being polite.
They rode from fields of yellowing grass and purple thistle into vast vineyards and finally up to a rambling white-walled estate roofed in red tile. By the time they reached the mansion, the sun had set, and only a faint glow remained in the west.
Servants in plum doublets and yellow hose took their horses, and they passed through a gate and into a large inner courtyard. A few servants in the same livery were sweeping it as they entered, and a page led them through another door and into a hall lit brightly by candles and hearth. A few people were gathered around a long table. The most notable of these was a woman of middle years and large girth, who rose from the head of the table as they entered.
“Portate az me ech’ospi, casnar Chenzo?” she said in a pleasant, jovial voice.
“Oex,” he answered, and then he proceeded to make some explanation in Vitellian.
The woman nodded, made various hand gestures, and then looked pointedly at Neil.
“Pan tio nomes, me dello?” she asked.
“I am sorry, my lady,” Neil said, “I do not understand you.”
The woman shot a mock-angry look at Sir Chenzo. “You’ve allowed me to be rude to a guest,” she told him in the king’s tongue. “You should have told me right away that he doesn’t understand our tongue.”
She turned back to Neil. “I only asked your name, my dello,” she said.
“Lady, my name is Etein MeqMerlem, and I am at your service.”
“I am the countess Orchaevia, and this is my house you’ve been brought to.” She smiled again. “My. Somanyguests.”
“I regret the lack of notice,” Sir Chenzo rushed to say, “but we met them just now, near the ruins of the coven. My order will of course reimburse—”
“Nonsense,” the woman said. “Do not become vulgar, Sir Chenzo. The countess Orchaevia does not need to be plied with Church silver to persuade her to host travelers.” Her gaze settled on Neil. “Especially such a handsome young dello as this.” Then she smiled at Sir Quinte. “Or one with the reputation of Sir Quinte.”
Sir Quinte bowed. “Countess Orchaevia, the pleasure is mine. I had a mind to pay you a call, being in the region, even before these gentlemen escorted us here.”
Neil bowed, too. He was reminded of the Duchess Elyoner of Loiyes, though physically there was no resemblance. The duchess was dainty, almost a child in size. Yet the countess Orchaevia had something of her flirting manner.
She set as lavish a table, as well. Fruit came out first, and a dark sweet wine, followed by an earthy yellow soup Neil did not recognize, roasted hare, tender flanks of kid stuffed with parsley, roasted pork with sour green sauce, and pasties filled with wild mushrooms. Next came partridge and capon served with dumplings of ground meat shaped and gilded so as to resemble eggs, then a pie of unlaid eggs and cheese and quail glazed with red honey and garlic.
By the time the fish course arrived, Neil was nearly too full to eat any more, but he persevered, not wishing to insult his host.
“Sir Etein is in search of his true love, Countess,” Sir Quinte said as he plucked out the eyeball of a trout and popped it into his mouth.
“How delicious,” the countess said. “I am an authority on true love. Do you have someone specific in mind, Sir Etein, or is the girl still unknown to you?”
“She—” Neil began, but Sir Quinte interrupted him.
“We believe she was in the coven,” Sir Quinte explained.
“Oh,” the countess said, her face falling. “So many girls, so young. What a horrible thing. And just after the Fiussanal, too. They had just been here, you know.”
“Here?” Neil asked.
“Oh, indeed. The sisters of the coven are—were—my neighbors. I held a feast for the girls each Fiussanal. It was that very night—”
“The night of the purple moon?” Neil blurted before he could think better. Again he saw poor Elseny, her throat cut ear to ear. He felt Fastia in his arms, her heartbeat no stronger than a bird’s. He saw again the greffyn and the Briar King.
He realized that everyone at the table was watching him.
“Yes,” the countess said, “the night of the purple moon.” Her eyebrows descended, and she shook her head. “I hope you are mistaken, Sir Etein. I hope your love was not one of the girls in the coven.”
“Is it possible—if they were here—that they did not all return?”
“I do not think so,” Orchaevia said softly. “The sisters were quitestrict about such things, and the attack came hours after the party had ended.”
“Bless the saints that their attackers did not come here,” Sir Quinte said, quaffing from a cup of dry red wine.
