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IV (chapters 1 to 7)
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The thick blankets of wet snow falling outside were driving people indoors. That suited me just fine—less work for the men, and less work for me. Besides, the depressing weather suited my mood, with the wet snow lying heavy as a hangover on the town. On the upside, another day of this and the western passes would finally be closed for the year and we’d be able to go home.
We sat around the fire in Bram’s room, Alison, Bram, and me, sipping our drinks. They had something with brownish leaves in it that smelled unpleasant; I had mulled, fortified wine. Conversation was bland... nothing to raise tempers or ruin the mood until Alison went and spoiled things. Blast a woman’s curiosity anyway! She cuddled closer to Bram, looking puzzled, and asked him a question we’d been hoping not to have to answer:
“Bram, you two have been keeping quiet about something. You won’t say anything about our plans for this spring while I’m around. Does that mean John’s army will be joining us then?”
Bram sipped his drink in that way he had when he needed time to think. “Once the snow leaves the mountain passes we will be back together again, yes.” His eyes met mine, warning me as if he didn’t think I’d caught on yet.
“Then you’ll go back into the mountains to ambush Amelior again?”
I answered for him. “Yup.” Bram showed wary approval at the lie, but we hadn’t planned on Alison’s intuition. We kept our expressions neutral, but she’d caught something of our exchange of looks. She turned from one of us to the other, pouting.
“I’m not a child, you know! Neither am I a fool. You two are keeping something from me, and I want to know what it is.”
I figured I’d try to change the topic and see if we could bury the matter. Bram shot me a warning look, but too late. “I’ll say you’re no child!” I winked at her appreciatively like I’d done before when I wanted to get her goat, and she bared her teeth as if threatening to bite me; so far so good. Then, made incautious by too much drink, I went one step too far. “But you’re asking about military matters, things you don’t need to worry yourself about. That’s all it is.”
She stood up abruptly, spilling her drink in Bram’s lap. He rose with a yowl, trying to clutch at his lap and then his wounded side. Alison stood to confront me even as her cup bounced on the rug. She bent forward ’till she was close enough to bite my nose, stared me in the eye, and planted her hands on her hips. Behind her, Bram dabbed at his pants with a cloth, something I’d have missed if I’d been able to meet her eyes.
“Is that so? Are you implying I’m not as worthy of your trust as the lowest of your soldiers?”
Too late, I realized I'd stepped onto dangerous ground, so I held my tongue, looked sheepish as I could manage, and waited for reinforcements. Fortunately, Bram intervened before she bit me, stepping up from behind and putting his arms around her waist. She struggled for a moment, then subsided, glowering.
“Peace, beloved,” he said. “You know Gareth better than that by now. What he meant, and what I meant by withholding the information, is that we felt you would have little interest in the details of our plans.”
Alison twisted in his arms. “Not you too? Since when am I a child to be protected from the truth? Or is the truth so terrible only a man can bear it?”
Bram turned Alison to face him, but she held him at arm’s length, straining against his arms. Bram winced at the strain on his wound. “I thought you knew me better than that. Perhaps I was wrong.”
Alison stopped pushing so hard for a second, but wasn’t ready to give up just yet. Their eyes met for a long second, then she frowned and slapped him hard with her free hand, broke from his arms as he let go of her in surprise, and stalked from the room without looking back.
Bram turned, cheek reddening as I watched, and I sat there, meek as a child, expecting a good blast. The softness in his voice surprised me. “Gareth, my brother, I shall have to teach you tact some day. For the present, wait here while I try to patch things up.”
He turned on his heel and left the room at as fast a walk as he could manage, clutching his wounded side.
Some time later—about two mugs worth—he returned, Alison entering the room ahead of him. Her eyes still smoldered, and she sat farther from him than I’d grown used to seeing, but at least she appeared ready to listen. The wine had mellowed me while they were gone, and I was ready to forgive and forget. I chose to be gracious and to start the ball rolling. “Sorry about that, Alison. Old habits, y’know.”
She glowered at me again, but Bram placed a hand on her shoulder and tightened his grip.
“Apology accepted... for now.” She shrugged his hand off, scowling, but didn’t hit anyone; that was a good start, though I’d have to work pretty hard to make up the ground I’d lost. Blast a woman’s pride anyway!
Bram finished the round for us. “And I apologize too. I should not have treated someone so much a part of me like a child to be protected.” She didn’t answer that, but she relaxed and let him draw her closer. The tension in the air fell apart that suddenly. “Now we will tell you as much as we know, but it will be unpleasant and I expect you not to complain once you know. Gareth?”
I sat up, surprised, and Bram nodded encouragement. “All right. Remember, you're the one who wanted to know. It’s simple: Next spring we’ll be in Ankur. Those are the mountains we’ll meet John in, not here. It’s also where we’ll meet Amelior. To be blunt, we’re throwing Belfalas to the dogs.”
Alison went rigid, shocked out of a year’s gossip. “You’re... you’re doing what?”
Bram sat in silence, letting me dig myself out of this one. “Let’s put it another way. Our position here is hopeless. We only held Amelior off ’cause they’d been fighting all summer, they had no time to waste on a proper siege, and a portion of their forces were occupied east of us to ensure that Ankur and Volonor couldn’t come to our aid through the pass. Oh yeah... and we also had the weather on our side: they were betting they could take us before winter, and they lost... but it was a near thing there at the end. If there'd been any doubt they could return next spring and do the job right, they'd have persisted another week and that would have been our downfall.
“That's what'll happen in the spring. Soon as the passes clear, they’ll be back to finish off what they started, and this time they won't be under any time pressure at all. They can simply keep throwing troops at us until we're too tired to keep fighting. We can't win that kind of game. Sure, they won’t starve us out, not with half the Eastcountry’s stores of grain in our warehouses, but with the walls in the shape they’re in, they won’t have to wait for starvation to force us out of hiding.
I sipped my drink. “Worse yet, after seeing the damage done to Belfalas, the Council is already starting to make surrender noises. Typical farmers and merchants, all of ’em! What it boils down to is this: if we want to stop Amelior for good, we’ll have to do it from a position of strength. That’s Ankur.”
Alison sat still for a few moments, thinking before she responded. She had smarts as well as spirit, and it was clear once again what set her apart in Bram’s eyes. “But why? I don’t understand why we can’t just repeat the same strategy we used before. It worked well once.”
“The same trick rarely works twice in warfare. Bram, John, me, and the other commanders have been through this a hundred times already. First off, Amelior probably won’t come through the pass in strength. They’ll send just enough men to be sure we’ll have to meet them there, but the rest of their forces will circle around through the Southwood and swing up north until they're behind us. If we stay in the pass, they’ll catch us on two sides—splat!” I clapped my palms together and she jumped, then I pointed a finger at her to stop her reply.
“As for your next question, we can’t meet them in the forests. They have too many men for us to confront them in the open, and for this sort of game, the forest is as open as the plains: too wide a front, and not enough of us to cover it all. They could enter Belfalasian lands anywhere, or more likely several anywheres, and the only way we’d find out in time would be to spread ourselves so thin we couldn’t do anything about it once we learned where they were. It’d be nice if the Elves would help out, but even if they exist, I doubt they have the numbers or the inclination to take on an army that size. So we need to be behind walls when they arrive.
“Point two,” I went on: “I mentioned the state of our walls—ask Bram to tell you about Kardmin if you don’t think they can punch through if we give them two weeks.” Bram’s look hardened, but I kept on. “Like I said, we’re lucky they didn’t have time to waste on a proper siege. So what if we stay here anyway? Well, they’ll have all winter to consolidate what they’ve won and pressgang more troops, to rest and heal the ones they already have, and to prepare enough provisions for an extended campaign. Man for man, they’ll be better armed and more experienced, and we won’t be able to stand off a full-blown assault for any reasonable length of time. Don’t forget, they didn’t have time to secure the cities behind them before they attacked, so an all-out attack would’ve been too risky."
I paused and sipped my drink.
Bram took over. “Our biggest problem is that even if we did convince the town council to hold out, Amelior actually has no need to storm the walls. They could just bypass us and march on to Ankur, leaving a small force outside our walls to keep us pinned down. The cities at their back will feed them during the siege, while their farmers plant new crops. We might be able to last out the year with the amount of food we have stored, assuming we don't lose too much to rot or rats, but what about the following year? With no planting next summer, and no way to trade this year’s harvest, the council will surrender as soon as they see the season’s profits disappearing.”
