The Silver Crown
The Guardians of the Flame
A Baen Books Original
Cover art by Monty Moore
Part One: The Forest Of Wehnest
Chapter One The Hunter
Chapter Two Battleground
Chapter Three Ellegon
Part Two: Home
Chapter Four Karl's Day Off
Chapter Five Dinner Party
Chapter Six Mindprobe
Chapter Seven The Bat Cave
Chapter Eight An Acquaintance Renewed
Chapter Nine A Matter of Obligation
Chapter Ten Practice Session
Chapter Eleven Town Meeting
Chapter Twelve Parting
Part Three: Enkiar
Chapter Thirteen To Enkiar
Chapter Fourteen Valeran
Chapter Fifteen Firefight
Part Four: Bieme
Chapter Sixteen Prince Pirondael
Chapter Seventeen "One Thing at a Time"
Chapter Eighteen Aveneer
Chapter Nineteen The Siege
Chapter Twenty Several Acquaintances Renewed
Chapter Twenty-One Ahrmin
Chapter Twenty-Two Betrayal
Chapter Twenty-Three Biemestren Revisited
Chapter Twenty-Four The Defense of Furnael Keep
Chapter Twenty-Five Arta Myrdhyn
Chapter Twenty-Six The Silver Crown
Chapter Twenty-Seven Goodbyes
For Tim Daniels
In Memoriam, DammitAcknowledgments
I'd like to thank Mary Kittredge, Mark J. McGarry, and most particularly Harry F. Leonard, all of whom helped to make this a better book than it otherwise would have been. This is both my fourth book and the fourth time I've thanked all of them in print; that isn't coincidental.
I'd be more than a little remiss if I didn't also thank my agent, Richard Curtis; my editor, Sheila Gilbert, for her advice, support, and patience; my favorite policeman, Officer William T. Badger, NHPD/VSU, for creating the quiet; and Felicia, for the usual—and more.Quote
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.
—Niccolò MachiavelliDramatis Personae
Ahrmin: master slaver
Fenrius, Danared: journeyman slavers
The Matriarch of the Healing Hand Society
Doria: Hand acolyte
Karl Cullinane: warrior, raiding-team leader
Tennetty, Ch'akresarkandyn ip Katharhdn, Peill ip Yratha: squad leaders in Karl Cullinane's raiding team
Walter Slovotsky: Karl Cullinane's second-in-command; thief, warrior, smartass
Wellem, Erek, Therol, Donidge, Hervean, Firkh, Restius: warriors, members of Karl Cullinane's raiding team
Gwellin, Gerrin, Daherrin: dwarf warriors, members of Karl Cullinane's raiding team
Sternius: master slaver
Jilla, Danni: slaves
Ellegon: a young dragon
Henrad: novice wizard; Andrea's apprentice
Andrea Andropolous Cullinane: wizard, teacher, Karl Cullinane's wife
Jason Cullinane: Karl and Andrea's son
Aeia Eriksen Cullinane: Karl and Andrea's adopted daughter, teacher
Mikyn: freed slave
Alezyn: Mikyn's father
Ahira Bandylegs: Home Mayor
Louis Riccetti: ex-wizard, the Engineer
Ranella, Bast: apprentice Engineers
Thellaren: Spidersect cleric
Kirah Slovotsky: Walter Slovotsky's wife
Jane Michele Slovotsky: Walter and Kirah's daughter
Ihryk: farmer, houseman
Anna Major: Werthan's wife
Anna Minor: Werthan and Anna Major's daughter
Nehera: dwarf blacksmith
Daven: warrior, raiding-team leader
Wraveth, Taren: warriors, members of Daven's raiding team
Jherant ip Therranj: elf warrior
Dhara ip Therranj: emissary from Lord Khoral of Therranj
Beralyn, Lady Furnael
Thomen Furnael: heir to barony Furnael
Chton: farmer, leader of Joiner faction
Petros: farmer, of sorts
Harwen, Ternius: farmers
Valeran: guard captain in the service of Lord Gyren of Enkiar
Halvin: Valeran's second-in-command
Norfan: one of Valeran's warriors
Prince Harffen Pirondael: ruler of Bieme
Aveneer: warrior, raiding-team leader
Frandred: Aveneer's second-in-command
Theren, Thermen, Migdal: warriors, members of Aveneer's raiding team
Zherr, Baron Furnael
Garavar: a captain of the House Guard
Taren: warrior of the House Guard
Arthur Simpson Deighton/Arta Myrdhyn: lecturer in philosophy, master wizardIntroduction
It had long since ceased being a game. Friends didn't really die in a game.
But . . . it had been just a game, years before. Professor Arthur Simpson Deighton was the gamemaster. Karl Cullinane, Jason Parker, James Michael Finnegan, Doria Perlstein, Walter Slovotsky, Andrea Andropolous, and Lou Riccetti had sat down for an evening of fantasy gaming. The game suddenly, without warning, became real: James Michael became Ahira Bandylegs, a powerful dwarf; skinny Karl Cullinane turned into Barak, a massive warrior; Lou Riccetti became Aristobulus, wielder of powerful magicks; Andrea became Lotana, novice wizard.
It had become real, every bit as real as the pain Jason Parker felt in his last moments kicking on the end of a bloody spear, every bit as real as Ahira's fiery death, and his resurrection by the Matriarch of the Healing Hand Society.
But there was a price to be paid for that resurrection: Karl and the others promised to fight to end slavery. They declared war on the Pandathaway-based Slavers' Guild, the dealers in human flesh who traveled across the Eren regions, securing and selling their cargo.
Attacking the slavers was one thing—but what to do with the freed slaves? Some could be sent home, but some had no home to go back to. That was easily solved: They built Home, a new kind of society for the world they found themselves in.
Aeia Eriksen did have a home to go back to, a village in Melawei. While returning her there, Karl discovered evidence that Professor Deighton was actually the almost legendary wizard Arta Myrdhyn, who had left a magical sword in a cave, clutched in fingers of light, waiting.
Waiting for whom? For Karl's son, it seemed; Deighton/Arta Myrdhyn had plans for Karl's son. . . .
Not my son, Karl said. He left the sword of Arta Myrdhyn in Melawei and returned Home, continuing to venture out and attack Slavers' Guild caravans wherever they could be found.
It had long since ceased being a game.
A revolution is never a game; it is, in more senses than one, a bloody mess.Prologue
"You may enter, Ahrmin," the acolyte said. She was a slim woman, dressed in the long white robes of the Healing Hand Society. Her long blond hair shimmered in the sunlight as she stared coolly at him out of the yellow-irised eyes set exotically but not unpleasantly far apart in her high-cheekboned face.
Idly, Ahrmin estimated that she was easily worth thirty gold; he could remove that air of superiority within a tenday, perhaps less. Perhaps much less.
She shook her head as though in response to his unvoiced comment. "You, and you alone. The others shall remain outside. It is unpleasant enough to tolerate their presence on the preserve; I will not have their breath fouling the air of the tabernacle itself."
She stared to turn away, but spun back as Fenrius growled and started toward her. Fenrius towered menacingly over her slim form, but the huge man froze in place as the acolyte raised her hand, all the while murmuring soft words that Ahrmin could hear clearly, but never recall. As always, he tried to remember them, but he couldn't; they vanished as the sounds touched his ears.
As the spell ended, the cleric gripped the air in front of her; Fenrius' arms flew down to his sides, his leather tunic wrinkling as though he were in the grip of a giant invisible hand. Muscles stood out cordlike on his unshaven cheeks; his mouth worked silently, lips drawn wide in a soundless gasp as sweat beaded on his forehead.
"No," she said, smiling gently, almost affectionately. "Not here. Here, you are within the grasp of the Hand. In more senses than one." She began to tighten the grip of her straining fingers. Leather squealed in protest; Fenrius' breath whooshed out of his lungs.
His mouth worked frantically, but no sound escaped.
Ahrmin's five other men stood stock-still, Danared shaking his head in sympathy. But even he was not foolish enough to make a move toward the acolyte.
Just as Ahrmin was sure that Fenrius' chest would cave in beneath the pressure, the acolyte stopped, cocking her head to one side, as though listening to a distant voice.
"Yes, Mother," she said, with a deep sigh. She raised her hand and twitched her wrist; Fenrius tumbled end over end through the air, landing on the grass with a thump.
"You may follow me, Ahrmin," she said.
Ahrmin limped after the acolyte down dark corridors to a vast, high-ceilinged hall, the drag-slap of his sandals a counterpoint to her even steps. They walked through a high arch and into the hall, halting in unison before the high-backed throne, as though obeying an unspoken command. Later, he couldn't recall whether the room was crowded or empty; his eyes were drawn to the woman on the throne.
If the acolyte was thin, this woman was positively skeletal. He always remembered the tissue-thin skin on the back of her hands, skin as white as a dead man's, unmarked save for the bulges caused by underlying bones and sinews.
But despite the funereal slimness of her form, she radiated a sense of power as she sat there, her face hidden by the upswept cowl of her faintly glowing white robes.
"Greetings, Ahrmin, son of Ohlmin," she said. "I have been expecting you."
Her voice was like nothing he had ever heard. Though she seemed to speak softly, her words rattled his teeth.
"Then you know what I want."
"What you . . . want is obvious," the acolyte hissed. "Karl wrecked your body—he should have killed you. He should have—"
The Matriarch raised a hand. "Be still, daughter. We shall take no side in this matter." She turned back to Ahrmin. "Which is precisely the point. You were injured in combat with Karl Cullinane—"
"Injured?" He raised a fire-twisted hand. "You call this injured?" Had it not been for the bottle of healing draughts he had drunk while the ship burned around him, Ahrmin would have died. As it was, he had never fully recovered from the burns or the long trip over the mountains from Melawei to Ehvenor.
"Yes. Would you not agree?" She gestured, her long fingers twitching spastically as she spoke words that could only be heard and forgotten.
The air to one side of the Matriarch shimmered, solidifying into a mirror.
"Look at yourself," she commanded.
He did, forcing his shoulders back and standing tall.
It wasn't a pretty sight; it was never a pretty sight. The hair on the right side of his head was gone, the skin permanently browned and puckered, save for the few fleshy spots where his trembling hand had splashed enough of the healing potion to restore those patches to normal health.
The left side of his face was normal enough; the fire had only singed him there, and the healing draughts, combined with his body's natural healing ability, had brought that back to normal.
But the right side of his face was a horror. The flames had seared away his ear and most of his lips; it had burned his cheeks down to the bone. While the draughts had healed what remained, their power was not great enough to bring flesh back from ashes.
Surely, the Matriarch was powerful enough to do that; she was said to be able to raise the dead. Surely—
"No." She dismissed the thought and the mirror with a wave of her hand. "I do not expect that you will understand this, but there are forces involved here that even I would not wish to involve myself with again. I have done so three times. Once, many years ago, to protect the tabernacle and its preserve, and twice again," she said, laying a gentle hand on the acolyte's arm, "for reasons that do not concern you. I will not do so now."
"But I've brought gold." He waved a hand toward the door. "Sacks of it."
"Gold?" The acolyte sniffed. "Bring a mountain of gold, and we still won't help you. Right now, you wouldn't have a chance against Karl. But if we healed you—"
"I'll hunt the bastard down and kill him. He murdered my father—and did this to me." I'll hunt him down whether you help me or not, he thought. I'll hold his head in my hands.
The Matriarch folded her thin arms across her chest. "That is entirely a matter of opinion." She extended a skinny arm, her sleeve rippling. "Now, go."
There was no point in staying. He couldn't fight the Hand, not even if he had the entire guild behind him.
He spun on his heel and limped away. Their words echoed down the marble halls after him.
"We have to help Karl, Mother. Or at least warn him."
"Ahh. Your skills have improved, daughter. You read beyond Ahrmin's surface thoughts?
"Yes—Karl must think he's dead. He doesn't know—"
"Nor can we tell him. Our responsibilities lie elsewhere. And elsewhen. To interfere now, to involve the Hand further at this juncture . . . it would ruin everything. As well you know."
"I do know, but . . . Forgive me, Mother—I was lying. He just might be able to kill Karl, or have him killed. It's—"
"You are forgiven. You are not the first of our order to tell a lie."
"He could kill Karl, if he took him by surprise—"
"I think you perhaps underrate this Karl Cullinane of yours. In any case, my decision stands, daughter."
"But what can we do?"
"For now, nothing. We must wait. Waiting is a difficult skill; I commend its practice to you, Doria. . . ."
The Forest Of Wehnest
Out of the darkness of the tent, a hand reached out and gently grasped his shoulder. "Karl, ta ly'veth ta ahd dalazhi." Karl, it is time to wake up.
Karl Cullinane came awake instantly. He clamped his left hand around the slim wrist and pulled, slamming the other into the tent pole, almost dislodging it. He brought his right hand around to block a possible knife thrust—
—and stopped himself when he realized who it was.
"Ta havath, Karl." Easy, Karl. Tennetty laughed, her breath warm in his ear. She switched from Erendra to her thickly accented English as she pushed away from him, rubbing at her shoulder. "I don't think Andrea would approve. Besides, if you move around much more, you'll bring the tent down around both our heads."
He released her and sighed. He would have preferred Tennetty to be a bit more nervous about waking him, a bit less trusting that he would recognize her before doing something sudden and fatal.
"What is it, Tennetty?" he asked in Erendra. "Is the dragon here?" Ellegon? he thought. Can you hear me?
"Wake up, Karl—you're a full day off. He isn't due until tomorrow."
She nodded. "On his way up," Tennetty said, smiling faintly in the dim lanternlight as she untangled herself from his blankets. "Gerrin spotted him—and a small caravan, camped down by the fork."
"Slavers or merchants?"
"He couldn't tell, not from here." She shrugged. "But if they are slavers, it would explain Slovotsky's return." She rose to her knees and took up a piece of straw from his bedding, using it to carry fire from her lantern to his, idly pausing to straighten his tent pole in passing. Tennetty was a slim woman, but not a soft one; beneath her ragged cotton under-shirt, strong muscles played.
"I've had my team's horses saddled and ordered a general weapons inspection." She flashed a smile at him, then dropped it. Tennetty seemed to have a permanent sneer, which somehow started with her narrow eyes and continued down her thin, broken nose, all the way to her cracked lips. A scar snaked around her right eye; a black patch covered the remains of the left.
"You take a lot on yourself, don't you?"
"Perhaps." Picking up her lantern, she rose smoothly from her half-crouch and held the tent flap open for him. "Let's go." She hitched first at the wide-bladed shortsword on the left side of her belt and then at the crude flintlock pistol on the right side.
"I'll be a minute," he said, his hand going to the spider amulet secured around his neck by a leather thong.
That was a long-standing reflex, its source back in his long-ago college days. Karl Cullinane had always had trouble keeping track of things; pens, pencils, books, lighters, change, and keys always seemed to vanish from his possession, as though they had turned to air. The amulet was too important; it couldn't become part of that pattern of lost valuables.
"If you see Slovotsky, tell him to get up here. In the meantime, give the order to break camp, then have your team wait by their horses—and tell Restius to keep the animals quiet this time, even if he has to slit the throat of that idiot mare of his."
"You want me to have your horse saddled?"
"Fine. But make sure the bellybands are tight—no, forget it." He shook his head. "No, I'd better take care of Stick." No reason to put someone else to the trouble when Karl would have to check the work himself.
"Mmm—tell Chak I want to see him when he gets a chance. That's all."
She nodded and left.
Tossing his blankets aside, Karl dressed quickly, first donning skintight knit-cotton pants and a thick under-shirt. He pulled on a pair of rough leather trousers before slipping on his socks and forcing his feet into his tight steel-toed boots.
Vibram, he thought, for the thousandth time. How much would I pay for one pair of Vibram soles? Certainly a hundred pieces of gold; definitely his third-best horse. But would he trade, say, Carrot or Stick for a good pair of soles? Probably not, but it would be a close call. Not that he'd ever get the chance; such synthetics were easily a hundred years away on This Side.
He uncorked a jug of water and drank a scant mouthful, then splashed some on his face, drying it with a dirty towel. He slipped his leather tunic over his head before belting his sword around his waist, reflexively checking to see that it was loose in its scabbard.
Forming his hands into fists, he stood and stretched broadly, trying to loosen the almost permanent knots in his neck and shoulders.
Dammit, he thought, this doesn't get easier.
He stooped to retrieve two unloaded pistols and a small pouch from his saddlebags, tucked the pistols cross-ways in his swordbelt, and tied the pouch to a small brass ring mounted on the right side of the belt. He gave his hair a quick fingercombing before blowing out the lantern and stepping out into the night.
Above, a million stars winked at him out of a coal-black sky. The faerie lights were active tonight. Sometimes, when they changed slowly, it was difficult to distinguish them from stars, but not tonight. Hovering halfway between forest and sky, they flickered on and off, pulsing through a chromatic scale. First a series of deep reds, then a quick flash of orange before they worked their way through the yellows, greens, and a chorus of blues, turning indigo and vanishing, only to reappear in a few moments in a flash of cerulean.
"Lights are bright tonight," Wellem said. He stood sharpening a dagger and staring up at the sky. His hands moved in a smooth, practiced motion, stroking the stone lightly, evenly across the blade. "Awfully bright."
"That they are."
"Makes me feel like I'm back in Ehvenor, almost." He sighed. "Not used to seeing them so far north."
"What do you think they are, really?" Karl asked idly.
"I haven't learned anything new, Karl Cullinane." Wellem shrugged. "I can still only give you the faerie answer: 'Sometimes they are, and sometimes they are not.' Tonight they are." He turned away, still whisking the stone against the dagger.
There had been a time when a younger, less jaded Karl Cullinane would have stood and admired the clear sky, the many colors blinking in the night—
But that time, that youth, was gone. Now he simply saw a sky clear enough, a night bright enough to provide little cover for either the slavers or for Karl's people. Too bad—were it cloudier, the darksight of his six dwarf warriors would have given their side an extra edge. Karl always took any advantage that came his way. He saw no sense pushing his luck further than necessary; as it was, it was necessary to stretch it awfully far.
The encampment spread out around him on the mesa. His hundred warriors were breaking camp. Some brought down the tents and stowed the noncombat gear; some gave a final cleaning to a crossbow or flintlock rifle; others took a few moments to touch up the edge of a sword or a Nehera-made bowie. The tiny cooking fires had long since been doused; a few stray embers might have betrayed their presence to slavers en route from Pandathaway to their hunting grounds in the east.
All made their preparations quietly, with only an occasional grunt or muttered comment. Before a battle was always a quiet time. By dawn, even if everything went well in the forest below, some would surely be injured or dead.
The bushes behind him rustled. He reached for his sword.
" 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil . . . '" a familiar voice said.
Karl let his hand drop. " ' . . . for I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley,' " he finished. "That's too long, Walter; not a good password. Besides, I'm the one already in camp; I'm supposed to give the challenge, not you. Cut the crap and come on out. And be more careful next time—Gerrin already spotted you."
"Damn dwarf has good eyes," Slovotsky said, pushing his way through the brush. As usual, he was dressed only in sandals and a blousy pair of pantaloons, his throwing knives strapped to his right hip, a shortsword belted to his left. His chest, arms, and face had been blackened with a mixture of grease and ashes, and his chest and belly were scraped bare in spots, but his cocky, all-is-right-with-the-world-because-Walter-Slovotsky-is-in-it smile was intact, although just barely so.
"Welcome back," Karl said. "I've missed you. I've been getting a bit nervous; it feels like it's been a long time."
"Sure does. It's good to be back." The corners of Slovotsky's mouth lifted into a knowing smile. "You're not the only one. But thanks, anyway." He fondled his own spider amulet between thumb and forefinger. "You're not going to like this, Karl," he said. "This thing started flashing red—the slavers have a wizard with them."
"Damn!" Karl spat. That was surprising, but not unprecedented. Usually, only the largest Slavers' Guild raiding parties would spend the money on the services of a wizard. "Well, we can handle that—just have to take the wizard out first." Wizards were just as subject to a surprise attack as anyone else, after all.
"That was the good news. Karl, they have guns."
"Guns. I spotted three, and there're probably others. Could be rifles, maybe smoothbores—they look just like our flintlocks, as far as I could see. I didn't want to get too close; I've always thought I look better without bullet holes."
This was bad. And it shouldn't be happening. The secret of making gunpowder was something that Karl, Walter, Ahira, Andy-Andy, and Lou Riccetti guarded carefully. Riccetti had yet to share the secret with any of his Engineers, though undoubtedly most of them suspected what the ingredients were. But Engineers didn't talk.
To the best of Karl's knowledge, no guns or powder had fallen into unauthorized hands during the five years they'd been using guns on This Side.
They'd known it wouldn't last forever, but Lou Riccetti's guess was that it would take a minimum of ten years for the secret to get out, and Karl had thought Lou's estimate conservative, if anything. While there was room for error, the mixture had to be close to the traditional ratio of fifteen parts saltpeter to three parts sulfur to two parts powdered charcoal for it to be usable gunpowder. It would take a long time for others in this world to work out the ingredients and proportions, given only descriptions of the weapons that the Home raiders were using to supplement their bows and blades. The construction of rifles that didn't blow up in a user's face should have slowed the locals down, too.
It should have taken a long time. . . .
"Damn," he said. "You're sure? Never mind." He gestured an apology. If Slovotsky was willing to make the absurd claim that the slavers had guns, then the slavers had guns.
Karl beckoned to the nearest of his warriors, a gangling teenager whom he often used as a message runner.
"Erek—message for Tennetty. No attack yet; tell her to have the horses hobbled. I want a staff meeting, right away. I'll need the squad leaders up here, and fast. And I'll want some fire for the lantern in my tent. Repeat."
Erek closed his eyes. "Attack postponed indefinitely; Tennetty to order the horses hobbled. Chak, Peill, Gwellin, and Tennetty to report to you, here, immediately. Your lantern to be lit."
He opened his eyes, looking questioningly at Karl. At Karl's nod, Erek smiled and ran off.
"Good kid," Slovotsky said. "Too bad he's such a lousy shot."
"Guns aren't everything." Karl snorted. "I wish you were as good with a sword. Little Erek can outscore Chak almost a quarter of the time." He beckoned Slovotsky into his tent as Wellem arrived with a lantern.
"You want it now?" Slovotsky asked, seating himself tailor-fashion on the rug.
"Save it. The others will be along in a minute."
* * *
Being in charge, Karl thought, all too often required listening to silly arguments. It wasn't enough to command obedience; he had to earn it—not once, but over and over again. And one of the things that meant was giving his warriors room to be wrong, at least when being wrong wouldn't hurt anything.
"Why all the fuss?" Gwellin shrugged. "They might not move on in the morning—"
"They will," Slovotsky put in. "Why would they stay?"
"Come nightfall tomorrow, we'll have the dragon to help out. Bullets can't hurt it."
"Idiot!" Tennetty spat. "What if they have dragonbane? Besides, do you really think we can take them by surprise with a dragon in the sky?"
"So who says we have to surprise them? Ellegon should be able to roast all of them."
"Fine idea. I'd love to see that." She turned to Walter. "Roasted gunpowder is kind of noisy, isn't it?"
"Yup. Not a good idea, not if I'm going to be anywhere in the neighborhood—and most particularly not if we want a sample for analysis. Try again, Gwellin."
"Then," the dwarf said, pounding a fist on the ground, "I'd say we just let this group go." Gwellin and his six dwarves were serving with Karl's team only temporarily, saving their shares of the loot, building up their savings so that they could return to Endell well laden with both captured valuables and acquired knowledge. Karl liked having Gwellin around; it was good to have the advice of someone who could be more objective, more businesslike about the business of killing and robbing slavers.
"Go on," Karl said. "Why do you think we should let them go?"
The dwarf stroked at his craggy face. "They aren't pulling a chain of slaves, so all we could get out of this would be a bit of blood, whatever money they have on them, and maybe this powder of theirs. I don't think they'll be carrying a lot of gold, not a group this size. And I don't want to face guns, not if we don't have to." He hefted his oversized mace. "I can't move this faster than a bullet."
"Don't be stupid." Ch'akresarkandyn shook his head. He was short for a human, only a head taller than the dwarf. The movements of his head and hand were slow and lazy, but Chak was neither; the dark little man was a good swordsman and an energetic and effective teacher of both blade and gun. "Do you know how to make gunpowder?"
"No, do you? What's the point?"
"The point," Tennetty put in, her usual sneer firmly in place, "is that they shouldn't, either." She looked over at Karl, her forehead momentarily wrinkling, as though she was wondering why he let this discussion go on. Tennetty's squad was run without dissension; her warriors could either do exactly what she said, when and how she said it, or they could find someone else to lead them on the next raid. "And we have to find out how they got it, and—if possible—cut it off at the source."
Idly, she brought her right index finger up and slipped it underneath her eyepatch, scratching. Karl made a mental note to have Thellaren look at the socket, once they got back to Home. Or maybe he'd try to push her into getting the glass eye that the cleric had been trying to sell her on.
Gwellin shrugged. "That is your concern—the fire burns in your belly, not mine."