“Yes,” Orchaevia said. “Thank the saints, indeed. What was your lady’s name, Sir Etein? If she was here, I might have met her.”
“Muerven de Selrete,” he replied.
“Of course they did not go by their given names in the coven,” Orchaevia said. “Can you describe her?”
Neil closed his eyes, still remembering Fastia. “Her arms are whiter than thistledown,” he said. “Her hair as black as a raven’s wing. Her eyes were darker yet, like orbs cut from the night sky.” His voice shook as he said it.
“That does not help me much,” the countess said. “You describe your love better than her appearance.”
“I must find her,” Neil said earnestly.
Sir Chenzo shook his head. “We’ve had a few reports of two girls who were seen fleeing with two men. One had hair like copper, the other like gold. Neither sounds like your lady, Sir Etein.”
As he said this, he glanced rather casually at Neil, but something in that glance was searching, watching for him to react.
“I must hope,” he said softly.
But inwardly, he felt a sudden fire. Sir Chenzo had just described Princess Anne and her maid, Austra.
He tried to look disappointed, and thought he succeeded.
After the meal, one of the countess’ servants led him to what he reckoned would be a bedchamber, but he was wrong. The room he was shown to was decorated all in tile, with frescoes of leaping dolphins, eels, and octopi. Set into the floor was a huge tub, already full of steaming water.
The servant stood by, expectantly, as Neil stared at it, knowing how good it would feel.
Knowing also how vulnerable he would be. The room had only one entrance. “I am not in need of a bath,” he said finally.
Clearly puzzled, the servant nodded and led him to a bedchamber. It was as lavish as the rest of the house, but it had a window, and the door could be barred.
The drop from the window was not a long one. He was considering this when a faint sound caused him to whirl about.
The countess was standing there in his chambers. He could not see how she had entered.
“First you refuse the hospitality of a warm bath, and now it looks as if you will refuse my bed, as well,” she said.
“Hush. Your suspicions are well advised. Sir Chenzo plans to take you into his custody this very night.”
He set his mouth grimly. “Then I must leave at once.”
“Rest a moment. Sir Chenzo is of no danger to you at this instant. This ismyhouse.”
When she said it, all frivolity dropped from her, and for a moment Neil felt a tingle of fear—not of something substantial, but of her very presence. It was as if he stood alone in the dark of the moon.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
“I am the countess Orchaevia,” she said.
“You are something else.”
A wan smile flitted across her face. “Not all of the sisters of Cer died in the razing of the coven. One lives yet.”
He nodded in understanding. “Do you know what happened?” he asked.
“Knights came by dark, mostly Hanzish. They sought a girl, just as you do. The same girl, yes?”
“I believe so,” Neil replied.
“Yes. She is important. More important than you could possiblyknow.”
“I know only that my duty is to find her and keep her safe. It is all I need to know.”
“I can see that. I watched you lie, and saw how it hurt you. You are not skilled at falsehood.”
“I have not practiced it,” he said.
“She lives, she and her maid. I believe two friends of mine, swordsmen who know the country, yet accompany them. My servants tell me they went north, probably to the port of z’Espino. I advise you to seek them there. I also advise you to leave tonight, and alone.”
“Sir Chenzo. Is he a villain?”
“Not as such, though he may serve them. He was not involved in the murders at the coven. But mark this well, Sir Neil—someone in the Churchwas. Someone of importance. The knights that were here were saint-marked, and some were of a very special sort, a sort that the world has not seen in ages.”
“What sort is that?”
“In one of my wine cellars there is a man whose head has been smitten off. He is still alive. He is not conscious, he cannot speak or see or feel, but his body continues to twitch.” She shrugged. “I think Sir Chenzo knows nothing of this, but his superiors might. He was told to watch for someone like you. Your lies, as I said, are quite unconvincing.”
“And Sir Quinte?”
“I don’t know if he has any part in this, but it would be foolish to chance it.”
“He has been a help to me. I do not know the language here. I was lost when he found me.”
“Perhaps you were. Perhaps he merely convinced you that you were. I have a servant I will send with you. He is utterly trustworthy, and will act as your guide and interpreter. He will provision you, as well.”
Then she smiled. “Go. You may leave by the front door. You will be neither seen nor hindered.”
“What of you?”
