I but recount the rumors and gossip as they come to me. The tales I am hearing seem too wild to be true, but as you have ordered me, I do. This is what news reached me. The Duke of Chalced is no more. A horde of dragons bearing armored riders came out of the wilderness and attacked the city of Chalced. They spat fire or something just as destructive. They ringed the city with circles of destruction. Finally they targeted the palace of the duke himself, destroying it with their spew and the battering of their wings and the lashing of their tails. It is said that his towering stronghold crumpled to a quarter of its height and is no longer inhabitable.
The elderly and ailing duke, it is said, came out of his palace to stand before his troops. A tower fell, crushing him and much of his soldiery. Chancellor Ellik, long the duke’s most trusted advisor and a sword companion from the time of their youth, survived. The Chalcedean forces were reduced to a retreat that became a rout.
By the next morning, the daughter of the Duke of Chalced had emerged as allied with the dragons and their tenders and now claims to be “rightfully” the Duchess of Chalced. Ellik has proclaimed that he was the duke’s chosen successor and accused the so-called duchess of witchcraft. One Redhands Roctor, formerly a minor nobleman in the west of Chalced near Heastgate, has challenged both of them. His military forces were untouched in the attack and in my opinion are most likely to prevail. Chalcedeans are unlikely to accept the rule of a woman, even one with the goodwill of dragons. Duke Ellik’s forces were greatly diminished in the dragon rout of Chalced city. It would take divine intervention for him to return to power and influence, especially since he failed to protect the city. The “Duchess” of Chalced has offered a reward for his severed head, and the people of the city of Chalced call him a coward who abandoned them to the dragons.
Fleeter and I made good time. The moon silvered the snow and I had the stars to keep my bearings. The cart trail soon joined a wider way as we neared the Maiden’s Waist, though the wide passage through the rolling hills scarce merited the title pass. Fleeter was glad to be on trodden snow again. The roan employed her long-legged stride as we climbed the last stretch, and then we loped through an evergreen forest, and down a narrow trail that wound through bare-limbed oaks and alders. The slow winter dawn gradually came to light our way. Fleeter dropped our pace to a walk and breathed. The trail widened and I passed several small homesteads. Smoke rose from their chimneys, and candlelight told of farmers waking early. I saw no one outside.
Dawn grew stronger and I pushed Fleeter to a canter. The trail became a road as the morning passed. I rode through a small village without pause and on, past smallholdings and grain fields that dreamed of furrows beneath gently mounded snow. We trotted, we cantered, we trotted. Then more forest. Over a bridge we went, and now passed occasional travelers: a tinker with his painted wagon full of knives and scissors, a farmer and her sons riding mules and leading pack animals laden with earthy-smelling sacks of potatoes, and a young woman who scowled at me when I bid her “Good afternoon.”
Dark thoughts of what Bee was enduring, how Dutiful would react to my disobedience, how angry Riddle would be, and Nettle on his behalf, besieged me. I tried to push them down. Elfbark brought sad memories to the front of my mind and rebuked me for stupidity and failures of all sorts. And in the next moment, the carris seed would make me believe I was invulnerable, and I would fantasize about killing all twenty Chalcedeans and sing aloud to Fleeter as we traveled on.
Calm down. Caution. I could feel my heart beating in my chest, almost hear it in my ears.
More forest. Trot, canter, trot. I stopped at a stream to let her water. How tired are you?
Not at all.
I have need of speed. You will let me know if you tire?
I am Fleeter. I do not tire before my rider does.
You will. And you must let me know.
She snorted, and as soon as I was back in the saddle she pranced a few steps. I laughed and gave her a free head. For a short way she galloped, and then she dropped back into her easy, rocking canter.
I entered a town of more substance, with an inn and a hostelry and three taverns. Folk were up and about now. On the outskirts I passed a rare shrine to Eda. The goddess slumbered under a mantle of white snow, her hands open on her lap. Someone had brushed her hands clean and filled them with millet. Small birds perched on her fingers and thumbs. And on we went, and the road became one of the king’s highways. I did not pause as I reviewed my mental map. This road went directly to Salter’s Deep. It was wide and open and direct, the shortest route.
If I were fleeing the Six Duchies with captives and a troop of Chalcedean mercenaries, it was the last route I would take. The Fool’s words came back to me. He had insisted I would not be able to find them, that the only way to regain my daughter was to go directly to where they must be taking her. I took another pinch of the carris seed, crushed it between my teeth, and rode on. It was sweet in my mouth, a tangy, heady taste, and in a moment I felt the surge of both energy and clarity it always gave.
The likeliest unlikeliest, the likeliest unlikeliest drummed in my head, the words keeping rhythm with Fleeter’s hooves. I could continue on this highway all the way to Salter’s Deep. If I saw nothing along the way, then I could join the Ringhill Guard and wait near the captured ship. Or once there I could work my way back along a less used route and hope to be lucky. Or investigate some of the back roads. I rode on. I passed one diverging road. The next one, I decided. I’d take the next one and follow it.
I heard a sudden caw overhead. I looked up and saw a crow, wings spread, sliding down the sky toward me. Suddenly it was Motley and I braced myself for her to land. Instead she swept past me in a wide circle. “Red snow!” she called suddenly and clearly to me. “Red snow!”
I watched her as she circled again and then veered away. I pulled Fleeter in. What did she mean? Did she want me to follow her? There was no road, only an open field and beyond it a sparse wood of birch and a few evergreens that soon thickened into true forest. I watched her as she glided away, then tilted her wings and beat them hard to come back to me. I stood in my stirrups. “Motley!” I called and offered her my forearm. Instead, she swept past me so low that Fleeter shied from her passage.
“Stupid!” the crow shouted at me. “Stupid Fitz! Red snow. Red snow!”
I reined Fleeter away from the road. We follow her, I told the horse.
I don’t like her.
We follow her, I insisted, and Fleeter conceded her will to mine. It was not pleasant for her. We left the packed and level road, pushed through a prickly hedgerow, and entered the farmer’s field. The snow here was untrodden, and the frozen ground uneven beneath the windblown snow. Our pace inevitably slowed just as I wished that we could gallop. But a lame horse would be even slower. I tried to contain my impatience.
The crow flew away from me, into the shelter of the trees. We moved steadily toward where she had vanished. A short time later she looped back to us, then circled away again. This time she seemed content that we were following her and called no insults.
And there we intersected a trail: not a road, merely an open space that left the field and wound into the scant forest. Perhaps a woodcutter had made it. It could be a cattle-track that led to water. I looked back along it. Had it been used recently? It was hard to say. Were there deeper hollows under the blown and polished snow? We turned and followed it.
When we reached the outskirts of the birch forest, I saw what I could not have seen from the road. The white horse had seemed but another mound of snow in the distance. I did not see the fallen rider until I was almost beside the fur-clad body. And only the crow, looking down from above, could have seen the trail of melted red-and-pink snow that led back into the forest.