"You're right about that," Tennetty agreed grimly.
"But how did they get the powder?" Peill asked. The elf steepled his overlong fingers in front of his face, considering. "It must be that Riccetti. He must have sold out."
"Peill," Slovotsky said, with a loud snort, "there is an old saying, back on the Other Side—"
"Not again." Chak threw up his hands. "There's always an old saying back on the Other Side. And for some reason, they're always called Slovotsky's Laws. Which one is it now?"
"The one I was thinking of goes something like this: 'When you know not whereof you speak, your mouth is best used for chewing.' Forgetting the fact that Lou has never even had the opportunity to sell out, there's about as much chance of his betraying a friend as there is of your falling in love with a female dwarf." He pulled a piece of jerky out of his pouch and tossed it to the tall elf. "So try this."
Peill batted the jerky aside and glared at him. "Walter Slovotsky—"
"Enough." Karl raised a palm. Not that he had any objection to a little bickering among his squad leaders, as long as it was confined to a war council. A bit of argument helped to blow off steam, helped to keep everyone's nerves from growing wire-tight before the battle. But enough was enough. "You see the problem: If they do have guns—"
"Shut up, Walter. If they do have guns, we have to find out how and why. Most likely, the wards aren't as good as Thellaren says they are."
And there was another possibility, and that one chilled his insides: Home had paid the Spidersect a great deal of money to install and maintain the wards that both served as a magical burglar alarm and hid the valley from the view of Pandathaway wizards' crystal balls. Both Thellaren and Andy-Andy had said that it would have taken a wizard close to the level of Grandmaster Lucius to pierce the spell.
What if they were up against someone like that?
He let the thought drop. No, there was no reason to worry about that. If they were up against a wizard as powerful as Lucius or Arta Myrdhyn, they would already be dead.
"In any case," Karl said, "we've got to rethink the attack."
Gwellin shook his head. "Even if what you say is true, there isn't that much difference. If we can take them by surprise, maybe—"
"—we can kill them all," Karl finished for the dwarf. He shook his head. "And that's no good. We can't afford to have just dead slavers on our hands. Not this time: Dead bodies can't talk. I'll want at least one of them alive, preferably two."
"Make it three." Tennetty studied the edge of her knife. "I am likely to use them up quickly." She raised an eyebrow. "I do get to do the interrogation, don't I?"
"Maybe. We'll also need to capture one of their rifles—"
"That's no problem, not even if we—"
"—and at least a pouch of their powder for analysis. I'll want to get as much as we can. So, the original plan is off. We can't just have a horseback attack to draw them out so the rifles can get at them. We're going to have to get a bit more tricky."
Chak smiled. "I like it when you get tricky."
"Sorry, Chak. Not this time."
His face fell. "I have to stay with my squad?"
"Now wait a minute, Karl. I'm not the one who likes it when you get tricky."
"You're going to like this even less than usual, Walter. How good are you with a crossbow these days?"
Slovotsky frowned. "Not very, as you know."
"Right." Karl could count on Slovotsky for a good recon. Slovotsky had made his way into and out of places that Karl would have sworn a stray leaf couldn't have invaded without notice. Walter was also a reliable knifeman and a passable swordsman; he was also one of Home's better rifle shots. But he wasn't good with a crossbow, and taking out at least one watchman without alerting the slavers might require a crossbow's range and silence.
He sighed regretfully, trying to decide if he was being hypocritical. But I can't trust this to anyone else, dammit. It's my responsibility. "You've just gotten yourself an assistant."
* * *
Karl finished rubbing the greasepaint over his bare chest, then stood motionless while Walter tended to his face.
Slovotsky nodded. "That should do it. Remember to keep your mouth closed—don't want to flash those pearly whites at them. Also, if he starts to look your way, close your eyes as much as you can—the whites can stand out."
"Got it." Karl turned back to the others. It wasn't really necessary to give the final orders himself—Tennetty or Chak could have handled that—but Karl didn't allow himself to hold the others distant. They weren't just his warriors, they were his friends. This could easily be the last time he'd see some of them alive. He owed them at least the remembering.
Morality didn't prevent mortality. There was probably some sort of epigram in that, too depressing to be converted into one of Slovotsky's Laws.
But it wasn't just true, it was important. Good people could die fighting on the right side in a just war. It had happened at Gettysburg, and at the Somme, and at Anzio, Normandy, and Entebbe.
It had also happened in Ehvenor, when Fialt's death had bought Karl and the others a few seconds. And in Melawei, where Rahff Furnael's lifeblood had poured onto the sandy ground. And outside of Metreyll, and Wehnest, and . . .
"Chak?" He turned to the little man who stood quietly by his side.
"Yes, Kharl?" Chak was tense; his accent was slipping. "You were going to tell me about why you assigned Erek to my squad. It isn't because he's any good with a rifle or shotgun. Must be because you want me to keep an eye on the boy, eh?"
"Stop trying to read my mind. Ellegon's the only one who can do that."
"Sorry. What did you want?"
"Well . . ." Karl smiled. "As it happens, I was going to ask you to keep an eye on the boy. Eh?"
Chak returned the smile. "It's too bad that I can't read your mind."
Chak sobered. He opened his mouth, closed it, then shrugged. "He reminds me a bit of Rahff, too." He fastened a hard hand on Karl's shoulder. "But," he said in his thick English, "I want to turn the two-guns squad over to Wellem. He can handle this kind of slaughter as well as I can—and I've already told him to watch out for Erek."
"So, I want to keep an eye on your back. It has a tendency to sprout holes when I'm not around." Chak raised a palm to forestall Karl's objection. "Think about it, please—Jason told me to watch out for you, and I don't like disobeying Cullinane orders."
Karl hesitated for a moment.
"One more thing to say, and then I'll be quiet: Three have a greater chance of getting a sample of this powder out than two do. Is that not so, Kharl?"
"It is so." Karl sighed. "Strip down—you won't need the paint." He picked Wellem out of the crowd and caught his eye. "Wellem, do you want it?" he asked.
At Wellem's nod, Karl gave him a thumbs-up sign. "Very well. Two-guns squad is yours for this one."
Wellem nodded again, then turned to the rest of his group and began whispering.
"Listen up, people," Karl said. "For those of you who haven't heard, the slavers have guns. At least three, although we're going to assume that there are more. We also know that there's a wizard with them. Before all hell breaks loose down there, Walter and I are going to try to kill the wizard, then make a grab for a slaver or two, a gun, and some of their powder. It's our job to pick out the slaver and keep him alive—don't worry about killing the wrong one.
"There are two things I do want you to worry about. The first one is that Walter, Chak, and I are going to be out in front. Watch where you point your guns. I don't want a repeat of that Metreyll fiasco." He rubbed his back, just above the kidney. "It's not that I mind the pain, you understand, it's just that bullets and powder are too expensive to waste on my hide."
A rough laugh ran through the crowd. Good; that would loosen them up a bit.
"The second thing I want you to worry about is the fact that there are shortly going to be about thirty very scared slavers down there, all of whom will know that they're under attack, all of whom know that we're not interested in taking them prisoner. And they're not going to be too thrilled with Walter or with Chak or with me."
He nodded to Slovotsky. Better for Slovotsky to give them a firsthand description than for Karl to give them a secondhand one.
Walter Slovotsky knelt in the light of the shrouded lantern and smoothed the dirt. "Here's their campfire, right smack dab in the middle of the meadow, just east of the fork." He made an X on the ground. "Three wagons—here, here, and here. This one is the most ornate; I'm assuming it's the wizard's. The two—the three of us are going to make our move in from the southeast, parallel to the main road, here.
"That leaves two more watchmen. They were, umm, right about here and here. All of the watchmen have rifles. We have no way of knowing if there are other rifles located inside the circle of wagons, or in the wagons themselves." He shrugged. "Since they're coming out of Pandathaway, it's not surprising that they aren't carrying slaves; clearly, the wagons are all being used to hold their supplies. It could be just food—but, for all I know, they could be loaded with guns and powder. So watch out."
"Hear that, folks?" Karl said. "A barrel of powder can produce one nice explosion. So keep your eyes open. If you see any fire going into any wagon, yell 'Fire.' If you hear anyone yelling 'Fire,' try to get some cover between yourself and the wagons. Everyone got that? Fine. Gwellin—your turn."
The dwarf stood. "My squad stays as close behind you as we can, making sure we're far enough back so that we can't be seen or heard. If you come under attack, I light my rocket. Then we support you with a volley in the direction of the wizard or his wagon, and switch to crossbows for a second, third, and fourth volley. After that, we move in with axes, maces, and hammers. If you're not spotted, we wait for your signal, then do the same."
The elf nodded. "My group stays behind the dwarves, and becomes the second wave. Our objective will be to get the slavers to run away, into Chak—into Wellem's squad. If that is not possible, I will light off another rocket. Yes?"
"I'm what you always call a free safety. My squad is the reserve; we wait with our horses on the road, making sure we're out of earshot until the attack is well under way. Then we mount up. If they're running, we help chase them into the two-guns squad, If they hold fast, we try to scatter them, then pick off the stragglers. We're also responsible for killing the two other watchmen, if Gwellin's or Chak's people don't get them first. It's simple stuff: If they run, we chase them. If they don't, we make them run, and then we chase them."
She sighed. "And if everything goes bad, we rescue whoever we can, and pull out. We also pick up our wounded, carry them out of danger, and treat them with healing draughts, then haul ass back up here and wait for Ellegon. I'd rather—"
"—be in the thick of it." Karl repressed a sigh. Tennetty had spent ten long years as a slave; there was nothing she enjoyed more than bathing in a slaver's blood. Lady, you're a psycho. But fortunately for the both of us you're one hell of an effective psycho.
He looked from face to face. "Enough talk, people. Let's do it."
* * *
Down the road, the slavers' campfire burned an orange rift into the night. With Chak bringing up the rear, Karl kept himself two yards behind Walter, mimicking the other's half-stoop as he eased his way through the woods, parallel to the road, stepping carefully across the damp floor of the forest, a cocked but unloaded crossbow held in his left hand. Occasionally he patted the top of the quiver strapped to his right thigh.
A leather pouch slapped silently against his left thigh as he walked; his swordsheath pressed reassuringly against his back; a manriki-gusari, cloth strung through its links to prevent rattling, was slung across one shoulder. He let his hand rest against the two oilskin-wrapped flintlock pistols stuck cross-ways into his belt.
Goddam walking arsenal, that's what I am, he thought. But there's always—
"Down," Slovotsky hissed, his voice pitched low enough to carry only a few feet, no more.
Karl stepped behind a tree and dropped to the ground. Half a dozen feet behind him, Chak dropped to the ground and froze in place, motionless as a statue.
The skin over his ears tightening, Karl strained to hear whatever had alarmed Slovotsky.
It didn't make any difference. The wind still whispered through the trees, and the flames of a campfire crackled somewhere off in the night, but that was all. Or were there distant voices? Maybe.
Slovotsky beckoned for Chak to move forward, then crabbed himself backward to join them, his mouth only inches from their ears. "Something's wrong. Hang on for a minute," he said. "I'm going to do a quick recon."
"Maybe. Back in a jiffy. Watch my stuff." Slovotsky laid the oilskin containing his own pistols on the roots, set his scimitar down next to it, and crept off.
He was gone a long time; Karl stopped counting his own pulsebeats at three hundred, and lay quietly, waiting.
Dammit, hurry up, Slovotsky, he thought.
Chak patted his shoulder. "You worry too much, kemo sabe."
"It's my job, dammit," Karl whispered back. He couldn't wait forever; there were just too many people involved. Eventually, Tennetty or Wellem or Gwellin would get too nervous to wait for a signal and trigger the attack. If Walter and Karl hadn't taken out the wizard by then, the odds would quickly switch from their favor to the slavers', despite the advantage of surprise, despite the fact that they had the slavers outmanned. "And don't call me 'kemo sabe.' "
"Whatever you say, kemo sabe."
The thing about Chak that Karl depended most on was the dark little man's rock-solid trustworthiness when it came to anything serious; one of the things about Chak that he liked best was his unwillingness to take anything seriously except when necessary. Chak always liked to joke around before a fight; he said it kept his mind calm and his wrist loose.
"Karl," Walter's voice whispered out of the darkness, "it's me."
"Relax—we got a break, for once. The wizard was off away from the wagons and the fire. Seems there's a bit of a gang-bang in progress, and I guess it must have offended his delicate sensibilities. He'd walked at least a hundred yards into the woods to relieve himself, so . . ."
"What did you do?"
"I slit his throat. Stashed the body under the roots of an old oak. Getting a bit bloodthirsty in my old age, eh?"
"Never mind that—you said something about a gang-bang?"
"Yeah. They've got a couple of women. Taking turns. Strange, no?"
"Yes." That was bizarre. These slavers were coming from Pandathaway. Pandathaway was where guild slavers brought slaves to, not from. Bringing slaves out wouldn't mean just the extra expense of feeding them or the lost income of not selling them, it would also cut down on the available space for human cargo on the slavers' return trip.
"What do you make of that?" Slovotsky asked. "It just doesn't make sense."
Chak shook his head. "Yes, it could make sense—if they are not on a raiding mission but doing something else. If they're not planning on bringing slaves back, they might bring themselves some company. Or it could be some sort of purchase. If they're bringing back a big chain from somewhere, the added expense of bringing along a couple of women for pleasure wouldn't matter to them."
A buy? That meant that the slavers would have a lot of coin on them. Unless—
The guns. Maybe they were taking guns somewhere, planning to sell them. But where? Why? Now they needed a captive to question more than ever.
"Change of plans," Karl said, "we don't kill the guard—we snatch him."
Chak rolled his eyes heavenward. "You don't always have to complicate things, do you?"
Walter shook his head. "I don't like it. The guard's still where he was when I was here before—about a hundred yards ahead, but across the road from us."
"Which way is he facing?"
"Sort of sideways, looking down the road."
"Fine. You go back and tell Gwellin to bring his people up closer, just the other side of the bend in the road. Have him send Daherrin back with you."
"No good—you can't move that many people silently, Karl. The watchman would hear them from there."
"We'll have him tied down by then. After you bring Gwellin's people around, you and Daherrin hurry back to where the watchman is now. That's where we'll be. Daherrin hauls the watchman away, then the three of us work ourselves close to the fire, before the shit hits the fan. We've got to try to get the slaves out."
"I knew it." Chak looked knowingly at Walter. "That's what the change of plans is about." He shrugged. "I guess there's no need for me to get much older—how about you?"
"Cut the crap," Karl hissed. "Once the attack's fully under way, it might not be possible to get them out alive. How's all that sound to the two of you?"
Chak shrugged. "Not bad, not really."
"I don't like it, Karl. He's got kind of a thicket of brambles behind him; you'll have to come right across the road to get him. And I'm quieter than you are. I should take out the watchman while—"
"No." Walter might be quieter than Karl was, but Karl was stronger. That might be important. "Eventually, someone's going to check on the wizard. Do it."
Slovotsky clapped a hand to Karl's shoulder. "Good luck—"
"—you'll need it."
* * *
Karl crouched behind a bush, peering through the dark at the watchman sitting across the road on a waist-high stone, staring blankly out into the night.
He would have to cross the road under the eyes of the watchman in order to get his hands on the other. And even then, he'd have to move quickly, in order to silence the watchman before the slaver could raise an alarm.
Not good odds. The deeply rutted dirt road was only about five yards wide at this point, but those would be a long five yards.
Maybe too long.
At times like these he could almost hear Andy-Andy's half-mocking voice. Looks like your mouth has gotten you into trouble again. Okay, hero, how would Conan do it?
Well . . . Conan would probably sneak up quietly behind the watchman and club him over the head, knocking him unconscious.
Then why don't you do it that way?
Because I'm Karl Cullinane, not Conan. Because things just didn't work that way. Even assuming that he could get within clubbing range, it was much more likely that such a blow would either draw a scream out of the watchman or simply crush his skull.
Better think of another way, then. He edged back into the woods, his fingers searching the ground until he found a small stone, one about the size of a grape. He worked his way back to the brush until he was beside Chak. Setting his crossbow, quiver, and pistol down carefully, Karl unslung his manriki-gusari and draped it carefully around his neck, then reached over his shoulder to loosen his sword in its sheath. He took a wad of cloth and several thongs from his pouch and held them in his left hand.
"Here," Karl whispered, handing Chak the stone. "Give me a slow count to fifty, then throw the stone over his head and past him."
Chak nodded. "One . . . two . . . three . . ."
Matching the count silently, Karl crept back to the road and waited . . . . twenty-three . . . twenty-four . . .
The watchman stood for a moment to stretch, then scratched at his crotch before seating himself again.
. . . thirty-five . . . thirty-six . . .
Karl braced himself, clenching his jaw to keep his teeth from raiding as he hefted his manriki-gusari.
. . . forty-two . . . for—
The stone whipped through the brambles; the watchman jerked to his feet and spun around, bringing his rifle to bear.
Karl eased himself up to the surface of the road, swinging and throwing the manriki-gusari in one smooth motion.
The meter-long chain whipped through the night air, wrapping itself around the watchman's neck, bowling the man over, his rifle falling into the bushes. Karl drew his sword and lunged at the other, slapping at the watchman's hands with the flat of his blade when the slaver reached for the knife at his belt.
Karl set the point of the blade under the other's chin. "If you cry out," he whispered, "you die. Be quiet, and you live. You have my word."
"Cullinane. Karl Cullinane."
The slaver's eyes widened. Karl toed him in the solar plexus, then stuffed the wad of cloth in the other's mouth while the slaver gasped for breath.
"I didn't say you wouldn't hurt—I just said you'd live."
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
As he had grown older, Karl had learned to deal with the fear. He'd had to.
Deal with it, yes, but not well. That would have been too much to ask of himself. Karl Cullinane had spent twenty-one of his twenty-nine years as a middle-class American, living safely in the last half of the twentieth century. Deep inside, he still wasn't used to having lost that safety, that comfort. The only way he could handle that was to push the fear away, if only for a time.
The quiet moments before a fight were always the worst. Too much time to think; too much opportunity to let himself be scared.
His heart pounding, Karl checked the slaver's knots and gag once more before turning him over to Daherrin.
"And take this, too," Karl said, handing the slaver's rifle and pouch to the dwarf. It was a strange-looking rifle: The lock, if any, was inside the stock; the trigger looked more like a miniature pump handle than anything else.
But there wasn't enough light or time to examine it fully; that would have to be saved for later. If there was a later.
Karl clenched his hands into fists. It wouldn't do for Walter, Chak, or Daherrin to see his fingers tremble.
Grasping the slaver by the front of his tunic, the dwarf swung him to his right shoulder, balancing the man easily, then accepted the slaver rifle and powder kit in his oversized left hand. Dwarves weren't just shorter and more heavily built than humans; their joints were thicker, their muscles denser, far more powerful.
"And remember," Slovotsky said, "if everything blows up in our faces here, this stuff has to get back—"
"—to Home," Daherrin finished. "Including this useless piece of meat," he said, bouncing the slaver up and down on his shoulder. "It will be done."
The dwarf turned and walked away.
Karl finished unwrapping his pistols from their protecting oilcloth, then primed their pans. He tucked the vial of fine priming powder and oilcloth in his pouch before sticking the pistols back in his belt, making sure that the barrels pointed away from his feet.
Chak had done the same with his two pistols; he patted their curving butts and flashed Karl a quick smile.
"Gwellin had a couple of spares," Walter said, handing each of them one of the three shotguns he'd brought back, along with the dwarf. "Hope you don't mind my supplementing things a bit."
Chak hefted his shotgun easily. "I don't mind at all."
"Me neither." Karl propped the butt on the ground while he slipped a bolt into his crossbow and nocked it with a practiced motion of his thumb. "Is the gun loaded?"
"Standard shotgun load. Everything but the pan. Gwellin did it; I watched him myself."
"Good." Handing the crossbow to Chak, Karl picked up the shotgun. He took the vial of priming powder from his pouch and primed the pan, bringing the frizzen down and locking it into place with a quiet click. He handed the vial to Chak and waited while the dark little man primed his own shotgun.
Karl was a bit vain about the shotguns; they were his own innovation. Normally, when the lands inside a rifle barrel had worn down to uselessness, the weapon had to be rebored and rerifled, which changed the caliber, making standard rounds useless. Karl had come up with the notion of doing a more thorough reboring of the barrel, until the bore was a thumb's width, then cutting it down, turning the weapon into a smoothbore shotgun.
Walter gave the crossbow back to Karl, then clapped a hand to his shoulder. "It doesn't get any easier, does it? You want me to do a quick recon?"
"No. Let's get this over with." He gave a quick glance down the road. Five dwarf warriors waited off in the distance, just on Karl's side of the bend.
He waved at them to follow, then started walking down the road, Walter on one side, Chak on the other, the campfire growing closer with every step.
"Here we go," Karl said.
Chak sucked air through his teeth; Walter brought his shotgun up.
Ahead, the road forked. In the dark, three boxy wagons stood around the campfire. While more than a dozen slept under their blankets, ten grizzled men sat around the fire, drinking and talking. Beyond them, several others stood over a huge blanket on which lay the moaning forms of the two women. The men called mocking words of encouragement to their friends while waiting their own turns.
Walter turned to beckon to the dwarves. With all the noise from the camp, they wouldn't be noticed for the next few seconds. "Ready when you are," he whispered, his voice faltering momentarily.
Chak brought his shotgun up to his shoulder.
Karl's hand grew tight around the crossbow's stock. He raised it to his shoulder, curled his fingers around the trigger as he took aim at the nearest of the slavers around the campfire, and squeezed.
Fffft! The slaver lunged forward, clutching at the feathers that just barely projected from his chest.
The crack of Chak's shotgun split the night. Three of the slavers screamed in pain as they caught some of the scattering pellets; a fourth clapped both hands to what had been a face.
As the other slavers leaped to their feet, Karl dropped the crossbow to one side, transferred the shotgun to his right hand, braced it against his hip, and fired.
Another man lunged for a rifle, but the blast from Slovotsky's shotgun opened his belly as though it were an overripe melon; he fell to the grass, vomit pouring from his mouth in a bloody torrent.
Others dashed across the meadow, running for the road. Chak raised a pistol and sighted down his arm.
"No!" Karl shouted. "Leave them to the two-guns—follow me." He dropped the empty shotgun and sprinted for the blankets, snatching his pistols from his belt and cocking them.
The slavers were beginning to react to the attack. Several of them made a mad dash for the nearest of the boxy wagons, only to be cut down by two quick volleys of gunfire.
Peill's signal rocket screamed into the night.
"Down!" Karl threw an arm across his eyes and looked away as it exploded above the meadow, a white flash that momentarily dazzled his eyes.
The nine slavers around Karl, Chak, and Walter hadn't been prepared for it. They screamed, blinded, if only for a few moments.
One of the slavers, clad only in his leather tunic, was pawing around the ground for his sword. Karl kicked him in the face, bones crunching beneath his boot. He turned to shoot another who was trying to bring an unsteady rifle to bear on Chak. With his left-hand pistol, he quickly gutshot a third, then reached over his shoulder to draw his sword as a blocky man, his teeth bared in a snarl, lunged for him, a foot-long dagger clutched tightly in his white-knuckled fingers.
Karl's sword was barely out of its scabbard when a heavy mass slammed into his back, a hairy arm snaking around his throat.
There wasn't time to think about it. He could deal either with the enemy clinging to his back or with the one charging from the front.
Instinct took over. Ignoring the slaver on his back, he parried the other's knife with the flat of his blade, then thrust the point of his sword into the knife wielder's throat, twisting savagely as he pulled the blade back.
Crack! Impact shook the slaver on Karl's back as the pistol shot rang out. The slaver shuddered, and the arm around Karl's throat went limp. Karl grabbed the thick wrist, spun, and twisted, bringing his knee up into the man's chin, bone shattering like glass.
Two yards away, Chak favored him with a brief smile as he dropped his smoking pistol to the ground, then drew his falchion to parry the attack of another slaver.
Walter's scimitar clanged against the ninth slaver's steel. It looked as though Walter could handle the man, but it didn't occur to Karl to play fair: he skewered Walter's opponent through the kidney, then spun around into a crouch.
Chak's opponent was down, clutching at a wounded arm. The dark little man didn't waste any more time on the slaver; he drew his remaining pistol and shot him in the chest.
With a clatter of hooves, Tennetty's horsemen galloped through the meadow, sending the last of the uninjured slavers into flight. Therol detached himself from the rest of the group, leaping off his horse to dispense healing draughts to two injured dwarves, the only casualties on Karl's side. So far.
Karl breathed a sigh. It was over for him, at least for now. Peill's and Gwellin's squads had knocked down all of their targets, and the now combined squad was working its way through the scattered bodies, administering deathblows to the wounded.
Down the road, shots echoed, horses whinnied, and men screamed.
