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V (chapters 1 to 8 of 15)
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I had not intended to cast that kind of pall over our first meeting, but the bard Dariel had been preying on my mind ever since that midnight awakening after the avalanche. That dream returned, the same cat watching over me with the ageless bard's eyes. Now, the only thing that could set me at ease was making love with Alison. Ever since I had learned she was pregnant, I had been worried about our intimacy despite her reassurances that everything would be all right. I was eager to believe her, for her warmth gave me the strength to perform my duties. Every night when I returned to our chamber, she made a conscious effort to help me shrug off the day’s cares, and for a time I did.
During that time we drew closer together than ever before and I learned ever more about just how strong she could be. Sometimes strength is concealed in the softest looking places. It must have taken as much strength to support me in my uncertainties as it did to face her own trials.
But though my nights improved, my days grew worse. I became aware of a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, one that waxed ever greater as time passed. I was increasingly certain something bad was drawing nearer, and not just Amelior. Maybe it was my vivid dreams of the cat, the one with the patient look and Dariel’s eyes, who haunted me every morning in the dim state between waking and sleep. Then again, it may have been nothing more than working myself too hard and growing too fatigued to stop old memories from intruding on my dreams.
One night I awoke, sweat beading my brow. The cat had been here, and this time I knew it for a certainty. Silvery moonlight spilled through a crack in the shutters, limning Alison’s peaceful look. It also revealed the fresh blood staining crumpled bedsheets and still welling from the four shallow, parallel cuts on my forearm. Cuts made by the cat's claws that had raked my arm in the dream. The hair on the nape of my neck prickled—this had been no dream, or at least not any type of dream I was familiar with.
I rose from the bed, careful not to disturb Alison, and collected my gear. I dressed silently and made my way, still but half awake, out of our chamber and down the hall to where Gareth slept. My mind played with the odd certainty that something very odd indeed had just happened and that there was more yet to come. Gareth awoke to my touch, dagger in hand before his eyes had finished opening. His voice was still hoarse from sleep, but he was alert.
“Dariel has come to town. Get dressed.”
He cleared his throat and sat up, tossing the sheets aside. “You sure? How do you know?”
“A cat told me. Hurry.” As he dressed, I adjusted the sword I had collected and buckled on without thinking before rushing from my room.
We stood in the palace's shadow, our breath fogging in the cool air. Gareth had been as dubious as the intrigued guards who passed us through the night gate, but that changed when he felt the too-quiet night; that quickly, he shared my feeling that something was awry. A city is never that silent, with not even a love-struck cat yowling at the moon. I closed my eyes, concentrating on that presence at the back of my mind.
“Well, bro’, where to now?”
“Hush!” He frowned, but I concentrated harder, trying to find a clue or a direction, like a dowser seeking water. I knew I had succeeded only when my feet half-moved of their own volition. I opened my eyes and started off in that direction, towards the north gate, knowing now where I had to go. It was as if I were still dreaming, yet half awake and half aware of myself and what I was doing. After we had walked for a time, Gareth’s voice broke through the night's eerie stillness.
“You’re sure you’re not just dreaming?”
“I would stake my life on it.” I pulled back my sleeve and showed him the fresh wounds.
He whistled. “If you’re that sure, should we really be leaving the palace? I mean, if our friend passes us in the streets—or worse yet, doesn’t—who’s going to warn John? He’s more important now than both of us combined.”
I stopped in my tracks. Gareth’s affectation of simpleness makes me forget just how smart he can be. “Blast! I wager you are right.” Pause. “No, you are right. Get back home and warn John and I shall try to head off Dariel.” I moved without giving him time to argue, and he was worried enough not to object. His footsteps receded in the distance—and it disturbed me he still hadn't healed well enough to run.
In the meantime, that distraction had cost me my sense of direction. Again I closed my eyes and concentrated. This time, the harder I tried, the farther I grew from an answer, until I forced myself to relax, and all at once, the feeling returned, stronger than ever. Several seconds passed before a sound reached my heightened perceptions and my eyes snapped open. Somewhere close, the crystalline ring of a harp sounded, vibrating on the dense night air. Again I set off into the dark, now with sword drawn and held ready in case of sudden need. For the first time in months, the fear I would need to use it was gone.
The harp’s music waxed as I drew nearer, weaving in and out of the night’s tapestry, poignant as the pale moonlight and bearing that familiar undertone of ancient melancholy. So well did those notes blend with the night I was upon him before my eyes picked him out from the concealing shadows. He turned towards me, fingers still rippling in complex patterns across the silvery strings, then the music trailed off, fading away like a sob of anguish. Far off, several dogs began to howl.
“Good evening, Bram. I trust you're well?”
“Well enough, Dariel—but here to see my loved ones and I remain well.”
“Yes,” he murmured, voice gentler than the moonlight. “You worry about your wife and child. And so you should.”
I could not let myself pause to think how he might have known that. “I did not come to hear that from you.” I tightened my grip on my sword. “Will you come with me peacefully?”
“Bram,” he chided. “Think a moment.”
“I have thought more than enough already.” I raised my sword, gathering myself to lunge for him and hoping he would not notice.
“Please,” he pleaded. “Try to think with your mind, not your fear. I have already finished my enchantment. You are too late once again.” There was a note of pride in his voice, but mingled with the familiar sadness. Against my will, I did pause, sword point sinking. I remembered previous encounters with Dariel and understood the truth of his words: always before, disaster struck soon after he had finished playing. I shuddered and prayed Gareth would arrive at the palace in time to prevent whatever was to happen this night, if indeed it could be prevented once the spell was cast. My vision cleared and he still stood before me, fingers drifting away from his instrument.
“Why?” I demanded. “Why the music, the harp, yourself?”
“Your ignorance of magic would prevent you from understanding the why,” he replied. “But perhaps you would not be too far from the truth if you think of me as another’s focus, one who acts to shape the song's direction and introduce new... instruments... or voices at the appropriate time. The harp and what it creates are my own focus, the force through which I fulfill my role.” His eyes rose to the heavens for a moment, gone sightless in this world but seeing in another. “My role in events is my glory, but it is also my despair. I can't expect you to understand, nor forgive.” His eyes turned back to me from whatever he had been gazing upon.
“I almost do understand, but I cannot let that stop me. Here and now, you must cease interfering with our lives, whatever your purpose.” I gauged the distance between us and judged I could reach him if I lunged. But I had failed to notice his hands return to his harp, and he was ready for me. His fingers brushed against the strings, conjuring a melody that echoed in my heart and expanded in my mind until there was room for naught else. I felt myself falling, knowing even as I struck the pavement he was already gone.
The grey cat had returned to my dreams, crouched in the moonlit alley. A figure lay sprawled before it while a second figure approached, slipping through the shadows by the foot of a wall. Silent as a scudding cloud, the figure flowed out into the alley. Moonlight—or was it the rising sun?—glinted on a dagger and the thief’s heartbeat sounded loud in my ears. The thief gracefully snaked a foot forward to prod the body, dagger held ready for a quick thrust should the body move. Just then, the cat emerged from its own patch of shadow, and the thief halted, eyes widening, and foot stopping in mid-prod. Then he turned and fled, as noisy in leaving as he had been quiet in his approach. I heard his heartbeat fade in the distance.
The cat crouched by the body, which I recognized with a sudden chill as my own. It stared at me and began speaking in the voice of an old woman. But the uncanny keenness of my senses had departed, and I could distinguish nothing it said. Frustrated, the cat/woman spoke one more time, then changed tactics. Needle-sharp claws appeared, a paw slashed... and I awoke, blood welling from fresh wounds on my hand, dawn’s pale light lancing at my eyes. I struggled to rise, my whole body stiffened by a cold night in the open. I succeeded in sitting up, more than half propped against the wall beside me. Using the wall for support, and my dewy sword as a cane, I got my feet back beneath me.