The horse was clearly dead, its eyes open and frost outlining the whiskers on its muzzle and coating its out-thrust tongue. Droplets of blood had frozen around its mouth. An arrow stood out of its chest, just behind its foreleg. A good lung shot but not one that had penetrated both lungs. I knew that if I cut the animal open, I would find its body cavity full of blood. There was no saddle on the horse, only a halter. The rider had fled in haste, perhaps. I pulled in Fleeter despite her distaste for the scene and dismounted. The body that lay beyond the horse was too large to be Bee, I told myself as I floundered through the snow toward it. The hair that showed beneath the white fur cap was the right color, but it could not be Bee, it could not, and when I reached her and turned her over, it was not. The pale youngster I revealed was as dead as her horse. The front of her furs was scarlet. Probably an arrow, one that had gone right through her. And she was a White or at least a part-White. She had lived for a short time after she’d fallen facedown in the snow. Frost had formed heavily around her mouth from her last breaths, and her cloudy blue eyes looked at me through ice. I let her fall back into the snow.
I could not get my breath for the shuddering of my heart. “Bee. Where are you?” My words were not even a whisper for I had no air to push them. I wanted to run back down the blood-trail shouting her name. I wanted to mount Fleeter and gallop there as swiftly as possible. I wanted to use my Skill to scream to the sky that I needed help, that I needed everyone in the Six Duchies to come and help me save my child, but I forced myself to stand, sweating and trembling, and do nothing until that fit of reckless urgency had passed. Then I went to my horse.
But as I lifted my foot for the stirrup, Fleeter sank to her front knees. Tired. So tired. She shuddered down, her hind legs folding under her. So tired.
Fleeter! Dismay choked me. I should never have trusted her to know when she was wearied. Carris seed filled one with energy, until it left the user exhausted. Don’t lie down in the snow. Up. Up, my girl. Come on. Come on.
She rolled her eyes at me and for a moment I feared she would drop her head. Then with a shudder and a heave, she stood. I led her slowly from the trail to a stand of evergreens. Under them, the snow was shallower. Stay here and rest. I will be back.
You are leaving me here?
I must. But only for a time. I’ll be back for you.
I don’t understand.
Just rest. I’ll be back. Stay here. Please. Then I closed my mind to her. I’d never ridden a horse to exhaustion. The shame I felt was overwhelming. And useless. I was doing what I had to do. I took from my saddle-packs items that I thought I might need. I shut my heart to Bee. I did not recall Molly or wonder what she would have said, thought, or done. I put the Fool and all his warnings and advice from my mind, and set aside the man that Burrich had hoped I would become. I cut Holder Badgerlock from my heart and banished Prince FitzChivalry to the shadows where he had lived for so many years. I squared my shoulders and closed my heart.
There was another person in the depths of me. Chade’s boy. I took a breath and summoned those memories. I recalled in full that which Chade had shaped me to be. I was an assassin with a mission. I would kill them all, as effectively and efficiently as possible, without remorse or emotion. This was a task to do coldly and perfectly. As I had killed the Bridgemore twins when I was fourteen, as I had killed Hoofer Webling when I was fifteen. I could not remember the name of the innkeeper I had poisoned. Knowing his name had not been part of that task.
I thought of all the assignments I had banished from my thoughts as soon as they were accomplished, the quiet work I had never allowed to be a part of my memories or image of myself. I summoned them back now and allowed them in. I recalled now the times I had followed Chade through darkness, or acted alone at his behest. Once Chade had cautioned me that assassins such as we were did not ask one another about their kills, did not flaunt them or record them. I recalled not scores, but dozens of assignments. King Shrewd had not been a callous or murderous king. Chade and I had been his weapons of last resort, the solution applied when all others had failed. The twins had been rapists and unusually cruel ones. Twice they had stood before his judgment throne, received punishment, and promised repentance. But their father was unable or unwilling to keep them in check, and so my king had sent me out, reluctantly, as he might send a huntsman to put down mad dogs. I never knew what Hoofer had done, or why the innkeeper had to die. I had been given a task and I did it, silently and well, without judgment, and then walked away, setting all thoughts about them aside.
Assassins did not share those grim little triumphs. But we kept them, and I did not doubt that Chade sometimes did as I did now. I thought I knew now why he had cautioned me to set those memories aside. When you are fourteen and you cut the throat of a man of twenty-three, it seems a contest between equals. But two score and some years later, when a man looks back, he sees a boy killing a youngster who was foolish enough to get drunk in the wrong tavern and take a dark pathway home. I told myself that such insights did not destroy the finesse of what I had done. As I told my horse to stand and stay, as I pulled my hood up and laced my sleeves tight to my forearms, I counted my kills and recalled that this was something I could truly do well. This was, as the Fool had reminded me, something I was good at.
I did not walk back over the blood-trail the girl and the horse had left. I moved through the trees, keeping the wallowed and red-spattered trail in sight, but never coming too close to it. I let my mind consider only exactly what I knew. This girl was part of the force that had taken Bee. She and the horse had been shot, most likely as they fled in haste. They had been dead long enough for frost to form. I felt a small lift of my heart. One less person to confront, one less person to kill. Perhaps the Ringhill Guard had already engaged with the Chalcedeans. The quiet of the forest told me that battle was over. Perhaps Bee and Shine were already safe. I regretted the elfbark now. Something had transpired, and Dutiful would know of it by Skill or messenger bird. If I were not deadened to the Skill, doubtless I’d know, too. I’d outfoxed myself. I had one choice. Follow the blood-trail back. I scowled as I reflected that a lung-shot animal does not often run far. Either the battle was over and all combatants had departed the scene, or something was very odd.
Until I knew, I would be cautious. I moved quietly and irregularly along the trail. The eye is drawn to motion, especially repeated motion. I stepped softly, I paused, I waited. I breathed quietly, taking in air through my nose, trying to scent smoke or other signs of a camp. I heard the distant caw of a crow. Another. Then I saw her, flying low through the forest. Motley spotted me almost instantly and alighted on a tree branch over my head. I fervently hoped she would not betray me as I continued my measured stalk along the horse’s trail.
I heard soft wind in the trees, the occasional fall of snow from branches and distant birdcalls. And then the normal hush of a forest in winter was cracked by more bird noises. The hoarse croak of a disturbed raven, followed by the squawking of crows. My own crow now landed on my shoulder as lightly as a friend’s hand. “Red snow,” she said again, but quietly. “Carrion.”
I thought I knew what I would find, but I did not drop my caution. Instead I moved on. I crossed tracks of other horses. They had plowed through the snow, running between trees and in some places crashing through brush. At least one of them had been bleeding. I did not turn aside for any of them. My first goal was to find where the escaping animals had come from, and perhaps what they had been fleeing. I continued my ghosting walk.
When I came to the edge of what had been their campsite, I stood still. I looked carefully at everything I could see before I moved again. I studied the fallen tents and the burnt-out fires. There were bodies, some in soldier’s harness and some in white furs. The crows and three ravens that had come to clean the bones made no difference between them. A busy fox looked up, studied my stillness for a time, and then went back to tugging at a man’s hand, trying to pull a meaty forearm free. Two crows on the corpse’s belly made small protests as the fox’s efforts disturbed their probing beaks. The softer tissue of the man’s face was already gone. The merciful cold kept the stench of death at bay. I judged at least a day had passed since this carnage had been wrought.
Unlikely to be the Ringhill Guard. The timing was off, and they would have burned the bodies. Who, then? Oh, Bee.