“Do not fear for me. I can settle any trouble that may arise from your leaving.”
Neil regarded her for a moment longer, then nodded.
As the countess had promised, he encountered no one in the halls or manse other than her own servants, who only bowed or nodded politely, always in silence.
Outside, in the courtyard, Hurricane was waiting, along with a smallish black mare and a brown gelding strapped with provisions. Near them stood a boy in brown breeches and white chemise with long black waistcoat and a broad-brimmed hat.
“If you please, sir,” the boy said. His language was slightly accented king’s tongue. His tone seemed ironic.
“You may call me Vaseto.” He nodded at the horses. “All is ready. Shall we leave?”
“I suppose so.”
“Good.” He swung onto his mount. “If you will follow me.”
The land was pale gold where the moon kissed it, but where she did not, the shadows were strange. Some were spread like dark rust, others like bronze blackened in flame or the green of rotted copper. It was as if a giant had wrought the world of metal and then left it too long to the weather. Even the stars looked like steel, and Vaseto—when his face came into view from beneath his brim—was red gold etched in deep relief.
Neil had never known such a night. He wished he could appreciate it, but the many-colored shadows seemed to bristle with deadly quills, and nocturnal sounds parted around them, leaving space to hear something else—something following them. “Do you hear that?” he asked Vaseto.
“It is nothing,” the boy replied. “It’s not your friends the knights, that’s for sure. They would each be as noisy as you.” He smiled thinly. “But you have good ears.”
A few hours later they stopped at an abandoned house hidden by a copse of willows and took turns sleeping. Neil glumly stood guard, watching the shadows shift as the moon went down, now and then seeing one move in a way it shouldn’t.
Dogs bayed in the distance, as if mourning the moonset. A little after daybreak, they resumed their journey northward, Neil with weary eyes, his companion seeming cheerful and rested. Vaseto was a small, dark lad with large brown eyes and hair cropped in a bowl just above his ears. He rode as if born to the saddle, and his mount—though small—was spirited.
Midday they crossed a small river and passed a town on a hilltop. Three large towers stood up from the jumble of roofs, and fields spread to the road and beyond. Houses and inns became more frequent, until the road was nearly bounded by them; then they thinned again. Woodlands crept around the trail, sometimes forming dark, fragrant tunnels of cedar and bay.
“How far is z’Espino?” Neil asked restlessly.
“Ten chenperichi. We should reach it tomorrow.”
“What did the countess tell you?”
“You’re looking for two girls, one with red hair and another with golden. They might be with Cazio and z’Acatto.”
“Who are Cazio and z’Acatto?” Neil asked.
“Former guests of the countess,” Vaseto answered.
“Why would they be with these girls?”
“Cazio was courting one of them. The night the coven burned, Cazio and z’Acatto vanished, as well. I found some sign of their trail.”
“Yes,” Vaseto answered. “Idid.”
“And you think they were together?”
Vaseto rolled his eyes. “Three sets of tracks, two small, one large, all pursued by mounted men. They met at some ruins where a third man joined them—z’Acatto, by the torn sole of his boot. They fought the horsemen, and won after a fashion. All four left together.”
Neil regarded Vaseto for a few moments, considered the authoritative ring of his voice.
“You’re older than I thought,” he said.
“Probably,” Vaseto replied.
“And you’re not a boy.”
Vaseto gave him a small smirk. “I wondered if you would ever work that out,” she said. “They must make you thick, up north. Not that men down here are generally any smarter.”
“You’re dressed like a boy. Your hair is cut like a boy’s. And the countess called you male.”
“So I am, and so it is, and so she did,” Vaseto said. “And that’s plenty of talk on that subject. Anyway, we’ve other things to worry about at the moment.”
For answer, an arrow thumped into the trunk of an olive tree, just a yard from Neil’s head.CHAPTER FIVEThe Utin
ASPAR LOOSED AN ARROW at the thing before he could even see what it was. It hit, he was certain, but the arrow didn’t seem to have much effect. A long, clawed limb whipped out and struck Stephen to the ground.
As Aspar loosed his second arrow, a film of light seemed to settle on everything. The leaves that had concealed the pit where the creature had been hiding turned slowly as they fell, each distinct—ironoak, ash, haurnbagm, poplar.