Then I set off at the best pace I could manage, hobbling towards the palace.
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I met the challenge from the guards with a wordless bellow. Hoarse though I was from moving as fast as my wound allowed, they recognized me. One man stepped aside as I burst through the gateway, the other spun off my shoulder, calling out in alarm even as he fell. Lights flared ahead of me as lanterns were unshuttered, and I heard running feet. My pace didn’t slacken and I jogged past the newcomers, who had the presence of mind to stand aside.
“Commander Gareth, what’s...”
I kept on, breathing hard now, and slowed to take the stairs. Behind me, the commotion began dying down and I slowed to a halt, out of breath. No sense killing myself and waking the whole household for what could still be just a false alarm—after all, the guards were clearly alert and would’ve spotted anything odd. I moved on as quietly as my ragged breathing allowed, and approached the guard who sat by John’s door, head slumped on his chest. I started revising my opinion of the guards as I went down on one knee to slap him awake, puffing loud enough to wake the dead, ready to chew him out for falling asleep on watch.
But men don’t sleep with their eyes open. I felt for a pulse, not expecting to find one, and I wasn’t wrong. As I pulled my hand away from his throat, which was still warm, my sleeve snagged on something. I bent forward again and my fingers brushed a small object studded with bristles. I pushed aside the dead man’s shirt and pulled out a tiny dart that still clung to his throat. I brought it up to my nose, smelled an acrid and unfamiliar scent. Poison.
I stuck it back in the guard’s neck and rose, drawing my dagger—he wouldn’t be feeling any pain, and I didn’t want anyone else to stick himself.
John’s door was unlocked—a bad sign. Stooping low, I pushed it open and slipped inside. By the foot of the bed, a body lay slumped, breathing with far too much effort. Then, a sixth sense from a lifetime’s worth of brawls warned me and I looked up. By the window, a shadow stirred, and a man with a short tube held to his mouth stepped into view. I didn’t wait any longer, throwing myself aside and raising an arm to cover my face.
I heard a hiss of expelled breath and something small smacked my arm. Meantime, the table I’d struck toppled to the carpeted floor, glasses shattering beneath me. The shutters slammed open, and alarmed voices came from the hall, but I was already rising, dagger still in hand. The assassin leapt through the open shutters even as I cocked my arm for the throw. I didn’t have as much time as I’d have liked, but years of practice let me throw straight despite my haste.
The dagger spun in the moonlight and chunked into the man’s back. He made no sound, but missed his footing and fell past the ledge, crashing to the courtyard below before I’d reached the window. I thrust my head through, hoping to see him. The light was good enough to reveal him struggling to rise, then succeeding by the skin of his teeth. He hesitated, clearly hurting.
There was a footstool by the window, and after a look at the drop below me, I reconsidered my first impulse and instead seized the stool and flung it at him. It missed, and not daring to let him escape, I made myself follow. But I still had the presence of mind to lower myself first, hanging from my fingers before pushing off.
On the way down I had time to reflect how I'd done smarter things before. But a dozen feet or so isn’t far to fall if you’ve got something soft to land on—after all, the assassin had survived, and he had a knife in his back. I didn’t miss. He wasn't moving much when I hit him, and he certainly wasn’t moving after. I collapsed when I hit, sprawling backward and rolling over and over across the ground. The fall winded me, of course, and gave me a nice set of bruises, but nothing was broken. Except him, of course.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t going to be talking to anyone about his employers, or anything else for that matter.
John was still alive when the court physicians got to him, and they must have been much used to this type of thing ’cause they already had him conscious again. You can assume what you want about court life in Ankur; me, I made a point of remembering that. Something had saved him, maybe just the native toughness you get from a lifetime in the military. Me? My thick cloak had saved me. In fact, the assassin and the guard he’d killed were the only ones we hadn’t saved. John, pale and weak but mostly just glad to be alive, took the matter in stride. I guess he had what it took to be royalty, but it was more than I’d have been able to do; I don’t have any problem with sharp things, but poisons give me the willies.
Alison was the most disturbed of everyone. Not for John, mind you. It must have been quite the shock to wake up and find the castle in an uproar and no sign of Bram anywhere. And speaking of Bram, it was time I told Alison where he was and went looking for him. Just in case he’d been unlucky and found the bard. I pushed through the crowd.
“Have the palace searched.” John’s voice was weak, but his color was already coming back, and despite protests from all sides, he was sitting up. “I doubt our visitor was alone.”
I agreed, having already given the order, but didn’t bother to point this out. I managed to reach Alison, put a hand on her shoulder, and guided her firmly away from the terrified Queen and out the door. She was worried, and though her voice was calm, it showed.
“Gareth, where is he?” Her voice was still under control, but she bit her lip and her two hands clenched tight.
“Already worried about other women, huh?” She didn’t laugh like I’d wanted her to, so I tried again. “Don’t worry, he’s fine.” That didn’t work either, and she poked me hard in the gut, angry now. The poke hurt enough for me to reconsider whether I’d broken anything in my fall. At least she’d forgotten to be scared for the moment.
“I thought you'd decided to trust me, Gareth. Remember our agreement back in Belfalas? Now please, the truth.”
She still didn’t like being coddled, or didn’t think she did, and I was going to have to do a little better this time. Woman or not, she was strong and didn’t always need—or want—my protection. Besides, she was a friend and deserved the truth, even though it felt odd confiding in a woman. I thought for a moment.
“Stop stalling Gareth, or I’ll belt you again. I’m not going to let you sneak away without talking.” She tried a brave little smile that wouldn’t have persuaded anyone, let alone someone who knew her.
“All right, all right—just don’t tell him I told you. He thinks our friend the bard is back in town and he went looking for him. He sent me back to look after you and John.” That was near enough to true that I could say it with a straight face, and really, it was all she needed to know just then—anything more and she’d be as worried as I was starting to be.
“He went looking for Dariel alone? Gareth, how could you let him?”
Blast it! Trust a woman to twist everything around on you.
I tried to think my way out of the corner I’d talked myself into, and came up with a good first effort. “Didn’t have much choice. He was the only one who could find the bard, and he sent me back for a good reason. To look after you.” Alison had started to tremble, but she perked up; this time the lie had worked a little better. I put an arm around her thin shoulders, but she shrugged it off. I waited a moment and tried again. This time I held on until she threw both arms around me and held on tight. After my fall, it hurt a lot, but it also felt good. I waited for the inevitable tears, but they never started.
“Gareth, I’m sorry. That wasn’t fair.” She let go of me, still talking in a low voice. “I know you love him as much as I do and you wouldn’t have left him if you’d been seriously worried. Thanks for coming back.”
Love? In a way, I suppose she was right. Better than the average friendship, anyway. I let the comment slide for the moment and escorted her back to their room. By the time I’d left her there, she’d cost me my confidence. Bram had done the right thing, but the wrong way: he should have told me where to look and come back himself. And if he didn’t, friendship or no, it would be a long while before I could face Alison again.
Not knowing where to look for Bram, I went off to join in the assassin hunt.
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By the time I returned to the palace, the only part of me that still hurt was my pride. Dariel had made a fool of me yet again. Well, not quite. The calm bustle of palace activity told me John was still alive, and that no one else of any importance had died in his place. Had it been otherwise, the ‘secret’ would have been clear on the faces of the guards. I took a smart salute from the morning watch, returned it, and went to report to John.
Philip was just leaving as I arrived. He closed the door, began turning away, then did a double take when he saw me.
“Sir! Bram! Where have you been? You look terrible, no offence Sir, and everyone was worried half to death you might have been hurt.” He looked an accusation at me.
“How is John?” I replied in a hurry, not wanting to explain my disappearance just yet. There was much I still could not explain even to myself.