He paused and sipped at his drink, which had long since gone cold, and grimaced. “Ankur is far better prepared, but might not choose to withstand a long siege, which would be a wiser course than meeting Amelior in the field. None of us thought Amelior would move this fast, so we made no plans to fortify the passes leading to Ankur. I doubt we could defend the passes without such a fortification; unlike the western passes, they are high but broad, and Belfalas has spent years negotiating with Ankur to keep the passes free of any such impediments to trade. If John fails to get the crops planted, everyone will starve long before the next spring, particularly since no supplies will be forthcoming from Belfalas. On the contrary, Amelior will have all the resources of Belfalas to feed them. So we must return to Ankur with our few men; Amelior already outnumbers Ankur, and John will need all the help he can get. Shameful though it is, our only choice is to return to Ankur and throw Belfalas away. If you remember your geography, you will recall that the only way for them to reach Ankur is through the mountains—oh, I suppose there is always the sea south of the mountains, but Amelior is too far inland to have any nautical resources, so they would have to commandeer ships from the east—difficult at best, even if they can reach the sea, and more likely impossible. Even then, they would have nothing to match Volonor’s navy. If Gareth and I return with our forces intact, the two sides are roughly equal and we can hold them until Volonor can send land troops to support us.”
Alison sat still, eyes downcast and defiance gone. In a small voice, already accepting our argument, she asked a question. “Then when do we leave? Now?”
I answered. “Nope. We wait ’till spring. If it isn’t already sealed, the western pass will be snowbound and impassable in a week. By then, Amelior will either be home or they’ll have been forced to stop and come back here for the winter. We have to stay until we’re sure they’ve made it all the way through the pass, otherwise our whole defense here will have been useless. That’s why we leave next spring, after the snow’s gone from the eastern passes.”
Alison’s head came up. “Next spring? When the snow is gone?”
Bram looked puzzled at the dismay in her voice. “Yes. If we leave at about the same time as they do, we should arrive in Ankur long before they can secure Belfalas and move on. That reminds me, Gareth, we must send a courier before the pass closes to inform John that everything is going as planned.”
Alison rose, interrupting my reply. “But don’t you see, that will never work! The passes leading to Ankur are higher than those leading to Arden.” She looked worried again.
“They won’t be clear of snow until long after the pass to Arden is open. Amelior can even come through the woods, like you said, before the western pass opens. We won’t have any choice... we’ll have to wait here until Amelior comes.”
That suddenly, the floor dropped out from under all our carefully laid plans.
Bram looked like he’d been kicked in the balls, and I could feel the heat in my face that told me I was looking mighty foolish too. I had the feeling future generals would use us as a classic example of missing the forest for the trees, and that wasn’t the sort of fame I’d been hoping for.
So tell me: what do you do when you realize that you’ve just fatally outsmarted yourself?
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Alison was right, of course. Our courier returned less than a week after we sent him with the news that the passes leading to Ankur were blocked tight. I had that sinking feeling in my stomach that told me, sure as death, we had been far too clever for our own good. With no other choice, Gareth and I set about making as certain as we could that we would have a hope of mounting a successful defense come spring.
Thus it came to pass that a few weeks later, I was walking to the walls to inspect the repair work, Alison by my side. I had been walking and exercising as much as I could to rehabilitate my muscles after the wound, and though it was slow and painful work, I was making tangible progress. The walking was the easiest exercise, though, for I had the finest company a man could ask for. This day, absorbed in each other and in the fine early-winter weather, we failed to hear the mob until we entered a ruined square adjacent to the fallen wall and found ourselves amidst a ring of angry, muttering onlookers, loose stones from fallen walls clenched in their fists, faces pinched closed by hatred and fear. Abruptly, as we watched, uncomprehending, stones began to fly at the hunched figure standing at the center of the disturbance in the poor shelter of her cloak. The old woman fell beneath the hail of stones and the cries of witch!
I reacted then, too late, pushing Alison back outside the circle, then running towards the downed woman. As I dragged my sword clear of its cold-stiffened scabbard, my voice rose above the crowd's cursing, bellowing for them to halt. I flung a startled bystander or two from my path and stood, a diminishing flurry of rocks flying past me, a few striking me, flung before their wielders could stop their arms. Brandishing my weapon, I bellowed again for them to stop.
My sudden appearance in the circle, combined with the sight of naked steel, halted some; recognition of my identity halted others; the few remaining stopped when their fellows did, when they ran out of rocks, or when they observed they could no longer take a free shot at the helpless old woman. In the ensuing silence I sought out the angriest eyes in the crowd, met them, and held that gaze until the anger faded or they averted their eyes. The frontmost ranks shrank back. Before I lost the advantage of my sudden appearance, I called for the guards who had stood by until now, not wanting to risk involvement. As armed and armored men began coming forward, the crowd melted away like snow around a bonfire. By the time Alison rejoined me, only guardsmen were left in the square.
I knelt in the bloodstained snow by the crumpled figure, beginning to feel sickened by what lay before me. I called out for a physician even as I leaned forward over the motionless body, half-sure I was already too late. A rattling cough told me I was wrong, at least for a few moments longer. Then, as I rolled the body over onto its back, gentle as I could be and knowing from personal experience how little that meant, dismay stiffened me: the old woman was Grace!
Alison must have heard my gasp of surprise for she fell to her knees beside me, face screwed up in concern. Just then, Grace opened one eye (the other had been smashed by a stone) and looked up calmly. Her voice was weak and distorted by blood, but still recognizable. “Well, Sir Bram. We meet again. And I have something for you.” She pressed something into my gloved hand that I did not take the time to look at.
“Grace,” my voice was hoarse, “you’ll be all right, I’ve sent for a physician. Just lie still... everything will be all right.”
But her eye looked past me, empty as my words, and in its still bright surface I saw the sky mirrored. “Nay, lad, I fear you’re wrong. A long and wicked life has finally caught up with this old witch, and old debts are coming due.” The luster of that eye began to fade. “Curse them!” her voice strengthened for a moment. “Curse them, their ignorance, and their town, and let them know who they slew!” A chill passed over me that was due to more than the presence of death, and Alison drew back, startled. Grace no longer stared at anything, her eyelid beginning to freeze open in the cold air, yet a fragile intensity still held in her voice.
“But not you, my young knight, never you. Bless you... aye, and those you hold dear, even your coarse friend Gareth. Even though you came too late...” With a deeper chill, I noticed that her lips had stopped moving before her voice faded into nothingness.
There was stillness and silence then, the puzzled and worried guards surrounding me but not daring to interrupt my thoughts. I heard a sob from Alison, felt her warmth where she leaned against me. Tears were already freezing on my cheeks as I stood, taking her into my arms as much for my comfort as for hers. The guards came to even more rigid attention, but looked away, knowing something was wrong but not daring to meet my eyes lest it prove to be their fault.
“Sir,” one of them ventured, “what shall we...” His voice trailed off.
He flinched away as I turned towards him and flinched again at the bite in my voice. “See that she is buried at once, with honor, and know you that I shall check to be sure the job was done right. You and your friends can do the work, and since you failed in your duty to guard her in life, you shall spend the next day guarding her in death. Make the arrangements!” They flinched at the lash in my voice. I turned away with Alison, suddenly bone weary and with sorrow overwhelming the anger that had flared in me. But there was something else in the air, something heavy at our backs as we walked away.
At the edge of the square I looked back, turning as if pulled by an invisible hand, and I stopped dead in my tracks, jerking Alison around with me. The hair rose on the nape of my neck, for there, crouching over the body, blue eyes boring deep into mine, stood the wraithlike form of a large cat, transparent enough for me to see through it and apparently unseen by the guards or by Alison. I shuddered and tore my gaze away. When I looked back, the image was gone, and with it, the heaviness in the air.
There was a pain in my free hand from where I had clutched Gracie’s gift so tightly it had dug into my palm, even through my gloves. Forcing my grip to relax, I looked down and saw the familiar shape of the signet ring I had left in the cave in the mountains.