Pacing slowly, the crow still on my shoulder, I circled the camp. Three sleighs, incongruously gaudy and elaborate, had been deserted. Frost dimmed their scarlet sides. I kept a mental tally of the bodies. Four in white. Five. Six soldiers. Seven. Eight soldiers. Six Whites. I examined the disappointment welling in me. I’d wanted to kill them myself.
I saw no sign of a body of Bee’s size, no corpse with Shine’s lush hair. I circled the entire camp. Nine dead soldiers. Eleven dead Whites. The dead Whites were scattered. Six of the dead mercenaries were in pairs, as if they had fought and killed each other. I scowled. This was definitely not the work of the Ringhill Guard. I moved on. Three dead horses, a white one and two brown ones. Two white tents collapsed on themselves. Three smaller tents. Three brown horses on a picket line. One lifted his head and watched me. I lofted the crow from my shoulder. “Go quietly,” I told her, and she did. The horse’s eyes followed the bird’s flight as I slipped behind one of the white tents.
I approached the first white tent from behind. My Wit told me that it held no living creature. Crouching, I used my knife to slice an opening. Inside, I saw tousled blankets and sleeping furs. And a body. She was lying on her back, her spread legs making plain her fate. Her hair looked gray in the dimness. Not Shine. Twelve dead Whites. Her throat had been cut; black blood matted her long pale hair. Something had gone badly wrong in this camp. And Bee had been in the midst of it. I withdrew and went to the next white tent.
This one had not fallen as badly. Again, I quested toward it and sensed no life within it. My knife made a purring sound as it sliced the canvas. I cut a cross in the fabric and peeled it wide to let in light. No one. Only empty blankets and furs. A waterskin. Someone’s comb, a heavy sock, a discarded hat. A scent. Not Bee’s. Bee had very little scent. No, this was Shine’s, a fading trace of one of the heavy fragrances she favored. Sweat masked it, but there was enough to know that she had been there. I enlarged the slash and crept into the tent. The scent was strongest in the corner, and on the furs next to hers I caught the faintest whiff of Bee’s elusive scent. I picked up a blanket, held it to my face, and inhaled her. Bee. And the smell of sickness. My child was ill.
Captive. Ill. And gone. The coldhearted assassin in me warred with the panicked father. And suddenly they merged, and any doubts I had felt about what I could or must do to get Bee back vanished forever. Anything. That was what I could do to regain my child. Anything.
I heard sounds outside the tent. I froze, breathing silently. Then I edged back out of the tent to where I could see the campsite. A Chalcedean soldier had just tumbled some pieces of firewood down next to the burnt-out campfire nearest one of the smaller tents. He was leaning on a sword. As I watched, he went down on one knee with a groan. His other leg, bandaged stiff, hampered him as he sank down to stir the ashes. He leaned forward to blow on them. After a moment, a tiny trickle of smoke rewarded him.
He broke bits from the wood he had brought and fed his fire. When he bent forward to blow on it, his hair dangled down in a fat blond braid. He muttered a curse as he drew it away from the flame and tucked it into his hat.
There was a sudden stirring from the other tent. An old man, his graying hair wild around the edges of his woolen hat, emerged. He moved stiffly. “You! Hogen! Make food for me.”
The man building the fire did not respond. It was not that he ignored the man. It was as if he had not heard him. Deafened somehow? What had happened here?
The old man shouted, and his voice rose to an infuriated screech on the words, “Pay attention to me! Hogen! Cook up some hot food for me. Where are the others? Answer me!”
The one he called Hogen did not so much as turn his head. Instead he picked up his sword and awkwardly levered himself upright again. Without a glance at the shouting man, he limped over to the horses. He checked their picket line, looking into the forest as if he was expecting someone. Then he gimped off toward a fallen tree whose dead branches protruded above the snow. He waded slowly through the unbroken snow until he reached it. He began to attempt to break more firewood from it. He was working one-handed as he leaned on his sword for support. No. Not his sword. My sword. With a start of recognition, I knew the blade as the one that had hung over the mantel in my estate study for so long. Now it served as a crutch for a Chalcedean mercenary.
“Answer me-e-e-e!” the old man was roaring at the soldier, who paid him not a whit of attention. After a moment he ceased his yelling. He stood still, chest heaving in frustration, and stalked over to the fire. He opened gnarled hands to it, then threw another piece of firewood onto it. There was a leather bag on the ground by the fire. He rummaged through it and drew out a stick of dried meat. He stared at the soldier as he bit it savagely. “When you come back to this fire, I’m going to kill you. I’m going to run my sword through your guts, you traitorous coward! Then let’s see you ignore me.” He took a deep breath and roared, “I am your commander!”
I unslung my battle-axe from my back and hefted it. Then, stepping softly but not hiding, I crossed the unbroken snow into their camp. The old man was so intent on shouting Chalcedean obscenities at the soldier that he did not see me until I was almost within axe range. Obviously he was not accustomed to being ignored or disobeyed. An officer then. When he glimpsed me, startled, he shouted a warning to Hogen. I shifted a glance that way. Hogen did not behave as if he’d heard him at all. The old soldier swung his gaze back to me. I met his gaze. I did not make a sound.
“You can see me!”
I gave him a nod and a smile.
“I am not a ghost!” he announced.
I shrugged at him. “Not yet,” I said softly. I hefted the axe meaningfully.
“Hogen!” he roared. “To me! To me!”
Hogen went on wrestling with a branch, working it back and forth in a vain attempt to break it free from the fallen tree. I widened my smile.
The old man drew his sword. I found myself looking at the point of Verity’s sword. I had never seen it from that vantage. My uncle’s sword, his last gift to me, carried by me for many years. And now it threatened me. I stepped back. I’d happily chop the man to pieces, but I wanted nothing to mar that fine blade. My apparent retreat lit sparks in the man’s eyes. “Coward!” he shouted at me.
I breathed the words to him. “You raided my home. That’s my blade you are holding. You took a woman and a little girl from my home. I want them back.”
It infuriated him that I whispered. He scowled, trying to make out my words, then shouted, “Hogen!”
I spoke softer than the wind. “I don’t think he hears you. I don’t think he sees you.” I threw down my wild guess. “I think their magic-man has made you invisible to him.”
His mouth sagged open for an instant and then he clapped it shut. That barb had struck true. “I’ll kill you!” he vowed.
I shook my head at him. “Where are they? The ones you stole from me.” I breathed my question at him, moving silently sideways, and his eyes tracked me. He kept his sword at the ready. How good was he? I wondered. I gauged his age and how stiffly he moved.
“Dead! Dead or run away with the others.” He turned his head and shouted, “Hogen!”
My smile became mostly teeth. I stooped and seized a handful of snow. I crushed it into a ball and threw it at him. He dodged, but not fast enough. It hit his shoulder. He was stiff. And slow.
He took a step toward me, sword at the ready. “Stand and fight!” he demanded.
I’d maneuvered to the far side of the tent, out of Hogen’s view. The old man moved slowly, keeping his eyes on me and his weapon up. I rested my axe on the snow for a moment, to see if I could tempt him to charge me, but he kept his place. With one hand on my axe, I drew my knife and stuck the blade into the canvas of his tent. I dragged a long cut in it and watched it sag. “Stop that!” he roared as he saw his shelter destroyed. “Stand and fight like a man!” I glanced at Hogen. He was cursing and fighting with the tree branch, completely oblivious to us.