“Fine. Oh, a little weak, but he’ll be back on his feet soon.” I tensed up at the news, relaxed again when Philip went on. “He was poisoned, but Gareth caught one assassin before he could finish the job, and we turned the palace inside out until we found the other.”
I released the breath I had been holding in. “Good. And Gareth?”
“Also fine, though I doubt he’ll be doing much walking today.” Philip beamed. “He jumped out the window to catch the escaping assassin, then spent the night with us looking for the other. He’s asleep now.”
“I might have known.” Another sigh of relief. “Well please inform John... and Gareth, when he wakes up... that I have returned, albeit without my quarry. I believe I need some sleep myself.” Ignoring his puzzled look, I turned on my heel and strode as quickly for my quarters as my abused muscles permitted.
I entered our room and found Alison asleep in the big stuffed chair by the window. Soft morning light made a halo of her hair, framing her in golden beauty. Her face looked puffy, though from lack of sleep rather than crying. I felt a twinge of sympathy, not to mention guilt, and resolved not to do that to her again—and for a few moments, I believed I might honor that resolve. I unbuckled my sword belt and started undressing, not wanting to wake her.
The chink of my sword on the stone floor woke her. Her eyes flew open, alarmed, then her entire face transformed with relief when she saw me. In a second she was in my arms, holding me tight enough to coax a twinge from my ribs. I hugged her back, running my fingers through her soft hair and soothing her.
“I thought you weren’t coming back this time.” Her voice was accusing.
“What? And leave you to that old lecher, Gareth?” I kissed her forehead, then the tip of her nose, then tilted her head back and kissed her more thoroughly. An indeterminate time later, she pulled back.
“That’s not funny,” she stated, pouting. Then she ruined the effect by laughing contentedly and hugging me again. “Besides,” she added playfully, “he’s not all that old.”
I chuckled and kissed her again. “Have I told you often enough how you keep me sane?” I paused, pondered, then added something I had never before confessed to her—or to myself, for that matter. “In truth, had you not been here for me, I would in all likelihood have kept moving east. You have given me someone and something to fight for.” Saying it eased a weight I had carried for so long its disappearance surprised me.
She hesitated a moment, weighing what I had said. For a moment, it seemed she found my words wanting, but only for a moment. “Let’s leave, then. We could still go east together, leave Gareth and John to fight the war. We could stay with my family in Volonor.”
“You tempt me, Milady, but we know each other better than that. I must stay here to be with Gareth and to know I have done my best to keep you safe. If we run, we are doing nothing more than postponing the inevitable. Now we at least have a good chance of ending things in our favor. And there is my oath to John.”
She shuddered in my arms. “I know. But I can always dream.” She looked up, frowning. “Did I tell you how terrible you look?”
“You try sleeping in the gutter all night and see what it does for you!” She looked worried again, so I continued before that thought could alarm her further. “Never mind, it was nothing so serious as you might think. I met Dariel again, we talked, and he put me to sleep, not that he chose the most restful place.” I neglected to mention the incident with the cat, for there was witchcraft involved—that much, at least, I understood—and mentioning that would in no way relieve her. Alison relaxed. “Speaking of which, you look like you could use rest yourself.” I lifted her into my arms and moved toward the bed.
A mischievous look appeared. “Rest, is it? You men have the minds of children, and rest isn’t what you’re thinking of I’ll wager!”
Her assessment was wrong, but I was prepared to leave that belief unchallenged in the interests of domestic harmony.
It was a day or so later and Gareth and I sat around John’s bed, discussing strategy. John was in high spirits, having just received an extended visit from Amanda, but he was still weak and had been restrained ‘by Royal command’.
“The real problem,” he proclaimed, “is that I’m not sure whether the attempt on my life was by Amelior or by one of our own nobility who can’t accept the idea of a commoner marrying into the royal family, or who can accept it all too well and considers me his competition.”
“I guess we shall have to give Gareth a lesson or two in capturing spies and such and keeping them alive long enough to be questioned. This is the second time he killed a valuable source of information.” Gareth looked chagrined, and turned his eyes towards the cane that lay across his lap. “But is the problem as serious as you are implying?” I could see how it might be.
“Just ask Gareth. I’ve had to keep a tight grip on the leashes of my command to prevent them from rounding up the entire nobility for ‘questioning’. I think I’ll never again hear so many falsehoods at a single time as when they all came parading through this room expressing their concern for my well-being.”
“Not true!” protested Gareth. “At least one of them looked sincere. Besides, they should have been questioned. Teach the bastards respect for authority.” He glared around the room, then poured himself more wine. He moved like he had done after his knifing, and I could see signs his ribs had been bound, something he would never admit to.
“Even Volonor’s not pleased with my wedding plans. Don’t look so surprised, Bram, their messenger arrived while you were sleeping and I didn’t choose to disturb you.” He sipped at his milk and pursed his lips in distaste, the doctors having given dire warnings about the consequences of drinking anything alcoholic with the remnants of the poison still in his system. “We're fortunate they’re not as rigid about such things as your former countrymen, and they’re not going to walk out on us. King Gordon tells us he’s pretty much done with Somorrah and that negotiations should begin any day now. Of course, considering how Somorrah organizes her affairs, he prefers to keep his army close to hand until things settle down and loyalists can be placed in power.”
“Negotiations? Do you mean that Volonor intends to leave suspected traitors in positions of power? That makes no sense!”
“Sure it does, bro’. If you kill off all the suspects, you just get their followers mad at you, and make the others more cautious. Presto! Civil war, even if not right away.”
I should have seen that too. “I did not mean to imply they should be killed outright. You could...”
“Gareth is correct, however.” John drained the last of his milk and threw the goblet across the room. “By leaving things as they were, King Gordon keeps all the conspirators in plain view, where they can be watched easily—and dealt with, should their merciful treatment render them overconfident or incautious. Just as important, this saves face for all concerned and avoids the necessity of slaying or exiling people who are related to Volonor’s royalty by ties of blood.”
“Besides,” Gareth grinned in triumph, “this isn’t Amelior, you know. You can’t just run around butchering anyone who steps out of line.” I raised my glass in sardonic salute and he reached across the bed to refill it.
“If you two are quite finished? Good! The important thing is this: we finally have a future to look forward to. If we can hold on for less than a month, Volonor will be here and we’ll push those bloody empire builders back across the mountains. Or further,” John speculated, something showing for a moment in his eyes.
“That remains a rather big if, John.”
“So were our plans for Belfalas, if you’ll recall.”
“But that’s all the easy stuff,” interjected Gareth. “The really tough job, the one that scares me, is trying to sell this rogue to his future subjects.” Gareth tried to look worried and failed.
“No easy task, that,” chimed in John, laughing ruefully. We joined him, knowing full well we would have to grow serious again soon enough. For now, it was nice to relax, secure in the knowledge we would survive the next few months after all if court squabbles were the worst we had to deal with.
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By the time John was back on his feet, Bram and I’d gone back to drilling our men. Spring was bad for that ’cause of the frequent rain, not to mention the fact the season had us all randy as billygoats. My blonde friend and her sisters down in the red lantern district were always eager to please, but I didn’t need to spend much time there. A successful commander in Ankur’s army didn’t have to work hard at all to catch the attention of the court lovelies. The troops had their own consolations: whoring, drinking, gambling, and brawling. Besides, as I kept telling them, drilling in the rain was easier than bathing.
No, all in all, I suppose ‘bad’ wasn’t really the way to describe things.