"Karl!" Gwellin called out, standing over the body of a slaver, a bloody battleaxe in his hands. "Do you want us to—"
"No. Not until the shots die down." Killing the rest was the job of the two-guns squad and Tennetty's horsemen, not Gwellin's dwarves or Peill's squad. For them, the fight was over. Unmounted men rushing the slavers from behind would risk being mistaken for slavers in the darkness. Karl had lost far too many of his warriors in his time, but not one had been killed by friendly fire, and he didn't intend that any ever should.
A low moan from the ground drew Karl's attention. The half-naked slaver that Karl had kicked in the face was starting to move, holding the shattered remnants of his jaw together.
Over his cupped, blood-dripping hands, the man's eyes grew wide as Karl approached him.
"Karl," Walter snapped. "We want another live one, remember?"
Karl kicked the man in the shoulder, bowling him over, then stooped to bring the slaver's hands behind his back and tie them tightly with a leather thong from his pouch.
"Therol, check the wagons for healing draughts, and treat this one. A few drops from every bottle, eh?" It was always necessary to test captured healing draughts on someone expendable; two years before, Karl had lost one of his warriors to what had looked to be a bottle of Healing Hand Society draughts, but had actually been poison.
"Done," Therol called back. "And how about you?"
"Don't talk about it, Therol," Chak shouted. "Just get your ass over here. Karl's hurt."
"Chak, I'm fine."
"Right." Slovotsky snorted. "Sure you are." Walter's hand slipped down Karl's back. When he brought it in front of Karl's face, blood dripped from the fingers.
"It's not too bad, Karl. Just a nick—but you'd better get it healed before your adrenaline level drops and it starts to hurt you."
What had been a dim, distant pain suddenly cut across his back like a whip. He gasped, then willed himself to ignore it. There's no danger. Therol will have me healed up in a minute. Pain was just a biologically programmed warning of danger. There wasn't any danger here, so the pain should go away. It was logical, but it didn't help.
It was best to keep busy, try to keep his mind off the pain. "Chak, you and Gwellin's people check out the wagons—except for the wizard's wagon. Just put a guard on that one and leave it alone."
"Do you think there's anyone in there?"
"I don't know, so assume that there is."
"I was just asking." Chak sniffed. "I have done this before."
"Sorry. Put it down to nerves."
"Yes, Karl." Chak ran off, calling for Gwellin.
Every motion making the wound on his back cry out in agony, he turned to face the two women huddling in the blankets. He took a step toward the nearest one, a blonde, her almond eyes and high cheekbones betraying a mixed heritage, with forebears from both the Kathard and the Middle Lands.
"No." Her eyes grew wide. "You're Karl Cullinane. Don't kill me, please. Please. I'll do anything you want. I'm very good, really I am. Please—"
"Ta havath." Easy. Karl tried to smile reassuringly. "T'rar ammalli." I'm a friend.
Therol arrived with the bottle of healing draughts and slopped some of the icy liquid on Karl's back. As always, the pain vanished as though it had never been. He worked his arms for a moment, relishing the comfort.
The blonde was still pleading with him. "Please don't hurt me. Please . . ."
"Those bastards." Slovotsky shook his head. "Again?"
Slovotsky held out a hand; Karl exchanged his saber for two of Slovotsky's knives.
The women edged away from him as he slowly approached, holding the knives out, offering them the hilts.
"Everything you've been told is a lie. I'm not going to kill you. I'm not going to hurt you—you're free, as of now." It was a calculated gamble, but one that hadn't yet failed, although he still had a scar on his right cheek from the time that it came close to failing.
The blonde took the proffered knife, holding it awkwardly at arm's length. The brunette mimicked her.
"Karl," Walter said in English, his voice pitched low, "either I've been away from Kirah too long, or both these ladies are gorgeous."
"Ta havath," he murmured. "So what if they are?" With the way they were huddled in their blankets, he couldn't see much of them, but what he could see looked good.
Awfully good, which was privately embarrassing. It wasn't just that he intended to remain faithful to Andy-Andy—he should have been feeling only sympathy for these two poor wretches, not noticing the swell of a full breast or the smoothness of a shapely thigh.
He switched back to Erendra. "Nobody's going to touch you. We'll get some clothes for you in a little while, just as soon as things settle down."
"So," Slovotsky continued in English, "we're looking at prime stuff, here. I could see the slavers taking some culls out of Pandathaway, but these two would go for a hell of a lot of money there. Or anywhere else."
Slovotsky was right, of course. As usual. But what did it mean?
The pounding of a horse's hooves spun Karl around, his hand reaching for the hilt of a sword that wasn't there.
It was only Tennetty. She slipped from Pirate's back, her face creased in a broad smile. "Everything's fine, Karl," she said. "Three casualties on our side."
"I said that everything's fine. Wellem was the worst. He caught a round in the gut, but we got the draughts into him in plenty of time. Mm, I got a capture, too." She eyed the slaver that Therol was treating. "That makes three, yes?"
"Would you take care of the women, first? Later there'll be plenty of time to stick a knife in these bastards and get them to talk."
"Agreed. But I'll take care of the women my way, since we have a spare slaver. Unless you're really set on stopping me?" Tennetty carefully kept her hand away from her swordhilt. "I'm asking nicely, aren't I?"
Karl shrugged. "Go ahead."
She took a shrouded lantern down from her saddle and slipped the baffles, then elbowed Therol out of the way and urged the slaver to follow her into the woods by the simple expedient of grabbing the man by his hair and pulling him to his feet.
"Follow me," she ordered the two women, smiling gently. "And bring your knives. Relax—this is the best thing in the world for you." The slaver safely in hand, she led the two women into the woods, her voice trailing off in the distance. "Now, you can take your time with him, but Karl doesn't like it, so it'd be better if you start with . . ."
Slovotsky started to object, but Karl quelled him with a sudden chopping gesture.
"She's been there, Walter. And we haven't."
"I don't have to like it. I don't have to like any of it, and I don't, Karl. I've gotten used to killing, but—"
"No, you don't have to like it." Karl shrugged. "What you have to do is not let it get to you," he said, looking Walter square in the face as he forced himself not to shudder at the screams coming from the woods. "Let's check out the wagons."
* * *
"So?" Walter asked, squatting in front of the blanket Karl had spread on the grass. "What do you make of all this?"
"Trouble." Karl stood and stretched, squinting at the noon sun. He rubbed the back of his aching neck and sighed, then held out his hand for the waterbag.
Walter tossed it to him. Karl drank deeply, then splashed some on his face before recorking the bag and handing it back.
Walter uncorked it and took a sip. "Speaking of trouble, not only did I find three bottles of dragonbane extract in one of the wagons, but Daherrin has been checking out their crossbow bolts. A lot of them seem to be absolutely coated with the stuff. Looks like the slavers are still interested in offing Ellegon."
That wasn't surprising: Ellegon was awfully useful for the Home forces to have around.
"Are you sure you burned it all?" Karl asked. Once thoroughly burned, dragonbane was every bit as harmless to Ellegon as burned pollen would be to a pollen-sensitive human, no matter how serious his allergy.
"Of course. Dumped the bottles in the hottest part of the fire; threw in every suspicious bolt."
Karl looked over to the slavers' campfire, now barely smoldering. "Have Daherrin build up the fire, just to be sure."
Karl looked around. The aftermath of the battle wasn't pretty. It never was. But it had, in its own gruesome way, become almost routine.
Just beyond the campfire, two piles of bodies lay, gathering flies. The smaller pile was a haphazard arrangement of fully clothed slavers; it continued to shrink as Daherrin and two assistants frisked the bodies, reclaiming both valuables and whatever clothing was sufficiently unbloodied to be usable, then stacking the corpses like cordwood.
By Karl's orders, the wizard's wagon had been left completely alone. There hadn't been any complaint; wizards had been known to leave hidden glyphs.
While the two remaining wagons had been left intact, their contents had been unpacked, sorted, inventoried, and repacked. Peill had removed the inlaid brass wave-and-chain insignia of the Pandathaway Slavers' Guild from the wagons' sides and propped up the plaques facing the road.
Standard operating procedure—slavers were always left for the vultures, along with some means for passersby to identify them as slavers. It was important that everyone know that only slavers had to worry about unprovoked attack by the Home forces; it took most of the steam out of pursuit by the locals.
"Well?" Walter raised an eyebrow. "What have we got?"
"A puzzle. I don't like puzzles." The guns weren't guns, and the powder wasn't gunpowder. What the slavers had been using was a fine-grained powder that looked more like ground glass than anything else. The gunlocks fired what appeared to be water through their breechholes and into the barrels. The water had to be loaded with something, but what?
Whatever it was, it worked. Loaded into one of the slaver's smoothbores, the powder could sink a lead ball a full two inches into a block of pine, only a quarter-inch less than a Home-made rifle firing Riccetti's best powder.
"Take a look." Karl unlooped his amulet from his neck and held it over the glass vial containing the slaver powder. The amber gem came alive: It pulsed with an inner light, first a dark red, then a greenish blue, then red, then blue again. "There's a charm involved."
"Well, your wife should be able to puzzle that out. What's bothering me is that it doesn't stink when it's lit off—however the hell their guns light it off. You try tasting it?"
"Tasting it?" Karl raised an eyebrow. "Do I look stupid?"
Slovotsky smiled. "Answer me first." His face grew grim; he shook his head. "We know that it works—somehow—and that it's charmed."
"Or the pouch is charmed, or something." Karl eased the cork out of the bottle and sniffed at it again. No scent at all. "Could it be cordite? Or just plain guncotton?"
"Not cordite. I've seen smokeless powder; it's darker, and it stinks when it's lit off, not like this stuff. But I've never been around pure guncotton, although I think it is white like this." Slovotsky stood, stretching in the bright sunlight. "It can't be guncotton, though—you use fire to set off guncotton, not water." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the woods where Tennetty had gone off with the two surviving slavers in tow. "Maybe Ten'll have something more. She's taking her time with the prisoners."
"Maybe they've got a lot to say."
"Don't count on it. We killed the master in the fight, and master slavers don't tell their journeymen a whole lot."
"So? Where do we go from here?"
Slovotsky thought it over for a moment. He pursed his lips. "Go back to first principles. What would you have wanted Daherrin to do if he'd gotten out with that one pouch and gun, the rest of us left behind, dead?"
"Get it back to the valley; have Riccetti analyze it." Karl nodded. "Which is what we'll do—although we'd better include Andy-Andy and Thellaren in on the group."
Tennetty's slim form appeared through a break in the trees. Karl beckoned her over.
"How are they doing?"
"Just fine." She nodded. "Chak and I got them drunk; they're sleeping it off. I think Chak likes Jilla—the blonde."
"She could do worse," Tennetty said. "It's going to be a major adjustment for both of them. They were raised as room servants in the Velvet Inn in Pandathaway. Sternius picked them up at a foreclosure sale, for a bit of diversion during the trip." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "I gave them your tent; didn't figure you'd mind."
"Must have taken you quite a while to do all that."
She shook her head. "Not really. I spent most of the time interviewing the two slavers."
"What'd they tell you?"
She smiled thinly. "Everything they knew." The smile fell. "Which wasn't much. You were right; this wasn't a raiding party. It was some sort of a trade. They were on their way to the inn in Enkiar to deliver guns and powder to whoever the buyers are."
"Any idea how much they were going to be paid?"
"Sure. Each of them was to get—"
"Not that—how much were they going to get for the cargo?"
"They didn't know. I do know what they were going to be paid in: a chain of slaves. How many?" She shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"Or as bad." Thirty or so slavers could handle a chain of anywhere from about one hundred to well over a thousand slaves, perhaps as many as two thousand. It all depended on how closely chained and how well tamed their human merchandise was. "What else have you got?"
"Not much, and most of it negative. These two don't know where the guns and powder were supposed to go from Enkiar. They don't know who made the powder in the first place; Sternius had all the barrels loaded in his wagons before he put together his team."
"How about the guns?"
She shrugged. "They picked them up at a smith's in Pandathaway, just before they left. Arriken the Salke—he has a medium-big shop on the Street of Steel." She chewed on her lip for a moment. "You know, we could go into Pandathaway and look him up."
Karl nodded. "Not a bad idea. Although the idea of entering Pandathaway makes me a bit nervous." He fingered his beard. "I guess I could lose the beard, maybe dye my hair. Dressed as a sailor—"
"No way." Slovotsky shook his head. "Thousands of people in Pandathaway saw you win the swords competition; a lot of them must still be around."
"I wasn't suggesting that Karl do it. But me, well—"
"Right, Tennetty." Karl snorted. "And there are a whole lot of one-eyed women warriors wandering around."
"Well, there's that glass eye that Thellaren has been trying to sell me. Maybe it won't look natural, but . . ." She fingercombed her bangs to half-cover her eyepatch. "But if I wear my hair like this . . ."
"Hmmm." Slovotsky nodded. "It might work. But why not take it from the other end? Pandathaway is too risky—but we could try it from the Enkiar side. I'm more than a little curious about who the guns and powder were going to, and why. And particularly how much they were paying. There's a technical term for the kind of trouble we'll be in if this stuff is relatively cheap."
"What's that?" Karl asked.
"Deep shit." Slovotsky smiled.
"But how would we do it?" Karl rose and stretched. "We don't know who we'd be looking for. The leader might have, but—"
"But what if he got himself killed? What if, say, the group was jumped by that evil, wicked Karl Cullinane and his raiders? And what if they lost, say, a quarter of their number before their guns drove that wicked Cullinane character off?"
Karl nodded. "Not bad." He turned to Tennetty. "How soon are they due in Enkiar?"
She shrugged. "Whenever they got there. Sternius wasn't rushing, but he wasn't lollygagging, either. I figure they're due in about three tendays, but I doubt that the buyer'd be worried if it took four. Only one problem."
"We need the right . . . props. By the time we get to Enkiar, I'm sure we'll be able to handle these slaver rifles, but that's not going to do it, not all by itself."
"So? What's the problem?"
"The first is the wizard. The buyers will be expecting one; apparently this stuff is too valuable to trust to such a small party without having a wizard around for the extra protection. Even if we put one of us into wizard's robes, that might not fool them."
"That's easy." Walter said. "Ellegon's due tonight; we'll have him fly back Home, bring back Henrad. Time the kid earned his keep."
"That's not enough." Tennetty shook her head. "What if the buyers are expecting the slavers to have a couple of slaves with them? I don't think we could expect Jilla and Danni to play along."
"No," Walter said, "we couldn't. Besides, if everything blew up in our faces, they wouldn't be able to fight their way out. No, we'll do it this way: What happened is that one of the slaves got killed in the fight, and the other tried to escape. We flogged her seriously, then healed her up when infection set in and it looked like it was going to kill her. Left a few scars . . . ."
Tennetty finally got it; she gasped, her face paled. "I can't. No—nobody's putting a collar around my neck."
"Easy, Ten." Karl laid a hand on her arm. "You don't have to. Maybe it won't be necessary for the disguise to work. The thing is, though . . ." He let his voice trail off.
"Who else could do it? Who else could look the part—and fight her way out, if all hell breaks loose?"
Slovotsky nodded. "As it always seems to. The only other choice I can think of is Andy."
"No." Karl shook his head. "No. Not if I'm going to be around. And not if I'm not. Clear?" When Andy-Andy was endangered, it was hard for Karl to concentrate on anything but her safety. He owed the others better—he owed himself better.
Tennetty looked him straight in the eye. "So I'm expendable, but Andrea isn't. Is that the way of it?"
"If you want to think of it that way, then go ahead. It's your choice." He folded his hands over and cracked his knuckles. "But damned if I'm going to justify myself to you, or to anyone else. You got that?"
"I asked if you got that."
"I can't hear you."
"Fine." He closed his eyes for a moment. He was missing something.
Ahh—if they were going to impersonate the slavers, then this raid didn't happen. And if it didn't happen, then what were all these bodies doing littering the meadow?
He raised a hand and beckoned Erek over. "I want Stick saddled and brought to me; I'm going up to the mesa to wait for Ellegon."
"Two. First is to Chak. Begins: You and Slovotsky are going to pick a thirty-man team to impersonate some slavers; report to Walter. I want the wagons cleaned up and the insignia remounted; they're to be ready to roll by morning—but keep everyone out of the wizard's wagon; it's to stay sealed up until we have Henrad check it out. Ends. To Gwellin. Begins: Report to Tennetty, immediately. Ends. Go."
Erek nodded and ran off; Karl called Daherrin over. "Change of plans—I want the slavers buried in the woods."
"Buried? What for?"
Daherrin snorted, then broke into a deep-chested laugh. "I will get an explanation eventually, won't I?"
"If you live until dark. Bury them deep; I don't want any wolves digging them up. This raid didn't happen. Got it?"
"Yes, Karl Cullinane." The dwarf walked away, bellowing for his assistants.
Karl turned to Slovotsky. "Walter, I want you to pick the team carefully. No dwarves, and go light on elves."
"Compare notes with Tennetty and Chak. This could easily turn out to be messy; anybody who was even a bit off his game last night goes back Home."
"How about Donidge? I hear he was damn good last night."
"So, his wife's due in a few tendays. I think it would be nice if he was around for it."
"Good point—count him out. Same for anybody else with pressing business back Home." He lowered his voice. "Exceptway orfay oinersjay; Ahiraway's avinghay enoughway oubletray, as it is. Kapish?" Pig latin wasn't exactly an elegant code, but no adults from This Side spoke English well enough to puzzle it out.
"Sí, señor. Gwellin's going to lead the overland group?"
"Right. Also, I want you to have the team work out with the slavers' guns, but make sure everyone's damn careful with that powder until we know more about it. Turn in your own guns to Gwellin; he's to have them broken down and loaded onto the flatbed."
"Can I keep a couple of pistols?"
"No—and none of our bullets or powder, either. We're going to play slaver until we get to Enkiar, and I don't want any slipups." Karl turned to Tennetty "You're to supervise the stowing of the slaver powder. I want a little taken out of each barrel and put in a flask. Carefully, now—this stuff might be poison; make sure you don't get any on you. Then seal the barrels back up tight and leave them alone."
"Fine." she nodded. "Who's going back Home with the powder?"
"You are. If Ellegon's brought the basket, you'll take Jilla and Danni with you. Otherwise they'll go back overland with Gwellin. Prepare them for both possibilities. Also, take three of the slavers' guns for analysis—put them with the powder. You're to take slaver rifles and powder to Riccetti and Andy-Andy; have them run an analysis. I'll want Ellegon to catch up with us somewhere this side of Enkiar; we'll set up a rendezvous when he gets here. He can bring Henrad along with him."
"Look—if you want in, you've got it. If you don't, you may as well take some time off at Home. If you do want in, you'll have to get yourself outfitted with that glass eye."
"Very well," Tennetty said. "You can count me out of this one, Karl. I don't want to wear a collar again. Ever."
That was too bad, but he wasn't going to try to push Tennetty into doing something that she really wasn't willing to do. "Fair enough. We'll have to do without."
Walter opened his mouth, then closed it. "Fine."
Erek arrived, leading Karl's horse. Karl pulled himself to Stick's broad back. "Anything else?"
"Yes." Tennetty jerked her thumb at the woods. "I've still got those two slavers."
Damn. Karl had forgotten about that for a moment—forgetting wasn't a luxury he could allow himself. "What kind of shape are they in?"
She shook her head. "Not too bad. Just a few cuts and bruises. I mean, I hamstrung them, of course—"
"—but they're not near dead. Should I fix that? Or do you want to?"
"The watchman lives. I promised him."
"Oh, great. 'Karl Cullinane's word is as good as gold'—is that it?"
Stick took a prancing step backward; Karl reined in the stallion with difficulty. "Easy, damn you. . . . Yes, Tennetty. My word counts for something."
"What do you want to do? If we're going to try to impersonate a slaver team, we can't afford to have him wandering around, working his mouth. Do you want me to turn him loose?" she shrilled, her hand resting on the hilt of her saber.
Walter moved behind Tennetty; Karl waved him away. "No, Ten. Take a bottle of healing draughts—one of theirs. Fix up his legs, and one arm. We'll take him back Home, keep him locked up. He won't see any more than traders already have. Once we come back from Enkiar, we'll turn him loose. I promised that he'd live."
Tennetty took a deep breath. "And the other? You didn't promise every bloody slaver his life, did you?"
"No, I didn't. Kill him. Walter, go with her; take charge of the prisoner. I won't want a ley de fuga, kapish?"
Karl gave a light tug on the reins; Stick broke into a canter.
I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls.
The night passed slowly, filled with the chirping of crickets, the whisper of wind through the trees, the flickering of the stars, and the pulsing of the faerie lights overhead. The faerie lights were more subdued tonight, changing slowly, as though the bloodshedding of the preceding night had shocked them into sullen dimness.
Karl finished laying the fire, spread his blanket near the edge of the mesa, then sat down, watching the sky, leaving the wood unlit.
Be here tonight, he thought. Please.
Stretching out on the blanket, he pillowed the back of his head on his hands and let his eyes sag shut. It could easily be a long wait.
Karl wasn't on the watch list—rank hath its privileges; and he could have allowed himself to fall asleep in his own tent—but if he wasn't up on the mesa waiting for Ellegon, he would have to put up with the dragon's nagging complaints until Ellegon took off for the trip back Home.
Ellegon was reliable within his limitations, but he did have limitations. It usually took the dragon three days to make it from Home to this particular rendezvous, but any number of things could throw him off schedule. Sometimes, innocuous things—Riccetti might have delayed him to fire a load of soft-pine charcoal, or Nehera might have been working on a batch of high-alloy steel.
Occasionally, Ellegon would be late because the dragon had been delayed at another resupplying stop, helping a hunter team out of trouble.
More than once, Ellegon's arrival had meant the difference between victory and death. A fire-breathing dragon was a nice hole card; standard doctrine, whenever possible, was to schedule a raid just before one of Ellegon's resupplying runs.
Karl smiled, remembering the expression on the face of the slavers who had trapped his team just outside of Lundeyll. Everything had gone wrong that time. A sudden rainsquall had come up, making it impossible for his team to reload their weapons, and it turned out that most of the supposed slaves chained behind the wagons had really been slavers. His back to the Cirric, Karl had resigned himself to a fight to the death, until a familiar voice sounded in his head.
So he had surrendered. Sort of.
Thermyn had been very pleased with his catch, until the moment Ellegon's massive head snaked out from behind a rock outcropping and bit off his legs, leaving an expression more of surprise than pain on his face. . . .
Usually, though, lateness was just a result of Ellegon's trying to avoid people. Dragons were close to extinct in the Eren regions; humans seemed to have an almost instinctive fear of the creatures.
Ellegon didn't fly over populated areas during the day. While the dragon was immune to almost any nonmagical threat, a dragonbaned crossbow bolt could cut through his scales like a hot knife through butter. And though he could fly far, far above the range of any bow, he did have to land eventually. It was best that nobody know when he was in the area, the dragon said.
That was true, but Karl had long suspected that fear of being attacked was only part of the reason the dragon avoided coming within range of strangers; Ellegon simply didn't like reading the hate and fear in their minds.
They had worked out a routine for Ellegon's resupplying trips. The dragon would leave the valley during the afternoon, flying throughout the night and reaching his first resting place just before dawn. He and his human assistant would rest during the day, taking to the air at night, flying as high as possible, crossing the land in night-long hops, finding another resting place before morning, then sleeping, eating, and talking during the day.
Karl had long ago noticed that the more Ellegon liked whoever had been assigned to assist him, the later the dragon tended to be. Extended conversation with adults was a rare pleasure for the dragon; the few Home citizens who really liked Ellegon and felt safe around him were usually too busy to spend much time with him.
* * *
Karl lay back, occasionally nodding off, until a vague reassurance touched his mind, bringing him quickly out of his light sleep.
A familiar voice sounded in his head. *Well? I brought the fatted calf—where are the party hats?*
"Ellegon!" A smile spread across Karl's face; he jumped to his feet. Where are you?
*Just out of sight. I'll be there in a moment. Hang on, stupid.*
The flapping of leathery wings sounded from below. Ellegon's massive form rose above the edge of the mesa; the dragon folded his wings against his sides and landed on the flat surface like a sparrow rising to a perch on a rooftop.
A very massive sparrow—the shock of his landing knocked Karl off his feet.
*Hello, clumsy,* Ellegon said. He was a huge beast, fully the length of a Greyhound bus from the tip of his twitching tail to the end of his saurian snout. He loomed above Karl in the dark, gouts of smoke and steam issuing from nostrils the size of hubcaps.
*Would you help Henrad down? The ride seems to have disagreed with him. He's been like this for the whole trip.*
"I can't imagine why," Karl said. Light the fire, if you can reach from here.
*No problem.* Ellegon snaked his head out and carefully flamed the wood, while Karl walked around the dragon's side and climbed halfway up the rope ladder to help Henrad unbuckle his riding harness and dismount.
Even in the flickering firelight, the apprentice wizard was almost green. Karl brought Henrad over to his blankets and helped him sit down. The boy gratefully waved Karl away, then leaned forward, his head between his knees.
*We ran into a bit of turbulence—rain clouds are moving in. I'll want to take off fairly quickly, if I'm going to outrun it.*
Fine. But why Henrad?
