Servant of a Dark God
Talen sat at the wooden table in nothing but his underwear because he had no pants. Somehow, during the middle of the night, they had walked off the peg where he’d hung them. And he’d searched high and low. The last of their cheese was missing as well.
The cheese he could explain: if you were hungry and a thief, then cheese would be a handy meal to take. But it was not the regular poverty-stricken thief who roamed miles off the main roads, risked entering a house, and passed up many other fine and more expensive goods to steal a pair of boy’s dirty trousers hanging on a peg in the loft.
No, there wasn’t a thief in the world that would do that. But there was an older brother and sister.
Talen had two pair of pants to his name. And he wasn’t about to ruin his good pair by working in them. He needed his work pants. And to get those, he needed leverage. The good news was that he knew exactly which items would provide that leverage.
It only took a few moments to find and hide them. Then he went back to the house, cut three slices of dark bread, and put them on a plate in the middle of the table next to the salted lard.
River, his sister, came in first from outside carrying a massive armload of rose stems clustered with fat rose hips. Talen sighed. She already had fifteen bushels of the stuff in the back. Were they going to make rose hip syrup for the whole district? And he knew he’d be the one that would have to cut each and every hip and remove the seeds so her syrup didn’t end up tasting like chalk. It was a thorny business, even if he did wear gloves.
River walked to the back room to deposit her load and returned. Blood spattered her apron. A thick spray ran from her cheek to throat.
“What happened to you?”
“Black Jun,” she said. “The cow that was bred by that rogue bull, her water broke last night, but the calf was too big for a normal birth.” She shook her head. “Jun’s brother-in-law from Bain cut into the cow this morning and made a mess of it.”
“Did she die?” asked Talen.
“Not yet,” said River, “but such a wound, even with old Nan’s poultice, would take a Divine’s hand to keep it from corruption.” River had been apprenticed to Nan, who had midwifed as many cattle as she had humans. That’s where River learned how to take a calf that couldn’t be pulled, by cutting in from the side. That’s where she’d learned about the virtues of everything from pennyroyal to seeding by moonlight. She could have learned far more, but old Nan went out late in a rainstorm one night and tumbled down a steep slope to her death. Even so, as unfinished apprentice, if River said the wound was bad, it was bad.
“And the calf?” asked Talen.
“Saved,” she said. “For now.” She took off her bloody apron and hung it on a peg on the wall.
Under the apron, River was wearing her work pants, which would have been a much easier mark for a clothing thief since River’s room was on the first floor of the house. Of course, she’d only point out that nobody would look for pants in a girl’s room. Which was true for most women, but River wasn’t most women. She wore pants to everything but the dances and festivals, and even then she threatened to do so. Skirts were a bother in the fields, she said. A bother on a horse, and a bother when hunting. And nobody was going to tell River otherwise.
Talen gave his bloody sister his most pleasant smile.
She looked at his bare chest and legs. “Where are your clothes?”
“That’s a good question,” said Talen.
River shook her head and went to the cupboard to get her pot of honey. She searched about and then turned around, looking as if she’d lost something.
There was nothing like her cinnamon honey. It was not the thick amber that most of the honey-crafters sold. This honey was thin and clear and tasted like moonlight. River got it from a lovesick dyer who lived on the far side of the settlements and liked her despite her pants. He said the honey came from bees that made their hives in the cliffs there. He had also said that his love for her flowed like the nectar of the pale green flowers that clung to the cliffs, that she was his flower and he her bee, and that their pollinations would be more wild and splendid than anything a pot could contain. All of which proved that the dyer knew nothing of women. At least, not River. She had smiled at the dyer’s sentiments, but that didn’t make the dyer any less of an idiot or his hands any less blue. River was not a girl won with declarations of wild and amorous pollinations or delicious gifts, even if the gift was spiced honey that cost three weeks’ worth of labor.
Ke, Talen’s older brother, walked in next with flecks of barley stalks caught in his tunic. Ke was built like a bull. In the summer he looked even more like one because he shaved his hair short. He did it, he said, to keep his head cool and make it easier to clean. But it also allowed others to see the thick muscles in his neck. He retrieved his bow and archer’s bag from his bedroom. The bow was made with wood, horn, and sinew, and it was so powerful only someone with his massive strength could draw it more than half a dozen times. Da, because of his strength and size, was sometimes called Horse. Ke, having inherited all of Da’s muscle, had picked up the name of Little Horse, but he wasn’t a horse. That was too noble a creature. Ke was a bull, no doubt about it.
Talen, of course, inherited all the wit in the family, but nobody seemed to value that. He was never referred to as “the bright one” or “that great blaze of brains.” Instead, he got names like Twig and Hogan’s Runt.
Ke sat at the table. His bow was blackened with charcoal and linseed oil and then covered with a good layer of goose fat and beeswax to protect it from the wet. He’d always been an excellent archer. Da had seen to that. But Ke was now something more. He’d proven last year in the battles with the Bone Faces that he was an efficient killer as well. He pulled out his crock of goose fat to rub in yet another layer, then looked back into the bag. “Hey,” he said, and opened the mouth of the sack wider to fish about in its contents.
“Lose something?” Talen asked.
“Where are my new bowstrings?” Ke said.
“Strange,” said Talen. “All sorts of things going missing today.” He tsked. “What a negligent bunch we must be.”
It took River about two seconds to catch on. “I want my honey,” she said.
“I want my trousers,” said Talen.
Ke looked up from his sack. “You took my strings?”
“You took my trousers.”
“What would I want with those?” asked Ke.
“What would I want with your bowstrings? They don’t fit my bow.”
River put her hands on her hips. “That honey has a special-”
“Oh, don’t act like you’re offended for the dyer,” Talen said and began to work his way toward the door.
“Who said anything about him?” River asked. “That honey’s imbued with vitality. Now, hand it over.”
“Pants first,” said Talen. He continued to move until he stood between them and the doorway.
Ke narrowed his eyes.
River cocked her head, threatening a fight. She tightened the yellow sash she used as a belt. This is what she did when she wanted to run. The two of them exchanged an evil glance, and Talen knew if he sat where he was a moment more, they’d have him.
“Trousers!” he demanded. Then he dashed out of the house in his bare feet and underwear and into the yard.
To his surprise, Talen found Nettle, his cousin, opening the door to the smokehouse to get something to eat. He was supposed to be on a patrol with his Father, but Talen didn’t care what he was supposed to be doing. He was here now, and could even the odds in this fight.
Ke and River charged out of the house hard on Talen’s heels. At this point Talen was most worried about River. He darted left, and thanked his instincts. A short length of firewood flew past him. River, in addition to being a healer, was a thrower, deadly with spoons, pots, and sticks at twenty yards. She could whip off a wooden garden clog and fling it with ferocious aim at your head before you’d even taken five steps. Talen knew: he had the bumps to prove it.
Talen ran past Nettle. “Trip them!” he said.
Nettle, the Mokaddian traitor, did no such thing. He cut a link from one of the hanging sausage chains, took a fat bite, and stood back to enjoy the show.
Talen raced toward the woods beyond, but River had the angle on him and sprinted to cut him off. Thank the Six she hadn’t had time to pick up anything but a stick. Talen veered toward the garden.
“Pick up the pace,” Nettle called out. “They’re gaining on you.”
“Coward!” Talen yelled back. He dashed around the garden fence, turned to avoid Ke, ran back toward the house, and found himself boxed in between the midden and the barn.
He had two choices. He could make a run at one of his dear siblings and hope to blow by, or he could go up the old walnut tree and hope they would stay at the bottom and do nothing more than shout insults and threats up at him.
He wouldn’t get by Ke and his long arms. Talen had enough room to get by River, but she was daring him, grinning at him to just try.
He made his decision.
Da had fashioned a wooden slab bench and put it next to the trunk of the giant walnut tree. Talen ran for the bench. When he was close enough, he took one running step to the bench then another to an old knob sticking out about five feet up the trunk. He followed the momentum upward, grabbed a branch, pulled himself up, and stood on a fat arm of the tree well out of the reach of his brother and sister.
“That’s about the dumbest place you could have chosen,” said Ke.
Talen climbed a few branches higher and looked down at the two of them. “The joke’s up.”
“We don’t have your hog-worn trousers,” said Ke. “You’re the one who loses things on a regular basis.”
Talen did not lose things on a regular basis.
He saw Ke bend over and pick up a number of rocks. “You come out of that tree or I’ll knock you out,” said Ke.
“No,” said Talen. “I think you need to give up your childish games.”
But Ke threw a rock instead.
Talen ducked. The rock flew straight and true and would have made a pretty bruise, but a small branch stood in the way and sent the rock wide. Goh, he needed to put more branches between him and those rocks, so Talen climbed until the branches were no bigger than his thumb.
He couldn’t see Ke or River from this height. Nettle stood over by the well, finishing his sausage, and using one hand to shade his eyes from the sun.
“You smelly bum,” Talen called down to him. “Do something!”
“Jump!” shouted Nettle. “He’s coming up.”
Talen heard the leaves rustling below as someone ascended toward him.
Nettle was a fine one to stand there and call out instructions. Talen must have been at least forty feet up in the air. The barn roof would have been perfect had it not been thirty feet away. There was nothing else around him but hard ground below. He had nowhere to go. He could not simply jump out of the tree at this height.
Ke was right-running up this tree had been idotic.
He caught a glimpse of Ke climbing below him and to the left.
Maybe he could get around him. Talen did not want to be at his mercy in the tree. He climbed down toward Ke. He would get close, then move to the other side and away.
“I’m going to give you one last chance,” said Ke. He looked up at Talen with that happy look that said Talen was a rabbit and he was a dog that had just found his next meal. He was maybe only six feet away.
Talen scuffed the branch and sent small particles of bark down into Ke’s face.
Ke ducked, and Talen made his move. All he needed to do was get to a branch four feet below him and to the right. It would be a quick climb from there to the ground.
He swung down, but Ke had been expecting the move, and suddenly he was grabbing at Talen’s leg.
Talen moved out on his branch. Ke followed. Talen jumped for another branch. He grabbed it with both hands, pulled himself upward, but before he could get a leg up, the branch cracked and swung him to the side.
It was dead and rotted.
Talen looked for something else to grab, but he couldn’t see anything close; then the branch popped again and broke entirely from the tree.
Talen reached out, grabbing for anything, but it was too late, and then he was falling headfirst. He yelled. He saw Ke’s face then a wide-open space beyond with nothing between him and the ground but a branch that would most assuredly break his back.
If this fall lamed Talen, he’d be good for nothing but the war weaves. An image of him at the wizard’s altar in Whitecliff flashed in his mind, the Divine draining his Fire away, the essence that fueled the days of his life, so it could be used by a better vessel-by a dreadman. The dreadman would give Talen homage for the gift, but Talen didn’t want any homage.
He yelled, a long “Nooooooo!”
A stick poked Talen’s eye. Then his ankle caught, and Talen swung into the center of the tree and smacked his head.
Ke grunted. “Grab a branch,” he said.
Talen looked up. It felt like a piece of bark the size of his thumbnail was stuck in his eye; he could barely see, but it was clear that his ankle was caught not in a fork of two branches, but in Ke’s iron grip. Ke bent over a branch holding on to Talen’s ankle, his face set in determination.
“You’re slipping,” he said.
Talen twisted around and finally found a branch. He grasped it with both hands. “I’ve got it. Let go.”
But Ke did not let go. He repositioned his grip and said, “You’ll hang here until you tell us where you’ve hidden our stuff.”
Talen’s eye ran like a river. “What about my trousers?”
“Goh,” said Ke. “If I come across your trousers I’m going to burn them. Then you’ll have something to yell about.”
“Hoy! What’s going on here?” It was Da, standing at the base of the tree.
“They’ve taken my work trousers,” said Talen.
“Is that so?” Da asked Ke.
Talen still hung mostly upside down, the blood rushing to his head.
“It is not,” said Ke.
“You three,” Da said. “Today I come out of the barn to find one of you hanging naked in a tree. What am I going to find tomorrow? Get down. Both of you.”
Ke looked down at Talen. “You’re lucky.” Then he flung Talen’s legs away.
Talen clutched the branch. His body swung around like a festival acrobat’s. His grip on the branch slid. Then he reached out with one foot and caught another branch to stand on.
Talen steadied himself. When he’d finally cleared his eye enough to see, Ke stood next to him. “You should thank me for saving your neck.”
“You’re the one that put me here,” Talen said.
“I’m the one who didn’t murder you,” he said, and then descended to the ground.
Murder indeed. Talen watched Ke go and realized the truth was he had been lucky. Lucky Ke had been that close. Lucky he’d tumbled just the right way for Ke to grab his ankle. And Ke had held him as if he were nothing more than a sack of potatoes. Why couldn’t he have gotten at least half of Ke’s strength?
He sighed. It was going to be annoyingly inconvenient to have to wear his fine pair of pants to work in. And at week’s end, when he cleaned them and hung them out to dry, he’d have to sit around in his underclothes and bat the biting flies away.
Talen climbed out of the tree and stood before Da.
“Did you look for the pants in the barn?” Da asked.
Of course he’d looked in the barn. He’d looked everywhere. “I’m not going to ruin my good pair.”
“Then work in a leaf skirt. I’m not buying any material for another pair. Nothing in heaven or earth will make me feed negligence.”
“I wasn’t negligent.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway,” said Da. “Put on your good ones. Get the peppercorns. You’re going to the village to get some hens from old Mol the fowler. I’ve had too many days without eggs.”
“Last night you said you wanted to see us up and in the fields with the barley.”
“Well, I’m saying right now that I want some hens. And you’re going to get them.”
“Shall I go along?” asked Nettle.
“No,” said Da. “You’re getting back on your horse to take a message to the Creek Widow.”
Nettle smirked. “The one who told you not to come around?”
“What other one is there?” asked Da. He held out a sealed letter to Nettle. The Creek Widow was a Mokaddian woman with a tenancy of almost twenty acres. She had been a family friend for years. But this last summer she had ordered Da out of her house and off her land. And try as Talen might, he could not get Da to tell him why. Talen suspected it had something to do with her perennial efforts to marry Da off. Half the time Talen thought she wanted Da herself. But Da was stubborn. And Talen was happy about that. While she cooked food fit for a Divine, she was bossy and a bit odd, talking to vegetables and rocks and always smelling a little like a goat.
Was this letter an indication that Da was making up?
“Paper,” said Nettle, a tease in his eye. “You must be serious.” He held the letter up to the sun as if trying to read it.
“You break that seal,” Da said, “and I’ll have your hide.”
“I wouldn’t dare touch it,” said Nettle.
“Then go,” said Da. He shooed them both away. “Be gone. And hurry back. I don’t want to lose any of that barley.”
Talen pushed the cart and the empty chicken baskets through the three miles of the muggy woods to Stag Home. When he finally broke onto the broad valley, he was so refreshed by the sunlight and breeze, so soothed by the smooth, sun-warmed dirt of the road under his bare feet that he didn’t immediately notice the fields and orchards.
Instead, he basked in the glory of the day and the fact that not only had he escaped being maimed this morning, but he’d also avoided a number of hours sweating in the barley. The peppercorns hung in a pouch around his neck. It had been two years since any merchant had sold peppercorns in the New Lands and the value of pepper had risen.
Talen looked forward to seeing if the alewife’s daughter would be selling her vegetables again. She was a looker, that one, with her dark hair, jade eyes, and the fabulous lines of her long neck. During his last visit, he’d ended up returning to her table thrice, buying a bunch of carrots each time, just so he could fix her features in his mind. And it hadn’t all been one-sided. She had glanced his way when he stood across the road eating some of her wares.
Talen’s reverie of the alewife’s daughter broke when he pushed the cart past an orchard of apple trees bent with clusters of red and yellow fruit. There should have been children climbing with baskets in the tops of those trees. Instead, the apple baskets lay scattered on the ground.
Across from the orchard a yearling calf bawled outside a field. The calf searched along the fence separating it from its mother and a dozen others who stood with their noses down among the ripe white oats mixed with peas. There should have been a harvest master there promising someone a proper beating for letting the cattle in, but there wasn’t even a beggar to chase the greedy guts out.
How could that be? Talen searched the fence lines and long rock walls. He searched the fields-nothing but a small carpet of blackbirds picking through a swath of barley that had been harvested and left to lie where it fell. There wasn’t a body to be seen. It was as if the villagers had fled the fields.
Alarm scuttled like a crab up his neck. This was the fat season for pillaging. Of course, the Bone Faces hadn’t attacked Stag Home or any of the surrounding villages for years. But that’s precisely why Stag Home would be a perfect target. The villagers would have grown overly secure, just as Talen had.
What’s more, the Bone Faces took more than livestock and goods. They took men, women, and children. Lords, he thought, if one of those Bone Faces got him, he will have wished he had fallen out of that tree and broken his back. He scanned the fields again, this time looking for signs of a raiding party.
It was said that when the Bone Faces kidnapped you for their slave ships, they cut off the pinky finger of your right hand. Then, with some black and feral magic, they used your finger to bind you to them. And so perverting was the binding that you never once wanted to even pine after what you’d lost. All your thought was to serve your master every day that blood flowed in your veins.
One of the first things they’d ask you to do, which you would do with joy, was to trick your own kin into their traps. And so it was that whole families disappeared. Some were enslaved, others were sent to the fearsome altars of Ishgar as sacrifices, for the Bone Faces were a bloody people. But Talen figured those who went to the altars met with a better end, for if the rumors were true, the Bone Face bindings were strong enough to compel a slave beyond this life and into the world of the dead.
He imagined the fate of his pinky. The Bone Face slave masters hung the fingers of their most valued slaves about their necks. The rest they locked up in a special room. And when guests came to call, especially if the slave master was wealthy with dozens of formidable slaves listed among his assets, he would take his guests into the finger room and show off his collection of desiccated and rotting digits, just as a good Koramite wife might show off her collection of dishes or lace.
There was no sign of struggle in the fields. The clans sent patrols along the coastlines during the harvest season. Last year there had been battles, but those had been far out on the Finger Islands, not on the mainland settlements. Nothing this year. But it had to be Bone Faces. What else would make the villagers flee the fields on such a fine day for work?
Goh, but how he wished Da and Ke were here with him. If he only had his bow; that would improve his odds. Da, a Koramite bow master, had taught his sons well. Talen could shoot eight arrows a minute, and not to simply fill the sky with a haphazard rain of death. No, Talen could fire at that speed and hit what he was aiming at.
But he didn’t have his bow. All he had was his knife and a pile of chicken baskets, which meant he’d have to slice open his own neck if the blighters got to him, for he wasn’t going to be turned into a villain, nor would he allow himself to be used as feed for their terrible gods.
Talen thought he might be able to lose any pursuers in the thickness of the woods. But who was to say they hadn’t already circled behind him? Besides, the safety of the village with its embankment walls was much closer.
Smoke trailed into the sky from behind the walls of the village. But it was thin, not the thick smoke of burning homes. Upon the timber and earthen wall he saw the glint of three men wearing helmets and carrying spears. The gates stood closed, which only confirmed his assessment of the situation.
Talen looked back at the woods once more. He searched along the tree line following the river that snaked its way through the valley, but saw no shallow-bottomed ship’s mast. Perhaps they had landed farther downriver. Perhaps the village had been forewarned and the raiders had yet to attack.
He quickened his pace. He did not want to be caught outside the gates. The cart and chicken baskets clattered along the dirt road as he went. He watched the shadows and trees. He kept an eye on the fields. He prepared himself, at the first sign, to run.
He passed two large wicker creels on the bank of the river. One had toppled over. Its lid hung loose, and a tangle of fat, brown eels wriggled their way back toward the water. The sight raised the hackles on the back of his neck, and Talen began to run.
Down the dirt road he went, and then it was over the bridge. On the far side of the bridge, one of the chicken baskets bounced off, but Talen paid it no mind and let it lie in the grass on the side of the road. He didn’t stop until he stood outside the gates.
The Mokaddian guards up on the wall were not looking out-they were looking in. The beef-heads were not going to see any threat coming that way. “Hoy!” Talen called.
The three guards turned.
One was that maggot Roddick, the cartwright’s son who had tormented Talen with rotten plums when he was a boy.
“Let me in,” said Talen.
“You,” said Roddick in disgust. “Stay right where you are!”
Technically a Mokaddian village couldn’t refuse entrance to Talen just because he was a Koramite. Even though the Koramites had been conquered and paid tribute to their Mokaddian masters, they still maintained some rights, and refuge was one of them. But that didn’t mean they would open to him. Roddick yelled down to those within.
This village had fallen once, before it had a wall. The Bone Faces had rowed two of their small galleys up the river to a bend at the edge of the fields. They attacked just before dawn, setting the homes ablaze, running many good men through with their curved swords, and stealing anything of value, including fifteen young girls. The next year, the village built the wall.
The wall had been made by digging a wide ditch and throwing up an embankment of earth about three times the hight of a tall man. Timber spikes had been planted into that steep slope and at the bottom of the ditch. Grass and tall thistle now hid many of the spikes, but any host charging up that hill would find the spikes’ power to impale undiminished. And if the host reached the top, they’d face a timber palisade and tower. The timbers had been new when Talen was a boy. Pale yellow lichen now clung to much of the wood, but it was sturdy nevertheless.
He expected they’d be happy to give him a bow and set him up on the wall with Roddick. But there were no raiders, no sign of any struggle whatsoever. So why had they closed the gates?
The crossbar that held the gates closed scraped. Then the gates swung open.
Out walked a dozen Mokaddian men holding their scythes, sickles, and forks like weapons. About half had shaved their heads and dyed their scalps with henna, bearing witness that they’d performed their harvest worship.
Talen glanced over his shoulder, fearing the Bone Faces had decided to attack, but there were no Bone Faces, only the river glistening in the sun and the fields of grain beyond, rolling with the breeze. When he turned back, one of the beef-heads on the wall was stringing his bow.
“It’s one of Hogan’s half-breeds,” said farmer Tilth. He held his hay fork before him as if Talen were the Dark One himself. “What are you doing here, boy?” asked Tilth.
“I’ve come to trade with Mol,” said Talen.
“He’s spying!” Roddick called from above.
“Cast your weapons from you,” Roddick commanded. “Then lie down in the dirt.”
“You bum brain!” Talen yelled up at Roddick. “Who would want to spy on you? And I don’t have any weapons. Unless you think I might kill someone with these chicken baskets.”
“Give yourself up,” said Tilth.
Long Lark, the cooper’s son, stood next to Tilth. He tied a cattle noose at the end of one rope.
Talen looked at the men. There were the Early brothers, the one-eyed tanner and his two sons, and the young hayward who had killed a wurm not two weeks ago and received the intricate tattoo around the wrist of his right hand that signified he was no longer a boy, but a man of the Shoka clan.
These people knew him.
The men began to fan out.
“I’m honored,” said Talen, “but isn’t this a bit much for a runt like me?”
“He’s going to run,” Roddick called.
“I’m not running,” said Talen.
“Come on, son,” Tilth said.
They approached him like one might a boar caught in a trap: careful and bent on injury.
A flash of orange caught Talen’s eye, and he spotted a tall, bald man with an enormous black beard standing in the gateway. He was an official, wrapped in the blue and orange sash of the Mokaddian Fir-Noy Clan.
Fear shot through him, and Talen took a step back.
The Fir-Noy had shed plenty of Koramite blood over the years. That was not to say the Koramites hadn’t defended themselves. But everyone knew that Koramite and Fir-Noy didn’t mix. Lords, Fir-Noy didn’t mix with half of the Mokaddian clans, especially not the Shoka of Stag Home.
But there stood that Fir-Noy official, acting like he owned the place, and here the Shoka village men had their tools pointed at him as if he were a rabid dog.
By law, if a Koramite heard a Mokaddian cry out for help and did not run to the Mokaddian’s aid, the Koramite would be punished. Depending on the urgency of the situation, he might be whipped. The law, however, did not go both ways. Talen’s cries to be rescued from these madmen would go unheeded.
“I’m here for chickens,” he protested.
It was then that Long Lark broke from the pack and set himself to throw his noose.
Talen hesitated for a fraction of a second.
Long Lark adjusted his grip on the noose.
By the farting lord of pigs, Talen thought. I’ve done nothing. Nothing at all.
Koramites had been dragged behind horses before. Not here, of course, in a Shoka village. Not yet. But these were Mokaddians, after all. Fir-Noy, Vargon, or Shoka-did it matter which clan they belonged to?
He looked into their eyes and saw it did not. Talen took a step backward.
Long Lark swung his noose.
In his mind’s eye, Talen saw himself hanging from the village wall with that noose around his neck. The thought jolted him. And despite his earlier protestations, he turned tail and ran.
A shout rose up behind him so full of menace that it almost loosed his bowels.
He stretched his stride, expecting that noose to fall about his shoulders or to catch an arrow in his back. He ran like a thief, like a rabbit coursed by dogs. He ran with the speed only fear and bewilderment bring.
He sprinted back over the bridge and thought he saw the flash of an arrow out of the corner of his eye. He needed to make the woods, the only place where he might have a chance to lose these madmen. Back up the road he ran, the dirt hard under his bare feet.
Talen was not the fastest runner in the district, but he wasn’t the slowest either. He knew he should measure his pace, but he’d seen that lazy-eyed Sabin among them, him and his shaved head and violent speed, and Talen sprinted for all he was worth.
He could hear the men behind him and pushed himself until his breath came in ragged gasps and his head felt dizzy. But it did not last. By the time he reached the oat field the rogue cows had broken into, his lungs and legs were burning, and he had to stop. He panted and turned.
Sabin, a look of murder in his eyes, was almost upon him.
Movement farther up the road drew his attention: a rider galloping toward him on a horse. They were boxing him in.
Lords, but he had to make the woods.
Two more ragged breaths and he hopped the fence on his left and the fieldstones piled up next to it and struggled up a fallow field of knee-high grass.
The tall grass pulled at his feet. The slope sapped his strength. But neither seemed to slow Sabin.
The woods stood only a few paces away.
Talen glanced back to see Sabin reach out with his long tattooed arm for Talen’s hair.
River loved Talen’s hair. Loved it long. And at that moment he wished he’d never listened to his sister and her stupid appraisals of men.
Sabin grabbed a handful of Talen’s hair. He yanked, brought Talen up short, then backward to the ground.
Talen scrabbled to his knees, but Sabin kicked his side and knocked the breath right out of him.
He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. By the time his body finally remembered it had lungs, the rest of the men were rushing up the hill.
Sabin kicked at Talen’s face, but Talen curled up and the blow glanced off the back of his head.
Someone struck him with a staff. Another kick caught him in the hip.
Talen tried to get up and lunge out of the circle, but before he could get his legs, one of the tanner’s boys landed a blow to Talen’s head that dazed him and knocked away all sense of balance. He turned, falling, and saw a sea of men.
Someone kicked him in the back and the pain made him gasp. Someone else went for his neck.
Talen brought his arms up to shield his face.
“Where’s that rope?” one of them shouted.
Talen tried to roll over.
“Out of the way!” someone shouted.
“Now you’ll get it, half-breed,” a man said.
The blows lessened and then stopped. Talen glanced up.
Sabin stood above him, lifting what must have been a forty-pound fieldstone the color of fresh liver.
He raised it high, preparing to crack Talen’s head like a nut.
Talen rolled away, trying to escape Sabin’s stone.
“Hold!” someone shouted.
A horse snorted.
Talen tried to dart through the legs of the men surrounding him and was flung back to the ground. He froze, cringed, waiting for the crushing stone. But it did not fall.
“Twenty stripes, Sabin,” a man said. “I swear it!”
Talen glanced up. The men were not looking at him. They were looking at the bailiff of Stag Home who sat upon his dappled gray horse, glaring at Sabin. It was he who had been the rider bearing down on Talen from the other direction.
Sabin hesitated, and then, almost in defiance, he dropped the stone perilously close to Talen’s head.
“That,” said the bailiff, pointing at Sabin, “has just made you my riding horse.”
The bailiff was not a large man. But he was strong and fearless in battle. His face was shaven close, which revealed three scars where a bear had tried to take off his jaw. But it was his eyes, as pale as the horse upon which he rode, that fixed Talen’s gaze. Those eyes had scared Talen as a boy. He had thought the man was full of evil. His father had convinced Talen otherwise, but, faced with those eyes, Talen could never maintain his certainty.
The bailiff directed that hard gaze at the other men. “What is this here? Why are the fields empty?”
“There are Koramite Sleth about,” someone said.
Sleth were those who had given themselves over to Regret, the one Creator of seven who, when he’d seen what he and the seven other Creators had wrought, recognized that it was flawed and despised the work of his hands. To the men, women, and children who came into his twisted power, he gave horrible gifts-unnatural strength and appetites, odd growths and manifestations of beasts, and the power, with a touch, to steal Fire and soul. The stories of Sleth and the hunts the righteous led against them were legion.
Had Talen heard that right?
“This one ran like a monster,” one of the men said.
“Yes,” said the bailiff. “But it appears you caught him anyway.”
Talen looked up at the bailiff, but a wave of pain and nausea slammed into him, and he was forced to turn and vomit into the grass. He hurt everywhere.
“Get up,” said the bailiff.
Talen gagged once more, spit. He took three breaths to steady himself. He was dizzy and shaking.
He got to one knee. Something was running out of his nose. He wiped his face with his sleeve expecting blood, but it was nothing more than snot. There was a ringing in his ears, and he didn’t know if he could stand.
But he did know one thing: he would not show weakness. Not in front of these men.
Two more breaths. He could barely open one of his eyes.
Goh, these arrogant Mokaddian garlic-eaters. This would go to the Koramite Council. And the Council would take it to the Shoka lords. He was within his rights-every one of these men should pay! And that thought was enough to take the edge off the flood of tears pushing up within.
Talen stood. He almost toppled over, but then his dizziness seemed to recede.
Two other horsemen rode up from the village and joined the bailiff. One was the bald Fir-Noy he had seen at the gate. His black beard and eyebrows were even bushier than they had first appeared. His Mokaddian wrist tattoo with its boar’s tusk had been extended up his forearm, showing not only his clan, but also the military order to which he belonged. The other Fir-Noy was a small man, a messenger. He rode a horse that was lathered and blowing from a long gallop.
The bearded Fir-Noy shifted on his saddle and the leather creaked under him. “We tried to find you, Zu,” he said to the bailiff. “There’s been a Sleth hunt, and it appears that things have taken a turn for the worse.”
The bailiff turned. “A Sleth hunt?”
The messenger eyed Talen, then addressed the bailiff. “We identified the parents of the abomination pulled from the river. Yesterday, our forces closed in on Sparrow, the Koramite master smith of the village of Plum. But things did not go as planned. His two hatchlings escaped. And then some Sleth spawn came back and slaughtered a family in the village.”
Except for the buzzing in Talen’s head there was dead silence. Sleth, he thought. What are these men doing wasting their time chasing me? They should be out-
Then his brain processed that last statement. There were Sleth among the Koramites, among Talen’s people.
“We have reports,” the messenger continued, “that they were spotted in this district. A Koramite girl and her blind brother.” He turned to the men. “There’s a sizeable bounty for any who bring them in, dead or alive. A miller’s annual wage.”
The reports of Sleth that sailors brought this spring had given him nightmares. A Sleth wife taken in Mokad who had filed her teeth into sharp fangs-they’d all thought it was to make her more fearsome in battle. But the hunters discovered the true reason when they broke open her smokehouse and found the bodies of four men hanging, butchered and half cured.
And that was just this year. There were stories of Sleth stealing your soul away, then walking about in your body. Sleth growing horns, growing gills so they could swim in close and drag unsuspecting fishermen into the watery depths. Sleth were forever stealing sisters, wives, and husbands to use in unnumbered abominations.
If these men thought he was associated with Sleth…
Or was this simply another Fir-Noy scheme?
He realized it didn’t matter at this point. If these men thought he associated with such evil, then his life floated like a piece of duff over a bonfire.
“What are you doing here?” asked the bailiff.
“Trading for chickens, Zu,” said Talen. “That was my crime.”
“Then why did you run?” asked the Fir-Noy.
What a stupid question. “It’s hard to tell,” said Talen. “I’m usually quite solid when facing a charge of Mokaddian villagers.”
Of course, stupidity was bred into the Fir-Noy. Their clan was forever trying to stir all the others up to push the Koramites into the sea. It was probably this man who started this whole thing.
Sabin clopped Talen on the head and sent him reeling to his knees. “Respect your betters.”
Talen steadied himself and stood again. The right side of his rib cage pained him. He took in a large breath, expecting to feel the sharp pain of a broken bone. There was a twinge, but it didn’t feel like it came from a break.
He looked at the bailiff. “I’m sorry, Zu. Let me restate.”
“No,” said the bailiff. “There’s no need to restate.” His face was full of a pent-up anger. “There soon won’t be any chickens, Talen. There will be nothing for you Koramites. You squander opportunity after opportunity, your race. You can’t keep yourselves clean, can you?”
“Zu,” said Talen. “All I did was come for layers. And these men, without provocation, set upon me.”
“You ought to press him,” the Fir-Noy suggested. “Who knows how wide their network is? And think about it. I’m told this skinny thing is a half-breed. But not just any old mongrel. This one’s connected to high places, given special treatment. I’m told Argoth is going to adopt him into his family and give him a chance to earn the wrist of a Shoka man.” He spat at Talen’s feet. “This one can walk about and spy without being given a second glance.”
It was true Uncle Argoth and Da had recently talked about marrying Talen to a Mokaddian. It wasn’t necessary for him to be adopted into a Mokaddian family to do so. But it would smooth the process. However, there were some Shoka who thought it a scandal. Even among the Shoka of Stag Home there were still a few who still wondered how Talen’s mother, a Mokaddian of some station, could willingly debase herself and foul her offspring by marrying and mating Da, a full Koramite. There were those who saw her untimely death as a confirmation of that poor choice. Nevertheless, Uncle Argoth was determined to make him a full member of the clan, wrist tattoo and all.
“Are you spying?” asked the bailiff.
“Zu,” said Talen, “I mean no disrespect, but what would the purpose of such spying be? I have no idea what this is about.”
“Don’t feign ignorance,” the Fir-Noy growled.
“I am what you see,” Talen said to the bailiff. “Nothing more.”
“He’s lying,” said the Fir-Noy. “Take him and press the truth out.”
The bailiff turned to the Fir-Noy. “This is Shoka land, not Fir-Noy. Your news has caused trouble enough. I won’t let it bring murder to my fields.”
“Killing a Koramite isn’t murder.”
“It is here,” the bailiff said.
The Fir-Noy licked his fat lips and shook his head in disgust, but he made no reply.
Talen addressed the bailiff. “You know my family. Surely, you can’t think I am one of them.”
“I can think anything I want,” said the bailiff. “I stake my reputation vouching for you and your people. But your actions have begun to stain me.”
“No, Zu. Not mine. We carry no stain.” The bailiff knew him. Da had given his boy a foundling wildcat. He’d taught the bailiff himself a better way of drawing his bow. And, in return, the bailiff had invited Da on many a hunt. Surely, the bailiff’s vision would not be clouded with Fir-Noy rubbish.
The bailiff looked at Talen as if he were weighing him.
“I find no cause to accuse this boy,” the bailiff finally said. “Not today.”
Talen bowed in gratitude. “Zu, you are clear-sighted and wise.”
“Then prove me right. Packs of bounty hunters will begin to stalk these woods. But if a Koramite were to bring the hatchlings in, that would say something, wouldn’t it.”
“Yes,” said the Fir-Noy. “It will say that Koramites, like crows, feed on the carrion of their own kind. It proves nothing.”
Anger flashed up in Talen. Fir-Noy did nothing but pick and feed on the work of others. He knew he should keep his mouth shut, but he couldn’t help himself. The words were leaping out before he knew what he was saying.
“Well, Zu,” said Talen, “at least we’re willing to make something useful of our carrion; it appears the Fir-Noy simply let theirs parade about full of maggots and stink.”
Anger flushed the Fir-Noy’s face, and he kicked his horse forward to get at Talen.
Talen cringed, but the bailiff grabbed the Fir-Noy’s reins and pulled the horse up short.
“He’ll take that back!” said the Fir-Noy. “I won’t stand for this, Shoka land or no.”
The bailiff turned to Talen. “This is the last time you can expect protection from your own stupidity. Apologize!”
“Yes,” said Talen. “Of course.” He faced the Fir-Noy and stood as tall as he could muster. “Zu, I’ve been knocked half out of my mind. I apologize. Such untruths are only given voice by fools.”
“Rot,” said the Fir-Noy. Then he wrenched the reins away from the bailiff. “Your territory lord will hear about this.”
“I have no doubt,” said the bailiff.
The bailiff turned to Talen, his pale eyes sending a trembling up Talen’s back. “There’s going to come a time, Talen, when there will be no one to hold such men back. And the Koramites will be purged. It might be already too late. Now, you tell your da I expect him to order the Koramites in my district. I expect assurances. And know this: we’ll be picking over every rock and stone. And by the Goat King’s hairy arse, we’ll make no distinction between those who harbor hatchlings and those who practice the abominable arts. Now go.”
Talen nodded. “Thank you, Zu.” He began to walk back down the slope. “Excuse me,” he said, trying to get past two of the men to go back to the bridge to fetch his cart.
“Where are you going?” the bailiff demanded.
“Zu?” asked Talen.
“I just gave you an order.”
Talen paused. He could see no sympathy on the faces of the men. He wasn’t stupid, but at the moment he felt very much like a dunce. Then he realized there would be no picking up his cart and baskets.
“Directly home,” said Talen, changing his course. “That’s where I’m going.”
The bailiff only looked at him with those pale eyes.
Talen walked across the field toward the trail. He hurt all over. But he could walk. He could breathe. And that was something to be thankful for. He remembered the peppercorns and felt to make sure bag was still hanging from his neck. He hadn’t lost those, yet another thing to be thankful for.
As he departed he heard the bailiff lecturing his men, but he was so rattled he couldn’t focus on what the man was saying.
Talen crossed the fence and began to follow the trail. He looked at the wood in front of him. The hatchlings had been seen in this district. And where would hatchlings hide?
They wouldn’t be here. Not right here. Of all the miles upon miles of woodland available, why would the Sleth hatchlings choose this little section of the district right here in front of him? The chances were so remote that it wasn’t worth thinking about. But his heart wasn’t listening to his mind. It was said Sleth needed to feed often on the Fire of other men. And a lone stripling walking in the cover of a thick wood was a perfect target.
Furthermore, Sleth never came alone. There was always a big nest of them. So it was likely there were more than this one family, which meant there were probably adults, full of the dark art, looking for those hatchlings as well.
And even if the Sleth didn’t find him, then there were the bounty hunters the bailiff had mentioned. Only the fiercest of men took it upon themselves to hunt Sleth. And because these Sleth had been found among Koramites, the hunters would suspect every Koramite they came across, and he did not want to fall into their hands for questioning.
He looked back at the bailiff and the village men making their way toward the river.
Goh, he thought. Mobs and monsters. Being chased about by Ke and River now seemed a pretty thing.
He faced the woods again. He didn’t have much choice. Besides, even if someone were waiting behind a bend in ambush, standing here like a coward wasn’t going to improve his odds.
He searched the ground for a sturdy stick and a few good throwing stones, and then Talen entered the wood.
Talen tried to keep himself from running. But the farther he got into the dark, old wood, the more he felt like a fat worm sinking on a hook into the water.
A fat worm that had already been worked over. He catalogued his pains. There were two spots on his head that hurt to touch them. There was his eye that was now almost swollen shut. His ribs smarted. His kidneys, he was sure, had been abused. It hurt his back to walk. Lords, even his toes protested. He looked down, saw a smart bruise on his left foot and realized someone must have stomped it.
But these were physical pains. They would heal. At least, he hoped they would, especially the blows to his brain. The Sleth, on the other hand, were different. And he couldn’t tell what would be worse: to be taken by the Bone Faces and forced into a nine-fingered enslavement or to be kept in storage like a living carcass, to be feasted upon or twisted into something unnatural. At least with the Bone Faces he’d die a man.
And how could he follow the bailiff’s suggestion and bring in the hatchlings, the children of these Sleth? A proper Sleth hunt required one hundred men. It required a Divine. Was he expecting the Koramites to field groups of hunters? But the bailiff had been looking at him. It had been clear he was suggesting Talen join in the hunt. Except, what could one runt do?
If he had his bow, he might be able to do something. That is if the Sleth didn’t know the arrow was coming. He’d heard once at an alehouse that Sleth could whisper to arrows. Even so, he didn’t have his bow. He was defenseless. What were a few stones going to do against Sleth? The thing to do now was get back to Da and the others as quickly as he could and alert them.
The hatchlings were somewhere in these woods. He tried to act calm-the last thing prey should do is act like prey. But then the distinct thock of a branch breaking sounded off to his right followed by a squirrel screeching out a warning.
His heart leapt up into his throat. But he told himself it was a falling branch, told himself to stand upright and walk like a man. He quickened his pace despite the twinge in his back.
Then came a grunt and high keening, something moving toward him, scuffling through the leaves on the forest floor.
You are not prey, he told himself, you are not prey, but try as he might, he could not be calm. Could not walk. Could do nothing but abandon all pretense, ignore his injuries, and run.
Not once did he look back. He dared not. Eyes to the front, he told himself. He couldn’t afford to smack into a branch or step wrong, or, most especially, see the face of the thing that surely was behind him. He knew if he saw the beast, his courage was likely to completely desert him. At that point it would be impossible to do anything but cringe upon the ground like a cornered rabbit. So it was eyes in front, even when the woods broke before him and he saw the river below and the farm stretching away from him on the far side.
Talen ran down to the river, stumbled through the shallow water of the ford, and scrabbled up the other side. Only when he reached the smoke shed did he stop and turn, and, with much panting, search the woods.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
The Sleth children, if there had ever been any, must have been one-legged pigeons. No regular monsters would have let him escape alive.
Of course, there probably hadn’t been a thing in those woods besides squirrels and mice. The sound he’d heard was most certainly somebody’s renegade pig.
Coward, he told himself, and bent over, resting his hands on his knees. He was such a coward.
“Where’s the handcart?”
Talen turned. Da sat in the shady side of the barn, sharpening his scythe. Seeing that great horse of a man brought immense relief.
“Back at the bridge,” said Talen. He took a breath.
“Ah, that’s what I like to see. A boy who races home to work and leaves the chickens to fend for themselves.”
“Da,” said Talen. “The bailiff wants you.”
“We’re mowing the fields now. The bailiff can wait.”
Then he stopped and looked at Talen more closely. “Is that blood? What happened to your face?”
Talen poured out everything that had happened, including his run through the woods. As the story progressed, Da stroked the braids of his beard with increasing anger.
When Talen finished, Da set his scythe aside and stood.
“Are you going?”
“It appears I am,” said Da.
“Should we bring our bows?” asked Talen. “Or would billhooks be better?”
“Billhooks?” asked Da.
“In case we’re attacked.”
Da grunted. “You’re going out to glean. We’ve got a field that needs stacking.”
“But the hatchlings,” said Talen.
“The hatchlings,” said Da. “Son, did you not learn anything from your adventure this morning? Even if the children were Sleth, the greater risk is being mistaken for a Soul-eater by an idiot with hunt fever. We’re talking about two children, however ferocious they may be.” Da shook his head. “You said a Fir-Noy rider brought the message? That’s the problem right there.”
“Shouldn’t we at least give the warnings some credit until we find out otherwise?”
“Sparrow was a good man,” said Da. He heaved a great sigh.
Talen had not known the smith very well. However, he’d always wondered about his name. He’d thought it funny such a mighty man would be named for such a little bird. Talen, Ke, and Nettle were named after noteworthy ancestors. His sister was named so she might be granted all the qualities-the strength, life, purpose-of a River. But Sparrow? Talen had found out that the smith’s family had a long line of Sparrows, all named after an actual bird that had saved one of the family’s progenitors from drowning. He’d always wanted to hear that tale, but now he wasn’t so sure.
A great weariness seemed to descend upon Da. “You could search this whole land. You could search the whole Nine Clans, and not find Sparrow’s better.”
“But he was Sleth,” said Talen.
Da shook his head. “If Sparrow was Sleth, then fish swim in the deep blue sky.” He turned to Talen. “Do you still have the peppercorns?”
Talen nodded. He opened the small pouch hanging around his neck that served as his purse, poured out the corns, and handed them over.
Da took them with his large fingers and carefully placed them in his own pouch.
“Get out to the field and help with the stacking,” said Da. “I’m going to fetch us some hens and go talk to the bailiff.” Da turned and headed for the barn. “By the way, I found your pants wadded up under your bed,” he called back. “They’re lying on the table.”
“I looked under my bed,” said Talen.
Da shrugged. “They were there, plain as day.”
That was impossible. Talen had moved his bed out. He would have seen them.
Talen turned and went in to the house to get his old pants. These were stained, thanks to the Stag Home idiots, with blood and grass and would take an hour of washing to get them clean. When he came back outside, Da had Iron Boy saddled.
Da’s unstrung hunting bow stood in the leather bow bag strapped along Iron Boy’s side. He should have been taking his war bow. “I’ll be back before dark,” Da said. He secured what he called the Hog behind the saddle.
The Hog was an axe with a handle about as thick as four fingers and a shaft as long as Talen’s arm. The head was not broad like a timber axe, but short and narrow with a blade at one end and a pick at the other. But it was used for other things. An archer needed a weapon for close work. He needed something for when he exhausted his supply of arrows. The Hog could pierce armor when wielded by a man half Da’s size, and Da had killed three Bone Faces last year with it. But he did not reverence it as many men would: most of the time he used it to break up the bee propolis in the hives or to chop kindling.
“If you find any Sleth,” said Da, “be sure to tell them you’re tough and gamey and not at all fit for dinner.” A little bit of a smile softened his grim expression.
“Easy for you to say,” said Talen.
“We’re going to be fine, Talen,” he said. “Don’t worry about a thing.” He picked up the reins and led Iron Boy away.
Talen watched him go. Then he looked at the woods and swallowed.
On the day before Talen took his beating, Barg, the harvest master and butcher of the village of Plum, stood in the crisp light of early morning with a number of men, waiting to murder the smith, his wife, and their two children.
Oh, none of them called it murder, but all knew that’s where this would lead. And what choice did they have?
The villagers had been joined by others in the district and divided into groups positioned around the smith’s. One group hid behind the miller’s. Another, the one lead by Barg, kept itself behind Galson’s barn. The third waited in a small grove on the outskirts of the village.
The men with Barg stood for an hour, checking the buckles of what armor they had, wrestling with the shock of the matter, and waiting for the signal in silence. At first, a handful of the outsiders had boasted of what they’d do. “Mark me,” a Mokaddian wearing the turquoise of the Vargon clan said. His Vargon accent was plain, rolling his r’s much too long. “I will land one of the first five strokes.”
Barg cut off a handful of his hair with a knife to show his mourning. “You’ll be one of the first five he guts.” He grasped another handful of hair and sawed through it.
“What do you know?” the Vargon said.
“I know that today I will help kill a man who saved my life.” He cast another clump of shorn hair to the ground. “The smith is a roaring lion. You had best beware.”
The Vargon said nothing in return, but what could he say? He was only trying to cover his fears. Sparrow the smith was a formidable warrior, and if the accusations against him were true, then it was certain some of those who had gathered today would die.
The approaching dawn silvered the fields and thatch roofs about the village and set the roosters to crowing. The cattle in the paddocks began to low, a stray dog outside the alewife’s barked at a snake trying to get to the tall grass, and down in the south field a few straggling deer decided it was now time to leave the fields and find cover. The men knew their signal was only minutes away.
On the side of the village closest to the forest and the Galson’s homes, the smith’s daughter, Sugar, stood in the barn feeding their two horses and heard the jingle of a trap bell in her garden. It was followed by the panicked cry of a hare.
Nothing ever got away from one of Sugar’s traps. And from the sound of the scuffling and ringing, this creature was big. All that commotion was sure to bring Midnight and Sky, her family’s dogs. She’d trained them to leave her game alone, but these two liked to bend the rules whenever they could. So Sugar put down the hay fork, and told Fancy, their mare, and Sot, their draft horse she’d return later. Then she picked up her smothering sack and stepped out of the barn and into the yard in her bare feet.