The burial went as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The guards who had stood and watched the murder labored long and hard with their picks and shovels to penetrate deep into the graveyard’s frozen earth, then placed the frozen corpse as gently as they could in the hole. They had straightened Grace’s twisted body before we arrived, and it went all too easily into the grave; to mark the passing of a friend, it should have been more difficult to remove the body from our ken. Afterwards, I set the men to stand as an honor guard over the grave, and left them watching with silent incomprehension as Alison and I walked away; to them, she had been nothing more than a witch, after all.
Only a witch.
I felt that odd emptiness that I always experienced in the presence of dead friends—for such she was, now that I had cause to think of it. No sage of our people had ever claimed to understand where a human life came from or where it went when we died, though many had commented on the strangeness of that lack of opinion given the myriad sophistries that had been evoked for life’s other, less important mysteries. All that remained, at least for me, was a nagging uncertainty and the feeling there should be more than just abandoning our dead flesh to the earth.
Gareth seemed unperturbed by Grace’s death, though he had been subdued for a time after learning of the stoning. Alison stood by me the whole time, sustaining me with her strength. It was well she did, for the weight of many things had descended upon my shoulders, weighing me down as heavily as the last clods of rock-hard earth had weighed on the old witch. There was an inner void that drew at me, leaving me hollow, and without her strength, I might well have fallen into it.
For the past few months, I had once more lived surrounded by death or its possibility, but new friendships, a lover, and my oaths had armored me against that condition. Indeed, I had slipped into the patterns of my youth, and accepted my fate so facilely I was now disturbed by how I had changed. Could whatever happened at Kardmin happen again? The legends told us there were terrible consequences for breaking a bloodoath, and perhaps all that had happened since then was the beginning of my payment of that price. Had my decision to desert been a conscious choice, I doubt I would have had the courage to make it, and in hindsight, it was still not at all clear where I had found strength to do so. Not knowing, I could not be sure it would not happen again at the worst possible moment. The possibility of losing all I had gained these past months was more disturbing than anything else that occupied my thoughts. Hurting for my recent loss, scared in a way I had never been scared before, I clung to what I had—and hoped that grip would suffice.
The remainder of the winter passed uneventfully. Between recovering from my wound, drilling our men, practicing swordplay with Gareth until it no longer hurt to swing my arm, and learning to share ever more of myself with Alison, I drove myself too hard to leave time for introspection. Still, many nights I stayed up late, unable to slip into the easy sleep that claimed Alison, who lay always by my side.
Often, rising to be alone with the inner and outer darkness, there came a feeling of being watched, as if I were not alone in my insomnia. Other times, briskly walking the streets between duties, I backtracked in the hope of catching dimly sensed pursuers before they could conceal themselves, but always I found only my own footprints in the dirty snow. Nonetheless, the days passed, and I began to attribute my restlessness to unease at the imminence of spring and the knowledge I would soon be facing a situation similar to the one I had faced at Kardmin. I prepared myself as best I could to ensure I would avoid the fate of Kardmin's commander.
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The townsfolk claimed spring was coming late, and that didn’t relieve my tensions much at all. Workouts with Bram helped—I’d always thought I was good with a sword, and while he was still recovering from his wound, I could overpower him if I wasn’t worried about killing him or being killed myself. But he taught me what good reallywas. It was as if the part of him I knew went away when that sword came into his hand, and what was left was nothing but cold steel.
After getting ourselves all prepared for a nice long war, though, play-fighting just wasn’t the same thing, and I got more and more restless as the days wore on. One evening, when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I belted on my sword, threw on the most disreputable cloak I could find in the barracks, and went out into the dark streets in search of a real fight.
After a while, I came across a small, smelly place called ‘The Dungeon’, an old town guard hangout judging by the numbers of them hanging around the place. I chose myself a corner table in the shadows after persuading its occupants the view was better elsewhere, and I started drinking. For a while, nobody came too close except the servants—no one sober would’ve approached me unless they were spoiling for a fight, and it was still too early for most of them to be drunk enough to consider it. I drank for most of an hour, the drink having no effect other than to make me depressed, until at long last someone risked coming near.
“Do you mind if we have a seat, brother guardsman?”
The voice belonged to a thin, unhealthy-looking man flanked by someone more nearly my size and just as cocky. I stared them up and down, taking in their worn clothing and the big man’s heavy sword. The situation had possibilities, so I grunted a ‘yes’ and they sat down.
“What would you say if I told you I knew where Ameliorite spies were hiding in this town?” The thin guy leaned across the table, eyes agleam with secret knowledge.
“I’d say you found the right... found someone who could use the information to enrich both of us.” I barely stopped myself from giving away my identity, and the big guy sat a little straighter, watching me closely. “But this isn’t the place to make any deals—too many guardsmen.”
“You have a better location in mind?”
“Yeah.” I fumbled in my pouch and tossed a handful of tarnished coins onto the table. “Okay, follow me.” We left the place, looking back over our shoulders now and again to be sure we weren’t being followed. But it was cold out, and we were alone on the streets.
I headed back towards the palace, sticking to the shadows with my new partners close behind and puffing to keep up. I knew an inn nearby which was pretty discreet, or so I’d guessed by the number of councilmen who adjourned there after meetings for ‘unofficial business’. But I must’ve drunk more than I’d thought, ’cause when I paused to point the place out, the two bastards almost took me out before I knew what was happening. When I heard the unmistakable hiss of steel on leather at my back, I threw myself aside, bouncing hard off the wall, sliding out towards the middle of the alleyway, and going to my knees.
A heavy blade passed by my back, slicing my cloak and scoring the boiled-leather undercoat. I got to my feet, slipping in the slush and hauling out my own sword just in time to meet the bigger man’s rush. I beat his blade aside, sliding around to face him as he skidded past me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other man holding a long, thin blade and waiting for an opening. Aiming a wild cut at the swordsman, I stepped sideways, trying to keep both men in view at the same time.
No good! These two had learned to fight together and knew too well how to fight a single man. The thin guy kept creeping into my blind spot while his buddy did a good job of keeping my sword arm occupied. With the poor footing and my hands slippery and growing numb from the slush that coated them after my fall, I didn’t dare try anything fancy, and the big guy was a good swordsman, even if I was better. If I expected to live and learn from this one, I’d have to even the odds fast.
The big guy was strong, but he didn’t have my speed, so I opened my guard and sidestepped, trusting to my speed to keep me clear. Sure enough, he cut at me as best he could, and I deflected his blade just enough to guide it past my side, opening my leather armor. He sawed his blade at me as my balance wavered, and he drew blood, but he was too extended to cut deep. In that moment, though, his own guard was down and I buried my sword in the side of his chest. He fell, screaming, and his weight pulled the sword from my slushy grip.
Not stopping to free my blade, I twisted aside, knowing that Slim had gotten behind me while I was killing his friend. Sure enough, his blade glanced off the hard leather; he’d have skewered me if I’d waited any longer to get out of the way. I fell to one knee again, off balance, and slewed around as best I could to meet his second rush. He came at me, skidding himself, blade held low with tip upturned in an experienced knife fighter’s stance, leaving me no way to defend against him. Without my cloak to snare his blade, I could only wait for him to come to me, so that’s what I did.
At the last possible instant I hurled my soaked glove at his face and tried to catch his knife arm from the side. Well, I caught it all right... in the ribs. My balance was terrible, and my feet went out from under me as I straightened to meet him. There was a tearing in my side, then I felt warm all over as a foot of tempered steel bit into me. But I somehow managed to catch hold of his arm after all, before he could finish his stroke, and I locked my fingers around his wrist with all the strength of my desperation and pain. Despite the haze growing over my eyes, I tightened my grip until I heard the snap of bone. As we fell together towards the bloody ice, I reached out and caught him by the throat with my free hand.
Twisting, I managed to land on my uninjured side, the only thing that kept the knife from driving deeper, but I almost released him when I hit the ground and the pain hit me. I tightened my grip, began closing his throat despite his thick fur collar. I half-felt blows raining down on my head as his face receded ever further into the growing mist. I no longer felt any pain, a bad sign from what I’ve heard, but I did hold onto enough consciousness to feel something give beneath my grip. My lips twisted in a satisfied grimace, knowing I’d at least take my murderer with me. Funny, the things you think of at times like this. Then even that much feeling went away in a dizzying rush.
“He’s lost a lot of blood, the weapon punctured a lung, and he’s been drinking enough to kill a smaller man. If he were any weaker, I’d send for the gravediggers. This one’s strong as a horse though, and...”