No, as a matter of fact, he should come in handy. In the morning, the boy could check out the wizard's wagon and disarm any magical glyphs, leaving any physical traps to Slovotsky. But you didn't answer my question.
*Your wife's idea. His crush on her is getting a bit out of hand—stop that.*
*Stop reaching for your sword. Andrea can handle him; if she couldn't she would have let me know. She just thought she could use a break from his roving hands and from him "accidentally" bumping into her at every opportunity.*
Karl glared at Andy-Andy's apprentice. I'd better have a word with him, anyway.
*I don't remember you being tolerant of other people messing with your apprentices. Leave it be, Karl, leave it be.*
As you did?
*Me?* The dragon's mental voice was all innocence. *What did I do?*
I suppose that you didn't make the ride as rough as possible. Karl snorted. I guess I'm just overly suspicious.
*You should watch that tendency of yours. It's not one of your prettier failings.*
Others had already arrived to help unload. They began by removing the saddlebag-slung leather sacks, then untied the huge wicker basket cupping the rear half of Ellegon's back and unloaded the burlap sacks underneath it.
Tennetty led the two former slaves up to the dragon, muttering reassuring words, while Daherrin carried the bound, blindfolded, gagged slaver over and unceremoniously dumped him in the basket.
"Daherrin," Karl called out, "sling the basket and rig the tarp. It might get a bit wet up there." What did you bring?
*Lamp oil, salt, dried beef, mutton, vegetables, bread—the usual. Open that wooden box first. Lou sent along a dozen bottles of the latest batch of Riccetti's Best.*
Oh? How good is it?
*What does a dragon know about corn whiskey? I can tell you that Ahira swears by it, although I think he's been using a bit too much, of late.*
Karl walked over to the dragon's head and reached up to scratch the fine scales under Ellegon's chin. It was like trying to pet a granite wall.
*Mmm . . . nice. Harder.* It was the thought that counted; Karl would have had to use a hoe for the dragon actually to feel it.
It's good to see you, he thought. I'm sorry you can't stay long.
*Don't be too sorry. You'll be seeing a lot of me over the next few days. Chton and his Joiners have petitioned for a town meeting; Ahira said to tell you that he is—and I quote—"looking down the barrel of a vote of confidence" and that you are to—quoting again—"hie your ass Homeward, on the double." He's worried, Karl.*
How about you?
*I think it's going to be close. And with two hunter teams away, he could lose. Pity you didn't think to allow for proxy voting in the Constitution.*
Well, if Thomas Jefferson didn't think of it, how would you expect me to?
*I have higher expectations of you—*
*—despite the fact that you are a constant disappointment, and—*
—a whole lot. Karl beckoned Chak over. "Which would you rather do: take a side trip Home with me, or run the team until Enkiar?"
"Run the team?" Chak opened his mouth, then closed it. "Why me? Why not Slovotsky?"
"I thought you don't like taking his orders."
*He doesn't, but he didn't think you noticed that.*
It's not polite to peek into somebody's mind without his permission.
*True. Then again, dragons aren't particularly polite.*
*Observant, aren't you?*
The little man shrugged. "I'd just as soon go Home with you, all things being equal."
*Why are you bringing him Home?*
Peep better. Tennetty says that he likes one of the new women. I want to give him a good shot at her, so to speak. It's about time Chak settled down and started a family. Can you reach Slovotsky?
*Mmm . . . got him. He's on his way up.*
Good. Relay, please: Nothing to worry about, Walter, but I've been called Home.
Ellegon's mental interpretation of Walter's voice was even more animated than usual. *Trouble? Please don't let there be trouble—*
Honest. No real trouble. It's just politics. I've got to kick some tails—
*Metaphorically, for once,* Ellegon put in.
Right. How would you feel about running the team until Enkiar?
* "No objection, other than the obvious one . . ."—he wants to go Home, is what he's saying, Karl—" . . . but why not Chak?" *
Relay: Because he's not married, and you are, and there are a couple of possible candidates that will be going home with Ellegon and me.
* "Good idea. No problem; I'll keep things together." *
Good. Hurry up and get up here. We're going to make this a quick turnaround.
*Don't you want to know about your family?*
There's nothing wrong with my family.
The reason Karl hadn't asked Ellegon about his family wasn't that he didn't care—it was just the opposite. The dragon knew that giving him news of anything wrong with Aeia, Jason, or Andy-Andy took precedence over everything else; since Ellegon hadn't said anything, there wasn't any problem.
He turned back to the dragon. "Any chance of Walter's running into any of our teams between here and Enkiar?"
*None. The last of Daven's team have returned Home, and Aveneer is working the edge of the Katharhd. Hmmm, I'd better play mailman. If you'll excuse me?*
Ellegon raised his head. *Personal messages,* he announced, *for the following: Donidge, Ch'akresarkandyn, Erek, Jenree, Walter . . . *
Karl always liked to watch people get their mail, although Ellegon was scrupulous about tuning him out. As the dragon relayed each message from home, the recipient's face would light up like a beacon.
Chak's dark face broke into a wide smile as Ellegon gave him the message. He nodded three times, then sighed, a far-off look in his eyes.
Karl waited until Chak's eyes cleared. "What's the news?"
The little man shook his head, still smiling. "Your son says that I should be real sure not to get my fool ass killed. I think he's been spending too much time around U'len."
Walter arrived, almost breathless.
Karl stuck out a hand. "We're taking off. Run things as you see best."
"I always do."
"But if you don't mind taking some advice . . . Ellegon says that you can't get jumped by any of our teams, but don't take chances. There may be some independents working the road between here and Enkiar. I'd rather you avoid them. Use roving point men, okay? Next, I want you to fill Henrad in, and have him go over the wizard's wagon, for magical traps, and—"
"Hey, if you're leaving me in charge, you'd better trust me not to stab myself in the foot, eh?"
"Right." He clapped a hand to Walter's shoulder. "Take care of things, okay?"
"Sure. Kiss my wife for me—and kiss yours for me, too."
Karl glared at him.
Walter spread his hands. "Face it: I'm irrepressible."
"Right." Karl helped Chak into the basket, then climbed up the rope ladder to the saddle on Ellegon's back and strapped himself in. "Everybody clear. Daherrin, are the straps okay?"
"Tight and strong," the dwarf called back, as he finished belting Chak, Tennetty, and the two women into the basket, then tied down the tarpaulin, leaving only their heads peeking out.
*My name is Ellegon.* The dragon's wings blurred; he leaped skyward.
Karl's Day Off
If a man insisted always on being serious, and never allowed himself a bit of fun and relaxation, he would go mad or become unstable without knowing it.
*Almost Home. Close your eyes.*
As they passed through the invisible barrier of the Spidersect wards, the air around the dragon shimmered and sparkled, reacting to Ellegon's partially magical metabolism.
Even through his tightly closed eyes, Karl was dazzled, although the momentary discomfort was reassuring. The ragged circle of wards enclosing the valley didn't only prevent outside wizards from peering in, it also prevented anyone from carrying anything magical inside. Soon after Thellaren had set up the wards, three different assassin teams had tried to slip through, but even when they had no other magical implements, their healing draughts had tripped them up.
Word had gotten out; there hadn't been an assassin team in the valley for more than three years.
The light faded; Karl opened his eyes as Ellegon banked and turned, circling in.
The valley spread out beneath them, the fields of corn and wheat a patchwork blanket, ragged toward the edges. Roads crisscrossed the valley like a spider's web, most of them crossing near the compound at the south end of the valley or just outside of Engineer Territory in the north.
Ellegon lost altitude as he swooped across the lake, circling in toward what once had been the original compound and now housed the grainmill, silo, Karl and Andy-Andy's first house, and the former smithy, now used for receiving and settling new arrivals.
The basket barely missing the sharp points of the compound's palisade, the dragon slowed, then hovered, lowering the basket to the ground with a gentle thump, then landing beside it.
Karl unstrapped himself from the saddle, then turned to untie the basket's straps. He quickly slid down the dragon's side to help Chak, Tennetty, and the two women out and onto the ground. They left the slaver inside. There was no rush about him.
"Solid ground," Tennetty breathed. She favored Karl with a smile. "I think solid ground is one of my favorite things in the world."
Chak stretched broadly. "I know what you mean."
"Hey," Karl said. "No complaints. Next time Ellegon'll let you walk."
"Karl's Day Off. I don't see you," Tennetty said, jerking her thumb toward the Old House. "I'll take Jilla and Danni through Receiving and see that the prisoner is properly guarded—my word."
"I can finish up—"
"Karl's Day Off," Chak said, nodding. "Go."
"But the powder. I've got to get that to—"
"The Engineers," Chak said. "And you want Riccetti briefed. Consider it done, kemo sabe. It's Karl's Day Off—begone!"
Chak and Tennetty turned and walked away as though Karl simply weren't there.
*You seem to have difficulty winning arguments with people you care about.* Ellegon chuckled mentally.
"Really? I never noticed," Karl said.
*Sarcasm doesn't become you. School will be letting out shortly. I'm going swimming.*
"But there's . . . I give up." Karl threw up his hands. "You win. I'll go change, then join you." He jogged over to the Old House, deliberately ignoring the three millworkers who were deliberately ignoring him.
Early on, Andy-Andy had insisted on a few luxuries for Karl, for fear that if he didn't claim them firmly enough, he'd never get even a taste of them. One of the most important was Karl's Day Off.
The rule was this: Despite whatever was going on at Home, regardless of the fact that there were usually five to ten people who wanted to see him the instant he got back, Andy-Andy had made it clear that Karl was not to be bothered by anyone except members of his immediate family for a full day after returning Home.
It had become almost ritualistic; citizens would pretend not to see him, treating him as though he were invisible.
Shutting the door behind him, he unbuckled his swordbelt and hung it on a peg, then untied the amulet from his neck, stowing it safely behind the top door of a crude bureau. It wasn't necessary to keep the amulet on his person at Home; the entire valley was under the wards' protection.
Hopping on alternate legs he loosened his boots and kicked them toward a corner, then stripped, slipping on a pair of shorts and tucking a towel, shirt, a pair of drawstring jeans, and sandals under his arm before exiting the Old House and jogging the few hundred yards to the lake.
Down the beach, Ellegon had already set down in the water just beyond the end of the schoolhouse's dock. Only his huge head and a portion of his back rose above the clear, cold water, and both were almost concealed by the crowd of half-naked children swarming over him.
Relay, please: Andy?
*She knows you're home, but she's busy. Leave her alone while you get clean.*
Good idea. Karl dropped his bundle of clothing to the hot sands and dashed for the water.
As always, it was far colder than he'd remembered. The lake was fed by the icy streams that trickled down from the mountains; as he entered the water, he wondered for the thousandth time if it was possible that ice melted at minus forty on This Side.
He forced himself to run into the water until it reached his waist, then dove headfirst and set off with a clumsy but powerful breaststroke toward the dock and the dragon.
If God had ever set out to create the perfect swimming companion for adult or child, Ellegon would have been it. With the dragon around, there was no need for a buddy system to ensure that any head going under the water surfaced with a live body attached. Ellegon would simply order any overtired child—or adult—out of the water, and nobody was interested in flouting his orders.
Well, almost nobody; Jason was a special case.
But Ellegon wasn't just a lifeguard.
*Care for a dive?*
As Karl reached the dragon, he set his feet against Ellegon's right forward knee and stood, rising half out of the water. He shook his head to clear the wet hair from his eyes, making a mental note that he'd better get another haircut, and soon.
*I asked if you would care for a dive.*
Ellegon carefully shook a pair of twelve-year-olds from his head, then craned his long neck so that Karl could step onto it.
Gently, this time. Wouldn't do for the kids to see me scream in terror.
The scales slippery beneath his feet, Karl stood gingerly and flexed his knees, balancing himself just behind the dragon's eye ridges. Ellegon quickly straightened his neck and tossed his head, sending Karl flipping head over heels forty feet into the air. Karl stretched out his arms, air-braking into a swan dive as he fell; he pulled himself into a tuck, then straightened as he slammed feet first into the water, slipping down into the dark iciness, rebounding gently off the sandy bottom of the lake.
As his head broke the surface, a slim arm snaked around his neck, a hand pressed hard against the back of his head, and a pair of firm young breasts pressed against his back, while powerful thighs scissored his waist.
"Hi!" Aeia said, kissing him on the back of the neck while firmly endeavoring to force his head underwater. "You're back."
"I noticed." She's getting a bit too old for this, he thought, far more conscious of her young body than was comfortable. He took a quick, deep breath, and dove.
*Do you want to know what's really going on in her head?*
No. Don't peep my family for me.
He'd caught her by surprise this time, diving before Aeia had the chance to grab a breath; she released her grip before he ran out of air.
He surfaced, blocked her next try, then grabbed her by the wrist and spun her around, pushing her toward the dock. "Go put on your halter."
"For swimming? Don't be such a—"
He forced a grim expression to his face. "Do it. Now."
She pouted and swam away, slipping seallike out of the water and onto the dock, then padding sullenly toward the schoolhouse, adjusting her shorts as she did.
What am I going to do about this?
*As I understand it, a bit of repressed sexuality between father and daughter is normal, whether the daughter is adopted or not.*
Where did you get that bit of bullshit?
*From the usual place: your head. Psych 101. Remember?*
*One bit of advice, if you don't mind?*
*It would be best for everyone if it's kept repressed. Adopted daughter or not, a husband really shouldn't cheat on a wife who can turn him into a toad.*
Well, Andy-Andy couldn't really turn him into a toad, but the dragon had a point.
"Right." He looked around, then quickly submerged to avoid the outstretched hands of three boys and two girls who had apparently decided that it was time to drown Karl Cullinane. He swam underwater, ducking under Ellegon's broad belly, then surfaced on the other side. Is she still busy? Where's Jason?
*She kept him after school. If you ask my opinion—*
Which I didn't. But I have a hunch I'll receive the benefit of it anyway.
*Good guess. I think she's too strict with him. Karl, he's only six years old. Just—*
Ellegon was interrupted by the pounding of feet on the dock and a sudden splash.
*Not again!* The dragon ducked his head underwater and came up with the wriggling form of Jason Cullinane in his mouth, then carefully spat the coughing boy onto the pier.
Clearly forcing himself to stop coughing, Jason straightened.
*He says that he's fine. I'm giving him a bit of hell.*
Good for you.
With the sole exception of Jane Michele Slovotsky, Karl had never really been impressed with children. The so-called special things about them were clearly parents' illusions, born of parents' need to feel special.
Jason, on the other hand, was special. It wasn't just that he had Andy-Andy's knowing brown eyes and smooth olive skin, or that the boy's straight brown hair was somehow finer than hair had any right to be. Even at six, Jason Cullinane had developed his own skewed ideas about what was right and wrong, which tended to be resistant to anything short of force majeure, and were completely immune to a father's attempts at reason.
What was simultaneously convenient and completely infuriating was that Jason, who could give a donkey stubbornness lessons as far as Karl was concerned, was easily influenced by his peers, and would obey Ellegon almost readily.
*You're not old enough to keep the water out of your nose when you jump unless you hold your nose. Until I tell you otherwise, I want you to hold your nose when you jump into the water. I am not going to pull you out again,* the dragon threatened.
*I am lying through my many teeth,* he said to Karl in a mental aside.
Jason wiped his nose and sniffed; his brown eyes grew vague.
*Talk with your mouth. I want your father to hear you promise.*
"I'm sorry, Ellegon," he said. "I won't do it again."
Karl swam over to the dock and pulled himself onto the hot wood. "Hi there."
"Hi, Daddy." Jason walked over to where Karl stood and stuck out a tiny hand.
"Wanna shake hands."
"Too old to kiss. Only babies do that."
"He does, does he? Well, whoever Mikyn is, he's wrong. He—"
"Is not. Shake hands."
Karl shrugged and sadly accepted the boy's hand in his. "Well, if you're too old, you're too old. What's new?"
"Can I go play?"
Karl could almost have cried. Well, when he was six years old, a lake with a dragon in it would have been a lot more interesting than talking with a father. "Sure."
Before the word was halfway out of his mouth, Jason was already jumping into the water, this time holding his nose.
Karl sighed, then turned and walked down the dock to the schoolhouse. It was a single-roomed building, the classroom roughly the same size as those that had been used on the Other Side since the Sumerians invented schools. While the walls were of good pine, and the benches and desks solidly built, the windows were of smoky, barely translucent glass. Glassmaking was one of the crafts that Home was still deficient in.
At the far end of the room, Aeia and Andy-Andy were crouched in front of a young boy, perhaps two years older than Jason, who was seated on Andy-Andy's chair, shaking his head.
Seeing her always brought it back to him: A smile really could brighten a room. She fingered the bend in her ever so slightly too large nose as she listened to Aeia talking with the boy.
Andy-Andy's frown spoke volumes: She was unhappy, but not with either Aeia or the boy.
She tossed her head, sending her shoulder-length black hair whipping about her face as she turned to glance at him, rewarding him with that smile.
Lady, you still take my breath away.
*Should I relay that?*
Don't bother. If she doesn't know . . .
He cleared his throat. Aeia, now wearing a halter, turned to wave him to silence.
Karl raised an eyebrow. He'd never been shushed by Aeia before. He walked over and laid a gentle hand on Andy-Andy's shoulder. She turned her face upward, giving him a quick peck.
"What is it?" he asked. "This all I get?"
*Old saying: When you don't know what you're talking about, your mouth is best used for chewing.*
"Mikyn?" Andy-Andy shook her head. "Please take off your shirt." She turned to Karl. "He's been holding his side all day; he almost couldn't get out of the chair."
"Can I help?" Ellegon, please relay: Maybe he's a bit shy about taking off clothes in front of you two. Mikyn apparently has some funny ideas—it seems he told Jason that only babies can give their fathers a kiss.
*She says, "Karl, I think this is a bit more serious." *
Ellegon, why don't you just peep him?
*She already asked me to. There's a block—a lot of emotion going on under the surface, but I can't read it at all. I'm not perfect, you know. Sometimes, when you get too intense, I can't even read you.*
Okay; back to basics. Relay: Let me give it a try. What's to lose?
She nodded, then rose, giving him a quick peck on the lips before taking Aeia out of the room.
Karl chuckled thinly. Some welcome. "Hi there," he said in English, then switched to Erendra when the boy didn't answer. "What's the problem?"
"You know who I am?"
"Right. You can call me Karl. Andrea says that your side hurts. Can I take a look?"
Mikyn shook his head.
"You don't have to." Karl nodded. "We'll do it your way. Do you mind talking for a while?" Karl pulled over Andy's chair and seated himself ass-backward, folding his arms over the chair's back.
"I don't remember seeing you around. Are you new here?"
New here. Well, if Karl hadn't brought the boy in, then somebody else had; Jason was the oldest person to be born in Home, Jane Michele Slovotsky second by half a year.
Relay: Tell me about the boy.
*She says, "Not much to tell. Sad story, but typical. Daven's team brought him and his father in, about tendays ago. They're cropping for the Engineers until they earn their grubstake. They're from Holtun—used to be owned by some baron or other who got burned out by the Biemish; apparently got scooped up early this year, after some battle or other. The mother got sold off. This isn't the first time he's been hurt; Mikyn bruises easily. I think one of the older boys may have been beating him up, but Ellegon can't peep out who—"*
No need, dammit.
*You know what it is?*
I know what it sounds like. He dialed for his command voice. "Take the shirt off, now."
Wide-eyed, the boy started to comply, then remembered that he wasn't supposed to take his shirt off and pulled it back down.
But not before Karl saw the huge bruise across his ribs. "Aeia, get in here." His jaw clenched. So much for my day off.
He forced a smile to his face. "I'm going to have Aeia take you over to Thellaren. You won't have to take off your shirt for him to fix you up. And then you can go right home."
That last hit Mikyn like a slap. The boy's face whitened.
Karl smiled reassuringly. "No, not your home. Jason's and mine. You don't have to go back to your father, if you don't want to. But when you do, he's not going to hurt you anymore. I promise."
*You want me to send for a sword?*
No. Drop Ahira off at the Old House. Then find Mikyn's father and probe him. If I'm right, scoop him up and bring him, too.
He nodded to Aeia. "Take Mikyn to the cleric. When you're done there, find him a bed in the New House; he's staying with us tonight. I'll see you later."
He walked to the door and walked back to the Old House, his hands balling themselves into fists.
* * *
Leathery wings flapped outside the Old House, followed by a solid thump.
Limping slightly, Ahira swung the door open and walked into the room, his forehead creased in irritation.
The dwarf was barely half Karl's height, but fully as wide. That, combined with his heavy brows and overmuscled body, always made him look as though nature had intended Ahira to be a tall man, but his body had never gotten the hint.
Despite the situation, Karl had to repress a smile. He always had to, whenever he saw Ahira wearing a pair of Homemade jeans and a blue cotton workshirt. Somehow the dwarf looked more natural in chainmail and leather.
Karl gestured him toward a chair. "Good afternoon, Mr. Mayor."
The dwarf remained standing. "Cut the crap—I'm busy. I was busy, that is, until that damn dragon of yours swooped down out of the sky and scooped me up without so much as a by-your-leave."
"What's the problem?"
"Territory dispute. Riccetti's complaining that Keremin's encroaching on a field that belongs to the Engineers."
"Well? Is Lou lying?"
"So? What's the big deal?"
"Well, Keremin's a Joiner, but he's been a quiet one, lately. I'm trying to smooth it over, without getting him all that angry at me just before the town meeting."
"Any chance of giving Lou a substitute parcel?"
Ahira shrugged. "It's the lot just west of the cave." He sighed and sat down. "And it's his. Politics is thirsty work—hint, hint."
"Sure." Karl found two clay mugs in the near cabinet, then took a bottle down from the shelf, uncorked it, and poured each of them three fingers of Riccetti's Best. "You missed something kind of important."
"What is it now?" Ahira sipped his whiskey, then made a face. "This isn't too bad, but have you tasted the beer lately? I could swear that it's getting worse. I'd give my kingdom for a Miller, my empire for a Genny Cream."
"Ahira, we've got a case of childbeating, I think."
"New folks. The kid's name is Mikyn. I don't know the father's."
The dwarf's free hand clenched into a fist. "You want me to handle this? I don't like childbeaters any more than you do."
"Sure you do. You feel a lot of sympathy for the poor, misunderstood bastards. Matter of fact, you're the only thing that's standing between big, bad Karl Cullinane and this particular poor, misunderstood bastard."
"Really? You're sure about that?"
Leathery wings flapped overhead. *We are here. And you were correct about Alezyn. I'm sorry, Karl.*
*Dammit, this is the sort of thing I'm supposed to spot, and prevent. It's just that I hate probing people I don't know, and it's really—*
Shh. We're not required to be perfect. We're just required to do our damnedest.
*But what do we do when that isn't enough?*
There wasn't an easy answer to that. Karl lifted his head. "Alezyn, get in here. Now."
The door swung tentatively open, and Ellegon nudged Alezyn into the room. Alezyn sprawled face-first on the floor, then picked himself up.
The trouble was, Alezyn didn't look like a childbeater. He was a short, balding little man, with a round face and wide eyes; his expression was half hostile, half frightened; he looked far more like someone beaten on than the sort of brute who would take his frustrations out on a child.
"What is this all about?"
"We want to talk with you," Ahira said.
"Yes, Mr. Mayor." Alezyn started to tug on his forelock, then caught himself.
"And," the dwarf went on, "either we're going to have a very productive talk, or . . ." He let his voice trail off.
Ahira turned to Karl. "Show him."
Karl stood. He grabbed the smaller man by the front of his tunic and easily lifted him off the ground.
"We haven't met before. My name is Karl Cullinane. And what I want is for you to understand why I'm going to start with this." He bounced Alezyn off the nearest wall, then took a step forward as the other lay on the bare wood floor, gasping for breath.
Ahira caught his arm. "No, don't kill him."
Ellegon poked his head through the door. *No, I have a better idea. Let me eat him. I've always wondered how a man who beats children would taste.*
Karl wouldn't have thought it possible for the little man's eyes to grow wider. He was wrong.
"Never mind, Ellegon," Karl said. "It'd probably poison you."
*From Ahira: "You're planning to put the fear of God into him, right?"*
No, the fear of me. Sometimes God doesn't follow through.
*Too risky. He might take his frustrations out on the kid, then panic and kill him.*
*So follow my lead.* "Put him down, Karl."
"Put. Him. Down." As Karl complied, the dwarf helped Alezyn off the floor, and threw an arm around the man's shoulder. "Let's talk, just you and me."
Alezyn made an abortive attempt to shake the arm off, but he might as well have been trying to pry away a steel bar.
"I understand what you've been going through," Ahira said gently. "Captured, enslaved, your wife sold off. And now, you're in a new country, and we don't do things the way you did them at home. Frustrating, eh?" He helped Alezyn to a chair, then offered him a sip of whiskey. "Go ahead. It'll be good for you."
The little man took a shallow sip. "Yes, b-but—can I talk freely? Without him hitting me again?"
"Of course. You're under my protection while you're in this room." The dwarf turned to glare at Karl. "You hear that?"
"Yes, Mr. Mayor."