I widened my cut in the tent. The old man advanced farther. I stooped and reached in through the cut and began to drag his supplies out into the snow. I found a sack of food. I seized it by the bottom and soundlessly flung the contents wide into the deeper snow. I kept one eye on him as I reached in, groped, and found a bedroll. I dragged it out and threw it.
My behavior was frustrating him. “Hogen!” He actually screamed the man’s name. “An intruder raids our camp! Will you do nothing?” With an angry glance at me, he suddenly veered and began to stump off toward Hogen. Not what I wanted.
Axe down, knife sheathed. I stripped off my gloves, then took out my sling and the carefully selected stones that went with it. Nice round stones. A sling makes a sound, but not a loud one. The old man was shouting as he went. I hoped it would cover the whirling of my sling. I hoped I could still hit with it. I threaded the loop over my finger, set the stone in the pouch, and gripped the other knotted end of the cord. I swung it and then gave the snap that sent my missile flying. It missed. “You missed!” the old man shouted and tried to hurry. I chose another stone. Launched it. It went winging through the trees.
Hogen was trudging back to the camp, awkwardly, using my wall-sword as a crutch and gripping the ends of several branches under his arm as he dragged them back to the fire. My third stone struck a tree trunk with a loud thwack! Hogen turned toward the sound and stared. The old man followed his gaze and then turned to look at me. And my fourth stone glanced off the side of his head.
He went down, half-stunned. Hogen had resumed his trek toward the camp, dragging his firewood. He passed an arm’s length from his fallen leader and never once looked aside at him. Using the tent for cover, I slipped toward the forest and circled the camp. My prey had fallen onto his back in the deep snow. He was thrashing feebly, disoriented but not unconscious. Hogen had his back to us. He had dropped his branches near the fire and was examining the slashed tent and scattered supplies in consternation. I raced toward the downed man.
He was struggling to sit up when I dived on him. He gave a wordless cry and groped for the sword. Wrong tactic. I was inside the range of it and I let all my frustration power my fists. I hit him hard in the jaw, and his eyes went unfocused. Before he could recover I rolled him facedown in the snow. I caught one of his flailing hands and took a tight wrap around his wrist with the sling cord. I had to set my knee between his shoulder blades and struggle before I could catch and control his other arm. He was old and half-stunned, but also tough and fighting for his life. When I finally controlled his other arm, I took two tight loops of the sling cord around it at the elbow and then bound it as tightly as I could to his other wrist. Elegant it was not, but I hoped it was as uncomfortable as it looked. I checked my knots, and then rolled him onto his back on top of his bound arms. I picked up Verity’s sword, seized him by the back of his collar, and dragged him kicking through the snow. He came to himself enough to shout obscenities at me and call me, with absolute truth, several different varieties of bastard. I welcomed his shouting. While Hogen was unable to respond to it, it might mask whatever small sounds I made as I panted and heaved to haul him well away from the camp.
I stopped when I could no longer see the tent or the campfire. I let go of him and stood, my hands on my knees, catching my breath. I tried to judge how much time I had alone with him. The other mercenaries might be returning. Or might not, if they’d encountered the Ringhill Guard. Riddle, Lant, and Perseverance might be coming. Or they might not. It was entirely possible that they’d chosen to follow the direct road to Salter’s Deep. I evicted these thoughts from my mind and crouched in the snow next to my captive. I pushed my Wit-awareness down. I did so reluctantly, knowing it would leave me more vulnerable to stealth attack. Yet it was essential that I quench shared sensations to be able to do what I needed to do.
“Now. We are going to have a conversation. It can be friendly, or it can be very painful. I want you to tell me everything you know about the pale folk. I want to know all about the day you invaded my home. Most of all, I want to know about the woman and the girl that you took from my home.”
He cursed me again, but not in a very inventive way. When I wearied of it, I scooped a great handful of snow and pushed it into his face. He sputtered and shouted, and I added more until he grew silent. I sat back on my heels. He shook his head and dislodged some of it. Some had melted and was running down his wet red cheeks. “That doesn’t look comfortable. Would you like to talk to me now?” He lifted his head and shoulders as if he would sit up. I pushed him back down and shook my head at him. “No. Stay as you are. Tell me what you know.”
“When my men return, they will cut you to ribbons. Slowly.”
I shook my head. I spoke Chalcedean. “They won’t return. Half lie dead in that camp. The one you have left can’t hear or see you. Any that fled have run into the Buck troops by now. Or if they made it to Salter’s Deep, they found that the ship has been moved. Would you like to live? Tell me about the captives you took from my home.”
I stood up. I set the point of Verity’s sword in the soft spot just below his sternum. I leaned on it, not hard enough to make it penetrate the fur and wool he wore but hard enough to hurt. He kicked his feet wildly and yelled a bit. Then, abruptly, he went limp in the snow and glared at me. He folded his lips stubbornly.
I was unimpressed. “If you won’t talk to me, you’re useless. I’ll finish you now, and go after Hogen.”
The crow cawed loudly overhead and then suddenly swooped down to perch on my shoulder. She cocked her head and stared down at my captive with one bright black eye. “Red snow!” she rejoiced.
I smiled and tipped my head toward her. “I think she may be hungry. Shall we give her a finger to start with?”
Motley sidled closer to my head. “Eye! Eye! Eye!” she suggested rapturously.
I tried not to show how unnerving that was for me. I had not taken my weight off the sword. The tip of it was slowly and inexorably nudging its way through the layers of clothing that protected him. I watched the corners of his eyes and the set of his mouth. I saw him swallow, and in the instant before he tried to roll out from under it, I kicked him as hard as I could just where his ribs ended in the softness of his belly. The sword sank through clothing and into flesh. I did not let it go too deep. “Don’t.” My word was a pleasant warning.
I leaned over him, Verity’s sword still in his wound, and made a suggestion. “Now. Start at the very beginning. Tell me how you were hired and for what. As long as you are talking, I won’t hurt you. When you stop talking, I will hurt you. A lot. Begin.”
I watched his eyes. His glance darted once to the camp. Once to the crow. He had nothing. He licked his chapped lips and spoke slowly. I knew he was trying to gain time for himself. I had no objections.
“It began with a message. Almost a year ago. A pale messenger came to me. We were surprised. We could not decide how he knew where to find our camp. But he had found us. He came with an offer of a great deal of gold if I would perform a service for people who called themselves the Servants. They were from a distant country. I asked how these faraway people had heard of me, and he told me that I had figured in many prophecies in their religion. He said they had seen my future, and over and over they had seen that if I did as they willed, not only did great good come to them, but I achieved the power that I had rightfully earned. In their prophecies I was a figure of change. If I did what they asked, I would change the future of the world.”
He paused. Obviously, he had been flattered by such claims and perhaps expected that I would be impressed. He waited. I stared at him. Perhaps I jiggled the sword a tiny bit.
He grunted breathlessly. I smiled at him and he resumed. “He assured me that helping them with their task would put me on the path to glory and power. The path. They spoke so often of ‘the path.’ He came with funds, asking me to bring a picked force of men and come with him to a port in the Pirate Isles. There he had an army of soothsayers and visionaries, ones who could guide us to success because they could foretell what would be our best tactic. They could pick ‘the one path of many’ that would best lead us to success. And he hinted then that they had with them a very special person, one who could make it impossible for us to be seen or tracked.”