Bram was holding up well despite Alison’s condition. She was several months gone by now, and starting to get fat. I had fun reminding her, and she enjoyed snapping at me. The only thing bothering me was that Bram must have been getting pretty itchy by then, things being what they were. I tried to get him fixed up with a few of my friends at court, just to remind him there were options close at hand for a man in his position, but he turned me down, polite as you please. So I didn’t press him too hard—I’d done my duty as a friend and he knew where to come for help. Not that he’d need any; he’d also been in charge of the Belfalas campaign, and the court lovelies were well aware of it.
More time went by and everyone started developing a whole new sort of itch. When Philip had his back turned one day, I rode out with the scouts, hoping for a sight of Amelior but not seeing anything. Even though we knew enemy scouts were already out there. Finally, about a half month after Volonor’s messenger, we spotted a large number of cookfires high up the pass, bold as brass. Fair enough, when you thought about it. They knew our position as well as we did and they knew we wouldn’t go meet them. So why be so cautious you caught your death of cold? We tried twice to raid them, just to let them know we were waiting, but they’d learned their lesson and had plenty of patrols out to intercept us—we never got close enough to do any damage, and now we knew we weren’t going to either. When it became obvious we had no more time, we pulled in all civilians who were willing to abandon their property.
When their whole army marched down from the hills, it was a sight to make your knees weak. Over five thousand strong, and well-disciplined right down to their levees, they stopped at a respectful distance from our walls. I’d heard tales of such a force in the sagas, but knowing the number hadn’t prepared me for the sight; it was like seeing a city on the move. I watched them set up camp, quick and professional given the amount of practice they’d had. I started wishing we’d met them in the mountains, where their numbers wouldn’t have given them such an advantage. But the passes were too dangerous, and besides, it was too late now.
Predictably enough, they sent messengers to offer us terms, and John cut them off before they could go into detail. They weren’t much happy about that, but they weren’t stupid either. They stayed around long enough to accept John’s proposal that we let the farmers and various other civilians leave town and begin farming again. After all, he pointed out, no matter which side won, there would still be a need for a full harvest if we expected to avoid a famine. Mind you, they just about strip-searched everyone who left to make sure no weapons were being carried out, and they didn’t let anyone leave without taking a good supply of food. No sense in leaving us with too many rations for the upcoming siege. It took almost a week—as long as we dared—to get everyone we didn’t need out of the city, and afterwards we closed the gates for good. What they didn’t know for sure, but probably suspected, was that we weren’t just being practical; by taking our time, we’d also gained a week for Volonor.
Sadly, they weren’t stupid enough to rush us once the gates closed. In their position I might have been tempted to storm the walls, but it wouldn’t have been smart. Ankur wasn’t Belfalas, and had been designed to be defended. Instead, they sat back and finished building the siege engines they’d carried with them. Considering our defenses and state of readiness, it was the right way to get the job done. But it bothered me just the same, ’cause it meant that they’d stand off a ways, punch holes in our walls, then ride right in like they’d done at Kardmin. They knew we weren’t going to come out to discourage them, and they knew we wouldn’t starve soon enough for their taste, so it was good common sense to keep us at arm’s length and apply gentle persuasion. What was most worrying, ’cause of what it told us about their spies, was that they sent patrols northward in the direction of Somorrah, not Volonor.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, the town ‘nobility’—if you’ll excuse the phrase—were getting more and more uppity about just about everything... our tactics, John’s marriage plans, you name it. They liked the Queen well enough, and obeyed her if she put her foot down, but she was a woman and no one was willing to entrust such important affairs to her if they could avoid it. Even telling them the marriage was necessary to unite the army and the nobility under the same person did nothing to shut them up; they just pointed out that the idea was correct, but we’d chosen the wrong groom. There were plenty of qualified volunteers for the position.
John was smart enough to play them off against each other so he could keep his problems manageable. It appeared he’d learned a thing or two since the last time we’d marched together. With a large, hostile army camped just outside our walls, he still managed to keep the townsfolk behind him. When he was sure the mood was right, he announced the betrothal. To say that the reaction was positive was like claiming Alison was just a little bit pregnant. It wasn’t so hard to see why. Picture yourself as the common slob, watching a faery tale from the sagas being played out for your benefit: a commoner just as unwashed as yourself, marrying so far above his station he’d once have laughed in the face of any bard bold enough to tell such a story. Since the alternative was letting one of the envied and hated nobility be king again, the ones with the soft hands who always had plenty of food and money, well...
Maybe the people weren’t quite as tradition-bound as we’d been led to believe—they chose the faery tale.
John was married two days later, and apart from grumbling among the servants that the wedding should have been conducted before the farmers left, no one criticized too loudly. The proceedings were short and sweet, John dressed in simple soldier’s garb and Amanda in an elegant green gown, embroidered in what must have been her own weight of gold and silver stitching. Hand in hand, they jumped across his sword, then turned and raised their joined hands to the assembled townsfolk. I turned to Bram, and he must have seen something in my eyes, 'cause he elbowed me in the ribs, a mite too prim and proper considering his own guilty past. Alison was there too, of course, and she kept Bram busy ignoring her increasingly blunt hints. The only drawback to the whole affair, far as I could see, was that no one could get as drunk as the situation demanded, not with Amelior waiting to hammer us at the first sign of weakness.
Two friends lost to marriage—one who didn’t know it yet—and here I was, forced to stay sober!
I consoled myself knowing Amelior would be wondering about the cheerful noises that drifted out to them over the walls.
Next night, they seized the opportunity to take us down a few pegs, and we woke after midnight to the alarm bells. As I ran to the walls, Bram and John and the other commanders coming on the run from all directions, we could already see the first smoke where firebombs had arched over our walls in the dark to hit flammable, but unimportant parts of the city. These were followed by a solid barrage of rocks drumming endlessly on our walls and every now and then, when someone got a mite too enthusiastic, on the town itself. All we could do was sit tight, fight fires, and repair what we could, which wasn’t much; they wanted the town intact, and were taking care to see they got it. We took longer than I liked to organize an effective response, the fear of invisible rocks dropping onto your head while you carried water making everyone move slower than we needed them to move.
It took most of the night, what with stopping a midnight panic, organizing a bucket brigade of civilians, maintaining wall security by capturing a few climbers, and trying to keep most of our troops rested.
We coped as best we could, which was not well at first. Morale had been high after the wedding, but it started dropping as steadily as Amelior’s rocks. There were sure busting someone's back keeping the catapults supplied! I gave up trying to explain things to merchants with smashed stores or houses and referred them to John. He had the staff to cope, the rank to pull, and more important, I was too busy to hold their hands like they wanted.
I started looking forward to the day when the walls came tumbling down around us and we’d be forced to fight men instead of rocks and fires.
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Now that Amelior was here and we no longer had anywhere to retreat to, a fey mood possessed me. Though the earlier battles of this war had been real enough at the time, they had become increasingly dreamlike with the passage of time. The siege's first night was all too real, but more like a fever dream. Down below the walls, by the siege engines, roaring bonfires lit the night, dancing like wraiths. In and out of the misshapen, looming siege engines, small figures capered, dancing about their preparations. Distance distorted them into vaguely human shapes, almost like the Goblins I had fought for so many years. They were unrecognizable and inhuman when they silently released each new projectile. Fireballs traced a sputtering red trail across the sky like ill-omened and hateful comets until at last, soaring overhead in a rush of sparks and fumes, they passed beyond us to crash to earth somewhere in town. Whoever was directing their fire had studied with masters; his scouts had identified the precise targets in town that would cause us to use up the most resources in containing the fires, while doing the minimum damage to resources they would need after the siege.
For those of us who guarded the walls against more human foes, it was no great feat to follow these brimstone missiles inward and to be elsewhere when one landed on the walls or passed close overhead. For those who labored below, darting in and out of the fires with buckets of water or sand, there was no time to watch the sky; there was only luck, good or bad. Although most newer parts of Ankur were of stone, and did not burn, the oldest parts of town had been built of wood that burned well when it was struck. And where the fireballs struck stone instead, flaming debris from each impact scoured the surrounds for quite a distance and cost us more lives than the fires themselves. And there were the few direct hits from fireballs that left horror in their wake and little that was recognizable as human.