“Do what you can for him.”
I could still hear and now wished that I couldn’t, so I guess I wasn’t dead just yet. With that to ponder, I went away again for a long time.
Something soft and warm brushed my forehead, bringing me back from wherever I’d been. I lay there, gathering those feelings and wondering just where I'd been. Soft sheets, and clean, fresh smells—and one enormous amount of pain—didn’t tell me much. It took a while to convince myself it was worth trying to wake up, but I finally managed to force my eyes open. Only a fraction, mind you, but enough.
Alison was the first thing I saw, brow furrowed. Worried for me? If I’d had the strength, I’d have blushed. Her hand was warm on my forehead and I lay there for a while, savoring the feel. Sadly, I wasn’t in any kind of shape to tell her just how good that hand felt, but I allowed myself the luxury of imagining what I’d do if she ever hinted there was anything more than concern behind those eyes. I watched her for a moment before she noticed me. She gave a little start of surprise, tried to hide her reaction, then smiled a slow smile.
I winked at her—that is, I let one eye fall closed and forced it to reopen—and tried to speak. That took even more effort, and when I finally managed, my voice was so weak I hardly recognized it. The few words I could manage were mumbles I doubt she understood. “... I ever tell you how...”
Her smooth, soft finger fell across my lips, shutting me up as if she’d hit me with a club—my lips felt that heavy. “Don’t talk, Gareth. You’re lucky to be alive, though if you try hard enough I won’t guarantee anything. Then again,” she looked mischievous and seductive at the same time, “that might save us all a lot of trouble. You try to stay here and I’ll go fetch Bram.”
I closed my eyes.
My eyes opened again, but this time it was a stabbing pain in my left side that brought me around. I had to clench my jaw muscles hard to keep from crying out, and my teeth grated together. I held on, unable to move a muscle without the pain building again, but gritted my teeth until my vision cleared and the pain was only intolerable. Bram stood over me, looking like he hadn’t been sleeping so well, so I smiled at him around clenched teeth and the taste of blood in my mouth.
His expression eased. “Idiot! Now I know what you must have gone through when I tried to die on you.” I tried to respond to that but he silenced me with a curt wave and a glare. Trouble with being bedridden is everyone thinks they can walk all over you. “You will no doubt be glad to know,” he continued, anticipating my question, “they are both dead. The two Ameliorite spies, that is, whom we shall graciously assume you were trying to lure into the palace.”
“Who?” I croaked, wincing at the pain which rose up past my clenched jaw.
“The two men who attacked you were Ameliorite spies. You must have thought you were awfully clever trying to bring them in by yourself. The thin one, the one you strangled after he knifed you, carried this.” He held up a tiny gold ring, though I couldn’t focus well enough to see any details. “It is a very good thing indeed that you found them when you did—I doubt they had had a chance to communicate with Richard.”
I grinned with just my lips, baring my clenched teeth. If I told him the truth, he’d laugh at me. Maybe he was doing it anyway. The look of concern returned. “Here, drink this.” He held a mug with frothy green stuff in it to my lips and tilted it back until I was forced to swallow. It was the nastiest stuff I’d ever downed—and that despite some strong competition—but I wasn’t going to give him the pleasure of watching me spit it back up. I swallowed most of the mug.
Bram put the mug away and wiped my chin with a cloth. “Yes, I know how vile it is, they made me drink the same stuff when I had that fever. Willow bark, supposed to be very good for the pain and fever. I imagine you would just as soon take your chances with the pain, but you have already had your chance to be a hero.”
He was right, but the pain did begin to slip away, maybe gathering itself up into the twisted ball of nausea that formed in my gut. Bram must have seen the change in my eyes, ’cause he gripped my shoulder, whispered a good night, and left the room. I don’t remember hearing the door close.
Let’s just say the next week was painful. Did I say painful? Picture a surgeon with a thin slice of rock, carefully dulled, trying to carve his initials on the inside of your chest. That’s close. I couldn’t even take a deep breath without feeling faint. It took me midway through the second week before my strength started to come back, which at least let me talk again. I was even able to sit up by myself after a vat or two of that foul willow bark stuff, though a couple of times I fainted dead away trying, like a courtesan who’d just spotted a mouse in her bed. But I did sit up by myself, shocking Alison when she came in and caught me at it.
Pain and I became real good friends during that time despite the many poisonous brews the town physicians forced me to quaff. By the end of the second week I had nearly gotten my body back under control. I even forced myself to totter around the bed once when no one was around, though I had to lean on the mattress the whole way. By doing that sort of thing as often as I could force my body to move, I managed to shock everyone after another week when I arrived for dinner under my own power instead of waiting for it to be brought. They tried to object and force me back to bed, but my look and the amount of sweat it’d taken me to get that far convinced them to hold their tongues.
Two more weeks and I could hold a sword again, though it was another week before I could swing it. I discovered the muscle damage then... not enough to slow me down much once I recovered, but enough to make it a long time before I recovered. I guess that anything that doesn’t kill me right off just slows me down a little and makes me that much nastier. At least, I hoped it would.
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Gareth was walking again, the snow was beginning to disappear, and an incongruous spring fever had its hold on the townsfolk. I felt it too, accented by Alison’s handful of slush down the back of my neck. Our quiet walk in the still cool streets of Belfalas dissolved into a rough and tumble slush fight. Alison was winning—she fought dirty, and I had to hold back so as not to hurt her—when she gave up and collapsed into one of the few remaining snowdrifts, pulling me down on top of her. It was good she was feeling well enough to play; for many days, she’d been feeling under the weather.
Real life intruded before things got too far out of hand. An ostentatiously cleared throat brought us back to the present, and we looked up to see an embarrassed young orderly standing over us. “Sir, Commander Gareth sent me to find you. He has news of the enemy.” I rose, pulling Alison to her feet and brushing away slush. Subdued, we returned to the palace to find Gareth and Philip waiting for us.
Gareth greeted us in good cheer, though he still looked pale. “Well, aren’t you two the sight! You didn’t have to bathe just for me.” He recoiled, too late, as Alison ran up to him and gave him a big hug, soaking him almost as much as she had soaked me. “Perhaps you’d better go dry yourself, bro’,” he said, returning her hug so hard I heard the breath whoosh from her lungs. “The lady and I will wait here for you, assuming you don’t take too long...” He smiled, but his lips were tight. The wound was still bothering him much more than he cared to admit.
“No thank you,” I responded, rescuing a breathless Alison and trying to hide my concern that my oathbrother’s full strength was still absent despite his vigorous facade. “If you sent someone to seek me out instead of coming yourself, could it have been that important...?” I let my voice trail off on a questioning note.
“Nothing that can’t wait ’till you... we... dry off.” Alison stuck out her tongue, and Philip just stood by, looking put-upon. I sent Alison back to our room, then went with Gareth and Philip to dry off. Alison was still in a playful mood, and there was no telling how long we would be away if I went back to our room with her. We walked in silence, Philip moving slowly enough with his limp that Gareth could rest without us appearing to favor him. We listened to the old veteran briefing us while we toweled ourselves dry and changed into clean robes.
“Our scouts have returned from both the east and west. The passes to Ankur are still clogged tight with snow, but the approaches to Arden are clearing fast. Troop movements have already begun, some towards the south and the woodlands, as we expected. Closer to home, it’s looking like the ice should be out of the river within the month. They’ll be here by then, so we’d best finish our planning soon. Sirs.” We had been talking things over all winter, but other than the inescapable decisions about repairs, provisioning, and such, we had decided little of strategic importance. I pulled on the robes Alison had sent for me, then sent their bearer in search of warm drinks. The drinks arrived only moments ahead of Alison.
“Well, Phil old man,” Gareth mused, “how are we going to do this? Bram and I have tossed ideas back and forth all winter and you’ve just held your tongue. Time you earned your keep.”
Philip looked offended at Gareth’s bantering tone, but he became thoughtful and sat thinking for a time before he replied. “Well, Sirs and Madame, all we have is two choices. We can stay here and die, or we can leave soon and only probably die on the march. I’d just as soon stay here and die fighting, if you’d let me.”
“No good,” I stated. “If we stay here, they will most likely just besiege us and move on to attack Ankur. I doubt we would have any significant effect on the final results.”