I heard the sounds of a hatchet working on firewood. The lad had finally found a tool. The crow had moved to perch in a tree over my captive. She cawed at him derisively.
“And you believed that?”
He looked at me almost defiantly. “It was true. They showed us when we traveled to the Pirate Isles. He made one of my men forget where the door to the room was. He made another forget his own name. They put food on the table, hid it from us, and then revealed it again. We were amazed. They had a ship and a crew there. They gave us the gold they had promised us just for coming to speak with them. They promised that if we helped them find the Unexpected Son, they would give us more gold, much more.” He scowled darkly.
“Only one part I disliked. The one who bargained with us in the Pirate Isles was a woman. We had not expected that. The messenger they sent first was a man. Then when we were shown the man who could do the magic, he was a soft and pudgy creature, one who quivered and cowered at the woman’s commands. This made no sense to us. Why would a man of such power not do as he wished in the world?”
I wondered that myself but did not speak.
“I am cold,” he said into my silence. “As you said, I am old. And I have not eaten since yesterday.”
“It’s a hard world. Imagine being a child torn open by a rapist. I have as much mercy for you as you had for her.”
“I did nothing to a child!”
“You allowed it to happen. You were the commander.”
“It was not my doing. Have you ever been in battle? A thousand things happen at once.”
“It was not a battle. It was a raid against an unguarded home. And you stole a little girl. My child. And a woman who was under my protection.”
“Heh. You blame me when you were the one who failed to protect them.”
“That’s true.” I eased the sword a finger’s breadth deeper into his chest, and he shrieked out loud. “I don’t like to be reminded of that,” I told him. “Why don’t you go on with your story? About how proud Chalcedean soldiers sold themselves like whores for gold to be the servants of a woman and a soft man?”
He said nothing, and I turned the sword slightly in his chest. He made a sound as if he would vomit.
“I am not just any commander, not just any man!” He drew breath, and I eased the sword slightly from its burrow. Blood welled. He bent his head to see it and began to pant. “I am Ellik. I was second only to the Duke of Chalced when he sat his throne. He promised me that I would follow him in ruling Chalced. I was to be Duke Ellik of Chalced. Then the damned dragons came. And his whore of a daughter, she who was given to me by her father, turned against her own people and proclaimed herself duchess! She squats on my rightful throne! And that is why I sell my sword. So I can regain what is rightfully mine! That is what they saw, those pale prophets and soothsayers! It will come to pass.”
“You are boring me.” I squatted next to him, put my sword aside, and took out my knife. I held it up and studied it. Long and sharp. I caught the winter light on the blade and tilted it so it traveled. “So. The woman and the child.”
He panted for a time. I made a gesture with my knife and he shook his head wildly. He gasped in air and spoke in short bursts. “We came on a ship. We hid with our weapons as her crew brought her into port. We thought there would be questions . . . at the docks, tariffs and . . . demands. But there was nothing. It was as if we were not there at all. The soft man led us . . . and we trooped off the ship and . . . off-loaded the horses and . . . rode off through the town. And not a head turned toward us. We were like ghosts. Even when we all began to laugh . . . and even to shout at the people on the street. No one saw us.”
For an instant his eyes rolled up, showing too much white. Had I gone too far? The blood from the sword-hole seeped and darkened his shirt. He gave another gasp and looked at me.
“She told us where to go. The boy kept us hidden. We soon chafed with it. We stole the sleighs and the teams. The pale folk knew exactly where to find them. We passed through towns unseen: fat, rich towns. So much we could have done—taken. But that woman, always saying no. And no. And no. And each time, to my men, I said no. And they obeyed. But they thought less of me. And less. And I felt . . . odd.”
He paused and for a time he was silent, breathing noisily through his nose. “I’m cold,” he said again.
“We could have taken anything. Could have gone to Buckkeep. Taken the crown off your king’s head if that boy had been ours to rule. We could have gone back to Chalced and walked in and killed that whore who squats on my throne. If the boy favored us over her. My men knew that. We spoke of it. But I could not do it. We just did as she told us. So we went to that place, that big house.” He moved his eyes without shifting his head to look up at me. “It was your home, wasn’t it? Your holding?” He licked his lips, and for a moment avarice shone in his eyes. “It was rich. Fat for the taking. We left so much. Good horses. The brandy kegs. ‘Take only the son,’ she said. And we obeyed like slaves. We took the boy and his maidservant and turned back toward our ship. Moving through your land like sneaking cowards.”
He blinked. His face was getting paler. I found I didn’t care.
“Then I knew. She was using the boy on me. Clouding my mind. To make me weak. To enslave me! So I waited. And we planned. There were times when my mind was clear, when the boy was using his magic on others. So I waited until the magic-boy was away from her and me. I knew it would happen. And while he was with them, not thinking of controlling me, I confronted that woman. I put her in her place, and I took her magic-boy from her. It was easy. I told my men what to say to him, and he believed us. The next day, we tested him. We raided the town, in broad daylight, with no challenge from the inhabitants. We simply told Vindeliar it was what the woman wished him to do. To enjoy himself for that one day. To take whatever he wanted in the town, to eat whatever he wished. He asked us if it were his true path now. We told him it was. It was so easy. He was foolish, almost simple. He believed us.”
He coughed. “It could have been so good. If not for that stupid woman. That stupid woman. She had the real prize. That boy that could cloud minds. But she didn’t use him as she could have. She wanted . . . your son.”
I didn’t correct him. “What became of the captives? The woman you took, and the child?”
“Disrespectful little rat. I knocked him down. Ugly little bastard. Those staring eyes. All his fault that it fell apart.”
It took everything I had not to shove my knife in his eye. “Did you hurt him?”
“Knocked him down. That was all. Should have done more. No one speaks . . . to me . . . like that.”
He took a sudden gasping breath. His lips were going dusky.
“What happened to him?”
He laughed. “I don’t know. That night it all went wrong. That damned Hogen. Whining and sniffling for a woman like some table-fed lapdog. So I gave him one. One he deserved. She screamed a lot. Someone brought the magic-boy over. He stared. We asked if he’d like a turn. Then that woman. Dwalia. She came running over, shouting that we had no honor. That we were not men at all.” He rolled his eyes toward me. “I could stomach her no longer. Two of my men seized her, for she came at me with her claws out. And I had to laugh at her, held between them, struggling, those plump breasts and that round belly jiggling like a pudding. I told her that I thought we could prove to her we were men. We began to strip her. And it all . . . went bad. The fear. I think it was the boy. He was more tightly bound to her than we thought. He swamped us with his own fear. Fear everyone felt. The pale folk were screaming. They scattered like rabbits. That Dwalia. Shouting at them. Shouting at her magic-boy. Telling him to forget everything we’d promised him, to forget me and return to the path.”
He turned his whole head to look at me. His graying hair had come free of his wool cap to hang in wet locks around his face. “My men forgot me. I stood and shouted my orders, but they ran past me as if I didn’t exist. They released Dwalia. Perhaps they could not see her anymore. She called to the magic-boy and he went to her like a whipped dog.”