At first, I felt fortunate to be atop the walls rather than down in the city, but I knew this feeling would not last long, for not all missiles would be intended to carry fire into the city's heart. The walls themselves were too important a target to be ignored, and soon enough, the rocks began falling on a portion of the walls we had expected to be the site of their attempted breach. The rocks were every bit as bad for us as the fireballs were for those down below, for they could not be avoided. Each time a muffled thump came from the enemy camp, we waited, knowing what was coming, heralded by the whistle of displaced air rushing, invisible, ever closer towards us. We crouched behind the sheltering stone, muscles taut and every nerve straining to pierce the darkness as the whistle rose in volume, coming ever nearer, foretelling of that inanimate hunger for impact. Then a distant crash—or, worse yet, a not-so-distant crash—announced that we had not been chosen as the next victim. This time. Icy sweat would drench us, and the cycle would repeat.
The flames that burned in wooden structures beneath the walls also silhouetted us and made us better targets for other missiles. Amelior's snipers, having drawn close to the walls, lay in wait for those whose duty forced them to peer over the walls in search of climbers or to monitor the enemy’s preparations. Each time you peered outward, you knew there was the chance you would hear nothing until a crossbow bolt buried itself in an exposed part of your body, the bowstring's echo still ringing in your ears.
The occasional shrieks from those struck by snipers, rocks, or the shrapnel from rocks that shattered under the impact bore ready witness to the fate that awaited each of us. It was a constant reminder that eroded our nerves as time passed, and the strain began to show on every face. So we tried to disperse our troops, to keep moving those few clusters of men required to defend the walls, and to rotate men back into the city as often as possible, but even so, the rocks and the snipers took a heavy toll of our morale.
Late that first night, with parts of Ankur wreathed in choking smoke, the fireballs stopped flying. I found myself hoping there were no more to be had, even though I found it more likely that Amelior was simply conserving their reserves against a future attack. The other missiles continued falling, however, and I could imagine their generals sleeping in peace, secure in the knowledge that the fear of those missiles was doing as much damage as the missiles themselves.
Our growing fatigue, both physical and emotional, made it difficult to think clearly. After a time, it began to appear that Amelior wanted to make of us an example for others, as Kardmin had been. Perhaps they would even rather destroy our city than save it for their own use, as if they had grown sufficiently angered by our resistance. On top of everything else, the situation brought home what my vanquished foes in conquered Kardmin must have felt, and reinforced the guilt I had never overcome. As the men of Kardmin must have done, I turned over every possible response in my mind, hoping to come up with a possibility of blunting Amelior’s attack, but my efforts were in vain; as before, there was no possible solution but to endure and hope. The feeling of helplessness was new, and it gnawed at me, demanding action to salve its pain.
Striking back at Amelior would do much to restore our morale, but given their superior numbers, a sortie was out of the question. A night raid by a few score volunteers might be able to destroy the catapults, but any such ploy would cost us the volunteers. After all, it was an obvious ploy, and one Amelior would be ready for. They would have men watching our walls for any sign of just such a futile gesture. Still, my fatigue and my need to do something—anything—made a sortie seem desirable. Perhaps it was that same fatigue that overpowered my more critical faculties, but as my mind turned over that possibility, I remembered what Gareth had said when we first came to Ankur. At the time, I had asked him where the city found the water to keep their moat full and their people free of thirst. Gareth responded that Ankur was supplied by an underground river that ran close beneath the city and filled the wells that even now supplied our brave firefighters.
Could this river be the second exit that every well-defended town included?
A hasty visit to the palace dispelled my initial excitement. The idea was possible, but John, Amanda, and such nobility as I could persuade to talk were unable to confirm it. Any knowledge of such a bolt-hole had vanished with the last male of the royal blood. I found myself caught between disappointment and relief that the necessary secrecy surrounding such an exit would now prevent its use. Nonetheless, not being one to surrender without a struggle, I set Philip to searching the former King’s private papers, which Amanda provided after a brief and half-hearted protest. Then I hurried off to examine the town’s main water supply.
It took time to squeeze past the throngs of firefighters, but I did manage to gain access to the town’s several well-houses. A quick, torchlit glance at the rushing water passing far below, followed by a more lengthy appraisal of the construction surrounding the walls, told me all I needed to know: if the exit were concealed here, I would never find it. Short of diving in and hoping to stay afloat until the river emerged above ground again—if it ever did—there was no exit here.
The bombardment's dull, intermittent boom mocked my efforts.
I returned to the palace, clinging to the slim hope that Philip had found a clue in the King’s papers. If he had, our sortie became a possibility, as they would never expect an attack from behind their lines.
Before I found Philip, Alison found me. I embraced her, made to hurry past, but stopped when I saw her look. She was frightened, but as if by something other than the siege.
“What bothers you, Milady?”
“We have a visitor in our room, and a very unusual one. Please come and see.” I was ready to tell her to wait, but the look in her eyes stopped me. Instead, I forced down my sense of urgency and let her take my arm and lead me back to our room; what with my own impatience and the caution imposed by her increasingly evident pregnancy, we moved at a painfully slow pace. Eventually, we were there and Alison held the door for me. I stepped through, expecting some petty noble bent on causing me some mischief or yet another unwarranted delay. Instead, I saw nothing more than the room’s familiar trappings.
I began an angry denunciation, sure in my weariness that this was an ill-timed ploy to get me alone. But it was an unworthy suspicion, born of the night and the many emotions warring in my head. I felt a tug at my leg and the angry words froze in my mouth. At my feet crouched a small, charcoal-grey cat with familiar, penetrating eyes. The hair rose on the nape of my neck, and I now understood the look Alison had given me.
“Precious?” The cat yowled its scorn, then turned and vaulted into Alison’s arms, setting up a loud purring.
“He came in through the window, as near as I can guess,” Alison explained, “though if the cat is a witch’s familiar, it might have been more subtle than that. I had the impression from what you told me that he might be looking for you.”
I nodded. “Well, he has found me. Now, if you will excuse me, I must return to my duties.” That was the last thing I wanted to do, for Precious had not wandered in here by chance. It piqued my curiosity to see him so well groomed and well fed long months after the death of his mistress. That and the momentary weakness that urged me to spend these next moments with Alison—and away from the walls—made me hesitate.
The purring stopped, and those eyes opened again. “No, wait, I think he wants to show you something.” Now my lover’s eyes shone with excitement. As if to confirm Alison’s words, Precious stirred and leapt to the floor. Moving to the door after an all-over shake, he turned and gave an imperious yowl. Then, without a backward glance, he moved off at a brisk pace, tail held high.
I took Alison’s arm and followed. The cat led us a long chase, always remaining just in sight, until we arrived at last at the storage cellars deep beneath the castle proper. The corridors here were unlit, and we were forced to delay long enough to light a torch, which I plucked from a rusted sconce before moving deeper into the cellars. Humidity gathered here, living off the dank air until its presence thickened enough to drip from the walls and lie in puddles on the stained floor—puddles that Precious fastidiously avoided, coming at last to a full halt in the center of one long-abandoned room. He yowled.
I took Alison’s face in my hands, excited foreknowledge growing in me. “Alison, fetch John. Have him bring stoneworkers and lanterns.” The torch guttering in my hands had begun to burn low, and the others did not look pitchy enough to light where they stood in niter-encrusted sconces. Without another word, sensing my urgency, Alison kissed me, took a fresh torch from the wall, and fled upstairs as fast as she was able, long skirts billowing on the thick air. When I looked around, Precious had vanished once more. Not to my surprise, though it left me wondering how the cat had found us, and how it had disappeared once again without a trace.