"Better." Ahira turned back to Alezyn. "You were saying?"
"Mikyn is my son. When he disobeys, I have the right to punish him. He's my son. Mine."
"That's right. And what you're going to have to learn is that here, 'my son' or 'my wife' or even 'my horse' means something different than 'my shovel.' Or . . ."
"Or I'll kick your ass out that door and let Karl slice you into breakfast for Ellegon," the dwarf bellowed, his face a mask of rage. "As I was saying," he said in a calm voice, "you've got a lot to learn. And I don't think you're going to learn it cropping for the Engineers. I've got just the schoolroom in mind. Karl."
"Yes, Mr. Mayor?"
"Escort Alezyn over to the parade ground. Daven's team is running some maneuvers." He switched to English. "The other day, I was telling him some stories my father used to tell me about Marine boot camp. He'll understand when you tell him that Alezyn is to be treated as a boot." He turned to Alezyn and spoke in Erendra. "Karl will take care of your son until you're done training."
"Yes. We're going to make a warrior out of you."
"A warrior?" Alezyn's face whitened.
"Yes. It's either that, or banishment. You can start running right now, if that's what you want. Or . . ."
The dwarf chuckled. "Whenever I end a sentence with an or, you really should hold on to your curiosity. We're going to make a warrior out of you, or we're going to kill you trying. You can either get your stupid butt out the door and wait for Karl, or . . ." His voice trailed off.
Alezyn didn't ask; he bolted for the door.
Karl chuckled. "Ahira, I like your style." He sobered. "We've got lots to talk about. Why don't you bring Kirah and Janie over to the New House for dinner?"
Ahira picked up his cup and drained it, then looked inside. "I seem to be out of whiskey." Karl passed him the bottle; ignoring the cup, the dwarf uncorked it and tilted it back. "Mmm . . . dinner sounds good—want to include Riccetti?"
"Sure. Can you put him up for the night, though? I'm putting Mikyn in our guesting room, and I wouldn't want to slight Lou."
"Damn well better not. And sure, he can have my room. I don't get much use of it, lately."
"Really? I didn't know that your social life had picked up."
"Very funny. Janie's been having nightmares again. I have to sleep with her most nights." The dwarf snorted. "At least, she says she has bad dreams; I think maybe she just wants some more attention."
"You're spoiling that kid."
"You think so, eh?" Ahira cracked his knuckles. "You want to try to stop me?"
"Me?" Karl raised his hands in mock surrender. "I wouldn't dare—but I'd better get over to the house; U'len will have my hide if I don't give her a bit of warning. And we'll add Thellaren, too. Get some work done tonight."
"How about Karl's Day Off?"
"Screw Karl's Day Off." He walked out into the square, where Alezyn stood waiting.
No medicine can be found for a life which has fled.
Karl considered the last thick wedge of blueberry pie on the earthenware serving tray, then decided that the remaining shards of Karl's Day Off entitled him to it.
He slipped it onto his plate and brought a spoonful to his mouth. Damn, but it was sweet. Fresh-baked goods were what he missed most when he was on the road.
At the other end of the table, Andy-Andy smiled a promise at him.
Well, maybe fresh-baked goods weren't exactly what he missed most.
Sometimes, life is almost worth living. He folded his hands over his belly and sat back, letting his eyes sag half-shut.
Reaching for a piece of cornbread, Ahira accidentally elbowed a knife from the table; it clattered on the floor.
Karl leaped out of his chair, his hand going to his waist for the hilt of the sword that wasn't there.
He stopped himself in midmotion, feeling more silly than anything else. Gesturing an apology, he took his seat, feeling every eye in the room on him. "Sorry, everybody. It's . . . just that it takes a while, after you've been out. I kind of need to . . . decompress."
"You're not the only one," Chak said from the doorway, chuckling as he sheathed his falchion. The little man walked over to the table and took a piece of cornbread from the breadboard. "When I heard the clatter, I rolled, drew my sword, and was halfway down the stairs before I realized that it was probably just some eating ware."
"How are the children?" Andy-Andy asked.
"Wonderful." Chak smiled. "Jason and Janie are snoring, and I was finally able to get Mikyn to fall asleep."
Karl snorted. "You didn't have to play baby-sitter, you know. You're allowed to come up and eat with the rest of us."
"I never see enough of Jason and Janie," Chak shrugged. "I've seen you eat more than often enough, Karl. It's no thrill."
"Thanks." Karl gestured to a chair. "Do you want to join us, or would you rather go watch the children sleep?"
The dark little man pitched his sheathed falchion into the swordstand in the corner and sat, pulling himself up to the table next to Aeia. "U'len, I'll have some beef," he called toward the kitchen.
The answer came back immediately: "Then go bite a cow!"
A chorus of quiet chuckles sounded. Karl looked around the long table. Except for Chak, everyone seemed satisfied, although Aeia's plate was closer to full than he liked to see. Was she eating so lightly because of some teenage pickiness, or because she was afraid to appear less than grown-up in the way she handled a knife and fork?
Well, either way, she could always snack later, he decided. U'len wheedled easily.
In the seat of honor at Karl's left, Lou Riccetti had pushed his chair away from the edge of the table and loosened his trousers' drawstrings, accepting the offer of a damp cloth from the teenage junior apprentice Engineer who waited attentively behind his chair, one hand always resting on a holstered pistol.
More than once, Riccetti had privately offered to waive the bodyguard when he was visiting, but Karl had vetoed that. For the next few years, Lou Riccetti would be the most valuable person in the valley, and the rituals that Riccetti and Ahira had developed for the Engineers were too useful to allow for weakening exceptions. Karl wasn't necessarily going to remain the only target of guild-inspired assassination attempts.
He frowned; Riccetti's weight bothered him. Karl had always secretly suspected that Riccetti, pudgy before they'd been transferred to This Side, would run to fat, but he'd been dead wrong. Lou was almost skeletal these days; he claimed he was just too busy to eat, and while his junior Engineers cooked for him, none was ever presumptuous enough to tell the Engineer to slow down or eat more.
"I should send U'len over to cook for you," Karl said. "Got to get some meat on your bones."
"I'm doing fine."
"I'll tell you when you're doing fine, asshole. Eat regularly, put on some weight, or I'll tell U'len to keep the stew coming while I hold you down and force-feed it to you."
The apprentice—Ranella, that was her name—kept her pimpled face calm only with visible effort. In Engineer Territory at the north end of the valley, nobody spoke to the Engineer that way. Ever.
"And I get no say in the matter?" U'len said with a sniff, as she bustled through the curtains covering the arched doorway that led from the kitchen to the dining room, two fresh pies balanced on a wooden slab next to a platterful of roast beef that overflowed, dripping red juices. She was a profoundly fat woman of about fifty, her face perpetually red from the heat of the stove.
"You think I have little enough work to do here, that you can make me cook for those filthy Engineers as well? You should lay off your sword practice for a few tendays, and exercise your mind. If you have one." She handed Chak the platter of beef, then set one pie down gently on Andy-Andy's end of the table and slammed the other down on Karl's. "Always making problems for me, for your wife, for everyone and everything . . ."
"Easily solved—at least as far as you're concerned," Karl said. "You're fired."
"I am not. You wouldn't dare, you brainless son of a—"
"I will tell you when I've said enough," she called over her shoulder as she vanished back into the kitchen. "Damn fool swordsman. I'd say he had droppings for brains, except that'd be unfair—to droppings. . . ."
Well, U'len was the best cook in the valley, although her tongue was just as sharp as her kitchen knives. Karl was secretly pleased with her irritability; U'len had come a long way from the cringing wretch in the slave markets of Metreyll.
Sitting on Riccetti's left, Thellaren brushed a few stray crumbs from his black robes and smiled as he reached for a piece of pie, his hands seemingly immune to the hot drops of bubbling blueberry filling.
"You seem to collect irritating people around you, Karl Cullinane." The fat Spidersect priest shook his head. "One would think that you like it that way." Thellaren broke off a crumb and blew on it before feeding the tarantula-sized spider on his shoulder. The creature grabbed the morsel in its mandibles, then scurried away, hiding itself somewhere inside the priest's ample robes.
"True enough." Ahira grinned slyly. "After all, look who he married."
The dwarf had timed that just right, just as Andy-Andy had lifted her goblet and begun to drink. Water spurted out of her mouth and onto her plate.
Riccetti flashed a brief smile. "Two points, Ahira."
Andy-Andy glared at both the Engineer and the dwarf, then broke into a fit of giggles.
Karl sighed happily. He hadn't heard her actually giggle for years.
After a brief glance at Ahira for permission, Kirah joined in the general laughter. Walter's wife was still, even after all this time, reserved, almost silent, around Karl. The dwarf was a different case; since Ahira lived with her, Janie, and Walter, she had come to take him for granted.
Karl pushed his chair back from the table and folded his hands over his navel. "So? Where do we stand?"
"Which?" Riccetti downed the last of his water. "Politics or powder?"
Ahira bit his lip. "It's the politics that worries me. Even if the locals—"
"—even if the slavers have figured out how to make powder, we have quite a few tricks in reserve. Nitrocellulose," Ahira said with a sigh. "If necessary."
Riccetti snorted. "Fine. You figure out how to keep it stable."
Karl raised an eyebrow. "How's the research going?"
"Not well. It's still averaging around ninety, ninety-five days before the damn stuff self-detonates." He threw up his hands. "It could be that I've got to figure out a better wash—or maybe just bite the bullet and admit that I can't do it with the kinds of impurities we're getting in the sulfuric. Or maybe I should just tell you to find yourself another jackleg chemical engineer."
"Don't heylou me, dammit. If I had wanted to major in chemical engineering instead of civil engineering, I would have. You know how I was taught to procure explosives?"
"I was taught to order them. Out of a catalog. You get a license, you fill out the forms, you write a check . . ." He chewed his thumbnail. "And really pure chemicals—"
"Wait." Ahira held up a hand. "Lou, with all due respect, do we have to go through this again? We all know that you're going to keep working on guncotton, and everybody in this room believes that you'll lick the self-detonating problem, eventually."
"Sure I will. Ever read that Verne book about a trip to the moon?"
"The one where they shot them out of a cannon? No. Why?"
Riccetti spread his hands on the table. "Observe—at no time do the fingers leave the hand. I like it that way." He drummed his fingers on the table. "Most of the book was nonsense. But ol' Julie had one thing right. Most of his characters—people who spent a lot of time dealing with explosives—were missing a few body parts. If I had to start making explosives in quantity, God knows what'd happen."
"So don't make any quantities until you're ready to."
"I guess I should have studied chemical engineering. Or brought along a few pounds of PYX, maybe."
"There is a . . . nastier alternative." Andy-Andy's face grew grim. "I could put in the work to learn transmutation of metals, instead of just doing this agricultural kid stuff. How many pounds of uranium would it take to—"
"Forget it." Riccetti shook his head. "Three problems. First, without good explosives for the lenses, setting off a fission bomb isn't easy. Second, it isn't only uranium you need, you need uranium that's ninety-seven plus percent U-two-thirty-five. Third, you won't live to get good enough to do any kind of transmutation. It's not like rainmaking. Aristobulus wasn't far enough along for transmutation, and you're still not half the wizard . . . he was."
"Delicately put." Ahira raised his eyes to heaven. "But Lou's right, although for the wrong reasons. We're not taking that route."
Thellaren raised an eyebrow, but didn't ask. "Mr. Mayor, what do you think we ought to do about the political situation? You are not willing to consider Lord Khoral's new offer?"
"New offer?" Karl asked. "Something I don't know about?"
"Yeah." The dwarf shook his head. "We've got another emissary from Khoral due between now and the town meeting, and I expect he's going to up the ante. More serfs; titles enough to go around—how would you like to be Karl, Baron Cullinane?"
"All he wants is your fealty, Karl. And, just maybe, he wants Lou to give him the secret of gunpowder."
"What he wants, Ahira, is both Lou and a bargaining chip to bludgeon the Slavers' Guild with."
"It's not the bludgeoning that bothers you. It's the possibility of not bludgeoning. C'mon, now, there's never been a human baron in Therranj," the dwarf teased. "Wouldn't you like to be the first?"
"No, thanks." It was partly a matter of ego, partly a matter of dignity. But mainly it was a matter of independence.
Karl didn't like the idea of being told what to do by anyone, and he most particularly didn't like the idea of becoming a second-class Therranji. Elves had ruled in Therranj forever; the present Lord Khoral claimed to trace his ancestry back for thousands of years. Humans were second-class citizens in Therranj, and though most of them were as native-born as the elves, descendants of immigrants from the Eren regions, humans were forbidden to own land, ride horses, or practice half a score of professions.
And despite the fact that Khoral had already offered full Therranji citizenship to everyone in the valley—humans, elves, and dwarves alike—Karl was more than sure that that wouldn't quite take. Racial prejudice was different here, but still every bit as firmly entrenched on This Side as back on the Other Side.
Maybe worse, in a way; here, there was a sound basis for at least some of it. While Karl didn't have anything against dwarves or elves, he wouldn't want Aeia to marry either; any children would be sterile, mules.
And then there was the matter of the Slavers' Guild. Western Therranj was a prime raiding ground for the slavers, and certainly that was a common interest between Home and Therranj for now—but that could change. There was no doubt that Khoral wanted to hold the threat of Karl Cullinane over the slavers' heads, promising to restrain him if the guild would lay off the raids on Therranj.
What bothered Karl was that Khoral just might persuade the guild. The spreading war in the Middle Lands increased the supplies of slaves in its wake; it was becoming increasingly easy for the guild to trade in Bieme and Holtun rather than raiding into Therranj.
There was an even darker side to it. What if Khoral was sincere? What if he really would make Karl some sort of baron?
That was a trap for both ruler and ruled. Karl's authority over his warriors flowed from respect and choice—both theirs and his. There might come a time when he could give up that authority and what went with it, when he'd be able to say that he'd never again have to see friends' intestines spill onto the grass.
But that could only happen as long as he remained free. Not trapped by a title.
"The town meeting is the problem," Karl said. "At least for now. It might get a bit dirty—"
"Karl—" Andy-Andy started.
"—politically," he went on. "No bloodshed. I'll handle it. Just make sure that the envoy's kept busy until the meeting. Give him a full, in-depth tour, excluding Reserved caverns. Hell, you can have Nehera discourse for a couple of hours on alloys. Hmmm . . . I don't see any need for the envoy to be muttering with the Joiners—so be careful." He turned to Lou. "Anything outside of the caverns that shouldn't be seen?"
"Well, nothing critical, but yes," Riccetti said, frowning. "There's a charcoal heap still smoldering—that's no problem. But we've got a few pots boiling over wood fires. I'll draft Ellegon to hurry the job, but getting them inside before they cool will be a problem. Andrea, would you levitate them for me?"
"After that crack about how easy rainmaking is, I shouldn't— but I will." She wrinkled her brow. "I hope they're covered, though. You did know I'm rainmaking tonight?"
"I knew," Riccetti said. "The pots are under flies. As for getting it out of sight . . . I can have everything inside by tomorrow night if you'll come over after school and give us a hand."
He didn't say what was in the pots, but Karl assumed it was dirt from the cave floors, saltpeter being crystallized out of the bat guano as an ingredient for gunpowder. There was no need to be overly secretive. Everyone in the valley either knew or suspected that the making of gunpowder involved boiling something. Exactly what would be hard to guess, but there was no need to take extra chances.
Karl nodded. "Sounds good. As far as the emissary goes, he can say what he wants to; I just want the last word. Both with the elf and before the voting."
"Karl, you're treating this too lightly," the dwarf said, shaking his head. "I really think you ought to go around and talk to people."
"Too obvious. The Joiners will be expecting me to do some politicking for you."
"Hell, I'm expecting you to go around politicking for me."
"Guess again." Karl shook his head. "You're thinking like a politician."
"Which you're not."
"Precisely. We living legends do things differently." Karl blew on his fingernails and buffed them on his chest. "By now, it's common knowledge from here to the caverns that I'm back because you sent for me. And since I've always hated to do the expected, I'm going to do nothing political, say nothing political, until the town meeting."
"And then I . . . transcend the political."
Ahira chuckled. "The last time I was around when you 'transcended the political,' you beat the hell out of Seigar Wohtansen. Hope you don't end up as unpopular around here as you are in Melawei."
"Don't mention Melawei." Karl slammed his fist down on the table, sending plates and silverware clattering. "Ever." It wasn't just that Melawei was where Rahff had died; Melawei was also where the sword of Arta Myrdhyn lay waiting in a cavern beneath an offshore island, clutched in fingers of light.
It's not waiting for my son, you bastard. You keep your bloody hands off Jason. He rubbed his fingers against his eyes until sparks leaped behind his eyelids. "I'm sorry, Ahira—everybody." He opened his eyes to see Lou Riccetti standing, his fingers clutching the apprentice's wrist. Chak stood behind her, one hand gripping her hair, his eating knife barely touching the wide-eyed girl's throat.
"Easy, Chak," Karl said. "Let her go."
Eyeing the apprentice suspiciously, Chak let go of her hair and took his seat again, carefully examining the knife's edge.
"Ranella," Riccetti said quietly, releasing the girl's arm. "We have discussed this. You may pull a weapon on me before you threaten Karl. Understood?"
"But I was just—"
"An excuse? Did I hear an excuse?"
"Am I understood?"
Riccetti held out his right hand; the apprentice laid the pistol gently in it. "Report to the officer of the watch as quickly as possible, and ask him to send me a pair of decent bodyguards; I'll remain here until they arrive. You won't need to use your horse; the run will be good for you. Begin now. Dismissed."
"Yes, Engineer." Her face a grim mask, the girl spun on her heel and sprinted from the room.
Riccetti turned to Karl. "I . . . understand about some things making you angry, but I really don't want you to ever force me to do that again. Ranella's a good kid; I don't like having to punish her."
Riccetti was right. At Karl's original insistence, Engineers were trained always to be careful of Riccetti's safety, and anything that might dull that training was wrong.
Karl raised a hand in apology. "Sorry, Lou—you, too, Ahira. My fault, again. I've been out too much lately; I really should spend more time at Home."
Thellaren cleared his throat. "I believe we were discussing the political issues?"
"Right." Karl smiled a quick thank-you at the cleric. "There's two sides to the problem: the Joiners and Khoral's emissary. We've got to pry enough votes away from the former to make sure you stay in office, while letting the latter know that Therranj is better off with us as a friendly neighbor than they would be if they decide to get nasty. So . . ."
"So, trust me."
The dwarf sat silently for a moment. "Done."
Karl picked up the handbell from the table and rang it. Footsteps sounded on the stairs; Ihryk stepped into the room.
"Hell, Ihryk. I didn't know you were working." Ihryk worked part-time for Karl and Andy-Andy as a houseman, using the income to supplement his work on his own fields. He could have expanded his fields and supported himself and his family entirely by farming, but he seemed to like the variety almost as much as the pay.
"We finished planting my wheat two days ago; I start my tenday tonight."
"It's good to see you. How are things upstairs?"
"The children are fast asleep."
"Good. Aeia, why don't you say goodnight to everybody and let Ihryk tuck you in."
She frowned. "But Karl—"
"Enough of that," Karl said. "If you don't get enough sleep, the kids'll run you ragged tomorrow."
"Uh, Karl?" Andy-Andy raised a finger. "With all due respect, buzz off. While you were on the road, Aeia and I decided that she's old enough to pick her own bedtime."
"Right. Sorry, Aeia." Karl added another entry to his ever-lengthening list of things to do. He'd have to get Aeia married off. Not that he could force her into anything. God knew where she'd picked up that stubborn streak, but she had.
One way to do it might be to pick someone appropriate and forbid Aeia to see him. But who? Karl couldn't see turning her over to some ex-slave farmer who didn't know one end of a sword from another, but the idea of Aeia ending up as a warrior's widow didn't thrill him, either. Besides, Andy-Andy wouldn't stand for that.
Maybe an engineer. He'd have to talk to Riccetti, have Lou keep an eye out for someone who might be right for Aeia.
Well, I'm not going to solve that one tonight. Karl turned to Kirah. "It would be a shame to wake Janie. Why don't you let her spend the night here?"
It wasn't just that he liked having Janie around, although he did. Mainly, he was thinking of the morning; Jason thought of Jane Michele as a sort of younger sister who required a good example in order to stay out of trouble, and that tended to suppress Jason's natural inclinations to get himself into trouble.
"Good," he said, standing and stretching. "Sorry to interrupt the party, people, but I've had a long day, and I've got to turn in."
Andy-Andy rose. "Ahira, Lou, Thellaren, I'll give you enough time to get home before I start the rain."
Riccetti frowned. "Do you have to do it tonight?"
"I promised. Ihryk isn't the only one who's planted in the past few days; a good rain will give those fields a nice start." She smiled at Karl. "I'll help them all on their way. Why don't you go up and stretch out?"
* * *
He opened the door slowly. Karl stepped into Jason's room, moving quietly, softly, like a thief in the night.
Barely visible in the dim starlight that streamed in through the open window, the three children slept together, Mikyn's and Janie's bedding rumpled, but empty.
Janie was snoring, as usual. How a cute little girl like Jane Michele had developed such a snuffling snore was something that escaped Karl.
Mikyn huddled on his left side, curled into a fetal position, his breathing shallow, ragged, as though he didn't dare relax, not even in his sleep.
Maybe I let Alezyn off too lightly, Karl thought. Well, if so, that would be easy to fix. Then again, killing somebody just because he was a bastard was probably not the best way to handle things—the world was so damn full of bastards.
He had to chuckle at the way Jason slept between the other two children, stretched out flat on his back, one little arm thrown protectively around each of the other's shoulders.
Karl seated himself tailor-fashion next to the bed as the rain began, falling softly, a gentle benediction on the ground outside. He reached out and gently cupped the back of Jason's head with his hand. Jason's hair was fine, silky . . . and clean, for once.
Little one, he thought, I don't see nearly enough of you. That was one of the troubles with this damn business. It took Karl away from home too much, and left his nerves frazzled too much of the time that he was home. Normally, it wasn't as bad as it had been tonight; usually, the trip back gave him a chance to decompress. But riding Ellegon back had cut that time short. Too short.
Slowly, gently, Karl bent over and carefully kissed Jason on the top of his head. Arta Myrdhyn, he thought, you're not going to get your hands on Jason. Not my son.
He heard Andy-Andy's footsteps on the stairs, and waited to hear her walk to their room, and then, seeing that he wasn't there, turn around and look for him with the children.
She surprised him; she came directly to Jason's room. She stood in the doorway, the light of the hall lantern casting her face into shadow. A stray breeze touched the hem of her robes, swirling it around her ankles.
"Everything okay in here?" she whispered.
"Fine," he answered, rising. "Come take a look."
"No." She touched a finger to his lips. "You come with me." She blew out the hall lamp and led him down the hall to their room.
Wind whipped at the curtains, sending their hems fluttering over the bed. Andy-Andy pulled the covers aside.
"Well, well." He raised an eyebrow. "Andy, what do—"
"Shh." She shook her head slowly. "Don't say anything." She pulled her robes over her head, tossed them aside, and stood naked in front of him. "Your turn."
He returned her smile, pulled off his shirt, and stooped to unlace his sandals.
Ellegon's roar cut through the night. * . . . assassins,* his distant voice said. *With crossbows, dragonbane . . . *
Karl could barely hear the dragon. Where? he thought, trying to shout with his mind.
The mental voice cleared. *Better. Werthan's farm. They have taken the house, but they aren't planning on staying inside. I'll have to get closer to read them better.*
"You said they had dragonbane. Get the hell up in the sky. I want you on high sentry. Do not get within range of the bows. How many of them are there?" And what the hell was wrong with the wards? They should have picked up the assassins' healing draughts, even if they weren't carrying anything else magical.
*They don't have any healing draughts—and dragonbane isn't magical. It just interferes with the magical parts of my metabolism.*
Never mind that. How many of them are there?
*Three. I couldn't get much out of their minds, but they're headed this way.*
"Ihryk!" he shouted. "Unlock the guncase and get me two pistols. Move." He saw that Andy-Andy was already struggling back into her clothes. "Chak! To me!"
He turned to his wife. "We'll play it just like a drill, beautiful," he said, forcing a calm voice to come out of his throat. "You get the children into the cellar."
Andy-Andy was capable of giving him a hard time, but not in this sort of situation; she dashed for Jason's room.
Karl ran to the top of the stairs. "U'len, bring the maids; I'll send the stableboy and Pendrill."
Until and unless he knew better, Karl was going to assume that the assassins were after him; the first thing to do was to see to the safety of his family and servants.
At the bottom of the stairs, Chak had already retrieved Karl's saber as well as his own falchion. He tossed the scabbarded sword up to Karl, then gave a quick salute with his falchion. "You have a better second in mind?"
Karl was about to answer, but a shout from outside interrupted him.
"Karl! It's Ahira. I have Lou and Kirah with me."
Karl ran down the stairs and swung the door open. The three of them were half naked, although Ahira had his battleaxe clutched firmly in his hands.