He shook his head against the snow that pillowed it. “No one heard me. A man crashed into me, picked himself up, and kept on running. The men chased the pale folk. They were like mad things. The horses broke loose. Then . . . then my men began fighting one another. I shouted my orders. But they did not obey me. They did not hear me. Or see me. I had to watch. My men, my chosen warriors, brothers-in-arms for more than four years . . . They killed one another. Some of them. Some ran. The boy drove them mad. He made me invisible to them. Maybe Dwalia and the boy didn’t realize that I was the only thing keeping my men in check. Without me . . . Dwalia fled and left the others to their fate. That’s what I think.”
“The woman and the child you took from my home. What did they do? Did the pale folk keep them?” He smiled at me. I set the edge of my blade to his throat. “Tell me what you know.”
“What I know . . . what I know very well . . .” He fixed his eyes on mine. His voice had fallen to a whisper. I leaned closer to hear him. “I know how to die like a warrior.” And he surged suddenly up against my blade, as if to cut his own throat. I pulled my knife clear of him and sheathed it.
“No,” I told him pleasantly. “You don’t die yet. And you don’t die like a warrior.” I stood and turned my back on him, leaving him trussed like a hog awaiting slaughter.
I heard him take in a great breath. “Hogen!” he roared. I stood up and backed away from him with Verity’s sword in my possession. Let him shout as much as he wanted. I wagged a remonstrating finger at him as he yelled again and then turned back to my second target. Sword or axe? Suddenly it seemed as if Verity’s sword was the only choice for this.
Hogen had lifted his head and was looking through the forest toward the distant road. So he expected the others to return. No sense in waiting until I was dealing with more than one person.
My years of doing quiet work had convinced me that surprising my target was most often my best technique. Sword drawn, I approached him stealthily. What made him turn? Perhaps that sense that many warriors seem to develop, an awareness that might be a touch of the Skill or the Wit or both. It mattered little; my surprise was lost.
Perhaps my second best technique was to challenge a man who could not stand without leaning on the sword he had looted from my wall. Hogen saw me, dropped his hatchet, seized the sword that he had planted in the snow, and challenged me with it. I stood still, watching him balance on one good leg, holding the sword at the ready. I smiled at him. He could not fight me unless I brought the battle to him; he could neither advance nor retreat on his injured leg unless he used the sword as a cane. I stood and watched him until he lowered the sword to touch the snow. He tried not to lean on it too obviously.
“What?” he demanded of me.
“You took something of mine. I want it back.”
He stared at me. I studied him. A handsome man. White teeth. Bright-blue eyes. His long wheat-colored hair hung in two smooth plaits with a few charms braided in. Every hair stood up on my body as I recognized who he must be. The “handsome man” who had raped the women of my household. The one who had attacked Shine and in turn had been attacked by the pale folk. And now he was mine.
“I have nothing of yours.”
I shook my head at him. “You burned my stables. You hacked your way through my home. You took that sword from my cousin Lant. You raped women of my household. And when you left, you took a woman and a child. I want them back.”
For a moment he stared. I advanced a step. He lifted his blade but the pain it cost him showed in his face. That pleased me so much. “How long can you stand on one leg, holding a sword? I think we will find out.” I began to walk slowly around him, like a wolf circling a hamstrung elk. He had to hop and hitch to keep his eyes on me. The tip of the sword he held began to waver. I spoke as I walked. “I had a nice discussion with Commander Ellik. You don’t remember him, do you? You don’t remember the man who led you here. The man who convinced you to serve the Servants, to come to my home to kidnap a child and a woman. Ellik. That name means nothing to you, does it? The man who once thought he’d be Duke of Chalced.”
Every time I said the name Ellik, he flinched as if poked. I herded him now, as if I were Shepherd Lin’s dog. Step by limping step, he retreated from the fire, from the trampled snow of the campsite toward the unbroken snow of the forest.
I kept talking. “Do you remember the raid on my home? The woman you tried to rape, the pretty girl in the red dress with the green eyes? You remember her, don’t you?”
A flicker of wariness in his eyes and a droop of dismay on his lips.
“I’ve come to take blood for blood, Hogen. Oh, yes, I know your name. Commander Ellik told me. I’ve come to take blood for blood, and to give pain for pain. And to help you remember. You took that wound to your leg from your fellow mercenaries. They had sworn to you, sworn to one another, and of course sworn to Ellik. Commander Ellik. Who thought he would be Duke Ellik.”
The flinch and the lack of focus were what I watched for. The third time I said the name, I struck. The point of the sword was already drooping and, as he shuffled to face me, I stepped in abruptly, beat down his guard, and struck off three of his fingers. The sword dropped into the snow. He cried out and hugged his mangled hand to his chest. In the next instant he stooped and tried to seize the sword with his remaining hand, but I stepped in close and kicked him in the chest. He fell back in the deeper snow. I stooped, seized the fallen sword, and held it. Both my swords reclaimed. I wished I held my child instead.
“Talk to me,” I suggested pleasantly. “Tell me about the hostages you took. What became of them, the woman and the little girl?”
He stared at me from where he sat in a snowbank. “We took no little girl.” He was instinctively holding tight the wrist of his maimed hand. He cradled it to his chest and rocked back and forth as if it were his child. He spoke through clenched teeth. “Coward! You’ve no honor and no courage to attack an injured man.”
I stood both swords in the snow behind me. I drew my belt-knife again and crouched beside him. He tried to sidle back from me but the deep snow resisted him and his stiffly bandaged leg hampered him. I smiled as I waved my blade toward his crotch. He went paler. We both knew he was completely at my mercy. I shook his blood from my glove, letting it spatter him. I spoke softly but clearly in my best Chalcedean. “You came to my home. You stole my sword. You raped women in my household. I am not going to kill you, but when I am finished you will never rape anyone again.”
His mouth fell open. I touched my finger to my lips. “Quiet. I am going to ask you a question. You will answer right away. Do you understand me?”
He was breathing in gasps.
“You have one chance to remain a man.” That was a lie, but one he was eager to believe. I saw hope startle in his gaze. “You took a child from my home. I am here to take her back. Where is she?”
He stared at me, eyes wide. Then he shook his head. He could barely get words out for terror. “No. We took no girl.”
I glared at him. I whetted the blade of my knife on my leg. He watched it. “You did. You were seen. I know this is true.” Oh. Silly me. “You thought she was a boy. You took a woman, and you took my little girl. Where are they?”
He stared at me. He spoke slowly, perhaps from pain, perhaps to be sure I understood him. “There was a big fight. Many of us went mad. We had hostages . . .” His eyes were suddenly confused. “They ran away. The others pursued them. They’ll be back once they catch them.”
I smiled. “I doubt that. They don’t remember Commander Ellik, either, I’ll wager. I think that each man will catch whatever he can and keep it for himself. Why come back to share with you? What good are you to them? Oh. Maybe the horses. They might come back to take the horses from you. And then they will leave you here.
“Tell me about the child you took. And the woman you tried to rape.” I spoke each word in careful Chalcedean.
He shook his head. “I didn’t. There was no little girl. We took only—”
I leaned forward. I smiled. “I think a rapist should look like a rapist instead of a handsome man.” I set my knife to the bottom of his left eye socket. He caught his breath and held very still, thinking it was a threat. Foolish man. I sliced him from eye socket to jaw. He shouted and thrashed away from me. Blood began to sheet down his jaw and the side of his neck. I saw his eyes roll back as he struggled not to faint from the pain. Fainting, I knew, has nothing to do with courage. The right amount of sharp pain and anyone will faint. I didn’t want him to become unconscious but I did want him to fear me. I leaned closer to him and set the tip of my knife to his groin. He knew now that some things were not merely threat.