The village homes looked like fat ships floating amidst a sea of grain. But it was not a quiet sea. Da had flung both doors to the smithy open and stood at the forge hammering away at his work. Farmer Galson’s cattle bellowed. They were the noisiest bunch of cattle in the whole district. Sugar saw them bunched up at the far end of their paddock, waiting for one of Galson’s grandsons to open the gate so they could go to the watering pond. But that was odd… someone should have led them out long ago.
Beyond the paddock gate stood the thatch-roofed homes for Farmer Galson, his children, and his adult grandchildren. Almost a village all by itself. The soft yellow light of hearth fires still shone in many of the windows. Outside, one of the wives made her way back from the privy in a pale nightgown. She held a wailing babe on her hip.
The woman looked up, and Sugar waved across the field at her, but she did not wave back; instead, she dashed for her house. Maybe she hadn’t seen Sugar. But then again, maybe she had. Some of the Galsons thought they rode a lord’s high horse.
Sugar walked to the garden, opened the gate, and stepped under the arch of climbing rose. The lemony scent from its pink blooms lay heavy in the air. She walked along the shadowed rows of vegetables until she came to the peas and salad greens.
There she found a large hare, a black-tail that was going to make a fine breakfast.
It was easiest just to brain them with a stout stick, but she didn’t want to chance ruining the fur about the throat, so she readied the smothering sack and approached the animal. This part of the garden was still wet with yesterday’s watering and the soil stuck to the bottoms of her bare feet.
When she got close, the hare began to kick in earnest. It was a monster. Twelve pounds at least.
She threw the sack over it to protect her from its kicking and clawing and quickly held its hind-and forequarters in place. It cried out in distress, but she kneeled on its side, pressing the air out of its lungs. She pressed until she knew she’d start breaking its ribs, then waited for it to suffocate.
The giant hare struggled underneath her. It bucked once more then lay very still. Sugar removed the snare noose from its leg. The hare felt dead. But she’d been tricked before. A number of years ago, before her moon-cycles had come upon her, she’d picked up a hare and carried it into the house and laid it on the cutting stone. The whole time it had lain in her hands like a limp rag, but the second she began to cut, it jumped up and knocked the knife right out of her hand. Then it flew off the table and bolted out the open door. And so she continued to press this hare.
Across the paddocks the Galsons’ dogs began to bark. They were joined by another group down by the miller’s.
The dogs would often bark this way when travelers passed through. Sugar looked up to see what was causing the commotion and saw a wide line of men on the far side of Galson’s paddocks.
The Mokaddians marched in battle order with bows and spears, their helmets gleaming in the early morning light. Those with spears also carried shields painted with a grotesque boar’s head circled by a ring of orange. It was the mark of the Fir-Noy clan.
It was not uncommon to see such things. All men, Mokaddian and Koramite, were required to regularly attend their clan musters. But something about this was not right.
She turned and saw another line coming up from the miller’s.
Then she realized: these men were converging, but not on the practice field. No, they seemed on a direct course for her house.
Fear ran up Sugar’s back. Not only were these men converging, but none of them wore the armbands that distinguished friend from foe during the practice musters.
Sugar stood, trying to get a better view.
The hare that had lain beneath her bucked free of the smothering sack. It bolted down the row of peas, pushed through a hole she’d missed in their fence, and fled to the short hedgerow that grew along a portion of Galson’s paddock.
The men marched toward the house. She could see the intricate Mokaddian tattoos around their wrists and forearms. She could see beards and naked chins under their helmets, but they were too far away for their eyes to be anything but dark pits.
She ran to the back door and flung it open.
Mother bent at the hearth building up a cooking fire. She startled when Sugar rushed in. “Goh, you do that just to set my heart leaping in my throat, don’t you.”
“There are men dressed for battle in Galson’s field,” said Sugar. “Others down by the miller’s. Was there a muster today?”
Mother picked up the bowl the potter had thrown just for Cotton, Sugar’s infant brother who had been stolen the previous season. “I’m sure I would have heard something.”
At that moment Da opened the front door. As the days turned hotter, Da had taken to wearing as little as possible. He stood there bare-chested with the morning at his back.
“Purity,” he said to Mother, “this beard is going to be the death of me. I’m sick of the braids catching fire. I’m not going back to the smithy until it’s shaved off.”
Sugar saw that two of his braids were indeed singed.
“Ach,” Mother said, undoing the shutter latch, “they’re so handsome on you. Half the men in this village would give a finger for such a beard.”
“I don’t want their fingers,” said Da. “They can have the beard for free.” His massive back and arms glistened with the morning sweat. He smelled like charcoal smoke.
Mother walked to the back door and looked outside. “That’s odd,” she said.
Da spoke to Sugar. “I heard the hare trap. All this time I’ve been lusting after beef. Why can’t you catch one of Galson’s steers? I’d even settle for one of the old ones.”
“There’s the matter of Farmer Galson,” said Sugar.
“Bah,” said Da, dismissing the farmer. “Make a trap for Galson as well.”
“Sparrow,” said Mother, “did you forget today’s muster?”
“None that I know of.” He walked over to her, but instead of looking out the doorway, he reached out with one of his massive arms and grabbed her around the waist. He nuzzled into her side and began nibbling.
“Stop,” she said and pushed at him. “Sparrow, what are those men doing?”
Da looked outside.
Midnight and Sky began barking out front. Sugar looked through the front door Da had left open. “There’s another group coming down the lane.”
As Koramites, Sugar’s family had no legal clan. The Mokaddian and Koramite fatherlands were far across the sea. The Mokaddians had beat the Koramites there in a great war not long ago, and one of the Mokaddian prizes had been the Koramite settlements in the New Lands. Of the nine Mokaddian clans that came to claim the prize, the Fir-Noy seemed to hate their Koramite vassals the most. Not two months ago a group of Fir-Noy had beat a Koramite woman until they’d ruined one eye and half her teeth.
But Da had said that wouldn’t happen here. Those were upland Fir-Noy that had beaten the woman. They didn’t have sway in the village of Plum, and Da had the assurances of the territory lord on that.
“They’re surrounding us,” Sugar said. The men were close enough for Sugar to see the set of their mouths-bitter as garden rue.
When Sugar was a child, a gang of four village boys had tormented her until Da confronted the boy’s parents. But that didn’t end the issue. So Da took it to the village council. He demanded the boys come fight her one-on-one. Mother was furious, taking him to task for making Sugar fight his battles. But Da stood his ground.
Da himself was a fighter, and for one week he sparred with Sugar, preparing her as best he could. Then the boys had come, some grinning, some all business. They brought most of the village with them. And in the wedge field, surrounded by grandmothers, children, and dogs, Sugar had taken a beating. But the boys had not left unscathed either. There was a black eye, a bloody nose. She’d kicked one so hard in the gut that he’d vomited in the grass.
Afterwards, some of the villagers cheered for her. A few of the fathers of the boys who had started it all came and made peace. Da was satisfied. Mother was not. She would not speak to him for two weeks. But even with her heavy fury on him, Da did not give up on Sugar’s lessons. “There are those who act,” he said. “And those who are acted upon. I’m not ever going to leave you in a position again where you have no choice.”
Two years later when her moon-cycles came, Mother convinced Da he was ruining her chances of a good marriage, for what boy wanted to bed a bruiser? So he stopped teaching her how to use her feet and hands as weapons, and began to teach her knives.
That was a number of years ago. She’d never had to use the knife Da forged for her protection and made her wear. Not to draw a man’s blood. Although she had let a few of the boys she’d been introduced to at Koramtown know she wore it. But mostly she’d used the knife around the yard in her chores. Now, even though she knew it would be useless against a host of men, she was glad she had it.
Mother turned to her. “Get Fancy saddled.”
Sugar moved to obey, but Da held his hand up. “No. Running will only raise their suspicions or prod them to act. This might be nothing. Leave it to me. I know how to handle these men.”
“And then it will be too late,” said Mother.
“Woman,” said Da in warning. Then he walked out the front door.
When he was only a few paces into the yard, Mother turned to Sugar. “You get Fancy.”
“Do you want saddlebags?” asked Sugar.
“All I want is a horse. The Fir-Noy are not what they once were.”
Sugar dashed out the back door.
The troops in Farmer Galson’s fields had fanned out and were now walking as a line toward the house.
Legs, her younger, blind brother, stood in front of the chicken house, his head cocked at an odd angle as if looking off into space, which was what he did when he paid fierce attention to every sound and smell. His wild hair stood up. In his arm he held a basket of onions and eggs.
“Legs!” she said. “Get in here.”
“I can hear men,” he said.
“Move!” she said.
Holding the eggs to the bottom of the basket, Legs jogged for the back door. He needed no stick to navigate the house and yard. If he knew a place, he could walk about as if he were sighted. It was only when he was in a new place that he might stumble, or when things were lying out of place. And so they all had learned to be very tidy.
Sugar ran to the barn. Fancy nickered. Sot had already moved out to the watering trough. Sugar grabbed the harness, slipped it over Fancy’s head, and fitted the bridle in her mouth. Then she led the horse out and tied her to the post by the back door.
The Fir-Noy stood with their hideous shields only a few paces beyond the chicken house. They’d formed up into a loose circle that ringed both the house and smithy. “Mark the horse,” one of the soldiers said.
For a moment Sugar thought they were going to shoot Fancy right there. Perhaps shoot Sugar herself. She rushed into the house and shut the door behind her. She went to her mother who stood in the doorway to the front yard.
“Fancy’s not going to be enough,” she said.
Mother gaze was fixed on Da out in the yard, but she reached out and smoothed Sugar’s hair. “You did just fine. Now, if anything happens, you and Legs need to be ready to ride. You’ll have the most cover in the woods. So it’s straight through Galson’s fields, low on Fancy’s neck. And if someone stands in your way, you ride them down.”
Fear seized Sugar’s heart. Had it really come to this? “What about you and Da?”
“You ride them down,” said Mother. “You flee to Horse.”
Mother had always told her that if the Mokaddians ever attacked, she was to flee into the Shoka lands and find the farmer many called Horse. His given name was Hogan. And that’s how she addressed him out of respect. Sugar didn’t know him well, but she had been to his farm a few times. Still, how would she ride through that ring of men? They’d fill her or Fancy full of arrows before she’d galloped a rod.
“Do you hear me?” asked Mother.
“Yes,” Sugar said.
She looked past Da at the soldiers out front. They’d stopped a number of paces from Da. Those with bows had strung them, and that was something fearful. Because keeping a bow strung all the time only ruined the weapon. You never strung your bow unless you were going to use it.
Midnight and Sky barked at the men until Da whistled sharply and called them back to his side.
Two men on horseback faced Da. She recognized the leader and the orange and blue patterns painted onto his armor. It was the territory lord, a man everyone called the Crab for his ruddy complexion. Next to him sat the district lord. Behind them stood Barg, the butcher and village harvest master, holding his spear.
Da bowed to the Crab. “My Lord,” he joked, “have you at last come to wrestle your humble servant?”
But the Crab did not smile. “Sparrow, smith of Plum,” he said. “You have been accused of dark magic. We are here to take you and yours to prove that you are whole and without spot.”
Dark magic? Sugar did not believe she’d heard him correctly.
“What?” said Da.
“If you’re clean,” said the Crab, “you need not fear the ordeal.”
An ordeal was designed to flush out Sleth. Supposedly, when such a creature was on the point of death or overwhelming pain, through drowning or torture, it would multiply its strength with its dark magic to save itself and thus reveal its true nature.
But how anyone could think her family was among such was impossible to fathom.
The Crab reached into a pouch tied to the front of his saddle and pulled out a thin collar, almost a necklace.
“I have here a king’s collar. I want you to put it on.” He tossed it. The collar shimmered in the early morning light; it landed in the dust two-thirds of the way between the Crab and Da. “When it’s about your neck, you will bind your wife and children in chains.”
He motioned to a man behind him who brought up a number of leg and neck irons and tossed them toward where the collar lay.
A king’s collar was a magical thing, wrought by a special order of Divines called Kains; it not only prevented a person from working magic, but it weakened them and made them easy to handle.
Sugar realized the men did not come closer and bind the family themselves because they feared some kind of evil trick.
“This is ridiculous,” said Da.
The Crab’s horse danced to the side a few steps.
Then the district lord tossed a large sack towards Da. It landed heavily on the ground. “The contents of that sack were found last evening on the bank of the Green by a group of mothers and children doing their laundry. Open it.”
Da walked over to the sack, squatted down, and pulled the mouth open.
“Whose child is that in the sack, Master Sparrow?”
Sugar heard her mother take in a sharp breath.
Da hesitated for a moment then gently worked the body out. He knelt there for quite some time, not moving, not saying a word.
Then Sugar knew who was in that sack. She could feel it from the crown of her head to her toes. Her fear fled and she raced out the door.
Da turned and motioned for her to stay. “Get back!”
But it was too late. Sugar saw the baby that Da had exposed.
It was Cotton, her little brother. She knew it. Little Cotton, stolen out of his crib earlier this spring. By woodikin or slavers or wild dogs, nobody knew. Yet here he was.
She came closer and saw that the body was bloated and partially decomposed. It had the lighter Koramite coloring and Cotton’s curly hair.
Cotton, their bonny little honey man.
Then Da opened the sack wider and slid the body of a stork out.
From the uncommon kidney-shaped spot of dark feathers on its shoulder she knew it was Lanky, the young stork with a wounded wing that she and Legs had found. They’d wrapped him up in Legs’s tunic and brought him home, careful to avoid the sharp yellow beak. Mother had nursed him back to health. And when Cotton was born, it seemed to think he was its brother. Mother was always shooing it away from him for fear of that long beak. And the stork would go, but only to perch on a fence post or the limb of one of the trees. It pestered them for weeks.
Lanky had disappeared the same day Cotton did.
Sugar had thought the mad bird had finally departed because Cotton had gone. But this was awful. Somebody had taken both and killed them.
Da turned the bird over. Something was wrong with the carcass. She looked closer.
The bird had wings and feathers. But where the talons of the right leg should have been, a misshapen human foot curled. And where short feathers should have graced the beast’s head, patches of long blond hair grew. And underneath that hair lay what surely was a small, twisted, but human-shaped ear.
Sugar’s sickness turned to revulsion.
“Look closely at the foot of the child,” said the Crab. “Notice the nails. Notice also the few patches on its back. That’s not matted hair; it’s the beginnings of chick down.”
Da stood, horrified.
“And now,” said the Crab, “you will put on the collar and chains.”
“Sugar,” Mother called.
But Sugar was rooted to the spot.
Da found his voice. “You think we are soul-eaters? You think we would spend our child’s soul like this?”
“What I know,” said the district lord, “is that someone buried these two. And when the recent floods came, the waters opened the grave, tasted its contents, and spat them out.”
“My Cotton was stolen,” said Mother.
“Yes, yes,” said the Crab. “Snatched by one of the woodikin and taken to the swamps or into the wild wood over the mountains. It’s a fine story, but here he is.”
It was common enough for the Divines of the many glorydoms to draw the Fire that fueled the days of a man’s life. But not the soul. Never the soul. Sleth, on the other hand, stole Fire and soul from men and beasts. The singular nature of the soul was what gave each type of living being its distinct attributes. Consuming bits of another’s soul transferred random aspects of that soul, aspects that manifested themselves in mind and body, slowly twisting the one that had consumed it.
Sleth stole from humans, but because animals couldn’t tell their secrets, Sleth stole most often from them. So if one had stolen Fire from his goat, then he would also have traces of that goat soul in the draw, and over time that soul would manifest itself. Such a thief might develop the nubs of horns on his head or a slit iris in his eyes. If one had stolen from fish, he might one day find patches of scales instead of skin. Someone who stole from his cattle might be inflamed with lust by a heifer in estrus. Someone who had stolen from a bird…
But this was all wrong. How could a babe steal soul?
“You cannot controvert the manifestations of Sleth-work upon both bodies,” said the Crab. “Nor can you claim the child is not yours. The other Koramite children who died last season have all been dug up and accounted for. And no other has gone missing.”
The bowmen trained their arrows on Da’s heart. Some pointed their arrows at her and Mother.
Barg spoke up. “You haven’t been sick in many years. And the tale your wife tells is suspect. Your dogs were in the yard the day your child went missing. This she swears. Yet she also said they did not bark.” He motioned at Midnight and Sky. “We all heard today how they react to strangers. There could have been some charm put upon them. But it could also be the one snag in an otherwise well-spun lie.”
“Purity does not lie,” said Da.
“Then you have nothing to fear from the ordeal,” said the Crab.
“My Lord,” said Da. “I respect your office. But you are no Divine. An ordeal-”
“Master Sparrow,” said the Crab. “Would you rather I let a mob deal with the problem? This is what prudence demands. Now, pick up the collar.”
“There’s not one of you that can revive us if the ordeal turns fatal. Let us wait for a Divine.”
“That is not an option.”
Of course, it was. But they thought Da was Sleth, and everyone knew you did not bargain with Sleth. You never gave them any quarter. Sleth were both fearsome and wily and too quick to escape their bonds.
“You live with me all these years and suddenly conclude I’m one who could devour his own children?” Da pointed at Barg. “Who was it last autumn, after those bloody battles on the Fingers, that cast aside prudence and rowed back at night to an island crawling with Bone Faces to save three doomed friends?” It had been Da who had rowed back. Da who had saved, among others, Barg the butcher.
Sugar looked into the faces of the soldiers. There were a number she recognized. Some had laughed with Da in the yard. Others had eaten at their table. Many of the villagers of Plum had drunk ale and been entertained by Legs singing his ditties. All had accepted the water he drew and delivered to the villagers as they worked the fields, him leading his goat and cart, feeling the road as he went with his stick. But those smiling faces were gone. They were replaced by faces grim and fixed on their purpose.
Mother grabbed her arm and pulled her back toward the house.
“I’ve drunk and danced with you,” said Da. “I’ve shoed your horses. I probably fashioned most of those spearheads. You’ve nothing to fear from me. My heart is as clean and fresh as well water and you all know it.”
“What we know is that all the evidence points here,” said the Crab. “And now we’ve come to the end of our discussion. If we were uplanders bent on murder, you would already be dead. I’ve done more than give you the benefit of the doubt. This is the last chance I’m giving you. Pick up the collar and irons.”
“You will kill us and learn nothing.”
“Zun,” said Barg, using the title of honor meant for warriors who were equals. “Just pick up the cursed irons.”
Da did not move.
“Bowmen,” said the Crab. “Ready yourselves.”
The bowmen drew their strings to their cheeks.
Sugar could not believe her eyes.
She and Mother now stood at the doorway to the house.
Da looked back at Mother. Some communication passed between them that Sugar could not decipher.
The Crab raised his arm to signal the bowmen. “Let all here witness that Sparrow, smith of the village of Plum, has refused an ordeal.”
“Stop!” said Da. “I’ll take your wretched collar and irons. But you know only Divines can conduct hunts. The only reason you haven’t killed us already is so that you can avoid the fines levied on mobs like this. Let it be known that on this day the laws of the Glory of Mokad have been set aside. Your blatant disobedience will be made known. And your own Divines will come to collect the debt of blood.”
The Divines would come. And they would punish these men, for the laws on this matter were clear and ruthlessly enforced: no man could take upon himself even the slightest part of the honor of a Divine. But the Divines would come too late.
Da walked forward and picked up the collar and irons.
They would almost surely use water for the ordeal. And Sugar’s family would drown. She’d once touched the cold, bloated body of a boy who had drowned. She envisioned Legs as that boy, and panic ran through her.
Da examined the irons and said, “It looks like your smithing is as bad as your judgment. I’ll need a hammer to assemble these pieces properly.”
“Those pieces are just fine,” said the district lord.
Mother turned to Legs and in a quiet voice said, “Get the shutters. Slowly now.”
Da began walking toward Mother and the open doorway.
Legs closed the shutters on the front of the house then moved to the back.
The district lord called out, “Stop!”
Da stopped only a few paces from the front step and looked back.
“Put on the collar,” said the district lord.
“Of course,” said Da. He dropped the irons in the grass. And then he dashed toward the house.
At that moment Mother moved back from the door and pulled Sugar in with her.
A cry of alarm rose from the soldiers.
“Shoot him!” commanded the Crab. “Shoot!”
THE COURAGE OF WOMEN
At the moment of the Crab’s command, the bowmen released their arrows, and Sugar saw the arrows fly.
Da took three, four strides. He leapt to the porch. Then an arrow struck him in the back below the ribs. Another flew like an angry insect into the house above her head and struck the wall behind her.
“Sparrow!” Mother called.
Da’s momentum carried him into the house, and Mother slammed the door shut.
More arrows struck the door. A man cried out, “I got him! I got him!”
Midnight and Sky had not followed Da. They barked viciously outside.
Mother pulled the crossbar on the door in place.
More bows thrummed outside and the dogs’ barks turned to screams. Then the dogs fell silent.
Da winced and looked down at his side. The arrow had not gone into the thick of his back, only cut the flesh on the side. But the blood still spilled from him like water. He pressed his hand to the wound.
“Those cursed blackhearts,” he said. He pulled his hand away wet with blood. “Get me a wrap,” he said to Mother. “All these years, and then they treat me like some feral dog.”
Mother took a knife to her dress and cut a long strip. “We should have ridden when I first suggested it. Why you can’t listen to me I’ll never know.”
“Well, you won’t have to fret about that much longer, will you?”
Mother was furious. She made the final cut, then came and tied it around Da to cover and hold the wound. When Da took his hand away it was dark red. Heavy drops of blood fell to the floor.
“Did you get your mother’s horse?” Da asked Sugar.
“I did,” she said, and the enormity of that almost overwhelmed her. One horse was not enough for all four of them. She cursed herself for not having thought to get Sot.
Da nodded. “It’s enough.”
From outside, they heard the Crab yelling at his men. “I want all here to witness that Sparrow has refused the proving. Fire the smithy and the house.”
Moments later Sugar heard arrows snake into the thatch above their heads. Those would have their points wrapped and burning with pitch-soaked rags.
“Fetch me my armor,” said Da.
“What are we going to do?” asked Sugar.
Da looked down into her eyes. “You, my dear, along with Mother and Legs, are going to ride Fancy out of here.”
“You fool,” said Mother. “It’s too late for that.”
Sugar thought Mother had said that in anger, but when Sugar looked up, she could see Mother was not angry-she was wracked with grief.
“I’m going to draw them away from the back,” said Da. Then he took Mother’s hand and kissed it. “It’s not too late. Not for a fool to remedy his foolishness. You three will ride away, and not look back.”
“I don’t want to ride away,” said Sugar. “Besides, where can we go that they won’t find us?”
“Mother will know,” said Da. “Now fetch me my tunic.”
Sugar hesitated, but Mother nodded, so she ran and brought the quilted under-tunic and helped Da tie it shut. Then Mother dressed him into the mail tunic that extended down to his thighs.
Da couldn’t rout so many men. They were all going to die, yet Da made her cinch the buckles on his breastplate as if he were dressing for a parade.
Legs found his way over and grasped Da’s wrist. His hair stuck out, and fear shone plainly on his face. Da took Legs’s hand and kissed it. “Be brave, Shen, son of Sparrow, son of Sparrow, son of Shen.” Shen was Legs’s given name. He was an ancestor who had been a powerful man, and Da loved telling his stories. Da kissed Legs’s hand a second time.
By the time they had the breastplate buckled about him, Sugar could hear the fire above their heads and smell the smoke coming in through the cracks of the shutters.
“Peer out the back and tell me what you can see,” said Mother.
Sugar looked out a small hole in the shutter and surveyed their garden. Fancy neighed nervously and clopped about trying to pull free from the post. The soldiers stood away from the border of the yard.
“They’ve backed up,” she said.
“Did you see their faces?” asked Da. “Half of them are petrified. Those are not children out there. I should be stuck like a pincushion with arrows. But their fear has affected their aim. Would that I were a soul-eater. Then this whole so-called hunt would be at risk. With average luck, I’d kill the lot of them and green our garden with their blood.”
Mother came away from the window. “Perhaps we can make the break together,” she said to Da. “You can take off this armor. The children and I will ride off first. And in the confusion of them chasing us, you can get on Sot.”
Da fastened his helmet on. “It’s too risky. We need to split them. I should have run to the smithy to draw them away from you, but none of the pieces there would have fit me well. There’s no armor there but what’s made for these short whoreson Mokaddians.”
Heat began to press down upon them as if they were loaves in an oven. Smoke hung about the room in hazy streaks.
“It’s time,” he said. Then he took Legs’s face in his hands and kissed his cheek, embraced him, then kissed him again. He did the same to Sugar, but she could not let him go.
She would not. Lords, she would rather die with him. She had her knife.
“You are a delight and solace,” he said. “We named you perfectly. Take care of your brother.” Then he gently forced Sugar away.
He stood and looked at Mother with a fierce light in his eyes. “I could never have found a better woman,” he said. “Even in your arguing.”
“Take off the armor,” Mother said.
“We’re not going to be able to make the break together,” said Da. “It won’t work.”
Mother seemed oddly calm. “Sparrow, my heart. Haven’t you learned yet that I’m always right?”
What was Mother thinking? Then Sugar realized she had given up. She’d always said that if her babies died, she wanted to go with them. Sugar saw this logic extended to Da as well. And perhaps that was right. They would all die together.
“No,” said Da. “We’ll not take that route. We’ll not walk into their spears and arrows without a struggle. If they want my blood and the blood of my fine wife and children, then they will pay for it. You’re feeling battle dread; hold your course until it passes. You have a chance, Purity. A slim one. Don’t throw it away.”
“I’m not talking of giving up,” said Mother. “We do have a chance, but not in this way. They’ll cut you down before those out back even know what’s happening. You’re a mighty man, Master Sparrow, but even you cannot stand against fifty spears.”
Da’s face was full of confusion. “What better plan is there?”
“I will face them.”
Da’s face softened. “That, love, is my task. Now ready yourself.” He turned, but Mother grasped him by the shoulder and held him back.
She had gone mad with panic and grief.
Da tried to pull her hand away.
“I will face them,” she said calmly.
“Purity,” he said. “Love.” He removed her hands and tried to stride to the door, but Mother grasped him again.
“No,” he said and removed her hand. But she took him by the rim of his breastplate and, like a man heaving a sack of meal, threw him across the room. He stumbled over a chair and slammed into the far wall.
Many men came far and wide to wrestle Da. Few had thrown him. None had handled him with such force.
Da looked at Mother, his face full of shock. He shifted his mail tunic, then tried again to reach the door. But Mother planted herself in his path. He tried to push her out of the way, but could not budge her. He renewed his efforts, his arms and neck straining. But it was to no avail.
His expression turned from shock to angry determination.
He took a step back and then lunged at her, but Mother simply stepped out of his way and with one sweep of her foot took his legs out from underneath him.
Mother reached down to take his war maul. “I will face them,” she said calmly. “Take off your armor so you can ride more easily.”
Da grasped the head of the maul. “Purity,” he said.
“I will draw them to me,” she said. “And you will ride with the children. It will be best that way. They will not be orphaned or caught and sold as chattel. You can provide for and protect them as I never could.”
“I don’t understand,” Da said.
“Yes, you do,” she said, then she tugged the maul out of his grip.
Sugar stood back, confused and alarmed.
Mother turned to her. “The way to the woods will be clear. Be ready to fly.”
Then she walked to the front door and put her hand on the crossbar. She paused, taking them all in with her gaze. “I will be waiting for you in brightness.”
She lifted the bar, and in one fluid motion she flung open the door and raced outside. Clouds of smoke billowed in. The roar of the fire above them surged. Out back, Fancy cried with wild panic.
Luckily, neither Sugar nor Legs were standing anywhere within the line of sight from the doorway, for moments later more than a dozen arrows hissed through the smoke, some sticking into the walls, others glancing off a table or chair. Da had only just gained his feet when two struck him. One glanced off his breastplate, the other hit him in the mail over his thigh. He grunted at the second, but it did not have an armor-piercing head, and the arrow fell away.
Da stood and raced after Mother, but halted at the door. He coughed at the smoke and squatted to get under it. “Goh,” he said with a look of wonder on his face.
“Da,” said Sugar and rushed to shut the door. But as she grabbed the door, she saw what Da was looking at.
Mother had already reached the soldiers. Two men lay on the grass. One was dead. The other screamed out at the wound that had nearly taken his leg.
She moved like a snake, like the wind. She was graceful and absolutely horrible.
She swung into another man’s wooden shield and sent it flying. He cried out and stumbled backward, but before he could reach the ground, she smashed in the side of his head.
Sugar could not believe her eyes. She would not. Such speed and power was unnatural.
“Purity,” said Da, and Sugar could see the horror and disbelief on his face.
The great bulk of the men were falling back, some stumbling over one another. In his retreat, one of the bowmen loosed an arrow, but it flew wide of Mother and struck one of his fellows. Another man charged her with a spear, but she swung the maul with blinding speed and cleaved the spear into two.
The Crab yelled for his men to stand and close ranks.
Mother was about to put the whole mob on the run, but two men yelled and rushed her from behind, their javelins held high.
“Mother!” Sugar yelled.
Mother turned just as they cast them. She dodged one, but the other caught her in the shoulder and knocked her back.
He had been in shock, but fury now burned in his eyes.
Mother removed the spear and defended herself from the sword blows of the man who had thrown it.
A dozen archers came running round the corner from the back of the house. They began to form a line. Mother would not be able to dodge their arrows.
The flames thundered overhead.
“Get to Fancy,” Da commanded, “and ride.”
Then he rose and stepped out onto the porch and put his helmet upon his head. Someone shouted out a warning, and the mob turned to look.
Da stood in his dark, shining armor, the fire raging above his head, smoke pouring off the roof.
The men in the yard froze.
“You’ve met the mistress,” Da bellowed. “Now face the master!”
A man dropped his spear, panic shining in his wide eyes.
Da roared and and charged into the fray.
“Da!” Sugar called after him.
He had no weapon, and at first, Sugar thought that he too would fly into the soldiers as Mother had with that awful strength and speed. But Da did not show any sign of dark magic. He charged as a normal man would, an actor playing a role.
But the soldiers did not see through Da’s bluff, and they began to scatter.
Just then the Crab yelled out and galloped across Sugar’s view toward her parents, his sword held high and at the ready.
The house burned like a furnace. The heat began to scorch her lungs with each breath, and she dropped to the floor.
She watched Da run to one of the dead men and pick up his spear. Then he turned just in time to meet the Crab’s charge. Da yelled and shoved the spear into the neck of the Crab’s mount. The horse screamed, reared, and threw its rider.
“Sugar!” Legs called out.
She turned and saw him holding his hand to his chest. His hand was bleeding. She’d been wrong: one of the arrows had found a mark.
She could do nothing against soldiers. But she could help her brother.
“Open the door!” she shouted.
“I can’t,” he said.
He could, but was too frightened to do anything. The wisterwife charm he always kept about his neck had falled out of his tunic. Sugar hoped the wisterwives were indeed looking out for them. But the wisterwives would be able to do nothing if they let the house burn down on top of them. Sugar tore herself from the battle that raged out front and crawled to her brother.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“We’re going to the woods,” said Sugar. “And then…” And then she didn’t know where. No, they’d go to Horse.
She opened the door.
Fancy was gone. She looked out through the haze and billows of smoke to the edges of the yard and could see her nowhere. But neither could she see any soldiers. They all must have run to the front of the house to join the battle.
A log above them made a deafening burst.
“Take my hand,” said Sugar. “We’re going to run to the pond, and from there the river. Are you ready?”
There was an immense whoosh, and the heat at Sugar’s back seemed to increase tenfold.
“Now,” she said. And she and Legs bolted from the house. Down the path they went between the barn and the pheasant house.
When Legs knew a course, he only needed to know where he was at any moment and whether any new obstacles lay in the path. He did not count steps or need to feel about him.
They had taken the path to the new pond many times, for Legs loved the feel of the sun-heated water. And so Sugar only needed to call out his orientation points as they came to them. They ran past the garden and privy to Mother’s pheasant house.
Three of the soldiers far to her right fled the battle. She looked back, hoping to see that Mother and Da had scattered the small army.
The whole roof of the house raged with fire; the immense flames wheezed and roared dozens of feet into the sky. Beyond the fire, Da and Mother stood side by side. With one hand Mother pressed her wound; in the other she held a sword. Da held an axe and shield.
It appeared they had put the soldiers to flight. But then the soldiers stopped and turned, forming a line. They weren’t fleeing, they were making a space so that the bowmen could shoot without killing a number of their own.
Legs tugged on her.
Mother tried to charge the line, but Da stepped in front of her to stand between her and the soldiers.
The bowmen loosed their arrows. These did not fly wide this time, and despite Da shielding her from most of the shafts, Mother fell to the earth.
Da’s battle cry sounded over the raging of the fire. He too charged. The arrows did not penetrate his armor, but a multitude of spears did.
A shout of triumph rose up from the mob.
“Sugar?” asked Legs.
The fire blazed into the sky. The heat, even at this distance, burned her face. She could not catch her breath.
The soldiers converged upon Da like a pack of wild dogs.
She watched their weapons rise and fall. Some began to run toward Mother, but the Crab shouted and brandished his sword to keep them away.
It was a nightmare, but Sugar could not tear her eyes from it.
A man raised a black sword high over Da. That was a Fire blade from the temple.
No, she thought. No.
Then the man swung the sword down like he was chopping a mighty block of wood and hacked Da’s head from his body.
She could not move. Could barely breathe. The Crab waved the black-bladed man away from Mother. Then a soldier pointed at her and Legs.
“Sugar,” said Legs. “Why are we stopped?”
She realized he had been asking her that over and over. His voice seemed to come from a great distance. It seemed she was watching the whole scene from a great distance.
“It’s too hot,” said Legs and tugged at her.
She took a step; Legs followed. She broke into a jog. “To the woods, straight through Galson’s fields.” That’s what Mother had said.
She glanced back and saw a number of soldiers running toward them.
“Then to the pond,” she said, her voice sounding strange to her ears. “Over the fence and to the pond.”
Hand in hand, they ran across Galson’s paddock. She felt the knife at her waist. The knife Da had given her. A voice in the back of her mind told her to fight. But the voice was small, so very small.
She saw Fancy lying in the grass, arrows sticking from her, but Sugar only noted it. Her mind was filled with the image of Mother and Da and that terrible black blade. Twice Legs stumbled because of her inattention.
When they reached the pond, Sugar looked back. Soldiers ran through Galson’s paddocks toward them. On the far edge of a paddock the district lord rode atop his horse looking for a gate through. She snapped back to the task at hand.
Sugar knew the woods well. She’d played hide-and-seek here and foraged for acorns and firewood. She’d hidden here from the village boys before Da taught her how to fight. The wood was old and in many places did not allow enough light to the ground to support much more than mushrooms. But mushrooms would not hide them. And even if they had cover, the mob would bring dogs.
So Sugar decided they would take the forest creek for their path. She and Legs had a small craft there they sometimes floated on. They would ride the water downstream. And just before they reached the confluence with the main river, they would leave the craft and escape into the woods on the other side.
Sugar looked down at the wisterwife charm Legs wore about his neck. Wisterwives were servants of the seven Creators. It was said that even Regret, the Creator who wanted to destroy the world, was served by them, but neither Mother nor Da had ever seen the creature that had left this charm. “Let us hope the wisterwife is watching us,” she said.
Sugar looked back one last time to where Da and Mother had fallen. One of the village women bent over Mother, probably stripping her. It flickered through Sugar’s mind that this was hopeless. She should stand here and meet her fate. But she quickly pushed that idea aside and faced the woods.
“You’ve done this a hundred times, brother. It’s over the bluff and to the river.”
Hunger lay under the towering, fat spruce that grew in his glade and felt some small thing, a very small thing, scratching about the grass on his chest. The Mother had said not to devour the men, but she’d never said anything about small things, so he cracked one eye and spied the creature.
It was a…
The name floated away.
The names always floated away. His thoughts continually ran from him. Everything fled before his appetite.
Hunger could smell the creature’s Fire, its tasty little Fire. Not much, not enough for a meal. But enough to taste.
He watched the creature grasp a stalk of grass on his chest and bend the ragged head of seeds to its mouth.
Before it could take a bite, Hunger snatched the creature up.
The little thing struggled, but in moments Hunger separated it. The Mother had shown him how to do that down in her cave. Fire, soul, and flesh: these three made up all living things, even him with his body of earth and grass. The Mother had shown him what bound the parts all together, and then she’d taugh him how to pick and pry until the binding unraveled in his hands. Of course, there were some things he had not yet been able to separate. But the little thing he had in his hands, he knew its secrets.
The tiny body he cast away. The Fire he bolted, increasing the hours of his life, but the soul-the soul he nibbled, oh, so slowly for it was sweet with thought and fear.
Above him a swarm of insects made their comforting click and buzz. Farther up, the tops of the ancient spruce trees moved with a gust of wind. He could smell the Fire in the trees. But their binding resisted him. It was very hard to steal from trees, and he thought that this must be because they had a hunger greater than his. Why else would they hold it so fiercely?
The wind gusted again, and the scent that it carried made him pause.
Could it be?
He opened his mouth to smell it better.
He stretched wide his great maw and felt the scent fill him, felt it pool alongside his tongue and down his throat. He began to tremble in anticipation.
Magic. The stink of human magic.
Mother, he called. Mother!
He’d caught the scent before, but each time he followed it the trail had vanished before he could find the source. The Mother had told him that was to be expected. He was still young, still growing into his powers. She’d said she made him to smell and see for her, and so there was no doubt that’s what he’d do. It was just a matter of time.
He called again. It’s strong this time, strong like a river.
Soon words came into his mind: Yes, and can you smell a human female in it?
You are ripening, the Mother said. You are ready. Find the female who wields the powers. Bring her and her brood to me.
Will you give me some? he asked.
No, she said.
I’ll eat them then, he said. I’ll eat them all.
You’ll bring them to me, and I’ll know if you take a bite.
I’ll eat them, he said. But he knew he wouldn’t.
Hunger wanted to taste their souls. He craved their thoughts. Even the thoughts of a little thing full of fear tasted good. So what must it be like to feed on a human?
But if he did, the Mother would know. And she would hurt him. She would send him to the others who had asked her if they might lick and nibble bits of him.
No, he wouldn’t tempt himself. He would find the woman and her brood and carry them back whole.
Hunger stood, dirt falling from him to the ground, and lumbered out of his dark glade toward the source of the scent.
Barg did not want to stand watch around the burning ruin of Sparrow’s house. Not in the dark. Not on this night. The hunt had gutted Sparrow, his horses, pigs, fowl, and dogs: every living thing. All of the organs went into the raging fires of the smithy and home, followed shortly thereafter by the chopped parts of the various carcasses.
Normally, a criminal’s flesh would be left to the vultures and foxes and beasts of the woods. And if no beast would touch it, there were always plenty of maggots. But the hunt dared not leave Sparrow to such a fate. No trace of him could remain. His bones, if any survived the fire, would be scattered on the sea.
They’d obtained a Fire sword from the temple in Whitecliff and used it on Sparrow and his beasts. And that gave them some comfort because a Fire sword, forged by the Kains, severed more than flesh. But they had no Seeker, no Divine with the powers to hunt Sleth, to confirm that the soul had fled, and the soul of such a man would be full of wrath. It would linger about. It might even try to possess and ride some weakened man or beast in an effort to exact vengeance. No, Barg did not want to go out. But some things had to be done.
He got up off the floor in front of his hearth. The cups and stones of a game of transfer lay before him. His daughter had just taken her turn and ruined his next move.
Their censer of godsweed had stopped smoking. So he picked up the tongs and fetched a hot coal from the fire. He put the coal in the censer and blew until the weed began to smoke again.
They’d burned godsweed until the air was thick with it. Burned it in every room as proof against the souls of the dead. Even so, Barg did not feel safe.
They’d done a wicked thing today, killing the smith. Everyone had said he’d fought with the strength of twenty men, but Barg had seen it. He’d been there with his spear, and he knew Sparrow. The smith was clean, may the Six bless him. And that was all the more reason for his soul to seek justice.
The smith’s wife, however, she was something else. She’d probably trapped Sparrow, trapped him like a spider. And like a spider, one day she would have eaten him. The clan lord had demanded they keep her alive for questioning. For bait. They placed the king’s collar they’d taken from the royal house around her neck, laid her in the back of a wagon, and had taken her away to the healers.
And it was a good thing, for those that were sent to chase the girl and boy had searched past the river, they’d scoured the woods all the way to the swamps. Lords, they’d even used dogs. But they found nothing. It was impossible-a girl and a blind boy! But the hunt had come back before dark, haggard and empty-handed. That right there was evidence the children knew her wicked ways.
No, Barg did not feel safe. But he wasn’t a coward. He felt a great welling satisfaction, for when others had run today, he had stood his ground. The Crab had noted it. And he wasn’t going to ruin that honor tonight.
Barg looked at his daughter. She grew brighter each day. He was actually trying to win this game and failing.
He turned to his oldest son. “You’re going to have to take my place,” he said.
“Why should you go?” asked his wife. “Nobody else will be there. Nobody would dare.” She sat at the table braiding the youngest boy’s hair for bed.
“They will,” he said. “They’re counting on me. But I’ll be back soon enough. And I think I know a way to take this whole bloody mess off of your mind. We’ll go fishing tomorrow.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “Fishing?”
He leaned in close, then whispered in her ear so the children couldn’t hear. “Happy plans will put the children at ease.”
She looked down and said nothing.
Barg kissed her gently on the cheek. Then he considered his girl and two boys. The firelight sparkled in their dark eyes. To think they had played with that woman’s hatchlings.
“I’ll be back soon enough,” he assured them. “We’re taking quarter watches is all.” Then he belted on his sword and picked up his spear. Foss, their hunting dog, rose to go with him, and Barg opened the door.
The smoke in the room curled out into the night. Barg pointed at the children. “You do your chores and get to bed and when you wake up in the morning, we’ll be off.”
“To the river or the beach?” asked his oldest.
They loved the beach. It would be a long day, but it would give them something to think about.
“The beach,” he said. “We’ll roast crabs.”
Then he shut the door behind him. He took a long drink of water from the bucket at the well then set off down the path that led to the smith’s ruin, Foss padding along at his side.
He could see the last flames of Sparrow’s house burning at the other end of the field. The fires burned low, but they still cast enough light to silhouette the remains of Sparrow’s barn and outbuildings. The smoke of the fires hung heavily in the air.
Barg glanced back at his house a few times as he walked. The shutters were latched and snug. His wife had barred the door. They would be fine.
As Barg got closer to the flames he could see that something was amiss-nobody was there. There were supposed to be ten men on each watch.
Perhaps they were all bunched up behind the barn.
He rounded the corner of the barn and looked across Sparrow’s yard.
Nothing. His wife had been right. None of the others were here.
The house and smithy had burned down to coals and ashes. Here and there a few fires still burned, but they were small. Much smaller than it appeared from his house. Still, he could feel the heat of the coals. The whole mess still produced a blistering heat.
A small flame rose at the edge of a blackened log close to him only to disappear moments later.
All was silent except for the crackling and popping of the fire. The circle of light did not extend far into the swallowing darkness.
He’d roust them out of bed, every one.
Then he saw someone standing in the shadows at the edge of where the house had stood. The man moved aside a log, kicking up sparks. He reached into the hot coals and pulled something out.
“Ha,” Barg called to him. “It’s good to see there’s more than one stout heart among us.”
Foss stopped and began to growl.
Then the man straightened up and turned, and Barg got a look at him in the firelight.
He was taller than anyone Barg had ever seen, but his arms and legs were thicker than they should be. And his face-it was all wrong. He had a mouth that was dark, ragged, and huge. A mouth that seemed to crack his head in two.
This was no man.
A tuft of hair on the creature’s arm caught fire. The flame sputtered, flashed, and receded into red and yellow sparks that fell to the ground. Then Barg realized it wasn’t hair. It was grass. Patches all along its arm had burned, some of them still full of dull red sparks. A clump of smoldering grass fell from the creature’s arm to the ground.
Barg saw what the creature held. It was Sparrow’s scorched leg, reduced to bone.
The creature flung Sparrow’s leg aside and began to walk toward Barg. The ashes and coals of the smithy stood between them, but the creature did not walk around them. It walked straight into the blistering coals, over a tangle of charcoal logs, and through one of the remaining fires. The long ragged grass about its legs began to burn and smoke, but the creature did not waver or cry out.
Gods, Barg thought. Keep your calm. Keep your calm.
The thing’s mouth gaped like a cavern. Its eyes. Lords, where were its eyes? And then he saw them-two pits all askew.
Filthy rot. Filthy, twisted rot. Regret himself had sent this thing.
Barg set himself for a throw. Then he took two steps, yelled, and, with all his might, hurled the spear.
The creature did not flinch or step aside, and the spear buried itself in the creature’s chest.
“To arms!” Barg shouted and unsheathed his sword. “We’re attacked! To arms! To arms!”
There would be others here shortly. And together they would dispatch this monster. All Barg had to do was keep his courage. Keep it like he’d done this morning and not run away.
The creature strode on as if nothing had happened. It plucked the spear out of its chest like a man plucking staw from his tunic and flung it into the ashes.
Foss surged forward to the edge of the coals, but Barg took a step backward, turned, and fled.
Foss snarled and barked. Then he yelped.
Barg heard the dog’s footfalls behind him. He turned and saw Foss, neck stretched out, galloping for his life. Foss caught Barg up and sped past.
And behind, the creature loped after them, a thin line of fire burning up one of its sides.
Barg realized he was running the wrong way, away from the the other houses and help. But to go back to the houses meant he would run back toward the beast.
Then he saw the door to his house open, the firelight behind, and his wife standing silhouetted in the door.
“No,” he yelled. “Go back!” But it was too late and he knew it. The creature would have seen her. Even if he were to change his direction now, the monster might not follow him.
“Get the children!” he yelled as he ran into the yard.
“Barg?” his wife said in alarm. Then her face twisted in horror and she backed into the house.
Barg heard the creature chuff behind him.
He turned around, holding his sword at the ready.
It stood not ten paces away. The fire had risen and burned the creature’s shoulder and head.
Courage. All he needed was a bit of courage.
He saw movement in the village. He heard men shouting. But they were running the wrong way, running to the smith’s.
“To me!” he cried. “To me!”
The creature opened its mouth wide and drew in a hoarse breath. It turned its head toward the door of the house.
“No, you won’t,” said Barg. “You filthy abomination, you’ll feel my steel first.” He let out a yell and, for the second time today, charged, his blade held high.
The creature took a step toward him.
Barg brought his blade down in a cut that would have cleaved a man from collarbone to belly.
But the creature simply grabbed the blade in midswing, reached out with its free, rough hand, and took Barg by the face.
Barg struggled in its stony grasp. And then he was slipping, twisting, falling into another place entirely.
Miles away, Sugar crouched in the moon shadows at the edge of the forest and looked across a river at the farmstead of Hogan the Koramite. The man she knew as Horse.
“Is the water deep?” whispered Legs.
“I don’t know,” said Sugar.
“Do you think he will help?”
“This is where Mother sent us,” said Sugar. But in her heart she knew the chances of him helping them were slim. If Horse harbored them, he put his whole family at risk. But if he delivered them to the hunt, he, even as a Koramite, would earn a fortune.
“I think I’m wicked,” said Legs.
“You’re not wicked,” said Sugar.
“I should have listened to the wisterwife.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Sometimes, when I held the charm, she would call to me like I was lost.”
Sugar looked at her brother. She’d never heard of such a thing. “She called to you?”
“In my mind. I could see her. She was beautiful. And sometimes I could see something else with her. Something made of earth, dark and wild and…”
Sugar waited while Legs found the words.
“Something in her voice,” he said, “it was horrible and wonderful. Every time I heard her, fear stabbed me because I didn’t want someone to think I was like old Chance. I didn’t want to be mad and taken to the altars for hearing voices in my head. And so I never answered. She said that the fullness of time had come. She promised to make me whole. Promised all sorts of things. Lunatic promises. But I was too scared. I think she wanted to help.”