Using the inadequate light from my smoky torch, I set about examining the chamber’s walls.
Gareth and Alison both returned with John and the two stonemasons that John had been willing to spare from inspecting the walls. Though I had forgotten to tell Alison what it was we sought, John had kept his wits about him well enough to remember what I had been seeking and to come equipped.
The search began, and continued for almost an hour before we called a halt and admitted defeat. Mutters began that we had been wasting our time, and John did nothing to quiet them. I sat down heavily on a large block of stone that time had tumbled from its niche in the wall, and wondered whether I had mistaken the cat’s intent. But the smoke from the torches was vanishing rather than filling the room, and what other purpose could Precious have had in leading us to this room? Then Alison gave a sharp cry.
“Bram! The block you’re sitting on!”
I got up, then turned to my recent seat and began running my fingers over the block. I tried to turn it over, but found it cemented to the floor by minerals dissolved in the water that was trickling about us. “What of it?” I asked.
“Try fitting it in the wall behind you.” It was an odd suggestion, but made at least as much sense as anything else we had tried. We had already noticed that the block was the only one missing from any wall, a suspicious coincidence that had led to much excited speculation but no results. We had found no trigger mechanism that we could operate. I shrugged and beckoned to the stonemasons.
The burly men came over, and with careful blows of hammer and chisel, freed the stone. When it came free, they stooped to lift it, groaning under its weight, muscles standing out prominent as the rock itself. Grunting, they hoisted the stone into place. We waited then, silence growing thick in the chamber as their harsh breathing quieted. Nothing happened and, disappointed, I turned to Alison.
Then, so quiet I at first missed it, a rumbling noise began to issue from the wall. Surprised, we edged back, fearing the old wall was about to collapse. Instead, a twenty-foot-wide section of wall eased into the floor, revealing a passageway. A wash of stale air swept towards the opening, emphasizing the distant sound of rushing water. In moments, the air cleared of the last traces of torch smoke and took on a fresher taste.
I gave a wild whoop and caught Alison in my arms, then choked back my exhilaration before I swept her off her feet. The realization that my lover had no understanding of why I had sought the exit must have shown, for she pulled back and searched my eyes for a long moment. But she did not ask the obvious question, and knowing full well how she would feel once she did, I did not volunteer an answer.
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After spending all that time being pummeled by Amelior with no chance to fight back, everyone was desperate for a chance to pay them back, and there were plenty of volunteers for the raid. We picked about a hundred of the best, men skilled at close-in fighting and nightfighting, and most of all, men who would die for Ankur without wasting a thought on why—men we hoped (but did not believe) would never reveal where we’d come from if caught and tortured. We sent the rest back to their posts. Before John could pick a leader, I told him I’d be going along to represent our infantry. He saw the look in my eyes, and didn’t argue; he knew it wouldn’t have done him any good, and besides, he knew I’d get the job done. I guess neither of us expected what Bram would do.
“I should accompany them too,” he whispered, but with a determined look. There was reluctance in his voice, but no trace of fear or anger in his eyes.
“Out of the question.” John met Bram’s eyes. “We need your expertise when the walls come down, and it’s enough of a risk sending one of my experienced commanders out on this little lark. Two is unacceptable, since you know full well what they’ll do to you if they capture you.”
Bram frowned. “Better than you know, which is why I will not be caught.” John frowned. “Though it occurs to me I would not be slain out of hand, for I would have value as a prisoner of war; Amelior still follows the customs of our ancestors.”
“Like conquest, and the decimation of any city that resists?”
Bram smiled coldly back. “Just so. Be that as it may, where my brother goes, so must I go. Have you forgotten our oath?”
John’s face hardened, and all the anger that had built since the start of the siege was in his voice. “Have you forgotten our oath? I could order you to remain behind, and have you clapped in the dungeon if you disobeyed—if for no other reason than to remind you I have the authority to command your obedience.” John paused, and Bram sank to one knee as if straining against some great weight. “I can also enforce your obedience through less common means.” After a long moment, Bram rose again, face pale.
“You can do both, should you so choose.”
Things would have gotten interesting if John’d pushed the issue, but instead, the King—an idea I was finding easier to accept the more I saw him in action—backed down. “I’m a fool for saying this, but I’ll let you go. I have no desire to pit one oath against another, and if I let you go, there’s still a good chance you’ll come back. I've no idea what would happen if I forced you to stay against that kind of magic. What I shall insist instead is that you don’t get any fool notions of playing the hero. You’re not expendable, Commander.”
“Neither are you, Gareth, oath or no oath. Get on with it, and see that you report back as soon as you’re home.” With that, he turned on his heel and left the room.
I clasped Bram’s shoulder. “Thanks for coming.”
“Not much choice in the matter, was there?” He smiled, and I knew that it wasn’t our oath that had brought him on board.
We armed ourselves with light crossbows, swords, clay pots filled with glowing coals, and skins of oil, then collected soot to rub our faces with and returned to the palace. Before we headed down to the bolt-hole, we blindfolded the men and led them downstairs, holding hands in a long line, turning them around often enough to ensure they’d never find their way back on their own. Only once we’d gotten them to the room by the river did we let them see again.
The river was pretty far below us at this point, and we walked along a narrow ledge that had been chiseled from the rock walls overhanging the water. The ledge was slick with moisture, but wide enough to be safe if we took our time. We’d guessed the path would follow the river to where it came out of the ground five miles east, and our guess turned out to be close to right. It took us almost half a day to get there because it wouldn’t have been smart to push on any faster; half of us would’ve gone for a final swim if we had. Even moving slowly, there were a few close calls.
We came out of the ground in mid-morning, deep in a rocky gorge, behind a waterfall. Scouts made sure no one else was around, then we settled down to wait out the daylight. There was an old windlass arrangement atop the cliff for pulling up buckets of water from the stream, and though it was near the waterfall, the few farmers who came to it for water didn’t see us. I was starting to grow excited about the raid; I just hoped that enough of us would come back to boast about it once the war was over.
The day dragged on until someone produced a few sets of dice. After all, there’s only so many times you can check over your gear, and we were all too excited to sleep for more than an hour or two at a time. By nightfall, I’d figured out that luck wasn’t with me that day, and I’d lost most of next month’s pay to one guy. I hoped I’d used up all my bad luck for the day, though if that was right, things might not be so nice for the winner that night. Bram roused himself now and again and climbed past the men to supervise the changing of the watch. Many hours later, as the sun sank beneath the horizon, we left our hidey hole and had a seat on the grass above the gorge for one last review.
“Does everyone have the plan of attack straight?” Bram spoke to a silent audience, all grim smiles, only their teeth and the whites of their eyes gleaming in the last light from the sun. “Good. You all know your groups, so split up now. Those of us who are returning to the city will meet back here before dawn—not after the sun has risen, and not if you are being pursued. Those who will remain behind to harass the enemy should leave a clear trail in the direction of Volonor, but not so clear they catch you while you establish that trail. The crossbowmen have orders to shoot anyone who violates that rule, for we cannot afford having anyone captured and tortured until they reveal the bolt-hole's location. You have all been picked because we are confident you would never betray us, but no man knows what he is capable of until he has faced torture.
“When we have done significant damage to as many catapults as possible, we leave. If we lose the advantage of surprise, pull out sooner. Remember, we have not failed if we leave any large proportion of the catapults functional. We want as many of you to return as possible. This is not the final battle, and we shall need each of you in days to come. Another point: we will meet patrols of Ameliorites once we are past the farmers. Do not delay to deal with them unless you have to, and if they start a fight, make sure none escapes—remember that we are not here to kill Ameliorites. There will be plenty of time for that later.” He grimaced, silhouetted against the setting sun. “Good luck to you all, and special wishes to Gareth. I hear your fortune has been slipping of late.”