“No!” he shouted and tried to scoot away.
“Tell me only about the woman in the red dress and the child with her.”
He took three slow, shallow breaths.
“Truth,” I suggested to him. I leaned on the knife a little. I keep my knives very sharp. It sliced the fabric of his trousers.
He tried to crawl backward in the snow. I leaned on it harder and he grew still.
“Tell me everything,” I suggested.
He looked at his groin. His breath was coming in small pants. “There were little girls there, at the house. Pandow has a taste for them. He raped one, perhaps more. I do not think he killed any of them. We did not take any of them.” He scowled suddenly. “We took very little from that house. I took the sword. But we only took two captives. A boy and his servant. That was all.” I saw confusion grow in his eyes as he tried to assemble his memories of the raid while not remembering Ellik.
“Where is the boy, and his servant?” My knife widened the slash in his trousers.
“The boy?” he said as if he could not recall what he had just told me. “The boy is gone. With the others who fled. They went in all directions, running and screaming.”
“Stop.” I held up a hand. “Say exactly what happened when you lost your captives. From the beginning.”
I lifted my knife blade and he took a long shuddering breath. But quick as a cat I sprang closer to him. I set the tip of the blade to the hollow beneath his eye on the good side of his face. He lifted his bloody hands to defend himself. “Don’t,” I suggested, and forced him to lie back in the snow. Then I cut him. Not deeply, but enough to wring a tiny shriek from him.
“Softly,” I said. “Now.”
“It was night. We were drunk. Celebrating.” He paused suddenly.
Did he think he would keep a secret from me? “Celebrating what?”
He took several breaths. “We had a prisoner. One that could do magic. Could make people not see us . . .” His voice trailed away as he tried to make sense of shredded and dangling recollections.
“I hate you,” I told him affably. “I enjoy hurting you. You might not want to give me an excuse to make you bleed more.” I cocked my head at him. “A rapist does not need to be handsome. A rapist does not need a nose. Or ears.”
He spoke quickly. “We had the soft man. The man who looks like a boy. Vindeliar. The one who can make you forget things. We’d separated him from the pale folk and convinced him to enjoy himself. To use his magic for things he might want to do. We wanted to make him like us and think we were his friends. And it worked. He was worth more to us than any of the others, more than anything they offered us. We were going to take them all back to Chalced, sell them in the market there but keep the magic-man.”
A bigger story here, but not one I cared about. “You were celebrating. Then what happened?”
“I wanted a woman. I should not have had to ask for one. They were plunder, I had a right to my share, and there were plenty of them. But we had not had them . . .” Again, his words dangled. With no Ellik to recall, he would not know why they were working for women, let alone why he had refrained from raping them. He scowled to himself. “I had to take the ugliest one. The one that most of us thought was probably not a woman at all. But that was the only one . . .” Again he paused in puzzlement. I let him try to gather his threads.
“She started screaming before I even touched her. She fought so hard when I tried to strip her. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have . . . I did nothing to her that a woman is not meant to have done to her. Nothing that would have killed her! But she screamed and screamed . . . And someone brought Vindeliar to have a turn . . . I think. I don’t know. Something happened. Oh. A woman, older and fleshy, and we were going to have her. But then . . . And everyone went mad. We chased them and hunted them, and the blood . . . and then we turned on one another. Sword-brothers. We’d eaten together, fought side by side for the last four years. But that one that she brought with her, the one who could make the villagers not see us? He turned on us and made us forget our brotherhood. All I could remember were the slights, the times they had cheated me at dice or taken a woman I wanted or eaten more than their share of the best food. I wanted to kill every one of them. I did kill two. Two of my fellow warriors. Two I had taken my oaths with. One slashed my leg before I killed him. Chriddick. He did that. I’d known him for five years. But I fought him and killed him.”
The words were pouring out now, heedless of the pain it cost him. I did not interrupt. Where in that mad night had my little girl been? Where were Bee and Shine? Somewhere beyond the camp, fallen bloody in the snow? Captured and dragged off by the fleeing mercenaries?
“The ones who hired us, the pale ones, the white ones? They did not do this to us. They could never have fought us. They were weak, stupid with weapons, with little stamina for the march or the cold. Always, they begged us to go slower, to rest more, to find more food for them. And we did. Why? Why were warriors commanded by sniveling women and sapling men? Because of a dirty magic they put upon us. They made us less than warriors. They shamed us. And then they turned us upon each other.” He gave a noise between a sob and a cry. “They took our honor!”
Did he hope to win sympathy from me? He was pathetic, but not in a way that roused any pity in me. “I care nothing for your lost honor. You took a woman and a child. What became of them?”
He balked again. My knife moved, slicing his nose. Noses bleed a lot. He flung himself back from my knife and lifted his hands defensively. I slashed both of them and he shrieked.
“Bastard! You cowardly bastard! You’ve no sense of a warrior’s honor! You know I cannot do battle with you or you would not dare treat me so.”
I did not laugh. I set my knife to the base of his throat. I pushed and he lay back on the snow. Words came out of my mouth. “Did the women of my holding know your warrior’s honor when you were raping them? Did my little kitchenmaid think you honorable as she staggered away from your friend Pandow? When you cut the throats of my unarmed stablemen, was that honor?”
He tried to pull back from the tip of my knife but I let it follow him. With his lamed leg he could no more flee than my little kitchen girl had. He lifted his bloody hands. I dropped my knee on his injured leg. He gasped at the pain and found blurred words. “They were not warriors! They had no honor as warriors. All know women can possess no honor. They are weak! Their lives have no meaning save what men give to them. And the others, those men, they were servants, slaves. Not warriors. She was not even right as a woman! So ugly and not even right as a woman!”
He screamed as my blade bit deeper, opening a gash in his neck. Careful. Not yet.
“Strange,” I said quietly when he ran out of wind. I moved my knife up to his face. He lifted his hands. I shook my head. “My women gave this meaning to my life: I hurt those who hurt mine. Without regard for their imaginary honor. Warriors who rape and kill the helpless have no honor. They possess no honor when they hurt children. If it were not for my women, the women of my household, and my serving men, I would think it dishonorable for me to do this to you. Tell me. How long did it take you to rape one of the women of my household? As long as my knife has been playing with your face?”
He bucked away from me, cutting his own face as he did so. I stood over him and picked up Verity’s sword. He was squeezed dry of all information. Time to end it. He looked at me and knew it.
“That night, that night they all ran away. Kerf might know. He fancied the woman in the red dress, mooned about her like a baby that wants his mother. We mocked him. He watched her all the time. Sneaking around in the bushes to watch her pee.”
“Kerf.” One tiny bit of information. “The magic-boy and the woman who commanded him. What became of them?”
“I don’t know. It was all madness and fighting and blood. Maybe they were killed. Maybe they ran away.” He gave a sudden sob. “I’m going to die here in the Six Duchies! And I don’t even remember why I came here!”
Two things happened simultaneously. I heard a horse whinny and the picketed animals answered it. And the crow screamed, “’Ware your back!”