Sugar thought about the wisterwife charm. All this time they’d thought it was a blessing, a gift. It was an annual ritual for most people to fashion a Creator’s wreath and hang it above their door to draw the blessings of the wisterwives. It was fashioned with rock and leaf, feathers and bones. Many set out a gift of food or cast it upon the waters. But Regret had his servants as well. So who knew what this charm really was? She thought of Mother and her horrible speed, her terrible secrets. That charm could be anything. “You think it was real?”
“I don’t know what to think.” No sound escaped him, but his eyes began to brim with tears, and he ducked his head the way he always did when he was in pain.
Sugar wanted to cry with him, wanted to feel overwhelming grief. But she was empty, as desolate as rock. And that pained her as much as anything else. What kind of daughter was it that had no tears for the butchering of her parents? What kind of daughter was it that ran? She had a knife. She knew how to use it.
“Da always said you were an uncanny judge of character,” said Sugar. “If your heart tells you to be afraid, then let’s trust it. Da always did.”
Legs leaned into her, and she took him into an embrace, putting his face in her neck and stroking his hair.
Things to act and things to be acted upon. She had a knife. Lords, she’d had at least six, for there were a number in the kitchen. She could have done something. She could have sent Legs to the pheasant house, gone around back herself, and surprised that line of bowmen. She could have distracted a whole group of men. She might have tipped the battle.
Why? Why had she run?
And if she hadn’t run, if, beyond hope, she’d tipped the battle, what then? She’d seen Mother. Seen her horrible power.
Legs gently pulled away. “Will we talk to Horse?”
They had no tools to survive in the wild. Besides, an army of hunters would be combing the outer woods, expecting them to run there. If Horse helped them, and that was a desperate if, then maybe they might be able to survive until all but the most patient hunters gave up dreams of a bounty and went back to their normal labors. If she and Legs survived that long, that’s when they would escape.
“I don’t know,” said Sugar. “Let’s just take this one step at a time. Right now we need to find where they ford this river.”
Talen still ached from the beating he’d taken at Stag Home. He stood, took off his wide-brimmed straw hat, and wiped his brow. Then he gingerly felt his ribs and looked for Da. Nettle had returned from taking his message to the Creek Widow long ago. But there was still no sign of Da.
Nettle threw another pitchfork full of dried bracken onto the wagon bed. They still had three windrows of the stuff to haul off the hill. From the time Da left until now, Talen had eyed the woods every chance he got. But after hours of vigilance, and seeing nothing more exciting than three hogs rooting for acorns in the distance, he began to think less of the dangers and more on the promised bounty.
The reward was a miller’s annual wage. Goh, he could buy a Kish bow for that.
And why couldn’t a Koramite bring them in?
Why couldn’t he bring them in?
Sleth were wily and dangerous. And maybe he’d need help. After all, it was said Sleth had animal strength and could twist your head off as easily as a housewife could twist the head off a chicken.
Nevertheless, they were, after all, only children. Not full Sleth.
He and Nettle piled the wagon high with another dozen forkfuls of bracken then took it to the last haystacking site. Prince Conroy, their red rooster, clambered up on top, surveying the world as the wagon moved along.
They put a thick layer of the long fronds at the base of this last site for the hay they’d use this winter to feed their horse, cattle, and small flock of sheep. A thick bracken base kept a dry layer between the hay and ground. They’d also cut enough for lining bundles of foodstuff, for the rats did not like chewing through it because it made their mouths sore.
When they’d finished the last stacking site, Nettle said, “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry,” said Talen. “You stinking Mokaddian garlic-eater.”
“Koramite goat-lover,” Nettle shot back.
Talen smiled. This name-calling had been their joke for some time now. And with the possibility of Talen being adopted into Argoth’s clan as a member by privilege but not blood, it took on a new meaning. Of course, Talen had already been recognized by the Koramite Council and granted a man’s braid to hang from his belt.
The Koramites didn’t proclaim their clan or male-rights by elaborate tattoos. One small tattoo was sufficient. Your clan was in your blood. What more did you need? And your male-rights were things you earned or lost by your actions. Talen’s braid, which was only to be worn at formal occasions, was kept in a box with those for Ke and Da. It was a simple leather braid with three silver beads. Other men with greater capacities extended their belts and added disks. Some were worn from a shoulder. But regardless of the rights granted, the braid was a privilege that could be taken away. Not a right to be painted on.
In the meadow, River and Ke turned the rows of cut grass with their hay forks so it could finish drying. A flock of blackbirds followed behind, picking through the grass for a meal.
“I’ll start on that acre your da wants cleared for the oats next spring,” said Nettle. “You get something to eat.”
“I thought you were supposed to be riding with your da today anyway, not here eating up all our food.”
“No, the captain wouldn’t let me come on patrol.” Nettle referred to his father this way when he was dissatisfied with him. “He made some excuse again.”
Uncle Argoth was responsible for watching a stretch of coastline. “He’s just trying to protect you,” said Talen.
“I don’t want protection. Half of the men resent me because they’ve been ordered, behind my back, to keep me safe. So instead of being a full member of the patrol, I’m a burden. To the other half I’m nothing but a joke. They might as well bring along an infant in arms.”
“You don’t know what they’re thinking.”
“I can read a man’s eyes,” said Nettle. “I’ve heard their whispers and seen their patronizing smiles.” He shook his head in disgust.
Talen didn’t know what to say so he just nodded. Of course, why court death when you didn’t have to? He was happy he didn’t have patrol duties and was about to say this when Nettle looked at him honestly.
“I envy you,” said Nettle.
“Me?” asked Talen. Nettle had everything. Looks, wealth, the right blood. He might not be a giant like Da or Ke, but he was larger than Talen. And he had a father who was a captain in the Shoka clan.
“Not you exactly,” Nettle said and grinned. “But your da trusts you. You have your braid. He treats you like a man. You almost have your life taken and he simply dusts you off and sends you out to the fields to work.”
“If it’s damage you want,” said Talen, “let me find a stick. I’d be happy to give you a good thrashing. Especially since you failed to come to my aid this morning.”
“See,” said Nettle, “my passivity is becoming habitual. I’m sick to death of being coddled. I want to do something real.”
No he didn’t, Talen thought. There is no joy in being on the receiving end of the stick. “The acre that needs to be cleared is real,” said Talen. “And don’t worry about stumps. We’ll just plow around them. When they’re good and rotted they’ll come out just fine.”
“Whatever,” said Nettle, obviously frustrated with Talen’s response.
Talen picked up the hoggin. He might as well fill it back up with water. But when he turned to walk back to the house, he got a chill. There were stories of one Sleth lord who had lain in wait for his victims in their cellars. Talen and the others had been working out in the fields since before noon. That was plenty of time for hatchlings to move about and hide in a cellar.
“What are you doing?” asked Nettle. “I thought you were going to get some food.”
“Nothing,” said Talen. But, of course, he was doing something-he was acting like a coward again. “Just thinking about what we’re going to have for a snack.” Then he strode toward the house as quickly as his injuries would let him, hoggin slung under his arm.
Prince Conroy jumped off the wagon and accompanied him back.
Conroy was fierce beyond all reckoning. To rodents, that was. Or cats. Or weasels. Lately he’d been giving the squirrels what for. But it was his violence with rats that had won him his name. The real Conroy was a prince of story who had scoured his city of a nasty infestation of rats. Talen’s Prince Conroy loved nothing more than to drop like a stone upon a rodent, skewer it with his talons, and then peck it to a bloody pulp.
There were other roosters that would fly into an attack when they felt threatened or one of their hens screamed. And most chickens would snatch up a mouse and run off with the prize to eat it. But Conroy, it seemed, went looking for rats. He was, in his rat hunting, better than a dog. Of course, he wouldn’t be much against Sleth.
Conroy darted ahead of Talen to chase a white and black butterfly, following it into the tall weeds.
The barn, old house, and smoke shed stretched away from Talen like a crooked arm on his left while the pigpen, garden, and privy stretched out on his right.
When he came to the barn, he heard a scuffle by the wood stack alongside the far wall.
His heart jumped. He realized he had no weapon but the hoggin.
It could have been a rat, he told himself.
“Conroy,” he called. He made the trill and yip that always brought the rooster. When Conroy came running, Talen looked down at the bird. “It’s time to earn your keep,” he said and pointed to the side of the barn to where the wood was stacked. They’d gone rat hunting like this many times before. He made another trill and yip and Conroy dashed around the corner of the barn.
He waited and heard nothing.
This would go down well in the stories, he thought. The mighty hunter stays back and sends his rooster in to deal with the danger. Talen took a deep breath and marched around the barn so he could get a good look down the wall.
Conroy stood alone, eyeing the woodpile.
So, it was a rat. Talen walked down to the spot where he figured the sound had come from and kicked the wood. He waited for a scrabble of tiny claws. What he heard instead was someone running away from the back of the barn.
Talen’s heart quickened. He took the last three steps to the back of the barn, giving the corner a wide berth just in case something was there.
Conroy lingered for a moment, eyeing the wood stack, and then trotted after Talen.
Talen saw nothing behind the barn, but then out of the corner of his eye he caught movement. He turned toward it and saw someone’s back and one of their legs disappear behind the old house.
Lords, he was not imagining it.
“Sammesh?” he said.
Sammesh was the ale sot’s son. Da had caught him once stealing meat from the smoke shed. But instead of putting some fear into the boy, Da told him if he wanted meat, he’d have to bring something to trade. So from that day on, Sammesh slinked in and out of their place with his trade. Sometimes it was fair; other times, it wasn’t. He’d once taken a rope and left a small bowl of blueberries for it. The blueberries had been delicious but they were not worth half the value of that rope. Talen had told his da that he was only fostering dishonesty-Sammesh needed to be taught a lesson. But Da said Sammesh had received far too many of those kinds of lessons already. Talen wondered if that’s where all the boy’s bruises came from. Or was it simply because he was a thief?
Talen picked up a short cudgel from the woodpile and walked toward the old house.
“Sammesh! Come out, or I’ll thrash the stumps with you.”
There was no answer.
“An honest trader doesn’t skulk.”
Then he heard another sound behind the old house. He paused and listened, but all was quiet.
Something was there.
He had seen the back of a figure too small to be that of an adult. Too small for even Sammesh.
“Who are you?” said Talen. “Come out.”
Of course, maybe he didn’t want them to come out. Ke and River were too far away to be of any help; and if this were a hatchling… who knew what it might do? He wished he had his dogs. Then he realized he hadn’t seen them at all out in the fields. And that was odd. Where were the dogs?
Talen called for them.
Moments later Blue appeared from behind the old house, exactly where the skulker had disappeared. Blue wagged his tail and gave a happy bark.
Conroy made a low sound and hopped a few paces away. Then, with a great deal of noisy flapping, he flew up to the roof of the smoke shed. Despite Talen’s attempts to make them reconcile, the bird and the dog did not get along.
The dog’s warren lay underneath the old house on the far side. Blue must have been there the whole time.
But he should have barked.
Talen took a few steps, again giving the corner a wide berth, and peered along the side of the old house.
He saw nothing but Queen wriggling her way out of the hole they’d dug underneath the house.
Talen raced back to see between the old house and the barn. Perhaps whoever it was had run around. But he saw nothing.
If it was Sammesh, he’d clobber him. This was no time to be running about stealing meat.
Talen yelled and ran about the old house itself; halfway around he reversed directions to trick whomever it was.
Blue thought it was some game and followed him the whole way with playful woofs.
Nobody was there. Yet Talen had seen someone. He wasn’t imagining it.
He looked down at Blue. What good was a dog that didn’t bark? “You’re a fine fellow,” said Talen.
Blue licked Talen’s hand then wiggled his way between Talen’s legs.
Talen groaned and shook his head. Overfed and underworked, that’s what that dog was. Talen pushed Blue away and gave him the eye. Then he walked over to the side of the old house where he’d seen the figure disappear. The line of the woods was a good thirty yards from here. It would have to have been an exceedingly lively creature to cover that distance between the time Talen had heard that last noise and seen Blue. And it would have had to run very quietly.
That ruled out Sammesh.
Goh. He gripped the cudgel tighter.
He thought of the sod roof. The edges were low enough for someone to climb. They could be up there getting ready to spring. Talen spun around and scampered back.
There was nothing on the roof. He circled the whole house again, scanning the ground for footprints.
He took a step back and out of the corner of his eye saw something in the grass: one of their painted wooden spoons lying at an odd angle. He bent over and picked it up. It had not been out here long because soft bits of barley porridge still clung to it. Whoever or whatever it was had been in the house and dropped it here.
Talen scanned the yard about him.
The Sleth hatchlings were here, in the woods, watching. Talen was sure of it.
He studied the woods and backed away.
For some reason the dogs hadn’t barked, hadn’t even smelled the intruder when it was only a few paces away.
It was said that Sleth had some power over beasts. He cast a wary glance at Blue and Queen. Could they have been subverted?
He studied the dogs, but could see nothing that might reveal the truth of it.
Talen retreated back to the well.
He could run or bluff, but running was not proving a good choice today.
Talen kept an eye about and drew the first bucket of water. He cleared his throat.
“One of these days, you beast-loving tanner’s pot, we are going to catch you and let you join your mother in the cage.”
He waited for a response.
“You’ve come to the wrong farm, you yeasty boil.”
Talen poured the water into the hoggin then dropped the bucket back down into the well.
He scanned the tree line again. If the thing charged at him out of the woods, it would catch him before he got to the pigpen.
But then, if the hatchling were going to attack him, it could have done it earlier.
His heart raced, but you had to fight fear; had to fake courage sometimes until it came of its own accord. Children, Da had said. Only children.
“Sleth child,” Talen called out, “as you can plainly see, I do not fear you. Nor do we fear your abominable depredations.” He realized his talk had taken the edge off his fear. So he continued, “You want something to eat? Eh? Come out and I’ll feed you. How about a moldy crust of bread eaten and shat out by our pig for supper?”
No response, only the leaves of the trees swaying in the small breeze.
The villagers this morning, they’d come after him, not out of fear, but dreaming of a fat bounty. Dreaming of this very opportunity.
Had the bailiff not said that a Koramite should bring the hatchlings in?
Something shifted inside him. His fear deserted him, and he suddenly wasn’t thinking about what the hatchlings might do to him. He was thinking of what he could do with them. What they could do for him.
If he were adopted into the Shoka, he would still be Koramite, still owe duties to his ancestors. Being a Shoka by priviledge did not change your blood. But Talen didn’t know if the adoption would really change his prospects. He’d still be a half-breed in most people’s eyes. However, if he could catch these hatchlings, it might not only mitigate some of the ill will against his people, but it might also prove the quality of Da’s line, prove the quality of Talen’s breeding.
Those villagers could dream all they wanted. They weren’t going to get the bounty. Oh, no. He thought of the tales of the heroes who had hunted Sleth. Not all of them were from the ranks of the high and mighty. Maybe a little Koramite would win a spot in the chronicles.
He could see himself purchasing that fine, Kishman’s bow, made of wood, horn, and sinew, wrapped at the ends with yellow and scarlet thread. There wasn’t a people who could make better bows than the Kish. But why settle for a bow? He’d get himself a horse.
Talen drew up a third bucket, emptied it into the hoggin, and replaced the lid.
He addressed the old sod house. “Every soul worth his salt will be hunting your clay-brained trail. You’re going to end up a boiled cabbage no matter what you do.” He paused. “You should have never begun with the dark art. But turn yourself in to me and you’ll avoid a wicked beating. That’s a promise you’ll not get from any other quarter.”
There was no answer, only the voices of Ke and Nettle in the distance.
He realized then if the hatchling were an angry thing, it would kill Talen and stop his mouth. But it was either stupid or scared, for it had thrown away a perfectly good chance. Or maybe it was waiting for its master, the one that slew the butcher’s family in the village of Plum.
That thought sent chills up his spine. That was a creature no lone Koramite would take. But he wasn’t going to let the fear of such things overcome him. It obviously wasn’t here now. And standing at the well all day wasn’t going to do him any good either, so he walked to the house with as much ease as he could muster and fetched the figs.
When he came back out he paused. “You’re a fool to refuse my offer,” Talen called. He hefted the hoggin onto his shoulder, gave the farm one last glance, and headed back out to the fields. This time Blue and Queen came with him, Conroy bringing up the rear.
On the way he began to think of ways to catch the hatchlings. He wasn’t going to be able to corner them like normal animals. Oh, no. He was going to need something entirely different.
Talen distributed the figs and passed the water to Ke. Nettle sat on the trunk of tree Ke and River had just felled. Next to him leaned the two-man saw. A strand of Talen’s hair had come out of the leather string Talen had tied it with. After Sabin’s yank this morning, Talen was about ready to have Nettle hack it all off with his knife. But he undid the string, gathered his hair up, and said, “You said you wanted to do something real? Well, we’ve got ourselves a whale of an opportunity.”
Nettle plopped a fig in his mouth. “What do you mean?”
Talen faced the three of them. “I spotted the trouser thief.”
“Somebody actually stole your pants?” asked Nettle.
Ke rolled his eyes.
“Not somebody,” said Talen. “The hatchling. And we are going to get the bounty.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Ke.
Talen related what had happened back at the house.
“We need to alert the bailiff or territory lord,” said Nettle.
“No, no. That’s exactly what we shouldn’t do. We don’t want some idiot Mokaddian getting the reward.”
“Excuse me?” said Nettle. “I don’t think Mokaddians were the problem this time.”
“I’m not talking about you,” said Talen. “You know that isn’t what I mean. Think about what people will say when a Koramite brings them in.”
“Except we’re not full Koramite,” said Ke.
“That isn’t the point,” said Talen. “We have an opportunity.”
“Did you see their faces?” asked River.
“There was only one of them.”
“But did you see more than a leg?”
“Then it could have been anybody. It could have been a beggar. Could have been some stranger passing through.”
“Nobody can run that fast.”
“Come on,” said Ke. “We’d all love to catch us one. But it takes fifty to a hundred men to conduct a proper hunt.”
“Not to catch children,” said Talen. “Besides, I’ve worked it out. All we need is a counterweight and a rope.”
“Have you forgotten Da’s last words?” asked River. “This is how innocent people get killed.”
“Somebody was there,” said Talen.
“Then we keep our wits about us,” said River, “and our eyes open.”
“And our knives at the ready,” said Nettle. He looked up at Talen, the turning of his mind showing in his eyes. “This isn’t one of your pig-brained jokes, is it?”
“No pigs,” said Talen. “And I don’t intend on getting close enough to use a knife. I’m perfectly happy to use my bow.”
At the far end of the dog warren underneath the sod house Sugar lay still as stone, her back pressed into the dirt wall. She hugged Legs to her chest. Above her head a monstrous yellow spider scuttled along the underside of the floorboards.
“I think he’s gone,” said Legs. “I can only hear the breeze.”
She was hungry and thirsty. Her hair was full of dirt and filth. She had taken great comfort in the dogs, but now realized how childish that was.
“We’re not safe,” she said. “This place is not safe.”
It was almost midday and Argoth kept himself hidden behind a screen made by an immense rock and a thick clump of blackberry briar. With him on this side of the steep ravine were fifteen of the best fighters the Shoka had. The same number had concealed themselves on the other side of the ravine. All lay in wait, their bows ready.
The mouth of the ravine opened up onto a wide meadow, deep with brown and dark green grasses. A stream ran through the meadow and out of sight behind a thick grove of river birch on the far end.
Argoth looked at the group with him, gauging them. There were a few young men here of Nettle’s age. He wondered, should he have brought the boy? Nettle was eager. He was of age. And when he’d demanded to know why he couldn’t come, Argoth had no answer. Nettle was skilled, but he just wasn’t ready.
A fly landed on Argoth’s lips and he shooed it away. Where was Varro? It was past time. He and his ridiculous, bleach-streaked beard should have ridden into view long ago, leading their quarry into the trap.
Argoth was just about ready to break position and organize a search when Varro burst from behind the grove of river birch, riding his spotted steed at a full gallop.
Moments later a dozen riders rounded the same corner, their horses stretched out, racing to catch him. Most of them wore helmets and shaped-leather cuirasses festooned with various furs. One man rode with a mail tunic, another was bare-chested. All had their faces painted white and black. All of them Bone Face rot.
Varro splashed across the stream, and then he cut through the deep meadow grass, making straight for the steep ravine where Argoth and the rest of the men waited.
Argoth gave the hand signal to get ready, and his men nocked their arrows. Each man clutched four others in the hand that held their bow.
Their goal was to kill most of these dung heaps but keep one or two for the Shoka warlord to question. A band of Bone Faces had been sallying forth from this quarter, and it was time to be rid of them and find out if they were on their own or scouts for a far larger raiding party.
This was going to be like shooting rabbits in a hutch.
Varro closed half the distance to the ravine, then his horse stumbled and rolled, throwing Varro wide into the tall brown and green meadow grass.
The horse screamed and struggled to its feet, but it couldn’t stand straight. One of its forelegs was broken. Argoth winced; it must have stepped into the hole of a fox or ground squirrel.
The horse limped, but Varro was up, running, cutting his way through the tall grass.
His pursuers gained on him, but not by much. Varro was a dreadman, one of those upon whom the Divines had bestowed a weave of might. He ran with the speed of that weave, flying through the meadow with enormous, quick strides. He was fast to begin with, and his weave doubled, almost tripled, the liveliness with which he ran.
But then he slowed.
What was he doing? This wasn’t a time for tricks. All he needed to do was run into the ravine.
He slowed even further until he ran with the speed of a normal man.
Varro glanced back over his shoulder, and when he turned back around, Argoth could see from Varro’s expression that something was terribly wrong.
He wasn’t going to make the ravine. He wasn’t going to make it out of the meadow.
Argoth rose. “Mount up,” he called. “Mount up!” It was possible the Bone Faces had a dreadman among them. But he wouldn’t be one of those in heavy armor. Dreadmen only wore such when they were sure to be fighting their own kind. In most battles it was speed they desired. Brutal, blinding speed.
Argoth put away his doubts about sending Nettle to help Hogan with his harvest. This type of battle would have thrown the boy into a situation he was not prepared for. Exactly the type of situation into which he’d put his son, of a different wife and in a different land, so many years ago.
In one step he mounted his stallion. Then he gave him his heels and was flying down the narrow trail, hugging his steed’s thick neck, dodging branches all the way to the bottom of the ravine.
By the time Argoth galloped out of the ravine, holding his bow and guiding his horse with his knees, the Bone Faces had surrounded Varro and beat him to the ground. He lay on his face with two men holding him down, but Argoth could not tell if he was still alive.
The bare-chested man knelt at Varro’s feet, binding them with a rope. The man’s face, from his forehead to the crack of his mouth, had been painted black; from his lower lip down was white.
Argoth let out his battle cry and guessed if they had a dreadman, it would be the bare-chested one. None of them wore insignia, but that one had the hard-cut look of one who used a weave.
The Bone Faces turned.
Argoth stood a little higher in his stirrups and released his first arrow. He immediately took the second from the clutch he held in his bow hand.
The first arrow would have skewered a normal man. But Bare Chest dodged to the side, and the arrow flew past into the lower leg of the rider behind him, pinning the rider’s leg to his horse.
The horse reared and screamed.
A volley of arrows from the thirty behind him buzzed past. Two of the raiders fell to the ground and writhed. More horses screamed and bolted.
Argoth raised his fist and made the sign for a split attack. There were two ways to deal with dreadmen. Either you smashed their support, or you ignored the support and hoped you got to the dreadman before he could build his Fire. Argoth chose the second. He signaled ten of his men to attack the regular Bone Faces. And he hoped with all his might they were indeed all regulars. Then he broke off with his remaining twenty men.
The two who had been holding Varro grabbed the reins of their horses and tried to mount. One took an arrow in the back and fell. The other made his saddle.
The end of the rope which they’d used to bind Varro was tied to the pommel of that saddle. The rider put his heels to his horse and shot away. Varro yanked about and began to drag behind. But, thank the Creators, the man only dragged Varro a few yards before he cut him loose to gain speed.
Argoth focused on the dreadman. He had not attempted to mount his horse. That, and the fact that none had been able to catch Varro before, meant that his horse had not been multiplied.
Bare Chest ran through the grass with a wild speed toward the wood. They couldn’t let that happen. With the cover of bush and branches, he’d effectively reduce the odds from one to twenty to one to two or three. And that would be suicide for Argoth’s men.
Argoth raced his steed, gave him full rein, but he wasn’t catching up to the man. He and his men sent forth another volley of arrows, but within two strides the dreadman stopped, turned, and the arrows flew long.
Then the dreadman rushed at them, sword drawn. It was a simple tactic, and Argoth saw it for what is was, but they didn’t have time to adjust. Within seconds they were upon him, still holding their bows.
The dreadman entered their charge on the far side, away from Argoth.
Argoth saw a flash of steel. Two horses stumbled and cried out. The dreadman turned, pulled a third man from his saddle. Then the dreadman, running alongside, jumped onto the mount’s back and guided it to strike at another of Argoth’s men. A flash of steel. An arm fell to the ground. The dreadman turned to another, threw a knife into the rump of the man’s mount. When the horse cried out and stumbled, the dreadman servered the man’s head from his body.
By the time Argoth shoved his bow into the hooks behind his saddle and drew his sword, the dreadman had either killed, dismounted, or incapacitated four others.
The remaining riders separated so the dreadman would be forced to commit to one target, allowing the others to regroup.
At that moment the dreadman could have made his move toward the wood, but he didn’t. He rode after the closest man.
Brash, foolish. This one was a risk-taker.
Argoth wheeled his horse toward Bare Chest and gathered the Fire of his Days. He didn’t need a gift from the Divines to multiply his strength and speed, for Argoth knew the lore of the Divines. Or, at least, a part of it.
But none of his men would see it that way.
The Divines had proclaimed and enforced their lies for so long that none knew the truth when they saw it. According to the Divines, any power wielded outside their control was Slethery, and since the Divines held the power, who was to gainsay them? It was true many who had used the lore on their own became abominations and horrors, but even the Divines were not immune to that. Many Sleth stole life from others, but so did the Divines.
In fact, not only did the Divines steal Fire, they stole soul. That was the difference between the Order Argoth followed and that of the Divines. It was the Divines who were the Sleth.
But who knew that secret? Not even his men would believe him if he told it to them, which meant that if he was exposed, they would kill him. They’d be bound to, they’d be compelled to, for in their minds he would present the worst danger they could imagine.
And they would have been right seventeen years ago before he found the Order. But that was all behind him now. He was a changed man. The Order had opened his eyes.
It was going to be risky going up against this foe, for who would believe a regular soldier, even one as skilled as he was, could best a dreadman? Nevertheless, he gathered his Fire, that spark of life that animated a man. Once he had enough of it gathered, he could expend it all in a rush, multiplying his natural abilities. Of course, it wasn’t without cost. A man only had so much Fire, and when it was gone, the soul and body quickly separated from each other. But Argoth had decided long ago that there were things for which he’d trade the limited days of his life. Those close to him, including the men of his company, were worth such a sacrifice. But it took time to gather enough Fire to make any difference, and he didn’t have time.
The dreadman galloped hard at the hindquarters of another of Argoth’s riders. He raised his sword and slashed the animal’s rump. The horse faltered, and the dreadman pulled even with the rider.
The rider parried two blows from the dreadman, but the third took him square in the face, knocking him into the grass.
This couldn’t continue: the dreadman would kill them all.
Argoth cried out a challenge.
The dreadman saw him and turned his horse.
Argoth was not fully multiplied. But he didn’t care. This bare-chested piece of rot was going down. He was going to be strung up with his own guts.
The dreadman put his heels into his horse, and, within a few strides, he and Argoth rode full gallop at each other. Joy gleamed in the dreadman’s eye, and he smiled. The diseased beast-lover smiled.
Well, Argoth had a trick or two of his own. He took his sword in his left hand and drew his bodkin. With all the strength he could muster he threw it.
The bodkin flashed in the sun. The dreadman saw it and tried to swerve, but the blade buried itself in the horse just below its shoulder.
The horse stumbled and cast the dreadman off balance. But he didn’t have time to leap away.
As Argoth’s horse closed the distance, he swung his sword in a backhanded arc and sliced the man in the side.
The dreadman cried out and fell.
It was not a mortal blow. But it was a start.
Argoth brought his horse around for another charge. He put his heels into the horse’s flanks and shot forth, sword held ready to strike.
And that is when the dreadman made his second mistake. He should have run. Instead he turned to face Argoth. One of Argoth’s men had kept his bow. And it only took a moment for him to draw, release, and speed the shaft deep into the dreadman’s back.
The dreadman arched, twisted. A second arrow followed the first and struck him in the ribs. Then Argoth thundered down upon him. The dreadman turned, the joy replaced by hate. He raised his sword, but it was too late, and Argoth drove his own weapon deep into the man’s chest and left it there.
He galloped a number of yards farther and turned his horse, waiting for the dreadman to fall. When he did, Argoth’s remaining men converged.
Argoth whistled and signaled for a portion of those remaining to find and help the ten who had split off from the main group to chase the other Bone Faces down.
The men would hack the dreadman’s head off to ensure he was dead. Then they would remove his weave, although none would dare touch it directly. It was impossible to know what traps might be worked into any given weave by looking at it. And even if the men knew the weave had no traps, they would still handle it with great care.
Weaves were endowments, created by a special order of Divines called Kains, and bestowed upon a man or woman for a special task. Sometimes the Divines bestowed a weave upon a group, a family or company of men, who shared its use. There were many types of weaves. Some were crowns, others armbands, others necklaces or piercings. There was even one made by the Mungo Divines that was a coat of grass. Some weaves were given for healing, some for sight, some to allow its bearer to speak to the dead.
Some needed a loremaster to use them. Others, called wildweaves, could be used by anyone. Varro had been given one of these-a ring that would magnify its bearer for war.
Whatever the purpose of the weave, only those included in its covenant could wear it. And then only the specific weave given them by the Divine. To use a weave outside a specific covenant was high treason and punished by death. And none of these men would want to be accused of even the slightest infraction.
Argoth turned to ride back to Varro.
Just a little more than a year ago Varro had been recommended by the Shoka warlord to become a dreadman. It was a great honor to him and his family, but it was also a burden. Dreadmen wielded immense powers, but they were expected to fight more frequently and with greater valor. Placing oneself in so many battles exposed a man to enormous risk, even for a dreadman. And so it was that while a weave might claim a long genealogy of heroes, it also claimed many who had ended up maimed or dead.
Argoth hoped Varro had escaped that fate today. He was one of the best men Argoth had ever commanded, and that was well before he’d been called to the covenant.
A Bone Face with a wounded leg tried to crawl away through the grass. “Bind him for questioning,” said Argoth. Then he went to Varro, dismounted, and knelt at his side.
Varro was more than just another fine asset, he was a friend. His hands and feet were bound and he bled from a deep slice in his gut. He obviously had not gone down without a fight.
Argoth looked for Varro’s bodkin, but it was not in its sheath. So he used a stick to work loose Varro’s knots.
Varro groaned and looked up at Argoth.
“Are you alive, man?” Argoth asked. It was a joke among his troops to ask this. For if the man were dead, it was said Argoth would reach through to the other side and punish the man for slacking. Not even death would hide his men from discipline and drilling.
“Skewered, Captain,” said Varro. Then he winced. “Only a scratch, mind you. I’ve got a jig”-another wince-“or two still in me.”
Argoth smiled grimly. The cut into Varro’s bowels might prove to be his death. Yet another life consumed by this weave.
“What were you doing, running like that?” Argoth demanded.
“The weave,” said Varro. He took in a sharp breath. “It failed.”
But that was impossible.
Argoth picked up Varro’s hand and looked at his ring.
The ring was gold. Cursed gold. Not black with magic, not even gray. Grass, silver, or gold, it didn’t matter what the weaves were made of; when the Kains drew Fire into them, the device turned as black as a crow. The more power that went into it, the blacker the weave. But this one was now nothing more than a ring.
Argoth finished untying Varro. It was possible to damage a weave so that it leaked Fire. Argoth asked Varro if he might remove it, and Varro consented. Argoth held it up in the light, acting as if he were inspecting it, and probed it with his own magic. There was no flaw. The Fire had simply been used up. The magic was gone.
There were only three other such weaves among the Nine Clans with any blackening at all. All the rest had run dry. And Argoth could not fill them. Not because he didn’t know the secrets. He knew the forbidden lore and had secretly bled his Fire into a number of the weaves they had. No, he simply didn’t have any more Fire to give. He’d already sacrificed enough Fire to reduce his life by tens of years. Measuring the Fire of a man’s days was an inexact art; he feared if he gave any more, he would forfeit his life. And he couldn’t gather the Fire publicly. The Clans would rise up and kill him for that.
“There will be more,” said Varro. “What are we going to do?”
He meant the Bone Faces, coming in the dead of night, with only a crust of moon in the sky, dozens of galleys scraping up on the beach. They would come, their dark faces painted as white as bone. They would come as they had for the last four years.
Except this time they would easily overpower the force of the Nine Clans because the Nine had no Divines. They didn’t need those who were Kains or Skir Masters. They just needed one Fire Wizard, a Divine who could fill their weaves of might. But they had none, which meant they also had no dreadmen.
“Mokad will send a Divine,” he told Varro. “Why would they abandon us? Now muster your strength. We’ll get you back to the fort and have the surgeon look at you.”
The Bone Faces had come last year with dozens of dreadmen in their armies. Only Argoth’s seafire had saved the Nine Clans. But it would not save them this year. The Bone Faces knew about the fire that burned on water. They would not make the same mistake of letting their ships be caught on the sea.
But even if they did, with dreadmen at their oars they would easily outdistance the clan galleys. His ships might be able to spew fire, but they’d never catch their prey.
Argoth cursed. In his heart he cursed Lumen, their Divine, their only wizard, who’d disappeared last year. He cursed Mokad for not sending another.
Unless the boy Glory of Mokad, the overlord of the Mokaddian Divines, sent help, the Nine would stand unmultiplied before their enemies, and they would fall. The boy Glory had failed to subdue the islands of the Kartong, failed to heed advice and prepare for the famine that blasted Mokad a few years ago, failed to protect them against the Bone Faces. Weren’t his failures proof enough that the Creators had nothing to do with the selection and raising of Glories and Divines?
Argoth called his men to make a litter. Gut wounds were evil and tended toward corruption. They could only wait and see if Varro would survive. Of course, if they’d had a Divine or a working healing weave, they might be able to better Varro’s odds.
He turned to the three Bone Faces lying on the ground. He needed information, and he needed it now. He commanded that the two prisoners who seemed likely to survive their wounds be stripped and bound to a tree at the edge of the meadow. While the prisoners were being dragged off, he helped Varro onto the litter.
At that moment a company of men on horse thundered out of the ravine and into the meadow. Argoth turned. He immediately saw it was Shim, the warlord of the Shoka, Argoth’s clan. When they came closer, he saw that Bosser, a captain from the Vargon Clan, rode with them.
Shim pulled his large chestnut horse up in front of Argoth. It was slicked with sweat and tossed its head. Shim was not a large man, but wiry, weathered like an old post, and cunning as a snake. His voice was as dry and raspy as weeds.
“Always in haste,” Shim said. “Can you never wait for us?”
“I don’t know if that’s possible,” said Argoth. “I believe it’s in my lord’s nature to be like a blister: always showing up when the work is done.”
Bosser, who grew a short-haired mustache on both sides of his mouth down to his jaw, laughed.
But Argoth did not feel the humor of his own joke. “Varro’s weave is as gold and shiny as a lady’s ring.”
Shim’s face soured. He grunted. He motioned at the Bone Face prisoners with his chin. “At least I’m not too late for that.” He turned in his saddle and addressed his captain. “Bring my tools.” Then he rode to the prisoners who were each tied up at a tree.
He took his tooth pliers from the bag his captain gave him and turned to the Bone Face who seemed to be holding out the best. One of Shim’s men spoke the Bone Face language. Shim turned to him. “Tell him I want to know where their island base is. Tell him he’s got one chance.”
The translator relayed the message. When he finished, the Bone Face spat at Shim.
Shim narrowed his dark eyes. “So be it,” he said. He turned to his captain. “Get the wedge.”
The captain withdrew from the bag a brass wedge used to force a man’s mouth. Argoth took the Bone Face by the hair to steady his head then worked the wedge into the man’s mouth. Shim gripped one of the Bone Face’s molars with his pliers.
The man groaned and bucked, but Shim was not a man to play games. The Bone Faces had slaughtered thousands for no other reason than that they could. Shim squeezed the pliers, and with a sharp yank, pulled the tooth out.
The Bone Face cried out. His head lolled down with the pain. Blood mixed with saliva and drooled out the corner of his mouth. He looked up, rage in his eyes.
Shim held the bloody tooth out for him to see. “I’m fully prepared to hold you prisoner for a future exchange. But it’s going to cost you some information. I am not a man that will be delayed.”
The translator relayed the message in that sour Bone Face tongue.
The Bone Face replied.
The translator arched an eyebrow. “He says only a woman would think of taking a tooth.”
Shim simply shook his head. “Perhaps we should cut off something more important to him.” He pointed at the man’s groin. “Tell him we’ll take one, and if he still doesn’t talk, we’ll take the other.”
The translator relayed the message.
Arogth looked at the second man. Shim’s performance was having its intended effect upon him.
“Where is your ship?” asked Argoth.
The translator spoke.
At that moment, a messenger rode into the meadow at full gallop. He called out to two soliders searching the saddlebags of a Bone Face horse for the location of the warlord. One pointed in Shim’s direction. The messenger galloped through the tall grass to Shim.
“What is it now?” Shim asked.
The messenger looked down at the prisoners. “My Lord,” he said. “May I suggest a more private place?”
Shim sighed. “Probably more council instructions. Very well.” He turned to his captain. He pointed at the Bone Face who had lost a tooth. “Lay out all our tools for them to see. A little think should do them good.”
“Forgive me, Lord,” the messenger said. “But I was asked to give the message to Lord Bosser as well.”
“Very well,” said Shim. He turned to Bosser and Argoth. “Why don’t you both come?”
They walked a number of yards away and stood in the grass.
“What is it then?” asked Shim. His voice was so dry it made Argoth thirsty.
“Sleth have attacked at the village of Plum,” said the messenger.
Argoth tensed. That was where Purity lived. Had she been exposed? Lords, had she revealed the Order?
The messenger then related to the three of them the tale of Master Sparrow and Barg, the harvest master.
With every word, Argoth’s heart sank.
When the messenger finished, Shim told him to take a message to the lords of the Fir-Noy and dismissed the man. When the messenger rode off, Shim whistled through his teeth.
Bosser grunted and stroked his mustache the way he did when he was in deep thought.
“What do you think?” asked Shim. “Yet another Fir-Noy scheme to purge the Nine Clans of the Koramites, or have the Bone Faces begun to move their wizards?”
Bosser shook his head. “I do not trust the Fir-Noy, but even they wouldn’t make something like this up.” He spoke in the common Mokaddian, but his Vargon accent was still thick, rolling his r’s and turning his v’s into f’s. He sighed. “Dreadmen with failing weaves, Koramite spies, Sleth. We’re a kingdom of dust. Perhaps it’s time to flee these shores.”
Shim’s anger rose. “Flee? By all that’s holy, I will stand my ground. I’ve spilled my blood here, sired children on these hills. I will triumph or die trying. I will hear no talk of flight.”
“There are young ones with full lives ahead of them,” said Bosser.
Argoth knew Bosser was thinking of his own children. The Bone Faces would make them nine-fingered chattel. They would rape the women, force those they thought were pretty into being concubines. And when they finished, they would draw the Fire of the people to build their armies. They would levy taxes of Days until people began dropping like flies.
“Perhaps it isn’t Bone Faces at all,” said Bosser. “Maybe the ruins have produced this.”
When the first settlers had arrived in this land, they found a number of ridges and cliffs riddled with the ruins of extensive warrens. The Teeth, a six-mile ridge of limestone hills that looked from a distance like the maw of some fearsome fanged animal, was the biggest. These weren’t nasty holes in the ground, but long passages with many chambers. Over the years, many parts had eroded and fallen in. Pools of water stood in what once must have been grand halls. Bats littered the floors in many places with mounds of excrement. But what was left showed the mysterious race had carved with intelligence. For lack of any other name, the settlers called the vanished race stone-wights.
Nobody had seen a living stone-wight. The carvings and bones found in the warrens gave a good idea of what the creatures looked like. They walked upright, some with the long hair of a musk ox, but they were clearly not any breed of human. Their heads were too long for that, as were the short tusks found in a few of the skulls.
Some said the stone-wights were the same type of creature that inhabited the desolate solitudes in the lands of the Kish. The Kish called those creatures Ungar. But Argoth had tracked one many years ago, back in his dark days. He’d never caught the creature, but he had glimpsed it, and it looked nothing like what was carved in the walls of the stone-wight caves. Some saw evidence the stone-wights had worshipped Regret and claimed the other six Creators had obliterated them for their wickedness. This had led Koramite and Mokaddian parents to tell dreadful tales of stone-wights to their children to keep them obedient.
But if the stone-wights had been so wicked, so dedicated to undoing the creation, then why had they delighted in carving so many beautiful things of the world above their lairs? Argoth had seen a people vacate a land because of pestilence or drought. Perhaps this same thing happened to these ancient inhabitants. Argoth suspected the woodikin, who inhabited the wild lands beyond the Gap, knew the true tale, for woodikin were recorded in at least one of the carvings. But humans had not been able to extend their borders much into the wild lands. Even if they could learn how to survive those places, there was too much hate between human and woodikin.
It was true what looked to be records had been found in the stone-wight caves, but nobody could interpret the language. It was as foreign as the tongue of fishes. The stone-wights were a race whose history had been swallowed up by time.
Yet something did live in the caves. The warrens were uncanny places. Odd lights were seen in some of the windows. It was said some passageways whispered. But that did not deter the curious. A scattering of treasure was found along with the bones of odd beasts. But as the first settlers delved deeper, people began to enter and never return.
“Nothing has ever come out of the ruins but bats and snakes,” said Shim.
“That’s not true,” said Bosser.
Shim waved off his objection. “If anything is in there, then it’s had decades of opportunities to come out and feed. Someone would have seen it before. No, this is something else.”
“Whatever it is,” said Argoth, “it finds us in a precarious state of affairs. We can only hope for an embassy from Mokad.”
“Mokad,” said Shim in disgust. “Our lords in Mokad will send nothing. The war with Nilliam has them on their hind legs. Any new Divine they might have raised has been sent to fight. If they were going to help us, they would have sent a Divine months ago. No, we cannot count on them.” He rubbed a weathered hand across the stubble on his jaw in frustration. Then he paused. “But that doesn’t mean we’re lost. Sometimes extreme situations demand extreme measures.” He put his hand on Argoth’s shoulder.
“What measures?” demanded Bosser. “What have we left undone?”
Shim looked meaningfully at Argoth. “There are ways to combat both dread-men and wizards, aren’t there, Captain? There are alliances that can be made.”
“Alliances?” asked Bosser. “Mungo will not lend their wizards to help us.”
“I’m not talking about that type of an alliance. If the events at the village of Plum were not the result of some Bone Face plot, then that means there are”-he paused to find the right words-“other powers abroad.”
Shim had come perilously close to speaking treason. But then Shim was always one to take risks. Shim’s eyes glittered in his leather face. Argoth knew that look. He’d seen it a hundred times as he and Shim had fought and drank and laughed together.
Neither Bosser nor Argoth spoke.
“Such things would require great delicacy,” Shim continued.
Bosser was indignant. “Lords, man,” he said, his r clipped short in anger. “I’d rather die, rather run every member of my house through with my own sword than ally myself with abomination.”
“Our good captain here saved us last year with his seafire. Of course, the Bone Faces obviously have adjusted their tactics. Still, he might save us again. So I’m not talking about casting our lot with monsters,” said Shim. He cocked an eyebrow at Argoth. “Or am I?”
A warning shot through Argoth. Shim knew.
But if he did know, what did it mean that he had not revealed Argoth’s secret?
Bosser turned to Argoth with a look of disbelief and indignation on his face. “What is this?”
Argoth had done all he could to not reveal his lore, to make his fighting look like that of an unmultiplied man. He stroked his neck and felt the husk of the brilliant blue beetle one of his daughters had found and made into a pendant for him. She and her sisters, his son, his courageous wife-they would bear the brunt of the violence that would be directed against him. Even if some individuals in the Clans trusted him, many more would fear him. And they would exercise their fears upon his children.
“Lord Shim,” said Argoth, “I do not know what you suggest.”
“Don’t you?” asked Shim.
Arogth looked at his lord, his friend. As much of a friend as one might have and still keep the kinds of secrets Argoth did. He bowed his head. “I am sorry, Lord. I truly wish I knew how to help.”
Da returned in the early evening and whistled Talen and the others in from the fields. Talen was more than happy to oblige. Most of the injuries from the villagers had receded to a dull throb. But the one close to his kidney had not. It hurt every time he tried to stand straight.
They loaded the saws, axe, billhooks, hoggin, and bush knives into a pushcart and began to walk back, Prince Conroy following behind. As they approached the yard, Conroy must have heard the new hens, for he let out a squawk, made an end run about the dogs, and raced to the yard.
Talen put away his tools and joined his father. Conroy stood on the handcart eying four golden hens in their baskets and vocalizing whatever thoughts roosters did to their new ladies.
“Only four?” asked Ke. “I thought we had enough for six. Has Mol raised his prices?”
“No,” said Da. “Mol’s in a bad way. So I advanced him a payment for a load of goose down and a few hat feathers.”
“Did you see anything in the woods?” asked Talen.
“In fact, I did.” Da paused, looked at each of them, taking on an air of one about to tell a harrowing story. “Trees. There were lots of trees.”
Talen shook his head and sighed.
“Of course, there was that one hatchling swinging about on a vine. But he wasn’t bothering anybody.”
Da’s joking in the face of danger had worked when Talen was younger, but this wasn’t just humor. He was mocking Talen’s concern and that was annoying.
“That’s nothing,” said Ke. He pointed at Talen. “Mighty hunter here saw one in the yard.”
“Really?” asked Da.
“Yes,” said Ke. “A fine view of its leg and bum.”
His brother made it sound as if he were making it up. “And a spoon,” said Talen, “wet with fresh porridge.” Talen folded his arms.
“I wondered where that had fallen,” said Da. “I got to the barn this morning with my bowl, but no spoon. And I know I’d put one in.”
So much for the spoon. “I saw somebody,” said Talen.
“I’m sure you did,” said Da.
But Talen could see he was going to give him the same lecture River had. And so he decided not to push it. Maybe they were right. What he needed was more evidence. “Come on, Nettle,” he said, “let’s go get some fish.”
Nettle handed his hay fork to Ke with a smile, then followed Talen down to the river. The river ran so low this time of year that the gravel bars stood high and dry. Frogs croaked back and forth to one another from the edges of the slower pools. Talen fetched eight pan-sized trout out of the weirs, then he and Nettle took the fish back to the house. They filleted them, throwing the bones and guts into a bucket for the garden.
Talen looked over the meadow where they kept their mule. That thing he’d seen today, if it was a hatchling, could be out there in the shadows of the forest line right now looking at him and he’d never know it. One thing was for sure, his dogs were not going to be any help.
If it was a hatchling, he couldn’t cower. He’d have to be ready. Have to have his bow at hand and shoot first. There could be no hesitation.
He went in the house and laid the fish fillets on the table.
Ke sat in his chair mending a tear in his tunic. He looked up at the fish. “You’ve got to make it hard for me, don’t you?”
Ke was beginning yet another fast to purify his heart. He’d started fasting after the battles last year where one of his best friends had fallen and been taken by the Bone Faces. The Bone Faces hadn’t removed his finger and enthralled him. Nor had they fed him to their gods. Instead, they put out his eyes, shredded his ears, broke his feet so he’d be lame the rest of his life, and cut off his manhood. Then they left him by the side of the road to die or tell his tale.