There was nervous laughter from everyone who’d seen my luck at dice today. I said something rude, then Bram and I linked up with our separate groups and set about our business.
A few hours later, we lay flat and under cover, just beyond the guard perimeter, having slipped past the outer patrols without any nastiness; they’d been watching our walls, and we’d been watching them right back, well enough to know when and where to enter the camp. The few guards stood before the fires, careless enough in their security to make perfect targets. Not the brightest move, that, but a forgivable mistake when you think you hold all the cards. You get just a tad overconfident.
We’d been carrying our crossbows cocked but unloaded for the last mile or so, just so there wouldn’t be any unnecessary noise when we reached the camp. Not good for the weapons, and risky in itself—triggers sometimes release by themselves—but it was the best compromise between speed and silence. Besides, we weren’t planning to bring the weapons back, just ourselves. A twig snapped, a guard looked our way, and everyone froze and held their breath. But he was lazy, and the commotion over by the catapult convinced him he’d been hearing things. Dumb ass! It gave him maybe another hour of life, but that was all it did. Time passed while we waited for our signal.
At long last, there came the tones of a gong from town. There were four beats in all, and they came after the watch had been changed. Before the fourth beat had faded from the air, there came the flat snap of crossbows, answered by cries from the enemy camp. We’d picked our targets beforehand using hand signals to avoid missing any targets, so most guards took one bolt apiece and fell. As they dropped, we were up and running, swords in one hand and sacks of oil in the other. Shouts and orders began flying about the Ameliorite camp, but the new watch wasn’t quite awake yet and the old one was struggling out of sleep. Cries of infiltrators! were everywhere, but by then we were already at our goals. Here and there, our best marksmen used their cover to reload and snipe at any organized resistance, but by and large nobody got in our way as we set about destroying their weapons. Nobody was eager to face us at first, knowing they’d get a bolt in the back for their trouble.
In the firelight, the weapon crews were scared. They were paid to fight at a distance, not to deal with desperate, well-trained warriors in hand-to-hand combat. Most of them were armored no better than we were, in padded leather surcoats, and most were poor swordsmen. For those who didn’t flee, there was the revelation that light armor couldn’t save them where their weapons failed, and they went down quickly. We poured our oil on as much of the heavy wooden frames and twisted ropes as we could reach, then dumped our coalboxes onto them and jumped back. Flames soared high amidst the night in less time than it takes to tell. With one target ablaze, Bram ran past me for the next one, where a fight between a few of our men and a feistier crew was starting to grow desperate.
I started to follow, then changed my mind as armored figures bore down on me from the main body of troops. Those of us who’d been slow to follow Bram charged them, hoping to buy time for the rest of the group, but knowing that we were out of time, much sooner than we’d hoped. The newcomers were still sleepy, just come from their bedrolls; we were awake, freshly blooded, and backed by crossbowmen. Their first rank went down before they had time to realize we weren’t fleeing.
Then the melee started for real. We were outnumbered by a large margin, but that was to our advantage. We could swing on anyone without a blackened face with little fear of striking a friend, but they had to watch out for their buddies; in the darkness, we looked just like their friends did until they looked closer, and that second of indecision gave us the edge we needed. There were too many people running about trying to douse the catapults for us to stand out from the crowd, and we took full advantage of the confusion. I hadn’t had so much fun since last fall, and was enjoying myself. I took several shallow cuts before I could grab a shield, then started giving out better than I received.
That was all well and good for a very short while, until they began cutting us down by ones and twos. The fun now over, I beat a hasty retreat, putting my back to a fire. For a moment, their confusion gave me a chance to look around me. As far as I could tell, our targets were pretty much all ablaze, and it sure made a pretty sight. But it also meant it was time to go. I flung my shield at the nearest enemy soldier, then turned and vaulted a fire to gain time. One foot landed in the flames and I felt a brief heat before my other foot came down and I was running. The pant leg smoldered, but I hadn’t been burned badly.
There was no sign of Bram or anyone else friendly, so I took my cue and vanished into the night.
Dawn came, casting a pale light over the score of us who had survived the raid and made it back to the river; about double that number would be safe among the civilians we’d released from the city, where we hoped they would harass the enemy before making for Volonor. No one was unwounded and everyone was tired, but we waited anyway, hoping for yet another straggler. A very few came, crawling or helping along a wounded companion, and we let them come, as there was still no sign of pursuit. My wounds were stiffening up, my leg had blistered from the fire, and I was fighting hard against sleep, but I climbed to the top of the gorge one last time.
Still no sign of Bram.
I waited until I could see riders on the horizon, combing the short grasses for any raiders who were unfortunate enough to be still making their way back, then I slid back down the slope and rejoined the survivors. There was a pain in my chest, and it took a lot more courage than I’d expected to do what I had to. I tried to keep my voice level and emotionless, and almost succeeded.
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The men at the next catapult were in trouble and our own target was afire, so I ran to their aid. I soon found myself in trouble. The alarm had spread through the enemy camp faster than the fire was spreading on the catapults, and groups of sleepy, disorganized men were beginning to swarm towards us. My first thought was to run while I still could, but I could not bring myself to flee this near to my objective. I whirled a borrowed torch about my head, causing the pitch to flame up, then cast it into the siege engine’s framework. Fire blossomed, crawling along the oil until it bit into the wood and dry ropes. Then I had no time to watch further, for I was beset.
I transferred my sword back into my weapon hand, and cut at the first man. He parried and cut back. His blow was followed by several more from the other soldiers who had closed in on me, and I was hard pressed to keep the blades away from me. I backed away, reflecting that this was no time for fancy swordplay and that what I really needed was Gareth’s wilder style—though I would settle for Gareth—if I intended to get out of here alive.
Sidestepping a clumsy thrust, I took a light wound in the side even as I hacked down and felt my sword bite into a leather-clad forearm. Screaming abuse, my victim dropped his weapon and withdrew, blocking two more who were trying to get at me. I followed the departing man, taking advantage of the gap he created to thrust at the man on my left. Taken by surprise by my speed, he parried too slowly, and my thrust, intended to disable, sank into his chest, slipping between ribs. Even as I struggled to disengage my blade from where it had lodged, the swordsman to my right began a two-handed cut at my unprotected side. He checked his swing in response to a shouted ‘take him alive!’, and the flat of his blade took me in my wounded side. As I freed my own weapon, groaning, he dropped his own sword and seized hold of my sword arm. He pulled me to him and I obliged, adding my own strength to his pull and ramming his chest hard enough to drive the air from his lungs.
His hands spasmed and he released me, but my sudden move had left me off balance and I staggered instead of getting my feet beneath me again and fleeing. Before I could recover, I was hit from behind and I went down. Several more men fell upon me and pinned me, their weight forcing the air from my lungs and reawakening the pain in my side. I struggled a moment, then realizing the futility of my actions, went limp. As the weight came off me, it was replaced by strong hands long before I could try for freedom. They dragged me to my feet and searched me for concealed weapons. Then they hit me a few times, but none of the blows were from weapons. When they saw they would gain no satisfaction that way, they left me alone and one even took a moment to bind my wounds. I smiled my gratitude at him, ignoring his answering scowl. All around me, the sounds of melee were beginning to fade below the crackling of the wood. I smiled again, content, even though I was already beginning to feel apprehension at having been taken alive.
Then the officer who had ordered I be taken alive stepped forward and delivered a pair of stinging slaps that rocked my head. He moved back to let my vision clear.
“Welcome home, traitor!” spat Richard.