As the leaves settled, the utin was revealed. The first impression was of a huge spider—though it had only four limbs, they were long and spindly, attached to a torso so compact as to be boxlike, a mass of muscle covered in what looked like brown scales and sparse greenish hair that grew thicker on its upper spine and ruffed a short, thick neck. Yellow eyes glared from an enormous oblong of dark-green horn with only slits for nostrils and holes for ears. Its mouth was the laugh of a Black Mary, a slit that cut the head in two and champed around wicked, black, uneven teeth.
The second arrow took it high in the chest, where its heart ought to have been. The creature turned away from Stephen and dropped to all fours, then sprang toward Aspar with terrible speed.
Aspar got off another shot, and so did Ehawk, and then the monster was on them. Its stench hit Aspar in the gut, and his gorge rose as he discarded the bow and yanked out his fighting dirk and throwing ax. He struck hard with the latter and dodged as the thing swept by. A six-clawed hand swiped at him and narrowly missed.
He whirled and fell into a fighting crouch.
The utin paused, bouncing slowly up and down on its two weird long legs, its body upright, fingers tapping at the ground. It towered a kingsyard above Aspar.
Aspar shifted back, hoping he was a little out of reach.
“Winna,” he said. “Get away from here, now.”
Ehawk, he noticed, was slowly creeping to get behind the beast.
“Wüüünaaah,” the thing croaked, and Aspar’s flesh went as crawly as if he’d stumbled into a nest of worms.
“Wünaah gooh, yah. I find you later. Make fun.”
The language was the local dialect of Almannish.
“Grim’s eye,” Aspar swore. “What the sceat are you?”
For answer, the utin swayed forward a bit, then plucked one of the arrows from its chest. Aspar saw the scales were more like bony plates, natural armor—the shaft hadn’t penetrated deep. More and more he was reminded of the greffyn, which had also had much of the reptile about it.
If this thing was poisonous like the greffyn, Stephen was already as good as dead. So was he, if it touched him.
He waited for its next move, looking for soft spots. The head was plated, too, and was probably mostly bone. He might hit one of the eyes with a good throw. The throat, maybe?
No. All too far in. Its limbs were everywhere. He shifted his knife hand slightly.
The utin suddenly blurred toward him. Ehawk gave a cry and fired an arrow; Aspar ducked, leapt inside the reaching claws, and slashed at the inner thigh, then stabbed toward the groin. He felt flesh part at the first cut, and the thing howled. His thrust missed as the monster leapfrogged over him and then dealt him a terrific kick that sent him sprawling. It turned before he could even think about getting up, tore a branch from a tree, and hurled it. Aspar heard Ehawk cry out, and the thump of a body hitting the ground. Then the utin bounded toward him. From the corner of his eye, he saw Winna armed only with a dagger, rushing in to help.
“No!” Aspar shouted, levering himself up, lifting his ax.
But the utin struck Winna with the back of its hand, and as she staggered, it grabbed her with the other. Aspar hurled the ax, but it bounced harmlessly from the monster’s head. In the next instant it leapt straight up, taking Winna with it. It caught a low-hanging branch, swung, clenched another branch with its hand-like feet. It moved off through the trees faster than a man could run.
“No!” Aspar repeated. He pushed to his feet, retrieved his bow, and chased after the rapidly receding monster. A sort of shivering was in him, a feeling he had never known before.
He pushed the emotion down and ran, reached to his belt for the arrow case the praifec had given him, and extracted the black arrow.
The utin was quickly vanishing from sight, here-again-gone-again behind trunk and branch. Breath tore harshly through Aspar’s lips as he set the relic to his string. He stopped, got his stance, and for an instant the world was quiet again. He felt the immensity of the earth beneath him, the faint breeze pushing itself over the land, the deep slow breath of the trees. He drew.
The utin vanished behind a bole, reappeared, and vanished again. Aspar aimed at the narrow gap where he thought it would appear again, felt the time come right, and released.
The ebony shaft spiraled out and away from him, hissing past leaf and branch, to where the utin’s broad back was a brief occlusion between two trees.
The quiet stretched, but stillness did not. Aspar ran again, already taking out another shaft, cursing under his breath, his heart tightening like an angry fist.