“I don’t see why you men are so hasty with your doom and destruction prophecies,” Alison chided. “If you’re so sure we can’t fight here, then let’s leave and go home. It should be simple enough.” Alison looked smug.
Gareth laughed, stopping only when Alison’s smugness became a menacing scowl. “Simple indeed! All we have to do is equip our entire army with magic shoes that let us glide over any depth of snow and sidestep avalanches. Then we soar through the passes and return in triumph to Ankur.”
Alison’s grin widened, but her reply was cut off by Philip’s thoughtful voice. “That’s not such a wild idea as you might think, Sir.”
Alison looked grateful. “Of course not. After all, your scouts must be doing it somehow. If they can, why not us?”
Philip nodded in admiration. “I’m a fool for not thinking of this earlier. Our scouts did manage to get through to spy on Arden, even though couriers weren’t able to move in the mountains. I should have thought of sending those same scouts to bring news to John. I still can. It’s obvious that the scouts know something we don’t.”
I stared at Gareth in silence, dumbstruck by the enormity of that revelation. It seems that we all have a penchant for discovering the hidden and missing the obvious. Gareth’s voice was awed. “Blast it! I knew there was a reason Bram kept you around, Alison. And I, you, Philip.” There was good-natured banter about the unfortunate connotations of that comparison, but it did not stop us from sending for a scout.
“We call them snowshoes, Sirs and Lady.” The scout, one of our ‘mountain men’ from Ankur, stood before us clutching his rabbit-fur cap at his waist with both hands and wringing the life out of it. “You take a frame of wood, lash it into a circle, and spread thongs of leather across it. It spreads your weight out so's you can almost walk atop the deepest drifts.” He stopped, looked more nervous. “Everyone uses them in the woods, but I’ve never heard of a townsman who tried them.” His voice hushed as he realized he might have offended us with that remark.
“Are they difficult to make or use?” asked Alison.
“No ma’am. Takes a few hours to make a usable pair, longer if you want them to last you the season. Takes maybe an hour to learn how to use them. Much easier to make and use than skis, and much safer for beginners.”
“Skis?” I asked. “No, never mind,” I interrupted before he could get started. “We need simple and fast. Get on it, Philip.” The veteran led the relieved scout out of the room.
If enough men went first, we might be able to pack the snow down sufficiently that horses and wagons could follow. If not, maybe we could make snowshoes for them as well. My mind began turning over the possibilities.
On my way to meet with Gareth that evening, I encountered a group of councilmen in the hall. I bade them a curt good evening and made to move on by, but they had been waiting for me and they blocked my way. I frowned my displeasure, being in a hurry and in no mood to deal with their persistent focus on trivialities. They did not give ground, and their chairmen, a fat, red-cheeked old man, returned my frown.
“Good evening, Commander. We'd like to have a few words with you if you could spare us the time.”
“Very well, but only for a moment or two.” Alison was feeling sick again, so I was in a hurry to meet with Gareth and get back to her. “What can I do for you?”
The councilman cleared his throat and looked awkward. “You have begun, it seems, making plans for some action without taking us into consultation. Our... informants have informed us that your men have begun commandeering certain supplies... wood, leather, trail rations.” An uncomfortable pause. “There are rumors, Sir, that you are planning on leaving town, and we had heard nothing of this from yourselves. Naturally, we thought it wise to check with you first before giving these rumors any credence...” His voice trailed off.
“Naturally. I am sure that Philip has arranged for you to be compensated for anything we take.” Too late I realized that my first words should have been a plausible denial of the rumors. There was open suspicion now. “I am just as sure that men of your obvious intellect understand that Belfalas can ill afford another siege, and that we must meet our foe in the field. If you expect any constructive results, that means we must prepare now.”
“Of course, of course. But Sir, the rumors say that you do not plan to meet Amelior at all, and that you will return instead to Ankur.” The councilors avoided meeting my eyes and shuffled their feet. All but one wizened oldster who met my gaze, calm but with speculation in his eyes. I kept my tone light, but his eyes narrowed at once.
“It is unwise to listen to rumors, Councilor.” I had forgotten his name. “Surely you realize that the passes to the east will remain impassable long after the west is open to us?”
“Surely,” replied the one who had met my gaze. Was his name Alfred? “Our apologies for any muddy thinking, Bram.” His voice was harder than the words merited, but he stepped aside and cleared a path for me with outstretched arms. “I bid you a good evening... and good luck with your snowshoes.”
But hostile eyes were on my back as I strode past him, and the silence behind me was no comfort. I quickened my pace.
The next morning, I sat with Alison, Gareth, and Philip after breakfast. A fire crackled in the fireplace, though it dispelled little of the morning’s chill. The palace's quiet, ephemeral as it was, helped to warm me. Conversation was neutral, for we all knew that business would intrude soon enough, and we tacitly agreed to share the peace a little longer.
Someone had other plans.
All at once, the chamber door swung open and eight guardsmen entered in rapid succession. They were followed by the same group of councilors I had met last evening, all with soft faces gone hard and cold. Philip rose to his feet, outrage plain on his face and in his voice. “What is the meaning of this?” he hissed.
“The meaning,” answered the fat man, retreating a step, “is that Lord Albert,” he gestured at the thin old man, “has discovered our generals plotting treason. In consequence of this ill-considered course of action, we're here to arrest you.”
Alison’s cry of indignation was echoed by Philip’s snort of disgust. Gareth rose, grim and with a dangerous smile on his lips. “There’s just one small problem with that.” He held out a hand towards the soldiers. “These men are under our command, isn’t that so, men?” Gareth didn’t look like he believed that, and when swords were drawn at a signal from Albert, he stepped back, nodding as if unsurprised. Alison and I stood. I did not recognize these men, so they were not of Ankur—indeed, in all likelihood they were part of Albert’s personal guard. It belatedly occurred to me we had grown far too comfortable in not posting our own guards outside our quarters.
“It seems not,” Lord Albert replied, voice cool. “I offer you a choice: you can surrender peacefully, or we can resort to more distasteful methods of persuasion.” The guardsmen tightened their grips on their weapons, but their eyes held quiet confidence we would comply. As our own weapons were nowhere in evidence, their confidence was justified.
“Very well.” Gareth’s voice was too controlled, and though I knew what was coming I lacked the time to stop him. As Gareth turned to his chair to collect his cloak, Philip looking on in gape-mouthed astonishment, I took hold of the pitcher of warm drink on the table before me. The guards relaxed, which was a mistake.
With a roar of pain, Gareth straightened up with the heavy oaken chair in his arms and flung it into the midst of the armed men in one smooth motion. Prepared, I echoed his action by heaving the pitcher's contents into the face of the nearest man still standing. I broke the empty jug over his helm as I closed with him, and as his hands went to his stinging eyes, I stooped for his fallen sword. I rose fast, planting my knee in his crotch and stepping back as he fell, doubled over with his mouth in a wide O of astonishment.
In the ensuing confusion, I pushed Alison behind me and retreated. From the corner of my eye, I saw Gareth launch himself at the man before him while Philip hobbled to the fire, where he seized the heavy iron poker and brandished it with surprising vigor, keeping the nearest guard at arm’s length. Gareth struck a guard, driving the man back into the clustered councilors who had jammed in the doorway, trying to escape. One guard lay beneath the chair, blood pooling around him, leaving six guards still standing. Six became five as Gareth’s fist lashed out again and caught his reeling victim.
Gareth ducked beneath a swung blade, but by then my attention was drawn towards the two men advancing on me. I saw Philip, outflanked, falling to his knees as a sword hilt caught him on the head; simultaneously, I stepped forward to parry my first opponent’s blow. Steel crashed on steel, the impact shuddering the length of my arm, then we were corps-a-corps, his momentum bearing me backwards a step. I stomped down hard on his booted foot and disengaged, lashing out at him on the disengage while weaving aside to avoid a more cautious thrust from his partner.
Across the room, Gareth had gone to bay swinging another chair like a club, keeping his own attackers at arm’s length. But I could see that he would be unable to keep that up for long, as his face was graying and his lungs were working like a bellows. I backpedaled to the right, trying to draw the soldiers away from Alison and succeeding. Then I felt a wall at my back and I could retreat no more. The fifth man appeared, closing on a wary Alison, and that forced my hand.