Ke changed. You could see it in his eyes, a frightening purpose. He killed with a ferocious rage after that. Talen was so proud, and jealous, of him and the respect he won. And then Ke began to fast and ruined it. At first, his fasts consisted of passing up red meat. Now he would go without food or water for a day, sometimes two.
Talen didn’t understand all the fuss. It was right and good to defend home and hearth. It was right to take pleasure in the death of an enemy.
When he’d brought this obvious fact up to Ke, his brother had said, “Yes, but what happens when you begin to relish it like a roasted apple? What happens when you cannot slake the hate?” And so Ke fasted.
But the fasting didn’t appear to give Ke any new insight. The only thing it produced, as far as Talen could see, was a loud stomach and a short temper. Besides, Da had killed, and he didn’t fast.
Talen jiggled the basket of fish a bit. “They’re going to be tasty,” he said. “Are you sure you can’t wait? Given what’s happened, I would feel more comfortable with you at full strength.”
“You’ve got to get the weeds when they’re small,” said Ke.
Talen grunted. There were things about Ke he just couldn’t understand. He went back out to the well to wash up. Da had picked up this Mokaddian washing habit from Mother. Talen wondered if Da demanded they clean themselves because he truly believed in cleanliness or because it was his way of remembering her. Either way, Talen wouldn’t eat until he’d scrubbed with soap.
A large basin sat on a table next to the well. Da had lined the ground around the well with bricks. He’d also laid a brick path from the well to the house. Another was half built from the house to the privy, all to keep the boarded floor of their house clean.
Talen took his shirt off and scrubbed his arms, neck, and chest. He dumped a bucket of cold water over his head, and that’s when he saw the footprint in the soft dirt at the edge of the bricks.
He walked to the edge of of the bricks and looked down. There were three prints heading away from the well toward the old sod house. The toes looked a little long. The prints weren’t deep. In fact, you had to be standing just right to see them. But they were there.
“Nettle,” he said.
Nettle was slick with soap.
Talen pointed at the footprint. “What do you make of these?”
Nettle walked over. He took a wet cloth, wiped his chest, and looked down.
“Hatchling or woodikin?” asked Talen. Either way it was trouble. When the first settlers arrived in these lands, they found a number of small, hairy creatures sitting in a wild apple tree eating fruit. The first settlers had considered the creatures pests. But over time things had turned deadly, for the woodikin were not simple and dumb brutes. There had been much bloodshed between the first people and the tribes of the woodikin.
After a moment, Nettle said, “It’s not woodikin. This foot is too fat. And the toes aren’t nearly long enough. They’re human.”
“The prints are too small for any of us,” said Talen.
“So it could be the Sleth children or someone else. If it is Sleth, you know we’re bound by law to report it to the authorities.”
“And have them take all the glory and the reward?”
“I’m just saying we need to think this through.”
“What’s there to think? We get my da out here, we execute our plan. We’re not talking about some ancient Sleth. We’re talking about children.”
“I know,” said Nettle. “But I also know you don’t give some things enough time. You jump to conclusions. Look at your father’s spoon.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to help?”
“No,” said Nettle. “I’m in. But we need to have a solid plan. Not some half-baked thing. This one-legged hatchling snare scheme of yours is about as good as your running up the tree to escape Ke and River. This is one print. One hatchling. How many others might there be? We have to take that into account.”
Nettle had a point, but sometimes you didn’t have time to reconnoiter and strategize. “If you’d been in my shoes this morning,” said Talen, “River and Ke would have had you before the chase began because you’d still be deciding which way to run. Sometimes what’s required is immediate action.”
“Yes, just do the first thing that comes to mind. That will win wars and conquer nations.”
Nettle heard a lot from his father and his men about battle. But just because his father was a man of battle tactics didn’t elevate Nettle to the same level. “You only get a perfect plan after the fact, Nettle. A good plan, boldly executed now, is far better than a perfect one next week.”
“If they’re Sleth,” said Nettle, “then a hasty plan will get us both killed. I just want to make sure we do this thing in a way that will show everyone what we’re capable of. Not a way that backfires on us.”
Nettle was right, but that didn’t make his resistance any less annoying. “Fine. Then let’s look for more spoor, or are you just going to stand there dripping on the bricks?”
Talen and Nettle found two other sets of prints: one by the privy and the second in the mud by the pigpen. Nettle had just measured the one by the pigpen with his hand and concluded they had found prints that belonged to two different people, not one, when a man spoke from behind them.
“What have you got there, boys?”
Talen turned. A huge, armed man stood only a few paces away. His dark beard was long and unkempt like the fur of a shaggy dog. The tusk in his wrist tattoo marked him as Fir-Noy. But his tattoo had been extended. He’d seen that same design on the Fir-Noy that had set the Stag Home villagers on him. But even that tattoo had been extended. The man’s belt and leather cuirass drew Talen’s attention. A blue hand was painted on the right breast of the cuirass. Each of the Nine Clans had many orders; the blue hand was one of the smaller Fir-Noy orders, but it was not made up of common men. This was an armsman, a professional soldier. His military belt with its ornate buckle and honor disks confirmed it. Only an armsman was allowed to wear that belt and the leather apron straps signifying his seniority.
“Armsman?” Talen asked. “Zu?”
How had this man sneaked up behind them? The dogs began to bark, and the shock of this man standing here hit him. Talen stood in alarm and glanced to the fields and river, looking for others.
“We’re all about, boy,” the man said.
Talen had expected some reprisal from the Fir-Noy at Stag Home. But he thought it would come as a fine levied by the Shoka authorities. He didn’t think the Fir-Noy would send his men, and certainly not so quickly.
The cords of the muscles on his arms and neck stood out. Most soliders were levied from the ranks of the common people for a battle or watch, but it was always temporary; they served, and then went back to their lives. Commoners practiced regularly, it was true, but that could not be compared to the armsmen who did nothing but practice war. And not only was he an armsman, but the dark feathers in the tubes on either side of his untied helmet marked him as someone who held authority. Not a leader of a hundred, but a Hammer, someone marked for his performance in battle, someone who had proved himself and was marked for others to follow. Talen suspected this one had probably killed many men.
“Nothing terrible needs to happen here today,” said the man. “We just need your cooperation. You ought to start by calling your dogs before they get hurt.”
Talen didn’t believe a word of it. Somebody was going to get hurt. Something valuable was going to be taken.
The armsman had tied a piece of black cloth around his left upper arm. It signified he was a Sleth hunter.
“Call your dogs,” the man said again.
Talen called out for the dogs, but they did not come.
“What are you doing here?” asked Nettle. “This is Shoka land.”
It was rude for Nettle to address the armsman without the formal “Zu.” Uncle Argoth as a captain for the Shoka was a rank above this man. But that didn’t mean Nettle could address an armsman in that way.
Nettle stood there, looking this man straight in the eye. “I am Nettle, Argoth’s son, captain of the Shoka. You have no authority here.”
The man grinned a surprisingly rot-free smile. Then he stepped up to Nettle and backhanded him in the face, knocking him to the ground.
Talen turned to help Nettle up, but Nettle only pushed his hand away. When he gained his feet, his face was red, eyes tearing from the pain of the man’s blow.
The armsman drew his sword and pointed it at Nettle. “If I were you, I’d watch what I said. None of daddy’s men are here to keep you from stubbing your toe. Now. You’re going to round everyone up. I want them standing by the well.”
Suddenly the dog’s barking rose to a pitch and then a scream.
“You see,” the armsman said, “I told you to call your dogs.”
“Blue!” Talen yelled. “Queen!”
Talen ran toward the sound over by the old house. He soon saw there were about half a dozen others with this man. All but two of them were armsmen. They had positioned themselves in a ring around the farm and now closed the circle. Blue lay on the ground, yelping in pain: one of them had stabbed him in the hindquarters. Queen stood behind Blue, facing down another armsman.
The door to the house swung open. Da strode out carrying the Hog. “What’s going on here?”
Ke and River followed him out.
“You’ll put that down,” said the big armsman, “and tie your dog up.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m here in the name of the Council. You will stand and account.”
Two men closed on Da, their swords in hand.
Da considered them and then dropped the Hog to the side.
This was going to end badly. Talen knew it.
Da looked at Talen and motioned to the dogs. “Go get them.”
Talen turned and found Nettle behind him. “You get Queen,” said Talen. Then he put his hands under Blue so he could carry him. Blue cried out and turned to nip at Talen, but Talen murmured gentle words and carried Blue to the barn and laid him on a pile of fresh straw. Nettle tied Queen up to the closest post.
“Fir-Noy rot,” said Nettle.
Talen ignored him and smoothed Blue’s head and neck. Blood matted Blue’s fur. “You’re going to have to hold his head while I try to stop the bleeding.”
“Just let him lie. He’ll only fight us and pump more blood.”
“Blue,” Talen said. “You stupid dog.” He stroked him again. Blood ran from the wound. “We’ve got to compress this. It’s not going to stop on its own.”
One of the other armsmen appeared in the barn doorway. “You two. Get out here.”
Blue whined, but these armsmen had violence in their eyes. Talen stroked Blue’s head once more and then walked outside.
“Over there.” The man pointed with his sword at the well.
“Zun,” Da said. He faced the big armsman. “You come onto my land and threaten me?”
“Actually, Koramite,” the armsman said, flinging that word at Da instead of returning the proper title, “it’s not your land.”
“You can’t hunt here.”
“The Council has opened up the restrictions. Hunters are allowed free rein.”
Da paused. “Then I’ll need to see your token.”
The big man pointed to his armband. “Are you blind?”
“Any fool can put on a band,” said Da, “that doesn’t mean anything. You need a token, even when restrictions are eased. In these lands it’s the bailiff that determines who will hunt. I’ve already spoken to him about it.”
“Listen to this clever Koramite,” said the man.
“It’s Shoka business. Not yours. If you want to search us, you’ll come back with the bailiff’s token.”
The man grinned and dropped his gaze as if Da had made some joke. He glanced at the two armsmen that were closest to Da, Ke, and River. “Boys,” he said, “is this woman begging me to plow her field?” He turned back to Da. “Are you?”
“Would you allow just any band of men who came along free access to your home? Especially when they demand it at sword point? You need to move on,” said Da.
“No,” said the man. He rolled his shoulders to loosen them. “Actually we don’t. Now I’ve given you an opportunity, but it seems you insist…” He walked forward toward Da. “I know who you are, Zun.” He used the title in obvious mockery. “You think you’re something-a master archer. But you’re nothing more than a high-and-mighty camp lady.”
Among some soldiers, bowmen were considered lesser warriors, fighting only from a distance. It was true that sometimes boys and women were found in their ranks. The real warriors stood their ground and faced the men they would kill. Of course, others didn’t share that opinion, and Da had proven himself many times in battle. But this armsman obviously wasn’t among them.
The armsman stopped two paces from Da and raised his sword point to Da’s chest. “A Koramite, commanding his handful of cowards. Except, oops, you forgot your bow.” He paused. “You know, all this resistance just makes me wonder what you’re hiding.”
Da did not flinch. “This has nothing to do with hiding. It has everything to do with order. You come back with a token and you can pry into every cranny. That’s the law. And you know it.”
“Don’t lecture me, Koramite. These are the facts. One of your own was practicing the dark arts. And one of you is harboring-”
“Ridiculous,” said Da.
The man raised his sword to Da’s neck. “Don’t interrupt me again. We’re going to search this place. Then maybe you’ll make us some dinner. Afterward, if we feel like it, your tasty daughter there will entertain us.”
“This is why hunts are regulated. Now, I want you to move on.”
“You want?” Then the man’s face changed and he jabbed his sword forward.
But Da moved. One moment he was standing heron still, the next he dodged to the side and delivered a blow to the man’s sword hand with such violence that the sword leapt from the man’s hand and fell to the dust a number of yards away.
The man gasped. He clutched his sword hand.
Da kicked the man’s leg and sent him to one knee.
The two men by the house rushed forward, but Ke and River, fast as snakes, snatched up the Hog and fallen sword and faced the hunters.
The two hunters hesitated. But Talen saw the others draw their swords.
Da knocked off the man’s helmet and held him by the hair with a knife at his throat. “Now,” said Da. “You-”
A man Talen had forgotten was behind him took Talen by the neck and pressed a knife to his back.
“Two can play that,” the man said. “Throw down, you buggered Koramite!” There was nervousness in the man’s voice. “I’ll poke him! I’ll poke him! I’ll poke him!” Each time he said it, the pitch of his voice rose, and Talen felt the knife point push a little harder into his back just where his ribs ended.
There was a deep thud like the sound of a stick hitting a melon, and the man suddenly slacked his grip and fell to the ground.
Talen turned. There stood Nettle holding a hunk of firewood.
Talen felt his back. When he pulled his hand away, blood stained his fingers.
“The sword!” Nettle said. “Get his sword!”
Talen bent over, fumbled at the man’s scabbard, and soon held the sword. It was heavy and did not feel right in his hands.
“You call your men off,” said Da to the big armsmen whose head he held by a fistful of hair. “You tell them to drop their weapons.”
“You’re dead, Koramite,” the big armsman said. He tried to break Da’s grip, but Da simply pushed the knife closer.
“Now,” said Da.
“We can take them,” one of the hunters said, and the remaining four men began to move forward. Talen would not be a match for any of them. Ke might be able to hold his own. But if they had to fight these armsmen, they would lose.
In a flash, Da stabbed the big armsman’s shoulder and put the knife point back to his neck.
The big man cried out in pain.
“The next one goes right into your neck,” said Da.
“Put them down!” the armsman called out.
The hunters hesitated.
“Drop them!” the leader bellowed.
The men reluctantly dropped their swords.
“Everything,” said Da and he pushed the knife harder into the man’s neck. “And kick them away.”
“Do it,” the leader said. His face was red and strained, a massive vein standing out on his forehead.
The men threw daggers after their swords.
“Get the bows, Nettle,” said Da, then he stood the big man up. By the time he’d walked the man past the weapons, Ke, Talen, and River each had a bow, and had strung it.
Da shoved the big man forward. “I’m going to give you ten seconds to get across that stream. Then I don’t want to see you here ever again. You can make complaints to the Shoka warlord to get your weapons back.”
The man looked at the arrows pointing at him. “You’re going to pay for this, goat-lover.”
Da took a step toward him. The man raised his arm in defense, but Da was too quick. One, two punches to the face, and the man’s nose folded to the side. Blood ran down in a thick stream. Then a kick to the groin.
The man doubled over in pain and fell to the ground.
Da grabbed him by the hair and wrenched his head back.
“Am I going to see you again?” asked Da.
The man sucked in great breaths. “No, Zun,” he managed at last. This time there was no mockery in the tone. “No.”
“Because if I do,” said Da, “I’m just going to assume you’re one of those men who hasn’t got the sense to know when to leave well enough alone. And there’s only one way to deal with those types. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Good,” said Da. “You’re a big man, a fine asset; I’m sure your Fir-Noy commanders would hate to lose one with your good sense. And just in case you change your mind, I’m going to alert the Shoka warlord that there’s someone lost on his lands.”
Then Da released him and looked at the other hunters. “I think I’ll start counting at one.”
These weren’t cowards, but Talen could see they knew they’d been beaten.
The big man got to his feet, holding his nose, the blood matting his unkempt beard, but he didn’t say a word. He limped off toward the stream. Two others helped the man Nettle had brained.
Talen and his family followed a comfortable distance behind the men, stopping at the crest of the stream bank. Talen kept his bow up but did not dare to keep his arrow fully drawn lest he accidentally loose it and strike one of them. Da may have beaten the leader, but the presence of these men still frightened him. What would happen next frightened him even more. They’d been sent by the Fir-Noy at Stag Home. You couldn’t shame part of an order and not expect the rest to rise up against you. Who knew what string of events this had initiatied?
The hunters splashed through the water. On the other side, one of them turned. It appeared he was going to say something, but before he’d fully turned, Ke’s bow hummed and Talen watched an arrow miss the man by only a foot and bury itself in a tree behind him.
The man jumped back and cursed.
“Don’t badger them,” said Da.
But Ke had another arrow nocked. “I won’t. I’ll just maim a few.”
“Ke,” Da warned.
The hunters hurried to the woods. Just before they disappeared around a bend, one of them turned and gestured a curse at them. Then he too turned and slipped into the trees.
“Those men will be back,” said Talen. “And they’ll bring the rest of their cohort with them.”
“There’s no cohort,” said Da. “This wasn’t a military mission. If it had been, we would have seen many more. And it would have been led properly. These were opportunists.”
“Someone ought to follow them anyway,” said Ke. “Just to be sure.”
Da nodded. “But you use that bow only as a last resort. We blew the fire out of them. I don’t want you stoking it up again.”
“They won’t even know I’m there,” said Ke. Then he loped after the men.
“River,” said Da. “I need you to scout the hills around the farm. I don’t want any more surprises.”
“Yes,” she said.
Da turned to Talen and Nettle. “And you two: go see to that dog.”
Hunger stood upon the cliff. Hundreds of feet below him a river surged. He knew its name-the Lion. He knew many names now, all of them taken from the villager named Barg. And more would grow in him over the next few days as he finished digesting the soul of this man. But he wanted no more.
At first, each name had been a delight and thrill. Each had added to a building ecstasy, but then it all changed horribly. The image of the girl he’d killed in the village of Plum-the sons, the pretty wife-they rose in him again. Those images swelled a tide of grief, and he floundered in it like one drowning because it was not the girl, the sons, the wife, but his girl, his sons, his lovely, precious wife.
Somehow, in some wicked way, he was the villager Barg, twisted beyond all reckoning.
It made no sense. But new words tumbled into him every hour. New ideas. In some inexplicable way he’d mixed with the villager like copper and tin mixed to make bronze. He was Hunger and Barg and all the small things he had eaten: a rat, two lazy dogs, a multitude of insects, a horse.
After devouring Barg, he had reached out and, with his own rough hands, wrenched the life from his daughter. He’d separated her, taking her Fire and soul and casting her body aside. He’d swallowed her whole, but he hadn’t eaten her like he had Barg. He’d swallowed her into the place the Mother had told him to.
But he could have chosen not to. He could have run.
The image of his wife’s back breaking, of her folding over like a stick of wood, took his vision away.
Lords, he could have spared her, his son, and little Rose. Oh, sweet little Rose. His grief stretched wide and he roared at the confusion and pain. But Hunger had no tears. No way to purge the pain. And he could not escape. The souls of his family struggled within him, imprisoned inside that place the Mother had made. They would not get out. Even he didn’t know how to release them. That was the power of the Mother. So he could not open his stomach, but perhaps it was possible to break this body and, thereby, set them free.
He looked down at his legs and arms. Earth and grass… it was not right. It was not his body. He could feel worms burrowing through his limbs. This morning he’d pulled away chunks of the grass growing on his legs and stomach and dug in. He was nothing more than dirt and sticks and stone.
There was a name for what he was, but it floated away from him. But name or not, he knew he must die.
The river surged at the bottom of the gorge below him. If he broke himself upon the rocks below perhaps he could undo the horror. It would not bring him back as father or husband. But perhaps it would release their souls, and they could find a way to continue in the world of the dead.
The Lion was a treacherous river and had drowned many men. He spotted a run of thick rapids and marked it as his target. He would break upon the rocks there and sink to the bottom. In time the rushing waters would carry his body out to sea.
Stop. It was the Mother, reaching out to him. This will do you no good. Have you not learned yet to trust me? I told you not to eat the humans. But you disobeyed.
He felt her pull. Felt the pain only she could give him. But maybe she could ease the grief. Maybe she could ease his yearning and emptiness. Hunger looked at the waters below and hesitated.
She would hurt him. She would be furious. I only ate one. Only one. And he didn’t have any stink. You said not to taste the ones with stink.
That is what I said, you’re right. And you did cease your frenzy when you’d consumed one. Come back to me.
Maybe she wouldn’t punish him. But even this one, he said, even this one hurts.
Of course. Don’t you see? she said. It’s the man you ate that’s riding you, filling your mind with these thoughts. The filthy man. You’ve given him power over you.
The man wasn’t filthy. He was… Hunger. Himself.
I am an… he paused, then the word came to him, tumbled in with the weight of a massive stone. I am an abomination, he said. Let me go.
Come to me, she said. I will give you rest. I will show you how to eat these men and not suffer.
Her pull was not overwhelming here, not like in her cave, but he could feel the ease only she could give him. He almost turned then. Almost returned to her. But Hunger now knew the name for what he was, and that thing was not meant for this world.
No, he said. You made me. Not the man. You are a river of darkness. But I choose one of light.
Then he stepped back, and before he could change his mind, before she could say another word, he charged the chasm and, with a mighty leap, flung himself into the yawning gorge.
A satisfaction washed over him, for at least this deed was right. He plummeted in silence. He knew he should feel a giddiness, a rising thrill or panic. A man would feel that. And that’s what he had been. But all he felt was the black hunger of his heart.
Then the surging river rushed up at him and he crashed violently into the rocks. Part of his body slipped away. He thought it would continue: he’d dissolve and disperse like sediment.
But the water pushed him off the rocks, and he did not die.
He did not die!
The rushing current carried him along.
Dirt! Cursed, rotten dirt! He should have known-how could you kill dirt? He hadn’t even felt the pain of impact.
He sunk into the river’s depths, scraping, rolling, bumping along the bottom as the water ran its turbulent path.
Maybe the river would carry him out to sea. He might walk in the depths there, might even be eaten by a leviathan. Surely such a beast could kill him. Or maybe it would avoid him altogether, for what creature of the sea ate dirt?
The force of the water soon lessened and he found himself in a deep eddy, deposited in the shadow of an overhanging rock. He lay in a bed of sand at the bottom of this calm nook of the river. A school of large trout eyed him in the dark green and blue depths. Far above them, the sun shone like a pale dot. Maybe he could lie here forever, let the river cover him up with sand and mud.
Lie here. But his family would lie here with him, imprisoned in his gut.
He needed help. And of the seven Creators, there was only one he thought might answer.
Regret, he prayed in his mind. Deliver me. Destroy this creation, dissolve me forever.
But it was not Regret who answered him.
If you will not learn obedience through pleasure, said the Mother, then you will learn it through pain.
Hunger braced himself. He did not know what magical bond she held him with. But she could always find him. And she could deliver a white-hot flame that burned all thought from his mind.
Come to me, she said.
Then she did something. She pushed at him, and Hunger found himself rolling over to get his footing.
The trout darted out to the bright water then into shadows farther away. But he stopped himself. No, he said. Never again.
You can fight me, she said. But in the end, you will obey. It is your nature.
She pushed again, and Hunger found himself looking for a path up out of the riverbed. He took two steps and stopped.
She pushed again.
Another few steps.
It will cost you, Hunger said. I will fight you every bit of the way.
There was a pause and he felt the first trickle of the pain. A trickle that grew into a raging fire. It hurt. It seared. It rose in him and consumed him in a soundless scream.
When Hunger regained his senses, he found himself still under the water, lying on a stretch of river stones. This was a different part of the river. It took all his might, but he pushed himself up.
Hu, he said. Do you see? I can withstand your pain. Perhaps you will always beat me, but it will cost your attention and time. I will take that from you. I will force you to always think of me so you can think of nothing else.
There was a pause.
He felt her push.
He took a step, and then another. He tried to fight her.
But she flooded him with ease. He could trust her. She was good. And if he asked very carefully, with much obedience, she would release those he had so horribly imprisoned.
Hunger turned and climbed up the steep, slippery rocks of the bank of the riverbed, up out of the water and into the sunshine. When his strength returned, he began to run along the banks, leaping between massive boulders, back toward the Mother and her caves.
Hunger could smell the Mother here in the darkness. The warrens were full of her. She smelled of rock and sweet, clean magic.
She was smaller than he was, but quick and strong. He’d felt her sharp teeth and powerful hands. He’d seen her. She rarely left the caves, but she’d ventured forth with him a time or two, walking abroad in the night. He’d also seen her in the smallest of light that found its way into the depths from the mouth of the cave. She was pale. Pale as a mushroom. Pale as the moon.
He didn’t know what she was. She had two arms, two legs. A head. She had a muzzle, which the villagers did not. Her skin was covered with a fur. Smooth and soft as the small things he had eaten: the mice and squirrels, the rat.
His ease grew the deeper he went in the inky tunnels. Her powers were always stronger when he was close.
He felt along the walls as he walked, smelled the scent of rock and water, of the sulfur springs, and of the strange beasts that lived in the bowels of this mountain. When he came to the carving that marked the hole leading to the lower chambers, he climbed down. Then it was up a small slope, over the bridge that spanned the cold waters of the underground river.
He found her in the warm room, surrounded by her light. But now he considered that light as if for the first time. It wasn’t just light. It was-the word was “ribbons”-it was ribbons of light, ribbons flowing around her, circling her limbs. Living ribbons of light wriggling like the snake he’d eaten. And then he saw that her appearance was changed.
She no longer had a muzzle. Nor was she covered in soft fur.
The Mother was human. And beautiful. So stunning it took his breath away.
He wondered and marveled at the change. He looked closer at her. She looked like…
She looked like his wife. He was confused. “Lovely?” he asked.
“Come here,” she said.
The ribbons of light reached out to him and circled his arm, caressed his neck, wreathed his head. A continual shimmer.
“What do you want?” she asked.
He only wanted to be here with her. But no, that wasn’t right. Deep in his mind he knew there was something else. And then the nightmare of his family struggled past the feel of her beauty and stared him in the face.
He was going to tell her to free the souls inside, but he knew she must not know they meant anything to him.
“Freedom,” he said.
“You need a servant,” he said. “But you don’t need me. I will find you another, and you will give me this boon: you will dissolve this body and let me go.”
“And the souls inside you?” she asked.
Her face flickered like smoke. Alarm shot through him. He took a step back, but she grabbed him by the arm, and such was the power of her ease that his panic lost its grip. He knew he should run, but could not.
She thrust her other hand into his sodden chest. She reached deep into him with that powerful hand and grasped the part of him that held his family.
He wanted to struggle, but could not.
With a yank she broke them free-his bright daughter, his handsome sons, his admirable wife-and withdrew his monster’s heart.
Hunger fought her ease with all his might and managed to grasp her hand. He felt what she held. It was then he realized she hadn’t grasped his heart, if he even had one.
No, what she’d taken from his chest was a stomach.
It was a weave of willows. He’d been there when she’d made them; he himself had fetched the thin flexible willow branches she used for such weaving. They smelled of her magic. His body was packed with stomachs. Empty stomachs waiting to be filled. But this one was not empty. In this one Hunger could feel the souls of his family caught like moths in a wicker web.
The Mother pushed at him and yanked her hand away. “You stupid thing,” she said. “I will devour them.”
“No,” he begged. “Please.”
“Then help me prepare for the harvest. Bring me the ones that stink, all those that could fight against me. Bring me the young male that would be their leader. This is your duty. And when you have fulfilled that duty you will receive the boon you seek.”
The pull of her dazzling beauty and the desires for his family tugged against each other. He wanted to obey her. But he also knew she was lying. She would not keep her promise to free his loved ones.
Then something she’d just said sparked an idea in his mind. She had spoken of a harvest before, but he had not known then what the word meant. “What do you want to harvest? I am strong. I can serve you as the harvest master and you can let these go.”
Her anger seemed to flow away at this offer and her countenance smiled upon him. “It has been too long since any in my family have handled humans. So facile.”
This made no sense to Hunger and he could not tell if she had been talking to him or herself.
“You do not understand,” she said. “This herd of humans is mine. Mine by right. It was my mother’s mother’s before me and will produce for my daughters. But humans rebel against the natural order of things. It has ever been so. And if they would rebel against me, then think what they’d do if one such as yourself was set to watch over and harvest them. No, humans do best when one of their own sits at their head. Your part is to cull the herd. Nothing more.”
A part of Hunger recoiled at this information. Harvesting humans? Then he thought of how she taught him to unravel things, and he knew what she wanted to harvest.
A wave of her ease washed over him. What did it matter what she wanted. Or if she lied. She was so beautiful. So kind.
His alarm faded away.
“They are hidden, the ones that stink. Hidden so even the Mother who stole this herd from my ancestors could not find them. But you have been created to root them out.”
Hunger thought. A word came to him for the ones that stink-Sleth. That was their name. And he immediately knew where the men had taken one of them. He’d learned this not from following any scent trail, for the scent had ended in the fires. No, that knowledge had been one of the first things that had tumbled into him from Barg. Purity the Sleth was going to be held in a stone cage in Whitecliff. He could take her. Sleth would do anything to keep their secrets. They would go so far as to hunt and kill captured members of their nests, which meant if he did take her, he could then use her as bait to find the others.
“You will spare these?” he asked.
“Your kind is so weak. How you ever overpowered the Mothers I will never know.”
“Will you spare them?”
“You have two nights,” she said. She held up the stomach that contained his family. “If you fail, know that I and my daughters are hungry, and these firstlings will be prepared for our feast.”
Blue wouldn’t let Talen near the wound. The dog had licked until the bleeding stopped, but if corruption set in and spread, they would have to put him down. Talen could not believe what had just happened. And Da was wrong: those men would be back.
He and Nettle went back to the house and found Da standing at the hearth. Three large red onions sat roasting on a pile of embers there. A pot of porridge hung from a crane over a cooking fire. The fish they’d filleted earlier were sizzling in a yet another pan. Da poked at them with a knife. The ends of his beard braids were tucked into the collar of his tunic to keep them from getting into the fire or falling into the food.
Ke sat at the table, propping himself up with his elbows. There was no bowl or plate before him.
“Shouldn’t River be back by now?” asked Talen.
Da swung the crane, and the pot of barley that hung from it, out of the hearth. “Don’t you worry about River. She’ll be fine.”
Da was probably right. River could take care of herself. She might not be as strong as Ke, but she knew woodcraft. She had her bow. And, if it came to it, he doubted any but a dreadman could run her down.
Da lifted the pot off the crane with a hook and brought it to the table. He took off the lid and dropped a large spoonful into each of their bowls, then he put a small chunk of butter onto the top. They rarely ate their porridge in the sweet Mungo style. “By the time you’ve eaten that, the fish and onions will be ready.”
Talen turned to Ke. “What did you find?”
“I followed the armsmen to their mounts,” said Ke. “Then I followed them to the edge of the forest. They’re headed out to Fir-Noy lands.”
That could mean the armsmen had given up or were going to make an official complaint. But Talen doubted that was the case. Da had just humiliated a Hammer; that surely wouldn’t go unpunished. “They’re probably circling round or going to gather a mob,” said Talen. He turned to Da. “We’re sitting here like a bunch of cattle.”
“We’ll watch,” said Da. “And it’s true somebody needs to go talk to the bailiff, but it’s too late now. I don’t want anyone out past dark with the country full of imbeciles like those who showed up today. There’s nothing else we can do at the moment.”
But that wasn’t true. The armsmen weren’t the real threat. Sleth were. Talen looked at Nettle, who was chewing a huge mouthful of the porridge. They’d discussed their plans, but he didn’t want to blurt them out now. Da needed to first see the prints. Only then would he listen.
Da walked back to the hearth. He grabbed the small frying pan from the wall. He put a knife full of lard in it and stuck the pan next to the andiron above the coals. When the lard melted and began to sizzle, he produced a large brown egg from his pocket, cracked it, and dropped the contents into the pan.
“Where did you get that?” asked Ke.
“Mol,” said Da. “I got half a dozen.” He grinned. “And if you’re polite and grovel like a proper son I might save you one for when you end your fast. But you must promise to help me. We’re going to be treating our four new ladies like fat Mokaddian city wives for the next few weeks. We need to hand-feed them grasshoppers and a slice of squash every day.”
“Da,” said Talen. “There is something we can do right now. We can solve the root of the problem.”
“You’re not going to reconcile Koramites with Fir-Noy,” said Da and turned back to his pan. “We’re oil and water.” He added a strip of fatback to his egg and let it all sizzle.
“I wasn’t talking about that. I’m talking about the hatchlings.”
Ke groaned. “Och, here he goes again about a monster running about the woods wanting his pants to cover up its naked bum-”
“They’ve got Sleth caged in Whitecliff,” said Talen, “and you seem to think the world is as safe as a pie bake.”
“Perhaps the woman in Whitecliff isn’t as dangerous as you think,” said Da. “What’s needed now is calm heads.”
“I agree,” said Talen. “And I am calm. But what you need to know is that not only did I see one of them, in broad daylight, but we’ve got its footprints in the yard.”
Da and Ke followed Talen out to the footprints. The sun had sunk low, but there was still enough light to see by. In fact, the angle of the light made the track clearer. He led them to the one by the old sod-roofed house and then finally brought them to the one by the pigpen.
“That’s too small for Sammesh,” said Talen. He put his foot next to it to make the point.
Ke stretched one of his massive arms to scratch a spot on his back. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a killer.”
“Oh, come on,” said Talen. “Look at it.”
A horsefly landed on Da’s arm. He looked down at it and let it prepare to bite. “That print could be anybody’s,” said Da. “Could be one of the children that came with that tinker family. They were here just last week.”
It could have been them. “But that doesn’t explain the sighting and my missing pants.”
Da smacked the horsefly with the flat of his hand. It fell to the dirt where Da ground it in with his foot. “Yes,” said Da, “the missing pants that were under your bed.”
“I saw something today,” said Talen.
“I’m sure you did. But I’m also sure that your beating this morning has you rattled. Do you remember when you were a boy and saw the shadows of a number of Og in the yard?”
Talen remembered. Their wagon had cast a shadow in the light of a full moon. And he’d been sure the creatures were in the yard ready to tear them all to pieces. Of course, Da had taken him by the hand, kicking and screaming, and forced him to face the fact that it was only moon shadows.
“I saw a leg,” said Talen. “Why won’t you believe me? I don’t understand why you’re not concerned.”
“Concerned?” said Da. “I’m mortally concerned. But not about hatchlings. Nobody knows that the woman they’ve caged is Sleth. There was no Seeker, no proving.”
“What I heard,” said Nettle, “was that she moved with unnatural speed.”
“Things are perceived differently in battle. When your mind is tinged with fear, the foe’s strength and speed and ferocity are always exaggerated. But let’s assume the worst. Let’s assume she did move with power. She might have been wearing a weave. Did you think of that?”
“That’s treason right there,” said Talen.
“Is it?” asked Da. “A weave bestowed by some Koramite Divine to her family a century ago?”
“It is if she didn’t bring it forth.”
“But that’s different from Slethwork, isn’t it? It’s a legitimate weave, outlawed not because it’s evil, but because it might pose a threat to the current oppressors.”
Talen sighed. Da never had anything good to say about Divines. Talen remembered when he was a child and had learned “The Six Paths” from a friend’s mother. The poem described the different orders of Divines. He came home excited to perform and began to recite the poem with the appropriate actions.
The Fire Wizards harvest.
The Kains forge and store.
The Skir Masters ride the powers with traps and ancient lore.
At this point in the poem, Da’s face began to sour, but Talen had thought it was because he’d done something wrong. He continued trying his best to remember the hand movements.
The Guardians live like dragons.
The Green Ones heal the dead.
And the Glories rule o’r them all with centuries in their heads.
Da had clapped in a perfunctory way. “You’re a sharp one, for sure,” he’d said. “And such a sharp mind needs to be kept that way.” Then he’d made Talen learn a poem he’d never heard before. It was long and started with a traveler visiting a tavern.
The Host spreads his table then calls with honeyed charm:
A steaming loaf of Ignorance to keep your belly warm,
An unending keg of Fear to turn your wit to froth,
And tender cuts of poisoned Pride to turn your gentle heart.
The poem continued, describing two companions, one who takes the host’s offer and another who refuses. The first one is treated with firmness but kindness and put out, like a steer to pasture, to enjoy the gardens, orchards, and plenitudes of the vale. The second faces privation and a multitude of dangers trying to get his friend to leave. In the end, he fails, and the first one, the one who trusted the smiling host, is brought forth for butchering. The second makes a brave attempt to rescue him from his captors, but fails, barely escaping with his life. Powerless, he watches from afar as the mighty inhabitants of that awful vale kill, roast, and then serve his friend up on platters for a community feast.
It was a long poem, but the story was so fascinating Talen memorized it in less than a day. At first, Talen thought Da made him memorize it because he’d wanted to challenge, and thereby increase, Talen’s mental skills. But after he’d learned it, he began to consider the story and see it was a moral tale, teaching how a man could be self-reliant and wise. For a long time he thought that was Da’s purpose in making him memorize it.
But as he grew older, Talen began to suspect Da had planted that poem in him for another reason altogether. There were six families in that vale that seemed to correspond to the six paths of the Divine. The butchering was performed during the annual Festival of Gifts, which is when the Divines asked for the annual sacrifices. The name of the host meant the same thing as the name of the first Glory of ancient times. As he grew, Talen found many more connections between the inhabitants of that vale and the six paths.
It was as if Da had planted that poem in him so that it might bring forth, in its due time, a suspicion of all things Divine. But why?
He’d once asked Da what it all meant and if it was indeed his purpose to bring forth such a fruit, but Da only shrugged and said it was only an old poem he’d learned as a child. Talen tried to detect prevarication in Da’s answer, but found none. Nevertheless, he knew Da was hiding something.
Talen had known two Divines in his life. Lumen and the Green Beggar. Lumen looked down upon the Koramites. But the Green Beggar went around healing people and teaching them the paths to joy. He refused all authority. Refused pomp, choosing instead to live in a log hut he made himself. He leased land to farm, established a following, and had done nothing but bless goats and vegetable gardens. Three years ago he’d sailed away, waving good-bye to the throngs of his “fellows” standing on the docks. Many still wore the green shoulder patch that marked his followers.
“What about the Green Beggar?” asked Talen. “He would have spoken out against the Sleth woman’s use of the weave.”
“What about him?” asked Ke. “The Goat King, the Witch of Cathay, the Scarlet Tiger, they were all once Glories of great nations. Benefactors. Who can say what the Green Beggar’s real purpose was?”
Talen knew all the stories about Glories who had gone mad and eaten the souls of those they ruled. Divines had all once been men. Men who were raised to wield the powers of life and become almost immortal. But those tales were of Divines who had succumbed to the whisperings of Regret, the Creator who when he had seen what he and the other six Creators had wrought, wanted to destroy it and begin anew. They were stories of Divines who lost the favor of the Six.
“What if Lumen himself ate souls?” asked Da. “Who would have known it? Nobody. Isn’t that a greater horror than some farmer’s wife who uses a little weave to bless her and her family?”
“But the power doesn’t come from the same source,” said Talen. “It’s like comparing an ale brewed using pure water with another made using swamp scum. They may look the same from a distance, but in the mouth they’re night and day.”
Nettle eyed the woods. “Are we sure we want to talk about this out here?”
“I’ll tell you what I think,” said Da. “I don’t think this has anything to do with magic. I think this is nothing more than a bunch of cowards worried about their cattle and land.”
“You don’t believe the reports?”
“I believe that men see what they want to see. And what they saw was a Koramite smith who was richer than any seven of them combined.”
Talen had seen his father’s judgment blinded before by his pride and anger. And even though it grated, the Mokaddians weren’t always in the wrong. “Maybe all you choose to see is the wrongs done to our people. To admit that one of us was evil would spoil your arguments. Wouldn’t it be better to cut out the corrupted part than let it ruin the rest of us?”
“This is why we need a Divine protecting our shores,” said Nettle.
They all looked at him.
Nettle had brought his bowl outside. He stuffed a large spoonful of porridge in his mouth. “A mere human cannot hope to unravel such mysteries.”
“That’s true,” said Ke. “But you don’t need one to know there’s no greater risk now than there was before. Let’s say Talen is right. It is no more dangerous to walk about now than it was yesterday or the day before. If there are Sleth lurking about, they were there before.”
“What kind of logic is that?” asked Talen. “If you find out there are wildcats in the woods, then you take precautions. You don’t assume they pose no danger.”
“Ah,” said Ke, “but if the wildcats always kept to themselves, are they really a danger now? Perhaps a hunt will only corner them and make them fight.”
“Yes,” said Talen. “But wildcats don’t murder whole families and devour their souls.”
“Maybe Talen’s right,” said Da. “We should take precautions. But this all leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The Fir-Noy had no authority to organize a hunt in the village of Plum. That band of armsmen today had no authority to hunt here. So even if there are Sleth, there are far more Fir-Noy eager to run a Koramite through.”
“We need to post a watch,” said Talen.
“Aye,” said Da. “There’s bound to be more than one group of idiots in the woods.”
There were more than idiots in the woods, and Talen knew it. He was going to catch whoever had been lurking about. Normally, you only masked your scent when trapping animals, but it was possible that the hatchlings had eaten the souls of some beast in an attempt to obtain its finer sense of smell. He did not have days to let the snare weather, nor did he have any urine or gall from the last deer he’d killed to mask his and Nettle’s scent, so Talen led Nettle into the fading light, down to a swampy bend in the river. He found a spot where there was plenty of rotting vegetation and dug out a pail full of mud.
By the time they hiked back up the bank and to the run between the barn and the garden, it was dark. Da had shuttered up the windows against the evening insects, and so they only had starlight and a half-moon to guide them. Talen had wanted to wait until dark so the hatchlings wouldn’t be able to see much of what they were doing. Now he wondered if he had enough light to set the snare properly.
First, they pushed the wheelbarrow and eight empty barley sacks out to the cross-post fence of the mule pasture. A long mound of stones, taken from the field, stretched along the base of the fence. They doubled the sacks and then filled them with enough stones to equal the weight of a large man. Then they pushed the sacks back and into the barn underneath the pulley that allowed them to lift loads up to the barn loft and bound all four sacks together.
Next, they pushed the empty wheelbarrow out to the run between the garden and the barn. They set it next to the side of the barn and angled it out into the path in such a way that it would direct someone walking here to step right into the trap.
They dug some beets and carrots, complaining loudly about having to work in the dark as punishment for fighting earlier with Ke and River. Then Talen announced that he would leave the vegetables just inside the garden gate and finish in the morning. Anyone listening in the woods would have heard and known a meal was waiting in the garden.
Then he and Nettle coated their hands, the noose, and trigger pegs with the mud.
Nettle disappeared into the barn. A few moments later, he opened the loft doors. Talen threw him the end of his rope and waited until Nettle had fed it through the outside pulley to the one that hung above the stones.
When Talen heard Nettle’s soft whistle, he knew Nettle had fastened the end to the sack of stones, and he began to pull. Both he and Nettle had to work to lift the stones aloft. When they’d finally lifted them to the pulley crane inside the barn, Talen began his work. He set the noose and trigger line and pegs.
Talen had caught deer with counterweight snares before. It was possible that the noose would grab a leg, but it also might tighten up around the neck. If all worked well, they’d have a hatchling before dawn. Of course, a real deer might trip it as well. But Talen didn’t think so. The dogs were usually very good at chasing most things off.
And that reminded him: the dogs would have to come in. This trap could very easily choke and kill one of them. He went to where Blue lay then picked him up and carried him back to the house.
A double-spout lamp burned on the table. Da held the wastebasket to the edge of the table and brushed wood shavings into it. He’d been working on a rose carved in cherrywood. A soft light from one lamp spilled from River’s room. Ke sat at the edge of the light rubbing sheep’s tallow into his boots.
Queen went to Da silently, wagging her tail and asking for attention.
Da looked up. “I don’t want the dogs in here.”
“I’ll keep them in the loft with me,” said Talen. “Blue won’t rest if we keep them outside.”
“Huh,” Da grunted. He motioned at a harness of parade bells. “Ke’s going to take first watch. He’s going to string a line around the property. That line will be rigged to these bells. Anyone trips that line and we’ll hear it.”
“And where’s Ke going to be?”
“Outside the door in the shadows of the house,” said Ke.
“What were you doing out there?” asked Da.
“Nothing,” said Talen.
“You were doing something.”
Talen glanced at Nettle and back at Da. Talen knew he’d make them take down the snare. “We were just talking.”
“Huh,” Da grunted again. But he turned back to his carving.
Talen took Blue, and all four of them went upstairs.
Nettle suggested they string their bows. They wouldn’t have much time to get downstairs and out into the yard. It wasn’t good to leave a bow strung, but in this case Talen thought it was best. They leaned the bows and the quivers against the wall and lay down in their narrow beds. The dogs came over and licked Talen’s face until he told them to settle down.
The light coming up the stairs diminished. Someone scraped open River’s tin candlesave and closed it. She loved the smell of beeswax and herbs, even if it did cost more than oil or tallow. But the mice loved beeswax so the candles had to be put beyond their nibbling. Soon the light from downstairs disappeared altogether.
Talen heard Da go outside and draw up water from the well then come back in and retire to his room. The house quieted and Talen heard an owl hoot outside.
He lay on his bed unable to sleep. He waited for what seemed a long time, staring at the ceiling.
A jingle sounded from below.
“Nettle,” Talen said.
“I heard it,” said Nettle.
Another small jingle, then one big one.
Talen and Nettle fairly flew down the stairs in the dark. Nettle slipped on the narrow steps at the bottom and crashed into Talen. They would have both sprawled out onto the floor, but Talen held onto the railing and swung into the wall instead.
“Ho!” said Talen. “The alarm!”
There was laughter in the darkness. One small candle ignited at the table. There was Da, holding a glowing piece of tinder, shaking so hard he almost knocked the candle over. River sat next to him holding her sides.
Da grabbed the alarm, gave it a good shake, and laughed even harder.
“Just testing your speed, son. Just testing your speed.”
Ke stood in the doorway of his room, grinning like an idiot.
Da! He was worse than River. “What are you looking at?” said Talen.
That only set all three of them to laughing again.
Nettle wore a half grin on his face.
“Come on,” Talen said to him and marched back upstairs.
When he’d lain down again, there was another jingle.
“Hoy,” he heard Da say from below. “Sleep well, son.”
Da would find crickets in his boots this week. And next week, he’d sink to the ground while sleeping with loose bed ropes. And then it would be Talen’s turn to laugh.
He heard three more jingles and laughter, then Da called up a good night.
Talen knew what Da was doing-he was trying to relax them, just as he did his bowmen when they went into battle. All of which meant that Da was taking this very seriously indeed. Maybe Da was concerned about Sleth after all. Maybe all of his arguing against the Fir-Noy was just a way to help them keep cool heads. This comforted Talen, and he suddenly found he could close his eyes for sleep.
Shouts jolted Talen out of bed.
“Hold,” Ke said from below. “Identify yourself.” There was no joking in his voice now.
Talen grabbed his bow in the darkness. This time when he and Nettle reached the bottom of the stairs, the door stood open and Ke had his own bow drawn, pointing it out at something in the moonlit yard.
“Zu,” the soldier said. “We are part of the barbican watch. I bring Captain Argoth’s summons.”
The moon had risen and Talen could see one man wearing a helm and a chain mail shirt standing outside. Men and horses stood behind him.
Talen’s first thought was of the armsmen they’d beaten earlier. But there were no Fir-Noy markings on the soldiers he could see. Only Shoka. This soldier’s wrist also bore the tattoo weave of Shoka bull horns. But, then, it had been Shoka that had beaten him at the village. Talen nocked an arrow and looked to the shuttered window at the back of the main room.
“What’s this about?” asked Da.
“You know the Sleth woman?” the soldier asked.
“You’re referring to Purity, the smith’s wife?”
The soldier said nothing.
“Yes, I know Purity.”
“You are summoned to be in Whitecliff within the hour.”
“For what cause?” asked Da.
“Captain Argoth wants help interrogating her. I can only suppose he thinks a Koramite might win her trust.”
Ke pitched his voice low. “It’s a trap,” he said.
“Only a fool rides at night,” said Da.
“We’ve got a moon,” the soldier said. “And we will escort you back.”
“That’s not enough assurance.”
“No,” said the soldier. “But this should be.” He withdrew a linen handkerchief from his waist pouch and held it out for Da to take.
Da took it. It had embroidery upon one of its corners-three trees and red circle underneath. It was Uncle Argoth’s sign.
Da took in and held it to his nose. “Spearmint,” he said.
Uncle Argoth loved spearmint, planted it around his house, carried it with him. Talen lowered his bow.
Da sighed. “Let me saddle my mule.”
“We have a mount.”
“Moon or no, I’ll trust my own, thank you.”