"Get in here—move it. Kirah, help Andy get the kids to the cellar. Ahira and Lou, get down there. Chak, you go with them. I'm going to take Tennetty, if she's available, or go it alone."
"My family comes first. I'm counting on you and Ahira to keep them safe for me. I need to worry about my own neck."
Chak opened his mouth to protest, then shrugged. "Yes, Karl. Nobody will get past me."
The dwarf nodded grimly. "Understood." Handing his battleaxe to Chak, he helped Andy and Kirah usher the three sleepy-eyed children down the stairs to the basement.
Karl paused to think. Reinforcements, that was the first order of business, but the New House was between where Ellegon reported the assassins were and where Daven's encampment was. Not good.
*She'll be outside in a moment. She plans on having Carrot saddled for you.*
"Good. I want Daven's team surrounding this house. Light bonfires. Nothing and nobody gets inside until you sound the all-clear."
*On my way.* The dragon's mental voice began to fade in the distance.
"Wait—this all could be a feint. After you alert Daven, I want you to fly a spiral search pattern."
*Over the whole valley? That will take—*
"Just do it. Then back to high sentry over the assassins, but not until you're sure that we're clear."
*I believe that the three of them are alone—*
*But I hear and obey. Luck.*
Ihryk arrived with two pistols from the downstairs weapons case, plus a beltpack containing powder, bullets, and swatches for bullet patches.
Karl nodded his thanks as he belted on his saber, tucking the pistols in his belt. He'd better get outside immediately and let his eyes begin to adjust to the dark. He glanced down at his naked chest, drawstring jeans, and open-toed sandals. Not a good idea. His scabbarded sword in his hand, he ran for the door and up the stairs to his bedroom.
He stripped quickly in the dim light of the overhead glowsteel, then dressed himself in black suede trousers and a black wool shirt, drew a black wool half-hood over his head, pulled on his steel-toed boots, belted on his sword, and ran down the stairs.
* * *
The barn was less than a hundred yards from the New House; Pirate, Tennetty's usual mount, stood properly ground-hitched in the light drizzle.
Despite everything, he almost laughed. Pirate was a snow-white mare, her sole marking a black patch over right eye—sort of a horsy equivalent of Tennetty, although Pirate's patch was only a marking.
He stepped inside the barn. Assisted by sleepy-eyed Pendrill and the stableboy, Tennetty had already bridled Carrot and slipped a horse blanket onto the chestnut mare's back.
Karl jerked his thumb toward the house. "Both of you, get into the cellar, and tell Ahira I said to bar the door. Run."
As Pendrill and the stableboy exited the barn at a trot, Karl took his western-style saddle down from the rail and saddled Carrot, matching his strength against the mare's as he pulled the cinch tight, then tucked the pistols into the top of his pants before he slipped his scabbarded sword into the boot and lashed it into place.
He felt very much alone. There were three of the others, and unless he wanted to wait for reinforcements, it would be only him and Tennetty facing them. Not that he despised Tennetty's or his own skills, but three against two was not good odds, not when the three could be waiting in the bushes for the two. Too bad Slovotsky wasn't here; this was definitely Walter's sort of party.
"Chak?" she asked.
"With the family."
"Good." Tennetty nodded. "I wish Slovotsky were here," she said, as though she were reading Karl's mind. "Do we wait and pick up some of Daven's crew?"
His first inclination was to say no, but he caught himself. "What do you think?"
She shook her head as he led Carrot out of the barn and onto the dirt of the yard. "I don't like working with new people. Daven's may be good, but we're not used to them. And in the dark? They'd just as likely shoot us as them. Besides," she said, patting her saddlebags, "if any of Werthan's family are still alive, they might need some healing draughts, and soon. I say go."
He pulled himself to Carrot's back and settled the reins in his left fist. "We go." He dug in his heels; Carrot cantered over to the back porch, where Ihryk stood, waving at him.
"Karl, you said to get into the cellar, but—"
"Your family." Karl nodded. "If Ahira can't handle things here, you won't matter much. Take one of the horses."
Tennetty kicked Pirate into a full gallop; Karl spurred Carrot to follow.
The east road led directly toward Werthan's farm; they galloped side by side down the muddy road, the drizzle soaking them down to the skin, rain and wind whispering through the cornfields.
No, he thought. This didn't make sense. An ambush wasn't a strategy Karl and his people had a patent on. If he was going to set up an ambush for someone moving between Werthan's farm and the New House, he'd set it up along the road. No guarantee that the assassins weren't at least that minimally clever.
"Wait," he called out, pulling Carrot to a halt. He wiped the rain from his face and shook his head to clear the water from his hair.
Tennetty braked Pirate fifteen yards ahead, then waited for him to catch up.
"We can't stay on the road—we're too vulnerable. This way." He urged Carrot off the road and into the fields, Tennetty following. It would slow them down; the horses couldn't move as quickly between the rows of corn and across the wheat fields as they could on the road. But galloping full-speed into a hail of crossbow bolts would slow them down even more.
* * *
Less than fifteen minutes later, they were within sight of Werthan's one-room farmhouse.
Light still burned through the greased-parchment windows, but everything was deathly still. Even the normal night sounds were gone; all Karl could hear was the panting of the two horses and the thudding of his own heart.
He vaulted from Carrot's back, landing clumsily on the soft, wet ground.
Tennetty dismounted next to him. "Do you think they're still inside?" she asked in a low whisper. "Damn silly way to run an assassination."
"It won't be so damn silly if you and I are stupid enough to knock on the door and walk in. No chances; we'll assume they're inside, maybe with one hidden outside, on guard."
"And if that's not the way it is?"
"If they're not, we'll work out what to do next. Right now I want your cooperation, not your temperament."
He untied his scabbard and slipped it out of the saddle boot. "Keep your blade sheathed—got to watch out for light flashes." He'd hold his scabbarded sword in his left hand, a pistol in his right. If necessary, he could fire the pistol, drop it, then draw his sword in little more than a second, tossing the scabbard aside. Much faster than the time it would take to draw a sword by reaching across his waist.
Tennetty went to Pirate and took saddlebags down. She slung them over her shoulder, lashing them tightly against her chest with leather thongs.
Karl dropped Carrot's reins carefully to the ground and stepped on them. "Stay, girl," he said, then beckoned at Tennetty to follow as he walked away in a half-stoop, dropping to his belly and crawling when he reached the edge of the fields.
They worked their way around to the back of the house, and waited there, crouched silently on the hard dirt, listening.
Werthan didn't have a proper barn, just a smaller shack that served as a toolshed and chicken coop. Whatever had happened in the house hadn't left the chickens awake.
Tennetty pressed her lips against his ear. "Do you know the layout inside?"
"No. Do you?"
She shook her head. "Sorry."
"Then I'll take it." He handed her both of his pistols and slipped his saber from its scabbard, laying the scabbard gently on the ground. In the cramped quarters of the shack, a sword would be a better weapon than a pistol. The pistols would be more useful in Tennetty's hands.
"Work your way around to the front, then make some noise—nothing too obvious. I'll move when you do. If I need your help, I'll call out—otherwise, stay outside. But if I kick anyone out the front door or window, he's yours."
She nodded and started to rise.
He grasped her shoulder. "Watch your back—they may not be inside."
Tennetty shook his hand off. "You do your job, I'll do mine."
* * *
Karl stood next to the rear window, waiting. The shack could easily be a trap, but so what? Let it; let the trappers become the trapped.
Tennetty was taking her own sweet time. She should be making some—
The snap of a twig sent him into action; he kicked open the rear door and then moved to one side and dove through the greased-parchment window.
He landed on his shoulder on the dirt floor and bounced to his feet, his sword at the ready.
All his precautions were unnecessary. Nobody was in the shack.
Nobody living. The room stank of death.
Karl forced himself to look at the three bodies clinically. Werthan lay on his back, staring blindly at the ceiling, the fletching of a crossbow bolt projecting from the left side of his chest. His wife and daughter lay on their sides, their limbs and clothing in disarray, the pools of blood from their slit throats already congealing on the floor.
It wasn't hard to reconstruct what had happened. Werthan must have heard a noise outside and gone to investigate, expecting that perhaps a weasel had gotten in with the chickens. The assassins had killed him, then murdered his wife and daughter to prevent them from raising an alarm. Scratches on Werthan's heels showed that they had dragged him inside the shack.
He couldn't bear to look closely at the little girl. She was only about three.
I won't let myself get angry, he thought, willing his pulse to stop pounding in his ears, failing thoroughly. Anger leads to reaction, not thought. My anger is their ally, not mine. I won't be angry.
"Tennetty," he said quietly. "I'm coming out." He walked to the front door, opened it, and stepped through, closing it gently behind him. The rain had stopped; the damp night air clung to him.
"Dead. Werthan, his wife, and his daughter."
*I have them pinpointed, Karl.*
He tilted his head back. High in the sky, Ellegon's dark form slid across the stars. "Where are the bastards?"
*Alongside the road, a quarter-mile from here, just beyond that old oak.*
Karl nodded. He could barely see the tree in the dark.
*They've spotted the glow from the bonfires around the New House and are trying to decide what to do next. The leader suspects that somebody may have raised an alarm, but he isn't sure. And they are after you, in case you were curious. You ought—*
*Two crossbows, plus swords, knives. Karl, I can get one of Daven's squads, and—*
"No." He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. "They're mine."
"What are you whistling for?" Her eyes wide, Tennetty snatched his hand away from his mouth. "They're not that far away; they'll hear you."
"That's the idea." He pulled off his shirt. "And they'll see me, too." He raised his voice. "Did you hear that? Can you hear me?"
"You're crazy, Karl, we can't—"
"No." He stopped the back of his hand a scant inch from her face. "They're all mine," he said quietly. "Each and every one."
"At least take your pistols—"
"No." He shook his head slowly. "I want to feel them die. I want—" He stopped himself. Save the feeling for later. When they're dead.
He raised his sword over his head and waved it as he ran down the road toward the old oak.
"My name is Karl Cullinane," he shouted. "I've heard you're looking for me, you bastards. I'm waiting for you. If you want me, come and get me."
As he neared the tree, a dark shape rose between two rows of cornstalks; Karl hit the ground and rolled as a bolt whizzed overhead.
Karl sprinted for the man. But the assassin didn't simply wait for him; he ducked back down in the corn and ran. He was in too much of a hurry. Karl could plot his progress by the rustling of the stalks. He leaped through a row of corn and crashed into the assassin, both his sword and the assassin's crossbow tumbling away somewhere into the night.
It didn't matter; he was half Karl's size. As they rolled around on the ground, Karl kneed the other in the crotch, then slammed the edge of his hand down on the assassin's throat, crumpling his windpipe.
The assassin lurched away, gagging with a liquid awfulness as he died.
Karl rolled a few feet away before rising to a crouch and looking around, the skin over his ears tightening.
Nothing. No sound. The other two weren't stupid enough to flail around in the cornfield in a panic.
And Karl was unarmed, his sword lost somewhere in the darkness.
Not good. He regretted his stupidity in charging blindly into the field and ordering Tennetty to stay away, but there was nothing he could do about it now. If he raised a voice to call for help, all that would do would be to pinpoint his position for the two remaining assassins, one of them still armed with a crossbow.
*Then again, you might want to use me, no?*
Right. I'm missing two—where's the nearest one?
For a moment, Karl felt as though distant fingers stroked his brain.
*I can't go deep enough, not without getting closer. I can't tell which way you're facing. Where is the bonfire in relation to you?*
Karl raised his head momentarily above the cornstalks. Down the road, a distant glow proclaimed that the bonfires surrounding the New House were still going.
*Got it. The one with the crossbow is two rows behind you, just about halfway between you and the road. But he's looking in your direction, and you're not going to be able to sneak up on him.*
And the other one?
*You're not going to like this. He's running alongside the road, about halfway between here and the New House. No crossbow, but he's carrying more throwing knives than Walter does, and I think one or two of them may be dragonbane-tipped.*
He's Tennetty's—you spot for her. I'll take care of things here.
The dragon swooped low over the cornfields toward the house.
Karl cursed himself silently. His temper could yet be the death of him. Kill the slavers—hell, yes—but letting his anger instead of his intellect control the means was something that he should have outgrown.
The first thing to do was to find his sword.
He searched around the soft ground, finding nothing but weeds and dirt. Come daylight, finding it would be no problem, but daylight was hours away.
Let's test his nerve a bit. Karl lifted a dirtclod and pitched it off into the night, aiming roughly where Ellegon had said the assassin was.
It whipped through the cornstalks, and then . . .
Silence. Nothing, dammit. This one knew his business; if he'd fired blindly, Karl would have been able to attack before he reloaded his crossbow.
On the other hand . . .
Karl walked back to the dead assassin and relieved the man of his beltknife. Not a bad weapon; it was a full-sized dagger, with almost the heft of a Homemade bowie.
He hoisted the corpse to his shoulder, then walked opposite to where Ellegon had said the remaining assassin was and crashed through one row of cornstalks, propelling the body ahead of him through the next row.
The bowstring twanged.
Karl stepped through the stalks, the knife held out in front of him.
Kneeling on the ground, the slaver was using a beltclaw to pull back his bowstring.
"Greetings," Karl said.
He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare, And he who has one enemy will meet him everywhere
At the sound of a gunshot down the road, Karl spurred Carrot into a gallop.
*Everything is under control,* Ellegon said, momentarily probing deeply. *As I see it is for you.*
Sure. Fine. Three more innocents dead, their throats slit. Just fine.
He eased back on the reins; the horse settled into a gentle canter.
*You take a lot on yourself, Karl Cullinane.*
There was no answer to that; he didn't try to find one.
He rounded the bend. In the vague glow of the distant faerie lights, Ellegon stood over Tennetty and the prostrate corpse of the last assassin.
No—not a corpse. While Tennetty's shot had opened the assassin's belly nicely, the bastard's chest was still slowly moving up and down.
The dragon lowered his head.
"What's going on?"
"Shut up—Ellegon's busy." Tennetty turned to glare at Karl, her fingers fastened on the assassin's wrists. "It might be a good idea to find out what this one knows, if anything."
*Too much pain. I can't get through.*
"Damn." Tennetty spat as she pulled the bottle of healing draughts from her pouch and sprinkled a bit of the liquid on the assassin's wounds, then dribbled some more in his mouth. "I hate wasting this stuff." She raised her head. "How about a hand here?"
Tennetty had already frisked the assassin and relieved him of his knives and pouch. Karl gripped the assassin's right wrist and pressed it firmly against the ground while Tennetty did the same with his left.
*Better. Shh—no. He's blocked too thoroughly. I can't go beyond his conscious mind.*
She shrugged. "No problem." She picked up his knife and flicked the scabbard away.
The assassin's head started to stir; his eyes opened.
"Who sent you?" she asked. "Tell us, and you'll live."
The round-faced man clenched his jaw. "I tell you nothing." He struggled, uselessly.
"Thank you." She smiled as she set the knifepoint against the side of his face, just over the trigeminal nerve, barely breaking the skin.
*Stop that, Tennetty. It was not necessary. Try another question, but don't distract him this time. He has to think of the answer for me to read it.*
Karl shrugged. There was always the obvious question. "What do you know that you don't want us to? What are you hiding?"
*Ahrmin. He wants to know about Ahrmin.*
Ahrmin? Karl almost lost his grip.
Ahrmin was dead in Melawei, burned in the Warthog.
*Guess again. He hired these three in Enkiar less than a hundred days ago. They're not slavers, they're mercenaries . . . I've broken through, Karl. Give me another moment, and . . . I have it all. Ahrmin, Enkiar, the Healing Hand, everything.*
*It seems Ahrmin requires major reconstruction. I'll give you his face later. For now . . . stand back from him, and move away.*
"No!" Tennetty drew her beltknife with her free hand. "He's my kill."
*You will stand aside, Tennetty.*
Ellegon's mental voice was calm, matter-of-fact. *You will stand aside, Tennetty, because the little girl's name was Anna. They called her Anna Minor, as Werthan's wife was Anna Major.
*You will stand aside because I had promised to teach her how to swim. And you will stand aside because she always called me Ehgon, because she couldn't manage the l-sound.
*And you will stand aside because this is the one that smiled down at her to quiet her as he opened her throat with his knife.
*And if you don't understand any of that, you will stand aside, Tennetty, and you will do so now, because if you do not stand aside I will surely burn you down where you stand.*
Tennetty moved away.
Gently, Ellegon picked up the struggling assassin in his mouth and leaped skyward, his mindvoice diminishing as he gained altitude and flew away. *There are balances in this world, Afbee. And while there is no justice, some of us do our best. I see you have a strong fear of falling. . . .*
"Karl? You want me to finish up here?"
"Can't. I lost my sword somewhere, and then there's—"
"I'll find it. You go home." Tennetty's face was wet. "Go."
* * *
Karl lay back in the huge bed, his head pillowed on his hands. Homecoming was supposed to be a joyous time, a passionate time for him and Andy-Andy. No matter what happened on the road, this was separate, different. Home.
But not tonight. He just couldn't—
"You're not sleeping," Andy-Andy whispered.
"I can't." His eyes were dry and aching. You'd think, after all I've seen, after all I've done, it would get easier. He patted her shoulder and slipped out of bed. "You've got school and some crops to deal with tomorrow—better get some sleep. Don't wait up."
* * *
Ahira was waiting in the hall. The dwarf was in full combat gear, his battleaxe unsheathed, his chair propped up against the door of Jason's room, his feet not reaching the floor.
Karl raised an eyebrow. "Trouble?" he asked in a whisper.
"Not at all," the dwarf answered him quietly, shaking his head. He cradled a clay bottle in the crook of his arm. "Everything's quiet. Chak and Ellegon are doing a search out over the plain, although I'm sure it won't turn up anything. It's just that . . ." He rubbed his hand down the front of his chainmail vest, then tinged his thumbnail against the axeblade. "Sometimes I forget what we're all about. I get caught up in the politics so much, sometimes . . ." He let his voice trail off, then smiled sadly. "Tomorrow, I've got to raise a burying party, to go out to Werthan's place and put him and his two Annas in the ground, and that hurts.
"But that's tomorrow." Ahira uncorked the bottle and took a sip, then offered Karl the bottle. "Tonight I'm going to drink a swallow or two of Riccetti's Best.
"But mainly, I'm going to sit here in my armor, with my axe at hand, and keep in my mind the simple fact that there are three children sleeping safely in that room there—two of whom I couldn't love more if they were blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh—and that nothing and nobody is getting past me to hurt them."
"Damn silly thing to do," Karl said, his eyes misting over.
"Isn't it, though? Mmm . . . you want me to find you a chair?"
"I can find my own chair."
The Bat Cave
It is always good When a man has two irons in the fire.
—Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher
The best way, maybe the only way, to deal with the pain was to get to work, whether or not the work was pleasant. Riding into Engineer Territory at the north end of the valley was a mixture of the two; it was something Karl always enjoyed, the pleasure dimmed only by the awkward necessity of stopping to see Nehera when he did.
The weathered Erendra sign on the split-rail fence was unchanged; it translated to "Proceed further only with permission"; it was amply decorated with the glyph for danger.
Karl laughed. Riccetti had changed the English part of the sign again, or at least had had it changed.
Louis Riccetti, Prop.
Screw the rest
We work REAL magic here.
The smithy interrupted the miles of fence; huge doors like those of a barn stood on both sides of the line, although the eight half-sheds containing wood, charcoal, and iron stock were on the Engineers' side of the fence.
Nehera was a quasi-Engineer; his services and those of the apprentice Engineers learning smithing from him were needed by everyone in the valley: There were always horses and oxen to be reshod, plow blades to be sharpened and straightened, nails to be drawn from thin nail stock, tools to be made and repaired, horsecollars forged, and so on.
Not all of his work was secret, nor did he do all of the secret work. While Nehera did virtually all of the barrel-making, the rest of the gunsmithing was done deeper in Engineer territory, in the two other smithies.
Better get it over with, Karl thought, as he dismounted from Carrot's broad back, then stepped on her reins for a moment, ignoring the hitching post in front of the smithy. If Nehera hears that I had someone else do the work, I'll have to put up with more sniveling than usual.
But dammit, why couldn't the dwarf be more like U'len? Just once, couldn't he snap at Karl, or tell him to go to hell?—anything that showed a bit of spine.
The civilian-side door was closed, indicating that something secret was going on inside. Karl walked toward the apprentice Engineer outside the guardhouse at the gate.
The boy was well trained. "Vhas!" he called out, bringing his rifle almost in line with Karl's chest. Halt. "Who goes there?"
Karl obediently halted, keeping his hands well away from his sides. "I am Karl Cullinane. Journeyman Engineer," he added, with a smile.
The boy nodded and smiled. "You are recognized, Journeyman Engineer Karl Cullinane, and welcome to Engineer Territory. I have a message for you from the Engineer: You are to join in the cave at your convenience."
"Thank you." Might as well have some fun, Karl thought. "Your name and orders, apprentice?"
"Journeyman!" The boy drew himself into a stiff brace. "I am Junior Apprentice Bast. My general orders are as follows:
"My first general order is: I am to remain at my post until properly relieved.
"My second general order is: I am to challenge anyone who approaches the fence or the gate, calling for them to halt as they do so.
"My third general order is: I am to allow no person to cross through the gate or over the fence into Engineer Territory within my sight unless and until he has halted for my challenge, and I am satisfied that he is authorized to do so.
"My fourth general order is: Should any situation not covered by the first three general orders arise, I am to send my second for the senior apprentice of the guard."
"And what would you have done if I had advanced after your call to halt?"
The boy sobered. "I would have sent my second for the senior apprentice of the guard, Journeyman," he said, pointing his chin toward the guardhouse.
"What for, Bast?"
There were only two answers; the boy picked the right one.
"To haul away your dead body, Journeyman," he said with utter seriousness.
"Good." Fortunately, there had never been a case in which an innocent citizen had tried to cross the fence after being hailed. It was just as well; many Home citizens resented the Engineers' patent arrogance.
Karl vaulted the fence and walked into the smithy.
Nehera was busy at work at the forge, two apprentices working the bellows while the smith held the long-handled tongs, occasionally pulling them back to check the color of the work.
From where he stood, Karl couldn't be sure, but it looked as if Nehera might be working on another sword. Homemade blades weren't popular only with Home warriors; they were slowly becoming a major trade item. Nehera had taken Lou's and Karl's scant knowledge of how Japanese swords were made and added his own considerable knowledge of steel-working; the result was finer blades—lighter, stronger, better able to hold an edge without chipping—than could be found elsewhere.
As the dwarf pulled the bright-red iron out of the fire and spun on his peg, bringing it over to the blocky anvil, Karl's guess was verified: Nehera sprinkled a scant spoonful of carbon dust over the steel, then hammered the iron bar over double, the anvil ringing like a bell.
He stuck the dull-red bar back in the fire, then turned to splash water on his face.
As he shook his head to clear his eyes, he spotted Karl for the first time.
Here we go again.
"I crave pardon, master." Nehera dropped to his knee, his peg skittering out sideways at an awkward angle. "I did not see you."
Karl didn't bother to tell Nehera that he didn't have to go through this every damn time; the dwarf still didn't get it, couldn't get it. Somewhere, somehow, Nehera's spirit had been broken, beyond Karl's ability to repair it.
That was the pity of it all: Nehera couldn't understand that he wasn't property anymore. The deep scars that crisscrossed his face, back, arms, and chest showed that he had been hard to break; the peg that served as his right leg confirmed that he had once too often tried to run for his freedom.
"Rise, Nehera," Karl said. "You're forgiven, of course."
"I thank you, master." The dwarf's puppy-dog smile almost made Karl vomit.
Dammit, you don't have to kneel in front of me, you don't have to beg me for forgiveness for not kneeling immediately, and you sure as hell don't have to look at me like that for forgiving you for not cringing quickly enough.
But what was the use? He could, once again, explain to Nehera that he didn't have to do that—he could even make it a command—but neither explanations nor commands of that kind had any effect. Whether Karl liked it or not, Nehera felt that he belonged to Karl, and that this was the way a slave was supposed to act; he simply refused to comprehend orders to the contrary.
The strange thing was, there were actually people in the world who liked this sort of thing, who felt that some other person cringing in front of them was their right, and their pleasure.
At that thought, Karl's fists clenched.
Nehera's face blanched.
"No, no," Karl said, forcing a smile to his face, "it's not you. I was thinking about something else. How goes the work?"
"I work hard, master. I swear it." The dwarf snuck a sideways glance at the forge, caught himself, then gave the slightest shrug Karl had ever seen.
Karl raised a hand. "Please, don't let me interrupt. We can talk while you work. I wouldn't want you to ruin something."
"I obey." Nehera momentarily drew the steel out of the fire, then replaced it, gesturing at the apprentices to pump the bellows harder. He treated them with a distant sort of superiority. After all, though they were free men, Nehera's owner had put him in charge. "It will take some time, master. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Three things, actually." Karl unbelted his scabbard. "First, this edge needs a bit of touching up. Do you think you might be able to do that for me sometime today?"
"No rush, Nehera. I have to visit the Engineer, and I'll hardly need a sword here."