I parried one thrust, driving it aside and into the wall and responding en fleche, desperate to reach Alison in time. I was parried in turn, struck on the side of my head by a sword hilt, and felt my vision dim. Even as my sight began to clear, I felt my sword arm seized. I reacted without thinking, gathering my feet beneath me and throwing my weight in the direction of the pull. As we fell, I twisted atop my assailant, evading his companion’s stroke by less than the sword's breadth. My weapon flew clattering from my grasp and I scrabbled after it, released by my winded foe.
Hand on its hilt, I threw myself aside into the wall, a sword snipping my hair as I collided with the hard stone. My opponent’s thrust continued into the wall, blade bending with the stroke's force and springing from its wielder’s hand as the tempered steel recoiled. This gave me an instant in which to rise and appraise the situation. Gareth still held out, though his hoarse, gasping breaths did not bode well, and I could see blood trickling down his side from his wound. The councilors were nowhere to be seen, having fled to summon assistance. As for Alison, I found myself praising Gareth’s foresight. By the overturned table, Alison stood toe to toe with her assailant, grappling, her slender knife (Gareth’s gift!) buried in the side of her sagging foe.
All this I absorbed during the second or so I was given, even as my reflexes took over and drove me towards the men before me. One retreated, unwilling to fight me without his weapon, but the other was confident his armor gave him what he expected would be the only advantage he needed. We exchanged a swift series of blows before he forced me to give ground, unable to control the fight without any protection of my own and hindered by the ache that had begun to grow in my lance wound. As we fought, his companion recovered a weapon and moved to the attack. I could not risk a full offensive again, and the two men would doubtless have quickly penetrated my defense if help had not arrived at that moment.
A dozen soldiers, drawn by the commotion and the sound of swordplay, burst through the doorway, then fanned out and engaged our opponents. With relief, I recognized them as loyal Ankurites. Nonetheless, I kept my guard up until our opponents realized their situation and surrendered, trusting to our mercy. Within moments, the fight was over and the Belfalasian contingent had been bound and hustled off. Philip, unconscious but breathing deeply, was carried out so the physicians could attend to him.
“Well, bro’,” panted Gareth, drenched in sweat and marked with his own blood but otherwise unhurt, “somebody let something slip.” He reeled, clutching at the table. “Blast it, I think I hurt myself more than they did.”
I nodded, distracted, and hurried to Alison’s side as Gareth began binding his wound with the tablecloth. “Are you all right, Love?”
She looked up, eyes calm and smiling. “Yes, thanks to my sessions with Gareth. Fortunately, he’s a good teacher.”
“Save your thanks for later,” Gareth chuckled, wincing at the renewed pain in his side. “We can discuss what else I can teach you at the same time.” For a moment, he looked at me in a way that made me wonder how much of his words was jest. “Meanwhile, I’ve got me some councilors to catch.” He left, limping but driving the remaining guards out ahead of him and pulling the door shut with a wink. The fight's aftereffects took hold of me and my muscles started trembling with reaction. Alison came into my arms and held me tight.
“I was scared for you,” I whispered when my trembling had abated somewhat. I remembered, unable to block the memories of an older woman who had died because of events I had set in motion. “I thought I might lose you.” She held me tighter, and I waited for her tears. And went on waiting, eventually realizing that she had already accepted and dismissed as unimportant the fact that she had just killed a man. It had affected her far less than it had me, and I felt a sudden conviction I might be the only one in the city who could understand why that mattered.
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With Anders and Philip on the job, it wasn’t long before we had the council members locked away in nice, comfy rooms in the palace. With an honor guard of Ankurites, of course. Then the easy part ended.
How do you explain to an uneasy city that you’re imposing martial law for their own good? I mean actual imprison-or-kill-all-violators martial law, not the military discipline we’d been enforcing up ’til then, kid stuff by comparison. We tried telling them the truth, sort of: the official story was that the council was planning to surrender the city to the Ameliorites as soon as they arrived in exchange for personal favors, and that they’d tried to have us arrested so we couldn’t interfere. But either they didn’t like our story or the older rumors had been running around too long.
Of course, it didn't help that there was also considerable sympathy for the idea of surrender. In any event, things got worse instead of better. In the end, we gave up explaining and proved we intended to have it our way; we doubled the size of our patrols for their own protection, and the dungeons and jail cells began filling up.
Repairs on the walls ground to an almost total halt, though ‘snowshoe’ production was going just fine. I even started thinking they’d be ready in time... and that they’d work as well as Bram hoped. I was left the job of organizing things, ’cause Philip had been sent to bed by the physicians to recover from the blow to his head, and Bram was too distracted—by what, I had no idea. Alison was sick, he’d told me, but maybe there was more to it than that. But if he wasn’t going to talk about it, I couldn’t help much. I pretended to believe it wasn’t important, but I made sure that this time around I’d snap him out of it before Amelior arrived.
By week's end, our scouts reported torrents of meltwater from the western passes. That and the loud groans and pops of shifting ice from the river meant our neighbors were already on the march or soon would be. It also meant we’d have to be rude and leave soon, before they got here. I was sure they’d see the justice in that, but if not, they knew where to go to complain.
Days later—how many I’m not sure, ’cause I lost track when things started heating up—the riot started. Just so we didn’t get bored, there was also a fire and a near rebellion from the Belfalasian guards. Blood flowed on both sides, but like a leech’s treatments, the spilled blood washed away the bad humors. It also sapped our strength. Bram and I split the load as best we could, but we still ended up more and more tired each day. It was worse for my brother, though, ’cause Alison hadn’t yet recovered from her illness and would not see a physician for help. But we survived until no one could keep Philip in bed any more, and that divided the load three ways, making things much more bearable.
The scouts started making noises about the passes being clear; Philip just grumbled about late-spring storms. Bram laughed to cheer us up—or tried to. His failure was more depressing than knowing the snowshoes were ready and that we’d have to trust our lives to them pretty soon. Once I knew that, I went in search of Bram to tell him the good news. I found him up on one of the balconies, wrapped in a huge cloak. He heard my approach and turned to me.
“Evening, bro’. ’Fraid I’ve got some good news.” He waited, but I could see there was something eating at him. Well, he’d talk in time. “Philip says our magic shoes are all ready and that the provisions for our little hike are packed away. That means we’ll be ready to leave in a day or so at most.”
“Marvelous,” he replied, turning away. Down below, a guard called out a challenge, was answered, and silence fell again.
“I need to be alone for a while, Gareth.” He sounded hurting, like being alone was the last thing he needed.
“We are alone. What’s wrong... and none of this gloomy crap you’ve been putting out the last month or so.”
He faced me again, smiling but pain clear in his voice. “Am I being that bad?”
“Only to anyone who has to deal with you. Now stop avoiding the question. Or do I have to beat it out of you?” He relaxed and chuckled more freely, clapping me on the shoulder.
“You win. Besides, if I tell no one, I shall go mad or burst. Maybe both. All right, you asked for it: Alison is pregnant.”
“Beg pardon?” I'd heard him, but it hadn’t registered. It was one of those things you had to hear twice.
“I said ‘Alison is pregnant’. As in ‘with child’. That’s why she has been so withdrawn of late, and why I have been moping about for so long.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, since I couldn't understand why it was a problem. I tried anyway. “That happened to a friend of mine once.” I grinned, sheepish.
“What did he do?”
“Arranged to be transferred to a frontier fort. And here I am!” I got another chuckle before he turned sober again.
“Thanks for the suggestion, but we are already at the frontier fort. What is important is that we get Alison to safety soon. And sadly, that is not possible.”
I tried again to cheer him up. “She’s a tough girl, bro’, she’ll stand up fine to our little trip. Remember how she knifed that guard?”
Bad choice of words.
Bram whirled and slammed his fist down on the railing so hard I winced in sympathy. Then I remembered the other thing that had been bugging him. “What a stupid thing to do! What a stupid, selfish thing to do!” He turned to me again and I could’ve sworn I saw tears of frustration on his cheeks in the moonlight. “Gareth, what can I do?”
His pain was mine, and I reached out to him. Our hands met, clasped, then led us into a strong embrace. If anyone had wandered along then, I’d have killed them without a second thought. But no one came, and after a time Bram pulled away.
“Thanks,” was all he said.