My quenched Wit had not warned me. The old training kicked in. Never leave an enemy behind you. I cut Hogen’s throat, and went low and to the side as I spun around.
I’d underestimated the old man. Working his hands loose of my sling cord must have limbered his arms, for the stolen sword rang loudly against mine. He was a sight, his wet gray hair wild around his face, his teeth bared in fury. The glancing blow of my stone had purpled his brow and shot one eye with blood. Blood had darkened a swath of his shirt. I had a knife to his sword. I could see Verity’s sword behind him, still sheathed in the snowbank where I’d stupidly left it. He grunted, our blades screamed a kiss, and then he disengaged, caught a breath, and swung again. I parried him, but not without effort, and stepped forward and pushed him back hard with my blade. I leapt back. He smiled and took a step forward. I was going to die. He had the reach.
I gave ground and he grinned as he advanced. Ellik was old but he was powered by battered pride and a thirst for vengeance. And, I decided as he made yet another reckless attack, the desire to die as a warrior. I had no wish to assist him in that. I gave ground again. Bloodied as he was, I was fairly certain that I could simply let him attack until he exhausted himself. Fairly certain. Not absolutely certain. I tried to back toward Verity’s sword and he cut me off. His smile grew broader. He wasted none of his laboring breath on words. He surprised me with a sudden leap forward. I had to both duck and retreat.
Hoofbeats, muffled by snow. I was not at all certain that I could hold out against the number of riders I could now hear coming. I dared not look to see if they were Chalcedean or the Ringhill Guard. Then someone shouted, “Get the horses!” In Chalcedean.
Ellik looked aside for an instant. “To me!” he shouted to his men. “To me!”
I forced myself to believe that they could not and would not respond to his shout. I had to do something he didn’t expect, something stupid in any other setting. I stepped in, beat my knife-blade hard on his sword, and very nearly disarmed him, but he managed to step forward and shove me off with a display of strength I had not expected. It so startled me that I felt a moment of giddiness. I sprang back from him, disengaging, and had to endure his mocking grin. He shouted then, “Men! To me! To me!”
As the Chalcedeans swept in on horseback, I doubted that any of them gave him so much as a moment’s thought. The riders appeared completely unaware of Ellik. One even passed so close behind him that he was nearly trampled. They must have seen me and yet none of them took time to challenge me, for they were fleeing for their lives. I heard a more distant shout of “This way, they went this way!” and decided that the Ringhill Guard unit was after them.
The Chalcedean mercenaries were intent only on winning fresh mounts for themselves. They rode straight for the picketed horses, flinging themselves from their spent mounts and each racing to try to seize a horse and be gone. The picketed horses were spooked by the frenzy and danced and pulled at their leads, near-trampling the men in their distress. There were not enough fresh horses for all of them.
“FitzChivalry! Prince FitzChivalry!” The shout came from behind me, and I knew the voice. Perseverance was charging toward me.
“Perseverance! Wait!” And that was Riddle’s voice, with panic in his warning.
“Stay back!” I shouted. While I’d been distracted, Ellik had seized his opportunity. He leapt in recklessly, determined to either slay me or force me to kill him. I tried to fall back from him but deep snow and a tangle of brush were behind me. A terrible wave of vertigo swept over me. I barely kept to my feet. I staggered sideways, the deeper snow clutching at me. The weariness that now claimed me could not be denied. I felt a general slackening of all my muscles. My sword fell from my limp hand as my knees folded under me. I stumbled backward and the snow and the brambles received me.
Ellik never questioned his good fortune. He staggered forward, and the sword from my own home darted toward my chest.
“My lord! FitzChivalry!” And with that shout, I found myself looking up at Perseverance. He’d ridden in and somehow snatched Verity’s sword from the snowbank where it had stood. He clutched it as if it were a poker; I saw that he’d never held a weapon before. “Get back!” I shouted because Ellik was turning and lifting his sword to meet the boy’s charge. Verity’s sword was too heavy for the stable boy. It wasn’t skill. The weight carried the blade down and the horse’s charge provided momentum. He more speared than stabbed Ellik. The would-be duke dropped his blade and clutched at the one going into his chest. Perseverance screamed and I saw fury and horror in his face. He came off the horse, clinging to the sword, falling with the weapon onto the collapsing Ellik.
The carris seed was failing me. My heart was leaping like a hooked fish in my chest. I gasped for air as I fought my way free of snow. I could hear men shouting but could barely make sense of what was happening. I knew only one solution. I dropped my knife and groped at my waist for the pouch there. A twist of paper, a tiny cone of seeds left in the bottom. I tipped some into my mouth and ground them between my teeth. I shuddered and thought I would vomit. The world went white and spun. It was all noise and cold and then everything was suddenly bright and light and clear.
I reached for Perseverance, seizing him by the collar and hauling him off the dying Ellik and back to his feet. I stooped, groped in the snow for my knife, and sheathed it. I turned, trying to take in what was happening. I saw Lant swing his fancy sword and take off a Chalcedean’s arm, sword and all. More shocking was that Riddle was on the ground. The Chalcedean had dragged him off his horse and tried to seize his mount. Lant had saved him.
I stooped and pulled Verity’s sword out of Ellik’s chest. The man made a sound. He wasn’t quite dead. Another thrust finished him. Perseverance was staring at me. His mouth was hanging open, his chest heaving, and I feared he would cry. “Pick up that sword!” I bellowed at him. “To me! To me, lad!” For a wonder, he obeyed. He picked up the wall-sword and stepped away from Ellik’s body. “Follow me,” I commanded him, and he came behind me as I moved toward Riddle and Lant. They had dispatched the Chalcedean who had tried for Lant’s horse. Per whistled and his mount came to him. Priss followed, nostrils and eyes wide. “Secure those horses,” I ordered him. To Lant I said, “Help him. I don’t want any of those bastards riding off on fresh mounts.”
I heard wild shouting and turned to see my Rousters sweeping in behind the Ringhill Guard. Two lengths behind them came Foxglove and the rest of my guard.
“Capture! Don’t kill!” I shouted with all my strength. But one of the Chalcedeans had already gone down, caught between two of the Ringhill soldiers and slashed from both sides. Before I could draw breath to shout again, I saw two more fall. The final man got a horse loose and nearly managed to get onto the panicky animal. As I started toward the melee, he fell and was trampled.
“Stop!” I shouted. If anyone heard me, they paid no heed. One of my Rousters was off her horse. She’d put her sword through two of the downed men before I reached her. The third did not require a killing thrust. He was dead.
“’Ware!” shouted Riddle. “Prince FitzChivalry! Guards! Put up your swords!”
I’d never heard him shout like that. He had regained his horse and was thrusting his mount between me and the battle-maddened men I’d heedlessly charged.
“Prince Fitz!” someone else shouted, and suddenly my Rousters were turning to me, grinning and shaking bloody swords, as proud as puppies that had just killed the barn cat. I stared at them. A tremor of fatigue, of giddiness, of drugs, and of despair passed through me. I reached up to seize hold of Riddle’s thigh. I didn’t fall.
“Is Bee here? Is she safe?” Perseverance’s voice had gone high and boyish again in his anxiety.
“No,” I said. “No Bee. No Shine. At least not here.” I summoned every bit of strength that was left to me. My knees were shaky. I drew breath and felt the carris seed surge. “We organize a search. Now.”