Da turned to Nettle. “Your father, it seems, can’t wait until morning.” Then he turned back to his room to dress. “Ke, get Iron Boy saddled up.”
Ke pulled on his pants, lit a lamp, and walked outside. The saddle was in the barn, but Talen didn’t think Ke would notice the trap. A minute later, he changed his mind and walked past the messenger to warn Ke.
But before he passed the well, he heard Ke call out. “What’s this?”
“Ke!” called Talen. “Don’t touch anything.”
Moments later Talen heard a loud crash and the clank of the cowbell he’d attached to the snare.
“Idiot!” Ke cursed. He stormed around the side of the barn holding the cowbell in one hand, the lamp out in front of him with the other.
“What’s that?” asked Da.
Da stood there in his riding clothes and boots.
Ke motioned behind him in anger. “Around the side of the barn. You’ll see. I’m going to fetch Iron Boy.”
Two watchmen stood at the well drawing water. Another three stood by the door.
Da addressed them all. “There’s fish hanging in the shed. Help yourself.”
He motioned for Talen to follow then walked around the side of the barn and stopped. He looked up and saw the rope and noose hanging limply from the pulley. “You know, it’s one thing to give a man a beating. It’s quite another to kill him. Then you’ve got blood debt and revenge and families to deal with.”
“It wasn’t for the hunters,” said Talen. “You weren’t going to believe me until I had one of the hatchlings swinging in the yard.”
“Right,” said Da. He sighed. “What if River had come here in the morning to fetch a few potatoes, sleep still in her eyes?”
“I’d thought of that,” said Talen.
“No,” said Da. “You hadn’t. But I give you credit. It’s a good idea, poorly executed-you don’t hide things like this from your fellow defenders-but a good idea nevertheless. Still, you’re not going to reset this. Not tonight.”
He waited for Talen’s reply.
Talen had put the others in danger. “No,” said Talen. “I will not.”
Talen watched Da ride off into the darkness with the men. When they disappeared into the moon shadows of the forest, Talen wondered: Da was formidable, so what would they do now if the armsmen returned? Or the hatchling worked some evil?
They restrung the alarm line and went back into the house. Ke pointed at Talen. “Since you’re so eager to catch something, I think I’ll let you take the next watch. In fact, you and Nettle can have the next two.” Then he yawned and retreated to his room.
River said, “The water’s hot. I suggest you make a cup of night-watch tea.”
Talen stood their strung bows against the wall and opened the shutter to the window. He scanned the yard. Nothing, just the buildings and deep moon shadows. Of course, the shadows could hide anything.
He turned and retrieved the kettle from the hot coals in the hearth and made a cup of tea for Nettle. His cousin would take the first part of the watch. Talen didn’t think he would be able to fall back asleep, but unrolled his blanket on the floor by the table and lay down on it anyway.
While the tea cooled, Nettle rummaged through the cupboards. He soon found a thick heel of two-day-old bread upon which he spread salted lard. He said around his mouthful of old bread, “I don’t know who to worry about more-hunters or hatchlings. I’m beginning to think we should have laid half a dozen snares.”
“Queen’s out there now. She and the warning line will have to do. Besides, we still have our bows,” said Talen, although he didn’t know how much good they’d do. Nettle placed himself to look out the window, and soon Talen felt himself drift to sleep.
Sometime in the dark morning, Nettle nudged him awake.
“Did you see anything?” asked Talen.
“A family of skunks,” said Nettle. He yawned. “Came right up to the window, but they must have gotten a whiff of you, because they turned tail and ran.”
“Funny,” said Talen.
“But true,” said Nettle.
Talen rose and put the kettle back over the coals. Before his tea had finished steeping, Nettle lay asleep.
Talen waited at the window into the small hours of the morning. Twice he heard something and brought his bow up to the ready. But nothing materialized. Nothing moved but the night shadows as the moon made its way to the western horizon.
He thought about the upcoming Festival of Gifts, where the people celebrated the end of the fall harvest and all the gifts of the Creators. There would be no Divine bestowing gifts of healing and Fire. But that would not stop the merchants and entertainments.
He had planned on going and buying a few sweets and being content to look at everything else. But now he sat listing out in his mind what a hero and his reward might buy. He was going to surprise everyone. Nobody seemed to think he would amount to much of anything. But what would they say when he hog-tied the hatchlings and carted them into Whitecliff?
He waited and watched and waited and began to tire of waiting. A pressure began to build in his bowels. He stood, tried various positions to hold it, but soon he realized that if he didn’t get to the privy immediately, he was going to soil his pants.
Lords and lice, he thought. There was an old chamber pot in the back room, but he couldn’t imagine the ribbing he’d get from Ke when he found out he’d been scared to go out. Besides, there was nothing in the yard.
He nudged Nettle, but Nettle only rolled over to his other side. Talen didn’t want to go outside. While the moon cast enough light to see, the woods were dark. But he could not wait. He opened the door, scanned the yard and shadows. Truly, nothing was there, so he slipped out the door with his bow and a clutch of arrows and ran to the privy.
As he went about his business, he began to think of the story of the Sleth woman cutting people up and curing them like hog meat.
The hackles rose on the back of Talen’s neck. Here he was, foolish enough to go out in the middle of the night when everyone was sleeping. It was possible the hatchlings had seen him go in and were waiting in the dark shadow of the house to steal his Fire.
It was a stupid idea. But he couldn’t shake it.
But he had his bow. Besides, they hadn’t attacked him earlier. Of course, that was during the day. It might be that at such times their power was on the wane.
Talen finished his business but then decided to wait and listen and peer through a knothole about a foot from the bottom of the door. He spent what seemed at least half an hour at it. He held his breath and closed his eyes to hear better, but there was nothing there.
He could stay the whole night in the privy if he had to. But then he thought of Ke. He’d laugh until he cried, and that thought put Talen on his feet. He wasn’t going to give Ke or Da that satisfaction.
Talen reached for the door and heard the creak of the well crank.
He paused, and held his breath. Surely, it was a floorboard underneath him.
But he heard it again. Talen crouched at the knothole again and saw two figures at the well. The larger one was cranking the bucket up ever so slowly. It was a girl or young woman about his size. He could see her braid. The smaller one was a boy. He just stood there holding what looked like a goat’s bladder.
Talen watched the girl bring up the bucket and fill the goat’s bladder. When they had plugged up the mouth of it, the girl turned toward the privy and began walking. The boy followed her without a word. And then he reached out, flailed a bit, and grabbed the back of her tunic.
Blind. He was blind.
One part of him felt the satisfaction of being right. The other shrunk in dread. The hatchlings were here.
There was no way Talen could get to the house now. If he were a coward, he might lift some of the loose boards off the seat and jump down into the cesspit. But they would hear him prying the boards. They would know to look down there. After all, it wasn’t so uncommon for people to string a rope from underneath the privy bench to hang their valuables above the cess below. He thought of how Nettle and the others would talk about how he’d died while crapping, his pants down, shivering on the stink throne with fright, and the image of it snapped him out of his fear.
What was he thinking? This was his opportunity. Talen wouldn’t be able to trap the hatchlings and take them in alive. So what? He had his bow. He had four arrows. Da had taught him well.
He would take them now, despite the fact that he couldn’t hear anything but his heart banging in his ears.
He didn’t dare miss. He’d have one shot. If it flew wide of the mark, they’d be on him. But if he made the first count, they’d hesitate just long enough to let him nock a second. A second arrow that he could send into one of their hearts.
That meant he had to wait until they were closer.
Talen bent and looked out the knothole again. It was definitely a girl and a boy. These were the hatchlings. He gauged the distance between them and the privy. He stood and slowly lifted away the bar that secured the door. Then he picked up his bow and nocked the first arrow. He reminded himself that he was an expert shot. He might not pull a bow as strong as Ke’s, but what he did pull was deadly enough for a girl and a boy.
He did not have enough space to draw his bow in the privy. He didn’t want to wait for them to open the door on him anyway. That would be far too close. So he’d have to kick the door open, then draw.
But he didn’t need to deliver a mortal shot the first time. He only needed to wound and surprise. Once he’d done that, he could take a bit more time aiming the second arrow.
This was not going to be hard. He could do this.
Talen took one more breath. Now was the time. They should only be a few paces away.
He kicked the door with all his might, but it banged off of something and swung back at him.
Lords, he’d kicked it into one of them.
The shock of his miscalculation panicked him. He tried to draw his arrow and step back, but the privy bench got in the way and he fell onto the wall.
He expected the door to fly open and one of them to rush him with claw and fang. But the door just hung ajar.
He heard the padding of feet running away, and felt relief. Then he realized they were running. They were getting away.
He kicked the door again, and this time it flew wide and banged against the outside of the privy.
The girl ran, holding the boy’s hand. They ran like the wind toward the old house and the woods.
He took a step forward and drew the string to his chin. Calm, he had to be calm. The string was locked behind his thumb ring. He had practiced this thousands of times. There were days when Da had demanded he draw and release his bow five hundred times. He had used up eight bows over the years, drawing, then relaxing the position of his thumb ever so slightly so that the string might jump away.
The precise moment of the perfect release, he had learned, would always come as a small surprise.
The string hummed and Talen watched the arrow fly. It snicked away into the dark, a perfect shot. But the hatchlings darted left toward the old house just as the arrow flew from his hand, and Talen’s first shot missed.
He strung the second arrow. “Ware!” Talen shouted. “Ware!” He yelled again, and saw Nettle throw open the door just about the same time the creatures disappeared behind the old house.
Talen ran to get a clear view of the open space between the old house and the woods. The thing would not escape this time. But when he got a view of the open space, he saw nothing.
Nettle came stumbling out with his bow in one hand and a half-lit torch in the other.
“They’re here!” said Talen. “I’ve seen them with my own eyes. They’re behind the old house.”
He and Nettle cautiously approached the old house. It was the first place his father and mother had built. Talen had slept in it now and again until a snake had come wiggling through the ceiling one night to land on him. Such were the hazards of sod roofs. Now it was only used to store things and shelter the dogs who had dug their warren underneath the old floorboards.
Talen and Nettle split apart, giving the house a wide enough berth, positioning themselves so that each covered two of the house’s four walls.
“Nothing,” said Nettle.
Where could they have gone? Talen realized he’d given the creature the opportunity to slip in the front door of the house both this and the time before.
He swung his bow and pointed it at the door.
“Open it,” said Talen to Nettle.
River called out from the house. “Talen? What’s going on?”
“We’ve got them in the old house!” he yelled back.
Talen nodded at the door. “Go on. Here’s something real. Open it.”
Nettle looked at the door. “Right,” he said. “Cover me.” Then he grabbed the handle, whipped the door open, and stepped back.
Talen almost released his shaft. But he was happy he didn’t waste the arrow, for nobody rushed out.
“There’s no use hiding,” said Nettle. “Come out where we can see you.”
“Queen,” Talen called, hoping that she hadn’t already been killed by the creatures.
A few moments passed, then Queen emerged out of the dog warren.
All this time in the warren, Talen thought, and not one bark. Something was very wrong. It was as if the dogs were deaf and blind.
“Stu, girl!” Talen said to Queen and pointed at the open door. “Stu!”
Queen looked at the house and sniffed, but then she turned away and came to him, wagging her tail.
“Are you sure it went in here?” asked Nettle.
By this time both Ke and River had arrived, Ke with nothing but his underclothes on. “What are you hollering about?”
“We’ve got ourselves a hatchling,” said Nettle.
“Two,” said Talen.
Talen pointed at the open door, and, to his horror, Ke walked right in.
“There’s nothing in here,” said Ke. “Goh, you’re an idiot.”
But Talen had seen them. Right here. Where else could they be? Then he looked at the dog warren and everything made sense.
“They’re underneath,” he said to Nettle. “With the dogs!”
Talen ran to the hole where the side of the house met the ground and pointed his arrow into the blackness.
“Bring the torch.”
“No,” said Ke.
But Nettle paid him no mind. Talen took the torch and knelt to the side of the hole. He saw that the hole had been widened. He should have seen it before, but who would have thought they were down there? He stuck the torch down as far as he dared and quickly pulled it back out.
It was enough. What he saw with the brief illumination was a leg that quickly drew itself back into the shadow. Talen dropped the torch and scrambled back.
“They’re down there,” he said. “They’ve subverted the dogs.” He drew his bow and pointed it at the mouth of the hole.
“Put that down,” said Ke.
“You can’t doubt me now,” said Talen.
“River,” said Ke and motioned at the mouth of dog warren with his head.
River calmly walked to the side of the house and knelt by the dog warren.
“Stop!” Talen warned. “Get away!”
Ke’s hands closed around the bow. “Give me the bow, and shut up.”
“Didn’t you see the leg?”
Ke yanked the bow from his hands.
“What are you doing?”
“Get them,” Ke said.
Talen watched in horror as River’s head and torso disappeared into the blackness of the hole. He expected to hear her cry out or be pulled entirely in. But after a few moments, she backed out and extended her hand to help a girl and then a smaller boy out. The girl had long black hair and a scar on her cheek. She appeared to be about Talen’s age, maybe a bit older. The boy stared off at nothing.
The girl looked at him with no fear. She looked at him like a bird might a bug. Talen noticed she was wearing River’s trousers all rolled up on the leg.
“Douse that torch,” said Ke. And when Nettle didn’t move, Ke snatched it and ground its flame out in the dirt.
“What is this?” asked Talen.
“Will you shut up,” hissed Ke. He studied the woods.
And then Talen heard the voices of men in the distance. Or at least he thought he had.
“Get inside,” whispered Ke. “Now!”
Talen looked at his brother and sister. They were harboring Sleth. They were risking the anger of the Nine Clans and putting all of their lives in danger.
When Talen didn’t move, Ke handed the bow to River. He grabbed Talen by the nape of the neck with one hand and the back of his trousers by the other. Talen struggled, but Ke’s grip was like iron, and he marched Talen back into the house.
Talen watched in dismay as the girl hatchling led her brother to the hearth. When they were all in, River quietly barred the door and shuttered the window. She faced Ke. “I told Da it would never work.”
Someone called out in the woods.
River motioned for everyone to be still.
Ke turned to Talen. “If you’ve brought a pack of idiot hunters down on us,” he whispered, “I’m going to kill you.”
“Kill me?” said Talen. “Kill me? You two and Da, it appears, have already seen to that.”
“Shush,” said River.
They waited and listened. Queen barked twice and then fell still. Talen strained to hear what was going on outside, but heard nothing. Of course, that didn’t mean a pack of hunters were not moving now to surround the yard or running off to alert the bailiff.
After what seemed like hours, River opened the shutters enough to peer out. A few moments later she closed them again. “Queen’s right in front of the door. She would have barked if someone were out there. I think we’re safe.”
“She didn’t bark at these two,” said Talen. “The dog’s gone traitor.”
River left the window and moved to the girl’s side. She stroked the girl’s hair like one might a niece or sister. “Talen, this is Sugar.”
She put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. His hair shot up like a wildman’s. “And this is her blind brother, Legs.”
Argoth did not want one of the guards on the walls of the Shoka fortress, jittery from the attacks at the village of Plum, to mistake Hogan for the enemy and kill him. The guards had their orders, but it was night and the moon was only half full. And Hogan was Koramite. So Argoth waited atop the barbican, watching the roads for his friend.
He brought a sprig of spearmint to his nose. Serenity, his youngest daughter, had tied it to a string and made yet another necklace for him. He could never say no to wearing her gifts. In his pockets he carried at least a dozen tokens of affection-a small black stone with a slash of red in it, a finely woven lock of hair, dessicated bits of flowers, the pit of a plum. He inhaled the fine, strong scent of the mint.
Behind him rose the first of two rings of defense. More than seventy years ago, the early colonists had wisely located the fortress here on a wide outcropping of rock that capped one of the three hills of Whitecliff. One side of the hill sloped to the town. The backside of the hill, consisting of cliffs and precarious ravines, dropped straight to the sea.
The first structure built had been a simple timber tower and palisade. That had been torn down thirty years ago. In its place the Clans had erected two walls. The outer wall stood twenty feet high. The inner wall, placed almost twenty yards back from the outer wall, stood double that height.
Tonight, at the base of the outer wall, guards with dogs patrolled the dry moat, expecting some Sleth attack. They stood out against the whitewashed walls of the fortress. The Shoka had learned that trick from an old Mungo slave who had won his freedom: whitewash the bottom half of the walls to make it easier for defenders to see below at night, but leave the top unwashed, allowing the defenders to use the cover of darkness.
They used the idea on the ramparts as well, painting the walkways to allow the men to navigate without torches. As long as the moon shone there would be no torches on the wall. Not a lamp. Not a whisper of light that might ruin a guard’s night vision except in the one tower where men were eating.
The distant sound of laughter carried down from the tower. Then a guard somewhere up on the outer wall called out, having spotted movement in the town.
Argoth looked out toward the town. In the distance he could see the dark, squat towers of the town wall. Closer in and off to the left stood the temple of the Glory of Mokad on its hill. It was too dark to see, but within the round, domed structure stood the altar of sacrifice where the Divines drew Fire. Directly behind the altar stood the raised seat of the Glory. And behind the seat stood the statues of the seven Creators in a semicircle, looking down upon the altar.
During the Festival of Gifts, seven fifteen-foot statues would be made of wood and erected around the temple. They would then be paraded in a long procession to the fortress and then to the sea. Seven statues to represent the seven Creators.
Each was festooned with the creations for which He or She was responsible. The first and greatest was smeared over with rocks and clay. The second was in the form of a tree, woven with garlands of seaweed, flowers, and sheaves of grain; the third had the horns and hides of animals and eyes made of butterfly wings; the fourth wore the skins of sharks and whales; the fifth bore great wings upon its back and was clad in feathers; the sixth was in the form of a man with a face of gold. These were the six, dangerous as they may be, who brought life. The seventh was misshapen and black. Upon its head sat a crown of thorns and about its chest was woven a breastplate made from the bones of a thousand animals.
Who really served Regret? There were rumors of men and women who bound themselves to him. Was the creature that killed the harvest master in the village of Plum one such? Or did Regret work in more subtle ways, coming to you smiling and with an open hand so that you served him and never once thought you were doing anything but standing in the light? Argoth thought of his past before he found the Order. He had been a servant of Regret, even though he didn’t know it at the time. Bless the Six, the Order had found him.
At the base of Temple Hill a light moved along a dark street. It passed behind a number of dark homes. Then it reappeared on the fortress road. Whoever held the torch rode a horse and was accompanied by other men.
A half minute more and Hogan rode into the torchlight at the base of the gate road. Beside Hogan sat one of the barbican watchmen. The man called out his name and rank. “We have delivered Hogan, Bowmaster of the Koramites.”
“He’s mine,” Argoth called down. “Dismount, Bowmaster. Then proceed.”
Argoth descended the stairs from the top of the barbican. Before he reached the bottom, he overheard the guards below.
“What’s the warlord doing letting that thing among us? Who can tell which of them is part of the Sleth nest?”
“Good lord, man, it’s Captain Argoth’s brother-in-law.”
“I don’t care; this isn’t right-”
Then someone must have heard him because the conversation fell silent. Argoth walked into the main passageway and then out to the front of the barbican to stand with the five guards standing posted there. Hogan’s escort had departed back to the city barracks, so Hogan walked the ramp alone.
Argoth could have ignored the guard’s earlier comments, but he chose not to. “Do you know what I love about that Koramite?”
“Zu?” said the most senior of the guards.
“Not his might, nor the many Bone Face kills to his name, but his loyalty.”
“Yes, Captain,” said the guard.
“Mark him,” said Argoth. “I would rather have that one loyal Koramite at my side than a whole company of backbiters.”
“Yes, Captain,” said the guard. “Of course.”
Argoth walked with Hogan out of the barbican and onto a wooden drawbridge that led over the dry moat and to the first gate of the fortress. The gate stood open before them like the dark maw of a giant beast, the raised portcullis a sharp row of teeth.
A set of guards with mastiffs stood just inside that mouth out of sight, waiting and watching for an enemy who might be able to slip by all the outer defenses.
On the drawbridge, away from the guards, Hogan ran his fingers through his beard braids and said, “I will hate to lose this tree.”
The Order patterned itself after an aspen tree. Aspens sent runners under the ground that would shoot up saplings, which in turn would grow and send out runners of their own. A grove of aspens could cover acres and acres, and yet, they were not separate trees. They were all connected to one another at the root. And so it was with the Order. Each area where the Order was established had a Root, a trio of leadership, that governed the tree and branches that might grow in that area. Hogan was the chief Root here, Argoth the second. Matiga, the Creek Widow, was the third.
Of course, the guards wouldn’t call the grove an “order.” To them all combinations of people such as Argoth and Hogan were nests, tangles, or murders. For some combinations those were appropriate terms. But not for those of the Order. Nevertheless, the guards would be horrified to know that a Root of the Grove of Hismayas was about to walk right past them.
A tree might be felled by Seekers, but unless they pulled up the whole grove, the Roots would grow another tree somewhere else, and another and another, until the Order filled the earth. Of course, some trees had to be culled to protect the grove.
“Did you contact Matiga?”
“I did,” said Hogan. “She is prepared.”
In each conflict, the Order took great precautions to make sure the full trio of leaders could never be found together at the same time. If two fell, the third would have a better chance to bear the rest of the grove off to safety and start again somewhere else. Or to mount a counterattack.
“I told her to take the victor’s crown,” said Hogan. The crown of a victor was a special weave. An ancient device used by the old gods that bestowed great might upon its wearer.
“Do you think it will come to that?” asked Argoth.
“This situation is odd. It’s not right.”
Argoth nodded. “So be it. Although I do wish she were here. How can we make a decision to cull this tree without her?”
Matiga was strong-willed. Sometimes to the point of being obstinant. She was currently many months into a grudge against Hogan. She had found an excellent woman for him. The widow of a Koramite boat builder. She’d prepared the woman and asked Hogan and Argoth to consider her for admittance to the Grove. Of course, the woman knew nothing of the Order. She could not. They had tested her in many ways for almost a year. Argoth and Matiga had been satisfied. But Hogan found her wanting. The trio had to act in perfect unison on such matters. And so the woman was rejected. Matiga had been furious. In this case, Argoth thought she had grounds. Matiga might be strong-willed, but she was also perceptive in her odd way. The woman would have been an asset.
Purity was an asset. Matiga’s clear vision was needed here. It was a terrible decision before them. Purity had been a friend for so long. But the Grove couldn’t risk putting all three roots together in this situation. And even if they could, he doubted he would have been able to convince the lords of the Shoka to let him bring in yet another person to see the prisoner.
“If this tree can be saved,” said Hogan, “we will do it. But if it cannot, are you prepared?”
“I am prepared,” Argoth said, his heart heavy. He had brought the required poison with him.
They said nothing more. Argoth led Hogan past the guards and mastiffs, and into the first bailey. They turned left and walked to the second gate and another set of guards.
The whole design of the castle was to create a series of killing fields, areas where attackers would be forced to expose themselves to fire from many directions. The path from the first to the second gate was just such a killing field. The moat, the fortress road, and the spaces before the gates and barbican were killing fields as well.
Something small, probably a rat, scurried out of the gate tunnel before them and into the inner courtyard.
The courtyard itself lay in darkness. An armsman on a horse trotting to the gate nearly collided with Hogan. He jerked his horse to the side and headed for the gate, the clopping of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones echoing in the tunnel.
Across the deep courtyard, the sea tower rose into the sky, moonlight gleaming dully off its ramparts. From the top of that tower a watchman could see miles out to sea. On a clear day he could see the outer islands.
In most fortresses, prisoners held for ransom were kept in the tops of towers. To escape they would have to make their way through all the defenses below. Besides, it was more comfortable living at ground level, and the lower rooms would be taken by those with authority. But Sleth were a different matter. They could descend heights and break timber floors that other men could not. Experience had shown that they needed to be held behind tons of rock. The cleansing room, the only place in all of the New Lands capable of holding Sleth, was built in the cellar of that tower.
Argoth led Hogan across the courtyard to the tower. They passed a group of soldiers drawing water from the well. A number of yards farther they arrived at the first gate of the sea tower and stopped. The gate was a low wall a dozen paces from the door of the tower. Half a dozen guards stood along the wall with two more mastiffs in their midst.
“Hold,” one of them said.
“Captain Argoth, here on at the warlord’s request. We’ve come to question the woman.”
“Aye,” said the man, then he walked back to the tower door and knocked. The door of the tower was set deeply between two wings much like a fortress gate, but in a smaller dimension. There were dark arrow loops in those wings that would allow archers to cover the door with crossfire.
Moments later, a small block of wood set behind bars opened at eye level revealing lamplight within. Part of a face filled the opening.
“Your visitors have arrived,” the man said.
The face disappeared and the block closed. A moment later the crossbar on the other side scraped, then the door opened. A giant of a man with a bushy beard held the door with one hand and a lamp with the other. His name was Droz. Many straps hung from his armsman’s apron-for not only was he experienced, but he was also a dreadman of immense ferocity. Argoth had seen him chop men in two. Both his right and left forearms were covered with warrior tattoos.
“Ah, Captain,” Droz said. “We’ve been waiting for you.” He motioned for Argoth and Hogan to enter.
Argoth led Hogan through the opening in the wall and to the door. When they entered the dimly lit room, Droz shut the door behind them and swung down the crossbar.
The room was windowless, wide, and bare, with only a plain hearth burning to one side. There were no wooden tables or benches. Not a chair or cupboard. Nothing a Sleth might use as a weapon. The only seats or shelves were those carved in the stone. It was purposely large enough for half a dozen men to wield spears and bows freely. A few guards slept on the floor. Three stood behind Droz holding their weapons. One stood at the far end of the room next to an iron lever set in the wall.
The giant motioned at Hogan with his lamp. “I expect you want irons for him?”
“No,” said Argoth. “He’s working with me.”
“But he’s not working with me,” said Droz, “now, is he?”
“Actually, Droz,” said Argoth, “he is.”
Droz stood a head taller than either Argoth or Hogan. He folded his massive arms across his chest and looked down at them. The three men behind Droz shifted ever so slightly into a stance that would allow them to quickly spring into action.
“Search him,” said Arogth. “In fact, if you’re worried about it, order him to strip. Send him to the cleansing room naked.”
“Now, now,” said Droz. “We’re not in the business of sending pretty men to the witch. This isn’t a brothel, Captain.”
The other men smiled, but they did not laugh.
“Well, there’s your problem,” said Argoth. “Not all prisoners can be cracked directly. Sometimes you’ve got to build a little trust. And Zun Hogan here will do that. So perform your search. It’s late and I want some answers.”
“You’re not going to get any,” said Droz.
“Is that so?”
“We’ve been pressing her. Quiet as a fish, she is. Oh, she’ll struggle and cry out as loudly as the next one, but she won’t talk.”
Argoth truly hoped that, if nothing else, Purity had been able to keep their names hidden. “We’ll see if different methods produce different results.”
Droz motioned for one of the other men to search Hogan. “How many of us do you need?”
“It will be just me and the bowmaster this time.”
Hogan took a wide stance. Then the guard began to pat him down.
Droz grunted. “Just the two of you? Are you sure that’s safe?”
“She wears a king’s collar, doesn’t she? So she’s nothing more than a woman. And an injured one at that.”
Droz nodded. He pointed at Hogan. “He’s her lover then?”
“She had one love,” said Hogan. “And he wasn’t a man even you would want to cuckold.”
Then the guard checking Hogan stood back, looked to Droz, and nodded.
Droz considered Hogan. “So, Zu, why are you here?” He used a polite title, but not the one deserved by a bowmaster.
“I’m a friend,” said Hogan.
Droz looked at Argoth then, and what was going on in that mind Argoth couldn’t tell. Droz was a cunning man. And a man with such a mind just might suspect everything here was not as it seemed.
A beat passed, then Droz said, “Before you go down, you should know: Anything happens, anything at all, and Pony there”-he pointed to a man standing by the doorway to the back chamber-“will pull that lever. That will bring down two portcullises that five dreadmen together cannot lift. One will seal off the cleansing room. But, just in case someone makes it out of the cleansing room and to the stairs, the second will seal that back chamber. Should you be caught behind them with the witch, do not expect us to even think about saving you. You’re on your own.”
“I wouldn’t worry about her getting out,” said Argoth. “I’d be worried about her kind getting in.”
“Nothing’s getting in here,” said Droz.
“Of course not,” said Argoth, hoping he might provoke Droz into revealing more of the defenses. “Who would dare?”
“We’ve got archers in the wings of the entrance,” said Droz. “Men on the wall above. Nobody is getting in.”
“And have you set a crossfire up in here?”
“You don’t need to worry, Captain,” said Droz. “We’re tight as a drum.”
Argoth nodded. They’d planned for everything but a traitor in their midst.
Droz led them to the back of the chamber and through an arched opening. Argoth glanced up as they walked through the short passage. The heavy portcullis hung there. It would not be made solid. No, they’d want holes in it so they might shoot arrows at whoever was caught behind it.
Another lever was set into the wall of this chamber. Argoth supposed it would release only the lower portcullis. There was a stench in this rear chamber. “What is that?” asked Argoth.
“Bones,” said Droz. “The man has the noxious flatulence of the Dark One himself. I think the designers of this tower wanted to suffocate their prisoners. There’s no second window and, therefore, no cross breeze. So what do we do? The best I could come up with was to order the man to release his poisonous vapors back here. They still waft out to torment us, but at least their potency has diminished by a degree.”
Argoth wrinkled his nose. “I tell you what: forget the crossfire. Just put Bones at the door.”
“I’d put him out,” said Droz, “if the man wasn’t such a good swordsman.” He motioned at the numerous squares on the floor with handles in them. “Mind the covers.”
“Murder holes?” asked Hogan.
Droz lit and handed both Argoth and Hogan an oil lamp, then held his aloft to reveal the stairs.
“Here’s another thing,” Droz said. “They spent a fortune making this small fortress; you’d think they’d make it safe for the guards. But no, the fifth stair will try to kill you. Just mind its slope as you go by.”
They descended the stairs. Argoth stepped over the fifth one. The stairs followed the curve of the tower wall to what looked like an empty cellar that lay directly below Bones’s stink chamber. This chamber too had murder holes in the floor.
It also had an iron grate door set into the floor on one side. Droz lifted the bar on the door and took them down another staircase. This stair opened onto a flat area about ten feet deep. At the end there was yet another grated door. Two massive iron bars held it shut.
Droz unbarred the door and opened it outwards toward himself.
There was a whistling somewhere above. Argoth suspected it was a window. He glanced back up the stairs and saw nothing but darkness. There was an odor on the air. Old urine and excrement and something else he could not identify. So it wasn’t as tight as Droz wanted them to believe.
The light of their three lamps was only strong enough for Argoth to see the grated doors of the first few cells.
“The woman’s down at the end,” said Droz. “I’ll wait here.”
“Actually,” said Argoth, “I think we’ll accomplish more alone.”
“I don’t like it,” said Droz.
“If you want to rouse the warlord to discuss our methods with him, go ahead. Or maybe we can wait until he wakes. Of course, she doesn’t have many hours left in her. If she dies tonight…”
Droz grunted. “You like to push it, don’t you?”
“No, Droz. We just need some answers.”
“Fine,” said Droz, “But that means I lock you in.”
“Thank you,” said Argoth. “We’ll ring the bell when we’re ready.” Argoth dropped his voice to barely a whisper. “I expect you’ll want to watch. But, please, don’t uncover one of the murder holes directly above her cell. If she is Sleth, she’ll know you’re there. In fact, I’d recommend against opening any of them. Your stink will come through, and she’ll not say a word.”
Droz looked at him, and Argoth couldn’t tell if it was suspicion or curiosity behind those eyes. But then he nodded, locked the grated door behind himself as he left, and retreated back up the stairs.
Hogan stepped forward toward Purity, but Argoth restrained him, and motioned at the murder holes in the ceiling. They waited for the time it would have taken Droz to walk back up the stairs, but they heard no murder hole being uncovered. Nevertheless, Argoth walked about the room, holding his lamp so he could inspect every one. When he was sure nobody was listening, he motioned Hogan to Purity’s cell.
Purity lay in a blanket at the bars of her cell on a bed of straw. Underneath the blanket she was naked except for her bandages. Her head had been shaven. The silver king’s collar ringed her neck. Hogan knelt close to the bars and held his lamp up. Her wounds from the arrows were stitched in tidy rows. Even so, the wounds were red, angry, and corrupting. She would not last long in this room, but she might survive long enough to do the Grove damage.
“Purity,” said Hogan.
She spoke, but did not sit up. “I hope you brought wolfsbane roots,” she said. “If I’m to be poisoned, let it be quick. Not an insufficient dose of hemlock and honey or some two-day mushroom.”
“Calm yourself,” said Hogan. “It hasn’t come to that yet. First, we need to know what has happened.”
She coughed and her breath rattled in her lungs. “I’m sure the Fir-Noy gave you the full report,” she said.
“I don’t care about the battle,” said Hogan. “I want to know about the stork and your child. And what happened to the harvest master’s family afterwards.”
“I thought maybe someone else in the Grove decided to take justice in their own hands,” said Argoth, “but it wasn’t anyone in the Grove. Nobody I know could have drained the bodies like that. Not even a Divine can do that. I inspected the bodies, and they were dry. Completely wrung out.”
Argoth referred to the Fire in the bodies of the family. Death was the separation of Fire, soul, and body. Some said the soul took the Fire with it. Others claimed the Fire poured forth like smoke or steam. However it separated from the body, there was always some that remained and leached away only very slowly. Fire could be found in bones a hundred years old, yet the bodies of Barg’s family had been empty husks.
Argoth continued, “There were the markings of an immense draw of Fire, a blackening of the skin. It looked almost as if some monstrous hand had grasped hold of each victim’s face.”
Purity was silent for a long moment. And then, “I know nothing of what happened to the harvest master’s family.”
Hogan squatted down next to the cell. He reached in and gently stroked Purity’s shaved head. “Whatever you’re hiding, you need to let us know so we know how to set it right.”
Purity looked at them then. Large cuts and bruises covered her face. Her left eye was almost swollen shut. Her lip was split.
“Give me the poison,” she said. “You cannot free me. I have broken our trust. I am willing to abide by the covenant; cut me down and preserve the rest.”
Not a tear fell. And how could she weep? She was broken. Argoth’s heart ached for her.
Hogan continued to softly stroke her hair. “We decide if the covenant is broken. Besides, not all is lost. Your children yet live.”
Argoth had not known that.
Purity looked at Hogan, and now the tears began to well in her damaged eyes. “I have done horrible things.”
They waited for her to continue.
Purity was a handsome woman, but her grief had shattered her. And now her face twisted with what she was about to tell. “In the early autumn of last year the children brought in a young stork with an injured wing. It could not join the others in their flight south, so we decided to nurse it back to health. Sugar and Legs made a pen for it next to the chicken coop and brought it frogs and fish to eat. They loved the excitement of that long, dangerous beak.
“It was a smart bird, and a temptation came to me, a forbidden and foolish thing. I wanted to reach out and touch its soul, to see what the mind of this great bird might be like. I’d done it before with other animals and knew how to be careful. Every few generations someone in my family manifests this gift. I’d been taught by my great-grandmother. But I had never done this while pregnant. I was only a few weeks from delivering Cotton.”
Argoth suspected he knew where the story would end. This poor woman… and yet, that’s why the codes were so strict.
Purity continued, “Something in me slipped. I felt it leave. I knew it was soul and broke the connection. I was horrified, but nothing happened. I lay awake at nights worrying what might happen to me. I inspected myself and the bird every day. But there was nothing. Nothing. Then Cotton was born. He was jaundiced, but that’s common enough and the yellowing quickly faded in the sun. All seemed right. And I thought I had perhaps imagined the slipping.
“The bird healed, but would not fly with its kind. It always stayed close by, as if it were one of the family. We stopped feeding it, but it would not leave. And whenever Cotton was outside, it would come down and eye the babe. At first we thought it saw the babe as a tasty morsel, but it never tried to nip. It would only turn its head to eye him and then settle down somewhere close. This went on for weeks, and we just accepted that the bird thought we were his flock.
“Then one frosty morning I went out to the garden to dig onions. Cotton lay wrapped in the bassinet. This bird rose from its perch on the roof and flapped down to join us. But this time I noticed something… a sore on its head. Of course, I thought it had been in a fight with some animal, but when I inspected, I saw the bud of an ear. And then hair where feathers should have been.”
Purity stopped her tale and stared off into space. Moments later she continued. “Cotton’s foot had been roughening despite the butters and salves I rubbed onto it. And it was very clear what had happened; my soul hadn’t slipped-Cotton’s had. I probed, hoping to untangle them, but the two of them had mixed. My honey child”-a dry sob wracked her-“and that bird. I killed the bird, thinking only a small portion slipped and might return to my boy. But Cotton did not heal. He worsened, then died not many days later, lying in the bassinet on our kitchen table. I could not bring myself to burn them.”
She did not continue, but Argoth could guess. In despair, she’d buried them together, because her son had been in both bodies. She concocted her kidnapping story. And it would have worked had the floods not come this year.
Hogan looked up at Argoth, but they didn’t need to say anything. Argoth drew back his coat and showed Hogan the poison. By the Order’s law, she should die.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” asked Hogan.
“How could I?” she asked.
“Then what about this family that was slain? Is there some dark grove we know nothing about?”
“No,” said Purity. “No. I would never.”
“You were not supposed to touch souls either,” said Argoth.
Purity didn’t answer. She didn’t sob, beg, or plead.
Hogan shook his head. “There’s no way to redeem you from the Order’s law,” he said.
“What about my children?” asked Purity.
“They’re safe for the moment,” said Hogan, his pain showed plainly on his face. “My dear Purity. This can’t be a quick death; we don’t want them to link it to our visit.”
Purity nodded. “Tell them I’m sorry. Tell my children…” but she couldn’t finish her sentence.
Argoth reached for the tin and then stopped. She wasn’t someone who flouted the covenants of the Order. And if they could get her away from this place, if they could give her another chance, he knew great good would come of it. To be sure, there were many covenant-breakers who needed to be put to death. But the good to be achieved by this woman’s death was so little compared to what could be achieved by devising a way to help her live.
“She must die,” said Argoth. “But I don’t believe there is any part of the covenant that determines how soon that must be. In fact, is there not precedence for delaying execution?”
“For a day or two. A week,” said Hogan. “But it was expedient in those cases.”
“What if I said we could get her out of here?”
Hogan waited for Argoth to continue.
“We could use the sally port,” he said. “Tomorrow night. The sally port and then down the cliffs to the sea.”
“You can get her past Droz?” asked Hogan.
“That’s the one sticking point in every plan I’ve devised.”
“It’s too risky,” said Purity. She held her hand out. “Give it to me now.”
It was all fine to have strict rules requiring the death of renegade members, but rules could never have prepared him for this. Lords, but this woman had advised him on how to repair the seemingly dead relationship with his own wife. Her strong purpose and wry humor had been invaluable. He couldn’t do it.
Hogan’s face was grim.
“I have a plan,” said Argoth. “Tomorrow night I drug the guards and free you. You dress in the garb of one of the men. I take the drug so they don’t suspect me. Then you walk out of here on your own with a report from Droz to the warlord. I will hide another set of clothes. You change into them and as a servant escape through the sally port.”
“Except I can’t walk on my own,” said Purity. “I am one tree. I am not the Grove.”
“Then we’ll think of something else.”
“Please,” said Purity. “You risk everything. You risk the lives of my children. If you want to save me, save my children.”
Hogan put a hand on Argoth’s shoulder. “Brother,” he said. “I shall never forgive myself.” Then he reached down and twisted off the lid to the tin. And Argoth couldn’t tell if Hogan was saying he would not be able to forgive himself for killing Purity or if he could not forgive himself if he put the rest of the Grove at risk.
Purity reached out, but her wounds prevented her from extending her arm far enough.
Argoth hesitated, looking at the few inches between the tin and her damaged fingers. And then, as if it were someone else’s hand holding the tin, he moved it close enough for her to take a pinch of rough powder.
“How much?” she asked.
“Two,” he said, his voice miles away. “Two should be more than enough.”
Purity took a pinch then put her fingers to her mouth. She grimaced at the bitterness, sucked her fingers, then reached out and took another pinch.
Hogan’s face fell. He stroked her shaved head again. “My dear,” he said. “My dear, dear-”
Something scraped above them. Argoth motioned for Hogan and Purity to be silent and looked up.
Argoth took another tone of voice, as if they had been interrogating her. “There are many more things you must tell us,” he said. He stood as if to stretch his legs. “Tonight is the beginning. And your children will reap the reward. But it all depends on what you do tomorrow when we return. It is your choice.” He continued in that line as if he were a reasonable interrogator, all the while furtively searching the ceiling. And then he found one of the holes in the ceiling that did not reflect his lamplight back.
It appeared Droz had not been able to contain his curiosity. He was only amazed Droz had waited this long. He made a small motion, letting Hogan know they should leave.
“You’ve been helpful,” said Hogan. “Every Koramite will thank you in their hearts.” It was a good touch. Argoth only hoped it was enough to fool Droz.
Purity said nothing in reply, only sucked on her two fingers.
He led Hogan back to the grate door. A chain hung from the ceiling. It connected to a bell in the upper level. Argoth gave it three good tugs and waited. A few minutes later, Droz opened the massive door and let them out.
On the stairs, Droz broke the silence. “So did you get our fish to speak?”
Argoth looked at Droz. “We know that the murder of the butcher’s family was independent of this woman,” he said.
“Goh,” exclaimed Droz. “There are two groups?”
“At the very least,” said Argoth. “Of course, we’ll have to verify what she said. But if it’s true, then it raises many troubling questions.”
“What else did you find?”
“I’ve already thrown you a bone,” said Argoth. “The rest is for Lord Shim.”
Argoth and Hogan found a place in the middle of the fortress courtyard where they could speak. They didn’t want to be up against one of the walls where their words might echo. And even if their words didn’t echo, they couldn’t know who might be close enough to hear: there were too many crannies and windows and deep shadows. No, it was best to talk in a spot where they could see everything that was to be seen.
Hogan held the reins of his mule. A smattering of clouds had blown in and obscured part of the night sky, but there was still enough light to see most of the courtyard.
“My heart is ash,” said Hogan.
Argoth could say nothing.
“We will make a sacrifice,” said Hogan, “so that her ancestors may be strong.”
A sacrifice of Fire would help her in the world of the dead. But he knew it wouldn’t lighten the pain he felt in his chest.
After a few moments of silence, Hogan said, “So, what emptied those bones? Wizards?”
It had always been a wizard’s dream to collect the bones of slaughtered animals and deceased humans, to harvest Fire without cost. The soul has departed; so there shouldn’t be any power there to resist a harvest of what remained in the bones. Battlefields, slaughter pens, dinner plates heaped with the remains of a meal-they should all be rich with easy Fire. But they weren’t. The bones resisted them. “Either someone has finally discovered how to persuade bones to release their treasure,” said Argoth, “or there’s a new power abroad.”
“Or an old one,” said Hogan. “Perhaps that is what killed Lumen.”
The ancient stories told of gods inhabiting many places. In the beginning, the old gods were servants of the Creators. There were gods for fish and beasts and trees, each chosen from its own kind. Each taught the lore by the Creators themselves so that they might guide and bless a certain small territory: a vale, a wood, or a group of hamlets.
But these old ones had proved unstable. One never knew if a god would end up being a curse or a blessing. And so the legends say the six Creators withdrew their presence from them. Regret, of course, did not. In time, a new order arose, an order of human Divines who sought to battle the old ones and rule huge territories. Some said the new order began with a group of gods seeking the ways of the first parents; others said it had nothing to do with the old ones, but had been established by the Creators directly.
Whatever the origin, the new order began to hunt the old gods. There were many tales of the ancient battles. In the end, the Divines triumphed. They claimed total extermination, yet there were always rumors of old ones that had slipped through the cracks. Could this be one of the old gods who had survived?
“This changes everything,” said Hogan.
“It does,” said Argoth. “Of course, why Barg? That part makes no sense. He was the key to… nothing.”
“A mere butcher, a harvest master,” Hogan said. He shook his head and looked up at the stars.
“Hogan,” said Argoth, “Lord Shim has been making suggestions again. Perhaps this is the opportunity we’ve been looking for. We do have the Book and Crown. Perhaps our time has come.”
“And who can read it?” asked Hogan. “No. We won’t risk that.”
Hogan was overly conservative. The Book and Crown of Hismayas held many things now lost to the world. It was said that Hismayas, the founder of their order, knew things not even the Glories of this world knew, things given him by the Creators themselves.
“We’ve discussed this before,” said Hogan. “Rushing to harvest only ruins the crop. The Order is not yet ripe.”
What would happen if they declared their powers openly? Some would join. Perhaps many. They might defeat the Bone Faces. But many might also prefer to submit themselves to that rot rather than ally themselves with Sleth. Bosser was one of those. He would fight against Argoth, and sooner or later, Mokad would find out; they would send an army to obliterate anyone having anything to do with the Order. The Nine Clans would join with them. Hogan was right: it could only end in chaos and ruin, but that did not make this cold logic any easier to bear.
A guard yelled back at the tower door, a mastiff snarled and was cut off. There were grunts, the sound of something metal clanging violently into the wall.
Argoth turned and looked at the gate, but the shadows obscured everything.
Something dark flashed in the corner of his vision and dropped from the sky. It thudded to the ground not two paces from where Argoth stood. At first Argoth thought it was a pile of rags, and then he realized it was one of the mastiffs that had been guarding the tower door.
It lay in a broken heap.
A thundering crack sounded from the base of the tower. A dim light briefly shone where the door should be. Argoth thought he heard Droz’s roar, but almost as soon as it started, all fell silent again and the light vanished.
There was no moaning that would suggest someone had been injured. No movement. Nothing but moon shadows and the monstrous dog at his feet.
Argoth drew his sword and began to increase the flow of his Fire.
Hogan walked over to the dog and pushed at it with one toe. “She said she wasn’t part of a dark grove.”
“That is what she said.”
Purity had a past with the lore before she came to the Order, just as Argoth did. He had broken all ties with his former masters. Was it possible she had not? “Be ready for anything,” Argoth said.
A guard called down from the battlements. “Ho? What’s about?”
They ignored the guard.
Hogan took off his mantle and laid it over his saddle. Then he removed the Hog from its bindings. The blade of the weapon shone with a dull gleam in the moonlight.
They moved forward, but could take more than a few steps before Argoth stumbled across three bodies, all of them broken and lying in a heap like the dog. He found a dead guard a few paces farther, and another. When he reached the small wall, he saw the tower door hung ajar.
Someone or some thing with immense power had come through here. Oh, Purity, he thought. Secrets within secrets.
“A breach!” Argoth yelled up. “Breach!”
The guard on the battlements took up the alarm.
Hogan pushed the door open with the business end of his Hog.
Inside two lamps had fallen and spilled their oil onto the floor. Two pools burned. The dim light revealed guards lying in broken heaps. Droz was among them. There was no blood, but the gruesome angle at which he lay told them all they needed to know.
Shouts rose in the courtyard. But Argoth couldn’t wait for those men. Besides, they would probably meet the same fate as their comrades. A dreadman of a high level might have been able to cause such carnage. But how fast must the man have been moving to dispatch all these men with hardly a sound?
“Let’s try to take this one alive,” said Hogan. He picked up a lamp. “I’ll go first.”
They approached the pitch-black chamber that led to the stair. Nothing.
Something crashed below, then silence.
“Hurry,” said Hogan and began his descent, Argoth close on his heels. They could not move as fast as he’d like because the movement would extinguish the lamps.
They took the second set of steps three and four at a time, their flames guttering with the movement. Hogan’s lamp blew out. Argoth didn’t expect that to be a problem because whoever had forced his way in would have a light. But he was mistaken. They soon found themselves facing the open doorway to the cleansing room, and all inside was as dark as ink.
They heard Purity’s frightened voice from inside. “What do you want?” she said in terror.
It wasn’t her words that stopped him. It was the fact that the intruder hadn’t brought a light. Who would have come down without a lamp?
Hogan turned and relit his lamp with Argoth’s flame, then stepped through the doorway. Argoth followed.