He found Winna first. She lay like an abandoned doll in a patch of autumn-reddened bracken, her dress smeared with blood. The utin sprawled a few feet away, its back to a tree, watching him come. Aspar could see the head of the black arrow protruding from its chest.
Aspar knelt by Winna, feeling for her pulse, but he kept his gaze fixed on the utin. It gurgled and spat out blood, and blinked, as if tired. It raised a six-fingered hand to touch the arrowhead.
“Not fair, mannish,” it husked. “Not weal. An unholy thing, yes? And yet it will slay you, too. Your doom is the same as mine.”
Then it vomited blood, wheezed two more times, and looked beyond the lands of fate.
“Winna?” Aspar said. “Winna?” His heart tripped, but she still had a pulse, and a strong one. He touched her cheek, and she stirred.
“Eh?” she said.
“Stay still,” Aspar said. “You fell, I don’t know how far. Do you have any pain?”
“Yes,” she said. “Every part of me hurts. I feel like I’ve been put in a bag and kicked by six mules.” She suddenly gasped and jerked up to a sitting position. “The utin—!”
“It’s dead. Still, now, until we’re sure nothing’s broken. How far did you fall?”
“I don’t know. After it hit me, everything is cloudy.”
He began inspecting her legs, feeling for breaks.
“Aspar White. Do you always get so romantic after killing an utin?” she asked.
“Always,” he said. “Every single time.” He kissed her then, from sheer relief. As he did it, he realized that in the past few moments he had known the greatest terror of his life. It was elevated so far above any fear he had ever known before, he hadn’t recognized it.
“Winna—” he began, but a faint noise made him look up, and in the thicket behind the dead utin, he had a brief glimpse of a cowled figure, half hidden by a tree, face as white as bone, and one green eye—
“Fend!” he snarled, and reached for the bow.
When he turned, the figure was gone. He set the arrow and waited.
“Can you walk?” he asked softly.
“Yah.” She stood. “Was it really him?”
“It was a Sefry, for certain. I didn’t get a better look.”
“There’s someone coming behind us,” she said.
“Yah. That’s Stephen and Ehawk. I recognize their gaits.”
The two younger men arrived a moment later.
Stephen gasped when he saw the dead creature. “Saints!”
Aspar didn’t take his gaze from the woods. “There’s a Sefry out there,” he said.
“The tracks we saw earlier?” Ehawk asked.
“Most likely. Are you okay?” Aspar asked.
“Yes, I’m fine, thanks,” Stephen said. “A little bruised, that’s all.”
“The boy?” Winna asked.
Stephen’s voice sobered. “He died.”
No one said anything at that. There wasn’t much to say.
The forest was still, its normal sounds returning.
“You two stay with her,” Aspar said. “I’m going to see what became of our friend’s companion.”
“Aspar, wait,” Winna said. “What if it is Fend? What if he’s leading you into another trap?”
He touched her hand. “I think the one trap was all he had planned. If we hadn’t had the praifec’s arrow, it would have worked well enough.”
“You used the arrow?” Stephen said.
“It had Winna,” Aspar said. “It was in the trees. There was nothing else I could do.”
Stephen frowned, but then nodded. He walked over to the utin, knelt near the corpse, and gingerly removed the dart.
“I see what you mean,” he said. “The other arrows didn’t even penetrate a fingerbreadth.” He shot them a wry grin. “At least we know it works.”
“Yah. On utins,” Aspar allowed. “I’ll be back.” He squeezed Winna’s hand. “And I’ll be careful.”
He followed the tracks for a few hundred yards, which was as far as he dared alone. He’d told Winna the truth—he didn’t fear a trap—but he did fear that the Sefry was working his way back to Stephen and Winna, to catch them while he was away. Fend would like nothing more than to kill someone else Aspar loved, and he’d just come as close to losing Winna as he ever wanted to.
“It still looks like he’s alone,” Aspar said.
They had been following the Sefry trail for the better part of a day. “Traveling fast,” Ehawk said. “But he wants to be followed.”
“Yah, I reckon that, too,” Aspar said.
“What do you mean?” Stephen asked.
“The trail is obvious—sloppy even. He’s making no effort to loseus.”