They found me a tent, almost a pavilion, then bound me and left me to lie on my side in anticipation of their pleasure. I tried to keep my thoughts on my own fate—would they execute me, or save me for use as a bargaining chip?—but found my thoughts returning to Gareth and Alison. She had let me leave this time, despite the risk, accepting my statement that I had to follow Gareth and missing the deeper reasons. There had been tears, and that had made the leaving difficult, but far worse had been the knowledge I had withheld a large part of the truth from her. Would there be tears now? Would Gareth be there to comfort her in my absence?
I tried my bonds again, found them every bit as tight as before, and beginning to cut off my circulation if I struggled too long. It was a useless gesture, of course; even if I had managed to escape my bonds, I was weaponless and watched by at least six guards, each alert, knowing what would happen to them should they let me escape. This much I could tell by their shadows on the tent wall, but there would be others I could not see, not to mention the assembled ranks of an aroused army all about me. I relaxed once more and tried to seek refuge in sleep, knowing I would get precious little in days to come if Richard had his way.
Tired, bruised, alone—and yes, in the end, frightened—I eventually succeeded.
I was brought out of a light sleep by a vicious kick in the side, one that cracked ribs. I curled around the pain, too much breath driven from my lungs to even whimper. When the pain withdrew enough for me to breathe again, I drew in a ragged, painful gulp of air and forced my damp eyes open. Sun streamed through the open tent flap. I saw a face I knew all too well, that of my former commander and mentor, Alexander, bending to pass through the opening. Then my brother interposed himself, smiling coldly. My field of vision expanded to reveal his foot, poised for another kick, and I tried to steel myself for it. Richard drew his foot even further back, shifted his weight to begin the kick, but checked his motion at a spoken command from Alexander.
“Stop. He will be of no use to us if you kill him, Richard.”
“Leave us. I will send for you again when I have had a chance to talk to him.” Richard glared, eyes promising another meeting when his commander was no longer around to interfere, but he left, drawing the tent flap closed behind him. Alexander pulled a stool over and sat down, weariness in every motion, then began scrutinizing me. I could breathe again without wincing if I kept my breaths shallow, and the pain had faded enough for me to meet his gaze with something resembling composure.
The years had been kind to the old warrior. There was less hair in evidence, there were lines I did not remember on his face, and there was even a new scar. But his frame, massive as Gareth’s, was as large and powerful as ever, his shoulders unbowed despite his near sixty years of age. He still looked like the warrior he was, but there was also a familiar wisdom in the eyes that took my measure.
“Why, Bram?” The voice was firm, but held a mildness that surprised me. Nonetheless, I knew him too well to accept that softness at face value.
“We could not afford to let you continue bombarding us, so...”
He cut me off with a chopping motion of his hand. “In your place, I might have tried the same gambit, though I doubt I would have been rash enough to go in person. But do not insult me with stupid answers. You know me better than that. I meant ‘why did you leave us after Kardmin?’ You were one of our best, a promising general, and the fact I find you here disproves the rumors of cowardice that have been spread by certain parties. The honor you gained before you threw away your future was the only thing that saved Richard from further disgrace. You might have been my successor had you stayed.”
I was startled, and showed it. Regaining my composure, I replied with as much honesty as I could muster out of respect for the man who had made me what I now was. “If you know me as well as you say, then you know why.” I paused, seeking the right words. “I could no longer accept the need to kill former allies just to please our masters, and I came to despise the idea of leaving only the memory of wrongs committed against my fellow man as my epitaph. There was no longer any honor in it for me, and I only wonder it took me so long to discover that.”
Alexander frowned. “Kardmin was never about wounded egos or a lust for conquest, Bram. You were not yet someone we could trust with the truth of our need, so we trusted you instead with the task. It was a risk, for I always knew you never quite fit the mold we built to shape you; that was what could have made you great. But forget that, the fact you abandoned the nation that sheltered you, gave you birth, and nurtured you. Forget even that you shamed your family and name almost beyond redemption.” His eyes said more, betrayal mirrored in their depths before he banished that momentary weakness and hid the hurt back out of sight. “You do not seem to have felt the same misgivings at Belfalas, to Richard’s lasting shame. Explain that, blast it!”
“I cannot, and should not. Until this war is over, or until my fate here is decided, my duty requires that I treat you as an enemy. Hard though that is, much though I want to confide in you once more.” There was a new pain in my chest to accompany that from my sword wound and my damaged ribs as I put things in perspective once again and thrust old emotions aside. “Please understand me.”
“I am afraid I do understand you, all too well. Very well, then. You understand, of course, that my duty requires that I have you tortured until you have told me everything there is to know about your defenses and your allies?” My guts tightened and sent pain flashing once again through my side, though I had been bracing myself for the eventuality that there were alternatives other than death and use as a hostage. “But I would far rather have you on our side once again. Will you turn traitor once again and so redeem yourself? We can renew our oath, after which I can reveal that you were serving me here all along as a fifth columnist...” He read the look in my eyes all too well, and there was open pain in his look this time. “I thought not. I suppose I would have been disappointed had you reacted any other way. I doubt it would have worked in any event.”
He fumbled at his belt, drew a dagger and held it point towards me. “What we once shared built obligations both ways, and though you broke your oath, I never abandoned mine. I can offer you one last boon. Should you ask it of me, I can ensure you will not disgrace yourself under torture. Ask me now if you are man enough.”
I thought of what he offered, realizing it was a cleaner death than anything I could expect if I refused him. For a moment I wavered, scared and defeated enough to consider taking that easy way out. But thoughts of Alison and Gareth came to me, and the fear of losing them was the greater. I shook my head.
Alexander rose, looking troubled, and left me without another word, sheathing his dagger as he went.
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John slammed his fist on the table, scattering papers. Alison just shrank, but at least she didn’t start crying. The Queen kept a neutral expression, then rose and escorted Alison from the room, supporting most of her weight. The knot in my guts tightened, but I didn’t say anything. What could I say?
John rose and walked over to where I was sitting. He put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Relax, Gareth. The raid was a success even if we lost Bram. They won’t leave off trying to knock down our walls, nor yet abandon their siege, but at least they’ll be watching their backs and they may just choose to fight on terms more to our liking now.”
“Are you sure we’ve lost him? I didn’t see him die, and you and I both know he’s a lot tougher than he looks.”
“I know that. The Ameliorites have brought us the bodies of the slain and have left them outside the walls as raven bait. I guess they don’t think we deserve special consideration anymore. But there’s no sign of Bram amidst the bodies.”
“Could he be wounded, hiding out in the fields?”
“It’s not likely, old friend. They would have found him by now or he’d have crawled back here if he had to go through their whole army to do it. He’s not the sort of man who’d leave his woman and his friends if there was an alternative. I'm betting they have him and that they’ll hold him until they decide what to do with him. Probably try to extract a little information first, if they figure that they won’t damage him so much he becomes useless as a bargaining chip later.”
I winced. “And what if they do choose to bargain?”
“What do we have to trade? All that is left to us is more valuable than any one man could be. Even me. I’m sorry, Gareth, but he’s gone. The real hope is that we win this thing and then demand him back as a condition of surrender.”
“Don’t apologize. We gambled, and Bram lost. You couldn’t have stopped us short of drugging our wine and locking us in the dungeon.” I hadn’t expected any more from John, and I knew that Bram wouldn’t have either. We’d been warned, not to mention threatened outright. “Bram knew what he was doing when he came up with the plan, and so did I. Neither of us figured we’d have to pay for it. Maybe we’ve been listening to too many sagas.” The words came easy, but the knot stayed tight in my guts.
John rubbed his fist. “What it all boils down to is that we wait for them to make the next move. They’ll give us a day or two for the news to spread, then start to play with us while morale is low. We can expect an attack any time after that.” He shrugged. “Cat and mouse, and we’ll have to learn what the mouse feels like.”
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Continue reading: Part V (second half)
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