Hogan held his lamp aloft. There on the floor lay the door to Purity’s cell. It had been wrenched completely out of its fittings. Argoth looked at the cell itself and saw someone large hunkered over her. Purity struggled in his grasp.
The man seemed not to have heard Argoth and Hogan approach. Hogan changed his grip on the Hog. But it was too dark to see clearly. They needed light. Argoth spotted a small pile of straw used for the cells lying in a heap to one side. He kicked a portion of it away then lit it with his lamp. When it ignited, he threw his lamp down into the middle of it, cracking the lamp and spilling the oil about.
The fire flared, illuminating the room and the back of the rough figure.
By this time, Hogan had approached the cell. He stood, lamp in one hand, axe held high with the other. “Put her down,” he commanded.
The man supported Purity with one arm and with the other fingered the king’s collar around her neck. Her blanket had fallen to the floor to expose her injured and bandaged body. Purity struck at the man, but she was so weak her blows had no power.
The huge man wore an odd cloak of grass. But then he turned, and Argoth saw it was not a man. It was nothing like anything Argoth had ever seen. The grass he’d thought was a cloak was part of the creature, some patches whole, some burned. Then it opened its too-wide mouth and took in a ragged breath.
“Purity,” demanded Hogan. “You said there was no dark grove.”
A terrible fear lit her eyes. “Run,” she said. “It’s full of souls.”
Hunger had tried to devour Purity like he had all the others, but the thing at her neck fought him. It stunk of the men’s magic. As he tried to feel along its weave to untangle it, the word for what it was came to him; it surfaced from the murky waters of his mind like a giant fish. It was a king’s collar, something forged in the secret fires of the Kains that could prevent even a Divine from using magic. He marveled for a moment-how could Barg, a common butcher, know such things? He couldn’t, shouldn’t know such things. Unless Barg wasn’t the only man he’d eaten.
He looked more closely at the collar. If such a thing could harness a Divine, it might be able to harness a Mother.
That thought made him hold very still. The Mother had been sleeping and shut him out. She could not know about this. He could not wake her. Hunger kept his thoughts quiet.
The Mother was going to eat his family. He knew that. No matter what he did, she would eat them. Perhaps in the end, she would eat him as well. But this collar, this might bind her up tight. After all, humans had beaten the Mothers before. She said so herself.
Humans with magic.
Hunger looked at the Sleth woman. He’d need to plan very carefully. The Mother was strong. But perhaps this time the prey, with this slip of magic, might turn the tables and catch the predator.
Someone called out from behind him. He turned and saw two men-a Mokaddian with a sword and a Koramite with an axe. Stink rolled off both of them in waves. There was the Mother’s magic, but hers was always fresh and clean. This, this was something else.
Hunger recognized the Mokaddian but couldn’t put a name to him.
Then the Koramite struck him with his axe.
The force of that blow knocked Hunger back a step. Such power surprised him. But it didn’t matter. Hunger was a man of dirt, and he caught the Koramite by the throat and held him up. He could snap him like he had the other men above.
But there would be secrets in these two men. Plenty of secrets. Some of which might show him how to defeat the Mother. He should eat them. They weren’t human. They were Sleth. In fact, by all laws he should kill them. Eating them would not make him any more abominable than he already was. And it just might prevent the Mother from working her evil further.
Hunger tried to shuck the man, but he could not find a crack. It was like trying to use a spoon to peel the bark from a maple: all he could do was chip off small chunks.
He searched over the man’s body and snagged on the tiniest of gaps. He could feel the man’s fear. He could taste him.
Something flashed and Hunger lost his grip. The Koramite fell to the floor.
Hunger turned. The Mokaddian had joined the fray. The flash had been his blade, cutting clean through the wrist of the arm Hunger had been holding the Koramite with. The Mokaddian swung his blade again at Hunger’s neck, but the Mother had built him solidly there, and the blade simply lodged in the rock she’d used for his bones.
Hunger drew back the stump of his arm and swatted the Mokaddian to the other side of the room. He looked down at his hand on the floor and then at his stump. The dirt in his forearm had already begun to shift and form itself into a new ragged thing that looked not so much like a hand as it did the wild growth from a coppiced tree.
These two knew how to resist him. This meant he was going to have to kill them before he unraveled them. That was trickier than just taking them live. Trickier, but he could do it.
The Koramite backed up by the burning pile of straw. He held his useless axe ready. The Mokaddian knelt at the far wall, looking as if he were trying to regain his senses.
Hunger would take the Koramite first.
Then he felt the Mother stirring and all his attention turned to the collar. He had to hide it, had to busy himself with some other task. Otherwise, she would know.
She would know, she would know. She would command him to bring these men to her, and he would have to obey. Eventually, he would have to obey. But if she didn’t know, she couldn’t command.
Hunger turned and rushed back to Purity. He threw her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, then ran for the exit. The Koramite tried to stop him, but Hunger flung the man aside. Then it was up the stairs and into the dark, back the way he’d come. He’d get out, then he’d remove the collar before the Mother fully wakened. He’d cover it and all thought of the men. And when she fell asleep again, he’d come back for them all.
Argoth saw Hogan bury the Hog deep in the creature’s leg, but it had no visible effect. The creature knocked Hogan aside as it had done to him, tossed him like he was so much straw. Then the creature rushed out of the cleansing room with Purity clutched to its chest and the Hog still buried in its leg.
Hogan struggled to his knees. He grimaced and held his arm close as if it were broken. He winced. “That just might have cracked my collarbone.”
“I’ve never-” said Argoth in amazement. The power of that creature. What was it?
“I felt someone there,” said Hogan. “Inside the beast.”
Hogan shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Men yelled above. There was a crash, something heavy tumbling down the upper stairway.
“They’re not going to be able stop it,” said Argoth.
Hogan’s face twisted in surprise. “Lumen,” he said.
Lumen, the Divine who had overseen the Nine Clans. The Divine who had gone missing last year. Is this how he had disappeared, in some experiment gone awry? Or had the Bone Faces taken him and put him into this rough creature?
Another crash sounded from above.
Argoth raced out of the room to the stairs. He saw the Hog lying on the steps where it must have fallen from the creature’s leg and called back to Hogan to pick it up. Smoke from the straw fire below rolled up along the ceiling. It choked him, so he kept his head low and ran up into the darkness. He burst into the first cellar and heard the clamor of many men above.
On his way up the next flight of stairs he jumped over two guards. One was dead, splayed out in a horrible pose. The other lay on his back, moaning.
Argoth reached the main level and saw that the battle had moved outside. Men with torches and pikes stood outside the door and shouted. They surged to one side as if hit by a large wave.
He’d been able to hack off the thing’s hand. Of course, it had done as much good as chopping a worm in two. But he’d much rather face that thing in pieces. And if all they could do was dismember it, then that’s what they must do.
He charged outside. A number of the men shouted and pointed at something on the wall.
Argoth turned. The thing climbed the wall like a dark, three-legged spider, shielding Purity against its chest like a mother might her newborn babe.
Men threw spears. The half-moon made silhouettes of a number of guards on the wall who were in the process of stringing their bows or taking aim.
Those would do nothing to the creature, but they could kill Purity. And if this was her monster, that might dissolve its bindings.
“The ballista!” he shouted. “Turn the ballista!” At various points upon the wall stood seven ballistae. Argoth shouted up the orders a third time, and the guards manning the one closest to the creature began to turn it.
Hogan appeared at Argoth’s side. “How can this be?” The Hog was in his hands.
“I don’t know,” answered Argoth.
“It’s hers, isn’t it?”
“We’ll soon find out,” said Argoth.
The creature moved with such speed he knew the ballista men were only going to get one shot.
“Take it when it crests the top!” Argoth shouted.
More archers arrived and the thrumming of their bows made a chorus. He could hear the ballista men on the wall cranking their engine back. One five-foot, iron-headed dart from these machines could transfix several armored men. The only weapon more powerful would be one of the warwolves, casting a massive stone. But those would be ineffective against such a small, mobile target.
The creature neared the top.
“Lead it!” a man shouted.
The moon suddenly shone through a gap in the ragged clouds and lit up the wall. It was hideous how the thing moved, like an insect. Then it reached the top and raised itself up, its back bristling with arrows.
Now, they should fire now! Argoth heard the loud thwonk of the ballista. The creature took one massive step upon the wall, a dark, hulking figure, Purity’s naked form like a small, pale flower held at its chest, then, in the next moment, both were swept away.
“Lords,” said Hogan.
“Quickly,” Argoth shouted, “to the bailey!”
By now most of the fortress guard had awakened and had come to the call to arms. Torches were lit. A quarter of a cohort, almost a hundred and fifty men, rushed to the gate of the inner wall, Argoth and Hogan following behind. When they reached the bailey between the two fortress walls, they rushed to the spot where the creature should have fallen.
Argoth expected at any moment to hear the men in front call out that they’d found the creature. But no such shout arose. Then one soldier lifted the massive ballista dart into the air.
“Scan the walls!” someone shouted. Men stood back to examine the moonlit walls. A group of soldiers charged forward, beyond the location where the ballista dart was found.
Argoth grabbed a torch from a soldier and stepped up to examine the tip of the dart. It was clean. Not a drop of blood. Not a speck of dirt.
He looked at the ground where the dart had fallen. Nothing heavy had landed here. He looked up at the wall. He knew the soldiers searching the rest of the bailey would not find the creature. It was gone, vanished into the night just as it had come.
“Purity,” he said. “What have you wrought?”
The dart from the ballista might have passed through Hunger like stick through a pile of sand, but the Mother had created him with more than dirt. He had a skeleton of wood and stone. Of course, it was not just wood. Not simple stone. Whatever power the Mother controlled had bound him. He wasn’t just a piece of carpentry, for then the ballista dart would have shattered his chest. But it didn’t. The dart stuck in his ribs and the force of the impact threw him backward.
But it did not throw him directly away from the wall and into the bailey. Instead, it cast him off the rampart and into the bottom wall of the hoardings used to sweep attackers off the slopes and cliffs on the back side of the fortress. And that saved the Sleth woman, for Hunger was able to grasp one of the hoarding timbers and swing up underneath.
Hundreds of feet below him the sea sparkled in the moonlight. The waves surged and crashed upon the rocks, spraying forth great gouts of pale foam. Hunger would have survived the long drop to the sea, but the Sleth woman would have broken on impact.
He heard the men yelling, and he felt… pain? It was not sharp, but there was an echo of hurt. And then he realized it was not him, but the Sleth woman. He could feel the emotions roiling inside her body, feel them like one might feel a puppy thrashing in a sack. He realized he’d always been able to feel the souls of his victims. He wanted to devour her, but he ignored his appetite.
He didn’t have much time, and he didn’t dare climb down the cliff, for the men would see him, and then she would die. So Hunger skittered like a spider along the belly of the hoardings until he was on the other side of the fortress, far away from the shouting.
He lay the Sleth woman onto the rock and sparse grass that grew here. He had probed the collar down in the cellar of the tower, but could not find its clasp. It was said only a Divine could remove a king’s collar, only they knew the lore of unbinding. But did he not have magic also? He examined the collar again. There was no break, the collar seemed to have been woven around the woman’s neck. But nothing was that perfect. He could find the part if he searched slowly.
It seemed he had only just begun when the Mother stirred again. Hunger bent his concentration, moving faster and faster along the loops and whirls. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
She was coming, he could feel it. Feel her fingers reaching out to his mind.
Panic rose in him. She couldn’t have it. She mustn’t have it. Then he found a spot that seemed different from the rest, but he couldn’t tell for sure if it was the spot of joining. It wasn’t a break; it was just a spot.
He tried to unravel the collar at that point, but he could not. It resisted him. Then he mustered all his strength, he pulled, and, when he thought he’d failed, the collar snapped.
Fire and stink billowed up around him and into the sky.
What is that? the Mother asked.
He could not resist her question. Fire, he said. Fire, from the pretty collar about the Sleth woman’s neck.
She pushed into his mind, and he feared she would discover his secret, but she didn’t care about the collar, only the Sleth woman.
This is the one? asked the Mother.
The men beat her. They do not like ones that stink.
Fool, she said. They worship them.
Not this one, said Hunger.
The Mother directed her attention at the collar, and Hunger held very still.
A king’s collar, she said.
Yes, said Hunger. I broke it.
You did indeed, she said. And then she laughed.
Hunger ran though the woods like a dark wind, carrying the Sleth woman to the Mother. He held her like he had held his bonny girl when she was only a pint. He ran through the dark, piney forest, keeping the branches from the Sleth woman, and the memories of his littlest, Rose, for that was her name-the memories of her dark eyes came to him. Dark, little, shining eyes, and him dancing with her held to his chest, her squealing like a piglet for joy. Around and around he had gone with her, dancing his jig on the banks of the stream in a piney forest, his fine wife singing her ballad for the fifth time, the boys clapping the beat, impatiently waiting their turn to whirl in the arms of their da. Around and around until his head spun and he fell into the grass. And little Rose climbing up on his chest to look down at him with those dark, sparkling eyes, the blue sky at her back.
A man of dirt does not weep. He cannot sob. Hunger knew this all too well. But in his deepest parts he felt a longing, an emptiness, a something so vast and lonely and bleak that he stumbled with the Sleth woman and fell to one knee.
The Green Beggar had taught him that if a soul escaped the creatures that waited to devour them; if it managed the long trail in the world of the dead with all its perils; if it were wise, it would find that great Brightness that awaited even the most plain and rude of creatures. The everlasting burnings of joy prepared by the Creators for those who sought the wisdom of the heart.
He, obviously, had not had much wisdom, for the Mother had caught him and devoured great portions of his soul almost as he was born into the other world. And he, in turn, had devoured others. Surely, the Six would destroy him should he ever win his freedom. But Rose, the boys, his good wife. They had done nothing.
The Mother called. She wanted this woman so strongly that her compulsion made him stand.
He held the broken collar in one hand and looked at it.
The Mother had laughed at him. At that moment he’d seen that it was indeed broken. Dead. His hope was nothing more than a scrap of metal, its stink carried away by the wind. But he had the woman. And the Mother had promised to release his family.
No, she hadn’t said that exactly, had she? She’d never promised to release them.
The Mother called again, and he could not resist her. He ran across a meadow and down to the rocks where one of the mouths of the Mother’s caves lay.
This kidney-shaped entrance to the warrens sat hidden in the folds of the ravines and cliffs along the sea. He climbed up to it and eased himself in. It was almost too small for him by himself, so he held the woman close to his chest and belly with one arm and scrabbled along.
Again, he met the Mother in the warm room, the one that smelled of what he now knew was sulfur.
“Here,” said Hunger. “This is the one that will lead us to the others.”
“Yes,” said the Mother. And she took her from him and laid her on a soft bed of grass and furs. “We will need to keep her for a number of days. That will be your task.”
“She’ll die down here,” he said. “They need light.”
“Then you fetch it. If you want those pitiful souls, you keep her alive.”
“Yes,” he said. She would need food. She would need someone else to be with her. But someone who would not run away.
He did not want to ask her the question, but he had to. He had to know. “Will you release one of the souls to me now?”
“Perhaps,” she said.
“Quiet!” she commanded.
She wouldn’t do it. She was a liar. But a thought had been forming. All was not lost. No, he had an idea buried deep down. If the collar could be made, then it could be remade. He didn’t know how. But those men… he turned to leave.
The Mother stopped him. “I want the others as well,” she said.
She’d heard his thoughts, knew who she spoke of. And his inability to hide from her filled him with dismay. “What others?” he asked.
“You’ll bring them here, those two men, and keep them as well.”
“Even you don’t have the appetite for three,” said Hunger.
“I’m not going to eat them,” she said. Then she sighed. “It is unfortunate that, when I found you, your soul was bound to the Mother of Mokad. I could only recover pieces.” She shook her head. “Understand, the human wizards, those that stink, must swear allegiance to me. All of them.”
A memory rose in Hunger’s mind. Before, when he was not in this body, he had been searching for something in her caves. Something dangerous. He had been under orders from a different master then who had yet another master. And the Mother had stolen him away from them. “I had a name,” he said.
“That name doesn’t matter,” she said. “You are no longer that creature.”
It came to him. “Lumen,” he said, and knew it was true. “That was my name.” He himself had been a master.
And a thrall. The realization of this crashed upon him-the Divines, the Glories, the rulers of men were nothing more than servants to creatures like her.
But that wasn’t right. He was Barg. He was many names. Confusion clouded his mind.
“You are mine now,” said the Mother.
That also was true, but it didn’t mean he was hers willingly. “The Sleth will fight you. They will not serve you.”
“They will all serve me, one way or the other. I will find my human to lead the harvest. And those that rebel will be put to another purpose.”
“They will die here in the dark.”
“Not before we use them to quicken the children.”
Hunger tried to probe her mind to find out what she was talking about, for there were no children here.
“Come,” she said and led him down a passageway he did not know to a large room.
The Mother sang and suddenly the ribbons of light that wove their way about her ranged out into the room and illuminated it. Half a dozen bodies lay slumbering in the dirt. They were not human or animal. And they were not small, not the bodies of children. They were bodies like his, made of earth, but they weren’t exact matches-one had multiple arms, another had a vicious snout and head, another was tall and thin. One had a head shaped like an onion.
“These,” said the Mother, “are your brethren.”
Hunger knew she’d formed these bodies just as she’d formed his. And he knew when they were ready, she’d call them forth just as she had called him.
“There will be more. We shall quicken them, you and I. And the master of the harvest shall lead them.”
“You’re going to make war on us?”
“War?” she said. “You weren’t listening.”
But then what were these for?
“War is the last thing I want. This land and people have been neglected. Koram is ours. It always has been, even far-flung fields like this one. We could not stop the Mother of Mokad from taking them before, but we have recovered some of the old ways. The Mother of Mokad is failing. Soon all her human herds will be mine, and I shall make them fruitful. They will become the envy of the earth and yield a rich harvest for many, many years to come. And these,” she gestured at the children, “will be the first of those that will protect them.”
Hunger stared at the Mother. Memories tumbled in, stories of a time when there were many minor beings with power. The old gods-this one ruling a valley, that one a small village, this one living on her own in the woods, that one farming with his people. Some protected and blessed. Some, like the Goat King, did not. “You’re one of the old gods,” he said, “aren’t you?”
The Mother shook her head. “What you call the old gods were humans and, sometimes, other creatures who knew the lore. They were like wild animals. They fought us, but in the end, we tamed them and put them to the use intended by the Creators.”
Hunger looked at the children. He knew the powers the Mother had taught him: how to separate Fire from body, how to shuck a soul. He knew what she ate. But he’d never seen the implications, probably because until he’d eaten Barg he’d never had the mind of a man to grasp them.
He was stunned. Horrified.
The Mother smiled. “You need not worry about facing the wrath of the Creators,” she said. “Did they not make us? And is it not the nature of creation for one thing to master and devour another? Humans feed on cattle, cattle on grass, grass on the earth. It is only natural that something should feed on humans.”
It was natural, Hunger realized. And there were creatures that did so-bears, lions, sharks. But something about her logic was wrong. It took him a moment. “It’s natural to devour a body maybe. But not a soul.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “There are all manner of creatures that feed on the soul.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Hunger. But he knew about the perilous journey after this life. She spoke the truth. “There may be predators,” he said, “but the prey sometimes turns and fights.”
“Your cattle and chickens do not fight you, do they? They do not flee, but come to you, depend on you. And that’s what humans have been doing for ages-they’ve been depending on us. And just as it’s easier for you to manage your cattle, it’s easier to manage humans when they don’t know they’re mastered.”
Hunger thought of his family. Were humans delicacies or the staples of her diet? It didn’t matter: she would eat his family. She had never planned on doing anything different.
“I’ve made you a promise,” she said, “and I keep my promises. An obedient servant deserves a reward. That is the best way. Do you not sometimes pass over a favorite cow or goat when it’s time for slaughter and instead let it die from old age? This is no different. Fulfill your duty. I will let them free, and you, not your family, will be the first fruits of the harvest.”
A COLD KISS
Sugar was not safe here, not with men in the woods, and that idiot Talen making a scene. Goh, that one, that stinking load of scours, scaring the life out of her. He’d nearly broken her nose throwing that door in her face. He’d nearly killed her and Legs both.
But then… what would she have done in his position? These folks were risking their lives. Obviously, he hadn’t been asked if he were willing to do that. Wouldn’t she want to be asked to risk her life for a stranger?
Nevertheless, she could not sleep. Yes, it was vastly more comfortable in the cellar under the kitchen floor than out in that hole. Hogan’s family hadn’t filled the cellar yet with their winter stores, and so it was both wide and deep. She didn’t have to contend with mosquitoes, and she had not found any of the monstrous black and yellow spiders that seemed unable to stay out of the dog warren. But the cellar was also the first place anyone would look.
Legs slept on the narrow bed River had placed down here, next to old cabbage leaves and the scattered old potatoes with their multitudes of long, pale stems, looking like a nest of ghostly, spindly legged crabs. He’d fallen asleep brushing her hair with his fingers, picking out the knots and debris.
He was putting a brave front on as Da had always taught him to do. And Da had taught him so much. He had spent hours, days demanding Legs learn do hard things despite his blindness-chores around the yard, holding pieces on the anvil while Da hammered them, working the bellows, learning every foot of the village and the surrounding fields so he could take water in his goat cart to those that toiled there.
Da had seemed a force of nature. And now he was gone.
What would he do here? He’d tell her to stop worrying over things she couldn’t change. He’d tell her she was bred to do hard things, it was in her blood.
She began to organize the potatoes and cabbages, putting them into tidy rows and stacks. It comforted her. Calmed her. Tidiness helped a person think.
They weren’t safe here. This was why she couldn’t sleep. Sooner or later these folks would find out that Mother really was Sleth. It was hard to admit. But that was the truth. The Questioners in Whitecliff would pry things out of Mother. And then these good folks would turn both her and Legs in. No, it wasn’t safe. She and Legs needed to leave. They would do so tonight under the cover of darkness. But that left a whole day of danger. What would she do if they turned on her today?
She pulled the spindly legs off of a potato and placed it on the pile she was making.
And if they didn’t find out about Mother, they still had to deal with the hunters in the woods. It was likely another group would come. She needed to plan should that occur. Because, sooner or later, here at Hogan’s or in some other bolt-hole, they would come. They would find her, and she’d better have a cover.
Ke had suggested a cover to Zu Hogan when she’d first come. “She could be a girl from Koramtown,” Ke’d said, “visiting.”
“Visiting who?” Zu Hogan had asked.
“Have your pick,” said Ke. “Both Talen and I are of marriageable age. Or maybe she’s visiting River as a friend.”
“Maybe,” said Zu Hogan. “Maybe.” But he’d never come back to tell her what he’d decided. Sugar had visited friends regularly in Koramtown. They were some of the happiest moments of her life. There was such an ease being among your equals. She knew what friends did when they visited. And while Ke was of marriageable age, all the neighbors around this farmstead would already know who he was courting and what his prospects were. Her tale would be news to them. And she didn’t want to be news. She wanted to be nothing. Talen would probably not be making such arrangements. So he was an option. But she couldn’t be sure. It would be easier if Sugar was River’s friend visting from Koramtown. Someone come to help with the harvest.
“Sugar?” Legs asked in a quiet voice.
She said nothing, and stacked another potato. He hadn’t slept all last night and needed rest.
“You’re not sleeping,” he said.
“Oh?” she said.
“You breathe different when you sleep,” he said. “It’s something like this.” He began to make small grunting noises like a pig.
“I don’t either.”
“Yes,” he said. “You do. But then so did Mother.”
A momentary silence fell upon them both. Sugar should have felt something in that silence, but she was empty still. How was it that she could not feel?
“Does,” Sugar corrected. “She’s not dead. You heard those soldiers. And not only that, but it’s possible she will be freed.”
Those had been Zu Hogan’s words when he’d shown them the dog warren: “Have hope; if your mother survives her wounds and is taken to Whitecliff, then there is a chance I can free her.”
“But how can that be true?” Legs asked. “He’s just a Koramite.”
And Mother was just a smith’s wife. Sugar had not yet told Legs what she had witnessed of the battle and Mother’s horrible speed.
Sugar put down the leggy potato in her hands and moved back next to him. She reached out and began to smooth his hair, tracing the whorls of his wild cowlicks.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Zu Hogan has a powerful brother-in-law. A captain of the Shoka. Perhaps he will save her.”
But he wouldn’t. Not even a Mokaddian territory lord would save a Sleth.
The lines of her world were shifting, and where they’d stop she did not know. It was like the one time she’d seen a perfect rock to rest upon, but as she neared it the lines and shadows shifted and she realized the rough stem she’d thought was a weed at the base of the rock was really a brown viper, coiled in the dry grass and ready to strike.
“This isn’t a good place to hide,” he said.
“I know,” said Sugar.
“We should make a cubby,” he said. “Like we did in the woods to escape the miller’s son.”
There weren’t enough cabbages and potatoes to make a pile big enough to hide both of them. But if she used the bushel basket there might be enough for Legs.
“You’re right,” she said and began to move the piles she’d already made.
Before they’d finished, Sugar heard someone walk on the floor above her. Alarm shot through her. They weren’t ready with the cubby. Then she heard River singing the fisherman’s lullaby, the all-clear signal, and relaxed.
But Sugar did not join River above. It was safer down here in the dark and they needed to finish what they’d begun. After some time, someone came to the cellar door and stopped. She heard them grab the hook and then the door opened, spilling in the dim light of early morning.
River looked down at her. “Did you not hear me?”
“Yes,” Sugar said. “We did.”
“I see,” said River. “Well, come on up; eat while you can. The boys are all out in the yard doing chores.”
“Do you have a chamber pot?” asked Legs.
River smiled. “Somewhere,” she said. “We refused to carry out each other’s stink years ago. And who wants to carry their own when you can trot out to the privy? But I don’t think we threw it away. Besides, I know someone who would benefit from playing the good host. Come up. You can eat and take care of your business like people instead of grubs.”
Sugar and Legs climbed out of the cellar. A hard loaf of bread sat on the table. Fat slices of dark sausage sizzled in a pan over the fire. And a thick broth, for softening the bread, bubbled in a pot.
River led Legs to the back room. When she returned, she sawed off a sizeable piece of bread and gave Sugar a bowl of the broth.
The three boys came in shortly after that, taking off their muddy boots and setting them alongside the wall next to the door. When Talen saw Sugar, he stopped short.
“What is she doing up here?” he asked.
“It looks like she’s eating,” said Ke and shoved Talen along.
Talen gave her an angry glance, then he handed Nettle the fish.
Nettle walked over to River, eyeing Sugar the whole way, opened the creel he was carrying and pulled out an enormous catfish that had been cleaned, gutted, and skinned. “Here’s our afternoon soup.”
“Put it in there,” River said, motioning with her chin toward an empty pot on the floor.
Nettle slid the fish in the pot.
Talen still stood on the other side of the room, brooding.
“What are you doing?” River asked him. “Go sit down.”
“I’m not getting anywhere close to that,” Talen said and pointed at Sugar.
Just then Legs appeared in the doorway of the back room holding the covered chamber pot.
“Sugar,” River corrected. “And you are going to be the gracious host. In fact, it appears you have a little business in the back room that needs to be dealt with.”
“A little business?” asked Talen in amazement. He turned and saw Legs standing there. “No.” He shook his head. “I will not.”
“You will empty the chamber pot for him, and then you will empty it for Sugar.”
“No,” said Sugar. “Please.” They’d already put this family in grave danger. She didn’t want them to do one thing more.
“You can’t go outside,” said River. “That would be foolhardy. Besides, we wouldn’t have this problem except for Talen. So he can take responsibility for the messes he makes.”
“I’m not doing it,” said Talen. He looked at Nettle.
Nettle held up both hands. “This is your house, not mine.”
Ke shifted his enormous frame in his seat to face Talen squarely. “You’re going to be the little chamber pot man,” said Ke. “And you’re going to be happy about it.”
The threat was obvious, but Talen didn’t move. The tension built for a moment, but then Ke stood and took a step toward Talen.
“Fine,” said Talen. “Tell him to put it down and step out of the doorway.”
“Legs,” said Sugar. “Come. We’ll go back down.”
Legs set the pot on the floor, then felt his way to Sugar’s position. Only then did Talen brush past. He picked up the pot with great distaste and went outside.
“Please stay here,” River said to Sugar. “Talen will be all right. You just sit down and enjoy your meal.”
It felt so good to stand straight and see sunlight. Perhaps she could stay up here for just a little while.
“I can understand his reluctance,” said Sugar.
“He’s not the only one that’s reluctant,” said Nettle.
They ate in relative silence, River asking Sugar questions that would make any normal guest feel comfortable. But these were not normal circumstances, and they only made the meal more strained.
Toward the end, River turned to Talen and said, “Because of last night, Ke and I now must find Sugar and Legs another place. So we’ll be hunting one up today. That means you’re going to stay here to finish the chores and to keep an eye out. Sugar and Legs are your charge until we return.”
Talen just looked into his bowl.
“Look at me, Talen. Do you think Da and I are stupid people? I know Ke, of course, is suspect.” She grinned.
It was a good effort to break the tension, but Talen did not accept it. “Yes, given the facts, I do think you’re stupid. But then I know you’re not stupid, so that means you’re hiding some of the facts.”
River glanced at Ke, then back to Talen.
“And you’ve been hiding them for quite some time,” said Talen.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” she said. “Da knows these people. They’re good, Talen. And there’s more to this than you realize. So much more. But now’s not the time or place to explain. All you have to do is finish the chores and keep an eye out. I want you to give Sugar and Legs some time up here. And that means you’ll have to stay in the house. Because you won’t be able to warn them or cover their retreat if you’re outside.”
“Then how do I do the chores?”
Both River and Ke looked at Nettle.
“Right,” said Nettle. “I’ll be out in the fields.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” said Talen. “You’re not leaving me alone with these two.”
“Chores have got to be done,” said Ke. “It will look odd, a fine day like today and nobody working. Besides, a man shoulders his own burdens.”
“Sure,” said Talen. “And when these two eat me, I guess you’ll be the one cleaning up what’s left.”
“Look at them, Talen,” River said. “They are not dangerous.”
“Just the presence of them,” Talen said, “is enough to put a noose around every one of our necks.”
While River had been there, Sugar, for the first time since the awful events, felt a lightening in her mood. There were some people that possessed such great quantities of openness and hope that it spilled over to others. River was one of these people.
Of course, when River closed the door behind her, Sugar and Legs were left with Talen.
He threw the bar on the door then turned to her. He shook his head as if he still couldn’t believe his predicament, then he picked up his bow and withdrew two arrows from one of the three tall baskets that hung on the wall. Each basket held arrows that were ringed with a different color just below the fletching. She assumed the colors distinguished a different spine strength and weight, matched to the strength of the bow. He nocked one of the arrows marked with an ochre ring. The other he kept in the hand that held the bow. Both had gray goose feathers. Both were plain, but they had clearly been heated and straightened and would fly true to deliver the iron tips that shone with grease to keep the rust off.
“Here’s the first thing we’re going to get straight,” said Talen. “Me and my immortal parts are off-limits. You see that smudge on the lintel of the doorway to the loft?”
Sugar turned to look where he pointed. But before she had fully turned her head, she heard the bow hum. The second shaft flew almost as the first hit a dark coloration on the pale whitewashed lintel.
She turned back to him. He held another two more of the ochre-ringed arrows, one nocked just as before.
Legs sat at the table eating the last scraps of his food. He put down his spoon and held very still.
“I’ve been thinking all morning,” Talen said. “I don’t know what game my father is playing, but I do know this: you cross me, I won’t hesitate. In fact, by all rights, I should shoot you down now.”
Sugar knew the look in his eyes. She knew he was considering it. Her father had taught her to never show fear in a fight. Never show pain. Never give an opponent any reason for courage unless you wanted to lure them into a trap. What kind of a fighter was Talen? Was he one that only respected force? Or was he one that was more interested in avoiding a fight?
“Why does my father harbor a hatchling?” he asked.
“I’m not a hatchling,” she said.
“Whatever you call it.”
“I practice no dark art,” she said.
“No, you wouldn’t think it dark, would you?”
“I don’t know any lore,” she said.
“But your parents do.”
She had no response to that.
“Right,” he said. “So what’s been done to my father? Or is some threat being hung over us?”
“Nothing has been done,” she said. “There are no threats.”
He was agitated. Angry. Scared. She could read it all in his face. And she would have the same reaction in his situation, was having the same reaction to what her mother had done.
“How do I know River and Ke aren’t already under the spell of some foul master?” he asked. “How do I know they’ll even return?”
He raised his bow to the verge of drawing it. “Nettle said to wait. But I can’t see how that will help.”
He was serious: he did want to slay her. He truly believed she was Sleth, and prevarication would only confirm that assessment. She and Legs would not survive the afternoon with him in this state. That much was clear. “I will not lie to you,” she said. “My mother did things that-”
She didn’t want to say it. Legs sat as motionless as a heron at the table, his wild hair sticking up. She didn’t want for him to hear it this way. But that wasn’t the reason she’d stopped. She didn’t want to name Mother aloud. There were other explanations for what she’d seen. Maybe what she saw her mother do had been distorted by her fears. Maybe Cotton had indeed been stolen and magicked by woodikin. Maybe a dark soul rode in the body of the stork they’d found. There were a dozen maybes.
But the easiest explanation would not go away. She had to face the truth. There was no salvation in lies. “I saw my mother charge an army. I saw her cleave a man’s head in two. I saw her move with a dark grace that horrified me. And I saw the Sleth signs on the dead body of my little brother.”
The words dropped from her lips like heavy stones.
“I know you have no reason to believe me,” she said. “But I found out about this only a day before you.”
He had not raised his bow, but he hadn’t lowered it either.
“I am not associated with any murder of Sleth. I have nothing to do with any art, unless my mother has done something to me like she did to my brother. But I don’t know what that would be. I’m as confused as you are, Talen.
“Think on this as well,” she added. “If we were so wicked, wouldn’t we have risen from the cellar early this morning and worked our mischief on you when you were all asleep?”
“I didn’t sleep,” he said.
“Even so,” she said. “If that’s what we were, it would have been the perfect time, would it not?”
He said nothing, but she could see the wheels of his mind turning, see him weighing her, weighing the situation.
At last, he said, “That’s the line,” and pointed at the edge of the table where Legs sat. “Come across, and my arrows fly.”
She exhaled and realized she’d been holding her breath. But his decision didn’t mean they were safe. She needed to have another plan to neutralize that bow. He might be quick with it. But a bow was a hard weapon to wield in close spaces. A knife was much better in this situation.
She turned so the knife sheathed at her waist was hidden from his view. She ran one hand through her hair and with the other she removed the loop that held the knife in the sheath. She and Legs were going to get out of here. Her mother had told her to take Legs and ride. She should have disobeyed her mother before and fought. But now she’d make up for that. She’d take Legs and stow him in a safe place. And then what? How could she, of all people, rescue Mother?
But that wasn’t important right now. Right now she had to figure out how to deal with this boy. And what if hunters came? It would not do to have them find him sitting there guarding her and Legs. That was not how you treated a visitor. She began to clean up the breakfast dishes. Began to tidy and let her mind work. The first thing she noticed was that he’d placed himself in the wrong part of the house.
“You cannot look out of the windows from where you’re sitting.” When he didn’t respond, she said, “You can’t watch for hunters from that side of the room.”
“You look out the windows and watch for hunters. I’m watching you.”
She nodded in acquiescence. That meant she wouldn’t retreat to the cellar. She didn’t want to do that anyway. If Talen should change his mind, she didn’t want to be caught like a fish in a barrel.
Legs stepped toward Sugar with his hands out. When he found her, he felt for her hand. “Should I go down?” he asked.
It would probably be best. That way she wouldn’t have to worry about him should the situation change. But she didn’t want him to sit down there alone thinking about what she’d just revealed. He needed to know she was strong. That things would be all right. At least that’s what she told herself.
“Stand with me,” she said, “and smell the morning coming in through the windows. We’ll visit the potatoes soon enough.”
The shutters by the dining table looked out over the farm. She pulled them completely open then walked to the the back of the house and opened the shutters on the window there so she had a view of the river.
After a few moments Legs began to hum one of the songs he’d often sang to entertain the men and women of Plum village in the evenings as they sat drinking their ale. It was the one about a stupid boy trying to outsmart a gang of crows. She smiled. Perhaps it was she who needed him.
Legs sang another few songs, then he stopped, and Sugar could see he was thinking. A few minutes later he began again. A half an hour must have passed that way, Legs humming or singing, stopping to think, singing again, all while Sugar tidied up, first breakfast, then the floor, always keeping an eye on the windows. And across from them, Talen sat with his bow at the ready.
Sugar ran through a number of scenarios. She knew if Talen changed he mind and decided to use his bow, that she would pick up a chair as a shield and charge him. He’d only get off one shot that way. It would pierce her body or it wouldn’t. And if it didn’t, then she’d be in close with her knife. However, that wouldn’t solve any issues should hunters show up. They needed to seem friends, and that would never happen with him holding the bow.
She finished the floor, cleaned the ashes from the hearth and put them in the tin ash bucket, then took a good long look out the window. Nettle worked in the distance.
Talen spoke. “What kind of a name is Legs anyway? It’s not like he’s tall for his age. I can’t imagine he’s quick either.”
“No, Zu,” said Legs. “It’s rather hard to be speedy when you can’t see where you’re going.”
Talen looked surprised that Legs had talked. Sugar herself was a bit surprised, but she knew the tone in his voice. He’d made up his mind about something. This was him wanting to make a point.
“Legs,” said Sugar in warning.
“So that means it would be a bit difficult for me to catch and eat you.”
Talen raised his eyebrows. “What’s he going on about?”
“I’m just pointing out the obvious,” said Legs. “And you can talk to me directly if you want. I’m not deaf.”
Talen stood. “Maybe I don’t like the way your eyes slide around.”
“Sorry, Zu,” said Legs. His eyes had been sliding and he closed his lids. “I know all the stories about Sleth. I’ve sung all the songs. I’ve been thinking about them. And you’d expect if my mother had the powers she’s accused of, she would have given me my sight. Why wouldn’t she have done that?”
“What do I know about your mother’s Slethy ways? Ask her yourself when they put you in the tower.”
“It’s because she’s not,” said Legs.
Sugar wished she had Legs’s confidence. But she didn’t want him to provoke Talen further. “Legs,” she said. “We didn’t answer his question.” She turned to Talen. “It’s his nickname. He was born legs first.”
Sugar didn’t tell him that the midwife had said when Legs’s feet first appeared, he’d pulled them back from the cool air in the room and refused to come out. The first time she’d heard that as a girl, she’d laughed and laughed. She had made her mother tell it again and again. The memory of that happy time seemed so far away, so unreal, as if it weren’t true at all, but only a story.
“I think I want to go down now,” said Legs.
“Yes,” she said. “I think that’s a good idea.” And who knew what he’d say next? Lords forbid, but he’d probably try to tweak Talen with some comment about him taking care of Legs’s business earlier.
Legs walked to her, hand in front feeling the way. She took his hand and led him to the cellar door.
When the door was up, Legs turned to her. “I don’t care,” he said under his breath. And she knew he meant he didn’t care even if Mother were Sleth.
“Neither do I,” she agreed, but that was a lie. She did care.
Legs descended the stairs into the darkness with the potatoes. She found leaving the cellar door open put her on edge. Not everyone had such a cellar built into the floor. Many were outside the kitchen. She could see how having it in the kitchen would be handy, and it was not in the way, but she was not used to working so close to such a hole, so she shut the door.
She turned back to the window and knew she couldn’t stand there doing nothing while Talen watched her. “You can hardly make a lunch over there,” she said. “I will make us something to go with that fish. Can you tell me if your sister keeps any savory?”
Talen hesitated. She expected him to say something about poisoning the food, but he didn’t. He pointed at a cupboard. “It’s in there.”
“Thank you,” said Sugar and began washing and cutting vegetables.
When she finished with the vegetables, she found what she needed to make flat cakes. She had her hands in the flour when she glanced out the back window and saw half a dozen Mokaddians wearing leather cuirasses and helms crouching at the top of the riverbank.
Her heart jumped.
A handful of them broke off and approached the house, crouching low as they walked.
These were not Fir-Noy. At least they did not wear the Fir-Noy colors. She couldn’t tell from this distance, but it appeared their wrist tattoos were those of the Shoka. But it didn’t matter-Shoka or Fir-Noy, they were still Mokaddians, still sneaking up on the house.
She drew back from the window so they wouldn’t see her.
From her angle of view she saw the first man run up to the house and take his position at the corner.
She couldn’t catch her breath. The moment she’d been dreading had come and found her making flat cakes. All her mother and father had suffered to give them a chance to escape would now go to waste.
But that couldn’t happen. She wouldn’t let it happen. She didn’t have time to open the door to the cellar, descend, and close it up again.
She looked out the front window and saw nothing but Nettle working the field in the distance.
She whirled round and faced Talen. “Hunters,” she whispered.
Talen had been leaning against the wall in his chair, balancing it on two of its legs. He came away from the wall and brought all four legs to the ground.
She motioned with her head towards the river. He needed to put that bow down. If he had truly been guarding against something in the woods, then he would have been outside. Both of them would be. They needed to appear to be friends. No, they needed to appear to be more than friends. It would have been better if Ke had been sitting there, but Talen would have to do. She only prayed he wasn’t a fool.
She could not speak, not if she didn’t want to alert the man outside, so she hastened across the floor toward Talen. He must have seen the alarm in her face because he stood and looked with worry to the windows.
One, two, four steps, and she crossed the line he’d drawn. He began to raise the bow, but either his fear had paralyzed him or he wasn’t a fool after all because he allowed her to come right up to him, grab the wrist of the hand that held the bow, and whisper into his ear.
“They’re outside,” she said.
“I’m going to sit on your lap,” she said. “Like a lover.” Then she pushed him back into his chair.
Talen’s eyes were round with alarm. He clenched the bow.
She pushed the bow away and settled on him. “Put the bow down,” she whispered. “Put your arm around me.”
He was frozen.
“I am your girl from Koramtown,” she whispered. “I’m visiting.”
Something rustled along the outside of the house. He turned his head toward the sound. He reached back and leaned the bow against the wall, but he didn’t let go.
She raised his free hand to her ribs.
“I’m Lily,” she said.
“Lily,” she repeated. “The daughter of Ham, a farmer, living just the other side-”
She could hear a man at the door, and from the corner of her eye she saw the shadow of someone take position by the open shutter. She immediately dipped her mouth to meet Talen’s. She’d kissed boys before. None of the Mokaddians in her village. Her mother had made sure they traveled to Koramtown regularly, more often this last year since Sugar was soon to be of age for marriage negotiations. She closed her eyes and cupped his head with her free, flour-dusted hand.
Talen sat as stiff as a piece of furniture. She opened her eyes and found him staring at her, his eyeballs big as her face. It was like finding a large caterpillar on the end of your nose.
More men gathered outside the door.
“The bow,” she said midkiss, “drop the bow.” His mouth was parted in shock, frozen open like the stone of a statue. She had stolen her share of kisses from Koramtown boys, and this one wouldn’t fool anybody. She flickered the tip of her tongue inside his mouth. Maybe that would bring him around.
The bow and arrows clattered to the floor. And to Talen’s credit he tried to move his lips. They were dry, and the whole thing smelled of the morning’s sausage, but he acted. Of course, she didn’t think either of their performances would be enough.
Then someone tried to force the door.
“You there,” said a man, looking in at them from the window. “Open that door!”
Talen shot up like a flushed animal and dumped Sugar to the floor. She was still getting up when he swung the door wide.
Three men pushed in, weapons bristling: a young one in front with half of his teeth missing and two older men behind. Before Sugar could move, the young one stuck the point of his sword inches from Talen’s neck. “You,” he said. “Where’s your father?”
“He was summoned to Whitecliff,” said Talen.
“We should have known your family would cause problems,” he said.
A man with eyes like ice appeared behind the three that stood in the doorway. “Put the sword down,” he said.
Sugar did not know him, but from his clothing, she suspected he was the bailiff. “Talen,” he said. “I told your da to order the Koramites in the district. I wanted them calm. Instead, I get reports of all sorts of things happening here last night.”
Sugar froze. Had someone seen Talen rousting them out from underneath the old house? They’d heard voices in the night, but they’d been in the distance. And what if Talen decided to turn on her and Legs? He was half convinced she was Sleth already.
It had been a mistake to stay. She should have taken Legs and run. They could have hidden in the woods somewhere until dark fell. Now it was too late.
“Why did you have to provoke the Fir-Noy?” asked the bailiff.
Talen said nothing. He stood there like a scarecrow.
The bailiff looked from Talen to Sugar and back again. “Who’s this?”
“Nobody,” said Talen.
“Nobody?” asked the bailiff.
“Zu,” said Sugar, “I’m Lily from Koramtown.”
“And why did you bar the door in the middle of the morning?”
Talen said nothing, just stood there with his mouth open.
“We…” said Sugar and looked down. That’s what she supposed someone caught in a forbidden embrace would do. She hoped she hadn’t hung her head too quickly.
“Speak up!” said the bailiff.
“We were,” Talen said. He looked as if he’d swallowed a chicken whole. “Sporting.”
“While the father is away,” said the bailiff. He shook his head and looked around the room. “You and your altercations with those Fir-Noy armsmen have caused me a bit of work. I’ve been ordered by the Shoka lords to conduct a personal search of every Koramite homestead in my district.”
“I am sorry, Zu,” said Talen.
“Look at me,” said the bailiff. “What are you hiding?”
Talen’s eyes were wide with fear. If anyone was going to give them away, it would be him. “Nothing, Zu. Nothing.”
The bailiff shook his head. “Of course not.” He signaled to his men to search the house. “I need something to drink.”
“We have no beer,” said Talen.
“Then fetch me a draught of sweet water from your well,” said the bailiff.
Talen complied without hesitation, leaving Sugar alone with the men. One of the bailiff’s men stood on the far side of the room opening cupboards. She could hear the second upstairs and the third in the back room and still others out in the yard. The bailiff himself paced about the room and then noticed the cellar door.
“Girl,” he said. “Open this up.” Then he drew his sword and stepped back.
“You do not need to worry, Zu,” she said, indicating his sword. “I will gladly open the door, but nothing is down there. Only a few cabbages and potatoes. I saw them myself this morning.”
“Oh, is that the trysting spot for Koramite youth?” The bailiff shook his head. “I thought Talen was being prepared for a Mokaddian marriage. I expected more of Hogan.”
Sugar looked down. They would consider it filthy for him to sport with a Koramite. Was that why he’d been so stiff? She walked over to the door. She hoped Legs had heard the men and had hidden in the small cubby they’d made last night.
“Get a light,” he said.
“Yes, Zu,” she said, and then moved to the other side of the room to fetch a lamp.
The man searching this end of the main room was poking his sword deep into barrels of beans and barley. What he expected to find there she could not guess.
Sugar found one of Zu Hogan’s lamps and the oil jar. She poured a bit into the lamp. Then she took it to the fire, retrieved an ember with some small tongs, held it close and began to blow.
“I don’t understand why a girl from Koramtown would risk hunters, alone it seems, to come all the way up here.”
Sugar blew once more and the wick caught fire. “I came early yesterday,” she said. “News of the Sleth had not yet arrived.” Then she pulled up the cellar door.
He pointed at the stair with his sword, indicating she should go first.
Sugar nodded and began to descend the stairs a few steps. As she did her light illuminated the room below and the fact that while Legs had crawled into the cubby, he had not hidden his foot. It, along with the end of his trousers, was plain to see.
The bailiff positioned himself above to get a clearer view of the cellar.
Sugar switched the lamp to her other hand, moving it so that it cast a shadow over Legs.
“Lift it higher,” said the bailiff, “I can’t see.”
“Yes, Zu.” Her mind raced. What could she do? What lie could she tell him?
None came to her mind.
She shifted the lamp.
“Ho,” boomed Zu Hogan from the doorway. “What is this?”
The bailiff turned, and Sugar saw her chance. She quickly descended the remaining steps and hurried to stand in front of Leg’s foot. She held her lamp out as if she were trying to give the room its best possible illumination.