"May I speak?"
"I humbly crave your pardon, master, but you should always carry a sword." He limped quickly to the wall and brought down a scabbarded saber, pulling it a few inches from the scabbard, then offering it to Karl. "If you would care to test the edge?" Nehera extended his arm.
"No. I'm sure that it's fine."
"No, Nehera," Karl said, cursing himself immediately for raising his voice as the dwarf dropped to his knee again.
"I have offended you again, master. I am sorry."
Karl sighed. "Forgiven, Nehera. Rise."
The dwarf got back up with irritating speed. "You said that there were three things, master?"
You make my teeth itch, Nehera. "Yes. Number two: I know you'd rather work in steel, but I need a golden collar made—human size. You can melt down some Metreyll coin."
The dwarf bowed his head. "Yes, master. That will be done before the next time I sleep."
"No, it won't—take your time. But I do want it before the town meeting. There is one other thing, Nehera. I've been hearing stories about how you've been working yourself too hard. That is to stop. When you are too tired to work, you must rest."
"As you command, master."
Damn. Enough of this; I'm going to go see Riccetti.
* * *
Karl accepted the clay bottle and took a light swig, then washed down the fiery liquor with a long drink of water. "Thanks, Lou. I needed that."
Still, the whiskey didn't wash the bad taste out of Karl's mouth. Which was perhaps just as well. Life was full of bad tastes.
He sat back in his chair, enjoying the coolness of the cave.
Well, this section of the warrens wasn't a proper cave, but a relic of the long-ago dwarven inhabitants, driven away, so legend had it, by Therranji elves. But it looked like a cave, and that was what they called it.
Caves were supposed to be damp and musty places—and most of the caverns were—but Riccetti's quarters were different, almost homey.
Riccetti's apprentices had cleared out the dirt, all the way down to the bare rock. Then they had installed four wooden walls and built a massive oak door to block Riccetti's quarters off from the rest of the tunnel, chiseled the floor smooth, and then finally bored openings through the rock to the outside to allow both for airflow and for the pipe venting Riccetti's Franklin stove.
Glowsteels hung from pulleys set into the arching ceiling above, fitted with ropes and winches so that they could easily be lowered and removed for Andy-Andy to recharm.
It was very much a Lou Riccetti type of place; rows of wooden worktables stood along two of the four walls, well laden with bottles and vats of various and sundry preparations, steel pens, bottles of ink, and stacks of notes awaiting copying and filing by apprentices.
But it was Riccetti-type homey: the sleeping and socializing part of the room consisted only of a pile of bedding in a corner and two armchairs, now occupied by Karl and Lou.
"Try the beer," Riccetti said. "I think it's the best batch yet."
Karl set down the whiskey bottle, lifted his mug, and sipped at his beer, forcing himself not to make a face. Ahira was right: While Riccetti's corn whiskey was usually good, his beer was a crime.
"Drink up," Riccetti said, chuckling. "You're being awfully patient. It isn't like you."
"I'm not like me. Not today." There were things that a human being just couldn't get used to, not if he wanted to remain a human being.
Riccetti tsked. "I should give you hell, for once. You're the one who's always saying that instead of getting worked up over something you don't like, you should do something about it." He snickered. "Not that I've always been a fan of how you've handled things. But you usually do well enough."
Yeah, Lou? And how am I supposed to bring a murdered baby back to life? But he didn't say that. "Any progress on the slavers' powder? I know you'll need help from Andy and Thellaren, but—"
"Guess again." Riccetti smiled. "Nope. It's all done. I stayed up part of the night, doing a few simple experiments. I finally figured out how they were doing it this morning. I'm going to have Andrea check my results, but—"
"What? And we've been sitting here making idle chatter for—"
"Take it easy, Karl. I'm sorry. It's just that . . ." Riccetti's voice trailed off.
Karl nodded his understanding. It was lonely, constantly dealing with people who were subordinate to you, even when some of those people were friends. Riccetti rarely could make the time to visit Ahira or Andy-Andy at the south end of the valley; last night had been an exception. "Sorry. So, what is it? Some sort of explosive?"
"Nope." Riccetti set down his own beer mug and rose from his chair. "Just let me show off for a minute."
He walked to the worktable and took down a small glass vial and a stone bowl. "This is slaver powder." He uncorked the vial and tipped about a quarter-teaspoon into the bottom of the bowl. "And this," he said, taking down another vial, "is distilled water—about the only really pure substance I can make. Stand back a second." Riccetti tilted the bowl to point against the naked wall, then dribbled a careful drop of water onto the bowl's lip. "It'll take a moment for it to work its way down to—"
Whoosh! The backblast of heat beat against Karl's face.
"Just plain water did that? What the hell kind of compound—"
"No, idiot, it's not a compound, it's a mixture." Riccetti poured more powder on a marble slab, then beckoned Karl to come closer. "Take a good look at this—and don't breathe on it; it's already sucked up some water from the air."
Karl looked closely. Mixed among the white powder were tiny blue flecks. "Copper sulfate?"
"Yup. Heat it up, and it becomes cupric sulfate—plain white. Add water—even let it pick up some from the air; it deliquesces nicely—and it sucks it right up; turns blue. Which is what it's in there for."
"Now, wait a minute. Copper sulfate isn't an explosive. You use it for—"
"—blueing rifles. Right. But in this, it's a stabilizer. It's there to absorb the water, and prevent the real stuff from being exposed to too much. Visualize this," Riccetti said, cupping his hands together. "You've got a hollow iron sphere, filled with water. Got that?"
"Okay, now, heat it over a fire, a damn hot one. What happens?"
"The water starts to boil."
"Right. But since it can't escape?"
Karl shrugged. "If it gets too hot, it blows up, just like a pressure cooker does if it isn't vented right."
"Right." Riccetti frowned. "But what if you're cheating? What do you get if you're using some sort of spell to hold the iron sphere together?"
Riccetti snorted. "Pretend that the sphere is absolutely, unconditionally unbreakable—doesn't break, doesn't bend, doesn't stretch, doesn't warp. Nothing. What does the water become?"
"Right—maybe even a plasma. Now, imagine that someone puts some sort of preservation spell on the contents of the sphere, forcing what's inside to remain as is. Let the sphere cool, remove the protection spell so you can cut it open, and what do you find inside?"
"Something that's very hot, but isn't." Karl's brow furrowed. "That doesn't make any sense. What would it be like?"
"This." Riccetti pursed his lips. "That's what they did, I think. Some sort of preservation spell, with a built-in hole: If the stuff gets in contact with too much water, the spell fails, and what do you have? You've got superheated steam—lightly salted with copper sulfate—which wants to expand, and fast."
"And if the only direction to expand in is along the barrel of a gun—"
"—pushing a bullet ahead of it . . . you've got it. There's nothing special about the water that their guns use—doesn't have to be."
Karl buried his face in his hands. "Then we're in for it. If they can do it—"
"Hang on for a second, Karl. You're not thinking it through. Look at the brighter side. These aren't easy spells. They're a hell of a lot more advanced than anything your wife can do—and she's not bad. They're even beyond what I used to do, way back when."
"All of which means what?"
"I just build things." Riccetti shrugged. "That's your department. I can tell you that it takes a very heavy-duty wizard to do this, and that there aren't all that many of them, and that they won't work cheap. My guess is that this powder cost your slavers one hell of a lot of coin.
"Take it a step further. Even in Pandathaway, there aren't more than a handful of wizards capable of something this difficult."
"So? Even, say, five or six of them, working full-time—"
"Never happen. I can tell you that from personal experience." Riccetti shook his head. "Magic is like cocaine, Karl, assuming you have the genes that let you work it in the first place. Anyone who does can handle a bit now and then, but everybody has his limits. Once you get beyond those limits, you're hooked. All you're interested in is learning more, getting more spells in your head. Drives you a bit crazy."
That sounded familiar. That was the way Riccetti had been, back when he was Aristobulus, back when the seven of them were first transferred over to This Side. The only things that had mattered to Aristobulus were his spell books and his magic.
Come to think of it, it was reminiscent of the crazies who hung around the Ehvenor docks. Being around Faerie too long drives some crazy, Avair Ganness had said. Maybe it wasn't just Faerie—maybe it was magic itself.
"Now," Riccetti went on, "look at it from the point of view of whoever got the Pandathaway wizards to make this stuff. It's going to be hard to pull the wizards away from their studies to do it, and it won't be possible to do that very often. This slaver powder is going to stay rare—unless they start producing it in Faerie."
Karl nodded. "That'd do it."
"Damn straight. If the Faerie were to line up against us . . ." He shrugged. "You may as well worry about Grandmaster Lucius deciding to take us on, or somebody bringing an H-bomb over from the Other Side." He waved at the door. "In any case, compare their production of this with our production of real gunpowder. You notice any shortages?"
There was something Lou was missing about all of this; it hovered on the edge of Karl's mind.
Andy-Andy! "But Andy—she's a wizard. She could—"
Riccetti threw his hands up in the air. "Of course. Idiot. Do you want more beer or would you like a whiskey?"
"Shh." Riccetti poured each of them some whiskey. "Drink up. And for God's sake have a little faith in your wife."
Karl sipped the whiskey. "You've got a lot of respect for her, don't you?"
"Damn straight. You lucked out, Cullinane." Riccetti nodded. "But, if you'll notice, she spends most of her time teaching school, and almost all the magic she does is agricultural, bug-killing, glowing steel, the occasional levitation when somebody runs across a boulder when trying to clear a new field. It's all baby stuff; she has almost no time to learn more.
"Hell, she only picked up the lightning spell this year. She hasn't had the chance to push herself as far along as Aristobulus did. And in my opinion, deep down she's even more strong-minded than . . . he was." He shook his head. "Relax. In order for her to push her skills to the addiction point, she'll have to have years of leisure time—just as Pandathaway wizards do."
Or as Arta Myrdhyn must have had, at some point. He was a wizard powerful enough to turn the forests of Elrood into the Waste, to charm a sword to protect its bearer against magic, then set up a watch-charm to hold it for its proper user.
Not my son, bastard. Karl shook his head to clear it. No more time to waste, not with Riccetti having figured out what the slaver powder was. The question was, what was going to happen in Enkiar? And how were Ahrmin and the Slavers' Guild connected with the powder?
Riccetti cleared his throat. "If you don't mind, I have to get back to work. I've got a few things going, and I'd better go chew out that idiot apprentice who tried a quarter-charge of powder in a new rifle. Quarter-charge—I told him to use a quadruple charge, but his English isn't as good as it's supposed to be."
Karl shrugged. "Quarter charge? What's the problem?"
"He hung the bullet, that's what the goddamn problem is. He has to take the lock off the gun and the barrel off the stock, then clamp down the barrel and unscrew the breech plug—and then shove the damn thing out with a rod—" Riccetti caught himself. "But I was forgetting!" he said, brightening. "Got a present for you."
He walked to one of the shelves and pulled down a plain wooden box, holding it carefully but proudly as he opened it.
Inside were six iron eggs, a seam running across their equators, each with a small fuse protruding from the top.
"Yup. They break up nice—jagged pieces, about the size of a dime. Cast iron does that." Riccetti took one out of the box and held it up, flicking a bitten fingernail against the three-inch fuse. "Slow fuse, burns for just about five seconds. Then, whoom. Use them a bit sparingly, eh? They each contain enough powder for a signal rocket." Riccetti closed the box and fastened the lid.
There was a rap on the door.
"Enter," Riccetti said.
A teenage apprentice opened the door and stepped inside. "Message from the Mayor, Engineer: The emissary from Lord Khoral has arrived, and seeks an audience with Journeyman Karl Cullinane. The Therranji are camped just outside the customs station."
Karl sighed. "Back to work. Both of us."
"See you before the town meeting tomorrow?"
"Probably not. Can I count on you, anyway?"
"Always, Karl. Always."
An Acquaintance Renewed
Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs Receive our air, that moment they are free! They touch our country, and their shackles fall.
"I don't like it. Don't like it at all." Daven shook his head, his hairless scalp shining in the sunlight. He was probably the most battered human being Karl had ever seen. His left eye was covered by a patch; half of his left ear and three fingers of his right hand were missing. Long scars ran down his face and neck, vanishing into his tunic.
"Your opinion wasn't asked, Daven," Chak said.
"Be still, Chak." Karl shook his head and switched to English. "Don't irritate him, understood?"
"Yes, Karl." Sitting astride his gray gelding, Chak glared down at Daven. It was possible that he naturally had little liking for Daven, but more likely Karl's own distaste was infectious.
Karl didn't particularly like the former Nyph mercenary, not the way he enjoyed the company of Aveneer, the third raiding-team leader.
Still, Karl had to admit that Daven had a certain something. A year or so back, after a raid on a slaver caravan, one of Daven's men had gotten the bright idea of selling some slaves instead of freeing them. Daven hadn't returned Home for advice or instructions; he had hunted the bastard down himself and brought the charred bones back.
"The Mayor agreed to allow an emissary," Daven went on as though Chak weren't there, "but they've sent more than two hundred—and I wouldn't swear on my life that the only soldiers among them are the fifty wearing armor."
"Can't blame them," Karl said, fitting his boot into Carrot's stirrup and pulling himself up to the saddle. "There've been enough slaving raids into Therranj; traveling without military escort would be asking for trouble."
Daven smiled. "So why are we here?" He gestured at the log cabin that was officially Home's customs station, and the grassy slope below the cabin, where fifty warriors from his team waited, guns loaded and horses saddled.
"Because I don't like to take chances."
"No, not you." A snort. "I believe that. How many of my men do you want to take with you?"
"None. You're here for show. Period. I'm just going over to chat. I don't care what you hear, all of you stay here until and unless I send for you." Karl jerked his thumb skyward. "Ellegon covers me on this." He pulled on the reins and turned Carrot away, Chak following on his gelding.
Daven shrugged. "You have all the fun." His laugh followed Karl and Chak over the rise.
* * *
The Therranji had camped on the plain, almost a mile from the ridge that overlooked the valley. Khoral's emissary traveled in style; the encampment reminded Karl of an old-time circus, the several dozen tents ranging in size from three barely larger than a typical Boy Scout Voyageur to a mammoth red-and-white silk one that could almost have served P. T. Barnum as a big top.
Near the entrance to the main tent, a team of cooks attended to a side of beef, turning it slowly over a low fire. The wind brought the scent to him; it smelled absolutely wonderful.
Mounted elven soldiers in chainmail and iron helmets patrolled the perimeter. Three of them approached Karl and Chak as they rode toward the camp.
*Don't make any unnecessary enemies.*
Karl looked up. High overhead, Ellegon circled.
"Since when do I go around making enemies unnecessarily?"
Chak laughed. "How about the time you drew on Baron Furnael? That could have turned bloody. Or when you beat Ohlmin—"
"Enough. It was necessary, or I wouldn't have done it."
*That's what they all say.*
Karl ignored the jibe. Tell me, Kreskin, what are the elves up to?
*My name is Ellegon. And they're all shielded. Sorry. But you might want to get on with this; your wife is already inside—*
*—with Tennetty to keep her company. Not my idea, Karl; I told her you wouldn't like it.*
Karl quelled the urge to spur Carrot past the horsemen, then forced himself to pull her gently to a halt. This was a time for negotiation, not violence.
*Just keep it that way. I can recall a time or two that you've turned—*
Enough. Don't you ever forget anything?
*Nope. Just think of me as a many-tonned conscience.* A gout of fire roared through the sky.
Chak shook his head. "I don't like it."
"Neither do I." Karl bit his lower lip for a moment. "When we dismount, hand the nearest elf your falchion—don't wait for him to ask—then go inside, quietly. When I call for you, I want you and Tennetty to bring Andy out. Move slowly, but get her on a horse and over the hill."
"And what will you be doing?"
"That all depends on them. But I don't want any potential hostages clogging the negotiations." Karl wound his reins around his saddle horn and folded his arms over his chest. He didn't even have a pistol with him; SOP was to avoid letting any foreigner see guns, although he had made several exceptions to that rule in his time.
"Greetings," the foremost of the soldiers said, in an airy voice. In full armor and padding, he looked almost fully fleshed, if exceedingly tall; elves always looked like regular people, stretched lengthwise in a funhouse mirror. But the appearance of fragility was deceptive; pound for pound, elves were stronger than humans. "You are the human called Karl Cullinane?"
I'm called Karl Cullinane because that's my name—and what do I look like, a dwarf?
"Yes, I am Karl Cullinane."
"You are expected. You and your servant will follow me."
I just might have to teach you how to say please, but this isn't the time—not quite yet. Karl unwound his reins and nudged Carrot into a walk. The speaker took the lead, while the other two rode beside Karl and Chak.
*Can I trust you to keep out of trouble for a while? I have a patrol to fly, and I've got to see that Aveneer's supplies are packed.*
*I'll be back.* The dragon wheeled across the sky and flew away.
The soldiers led them toward the large tent, then stopped their own horses, waiting for Karl and Chak to dismount first.
Nodding at Chak to copy him, Karl levered himself out of the saddle.
While Chak surrendered his sword to the elven armsman and was ushered inside, Karl dug into his saddlebag and removed a carrot for Carrot. He slipped her bit, dropped the reins to the ground, then stepped on them before feeding it to her, running his hand down her neck. "Good girl."
The soldier cleared his throat. "They are this way."
Karl turned and started to follow him into the tent; one of the other soldiers reached out a hand and grasped Karl's arm.
"I'll have your sword, human."
Karl didn't answer. On the other hand, maybe this is the time to teach you some manners.
He looked down at his arm, then up into the elf's eyes, and smiled. He had put a lot of practice into that smile over the years; it was intended to frighten, to suggest that the bared teeth were going to be sunk into a throat.
The elf dropped his hand. "I will need to take your sword before you enter," he said, his voice a touch less arrogant.
"Guess again." Moving slowly, Karl walked back to Carrot and tied her reins around the saddle horn, then let her nuzzle his face for a moment before turning her around and slapping her rump. "Go home, Carrot. Git!"
He turned back. The three soldiers had been joined by six others; mounted troops were gathering around.
"Why did you do that?"
"I don't want my horse to get hurt." He raised his voice. "Chak!"
"Yes, Karl," came the distant answer.
"Get Andrea out of there."
I'd damn well better be doing this right, he thought. He turned back to the elf who had demanded his sword. "Now, you were going to try to take my sword away from me?" He stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled, beckoning to all the elven soldiers in the area.
He drew himself up straight, resting his right hand on the hilt of his sword. "Listen carefully, all of you. This . . . person—what's your name?"
"I asked your name!"
"Jherant ip Therranj, personal armsman to—"
"I didn't ask your rank." Karl sneered. "I'm not interested. Now," he said, addressing the rest, "Jherant here wants my sword. He didn't ask politely; he demanded it.
"I don't think he's good enough to take it." Karl smiled again. "Little Jherant here doesn't look quite sturdy enough." He looked from face to face as he gripped the sharkskin hilt. "Which of you wants to help him?"
An elf dismounted and tossed his helmet aside. "I will, human," he said, pronouncing the word like a curse. The elf nodded to another, who began to circle around behind Karl. Karl heard a distant whisk of steel on leather as the elf drew a dagger.
"Good," Karl said. He pointed to another. "You, too. And you, and you, and you. We're going to play a little game now. What we're going to do is to see how many of you have to die because Jherant hasn't learned a little bit of elementary politeness. I'm willing to bet my life that it's all of you." He looked Jherant straight in the eye. "But don't go away. You're going to be first. Even if your friend at my back closes—"
Karl kicked back, catching the elf in the solar plexus. As the air whooshed from the elf's lungs, Karl reached up and twisted, relieving him of the dagger, then dropping it point-first into the ground.
Karl lifted the gasping elf in his arms and handed him to the nearest of his companions. "Next?"
Jherant paled. This was ridiculous—one human against more than a dozen elven soldiers?
Slowly, Karl drew his sword, then raised it in a salute. Three of the elves copied him, while others moved away, also drawing their weapons.
He stood, waiting.
Tension hung in the air like taut wires. His sword in his right hand, Karl crooked his fingers and beckoned to Jherant. "Come here. You wanted my sword—here it is."
Another elf snickered and nudged Jherant from behind. White-faced, he drew his sword—
"What goes on here?" a firm contralto demanded. The tent flap was pushed aside and a woman walked out, blinking against the bright sunlight.
She was something from a dream: tall, slim, and fine-boned, her long hair so blond it was almost transparent. Her features were delicate; most beautiful human women would have looked gross and crude standing beside her.
She looked down at the nearest of the soldiers and frowned. "What goes on here?" she asked again.
The elf ducked his head. "Your pardon, Lady. This . . . human wants to fight with us."
She looked over at Karl, one eyebrow raised. "Is this so?"
"Not necessarily. I just want to kill the ones without any manners. Improve the breed a bit for you. I might have given this idiot my sword if he'd asked politely, but he demanded it."
"You're Karl Cullinane, I take it." Her lips twitched. "I see that the stories are true. You'd take on all of my soldiers, hoping to hold out until your reinforcements arrived?"
"You don't know my husband, Lady Dhara," Andy-Andy said, as she pushed through the tent flaps and stood beside the elf woman, Tennetty and Chak to either side of her. "I don't think he's waiting for reinforcements."
"Now," Karl said quietly, "get Andy out of here. No reinforcements. Tell Daven."
Tennetty nodded and pulled at Andy-Andy's arm.
One of the soldiers reached out a hesitant arm as though to bar them; Chak grabbed, twisted the elf's arm up and behind his back, then booted him away, snatching the sword out of his scabbard as he fell on his face.
A thin smile crossing her face, Tennetty's hand snaked out and seized another elf by the trachea. Not daring to move for fear that she would rip his throat out, the elf stood there as she quickly unbuckled his swordbelt and let it drop to the ground. Looking him straight in the eye, Tennetty suddenly snapped her knee into his groin, then stooped to retrieve the scabbard. She turned around, her newly acquired sword held easily in her hand.
Nobody else moved.
"Sorry, Karl," Tennetty said. "I gave them my sword. Andrea said there was to be no trouble."
Dhara eyed Karl. "I take it that you have other ideas."
"Perhaps, Lady. It all depends on you. I've been told that you've come here to negotiate. Would you rather do it with words, or with swords?"
"Words," she said. "Definitely words." She gestured at Jherant. "You are dismissed from my service," she said, before turning to another elf. "Captain, have that fool stripped of his weapons and driven away. Karl Cullinane may keep his sword. Anyone who is discourteous to him will answer to me. If he survives." She gestured toward the tent flap. "Karl Cullinane. If you, your wife, and your two friends would be kind enough to join me?"
Karl sheathed his sword. "Delighted, Lady. After you."
* * *
*You were taking a big chance.*
Karl sipped at his wine. It would have been more of a chance not to.
*You can explain that later.*
"Your eyes look . . . distant, Karl Cullinane," Dhara said, reclining on the opposite couch. She held out her own wineglass for a refill.
"Just talking to the dragon." He jerked his thumb skyward. "No offense intended."
Dhara chuckled. "In your world, politeness must be much more important than it is thought to be here." She wetted a slim finger and ran it around the rim of her glass, enjoying the clear, ringing tone. "Although I must confess that I wonder how serious you were. Mmmm . . . 'No offense intended'—is that the correct phrase?"
Andy-Andy shook her head gravely. "Lady, I wish you wouldn't do that. You weren't around when he declared war on the Slavers' Guild single-handedly. I was."
*From Andrea: "I could back your play better if I knew what it was." She's not thrilled with you, Karl.*
Tell her I'll thrill her later. "If you'd care to find out just how serious I was, Lady, it could be arranged."
Chak sighed and got slowly, painfully to his feet. "Here we go again."
"Hold on for a moment." Tennetty drained her glass. "Can I get in on this? You always get all the fun." She tested the blade of her newly acquired sword with her thumb. "I've heard dull blades are good for cutting cheese—how's yours?"
"Another cheese cutter." Chak shook his head. "Maybe Nehera can put a decent edge on it."
*From Tennetty: "You're absolutely insane, you know."*
"Don't bet against Karl Cullinane, Lady Dhara," Tennetty said. "The odds are too long."
"You think he could take on my fifty soldiers? Even with your help?"
"I didn't think that was the issue. You're an emissary from Lord Khoral, and one of your men challenged Karl—doesn't that make the question whether or not Karl is going to declare war on Therranj itself?"
Dhara paled. "Are you—" She caught herself. "I find myself in an awkward position. Lord Khoral sent me to negotiate your incorporation into Therranj. I seem to find myself having to negotiate a peace treaty instead."
*From Andy-Andy: "I see a method in your madness, but there's still too damn much madness in your method."*
Thanks. "Sit down, Chak. Frankly, I'd rather not get involved in a war with Therranj," he said to Dhara, trying to sound as though he were considering the subject casually.