“Ehawk just said he seems to be in a hurry.”
“That’s not enough to account for it. He hasn’t even tried the simplest tricks to throw us off. He crossed three brooks, and never even waded up or down the stream. Werlic, Ehawk is right—he wants us to follow him for some reason.”
“If it’s Fend, he’s likely leading us somewhere unpleasant,” Winna said.
Aspar scratched the stubble on his chin. “I’m not sure itisFend. I didn’t get a very clear look, but I didn’t see an eye patch. And the prints look too small.”
“But whoever it was, he was traveling with the utin, just as Fend and Brother Desmond traveled with the greffyn. So it’s probably one of Fend’s bunch, right?”
“Well, so far as I know, Fend’s outlaws are the only Sefry left in the forest,” Aspar agreed. “The rest left months ago.”
The trail had pulled them deep into the forest. Here there was no sign of the black thorns. Huge chestnut trees rose around them, and the ground was littered with their stickery issue. Somewhere near, a woodpecker drummed away, and now and then they heard the honking of geese, far overhead.
“What could they be up to?” Winna wondered aloud.
“I reckon we’ll find out,” Aspar said.
Evening came, and they made camp. Winna and Stephen rubbed down the horses while Ehawk started a fire. Aspar scouted, memorizing the land so he might know it in the dark.
They decamped at the first light of dawn and continued on. The tracks were fresher now—their quarry wasn’t mounted, while they were. Despite his speed, they were catching up.
Midday, Aspar noticed something through the trees ahead and waved the others to a halt. He glanced at Stephen.
“I don’t hear anything unusual,” Stephen said. “But the smell—it reeks of death.”
“Keep ready,” Aspar said.
“Holy saints,” Stephen breathed as they got near enough to see.
A small stone building sat on a rounded tumulus of earth. Around the base of the mound lay a perimeter of human corpses, reduced mostly to bone. Stephen was right, though—the stink was still there. To his saint-blessed senses it had to be overwhelming, Aspar supposed.
Stephen confirmed that by doubling over and retching. Aspar waited until he was done, then moved closer.
“It’s like before,” Aspar said. “Like the sacrifices your renegade monks were making. This is a sedos, yah?”
“It’s a sedos,” Stephen confirmed. “But this isn’t like before. They’re doing it correctly, this time.”
“What do you mean?” Winna asked.
Stephen sagged against a tree, looking pale and weak. “Do you understand about the sedoi?” he asked her.
“You mentioned something about them to the queen’s interrogators, but at the time I wasn’t paying much attention. Aspar was hurt,and since then—”
“Yes, we haven’t discussed it much since then.” He sighed. “You know how priests receive the blessing of the saints?”
“A little. They visit fanes and pray.”
“Yes. But not just any fanes.” He waved at the mound. “That’s a sedos. It’s a place where a saint once stood and left some bit of his presence. Visiting one sedos doesn’t confer a blessing, though, or at least not usually. You have to find a trail of them, a series of places visited by the same saint, or by aspects of that saint. The fanes—like that building there—have no power themselves. The power comes from the sedos—the fane is just a reminder, a place to help us focus our attention in the saint’s presence.”
“I walked the faneway of Saint Decmanis, and he gifted me with the heightened senses I have now. I can remember things a month after as clearly as if they just happened. Decmanis is a saint of knowledge; monks who walk other faneways receive other blessings. The faneway of Mamres, for instance, conveys martial gifts on those who travel it. Great strength, alacrity, an instinct for killing, those sorts of things.”
“Like Desmond Spendlove.”
“Yes. He followed the faneway of Mamres.”
“So this is part of a faneway?” Winna asked. “But the bodies . . .”
“It’s new,” Stephen said. “Look at the stone. There’s no moss or lichen, no weather stains. This might have been built yesterday. The renegade monks and Sefry who were following the greffyn were using the creature to find old sedoi in the forest. I think it had the power to scent them out, and made a circuit of those which still had some latent power. Then Desmond and his bunch performed sacrifices, I think to try to find out what saint the sedoi belonged to. I don’t think they were doing it right, though—they lacked certain information. Whoever did this did it correctly.”