“What kind of a lunatic challenges Fir-Noy armsmen?” asked the bailiff.
Zu Hogan put his hands on his hips. “The same kind that challenges Bone-Faced rot.”
“That’s all good and fine,” said the bailiff. “But you’ve put me in a position. Do you know how lucky you are? Any other Koramite and you’d lose your head. I would have to take it myself.”
“We have far greater things than Fir-Noy honor to worry about,” said Zu Hogan. “The woman held in Whitecliff, she’s gone.”
“Stolen out of the tower by a creature that cast Droz and his whole guard about like puppets.”
The bailiff stood stunned. “Goh,” he finally said. “Her creation, then, come to free her? Or that of her hatchlings?”
“We don’t know where it came from or whence it bore her. The dogs can’t track it.”
Sugar sat down. There was no doubt about Mother now. She wondered what kind of creature it was that had rescued her. But she couldn’t imagine it. She couldn’t picture her mother as Sleth any more than she could picture her as a dog.
What would Zu Hogan do? He wouldn’t turn her in, would he? Not after hiding and lying for them.
“She’s probably all safely tucked away now in some wicked bolt hole.” The bailiff cursed. There was a brief pause in their conversation then the bailiff said, “This does not bode well for your people.”
“It does not bode well for any of us,” said Zu Hogan. “Because when you do find them, even if you take one hundred men, it won’t be enough. The creature was shot through with arrows and stabbed with spears. Captain Argoth delivered a blow that would have beheaded a horse. Nothing. The ballista men shot a dart and smote the beast squarely in the chest, and it still managed somehow to vanish. It cannot be harmed by normal means.”
The bailiff looked down at Sugar.
“What’s more,” said Hogan, “if it’s taken her, then I suspect it most certainly has the two hatchlings that escaped.”
The bailiff nodded. “We’re done here.”
He called his men off, and as suddenly as they’d come, they left.
Sugar whispered to Legs to stay put then she walked back up the stairs.
Hogan, Talen, and Nettle stood out in the yard. She joined them to watch the bailiff and his men walk back to the woods where they’d tied their horses.
“Do you think he suspects?” asked Nettle.
“No,” said Zu Hogan. “Although I do wonder how he missed marking Sugar.”
“We created a ruse,” said Talen.
“Sporting,” finished Sugar.
Nettle raised an eyebrow, but Zu Hogan looked down at her with a sad smile. “Purity’s daughter indeed,” he said.
What that meant, she could not tell. But she could guess what he was thinking. Her mother was a monster. So what did you do with the child of a monster? Sugar knew the answer to that question.
She also knew her mother. There would be an explanation if she could talk to her. There had to be.
About a quarter mile down the road from Hogan’s place, the bailiff halted the men. Prunes reined in his horse with the rest of them.
“I’ve been commanded to post a watch on Hogan,” said the bailiff. “So two of you are going to stay behind. Prunes, you and Gid will have the first day. I’ll send someone to relieve you in the morning.”
That was just Prunes’s luck. He gets an opportunity to sleep, but he has to do it with that garlic-eater at his side. Still, some rest was better than none at all. Prunes simply nodded then peeled his horse from the column, Gid following behind.
They hobbled their horses in a small glen on the far side of the hill and began hiking to find the right position to watch the Koramite.
A few steps up the slope and Gid began to sing under his breath. “A lady green with lips so wide, I could not help but kiss her. But when I’d had my fill of tongue, I put her in the roaster.”
“Will you shut up,” said Prunes.
“They’re not going to hear us.”
“I don’t care if they do hear us. We’re not going to find anything here.”
“How do you mean?”
“This is Captain Argoth’s brother-in-law. We’re not going to find anything here but some rest. And that’s what I intend to take. And that is also why you’re going to be quiet as a mouse.”
“You don’t know what loyalties flow in that Koramite’s veins,” said Gid. “In fact, for a Koramite on the run, this might be the very best place to hide.”
“See,” said Prunes, “that’s what comes of eating too much garlic. You get brain vapors.”
“It’s got nothing to do with what I eat.”
“Stinking vapors of the mind,” said Prunes.
Gid made a rude gesture, but Prunes ignored it.
Soon they found an outcropping of rock that gave a clear view of the farm, then positioned themselves just behind the brush line.
As soon as they sat down, Gid took out a whetstone and began sharpening his knife.
Stupid eager-that’s what he was. If Sleth did indeed pay the Koramite a visit, then they’d need more than knives. Goh, the Koramite’s reports of that creature in Whitecliff gave Prunes the shivers. And if that thing showed up, the best thing to do would be to run. Run or hide in some hole. Then Prunes realized he’d sat in the wrong place. “You need to sit over here,” said Prunes.
“Because that places me upwind of your stinking carcass.”
But Gid gave him a look that said he wasn’t moving. After a few moments, Prunes sighed in irritation. The man was an affliction, but it wasn’t worth a battle. He picked himself up and found a better spot. “You’ve got first watch,” said Prunes. “If I catch you sleeping, you’re going to dance to a hard pipe.”
Gid grunted. “And who do you think will be my partner?”
But Prunes had already laid back and closed his eyes and wasn’t even going to consider giving Gid an answer.
Talen stood in the house, facing his father who had just related the events at the Whitecliff fortress the night before. Da’s face was bruised from when the creature had knocked him aside. His throat was worse. It looked like he wore a blue-and-purple collar. The creature had throttled him and damaged his voice. When he finished his tale, none of the others spoke.
Talen didn’t care that the boy and the girl were standing right here with them. “The evidence, it appears, is overwhelming,” he said. “The Fir-Noy were not making this rot up.”
Earlier, he hadn’t known what to do. He and Nettle had not been able to sleep. They had discussed the situation from the moment the girl and boy had gone down into the cellar last night until the sun rose. They could give the girl and boy the benefit of the doubt, as it seemed Da, River, and Ke were willing to do, and assume huge risks. They could distract the two until Nettle could call the authorities to come collect them. Or they could kill them. But the questioners would want them alive. The laws of the hunt would demand punishment. Furthermore, if they were Sleth and there was a nest of them, then anyone who killed the boy and girl could expect the same retribution that was visited upon the village of Plum.
But to leave them alive in the house? And then the girl had confessed. All his talk of bold action, and he had been able to do nothing. Then the bailiff had shown up. But he hadn’t known it was the bailiff. He’d thought they were the Fir-Noy armsmen come back. He couldn’t tell them the boy and girl were the hatchlings. Those armsmen would automatically assume Talen’s family had been harboring them.
He should have never let her sit in his lap. Never let her kiss him. Lords, her tongue…
He kept expecting something to happen, to feel a shift of some kind. He could detect no change in himself, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t worked some kind of magic upon him with her touch. How could you kiss a Sleth child and not be changed?
It was obvious they had only two options-kill them or bring a hunt. And he preferred someone else face the ire of the nest. “It’s time to give them up,” said Talen.
“No,” said Da in his rough voice. “That will never happen.”
And yet there Da stood with that massive bruise on his face. Perhaps he was trying to tell Talen it was foolish to talk about such things in front of the boy and girl.
“River and Ke will be back soon enough. We’re going to keep them safe, Talen.”
Da wasn’t acting. He was serious. “With that woman’s beast looking for them?”
“We don’t know what that thing was,” said Da.
“Who cares what it was? It rescued her. That’s all we need to know.”
“That’s not all we need to know.”
It was obvious from the events at Whitecliff that there were powerful masters ruling this nest of Sleth. Had they gotten to Da? Had they themselves delivered the boy and girl here?
It was terrible to contemplate, but he wanted to know the situation. “You can tell me,” said Talen.
“No, I can’t. Not right now.”
“Have you been threatened by other members of this nest?”
“Son,” said Da. “Trust me.”
“Trust me,” Talen said. “If the masters of this nest have something hanging over us, I want to know. I want to help.”
“There are no masters,” said Da. “No threats. This is very simple. Sugar and Legs are innocent of any offense.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“No,” said Da.
Talen glanced over at Nettle for some help, but Nettle looked as concerned as he was. He turned back to his father. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But I don’t think you’re in your right mind. If they’re innocent, then let the questioners absolve them.”
“Talen,” Da said more forcefully. “You don’t know of what you speak. So keep your mouth shut.”
Shut? When they had armsmen seeking their lives, a Sleth on the loose, and the children of that Sleth standing right there?
“Why don’t you enlighten me? I can clearly see the troubles these two have cost us. And it doesn’t require a lord’s councilor to multiply such troubles across all the rest of our people. You were a fool not to turn them in.”
The girl stood to the side of Da, cold calculation in her eyes. The boy was looking off into space, his head shaking oddly. It unnerved Talen. That right there was probably the result of some Sleth abomination.
Da’s eyes narrowed. “You’ll put a bung in that mouth of yours.”
“Somebody is going to die because of these two. And that’s not going to be me. I’d also like to avoid any torture that might be involved.”
“We’ll find them another place.” Da’s mouth was tight with anger.
Talen wondered if all this speaking hurt his throat, but someone needed to talk sense.
“Some wicked servant came to fetch their mother, and you want to harbor them?”
Da’s anger broke. He lifted up one side of the table and slammed it back down again. A leg gave way and the table slid over to one side. “I’m about to lose my temper!” If his voice had been normal, it would have come out as a bellow. But this voice, as if he were sick, was worse to hear.
Talen was going to say, don’t worry you’ve already done that, but Da’s eyes were as round as eggs. His face was red.
Years ago Da had let Ke and even River feel the open face of his hand. Ke had many a story; he also harbored much resentment that Talen didn’t receive the same good instruction. But Mother had made Da give it up before she died.
Da violently scratched the side of his head. He said, “I can forgive you your ignorance. But I won’t stand your disobedience. Do you truly think I’m such a drooling idiot that I would invite monsters into our house?”
“No,” said Talen, “but you might blind yourself so you couldn’t see the danger. All this time it’s been about Koramite oppression, jealous Mokaddians. Well, the facts are staring us in the face, but you won’t look at them.”
“You are the one that won’t look at them,” said Da. “What do you think the questioners will do with them? What do you think the Fir-Noy will demand?”
They’d demand the children be locked up as bait. They would torture them until they produced answers. Or they’d kill them.
“Only a coward lets the innocent be punished when it’s within his power to stop it,” said Da.
This was crazy. These weren’t two children accused of stealing apples from their neighbor’s orchard. “It’s not cowardice,” said Talen. “We’re talking about Sleth, Da. Sleth.”
“Sleth,” said Da. He sighed. “Fine. I suppose River’s right. It’s time. Although I do not believe you’re ready.” He turned to Nettle. “That would go as well for you. Of course, this should be your father’s office, shouldn’t it? But we can take care of that. You two are coming with me today, we’re-”
Talen didn’t understand half of what Da had just said. But it didn’t matter. “What about them?” he asked, pointing at the girl and boy.
“What about them? River and Ke will return soon enough. And it doesn’t appear you enjoy their company much.”
“You’re just going to leave them here unattended?” And then he understood what Da was doing. “You’re going to give them a chance to run, aren’t you? And that way if someone asks, you can truthfully say you have no idea where they are.”
Da shook his head. “Them running is the last thing I want, Talen. Because then they’ll surely be caught. You might want to think about that. Even if you haven’t a nit’s teaspoon of compassion, you’ll want to consider what will happen when the questioners begin their work. How long will it take before the boy is tortured into revealing who hid him for so long?”
That was easy to calculate. As were the consequences. Da had placed them all on a crumbling precipice and asked them to dance. “I don’t understand why you’re doing this,” said Talen.
“Nettle,” Da said, “tell me. Does your da tell you everything that goes on in his councils? You’re his son. If you were to ask him, would he tell you all his battle plans?”
“He tells me a lot.”
“Why is that? He trusts you, doesn’t he?”
“Well,” said Nettle, then he fell into silence and shrugged. “I guess he thinks I’ve got a butter jaw.”
Da laughed. “Hardly. It’s because some truths, if shared, would hurt those who do not deserve it. And it is at such times that you cannot simply pass the responsibility of the secrets you hold to someone else. You either carry the burden of the secret or release the whirlwind.”
“Secrets?” This did not sound right. This did not make him feel comfortable. What secrets did Da keep that concerned the girl and the boy?
“There’s more to this than the flimsy logic you’ve tried to fob me off with today, isn’t there?”
“There’s more to everything, son. Even when all the words have been spoken. But right now I have an appointment to meet the Clan Council. I was overtaken by a messenger earlier. I’ve been summoned back to Whitecliff to testify about what happened in the tower. I can understand your frustration, but I can’t trust you here alone. So you’re going with me. Now get the wagon hitched.”
Talen buckled the second loin strap about Iron Boy, their mule. Nettle was gathering food because, despite the current turmoils, Da said there were families needing supplies. And now, according to Da, was just as good a time to deliver what they needed as any other. Talen suspected it was only to cover something else, but he could not guess what that was. He didn’t understand his father.
Talen stroked Iron Boy’s neck. He almost wished he could trade places with the mule.
“I’m not oblivious to all the dangers about us,” said Da.
Talen turned. Da had walked up to the wagon. He secured the Hog under the seat. When he finished there, he came to stand before Talen, an unusually dark braid of godsweed in his hand. Despite Da’s protestations, River had wrapped his neck with a poultice. “I want you to wear this for protection.”
Godsweed was used to ward off things not wholly of this world. Its smoke was potent. But even having it upon you was supposed to have an effect. “Why are you giving me that? This isn’t about malevolent souls.”
“Oh, but it is,” said Da. “Did you not listen to what I said about the creature at the fortress? It was full of the dead. Now, hold out your arm.”
Talen pulled back the sleeve of his tunic and let Da tie the braid about his upper arm. The braid was thicker than most, woven in an odd pattern. But he’d never seen Da or River braid it.
“Where did you get this?”
Da said nothing. When he finished tying the braid, he pulled the sleeve of Talen’s tunic back down over it, nodded, then reached out, cupped the back of Talen’s neck with his large hand, and looked deep into his eyes. “Courage, son.”
This was Da’s habit since Talen was a boy. He’d look him in the eyes and make him focus on a word.
Talen felt stupid. Annoyed. He wasn’t a little boy anymore. He tried to shrug out of his father’s grasp, but Da’s grip was even stronger than Ke’s. Da waited for Talen’s response.
“Courage,” said Talen.
Da smiled. “See, you feel better already.”
“All I felt was your hand, cold as the tomb.” Talen hated that little ritual, and he swore at that moment he would never subject his sons to anything like it.
Da nodded. “We’re almost done here. I just need a bit of barley.”
Nettle returned shortly with what looked like most of what had been hanging in the smoke shed, including the salmon Talen had caught just last week. Nettle placed it next to a basket of cabbages and another of carrots resting in the wagon bed. Then Da came out of the house rolling a medium-sized barrel of barley.
“Goh,” said Talen. “How many are we to visit?”
“Not enough,” said Da.
Every two weeks Da went to Whitecliff and delivered supplies to struggling families along the way. Most were widows whose Koramite husbands had died or been maimed in the battles with the Bone Faces. One of the families had lost both mother and father, and the oldest son had sold himself to one of the clans to pay their debts.
Talen didn’t know how Da knew who to visit. He supposed they discussed such things in the Koramite council Da attended. All the Koramites in the area were supposed to donate their surplus to help the affected families. But it seemed a large portion of what Talen delivered came from his family’s own larder and garden. This time was no different.
Da drove the wagon and made Talen and Nettle walk alongside to spare Iron Boy. They traveled in silence for a time. Then Da tied the reins to the wooden hook under the seat and began undoing the thin, black leather strips holding his beard braids and combing the the hair out with an old bone comb. Iron Boy plodded along. When Da began to retie the first braid, Talen figured he’d had enough time for his temper to die down. He looked up at his father on the wagon seat and said, “So have you got some godsweed for Nettle?”
“Not today,” said Da. He held the braid with one hand and brought up the leather tie. “That’s his father’s office.”
“That’s the second time you’ve said that.”
“I’m glad you can count,” said Da.
“It never does any good to hold on to your anger,” said Talen.
“You’re absolutely right,” said Da.
Talen walked in silence for a few more yards waiting for more. When Da didn’t respond, he decided to take another tack. “So what are all these facts you were going to bestow on me?”
“What?” asked Da in mock amazement. “An idiot like myself attempt to explain anything to you? I wouldn’t presume.”
“Oh, come,” said Talen.
“You’ll get your facts,” said Da. “Both of you. Just a little patience is all you need.”
“We shall bind her first,” said the Mother. Hunger approached the woman with a weave the Mother had directed him to make, but the woman scrambled back, and before he could reach her, she rose and, with what only could have been multiplied might and speed, ran headlong at the wall of the chamber, crashing into a rock.
The woman fell to the floor.
“You careless fool,” the Mother said. She delivered a blow of pain that sent Hunger to his knees.
The Mother turned back to the woman. She bent to her and began singing the odd music of hers, pressing herself into the world of men. Soon the scent of her clean magic filled the room. But the woman did not move.
“She’s dead,” said Hunger.
“Quiet,” commanded the Mother.
He didn’t deserve the reproach. He hadn’t been careless. It was the woman, the wily woman. How could Hunger know she would try to break her head like a squash? He did not know how the woman could survive such a blow. But then she spoke.
“No,” she said.
“It is time,” said the Mother.
“Nightmare,” said the woman, “depart.” She was still unsteady from her injury and slurred her words.
“Your son,” said the Mother. “Where has he gone?”
“Dead,” she said.
“No,” said the Mother. “I can feel him through the weave. He is not dead.”
“He is dead,” said the woman. “My son is mingled with a stork.”
The Mother paused, agitated. “Do not try to deceive me.” Then she did something and the woman groaned. “Where is the one with the weave?”
“Why do you torment my dreams?” asked the woman.
The woman was silent again. But again the Mother did something that pained the woman.
“With horse,” she said.
“Where did he go with the horse?”
“You can’t have him. You will not sacrifice him for his Fire.”
“I would never do such a thing,” said the Mother. “He is precious to me.”
The woman hesitated. “They’re looking for him.”
“I will protect him. Where is he?”
The woman paused, and the Mother asked again.
“To horse,” said the woman weakly.
It made no sense. The woman was babbling. She was not going to live. Not here in the dark, not with that injury.
“Who is horse?” asked the Mother, but the woman closed her eyes. The Mother tried to bring her back with pain, but the woman fell limp in her hands.
“She’s dead,” said Hunger.
“Her heart is still beating,” said the Mother. “But what’s this?” She sniffed. The Mother put a finger to the woman’s bloody head and licked the blood off. “Sickness.” She savored the blood. “And something else. She’d been eating something. But I’ve tasted worse. I can fix this one. She’s going to live and lead us to others.”
Hunger had wanted to watch the Mother as she attempted to heal the woman, but he’d caught a whiff of magic and she’d sent him out into the night to track it. It was odd how often he’d smelled the magic of late. Perhaps the woman was bringing the Sleth out of hiding, drawing the nest to her. Or perhaps he was simply maturing in his powers. One thing was for sure, he could smell a male in this magic.
Hunger thought of the two men who had attacked him in the tower only a few hours ago. He knew the Mokaddian. It was Argoth, a captain of the Shoka. Perhaps this was his stink.
He followed the scent for miles, up onto the plains, to a farmstead past all settled parts. He paused in the woods on the edge of a field.
A bat darted above him and flittered out over fields of ripe grain shining pale and blue in the moonlight. On the far side of the fields stood a simple cabin with light shining from its small windows.
Hunger took in a great breath of the scent. He knew he shouldn’t do that because it only enflamed his appetite. And the Mother had wanted this human live. But he couldn’t help himself.
He walked along the tree line toward it and noticed a number of new stumps. Somebody had been busy this year clearing the land. When Hunger finally approached the cabin, he could hear the soft sounds of a man humming over the thrum of the night insects. He circled the cabin until he found a window. The scent of magic was pouring from the cracks around the window frame. Hunger looked in.
But he did not see Argoth. A burly man stood naked in a large round tub set close to the hearth. He was washing himself. A pot of water steamed over the cheery fire. The man took a cake of soap and lathered his hairy chest. Hunger did not recognize him. He was not the Koramite that had attacked him in the tower. Yet he stank.
Hunger considered the Mother’s promise. It had raised his hopes at first, but the more he pondered it, the more it unraveled. What cattleman did his cattle favors? When did one spare a healthy animal from slaughter? You might keep a bull or cow a number of years; the slaughter might be delayed, but when they ceased to be productive, they, with all the rest, were harvested. It was that simple. The Mother thought he was stupid. And maybe he was. But he could see through her lie.
The Mother had forbidden him to eat the ones that stink. Why was that? They couldn’t be trusted to serve her. She was going to cull them. So why not order him to do it for her?
He knew why: she didn’t want him eating their secrets. Because if he knew their secrets, maybe he could challenge her. Surely they would know how to remake the collar. And if they knew that, they might hold other secrets far more powerful. Secrets strong enough to overpower the Mother.
Hunger walked up to the door. The man sang a few words then continued to hum his tune. Something about the tune pricked Hunger’s mind, and he paused, listening. The music filled him with longing as wide as the sky, but no thoughts. Nothing to hang the longing upon.
He felt a revulsion at the thought of eating this man. He realized he’d felt this revulsion before, but it had always been lost in the raging fire of his appetite. But the revulsion didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that what he was doing was abomination. What mattered was that he had an opportunity to stop the Mother. What mattered was that he could free his family.
The humming swelled.
He would eat this man and satisfy his appetite.
Hunger thrust open the door.
The man did not look at him in horror, only surprise that turned to intelligence. Then the man lunged out of his tub toward the window.
The man took two steps and dove at the window. He burst through the shutters.
He was quick and would have escaped, but Hunger was quicker and caught him by the leg just before it disappeared through the window. The man kicked like a horse, but Hunger dragged him back in.
The man did not cry out. He simply turned and delivered a blow to Hunger’s throat that would have killed a bull. But the Mother’s handiwork wasn’t so easily defeated. Instead of felling Hunger, all the man succeeded in doing was breaking his own hand. He drew it back, pain wracking his face.
The Mother didn’t know he was here. She was crooning to her children, deep in the caves, and watching over the Sleth woman. Nevertheless, he expected to fight her compulsion.
Then he realized she hadn’t said not to eat this one. No, she hadn’t said that.
The man used his good hand to pick up a chair. He hammered at Hunger’s grip. But Hunger did not let him go. Hunger would not bend to the Mother’s wishes like some idiot cow whose only thought was of grass. He was, underneath all this dirt, a man. And even though this Sleth didn’t realize it, he was going to help save Hunger’s family. He was going to be put to good use. And who knew: if Hunger learned the secrets and defeated the Mother completely, then this Sleth would be the means of saving every mother and daughter and son of the Nine Clans.
Hunger felt along the fiber of this Sleth’s being. Soon enough he found an edge. It took only a few moments and Hunger shucked his soul. He was sweet and beautiful and Hunger could not help but bolt great portions of him.
Then the Mother stirred and Hunger froze. He immediately released the man’s soul. The remnants flew to the wind as Hunger waited. He stood quietly for some time bracing himself for her ire. But the Mother didn’t search him. She didn’t walk into his mind. She was too busy. Much too busy.
The man was gone.
Hunger hated himself and yet delighted in the savor of the man. He only hoped he’d eaten enough.
He stepped to the table and fingered the comb. He knew the tune the man was humming. He played it in his mind, waiting for the memories to digest. Waiting for the secrets.
But Hunger did not receive secrets. All he felt was the growing of an unaccountable sorrow. And then the picture of a tall, plain woman with laughing eyes.
He should not have let the man go, but it was too late now. The rest of his secrets were gone. Hunger stood at the man’s table for a long time, handling the things there-a seashell brush, a polished mirror, and a length of green cloth-all woman things. He could not say why, but he threw all these in the fire. Then he watched them burn to ash.
I am a ruin, he thought. He picked up one of the red, dying coals and held it in his hand. But if he had to become a ruin, if he had to become ash, then so be it. He knew the location of another Sleth. He knew where he could find the Shoka’s hammer, where he could find Argoth.
Hunger arrived in the dark of the early morning and walked up to the door to Argoth’s house. He slid a tendril from one of his fingers between the back door and its frame and silently lifted the bar.
The dogs surprised him, but he quickly twisted their necks, gulping down their Fire and soul. Hunger stood in the kitchen with the dead dogs at his feet, but when nobody came to investigate, he proceeded to search the house. He found four rooms. There was nothing in them but beds filled with sleeping children and servants. He creaked down the hallway and found Argoth’s wife asleep. Argoth was not with her.
Hunger retreated to a dark corner of the room and waited for Argoth, watching his wife toss and turn and finally kick the bedcovers to the floor. But when he smelled the beginnings of the morning winds, Hunger exited as quietly as he had come.
He took the bodies of the dogs with him and waited in the tree line by a fat chestnut. He would catch Argoth when he returned.
The night turned to morning. Argoth’s daughters came out to hang clothes on a line to dry. The wife stood in the back doorway and whistled for the dogs that lay at his feet. Meanwhile, a group of servants walked out to the vineyard with baskets and cutting knives and began to pick grapes.
When he was a man, he would have salivated at the thought of the red table grapes, the skin colored with a blue dust, and all of it bursting with a tangy sweetness. But grapes held no appeal to him now. It was only a memory of a desire that ghosted by.
He supposed Argoth would be conducting a search for him. But could they track a man of dirt? He did not think so. Morning grew toward noon, and then the breeze brought him a whiff of magic. The scent was barely detectable, almost a lie, but it was there.
Hunger prepared himself, but the scent disappeared and did not return. It hadn’t come from the direction of Whitecliff. The breeze was blowing from a different direction.
What did this mean?
It meant Argoth had simply crossed the wind’s path and had moved on. Argoth wasn’t coming home.
Or maybe it wasn’t Argoth at all. Maybe it was someone else entirely.
That idea burned in his mind. Someone he might use to remake that collar. Someone different. Someone he would not have to fight the Mother’s compulsion to eat.
He had been stupid with the other man. He would not be stupid with this one.
Hunger jolted upright and ran in the direction of the breeze. He kept to the wood line, not because he feared attack but because he did not want to raise an alarm and scare off whomever it was.
For a few minutes he lost the scent. But he ran perpendicular to the general direction of the breeze, and then there the stink was again, more powerful than before.
He traced the scent, moving like a dark animal through the woods, avoiding clearings and meadows as best he could, and when he couldn’t, running with utmost speed through the grass.
The scent grew and grew. He realized it was taking him toward Whitecliff, but Hunger ran out of woods before he caught up to the source of the stink.
He stood in the tree line at the foot of a hill and looked over the acres of fields that lay between him and the walls of Whitecliff and the shinning sea beyond.
Leagues to his left rose the ridge of white cliffs for which the city was named. The forbidden cliffs, riddled with crumbling warrens and wondrous carvings wrought by creatures that had vanished long before the first settlers arrived. Below him ran the Soap Stone River. A toll bridge spanned it.
Hunger looked along the road to the bridge and then beyond. It was crowded with people. The Festival of Gifts was not too far away, and then the whole land would be celebrating the blessings of the Creators given this year. There would be games and dances. Sacrifices. And the Divine would grant boons to even the most humble petitioner.
A bearded man on a wagon rode out from behind the bridge house. Beside him walked two boys. Hunger recognized the man. It was the Koramite who had been with Argoth.
A mighty stink rolled toward him in great waves. It was more potent than anything Hunger had encountered so far. More potent than anything he’d experienced from the Mother. He must have incredible power, that Koramite.
But, no, it wasn’t the man.
Hunger could see it clearly now. Small fingers of brightness rose from the boy like steam rose from wet clothes in the winter. They were fingers of Fire, fingers of his life spilling out into the wide world.
It was the boy making the overpowering stink.
Hunger looked closer. Was this the young male the Mother spoke of? The band around the boy’s arm wasn’t a normal godsweed band. It was a weave, smoking with power. He wondered if that weave was the cause of this reckless waste.
He opened his mouth and took in a great breath of the stink. None of the Mother’s magic was in it, which meant this was not the male they sought. Another memory tumbled into him. The second boy, the Mokaddian, was Argoth’s son. Suddenly Hunger knew who the man was. Argoth had a Koramite brother-in-law. That’s who this man was; he was sure of it.
But why release Fire like this? Why waste it? Fire, spilled like this, would draw frights just as a dead carcass would draw crows. Frights were creatures not completely from the world of flesh. Most were small and very difficult to see because they only gained substance in this world as they fed. They were leeches, but not of blood. There were three parts to all living things. Frights fed on Fire. They did not have the power to separate a living thing like he did. But sometimes, if someone was mortally sick or wounded, their Fire might bleed out. And this gave the frights an opening into which they could burrow and feed.
Hunger did not know the full powers of such creatures, but it didn’t matter; he would deal with them. And he would be careful of the boy. Who knew, perhaps the boy was not being used to bait frights, but Hunger himself. To throw off a stink he could not resist. Perhaps these Sleth thought to trap him.
But what trap could hold him? He could see none here. He should take them, the Koramite and his son. He should chase them down now. And while the Mother had commanded him to bring the Koramite to her, she hadn’t said anything about the boy. Surely he knew some secrets.
Hunger identified the the line of pursuit that would cut them off, then stopped himself. The Koramite and his boy were Sleth; they would simply multiply themselves and run away, and then, when they were safely surrounded by the thousands in the city, they could cease their magic. The stink would die, and Hunger would lose them. They’d disappear, leaving Hunger exposed. The trap, if there was one, was in the city.
Hunger sat down where he was next to a tangle of red-flowered trumpet vine.
The Koramite lived on this side of the river. He and his burning son would surely return from the city before long. And Hunger would be there along an empty stretch of road to greet them.
Talen had never received so many hard glances in his life. He doubted they would have been allowed to cross the bridge had Da not been wearing the token of the Council-a sash that was sewn with the patterned cloth of all Nine Clans and draped over one shoulder.
Almost everyone they passed or overtook on this overcrowded road to Whitecliff looked at him like he himself had committed horrors. And the one man that hadn’t given him the eye had shouted and waved his goose stick, rushing his gaggle of geese off the road so quickly you would have thought Da, he, and Nettle were a pack of wolves just come out of the wood. It was obvious the events of Plum Village had only turned the ridiculous rantings of the Fir-Noy against Koramites into truth.
The road ran almost straight to the Farmer’s Gate in the outer wall of the city, taking them through fields that stood half harvested and on to the gaming fields.
Every fortnight two or three of the Clans would send their best to compete here. Their best horses, runners, archers, slingers, and swordsmen. Along with the competition there were jugglers and singers, storytellers and alewives. When the weaves had been full, the dreadmen would compete, sometimes against each other, sometimes against an animal. Only recently had Koramites been allowed to compete in the games. But Talen was sure the events of the last week would reverse that privilege.
Between the gaming fields and the city moat stood plots with timber houses on them. At one a woman sat outside her door delivering well-spaced blows to the bottom of a kicking boy she held across her lap. At another a girl with long black hair stood feeding old vegetables to a number of piglets. At yet another, two brown-and-white goats stood on the low-hanging branch of a tree chewing what leaves they could find. A third attempted to clamber up the woodpile next to the house to get to the grass growing on the sod roof, but she only succeeded in slipping off and bringing pieces of wood down with her.
Beyond the plots rose the outer wall of the city. Four men, tiny in the distance, worked on the red roof of one of the newer stone towers set in the wall.
The city of Whitecliff had three rings of defense: an outer wall, a fortress wall, then the fortress inner wall. The fortress walls were made of stone. But the city wall was made of a steep embankment and timber palisades, like the many walled villages. A few years ago the clans had begun to replace that outer wall with stone, but it was far from finished. More than half of the seventeen towers were still made of timber.
As they approached the Farmer’s Gate, a guard motioned Da to pull the wagon into a separate line from the Mokaddians.
At least a dozen guards stood on the rampart with strung bows. From their colors, he could see they were a mixture of Fir-Noy and Burund. Down at the base and off to the side of the gate, a guard held a dead rabbit up by its hind legs, baiting the two mastiffs chained to the wall. He told the handful of guards standing with him to watch, then he tossed the rabbit between the two dogs. The result was a violent scuffle, but in moments the smaller dog had most of the rabbit and gulped it down, leaving only a tuft of fur and one leg that had flown off into the weeds when they’d pulled it apart.
“See,” said the guard. “That’s the one to watch. And now I’ll take your coppers.”
“They’ve posted double the men,” said Nettle.
“It won’t do them any good,” said Da. “Not against that creature of grass and stone.”
Two guards motioned Da to come down off the wagon. One told Da and Talen to strip completely.
“Do you not see the token of the Council?” asked Da. “I’ve been summoned.”
“Then we’ll have to be double sure, won’t we?”
“They’re not going to strip,” said Nettle. “I vouch for these men.”
“You little piss,” the second man said and reached out to strike Nettle, but the first grabbed his arm and stopped him.
“That one is Captain Argoth’s.”
The second man wrested his arm from the other man’s grasp. “Well, well. The Koramite lover’s boy,” he said. “All alone out here while daddy is in the fortress. Where’s your wet nurse?” He pointed at Nettle’s belt. “I see they’re letting you dress up like a man, are they? Good for you.”
Nettle clenched his jaw, but he didn’t say anything.
So Talen spoke up. “He’s man enough to knock one of your armsmen about.”
“Quiet!” said Da.
The second guard licked his bottom lip. “Our orders,” the first guard said, “are to search every Koramite. Now strip.”
“And you,” the second said to Nettle. “You may move along. Wouldn’t want you to get a boo-boo.”
“Don’t listen to them,” said Nettle.
Da held up his hand. “Talen and I will satisfy the requirement.” Then he began to pull off his tunic.
Dozens of Mokaddians in the other line stood and watched. One wife stood with her arms folded and a scowl across her face as if this were his just desserts. Talen turned his back on her and gave her the bum. Soon the two of them were naked except for the poultice around Da’s neck, standing in the sun, their legs spread and arms held wide, while the guards and flies came to investigate.
When the guards found no Sleth-sign, they allowed Da and Talen to pull their clothes back on and bring the wagon round. But another guard stopped them there.
“It’s four coppers to enter,” he said. One of his ears looked to have been chewed off.
Da shook his head. “Every man who works on the wall has rights to enter.”
“Every clansman,” said the guard.
“No,” said Da, “every man.” He pointed at the Sea Gate in the distance. “I helped build that tower.”
The guard looked over the contents of the wagon. “Four coppers, and I want that small sack of barley.”
Da did not raise his voice in anger, instead he enunciated every word. “I am here at the Council’s request.”
The man put his hand to his sword. “There are many who think we should just beat you on principle. I’m doing you a favor.”
“You’re robbing me.”
The guard shrugged. “Everything has its price.”
Da clenched his jaw.
The guard flipped open the basket with the smoked meat. “Ah,” he said. “This looks good.” He pulled out a strip of salmon and took a bite. Then he grabbed another handful and tossed it to the other guards. “See,” the man said. “I’ve got to let you in, but I don’t have to let your wagon through.”
“I’ll pay you four coppers,” said Da.
“No,” said Talen.
“Be quiet,” said Da.
“Very good advice,” said the guard.
Da reached into his purse and withdrew the coins. “The Council’s going to hear about this.”
“Give them my regards.”
Da picked up the reins and flicked Iron Boy on.
Smoke from a multitude of chimneys trailed into the sky, the wind blowing it like a sooty smear toward the sea.
Talen hated the Fir-Noy. But he was beginning to hate some of the members of his own race. The smith and his wife. They had tainted all the rest of them. Brought down a load of grief. He was happy the smith died. He deserved it. His wickedness was treachery, a stab in everyone’s back. He thought about what Da was doing with the hatchlings. That was treachery too. Couldn’t Da see that?
The farther they traveled, the houses became taller and more closely placed. More and more were made of brick and stone. Yet, between roofs, Talen caught glimpses of the temple on its hill and the seven statues for the coming Festival of Gifts. At the end of the festival, the community would pull down the statue for Regret, tie it to a boat, and send it out to sea. And while it burned upon the water, thousands would sing the hymn of defiance along the shorelines. This same ritual would be repeated by the other clans in their cities, but none would match the festival held here in Whitecliff.
Of course, this year it would not be the same. Usually, the reigning Divine would bestow gifts during the festival, including healings for man and beast. The festival was one of the regular times for people to offer the days of their life up for the good of all by letting the Divine draw quantities of their Fire. It was also during the festival that common men were raised to the ranks of the dreadmen. But none of that would happen this year.
Talen took his eyes from the temple and looked up the road. They were almost upon the lodgers field. Not all of the merchants could afford to raise a booth or tent in the central square. Those slots went to many of the permanent families who held homes in the city itself. But there were three other spots in the city where merchants paid to set up their business. This was the largest of those, a ten-acre field filled with tents of all colors-blue-and-white trimmed with yellow, scarlet-and-black, green-and-blue-each with pennants above them declaring who they were and what they sold.
“Look,” Nettle said and pointed. “The Kish.”
Talen looked and saw the black-and-white tent of the Kish bowmaster. He was surprised that merchant was here. In the last four years of Bone Face raids, many merchants had become wary of sending ships to the New Lands. And now with the Sleth, it was a wonder those who did come would stay. Kish bows were the finest made. They were small and powerful, made of wood, sinew, and bone. He could have the finest bow for sale along with a few dozen bundles of arrows; all he had to do was turn those hatchlings in.
Talen watched a merchant’s guard chase two boys away from a wagon, and then, with a jolt of the wagon, the road turned from a humped dirt affair with weeds growing in the middle to a flat cobblestone street.
What a fine arrangement for the rich to be able to step out of their houses in the middle of a rain and not muddy their boots.
Up ahead, people thronged the way. In front of them a man led an ass laden with bundles of dried hemp. To the side a young woman wearing a yellow hat pointed to a clay prayer disk laying on a holy man’s table. Each disk was engraved with some type of boon-the holy man would write your name on the disk in ink, then you could hang it on the wooden statue in front of the temple and let the fires carry your request to the ears of the Creators.
A young boy carrying a yoke of water across his shoulders cut in front of the wagon, followed by a girl in a pale blue dress selling candles that hung from a pole fitted with a double cross.
Da halted Iron Boy. When the two had passed, he flicked the reins again. A few minutes later, Da turned off the busy street, following the lane that led to Master Farkin’s. Farkin’s house stood three stories high and had half a dozen smoking chimneys. Talen wondered how it would be to have a hearth in almost every room. A lot of work or money in firewood, that’s what it would be. Perhaps that woodsman was on his way here.
A servant stood outside the door. Da went inside to see what price he could get for the pelts they had brought.
While Talen waited on the back of the wagon, two carriages rolled by, their curtains drawn. When Da came back out, he had Talen and Nettle help him carry the pelts down an alley into a yard in the back of the house.
Master Farkin was, according to Da, one of the few merchants who bargained a fair price with every man, regardless of clan.
While they were making the exchange, Master Farkin said, “Have you heard the news about the Envoy?”
“Mokad has sent an Envoy?”
“Not only an Envoy, but a Skir Master. The message just came today. We’re saved.”
“Is he here to stay?” asked Da.
“Nobody knows. There was no word of his coming until the birds arrived today. But it bodes well. We can, at the very least, hope for a hunt.”
“Creators be blessed,” Da said, smooth as cream. But Talen knew he didn’t mean a word of that.
“And look at this one,” Master Farkin said of Talen. “I would suspect that the girls would find much to admire there.”
“If they do,” said Talen, “they have a funny way of showing it.”
“They tend to run away,” said Nettle.
Master Farkin chuckled. He asked after Captain Argoth, told them he needed more mink, suggested they avoid the Dog Street tailors, then bid them goodbye.
Da asked Talen and Nettle to join him up on the seat. When they’d pulled out into the road, Da said, “Kindness, boys. It’s irresistible. Don’t you think?”
“Some people are immune to it,” said Nettle.
“I don’t know,” said Da. “Sometimes kindness can even renew the hate-salted field of a man’s heart.”
“But people won’t see kindness if they don’t trust you,” said Talen. He was thinking of the lies they’d told the bailiff. The small lie Da had just told Master Farkin. What if Master Farkin discovered Da’s treachery? And that’s what it was, legally. How much kindness would he show then?
Da ignored his comment and asked, “How does your arm feel?”
The question annoyed Talen. “It feels fine,” he said. Then he realized it felt more than fine. His whole body felt rested and fresh, like he’d just woken up from a long and lovely sleep.
“Good,” said Da. “A little more patience, son. And we’ll have our chat. You’re almost ready.”
“You talk as if you’re waiting for a loaf of dough to rise before you put it in the oven.”
“That’s not a bad analogy.”
What in the Six was he talking about? “I don’t know that I want to be a loaf of bread.”
“I don’t know that I want to wait for my father,” said Nettle. “I’d like to get it straight from you, Uncle.”
“We’ll see,” said Da. “But Master Farkin’s news has changed things a bit. I don’t want you to wait for me. You must not. Deliver the goods we have left and take a message back to River. Tell her the news of the Envoy. Then tell her to prepare the garden for a frost.”
“But we’re weeks away from a turn in the seasons.”
“You want to be trusted?” asked Da. “Then do this thing.”
The way Da said that made Talen think there was more to the message than he supposed. “I’ll take it.”
“Tell her not to delay,” said Da. They threaded their way through the street up to the fortress. At one point, Talen heard a woman singing to the sound of a lyre and found the sound was coming from an open window one level up on the other side of the street. He was at such an angle that he could see in the window. It wasn’t a woman at all, but a girl. A tall Mokaddian girl who watched him as she sang.
When they came to the intersection that ended the street they’d been traveling and started the one to the fortress, Da stopped the wagon. He reached under the seat and retrieved the Hog, then opened his purse and gave Talen a number of coins.
“Do not wait for me. They might keep me for an hour or seven. So get the supplies and make the visit to the widow Lees. Now tell me the list.”
Talen recited all the things they needed. When he finished, Da said, “Don’t pay the smith one grain more than fifteen measures for the maul.”
Talen didn’t know how they’d fare without one of them wearing the token of the Council. “Are you sure you don’t want us to wait?”
“You’ll be all right,” said Da. “You’ve got Nettle with you.” Then he handed Talen five more coppers. “Purchase some honey; we’ll let your sister eat her own poison.”
“I’m just thinking that it’s not safe for you to travel back through the wood at night,” said Talen.
“I’ll be fine,” said Da. “Finish your business and go directly home. Remember, not everyone here is like the guard at the gate.” Then he put the Hog over one shoulder and walked up the road to the fortress.
Talen took the reins. That was all fine for Da to say, him and his Hog and the Council’s sash about his chest. But Talen had nothing more than a whittling knife. Then Talen realized that maybe Da was trying to tell him that he trusted him. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more sure he was of Da’s intentions. Talen appreciated the thought, but Da could have chosen a better time to make his point.
Talen looked up at the sun. It was past noon. He would have to hurry to make it home before nightfall. And if he didn’t?
Well, he would. So he didn’t need the answer to that question.
As Talen drove the wagon, watching the faces of those they passed, he became sure of this fact: sooner or later some overvigilant Mokaddian would see Talen and decide he didn’t belong in this city. Someone would decide he needed to be taught a lesson. It was common for such lessons to be delivered in the form of a thrown object-rotten food, dog turds, the ever-handy rock. But Talen didn’t think he’d get off so easy this time. So he watched where he drove the wagon, but he kept his attention on the corners of streets, on odd windows, and sudden intersections.
Having Nettle along should dissuade some from molesting him. But while there were many even-headed Mokaddians like Master Farkin, there were others who were not.
He stopped at two houses to purchase harness rings and forty feet of tight hemp rope, keeping an eye out the whole time, but the owners of neither house would let him in. Nor would they allow Nettle in his stead. At the third house Talen sat back at the wagon like a servant and sent Nettle to the door as his master. Only then were they able to obtain the goods.
When Nettle came back, he asked, “What have I got to do to get something to eat?”
“I’ve got people giving me the eye and all you can think about is your stomach?”
“What?” asked Nettle. “I can’t get hungry?”
Talen shook his head. But after stopping at the honey-crafter’s, Nettle walked over to a new baker’s house to buy a small meal.
Talen waited again in the wagon. A group of men only a few yards down the road talked among themselves and kept looking up the lane at him.
He didn’t dare look at them directly, but it didn’t matter. They reached some conclusion and all turned to face his direction.
At that moment Nettle exited the baker’s, holding something folded up in the bottom of his tunic.
Talen was only too happy to release the brake and flick the reins and start Iron Boy. Nettle shouted, but Talen didn’t pull back.
Nettle caught up to the wagon, holding his tunic with one hand, then jumped in and sat beside Talen on the wagon seat.
“What are you doing?” asked Nettle.
Talen glanced back, knowing the men would be following, but they hadn’t. They stood watching him and Nettle go.
“One of these days,” said Talen, “your stomach is going to get me killed.”
Nettle followed Talen’s gaze. “Goh, those dogs weren’t about to do anything but bark. Besides, look what I got.” Nettle let his tunic down.
In it lay a disgusting half loaf of bread pudding and a dozen ginger cookies. “Am I good to you or what?” asked Nettle.
The cookies were one of Talen’s favorites, but now wasn’t a time to think of food. He glanced back once more. The men had not dispersed nor turned back to talking among themselves.
“Lords and lice,” Talen said.
Nettle took a fat, moist bite of his pudding. “I don’t think they like you.”
“Really,” Talen said. “What gave you that idea? We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Act natural,” said Nettle. “Here, have a bite.” He held up his pudding. It had currants and cashews mixed in with a good helping of something green and shaggy. The whole thing was held together by a wiggling gelatin that reminded Talen of animal birthings.
“I think I’d like to focus on the matter at hand.”
“What you want to do is distract yourself because if you spook, those men will spook. Now take a bite.”
Nettle had a point. Talen waved off the bread pudding mess, took one of the ginger cookies, and bit into it. It was baked with sugar, and while it crunched on the outside, the inside was soft and just about melted in his mouth. Any other situation and he’d swear he’d visited the gardens of the righteous.
Talen glanced over at Nettle, who promptly showed him the contents of his mouth.
“I hope you gag,” said Talen. “And when folks ask how you died, I’ll tell them you did it eating pig food.”
Nettle laughed. “No, you won’t. You’ll remember I used it to save your life. And then you’ll eat it the rest of your days.”
“Being sickened by animal birthings is hardly a rescue,” said Talen.
“It’s a distraction,” said Nettle. “And it worked, didn’t it?”
It had, but Talen wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction.
They crossed a small bridge spanning a muddy canal and then turned onto Fuller’s Lane.
Down the lane two young men circled a large black rat snake. It was as long as Talen’s leg and as thick as his wrist.
Talen tensed. He didn’t have to see their faces to know who they were. It was Fabbis and that lazy-eyed Sabin with his head shaved and dyed with temple henna.
So much for disgusting mouthfuls of bread pudding. Suddenly Talen’s cookies didn’t taste so good anymore. He took a drink of water from a goat’s bladder to wash them down.
“Fancy pants,” Nettle said.
Fabbis wore a pair of finely woven scarlet-and-yellow trousers. The worth of the fabric covering that moron’s sweaty bum alone was more than everything Talen had put together.
Talen turned his head, not wanting to make eye contact with Fabbis.
“They’re going about it all wrong,” said Nettle. “Look at them.”
Sabin held a stick and kept heading the snake off. Every time he did, the snake coiled up and tried to strike him. If they wanted to catch it, they needed to let it slither and then snatch up the tail.
“Let’s just get to the fuller’s,” said Talen.
Sabin reached in to snatch the snake, but it struck at him.
As they rode closer, Talen could overheard their conversation.
“You’ve got to be faster than that,” said Fabbis.
“Okay, lord of the basket,” said Sabin, “you try.”
Fabbis snatched the stick from Sabin then flung the beast a few feet. When the snake landed, it tried to slither to the safety of some weeds, but Fabbis chased after it. He grabbed its tail and held it away from him. At that moment he glanced toward Nettle and Talen.
Talen purposely ignored Fabbis. He simply pulled up to the fuller’s and set the wagon brake, hoping Fabbis would decide, for once, not to torment him. Of course, Fabbis, being a horned bunion, was unlikely to do that.