“Hey, what are brothers for?” I muttered. “Now if I might make a suggestion? From all I hear, having a kid’s supposed to be a happy thing. Why don’t you relax and enjoy it. Tell Alison too—she probably thinks you want to kill the thing, judging by the way you’ve been acting.” I put a hand on his shoulder, turned him about, and marched him off to see Alison.
After that, things got much better. Bram was himself again, though he still looked a little ragged around the edges. However, we all did, so I doubt anyone noticed. For a change, everything got done on time and we began our retreat as soon as we'd hoped. We left town, expecting trouble but getting none; I guess the townsfolk were glad to see our backsides by now, and didn’t want to risk antagonizing us any further. The mountains looked snowy even from here, but the men trusted us and the march began with no more than the usual grumbling. It was comforting that many Belfalasian guards had chosen to come with us—most of them out of fear of what Amelior would do to them, but our old units came from loyalty. It was a whole lot less touching to see how many citizens left once we were gone, heading for possible safety in the hills with the farmers.
The first leg of the march went well ’cause the roads were clear of snow, and had been built well to survive the constant passage of farm carts full of crops. We had to detour now and then around some streams and bogs formed from the snowmelt, but we didn’t meet up with anything unexpected and made good time without pushing ourselves harder than we had to. Philip kept muttering about how our luck was sure to change, and I kept telling him to shut up. But the weather stayed nice, and it didn’t look like there’d be any trouble ahead for miles. Things kept right on going well until the moment we reached the snowline and put the scouts’ lessons to the test in real snow for the first time. It wasn’t at all the same as city slush.
A day later, we weren’t much more than a few miles uphill.
Don’t get me wrong—the snowshoes worked just fine once you learned to stop stepping on your own feet and falling on your face. But the snow was deep and wet, and nobody could move any faster than the advance guard who broke trail... and we all got tired faster, since we hadn’t spent the winter trudging about the mountain passes. The awkward wooden frames made walking feel like carrying a packsack between your legs, and it worked muscles no one remembered having worked before. We rotated our front men as soon as they began slowing, Bram and I taking our turn too, but with Bram running back and forth between Alison and the men responsible for keeping the horses and supply wagons on the packed path, it was a wonder we got as far as we did. Simple caution—that and a lack of wood—stopped us from lighting fires that first night, so we were forced to collapse in the snow and huddle together for warmth. The tents had been left behind ’cause they were too heavy to carry, and the joys of eating cold, hard jerky on the snow under the stars are seriously exaggerated.
Morning was interesting. With all the moans and groans coming from the camp you’d have thought it was a field hospital. I was hurting too, especially between the legs—it felt like I’d been riding a horse for about two days straight and my legs were having their revenge. But it wouldn’t do to let the men know, so I got up and went about my morning chores without complaining. My knife wound had hurt more than ever after our little to-do with the guards, and that was harder to keep quiet about. But Bram and Philip were up, bustling about to get things started, and Alison was looking good too, so I had no one to complain to. We got moving almost as well as on the previous day once the sun came up and started warming and drying us.
Day two started well, but only until the avalanche.
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The job of a leader is many things, and keeping up morale is as important as seeing that everything runs smoothly. By minding both responsibilities, I have always kept those who served under me loyal and more content with me than they might otherwise have been. In the present situation, it meant my day was spent shuttling back and forth between the vanguard and the last troops, passing on encouragement and the occasional pat on the back. Periodic visits to Alison kept me on the move, legs pumping up and down with their increasingly heavy and sodden burdens. I was still sore from the previous day, and I would be sore again tomorrow, but I was perforce content with my fatigue; for a change, the cavalry was doing better than the infantry, perhaps because we had spent more time with our legs stretched around the barrel of a horse. Nonetheless, Gareth’s ‘magic shoes’ were conspicuously lacking in any magic other than that necessary to let us keep walking.
I was so exhausted the avalanche was almost over before I realized it was happening. Men farther upslope broke and ran past me, stumbling or even falling to their knees, followed by a wall of wind and blown snow that swept over me. From far up the pass came a rumbling sound, a groaning as if ten thousand cavalry were bearing down on us. The rumble was so deep it resounded in my chest and lungs like the pounding of a second, stronger, heart. I almost shouted for the pikemen before I recognized the sound from the briefings given by our mountain men. By then, only the echoes remained.
I tried to run to the column's head, slipped in the snow and fell forward, got up, and fell again. Cursing my clumsiness, I rose with greater care and set off at a far more sober pace. When I arrived at last, it was to find Gareth leading a squad of men who were using their hands as impromptu shovels in their efforts to uncover those who had been caught in the snowslide. There were signs of chaos everywhere, as if the men at the column's front had broken and tried to run before they were caught and swallowed. Mercifully, we were still low in the pass, so the avalanche's main force was mostly spent before it reached us. If Gareth had let me, I would have joined in the rescue efforts, but instead he urged me to restore discipline and regroup our scattered forces. No one except those at the front of our march had seen the actual avalanche, but everyone had felt its passing and had either run or stood their ground and hoped. There were murmurings of panic, strained muscles and broken limbs in those who had hurt themselves fleeing, and tired imaginations were already working overtime. I set about seeing to the wounded, restoring order, and stopping loose talk before it spread too far.
By the time I returned, Gareth’s job was complete. Perhaps two score bodies lay in the snow, forlorn in their tattered cloaks and misshapen from the mauling they had received. Around them, with wounds of varying severity, lay perhaps twice that number. How many lay still undiscovered beneath the snow I would not let myself contemplate. More distressingly, someone had carefully collected the precious snowshoes from the dead and wounded, since we could proceed no farther without them. Up beyond the slide, men wearing the dead men's equipment, were already picking out as safe a path as possible past the sweep of snow. Gareth and I exchanged grim looks, fatigue evident in every line of our bodies. We had no way to make cairns for the dead, and we could not leave them for the ravens and wolves, so we set about rearranging loads so that both the dead and the badly wounded could ride wagons. After it was done, we set about our march again. I glared about me, but there was no one to blame except myself. Had my fate already begun to catch up with me?
Not far past the newly deposited snowfield, we were forced by fatigue to call a halt.
It was several fatigue-clouded days later that I woke amidst the night’s stillness, nerves tingling and hair risen on the nape of my neck. Alison lay at my side, breathing heavily, and the noises of the sleeping camp around me were muted. But in my mind were fading images of a small, grey cat that had been watching me with patient blue eyes. I looked about me for any telltale marks in the snow, but saw nothing. Relieved, ready to attribute the dream to exhaustion, I forced my eyes closed and tried to sleep again.
I was almost there, buoyed up by fluffy clouds of fatigue, when my perverse mind fastened on something new with which to ward off sleep. My eyes opened once more as my thoughts went back a few days to the avalanche. The men who had died were no longer part of my thoughts, for I had long since learned to forget those who died following me. But even in the final days with Amelior, I had never been comfortable with forgetting those I had killed or who had died in my service, not even if the deaths had been ‘necessary’. It was a burden I accepted, of course, for I would never have survived to the present had all those ghosts continued to ride beside me in my dreams. But less than a year ago I had wandered free, weaponless save for my staff and a knife that was better suited for an eating implement. For that time I had been content with the world, both external and internal, and there were no lives other than my own to worry about. Now, I could be at peace and forget my burden when I was alone with Alison, but that was a small portion of my waking hours, and the burden grew heavy at times.
I was exhausted enough that warm tears welled in my eyes, tears of self-pity for the peace I had attained for such a brief period and for its loss. Survival and expediency were predictable but not comforting reasons for any of it. I fought back the tears, for self-pity is something I had learned to bury during my apprenticeship as a squire. But anger I had never been able to banish, and it took time before I could drive thoughts of Dariel from my head and let sleep take their place.
More days slipped past, and at last our passage eased as we reached the crest of the pass and turned downhill. Though not a man walked easily, practice with the snowshoes and the easier road ahead helped to ease the numbing fatigue and aching stiffness that had plagued us thus far. For some time now we had been out of sight of Belfalas, and I had permitted fires to be lit whenever wood could be collected. As we descended, this became more and more common as we came across clumps of low, twisted woody vegetation projecting above the snow and small trees that had been swept from the heights by wind, snow, or rockfalls. The growing warmth helped too, easing the sniffling of those who had come down with head colds and other minor ailments. For the first time in days, the complaints began to sound more mocking than bitter. I even heard occasional laughter, and felt my own burdens grow lighter.