He passed his palm over his eyes. “And it’s my fault. When I was at d’Ef, I translated ancient, forbidden scrifts concerning these things. I gave them the information they needed to do what you see here.” He shook, looking paler than ever. “They’re building a faneway, you see?”
“Who?” Aspar said. “Spendlove and his renegades are dead.”
“Not all of them, it would seem,” Stephen said. “This was built after we killed Spendlove.”
“But what saint left his mark here?” Winna whispered.
Stephen retched again, rubbed his forehead, and stood straight. “It’s my place to find that out,” he said. “All of you, wait here—please.”
Stephen nearly vomited again when he reached the circle of corpses. Not from the smell this time, but from the horror of details. Bits of clothing, the ribbon in the hair of one of the smaller ones, juxtaposed with her lopsided, not-quite-fleshless grin. A stained green cloak with a brass brooch worked in the shape of a swan. Little signs that these had once been human beings. Where had the little girl got the ribbon? She was probably the daughter of a woodcutter—it might have been the grandest present she’d ever received in her life. Her father had brought it when he drove the hogs to market in Tulhaem, and she’d kissed him on the cheek. He’d called her “my little duckling,” and he’d had to watch her be eviscerated, before he himself felt the knife, just below where a swan brooch pinned his cloak . . .
Stephen shuddered, closed his eyes to step over her, and felt—
—a hum, a soft tickling in his belly, a sort of crackling in his head. He turned to look back at Aspar and the rest, and they seemed far away, tiny. Their mouths were moving, but he could not hear them speak. For a moment, he forgot what he was about, just stood there, wondering who they were.
At the same time, he felt wonderful. His aches and pains were all gone, and he felt as if he could run ten leagues without stopping. He frowned at the bones and rotting flesh around the mound, vaguely remembering that the sight of them had bothered him for some reason, though he wondered why they should upset him any more than the branches and leaves that also littered the ground.
Musing at that, he turned slowly to regard the building behind him. It was built as many Church fanes were—a simple stone cube with a roof of slate and a perpetually open doorway. The lintel was carved with a single word, and with interest he noticed it wasn’t Vitellian, the usual language of the Church—but rather old Vadhüan, the language of the Warlock Kingdoms. MARHIRHEBEN, it said.
Inside, a small, slender statue carved of bone overlooked a stone altar. It depicted a beautiful woman with an unsettling smile. On either side of her stood a greffyn, and her hands dropped down as if to stroke their manes.
He looked around, but saw nothing else of note. Shrugging, he left the fane.
As he stepped across the line of corpses again, something terrible tore loose and leapt from his throat. The world shattered like glass, and he fell into the night before the world was born.CHAPTER SIXThe Hounds of Artumo
WHILE THE ARROW WAS still quivering, two men stepped into the road, and Neil guessed there were at least four in the bushes by the side. A faint scuff told him there was one behind him.
The two in front were dressed in faded leathers, and each bore a long-hafted spear. They also had kerchiefs pulled up to conceal their faces.
“Bandits?” Neil asked.
“No, clergymen,” Vaseto responded sarcastically.
One of the men called something out.
“Of what saint?” Neil asked.
“Lord Turmo, I would think, patron of thieves. They’ve just asked you to dismount and strip off your armor.”
“Did they?” Neil asked. “What do you advise?”
“Depends on whether you want to keep your things or not.”
“I’d like to, thanks.”
“Well, then,” Vaseto said, and gave a clear, high whistle.
The man shouted something again. This time Vaseto shouted back.
“What was that all about?”
“I’ve offered them a chance to surrender.”
“Good thing,” Neil replied. “Try to keep low.” He reached for his spear.
At that moment, furious motion erupted on the side of the road. Neil wheeled Hurricane and caught a glimpse of something very large and brown in the undergrowth. Leaves were flying, and someone shouted in anguish.
Confused, he turned back to the men on the road, just in time to see them go down beneath the paws of two huge mastiffs.
“Oro!” one of them screamed.“Oro, pertument! Pacha Satos, Pacha sachero satos!Pacha misercarda!”
Neil looked around. There were at least eight of the huge beasts. Vaseto whistled again. The dogs backed up a pace or so from their victims, but kept their teeth bare.
Neil glanced at Vaseto, who was dismounting. “Why don’t you keep that big sword out,” she said, “while I take the weapons from these fellows?”