Talen steeled himself and turned, knowing they must be close, but to his surpise the two pisspots disappeared behind a cluster of trees, Fabbis holding the snake out before him.
He let out a sigh of relief. Maybe his luck would hold out. “Quick.”
“I’m going,” said Nettle. “Be calm.”
“Fine for you to say with your Mokaddian wrist tattoo. But you weren’t beaten by a pack of village idiots a day ago. Or forced to strip at the gates.”
“This lane is full of people friendly to the Koramites,” said Nettle. “You’ll be fine.”
Talen waved him away. “Try to avoid offending the household this time.”
“Bah,” said Nettle.
Talen stepped from the wagon and tied the reins to the hitching post. Nettle walked to the porch and knocked at the fuller’s door.
The young foreign woman from Urz who Nettle had offended the last time they were there opened the door. She was beautiful, copper-skinned with eyes as blue and bright as the silks she sold. But she only narrowed those eyes in irritation at Nettle. Nettle had flirted with her, but he’d said something that by the customs of her people indicated Nettle wanted to hire her as a prostitute. By the time word reached Uncle Argoth of the incident it had been blown into a tale of unwanted pregnancy. Two families who had expressed interest in Nettle as a potential marriage candidate for their daughters had concerns. Nettle had been made to apologize to all of the parties involved.
On any other occasion Talen would have relished the exchange playing out on the doorstep, but Fabbis and Sabin made him nervous. He eyed the clump of trees Fabbis had disappeared behind and hoped Nettle would have enough brains to know that the quicker they finished their business here the better.
Talen suspected Fabbis had caught the snake for a game of Fool’s Basket. The rules were very simple. You put a snake into a basket, irritated it until it was ready to strike, then you tried to catch it without being bit. You could use a short stick to draw the snake’s attention, but the only thing that could touch the snake was your hand.
Talen had played three times before with a small garden snake and had been bitten every time. He’d seen five dreadmen play it once. Their speed was shocking. They would catch the snake at the base of the head before it had time to strike. Futhermore, they had been playing with a lance of fire, not a simple rat snake. One bite would have killed them.
He hoped that Fabbis was slow and the snake’s fangs were long and bit deep.
Nettle began to explain to the copper-skinned beauty what they’d come for. When she let Nettle in to fetch the cloth River had ordered, someone in the clump of trees into which Fabbis had disappeared screamed like a river gut held him in its maw.
Talen glanced at Nettle, but he was already in the house, shutting the door behind him.
Whoever it was cried out again. The fear and pain in that scream could not be ignored.
“Please!” someone cried.
That wasn’t Fabbis or Sabin. Nettle was never around when he needed him! Talen glanced once more at the fuller’s.
If a Koramite sat around while a Mokaddian called for help, the Koramite would be punished for not lending a hand. Even if it was someone like Fabbis who deserved every misfortune that came to him.
Another scream. Surely someone in one of the houses heard that one and would shortly appear.
Talen waited, but nobody came.
He could just sit here. Nobody else seemed to have heard. But he wondered. That was Fabbis down there. The voice had been high-pitched like a girl’s.
Talen cursed. Then he left the wagon and ran to down the lane to the source of the commotion.
He didn’t need to get involved. He could just assess what was going on, and, if needed, run to one of the houses and raise the hue and cry.
Talen skirted rounded the clump of trees and immediately saw the situation. There on his hands and knees was a boy. Talen didn’t recognize him. He was scrawny and dressed in filthy rags. Obviously, out of place here on Fuller’s Lane.
The boy attempted to scrabble away from Fabbis and Sabin. When he tried to rise, Sabin kicked the boy’s legs out from underneath him. But that wasn’t what made this beggar boy cry out.
Fabbis still held the rat snake by the tail. He was laughing so hard he was almost doubled over. Talen thought that maybe they were simply threatening the boy with the snake. But Fabbis regained his composure enough to swing the snake’s head up against the boy’s buttocks. The snake’s head bumped the boy, once, twice. On the third bounce it opened its mouth wide and bit deeply.
The boy cried out again with his high-pitched squeal, terror written on his face. He tried to run off again, but Sabin kicked him in the gut so hard it knocked the boy over.
“Pull up his tunic,” said Fabbis. “We’ll see if Zu Snake wants a taste of walnuts and sausage.”
Leave it to Fabbis to think something like this up. Rat snakes carried no venom, but that didn’t lessen the pain of their bite. Fabbis and Sabin had both gotten their clan wrists, which only proved those tattoos meant nothing. These two weren’t men.
Talen turned to see if Nettle had followed, if anyone had come, but he was alone.
Talen did not know this boy; he could quietly step back around the trees and wait for Nettle. Step back and let the Mokaddians do what they pleased. That would be the smart thing, but this would only get worse. Besides, hadn’t he been that boy only yesterday?
“Surely,” said Talen, “you could get at the vital parts a bit better by making him stand.”
Fabbis looked back over his shoulder. When he saw Talen, his face broke into a wicked grin. “I was just saying to Sabin here, wouldn’t it be nice if Turd Soup joined us? Where’s the Koramite lover you came with?”
“At the fuller’s.”
“Well, we don’t need to wait for him. Come on over here, half-breed. You can help.”
At one of the musters last year Talen had momentarily left his lamb soup to fetch a load of arrows for Da from the wagon. When he returned, he took a spoonful and found someone had slipped rabbit turds into the bowl. When he looked around, he’d seen Fabbis and Sabin watching him, grinning with delight.
Talen knew exactly what kind of help Fabbis meant. Usually Fabbis also had Cat with him, a boy who kept his dark hair oiled and shining and painted his eyes with kohl as many of the sons of the clan lords had begun to do. Talen looked about, but it appeared Fabbis and Sabin were alone. “Actually,” said Talen, “you’ve done me a great service. The fuller asked that I find his stable boy. And there he is. I’m sure the fuller would be interested to know how you’ve corrected him.” Talen held his hand out. “Now, come along, boy.”
The boy’s eyes were red. His face covered with dirt and tears.
Sabin began to let go his grip, but Fabbis put a hand out to stop him.
“This, a fuller’s boy?” Fabbis shook his head. “I don’t think so. Besides, the thief was sneaking into that house when we came along. We only thought to wring a confession from him. Maybe identify the members of his cabal. There’s never just one, you know.”
“I wasn’t stealing,” said the boy.
“Shut up,” said Sabin and clopped the boy on the head.
Talen knew what that felt like as well. He was positive the boy hadn’t been doing anything close to breaking and entering. He’d probably been walking along, minding his own business, and Fabbis had spied him and seen an opportunity for yet another small-minded torture. “I’m sure the street boss would commend your vigilance,” said Talen. “Not to mention the fuller. Think what it would cost him were his servant to be caught stealing. Let’s take him to the fuller; I’m sure he’ll reward you just to keep your mouth shut.”
Talen glanced about. Nobody had come to investigate the cries. His best bet was to leave now and get some help.
Fabbis looked at Sabin. “Maybe he’s right. What were we thinking? Deliver the boy to Master Half-breed.”
Sabin approached, malevolence in his lazy eye. But Talen knew exactly what he was going to do, and he wasn’t going to let Sabin within a dozen feet. “Just let him go,” said Talen, taking a step back. “I’m sure he’s seen the error of his ways.”
“Of course,” said Sabin, but just then Talen heard something behind him. He turned and saw Cat, painted eyes and shining hair, with a rope. Talen dodged out of the way, but he wasn’t fast enough and the rope fell about his shoulders.
Talen grabbed at the rope, but Cat gave it a yank, and the rope tightened about his neck. Cat yanked again and Talen stumbled to his knees, the rope choking him.
Talen pulled at the noose with one hand and grabbed the rope with the other.
“It looks like we’ve rolled double pleasure with today’s dice,” said Fabbis. He kicked Talen in the side. “Get his feet.”
Panic rose in him, and Talen yanked at the rope with all his might. He didn’t expect to wrest it free from Cat so easily. But Cat could not keep his grip. He yelled and opened his hands as if they’d been burned. Talen loosened the noose and rolled to his feet.
Fabbis pulled back the snake to swing it into him. But Fabbis hadn’t taken a good stance, and Talen delivered a sweeping kick that knocked Fabbis’s feet from underneath him.
He fell, arms wheeling, the snake flying wide.
Talen saw his chance. He snatched the snake as it flew. And before it could coil about his arm and bite him, he grasped it by the base of the head.
Fabbis landed with a thump, and Talen fell upon him, driving his knee into Fabbis’s gut.
Fabbis grunted. He tried to roll, but Talen stuck the serpent in his face.
“Should we see if Zu Snake wants a taste of walnuts and sausage?” asked Talen. “No? How about a kiss?” Talen shoved the mouth of the snake against Fabbis’s cheek.
Fabbis turned his head away.
Fabbis tried to struggle away, but Talen found he could hold him.
He couldn’t explain it. This shouldn’t be happening. Da forced Talen to wrestle Fabbis in the musters. He said the best practice for fighting someone bent on your death was to fight someone bent on your death. And since they didn’t have a large supply of young Bone Faces about, he found the next best thing-a Fir-Noy. Fabbis always beat him. Once he’d broken Talen’s nose just to spite him. But perhaps Talen had finally begun to get his speed and size. He glanced over at Sabin to make sure he didn’t get blindsided, but Sabin just stood there with his mouth hanging slack like some great fish.
Cat had not moved. He still stood in the same spot, his hands held out in front of him.
Then Talen noticed Nettle just beyond Cat, a look of surprise on his face.
“Oh, now you show up,” said Talen. “Grab the boy.”
The beggar boy looked at Talen with fright on his face. He pulled away from Sabin and ran down the lane.
“How sad,” said Talen to Fabbis. “Your bounty has just floated down the river.” He got up, making sure to push down extra hard on Fabbis’s gut with his knee.
The snake tried to coil itself around Talen’s arm, but Talen simply changed his grip, grabbed the tail, and let it hang loose.
Fabbis scrabbled to his feet and backed away, weeds clinging to his clothes and hair. He had a strange look in his eyes. “Nobody moves like that,” he said.
“I just did,” said Talen. Then he swung the snake at Fabbis. “Don’t be scared.”
Sabin and Cat backed away as well.
“Oh, come,” said Talen to Sabin. “You were willing enough to tangle with me yesterday.”
“Stay away,” said Fabbis. He backed up, Sabin and Cat not a pace behind him.
Talen couldn’t believe it. “Cowards,” he said. Da had always told him that the meanest bullies were always the biggest cowards. He had never believed that. But maybe it was true.
Fabbis pointed at him. “You’re a dead man.”
“Ya!” Talen shouted and lunged at them.
The three of them startled, turned, and ran.
Except Talen knew Fabbis: he wasn’t running away. Fabbis wasn’t one of those who could be satisfied knowing he’d been beaten. He’d be back, and he’d bring others with him.
Talen gently let the snake to the ground, and the creature slithered away toward the cover of the trees.
“That was,” said Nettle in amazement, “unexpected.”
“You were right,” said Talen. “I didn’t need to spook.”
“No,” said Nettle. “I meant you.”
What was his cousin talking about?
“You plucked the snake right out of the air.”
“So,” said Nettle, “I came around the corner and saw Cat holding the rope and Fabbis coming at you. But before I took another step you were on him. It was… too fast.”
Had he always been so slow? “Maybe, at last, my speed has come upon me.”
“Yeah,” said Nettle, but Talen could see he wasn’t convinced.
“Is it impossible that Hogan’s runt suddenly got some of his old man’s growth?”
“No,” said Nettle. “But I can tell you this: Fabbis won’t see it that way.”
“What do you mean?”
“That was dreadman quick, Talen.”
“I just grabbed the snake,” he said. He’d just been lucky. Lively with alarm and fear.
Nettle said nothing, that look of astonishment still on his face, but he was right. Fabbis would twist what had happened. He would be back. About that there was no doubt. And if Fabbis ran into that group of men by the baker’s, it would be only a matter of minutes before he returned.
“We need to get out of here,” Talen said.
“Act normal,” said Nettle.
“Will you stop with the normal,” said Talen. “Get in the wagon.”
The severed hand of the creature lay upon a table in the center of the Mokaddian Council chamber. Almost two dozen Council members crowded about Argoth as he probed the hand. They had heard almost two hours of testimony about the hunt at the village of Plum, the taking of Barg’s family, and the battle at the fortress. It was now Argoth’s turn to relate his tale. He wondered where Hogan was. He should have been here an hour ago.
One of the fingers broke off, and Argoth flaked away small pieces of dirt and grass with his knife. “You can see,” said Argoth, “what appears to have been bone and sinew. But look.” He scraped at the finger innards with his knife.
The men crowded in. A nearsighted lord of the Harkon clan leaned over close.
Shim stood next to Argoth, his bright eyes shining in his leathern face. “It crumbles like common dirt,” Shim said. “As if it were nothing more than a child’s mud doll.”
One of the men cursed. “Who can fight dirt?”
None spoke. All knew the answer to that question. But Argoth wondered. Matiga kept the weaves of their Grove. She had the ancient crown that gave its wearer incredible might. The powers it bestowed were not just those of the flesh as were given to dreadmen. It was power from the very earth itself. Victors is what the wearers of such crowns had been called. And, though the records were sparse, it appears these victors had put armies to flight. They had toppled fortress walls. Surely, such a one could overcome this beast.
Of course, much had been lost. They knew how to quicken the crown. But could they wield it like those of old? Abilities ran in bloodlines. Some men could multiply themselves. Others who couldn’t might be able to do other things. Hogan and Ke could control some of the crown’s power. But they had been waiting to see what Talen might do. He had not yet been awakened, and so whatever gifts he might have still lay dormant. But he was full of peculiarities. Full of possibility. There was always much anticipation seeing what a new member of the Grove was capable of.
The Crab caught Argoth’s gaze. He was not looking at the hand like the other men. He was looking directly at Argoth. What was he hiding? Did he have reason to suspect Argoth as Shim had?
Finally the warlord for the Mithrosh spoke up. “And what of its bones? Are those dirt as well?”
A clamor arose outside the chamber. The men crowding around the table turned and the doors opened. In walked three dreadmen, the only three with any power left in their weaves. Between them they escorted Hogan as if he were a criminal. About his neck was a king’s collar.
Argoth’s heart dropped like a stone. Did they know about the Order? He met Hogan’s gaze, but he could read nothing there.
Shim turned to the dreadmen. “What is the meaning of this?” He did not raise his dry voice, but every face turned to look at him.
The Crab, the red-faced Fir-Noy territory lord, raised his hand in a placating gesture. “It is what prudence demands. If he’s innocent, we’ll find that out. If he’s not, it will have prevented us from having to hunt him down. Because, once alerted, I am sure we would not have gotten a second chance.”
Argoth looked at the Council, wondering who was in on this. The Council was made up of a primary and secondary body. The Primary, those who spoke for each clan, consisted of the territory lord and warlord for each clan. It also included the bailiff of the Koramites. Their faces revealed nothing. Argoth looked at Shim.
Had Shim revealed his secret? Had he been trying to trap him before at the fort?
Shim did not look like a man playing cat and mouse. Argoth knew his lined face. The expression he wore now was the same he wore when preparing for battle.
“You cannot simply collar a man without cause,” Shim said to the Crab. “Unless, of course, this is some ploy to goad us into doing the same to some troublesome relative of your own.”
Some in the room smiled at his joke. But the Crab did not.
“We do have cause,” said the Crab.
Shim folded his arms and waited.
If the Crab and his allies knew Arogth’s secrets and had devised a trap, this would be a good time to spring it. He glanced at the dreadmen to see if they were positioning themselves to overcome him, but they remained by Hogan. Nevertheless, Argoth began to build his Fire.
“The Koramite was there when the creature broke into the tower,” said the Crab. “You yourself say that you were only there for a short time. What are the odds that this beast would show up exactly at that moment?”
“Nonsense,” said Shim. “I charged Captain Argoth with that very task. And the Koramite himself fought the beast. Look at him. The bruising on his neck and face belies your charges.”
“Almost,” said the Crab. “But when Captain Argoth was cast aside and only the Koramite stood in its way, it suddenly ran away. Isn’t that odd?”
“That is not what happened,” said Argoth.
The Crab turned on him. “Your devotion to the man’s deceased wife might be clouding your vision.”
Argoth had borne all the backbiting when his sister had first decided to marry Hogan. He had told everyone that Hogan had indeed enchanted her-with his wit, his handsome strength, and his good-hearted laugh. He thought that had all been put to rest, but he saw that there would always be people like the Crab who thought it their duty to keep such doubts and rumors alive.
“My vision is crystal clear,” said Argoth. “I was there. You were not. We were outside when it broke into the tower.”
The Crab turned back to the Council. “It had no eyes. The Koramite might have been acting as a guide.”
Argoth had seen something that looked like eyes on the monster, pits they were. But all askew and in such an unnatural position. “You assume it needed to see,” said Argoth. “But, if you remember, we found it in the dark. It navigated well enough to elude the cohorts of the fortress. If it could do that, I do not think it needed a guide.”
“We only want to be sure,” said the Crab. “Nobody can speak with any authority about this creature. But even if we could, you are right, the timing of the creature’s appearance is certainly not enough to accuse a man. But there’s more, a pattern, if you will. The Koramite refused a legal search.”
“Legal?” asked Shim. He looked to a bailiff with the ice-cold eyes. “Did those armsmen apply to you for a token?”
“No,” said the bailiff. “Nevertheless, I myself conducted a search.”
“We found nothing but two youngsters sporting behind a closed door.”
“They were alerted by the first attempt at a search,” said the Crab. “They had a night to remove anything that might compromise them.”
“Oh, come,” said Shim. “Your zeal has exceeded all bounds.”
“And here is the third part of the pattern,” said the Crab. “We just received word that the Koramite’s own son has been seen in the city performing feats only dreadmen can.” He turned to the whole Primary then. “And this witnessed by at least five Mokaddians. What’s more telling is that Captain Argoth’s son was with him.”
A murmur arose in the chamber.
What had happened in the city? Argoth hadn’t even known Talen and Nettle were here.
Shim waved his hand, calling for quiet. “Anyone can make up a story. Where is the corroboration?”
“One or two stories,” said the Crab. “I agree, we could discount them. But too many swirl about this man. He was a friend to Sparrow the smith.”
Argoth looked at Hogan, still wearing the token of the Council, obviously a ploy to get him to come in. The Crab and his allies here had maneuvered Shim.
“On that basis then you yourself should wear this collar,” said Shim. “Didn’t you visit Sparrow’s smithy many times? And did you not visit the tower on the night it was struck? A pattern, is it not?”
Argoth could see that Shim’s comments struck a chord with some of the Council members.
“We will proceed with the correct protocol,” said Shim. “Let those who accuse Hogan’s son come forth and swear to take upon them the punishments prescribed by law should they be found to bear false witness. If they swear, then we shall proceed. And I will oversee every questioning session.”
“But we have already applied to a Divine to oversee the questioning,” said the Crab.
A Divine? There was no Divine here.
A murmur arose. A lord of the Vargon spoke. “Mokad has finally sent us aid?”
“No,” said the Crab. “Not just aid. The Glory of Mokad has sent us Rubaloth, Lord of the Winds.” Many of the lords stood straighter. Surprise shone on their faces, then it turned to hope.
There were only a few dozen Divines in the whole realm of Mokad. Unless, of course, the Glory had raised others since Lumen disappeared. Rubaloth, the Skir Master, was the most ancient of them all. He was powerful. Some said as powerful as the Glory himself.
“When did he arrive? We heard no report,” said Shim.
The Crab smiled. “His ship came in the harbor just after the Council convened.”
“By Glory,” a bailiff from one of the outlying vales said, “why did you keep this good news? Word must be sent. He must come here and see this creature.”
“Word has already been sent,” said the Crab.
Smiles broke out on many faces. On the outside Argoth mimicked those who welcomed the Skir Master, but on the inside he cursed. There was nothing he could do should the Divine agree to seek Hogan. Of course, members of the Grove practiced avoiding a seeking, one of them playing the role of the Seeker, the other the subject. But none of them in the Grove here were masters at it.
“Gather your witnesses,” said Shim. “Even Divines are bound by protocol. And when the Divine comes up empty-handed, you, since it seems you are his primary accuser, you will proclaim his innocence and act as his footstool. That, perhaps, will be worth it all.”
The Crab’s face revealed the smugness of a man who had just won a battle. He inclined his head, accepting Shim’s burden. But he couldn’t do otherwise. The laws governing the hunting of Sleth were very strict. Heavy consequences were put upon those making accusations to prevent any from bringing casual charges.
Both Argoth’s and Hogan’s life now approached a precipice. If the Divine searched Hogan and uncovered his secrets, they would collar Argoth. The Grove would be exposed. His family would be tortured and killed.
Argoth knew his duty. His duty was to eliminate yet another friend, then run and take the Grove with him.
Hogan looked at him and Argoth knew he was thinking the same thing.
Argoth did not want this burden. Even if he could save many lives. One thing was for sure: he wouldn’t be able to kill Hogan here. He’d have to contrive his death. More poison or some torture gone awry. Perhaps he’d kill him on the way to the Divine. And then he’d have to face Ke and River and tell them he’d just sacrificed their father for the good of all.
Yes, that’s what he was supposed to do.
Argoth looked at Shim. “I will escort Hogan to tower.” Then he turned to Hogan. “Come, brother.”
Hogan gave him a look, and it was as if Argoth could read his mind. Hogan was a man of duty. But Argoth would not kill him. Not yet. There had to be another way.
Suddenly, the trumpeters outside the building blew a fanfare and a crier announced the arrival of the Divine.
Hogan stiffened. Alarm ran through Argoth.
It was all moving too fast. But he and Hogan could fight their way out. He had surprise on his side. Yet when the doors opened, he saw fighting would not be an option.
A crier proceeded the Divine’s company. He stood forth and proclaimed Rubaloth, Divine Skir Master, Holy Defender of the Glory of Mokad. All in the chamber stood and bowed.
A dozen guards followed the crier into the chamber. Upon their sparkling brass cuirasses was the white lion of Mokad. All of them were dreadmen. Argoth could see it in their walk. He could read it in the tattoos on their forearms and around their lips.
Another dozen dreadmen stood in the hallway. So many-enough to form what the Mokaddians called a terror. Enough to route three cohorts given the right terrain. More than enough to subdue him and Hogan.
The guards took up positions around the square room, facing all the Council members while the Skir Master and his guide walked to the Divine’s throne.
The Skir Master was ancient, and, some said, failing. But he did not look it. He stood upright and alert in his finely cut clothes. His skin was as weathered as that of a middle-aged man. His hair was cut short, only his beard and eyebrows that shot out like gray growths of wild grass betrayed his real age. He too wore the Mokaddian clan tattoos, but they were from another time-simple, small, and elegant, as were the tattoos of his raising.
The Skir Master surveyed the room. Argoth had seen Skir Masters before in Mokad, before he’d made the journey to these lands, but it didn’t help. The Divine’s eyes unnerved him-glass black and glittering with the light from the windows. The path of magic Skir Masters followed did that to them; it blinded them to the world of the flesh.
Except the Skir Master did not walk with the caution of a blind man. At his side stood a massive man. Another dreadman. But he didn’t wear armor as the rest did. This one moved with the languid power of a great cat. He was speed and power waiting to be unleashed. Odd tattoos flared out from his eyes. This was the Skir Master’s guide, even if he did not hold the Divine’s arm to lead or steady him.
All in the room bowed more deeply. Argoth did as well. He knew this Skir Master was just a man, holding on fiercely to secrets that should belong to everyone. A thief and liar, that’s what he was.
But Argoth’s heart quailed nevertheless. If the reports were true, this Skir Master had once summoned a being that had laid waste to an entire city. He was more than two hundred years old. He’d had a century more than Argoth to learn and grow in the lore. Argoth glanced up at those glittering black eyes and wondered how the Order could ever think to challenge such a man.
He waited for the Skir Master to tell them they could stand upright again. But the Divine did not give the command. Instead, he slowly sweept the room with his black, snake eyes. Then that black, empty gaze settled on Argoth.
Argoth lowered his eyes. He held that pose, but the silence stretched too long. When he glanced back up, the Skir Master held his glance and then looked away. Or had he been looking at Hogan? And why was he looking at them anyway? What could he see with those eyes?
The Skir Master turned and addressed the Council. “Lords of the Nine Clans, the Glory of Mokad bid me come to announce your burden, for you have sat in your ease, withholding resources from your brethren in the heartland. You’ve been hoarding water, while those about you scorch in the sun and faint. You have stood by and watched as the wolves devoured your neighbor’s flocks. You have joined the enemies of the realm. You have but this one chance to repent and turn back to your heart. Refuse and by my hand on the morrow the Glory of Mokad, the Morning Sun, the Guardian of the Righteous shall rise up and utterly destroy you, starting at the head. And these lands will be given to those who do not turn their backs on the slaughter of their brethren.”
The room stood in stunned silence.
What evil had they committed? It was Mokad that had neglected them, refusing to send a replacement Divine.
“Great One, how have we sinned?” The question came from the Prime Councilor, the one who presided over the Council’s deliberations in a Divine’s absence. “Teach us, we beg, the error of our ways.”
“We received reports last year of a weapon that put your enemies to flight. Yet you did not send it to your brethren who were dying every day by the hands of Nilliam. Twice we sent a command to aid us. Twice we were denied.”
This was about the seafire? Argoth had unlocked the secret to a fire that burned on water. He’d seen it used before in battles with the Rajan of the east. They cast it in pots like many other armies cast pots of living snakes or scorpions. In the end the pots of fire were not enough to hold back his army. But they had caused havoc, and Argoth had captured one who knew the lore of its making.
Before the captor died, Argoth learned part of it was firewater distilled from the substance that came out of black springs. But he didn’t know what else had been mixed with it to make it into a semiliquid. He’d experimented with various mixtures until he mixed it with pitch from pines and terebinth trees and sulfur. He did not re-create their fire pots, he went beyond it, for his substance burned and would not be extinguished except by vinegar, urine, or earth.
But that wasn’t what had turned the clan gally into fire ships. Fire pots of various kinds were used by all armies. No, Argoth had dreamed one night of a brass tube that hissed and spat fire on the ships of the Bone Faces.
Argoth’s smiths had forged four brass tubes the length of a man. On one end of each tube was a nozzle fashioned to look like the head of an animal or person with its mouth open wide. Argoth’s favorite was of the beautiful woman looking like she was about to kiss her lover. The other end of the tube was connected to a flexible leather hose, which led to a barrel of seafire. Midway from the tube to the barrel was a pump. A five-man team operating the tube, pump, and barrel could spray a thick stream of the fiery liquid almost sixty yards. More if the wind was at their backs. One tube was placed on each of four ships.
The violent sound and large quantities of brown and yellow smoke was enough to shock any man. But when the Bone Faces saw that it burned on water, clung like tar, and could not be extinguished, they surely must have prayed to their bloody gods for deliverance.
Being able to force the fire out in a stream turned fire into a weapon that, instead of merely harrying an enemy, could turn the course of a battle.
His men had sent five of the raider’s ships to the depths that way, spearing those that survived the flames in the water like so many carp. Then they’d burned the Bone Face secret island port.
His fire, Argoth’s Fire, had saved the Nine Clans last year.
The Prime inclined his head in respect. “Great One, we did not deny your request, but sent, asking the Glory to provide a ship of dreadmen so that we might convey the fire lances. We dared not send them forth only to be lost into the hands of the enemy.”
“You should have supplied your own dreadmen.”
“But we had only a handful, Great One.”
“You had enough for the battles last year.”
“But the winter storms were too severe; besides, sending them would have left us defenseless. We-”
“Do you argue with the Glory’s envoy?”
“No, Great One. I merely explain that we delayed not from indifference or traitorous alliance, but from the greatest concern that this weapon would fall into the hands of those who would use them against you.”
“And when you fell, when your weaves failed, and the enemy overran you, what then?”
But their weaves shouldn’t have failed. Mokad should have sent a replacement.
“We were foolish, Great One,” said the Prime. He prostrated himself on the floor. “Please show us how we may repent.”
“Who cast the lances? Who devised the liquid?”
“The lances were cast by a smith of the Fir-Noy, Great One. As for the liquid,” the Prime pointed at Argoth, “the Glory’s servant who created it stands there.”
Argoth deepened his bow, but he saw that the Skir Master did not turn.
“A Shoka,” the Skir Master said, still facing the Prime. “Hard to believe a Shoka could devise this. Besides, wasn’t it a Shoka who spied for the old widow of Cath so many years ago?”
Decades ago there had been one family of Shoka who had spied for the widow Glory of Cathay. But their perfidy had been discovered and the family destroyed decades ago. The Skir Master had a long memory, but that isn’t what bothered Argoth-how was it that the Skir Master knew the Prime had pointed at him?
“A blight upon our name, Great One,” said Shim. “But those elements were culled from the clan. Our loyalty has been tested. Was it not a Shoka who saved the Glory’s blessed father from the avalanche?”
The Skir Master turned and smiled. “Indeed. And now, it seems, the Shoka have yet another opportunity to do a great deed or a greater evil. What will it be?”
An anger began building in Argoth. But Shim dropped to one knee and Argoth followed his lead.
“The Shoka serve the Glory of Mokad,” said Shim.
“Does anyone else know the secrets of your firewater?” asked the Skir Master.
“No, Great One,” said Argoth. “A handful know parts and help with preparation. But only I know how it all combines at the last.” Actually, that was a lie. Hogan knew all the steps. And Hogan had sent the secrets along so that the Order might have this weapon.
“Then you shall be the savior to lift the burden from this people’s neck,” said the Skir Master. “You now have your ship of dreadmen. You will gather up every fire lance-every part, from the cannon to the fittings on the ships. You will collect every drop of the firewater and all the tools and substances used to create it. You will have them loaded on my ship by morning. And you,” he turned to Shim, “you will deliver all those who help prepare it. Do this and the Glory of Mokad will forgive this people its cruel inattention.”
Argoth was stunned. Did the Divine not know he was taking their last defense? With those words he’d just ordered the deaths of all the fine warriors of each clan. He’d ordered the rape of their women. With those words he had put the collar of slavery upon every child born for as many generations as it took to rise up against the the invaders and finally throw off their chains. With those words he had cut the hearts out of hundreds to be burned upon the barbaric altars of the Bone Face priests.
“Do you waver?” asked the Skir Master.
“No,” said Argoth. “I-”
“Great One,” said the Prime. “Does this mean that the Glory has blessed us with your wise leadership?”
The Skir Master shook his head. “All of the arms of Mokad must now defend the heart. I too will sail in the morning.”
Again, the room fell silent. Argoth could not believe he was hearing this. And then he realized he did not believe this. The Skir Master was deliberately provoking them, testing them.
Why would he do that?
“Deliver your burden,” said the Skir Master, “and I will reward you immediately with a replenishment of three weaves.”
Three? Three would never be enough to protect this land.
“Great One,” the Crab said. “Did you have time to consider our request for a seeking?”
“A proper seeking takes many hours,” said the Skir Master. “I cannot draw for your weaves and perform a seeking by morning. And I will not delay my departure. No, take your prisoner and put him to the question yourself. You can break through a man’s defenses with a proper questioning almost as easily as you can with a seeking.” He gestured in a way that took in the whole Council. “Or is this seeking the boon you desire?”
“Weaves,” said the Prime. “Bring our weaves to life.”
The Skir Master signaled for his guide, but before he left, he gazed at Argoth again. “Lest something happen to such a valuable resource as yourself, ten of my dreadmen will accompany you. Losing you is a risk I will not bear.”
“Very wise, Great One,” said Shim. “Very wise.”
Argoth looked into the Skir Master’s eyes-did he know Argoth’s secret? Argoth glanced at Shim. Had he revealed his suspicions about Argoth?
Argoth bowed. Ten dreadmen to guard him, but only three for the whole of the New Lands?
“Do not disappoint me,” the Skir Master said to the whole Council. “Now, I have heard of your baths. Lumen wrote incessantly of them and the delights of your blueberries, and I mean to enjoy them both before I leave.”
The Council erupted after the Skir Master left. But the Crab, ever fixed upon his purpose, came to take Hogan.
“It appears we’ll have to find another to oversee the questioning,” he said.
“It will be one of the Shoka,” said Shim. “And it will be done in the fortress of Whitecliff.”
The Crab hesitated and Argoth wondered if he was going to try to forcibly take Hogan from him, but he only made a gesture of surrender with his hands. “As you wish.”
Shim caught Argoth’s eyes, as did the Shoka territory lord, but Argoth ignored them. He took Hogan, pushed through the Council’s chaos and rushed him outside. The ten dreadmen assigned by the Skir Master followed behind.
Before they had exited the building, a messenger entered and set off another round of alarm-Larther the hunter had been found dead on the upper plains with the same blackening about his face as was found on Barg’s family.
Hogan looked at Argoth.
Larther was one of the Grove. At one time he had thought River would marry Larther, but that had never come to pass. Instead, Larther had cleared numerous acres of Argoth’s land up on the plains that he might satisfy Gil the carpenter. The carpenter had demanded that his daughter, who was smart and clever and had waited so very long for a man to notice her, would not spend her life in a dirty hut. Three years Larther had cut and cleared. They were to be married this season.
Hogan passed his hand over his face. Then he spoke with his eyes closed. This was his habit when trying to catch and pull together the threads of many elusive thoughts. “It is not a coincidence.”
The dreadmen were too close for Hogan to speak loudly. So Argoth put his friend’s arm in his and began walking out of the hall and left into the street, toward the fortress. The dreadmen followed a few paces behind.
Hogan did not speak for some time. They walked down the cobbled lane, the great houses towering like walls on either side. They passed a man pushing a vegetable cart loaded with enormous radishes, two boys chasing after a yellow cat, and a serving woman in blue and white, cleaning a doorstep.
Hogan pitched his voice low so the dreadmen couldn’t hear. “Purity, Larther,” he said, “and suddenly a Divine appears who doesn’t care to do a seeking. Doesn’t even mention the fact that some creature of legend stalks our land. I can’t see it yet, but he’s tightening some noose.” Hogan licked his dry lips. “And here’s another thing: what if the creature was his to begin with?”
If that were the case, then the Skir Master had already peformed a seeking on Purity. He might already have their names and the names of contacts in other Groves.
“The Grove must flee,” said Hogan.
“Who? You and me? Guarded by ten dreadmen? And if we do the noble thing and kill ourselves, it won’t help the others.”
“Matiga is ready. She’s strong. Her knowledge runs deeper than either of ours. She will bear the Grove off to join with Harnock.”
“But what if that’s precisely what this Skir Master is hoping for. The Order always flees. He’s expecting it, expecting us to send out warnings. And what if he already knows about Harnock and is waiting for us to lead his men to him?”
Hogan said nothing.
Harnock, rarely seen, was a ghost of man and beast. It was he, in his secret mountain valley, who kept the seed, the hope that would start the One Grove. It was he who kept the Book and Crown of Hismayas, the ancient god who had founded the Order. Into these two objects Hismayas was said to have put all his knowledge and power. The problem was, none had yet found the way to unlock them. Nevertheless, if those two objects fell into the enemy’s hands, the Order might never recover.
“I have a better plan,” said Argoth. One that just might save the Grove here and all the unknowing wives, sons, and daughters who would not be able to flee with the power of the lore. One that would not only discover what exactly the Skir Master knew, but also ensure that any secrets he had extracted would never reach the other side of the sea. One that would allow Argoth to put the tools he had before he came to the Order to a righteous purpose.
“No,” said Hogan.
“Yes,” said Argoth. “I’m going to run right into his teeth.”
Talen suspected the Mokaddians would be watching for him at Farmer’s Gate. For that matter, they’d be watching for him at all the lesser gates on that side of the city. So he decided to use a gate on the far side.
Gallow’s Gate was manned not by the city guard but by commoners performing their required three-day service. A city guardsman oversaw them. But the bulk of the dozen men here were commoners, mustered for this purpose. One man eating slices of raw fish with his fingers, saw Nettle, knew him, and waved them through with a “give the Lord the Lani family’s compliments.”
Nettle nodded, and they passed through the gate. They rolled through the dry moat, over a slight rise, and continued on toward the river. They’d made it out!
Talen felt a surge of relief and something he didn’t expect-sympathy for the hatchlings. Perhaps it was as Da said: perhaps what was wrong was that the world was full of Fabbises.
With every rod they traveled it seemed that Talen felt better and better. A great sense of energy and well-being washed over him. He felt like a spring day, one where the mud had dried and the leaves had begun to break their buds and color the world with a light green. It was odd. It was as if the earth itself had touched him and given him an extra portion of life. Perhaps he’d been more scared than he thought and so felt a greater relief.
The wagon bumped along and kicked up a haze of powdery dust. Not far down the road, along a bend of the river, rose a fat grove of cottonwoods.
A number of naked bodies hung on ropes from the massive limbs of the trees. They were criminals. Of course, Sleth would never hang here. Sleth were dealt with in an entirely different manner.
“I want to ask you something,” said Nettle. “And I want a straight answer.”
Talen looked at his cousin.
“When that hatchling girl kissed you, did you feel anything odd?”
“Besides being panicked out of my mind?”
“I’ve heard the lovemaking of Sleth is feral.”
“Goh,” said Talen. “We weren’t lovemaking. You need to get out more. Forget your parents’ ban. Slip out and kiss a girl now and again. You have enough who are willing.”
“Are you joking? My father would skin me. Especially after the incident with the fuller’s maid. You’d think I’ve got a life of cake and pie. But my parents have got me so hemmed in and roped down I’m going crazy.”
“The bailiff was right outside,” said Talen. “You think we had time for sport?”
“But you said she put her tongue in your mouth. That’s going a bit far for playacting, isn’t it? And I’m not interested so much about the lovemaking anyway. What I’m wondering is if she did something to you.”
She’d done nothing to him. Nothing he could feel. But Nettle wanted a story and it was clear he wouldn’t be put off. Talen gave him an earnest look. “You won’t tell anybody?”
Nettle’s face lit with curiosity. He raised his hand in oath. “Silent as a mole.”
Talen took a deep breath. “I was helpless.”
“Yes, she took my arms and pressed them down so I couldn’t do a thing. You wouldn’t think a slip of a girl could do that. I wanted to tell her to get back, but the words wouldn’t form. I was helpless before her. You cannot imagine what it felt like when she pressed in close to me.”
Talen paused for effect and waited. He could almost feel the silence drawing Nettle’s curiosity like a bow.
“So she pressed in?”
“Oh, snug as a glove. It wasn’t proper. And that’s the troubling thing. Despite all logic, despite my fears, I cannot deny the desire that rose in me.”
They were almost upon Gallow’s Grove, and the stench of those twisting in the breeze made Talen bring his tunic up over his nose.
These trees could hold a prodigious number of bodies. After last year’s battles with the Bone Faces, a horde of prisoners had been executed. They’d hung along these limbs thick as candles on dipping rods. But those had been cut down. These here were criminals. The rumors of their deeds and hangings had spread quickly. Such news was always part of the talk in the houses of the alewives.
Talen motioned at the bloated and decayed bodies. “Look at that one. I bet he’s that cattle thief from the Sinks.” The man in question had obviously been dragged behind a horse. His flesh was torn and open. He had no eyes. He had no hands for that matter. Those had been cut off. Wasps mixed with the flies in a cloud, all of them buzzing in to get their tiny bites.
Nettle pulled his tunic over his nose.
Some of the bodies here had been hanging for weeks. The first was withered, but it was clear he’d been emasculated. When they rode close to the second, a hawk that had been tugging at the flesh of the man’s face rose and flapped away, revealing a half-eaten, gruesome smile.
They passed another. Talen stopped the wagon by the fourth and fifth, a man and a woman. The man was hung with a thick rope punched through the skin and threaded through his ribs. The woman’s dark hair hung over her ruined face. She tilted slightly, twisting gently in the evening breeze, one arm sticking out as if she were reaching for them. Both had been in the trees long enough for the maggots to hatch.
“Killed her mother-in-law,” said Talen. “They said she struggled and bucked for the better part of an hour.”
“I don’t need a history,” said Nettle. “Move it along.”
But Talen didn’t want to move it along. He looked up at the bodies hanging about him. If anyone found out about the girl and boy at his house, this is where his life would end.
Why would Da risk something like that?
Talen started Iron Boy again. When he put enough distance between them and the grove to erase the stink, he pulled his tunic from his nose.
Nettle did the same.
They were both quiet for a time, then Nettle produced another half loaf of bread pudding. Where he’d been hiding it, Talen had no idea.
Nettle took a big bite. When he’d gulped it down, he said, “So?”
“So, what did she do after she slid in?”
Good old Nettle, Talen thought. Not even death hanging about in the trees could sway him from girls or his gut.
“I was fearing for my soul,” said Talen. “But not minding it either. The hunters were outside, and yet I could not think of them. Only the creature on my lap.” Talen shook his head. “She took my hand and pressed it to her.”
“Oh, no,” said Talen. And he gave Nettle a look that said she’d done nothing as innocent as that.
Nettle’s eyebrows rose and Talen fought to suppress his smile.
“You mean?” said Nettle.
Talen nodded. “I tell you, I was paralyzed; my brain was cider muzzy. Her with a wicked gleam in her eyes, and me thinking to myself that she’s done this before, these are experienced hands. I am only thankful she exposed herself when armsmen were about. Who knows what she would have forced me to do. As it is, I fear I’ve been touched.”
“It is said that they make sounds.”
“The beast in their natures takes over.”
“There was no sound,” said Talen. “But she did indeed bite.”
Nettle narrowed his eyes. Talen could see he’d pushed the tale a bit too far.
“You’re such a bad liar,” said Nettle.
Talen pulled his collar down to show Nettle his neck. “Look for yourself.”
“I don’t see anything. Why I ever listen to you, I’ll never know.”
“Look,” Talen said and pointed.
Nettle leaned in close. “There’s nothing here.”
Talen clopped him on the side of the head. “Of course, there isn’t. No glamour, no petting, no grunts, or lustful moans. No wicked babies conceived. I told you. It was like kissing the wall.” Except that wasn’t entirely true.
“Look,” said Talen. “If she’s there when we get back, you can have a go. Tell her to not forget the tongue.”
“She wasn’t that bad-looking,” said Nettle, as if considering the idea. “Better than most.”
“Who cares?” said Talen. “She’s a hatchling.”
“You yourself said nothing happened.”
Nettle was considering it. “You can’t be serious,” said Talen.
“Gotcha,” said Nettle and grinned.
Talen pointed at him. “You can’t fool me. You were actually thinking of kissing her.”
“If if makes you happy to think that, go right ahead and think it.”
Talen refused to rise to his bait, instead he fetched one of the last of his ginger cookies and plopped it in his mouth.
They had just entered the trees on the hill that lay beyond Gallow’s Grove, and Talen wanted to see if there was any sign of pursuit. He stopped the wagon, hopped out, and went back to the tree line. Nettle followed.
About a mile back, well before Gallow’s Grove, a group of mounted men followed the road. He watched them disappear behind a small hill. Talen groaned “You think they’re looking for us?”
“I think we’d better act as if they are,” said Nettle.
They scrambled back to the road and got into the wagon. Talen urged Iron Boy on, knowing there was no way two boys in a wagon could outrun mounted men.
Hunger lost the scent of the Koramite and his son. At first, it didn’t bother him. He watched the people and animals come and go. But toward late afternoon it occurred to him that the Koramite and his son might not have gone to the city at all. They might have simply ridden on by.
This gave him pause. What if they weren’t coming back this way? What if they weren’t coming back at all? Argoth might hold lands in that other direction. They might be gone visiting; they might be gone for a weeklong hunt for all he knew.
He shouldn’t have let them go. No, he’d made a miscalculation. He should have given them chase.
But then he calmed himself. They were either in the city or they were beyond it. The wind was blowing in from the sea. All he needed to do was walk the edge of the forest in a line running toward the city.
If the Koramite and his boy were in the city or going to travel back, he’d pick up their scent. And if they weren’t, well, then they had quite a start on him.
But Hunger would find them. Of that he had no doubt. He’d been a great hunter in his time. At least, one of those he’d eaten had been.
Hunger stood and began making his way down the hill. Below him on the road, three boys in red hats herded a large flock of sheep. Their long-haired, black and white dogs barked to keep the sheep from straying too far from the road.
Hunger stepped out of the brush into the middle of the flock and sent the sheep running. The second boy, walking perhaps only a dozen feet ahead, looked back. His expression of curiosity turned to horror.
Hunger could catch the shepherd and eat him. He paused. He could smell him, taste him on the wind. He could eat them all.
No, he told himself. He would not. If he did, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself the next time.
One of the dogs began barking.
Something drifted to him on the breeze. He opened his mouth.
The burning boy. The scent was faint but unmistakable.
This time, Hunger thought, you won’t get away. He turned from the shepherd and his sheep.
The dog followed him to the brush on the far side of the road, snarling. The young man found his voice and yelled a warning. But another three steps and Hunger was well into the wood, the sounds of the shepherds and their dogs receeding behind him.
alen peered out from the wagon bed. The men following them had begun to trot their horses.
“I’m jumping out around that next bend,” said Talen. Nettle could continue with the wagon while Talen tried to escape on foot.
“They’ve already seen you,” said Nettle.
“You don’t know that.”
“You don’t know that they haven’t.”
“It’s the only way.”
“Just act normal,” said Nettle.
“Will you shut up with your normal nonsense.”
“I’m Captain Argoth’s son. It will count for something.”
“Yeah,” said Talen. “That’s why I was standing around this morning at the city gate batting horseflies from my naked body.”
“As soon as they realize you’re gone, they’ll know. They’ll send one back for help. The rest will watch the area. And the woods here don’t run unbroken. They’ll see you.”
“No,” said Talen. “They won’t.” But he knew they would. By the stinking lord of pigs, they would.
Unless he hid so well, so quietly, like a mouse in a tuft of grass, that they’d have to be standing right on him to know he was there.
“Just get me to the bend in the road,” said Talen. They didn’t have dogs, and it would be dark before they could bring them. That was the only thing he had in his favor.
Talen caught another glimpse of the men, perhaps a half-dozen rods behind. There were eight of them, all Shoka.
The wagon bumped along, making it difficult for Talen to keep himself flat and out of sight in the wagon bed. At this pace they weren’t going to make the bend. “Speed it up,” hissed Talen.
“We’ll say you’re sick.”
“It won’t work,” said Talen.
Behind them, the men urged their horses into a canter.
“Faster,” said Talen.
Nettle flipped the reins and Iron Boy began to trot. The wagon bounced off a rut.
Talen readied himself.
It was odd, but the sensation of energy and well-being he’d noticed passing through the city gate had not vanished. If anything, it had built. He felt as if he could keep pace with a horse, maybe outrun one.
Of course, that was stupid. Still, with every jolt of the wagon his strength grew. He could feel it, like a crazy itch seeping through him. He wondered about the ginger cookies. This would not be the first baker to mix a come-back into his breads. Come-backs were something to make a body depend on his bread, something besides taste to make a person come back and continue to buy. Of course, such herbs were outlawed in the New Lands, but it had been a Whitecliff baker. He probably didn’t think such rules applied to him.
“We’re almost to the bend,” said Nettle.
The men were closing fast. One of them yelled out.
The wagon passed into the shade of trees and out of the the men’s sight.
Nettle reined in Iron Boy to slow the wagon.
Talen rose to his feet.
“You’re not going to have time to find cover.”
Not if he ran into the woods. The forest floor was covered with leaves that would crackle underfoot. If they didn’t see his tracks, then they’d be sure to hear any step he took.
Talen looked up. The trees here were massive giants. All the lower limbs had been cut by clan road gangs, and the closest branch towered more than a dozen feet overhead.
It was an impossible height for him. Except, he knew he could reach them. His limbs ached to jump. What did he have to lose?
Talen stood on the wagon seat and eyed the limb of a towering elm in front of them. The branch was as thick as his leg and hung almost twenty feet above the trail.
The tree limb was too high. He knew it. But he couldn’t help himself. His legs cried out for a sudden burst of power. He had never imagined his growth would come upon him in this fashion.