Not so light, however, as to make me careless. Well before we came in sight of Ankur I sent messengers ahead to carry word of our coming to John. I did not expect to be ambushed within the pass itself, but stranger things have happened in warfare. John was far too intelligent to trust to appearances alone, and especially after our suspicious delay in sending news, he would not allow a column of troops to enter his lands without a better idea of who they were. I intended to give him one, and that turned out to be for the best when we descended from the pass and met the forces John had posted to watch for Amelior.
Below us stretched the fields of Ankur, already turning a pale green with spring’s first flush of growth. Pale though it was, the green washed over me like a balm and I fancied I could smell the good earth from here. But the strongest smell was my own sweat, stale and cloying beneath my furs, and though he was diplomatic enough, the commander I met wrinkled his nose when the wind carried him my scent. The comforting bulk of Ankur squatted below us, reassuring me that all was well. There were already peasants tilling the fields, and that reminded me we were still fighting a war and that further unpleasant duties lay ahead of us.
After exchanging a few words with John’s advance guard, we continued on towards town and a welcome homecoming.
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I’d hoped for at least a warm reception, and a parade would’ve been nice, but John had everything too well organized for that. When Bram and I rode through the gates, most people just looked once then continued with their own business. ‘Hail the conquering heroes’ my ass! But I guess we weren’t heroes to them, or to anyone else either.
A page arrived to escort us to the palace and we left Philip to deal with the details of our arrival. Bram was all ready to get down to the nitty gritty and give our report, but the page had been given strict orders, and enjoyed his brief authority over us: a bath, a warm meal, and only then could we report. Bram looked relieved, and I had to agree with him: brother or not, I hadn’t been too eager to be downwind of him for a while now, and the feeling had to be mutual. Not to mention that nearly anything would taste good after frozen or half-burned jerky, and John set a pretty good table.
But not in wartime, apparently. The meal we got was as tasty as I’d expected, but it was also small. Until we drove Amelior back over the mountains, there wouldn’t be any harvesting and we couldn’t afford to waste anything with a siege soon to come. One more good reason to hope that Amelior got here soon. I shrugged off the page who had been trying to shave and perfume me while I ate, glowered menace at him, and marched off in search of John.
He’d told the page to conduct us to his planning room, but considering how busy John was, I was pleasantly surprised to actually find him there. I started to greet him in the old, familiar way, but choked it off when I saw who else was present. I bit down on my tongue, changed the tired swagger to my best bow, and managed a polite ‘Your Highness’. John, not smiling at all, nodded and pointed to a chair while Princess—or was it Queen now?—Amanda nodded with more grace and offered a tentative smile.
John resumed writing in a large book on his desk while Amanda rose and crossed the room to stand by his side. She smiled again as her hand fell on his shoulder, but she said nothing. I tried not to look too surprised when John absentmindedly covered her hand with his own. I couldn’t quite manage it, so I concentrated on my feet instead.
A few minutes later, John threw down his plume with a look of disgust and rose, stretching until his joints cracked. When he’d finished, a tired grin appeared and he crossed the room to slap me on the shoulder. “Well, Gareth. I see we’ve managed to civilize you, though that beard could use a trim. It’s long enough to give an enemy a pretty good handhold.” He reached out and gave my beard a sharp tug.
I responded with a buffet on the shoulder, careful not to overdo it. John’s not as big as I am, and there’s no gain in embarrassing your leader, friend or otherwise, in front of his woman. “Civilized? Strap on a blade and we’ll see who’s gone soft! Besides, you know as well as I do that no one ever held me long enough to...” my eyes went to the Queen and I changed my words, put off that so many of my friends were getting attached to women you had to be careful around, “... to... well, the beard’s no problem anyway. Do you want me to fill you in on what’s been happening while we wait for Bram?”
Amanda smiled, enjoying my hesitation. John sat down a discreet distance away from the Queen, and told me to go ahead. I did, finishing well before Bram arrived even though I tried to stretch the tale out as long as possible. Amanda listened carefully and asked a few bright questions. Afterwards, we made polite but strained conversation about this and that until a loud giggle from outside announced Alison’s presence. Freshly scrubbed, hair done up in a bun, she swept into the room on Bram’s arm. Still flushed from a private joke, holding possessively onto Bram, she did look mighty nice. Too smug for my taste, but still... Everyone offered polite greetings to everyone else, then Alison crossed over to sit at the Queen’s feet.
John stepped in to fill the silence before it took hold. “Gareth has already told me everything, Bram. The two of you did well—not that I expected otherwise. I’m glad you’re both on our side.” There was good natured laughter all around. “Now let me fill you in. First, as you may have already heard, Her Highness and I are betrothed.” Their hands reached out and joined. Polite congratulations from Bram, though he looked surprised; he knew John was just as much a commoner as I was, and he knew the upper crust wouldn’t have taken that announcement too well. Alison became thoughtful, but before she could catch Bram’s eye, John went on. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that our emissaries have all returned, except for one we sent north to the desert. There was no contact whatsoever with the Elves from the Southwood, other than very clear signs warning intruders away. The Dwarves of Stormhold were almost as difficult to contact, but their answer was as we predicted: I would have had to ransom myself and all Ankur besides to win them to our cause. And last and most disappointing, there’s no word of encouragement as yet from Volonor on the progress of their little war, so it looks like we’re still on our own.”
“Let’s not worry too much,” I put in. “I don’t trust them anyway—I mean, these faery people of yours, not Volonor—and I know our folks wouldn’t either. We’re just avoiding a big problem, especially if the old stories have any truth to them.”
“Gareth! They’re good people, like us. Remember the Sagas?” Alison looked cross. I leered at her, letting her know I was remembering different sagas than the ones she was hinting at, and hoping the Queen wouldn’t catch me at it. Bram spoke up before things got out of hand, casting me a warning look.
“True though that may be, the Sagas tell of another age, not the present one; whatever understanding we may once have had with those who lived here before we came, too much blood has been spilled for there to be any love between our peoples now. The Sagas also have more than their share of cautionary tales about mortals who placed too much trust in the Faery folk, and that despite the fact the stories have been revised and romanticized time and again by the bards who preserved them. We have had too much trouble with bards to give me trust in their words. Let us trust to allies we know and can depend upon.”
“Be that as it may, Bram, we cannot have their aid in any event, so Alison’s point is moot.” John smiled at her, robbing his words of any sting. “There’s still more bad news. According to what Gareth and my own sources have told me, we can be certain there’s no possibility of meeting Amelior in the passes. The risks outweigh any likely gains.” I started to interrupt to tell him how successful we’d been at Belfalas, but he stopped me with a look. He was getting good at that.
“Yes, Gareth, I know that it worked once, but you yourself told me you wouldn’t expect it to work again. Among other things, you didn’t have the spring runoff to contend with. Moreover, whatever your strategic skills, you must concede you had the advantage of surprise and good luck. We can count on neither surprise nor luck this time, and our pass is not so defensible as the one you held. Even were it possible to defend the pass, there are other, lesser passes that give entrance to our land, and we can't defend them all—if we even know all of them. Had we a year to plan, I would attempt a fortification at the summit of the pass, but that must remain nothing more than a dream for now.
"We can’t meet them outside the walls either, much as I’d like to—Bram’s taught me that much. They outnumber us by too large a margin, and they have far more cavalry. I fear that means we must hide behind our walls until they come to dig us out. If they are honorable enough, they may allow our peasants to continue working on this year’s crops—it will be in their interest as much as in ours to have food come next winter.”
Bram nodded his agreement. John went on. “That’s what it boils down to, all right. Sorry, Gareth, but this time we play it safe. If we’re lucky, we can hold them off long enough for Somorrah to surrender and for Volonor to come to our aid. If not... well, didn’t you always say you never intended to die in bed?”
I looked to Bram, who was carefully avoiding meeting Alison’s eyes. She looked at me as I hesitated, then sat back, playing at seeming meek. “I guess not, John.” I cast a predatory grin back at him. “At least, not in the manner you had in mind.” I winked again at Alison, this time not caring if the Queen noticed. “And I don’t intend to die at all if I have any say in the matter.”
Bram added, “Let us hope our bard can accept that."
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