“Have pity!” one of the men in the road said, in the king’s tongue. “See how I speak your language? Perhaps a kinsman am I!”
“What sort of pity would you have from me?” Neil asked, keeping one eye on the dog that was guarding the fellow as he took his spear and two knives. “You meant to steal from me, yes? Perhaps even kill me?”
“No, no, of course not,” the man said. “But it is so hard to live, these days. Work is scarce, food scarcer. I have a wife, ten little ones—please, spare me, master!”
“Hush,” Vaseto said. “You said it yourself. Food is scarce. If my dogs eat a sheep or goat, I’ll get in trouble. If they eat you, I’ll only get thanks. So be quiet now, thank the lords and ladies you’ll feed such noble creatures.”
The man looked up. Tears were rolling from his eyes. “Lady Artuma! Spare me from your children!”
Vaseto squatted by him and tousled his hair. “That’s disingenuous,” she said. “First you molest a servant of Artuma, then you ask forgiveness of her?”
“Priestess, I did not know.”
She kissed his forehead. “And how is that an excuse?” she asked.
“It’s not, it’s not, I understand that.”
She searched at his belt, came up with a pouch. “Well,” she said. “Perhaps a donation at the next shrine will help your cause.”
“Yes,” the man sniffled. “It might. I pray it might. Great lord, great lady—”
“I’m tired of your talking now,” Vaseto said. “Another word, and your throat will be cut.”
They disarmed the rest of the bandits and remounted.
“Shouldn’t we take them somewhere?” Neil asked.
She shrugged. “Not unless you’ve got time to waste. You’d have to stay and wait for a judge. Without weapons, they’ll be harmless for a while.”
“Harmless as a lamb!” the man on the ground seconded; then he screamed when the dog lunged at him.
“No more talk, I told you,” Vaseto said. “Lie there quietly. I leave my brothers and sisters to dispose of you as they see fit.”
She trotted her mare down the road. After a moment, Neil followed.
“You might have told me about the dogs,” Neil said after a few moments.
“I might have,” she agreed. “It amused me not to. Are you angry?”
“No. But I’m learning not to be surprised.”
“Oh? That would be a shame. It fits you so well.”
“Will they kill them?”
“Hmm? No. They’ll stay long enough to give them a good scare, then follow us.”
“Who are you, Vaseto?” Neil asked.
“That’s hardly a fair question,” Vaseto said. “I don’t knowyourname.”
“My name is Neil MeqVren,” he said.
“That’s not the name you gave the countess,” she observed.
“No, it isn’t. But it is my real name.”
She smiled. “And Vaseto is mine. I’m a friend of the countess Orchaevia. That’s all you need to know.”
“Those men seemed to think you are some sort of priestess.”
“What’s the harm in that?”
“Not by vocation.”
Which was all she would say in the matter.
Midday the next day, Neil smelled the sea, and soon after heard the tolling of bells in z’Espino.
As they rode over the top of a hill, towers came into view, slender spires of red or dark yellow stone rising above domes and rooftops that seemed to crowd together for leagues. Nearer, fields of darker olive green contrasted sharply with golden wheatland and delicate copses of knife-shaped cedars. Beyond, the blue sliver of the sea gleamed beneath a pile of white clouds.
To the west of the city stood another jumble of buildings, this one more somber, with no towers and no wall. That would be z’Espino-of-Shadows, he reckoned.
“It’s big,” Neil said.
“Big enough,” Vaseto replied. “And too big for my taste.”
“How can we ever find two women in all that?”
“Well, I supposed we’d have to think,” Vaseto replied. “If you were them, what would you do?”
Hard to say, with Anne, Neil reflected. She might do almost anything. Would she even know what had happened to her family?
But even if she didn’t, she was lost in a foreign country, pursued by enemies. If she had any sense, she’d be trying to get home.
“She would try to reach Crotheny,” he said.
Vaseto nodded. “Two ways to do that. By sea or by land. Does she have money, this girl?”
“Then I should think it would be easier to go by land. You ought to know—you just came that way.”
“Yes, but the roads are dangerous, especially if those men are still hunting her.” He shifted in his saddle. “The countess said something about a man who had his head cut off, and was yet still alive.”