*I get it. I don't like it, but I get it. If you can create the slightest doubt in her mind that Therranj couldn't take on you alone, then she's not going to have any trouble swallowing the idea that leaving Home alone is the best move—assuming that she can't get you to join up.*
Right. And we've made that point. The threat is patent nonsense—
*Which only makes it better.*
Exactly. 'Legend' is another word for 'nonsense.' She's not sure that she believes any of this, but there have been too many stories about me being passed around, growing in the telling. Last time I heard about how I took on Ohlmin, Slovotsky wasn't in on it, and Ohlmin had a hundred men, not eight. The rest of this is just pro forma; I've made the point.
*And if she had called your bluff?*
Karl didn't answer. There wasn't a real answer. Years ago, it had become clear that he wasn't likely to die of old age. His situation wasn't like that of an Other Side soldier in a normal sort of war; Karl had enlisted for the duration, and the duration was sure to be longer than even his natural lifespan.
If this was where he was going to die, that was the way it would have to be. Chak and Tennetty would have been able to get Andy-Andy out in the confusion, and that would have had to be enough.
*Well, as long as you don't believe your own bullshit . . .*
You so sure it's bullshit?
*Yup. And you are, too. Now, stop sweating and start negotiating.*
The elf woman beckoned another servitor to refill their glasses. "Now, where were we?"
Karl smiled back at her. "We were discussing peace between Therranj and Home. Sounds like a good idea to me—as it should to you."
"I thought the issue was to be the incorporation of the Valley of Varnath into Therranj proper. That is its proper name, you know."
"Not anymore." Karl shrugged. "Look. We're going to have a town meeting on the question of joining Therranj. The majority will decide—"
Tennetty interrupted him with a loud snicker. "Karl's always thought that counting noses means something."
Dhara raised an eyebrow. "And you don't?"
She laughed. "Of course not. But my opinion doesn't matter—it's my loyalty that does."
"Enough," Karl said. "As I was saying, I'm voting against. I think Ahira is going to stay in office, and Home is going to stay independent. But that doesn't mean that we can't continue to trade with you. We have things you want: Riccetti's horsecollars, better plows than you're used to, finer blades—"
"Guns. And gunpowder. We want your Lou Riccetti to produce them for us."
"—and we also produce a food surplus, each and every year. That doesn't amount to much yet, but we're still growing. And as far as the guns go," he said with a shrug, "those are our secret, and are going to stay that way for the foreseeable future."
"Really?" She raised an eyebrow. "I've heard otherwise."
*I don't like this, Karl.*
Neither do I. Has anyone been talking about the slaver powder and guns?
*Negative.* Ellegon made it a blanket statement of fact.
"As a matter of fact," Dhara went on, "there have been guns operating in the war between Bieme and Holtun. I have it on good authority that the Biemish reverses have been due to the Holts' having some."
*I haven't heard anything about this. Pry for more information.*
"I'd have to doubt that, Lady. Your sources must be mistaken. We haven't taken sides in the war—"
"Nevertheless, there have been guns. You would like witnesses?"
At Karl's nod, Dhara snapped her fingers. "Bring them in."
Elven soldiers brought three humans into the tent, guarding them closely.
"Thinking that you might demand reliable witnesses, I couldn't resist buying these, when I ran across them in a Metreyll market. Which is somewhat ironic; it seems that they were originally headed to Metreyll, although not to become slaves. They were captured by mercenaries employed by Holtun—mercenaries who used guns to kill their bodyguards."
Karl started to speak, but as the three were led in, his words caught in his throat. He didn't recognize the adult man, but both the woman and the boy were familiar.
"Rahff!" Karl leaped to his feet. "How? I saw you die—"
"Karl!" Chak caught his arm. "It's not him."
No, it wasn't Rahff. Rahff had died in Melawei, protecting Aeia. If Rahff had lived, he would have been older than this boy. If Rahff had lived . . . but he hadn't.
And then there was the woman. White streaks had invaded the black of her hair, but the high cheekbones and eyes were a feminine version of Rahff's.
They were Thomen Furnael and his mother Beralyn, the baroness.
Years ago, Karl had suspected that Zherr Furnael had a plan to get the rest of his family away from the oncoming war. Just as he had apprenticed Rahff to Karl, hoping that Karl could teach the boy enough to lead the barony through the war.
But it hadn't worked. Rahff had been killed in Melawei, and now it seemed that Furnael's plan to safeguard the rest of his family had failed.
Until now. Ellegon, get the dwarf. I want him to take over Daven's team. Just in case. "Thomen, Baroness," he said, inclining his head. "It has been a long time."
Dhara snapped her fingers. "Beralyn, you will tell him about the guns. Now."
"You don't understand, Lady Dhara," Karl said, his hand on the hilt of his sword. "The baroness and the boy—all three of them are here now, they're under my protection now. They're free. They're beholden to nobody, owned by nobody."
"Another bluff, Karl Cullinane?"
Tennetty was the first to move; she kicked a table toward the nearest guard, then leaped at Dhara, wrestling the elf woman from the couch, bringing one arm up behind Dhara's back in a hammerlock, setting her blade against the elf woman's throat.
One of the soldiers drew his sword and lunged toward her from behind. Chak parried, then kicked at the elf's elbow; the blade fell from nerveless fingers. He stood, smiling at Dhara's guards.
In the distance, three gunshots rang out.
*Nobody's hurt, yet. I've sent for the dwarf instead of fetching him; Daven needed a bit of persuading to stay put. We compromised on a few warning shots.*
"Nobody's seriously hurt yet, Dhara. Those shots were just a warning."
Andy-Andy raised her hands and wet her lips. "These are the mother and brother of Karl's first apprentice, Lady Dhara. I wouldn't push the matter."
Even with Tennetty's blade at her throat, Dhara managed a smile. "Lord Khoral intended to give the three of them to you, as tokens of our sincerity. If you wish to free them, well, that is your concern. Not mine."
Gently, she tried to push Tennetty's blade away; at Karl's nod, Tennetty let her.
"We'll have to continue this discussion later," Karl said. "Baroness, Thomen, and you, whoever you are, if you will follow me, we'll see to your needs."
The three didn't say anything; they just followed sullenly.
A Matter of Obligation
A sense of duty pursues us ever. . . . If we take to ourselves the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, duty performed or duty violated is still with us, for our happiness or our misery. If we say the darkness shall cover us, in the darkness as in the light our obligations are yet with us.
"You expect me to be grateful, Karl Cullinane?" Beralyn sneered. "You, who might as well have murdered my son." She sat back in her chair. "Go ahead, kill me. That won't change anything."
The shack was small, but neat; originally, it had been Ahira's house, but now it was one of the three small log cabins that were used for receiving new arrivals, giving them a place to sleep and take their meals until they could adjust to Home life.
Karl bit his lip, opened his mouth, closed it. He turned to the boy.
"Thomen, I need to know something." Karl tapped at the two rifles on the table in front of them. "One of these is a Home rifle; the other is one we seized from slavers just about a tenday ago. The men who killed your guards and took you—which kind did they have?"
Karl was sure what the answer would be—but what if he was wrong? What if someone on his or Daven's or Aveneer's squad had taken up slaving?
Hesitantly, the boy started to point toward the slaver's gun, but his mother's voice brought him up short.
"Don't answer," the boy's mother snapped. "We will give your brother's killer no help."
*Anything I can do?*
No. Just go away. Karl couldn't even work up the strength to blame Beralyn. She had been against apprenticing Rahff to Karl from the first, knowing that it would endanger the boy.
It hadn't just endangered him. It had killed him.
There was a knock on the door, and Aeia walked in without waiting for an answer. "Greetings," she said, her face grave. "Andrea says that Rahff's mother is here. Are you her?"
Beralyn didn't answer.
"We didn't meet when I was in Bieme. But I did get to know Rahff well. You should know something about how your son died."
"I know how my son died."
Aeia shook her head. "You weren't there. I was. If it hadn't been for Rahff . . ." She let her voice trail off
Thomen looked up. "What if it hadn't been for Rahff?"
Aeia smiled gently. "I would have been killed instead. The slavers had gone crazy; they were killing everyone they could reach. Rahff stood between me and one of them."
Karl pounded his fist against the table. If only I'd been a little smarter, a little faster. If he had been only a few seconds faster he would have gotten to the slaver before the bastard opened Rahff's belly. If only Karl had worked out that Seigar Wohtansen would treat his own people first, he would have been able to get the healing draughts to Rahff in time.
Aeia sat down next to Thomen. "Rahff hit me once, did you know that?"
She shrugged. "I doubted Karl—out loud. Rahff sort of elbowed me in the side. What did you tell him, Karl?"
"Aeia . . ." Karl shook his head. "I don't remember."
"I bet Rahff did. You said, 'A man whose profession is violence must not commit violence on his own family, or his friends. You and I are supposed to watch over Aeia, protect her, not bully her.' "
Just as I was supposed to protect Rahff. Teach him, protect him, not watch him die.
*It has been more than five years, Karl. Isn't it time you stopped flogging yourself over Rahff?*
"Don't you ask me that." Karl jumped to his feet. "Ask her, dammit, ask Beralyn. Tell her that it's okay now."
He pounded his clenched fists in front of his face. "There hasn't been a day gone by when I haven't remembered. He trusted me. The boy practically worshipped me." He turned to Beralyn, trying to think of the words that would soften her stony expression. "Baroness . . ." But there weren't any words.
It was too much; Karl pushed away from the table and walked out into the courtyard. He leaned against the wall of the old smithy.
High above, Ellegon's dark form passed across the stars. *Anything I can do?*
"No. Just leave me alone." Karl buried his face in his hands. "I've just got to be alone for a while."
* * *
Time lost its meaning. He never knew how long he stood there.
A finger tapped against his shoulder. He turned to see Beralyn standing next to him, her face wet. "You loved him, too, didn't you?"
Karl didn't answer.
"I've spent years hating you, you know. Ever since a trader brought us your letter, telling us that he was dead."
"I . . . understand."
"I thank you for the understanding. What do we do now, Karl Cullinane? Do we go on hating each other?"
"I don't hate you, Baroness. You've never given me any reason to hate you."
"But you don't like me much, either. You feel that I should be grateful because you freed Thomen, Rhuss, and me."
"Just tell me what you want, Lady. Don't play games with me."
She nodded slowly. "My husband sent Thomen and me away, once the Holts started using these guns and the tide of the war turned against us. He thought we would be safe. But it seems that guns are flowing out of Enkiar these days—flowing toward Holtun."
Enkiar, again. That was where the slaver caravan had been heading. That was where Ahrmin had hired the assassins. What did it all mean?
Well, he'd find out soon enough.
"Aeia told me that you're going to Enkiar. She didn't say where you would be going after that."
He shrugged. "I guess that depends on what happens there. Maybe back here, maybe on another raid." And maybe to the source of the slavers' guns. Not only was there a score to be settled there, but even light trading in slaver guns and powder had to be stopped.
"You owe me, Karl Cullinane. You owe me for my son. I wish to collect on that debt."
He looked her full in the face. "How?"
"You know my husband. Zherr isn't going to survive this war. I'm likely never to see him again. Unless . . ."
"Unless what?" Dammit, couldn't anyone speak plainly?
"Unless you take me back to Bieme. I want to go home, Karl Cullinane. And I want your word." She gripped his hand. "I want your word that if it's humanly possible, you'll take me home, after Enkiar. That's little enough payment for my son's life."
"Do I have your word? This . . . word of Karl Cullinane that you prize so much?"
"You have it."
"There is one more thing."
"Thomen. He is to stay here, to be sent with another party. I won't have him around you."
Even if you persuade me, you won't persuade me.
Karl gobbled down the scrambled eggs, then took a last bite of the half-eaten ham steak before pushing his chair away from the table.
"And just where do you think you're taking your brainless body off to, Karl Cullinane?" U'len asked, her fists on her more than ample hips.
Suddenly he felt about eight years old, and was surprised to find that he liked the feeling.
"Gotta rush, U'len. I've got a workout with Tennetty and a couple of Daven's men, and then I've got to get ready for the town meeting."
"First things first. Eat."
"Yes." Andy-Andy shook her head. "U'len's right. Sit down and finish your breakfast."
Jason hid a broad smile behind his tiny hand. "Daddy's in trou-ble," he announced in a stage whisper, addressing nobody in particular.
"Damn straight," Aeia said, the English words still incongruous coming from her. "He acts as if he's in charge here or something."
He glared at her.
"Siddown, hero," Andy-Andy said. "Out there you may be the legendary Karl Cullinane, but in here you're an all too often absent husband and father who thinks he can wolf down his food and run."
Relay, please: You didn't think I was so damn absent last night.
There was no answer: He snorted. Question: Why is a dragon like a cop? Answer: You never can find one when you need one.
"Give me a break, please." Keep it light, he thought. There were too few opportunities to have an argument that could be treated lightly, where winning or losing didn't really matter; he decided to enjoy this one. "I've got things to do."
"Exactly right. And the first heroic thing you're going to do today is to finish your ham. All of it."
"Yeah," Jason piped in. "Children of Salket are starving, and you wanna throw away good food?" he went on, in a fine imitation of his mother's voice when she got angry.
"I'm eating, I'm eating." He pushed his chair back to the table. Somehow, it seemed that the remaining ham had grown larger in the past seconds.
* * *
Karl's workouts tended to draw crowds. Even on a morning when most people were doing their best to finish whatever they were working on so that they would be free for the late-afternoon town meeting, more than fifty had gathered around the corral to watch.
Pendrill and the stableboy chased the three horses out of the corral, while Wraveth and Taren cleared out the fresh dung, then stripped to the waist before donning padded shirts and trousers and slipping the wire-mesh masks over their heads.
Karl settled for just a mask. The practice swords' edges had been dulled, and the points had had steel balls welded to them; with the mask precluding the possibility of losing an eye, there was little chance of much more than a bruise or two, and Karl wasn't likely to get bruised. Besides, the padded practice garments tended to interfere with his freedom of movement. His overfilled belly was going to do enough of that; no need to aggravate the problem.
Tennetty was late. After a few minutes that Karl spent chatting with Wraveth and Taren, she rode up, then hurriedly slipped from Pirate's back, waving away Taren's offer of a mask and practice sword.
Her wrists were bandaged. Karl walked over to her.
She shook her head. "You still want me in the Enkiar operation? I'll need some fresh scars on my wrist, and I'd rather get them from Thellaren's scalpels than by wearing cuffs a moment longer than I have to." She tapped at her patch, her lips pursed in irritation. "Thellaren's working on the glass eye, and I asked Chak to ride out and get Nehera started on trick chains—you happy?"
"It's necessary, Tennetty." But why the sudden change of mind? Karl shrugged mentally. It wasn't any of his business.
She broke into a smile. "I have a surprise for you. Remember Jilla and Danni?"
"They want to join our team. Seems that they've decided to become warriors, get a bit of revenge."
Wonderful. Once Karl had let a woman join up just because she had a thing for seeing slavers' blood. That someone had been Tennetty; he had lucked out.
But he didn't want to push his luck. He'd been fortunate enough to find in Tennetty someone with a natural bent for combat, plus a personality skewed enough to be able to handle it. "How did you talk them out of it?"
"Well . . ."
"You did talk them out of it, didn't you?"
"No." She snorted. "They don't think it's all that hard." She set a hand on her hip and bent her other wrist. " 'It looks soooo easy. You pull a trigger, slice with a sword—' "
"You're joking. Tell me you're joking."
"Nope. They'll be here in a while. I made them a deal: Whoever scores on you we'll sign up. Whoever you beat has to find herself a man and settle down—and we get to pick the man."
"We?" He raised an eyebrow. "You got anyone in particular in mind?"
"Obvious: Chak for the blonde, Riccetti for the brunette. By the way, they're both good cooks, although I can't vouch for their . . . other talents. You might want to try them out—"
"Tennetty . . ."
"Think about it, Karl. Might give Chak something to come Home to, put a little weight on Lou, and maybe smiles on both of their faces."
That might not be a bad idea, provided Chak and Lou agreed to it. Not bad at all. As far as Karl could tell, none of the female apprentice Engineers were sleeping with Lou; Riccetti had always been shy around women. And while Karl trusted Chak with his life, discussing Chak's relationships with women—or, rather, the lack of them—wasn't something he was comfortable doing.
Karl raised an eyebrow. "They went for it?"
Tennetty nodded. "That they did. Remember, for most of their lives, they were owned by a Pandathaway inn. Their only real talents are over a stove and in a bed, unless you consider arranging flowers to be a major skill. I don't think that either of them would have a hard time getting Riccetti to agree. If you want, we could rig it so that Lou thinks it's his own idea. I don't vouch for Chak; he can be clever, in his own little way."
"That wasn't what I was asking. They really agreed to sparring with me?"
"Well, I had to throw in a few conditions for them to be willing to face the great Karl Cullinane."
"First, they get to use real swords."
"Great. Thanks a lot." That was pushing things a bit far. Even an absolute tyro could get in a lucky slash. "I'd better send for some armor." Normally, Karl didn't like wearing a lot of armor; in combat, speed was more important, particularly if you had a bottle of healing draughts handy to take care of the occasional nick.
"Umm, that was the second condition. You don't get to wear armor. No mask. Nothing but your pants—"
"Thank heavens for small favors."
"Really?" Tennetty snickered. "I never noticed. The third handicap is that you use only a practice sword."
Karl snorted. "Anything else? Do I have to fight with one hand tied behind my back?"
Tennetty produced a leather thong. "Number four."
* * *
Look, Karl wanted to say, this isn't a pleasant business. Don't get into it if you don't have to.
But he didn't. It wouldn't have done any good. For some people, blood was a drug. Tennetty was that way; the killing never really bothered her.
Then again, how do I know that? Karl hid his own feelings as much as he could, even from Andy-Andy.
There were things he had to do; horrible, awful things. The only justification was that not doing them was worse. Remonstrating with himself was a luxury for late at night; he couldn't spend precious moments in combat remembering that an enemy had once been a cute little baby, bouncing on a mother's knee.
But he didn't have to like it. He didn't have to force himself to feel the pleasure that Tennetty got from the killing, and that Jilla and Danni seemed to have learned at her hands.
He worked his left hand in the leather thongs that bound it behind his back. It wouldn't be hard to work it out of the thongs, but that would take time. And it would be seen as cheating.
Not that he had anything against cheating, not if it made the difference between bleeding and not bleeding, but . . .
Damn. One of the watchers in the crowd was an unfamiliar elf, not a Home resident. One of Dhara's people, no doubt. Which upped the stakes: Karl wouldn't only have to win; he would have to win in such a way as to impress the elf. The Therranji had already been shocked by the scene Karl had pulled the day before; best to keep them impressed.
How the hell do I get myself into things like this?
*Do you really want an answer?* With a rustling of leathery wings, Ellegon landed next to the corral. *It's because you're egotistical, smug, stupid, foolish—*
*—and those are your good points.*
Jilla and Danni walked out through the gate from the Receiving complex, naked swords held clumsily in their hands, whispering conspiratorially to each other. Each wore a deeply cut halter and a sarong slit well up the thigh. Rather nice thighs, at that.
*Naughty, naughty. And if you're thinking that's accidental, guess again. Jilla decided that if you're watching other parts of their anatomy, you won't be concentrating on the hands with the swords. By the way, the halters are loosely tied; they'll slip off with just a bit of exertion. Sort of a second line of defense.*
Well, at least Andy-Andy isn't—
"Hey, hero," Andy-Andy said, tapping him on the shoulder. "What goes on here?"
"Great. Just great." He put his free hand on the corral railing and vaulted over, accepting a practice sword from Tennetty. "Let's get to it."
* * *
Naked blades didn't always make Karl nervous, but they did always make him serious. He eyed both of the women professionally as they circled him, waiting for him to make the first move.
If this had been for real, he would have tried for a quick injury to either—preferably a leg wound, some sort of disabler—and then taken out the other, finishing off the injured opponent at his leisure.
But that wouldn't work here. There was prestige at stake, as well as injury.
*Why you're worrying about prestige when you're facing two swords is something I fail to understand.*
He made a tentative lunge toward Danni, allowing her to retreat, the sword held awkwardly in front of her face. Because I can't afford to lose face before the town meeting.
*In either sense. Think about it. You're not all that pretty to begin with—*
Shh. He forced a casual smile to his face.
Mr. Katsuwahara had had it right, way back when.
The way to think of kumite, of practice, he had said, is to treat it as real, except for the last inch of your own blows. Block as though the punches really would crush your trachea, the kicks would truly rupture your diaphragm. Your strikes should be aimed just outside the kill points—the navel instead of the solar plexus, the upper thigh instead of the groin, the orbital ridge instead of the eye—and then focused just an inch away from the flesh.
That wouldn't quite do it here, but it was the right idea. Treat the swords as real—because they were, dammit—and then work out how to come up with an offense that wasn't really an offense.
Danni slashed at his leg; he parried easily, putting enough force into the move to make the steel sing.
He spun to block Jilla's stab at his left shoulder. Dammit, they had him between them, and both of them had moved in too close.
But why was that bad? In a fight, you wanted your opponents' blades to endanger each other; they had to avoid cutting into an ally's flesh, while any meat your sword met was an enemy's.
And what of someone who was foolish enough to move in too close? Why wasn't that a problem? That was supposed to be an opportunity to bring feet and elbows into play.
Because this isn't a real fight, dammit. It isn't supposed to be.
Danni poked her sword at his shoulder—
Where thought would have failed him, reflex took over.
He didn't stop to think that ducking aside brought Danni's sword into line with Jilla's face; there just wasn't time to think about it.
It wasn't thought that opened his right hand, letting the practice sword drop, while his left arm clenched, snapping the leather thongs that bound it.
And it wasn't thought that brought his two palms together, clapping his hands against the flat of Danni's blade, stopping it a scant half-inch from Jilla's left eye.
"No." Danni gasped. "I almost—"
"Right." He twisted the sword from Danni's hand, then turned and snatched Jilla's blade from her nerveless fingers.
Jilla rubbed at her left eye, although it hadn't been touched. Her breath came in short gasps; her face was ashen.
Karl forced a chuckle. "You've just had a taste of what it's really like. Just a little taste, mind." He tossed one of the swords end over end into the air, letting the hilt thunk into his palm. "You know what we really do? We're merchants, in the business of selling pieces of ourselves. Tennetty's eye, Chak's toes—take a look at Slovotsky's scars sometimes, or Daven's.
"Look at my chest," he said. "I picked up this scar outside of Lundescarne. A slaver had a chance to whittle on me with a broken sword while I was busy choking the life out of him. And then there's—" He stopped himself. "And we're the lucky ones."
Anger welled up and choked him. "Idiots. You don't have to see a friend's intestines spread across the grass because he wasn't quick enough with his sword. You can let yourselves sleep soundly at night, because a little sound or a light touch doesn't have to mean anything to you. You don't have to jump through a window and find three people dead, their throats cut because someone was after your blood and they happened to be in the way.
"And you don't have to keep going, death after death, killing after killing, year after year.
"But you want in on it?" He offered them each a sword, hilt first. "Congratulations. You've got it."
Eyeing the sword with horror, Danni staggered away.
"Yes, Karl Cullinane." Jilla gripped the other one tightly. "I want in. I understand what you're saying; I've spent the past tenday listening to Tennetty. And I know I'll need training, but—"
"You want in." He shrugged. "Tennetty, she's in your charge. You get to train her. I want you to start by running her until she drops." He turned and walked away.
The deadliest enemies of nations are not their foreign foes; they always dwell within their borders. And from these internal enemies civilization is always in need of being saved. The nation blessed above all nations is she in whom the civic genius of the people does the saving day by day, by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly, by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.
Ahira snickered. "Ever wish you hadn't freed Chton? Just sort of let him slide by that time?"
"No." Karl pursed his lips. "Just 'cause he has clay feet like everybody else?" Including me, for that matter.
He bit into his sandwich, refusing the offer of a wineskin from a passing carouser.
Town meetings were half a political event, half a valley-wide party. Since everyone in the valley took at least the afternoon off from work, the meetings would have been called far more often if they didn't require a petition by twenty-five percent of the voters.
Behind the speaking platform and its chest-high ballot box, six whole sheep were slowly turning over cooking fires. A team of volunteer cooks took turns cranking the spits and basting the carcasses with wine and oil, slicing off sizzling pieces of meat, wrapping them in fresh-baked flatbread, handing out the sandwiches as they were ready.
Someone had broached the whiskey bottles and beer barrels early. Karl noted with satisfaction that none of the Engineers or the warriors joined in the throng milling around the booze, filling their mugs with the trickling liquid fire.
Good. Let the Joiners get drunk. Anyone who was passed out couldn't vote.
Like most things democratic, Home town meetings were a zoo. There were many things to be said in favor of democracy, but neatness wasn't one of them. With the exception of the absent warriors and a few outlying landowners who were too busy with their own fields, all of the voters and most of the other citizens had elected to attend.
He turned back to the dwarf. "Any landowners playing games?" Karl patted at the large leather pouch dangling from the right side of his belt. Still there; good.
Ahira shook his head. "Not that I can tell. I'll keep my ear to the ground for complaints, though—assuming I'm still Mayor by nightfall."
The law involving town meetings was explicit: Nobody was ever to be pressured not to attend, under penalty of fine, confiscation of property, or banishment, at the pleasure of the Mayor, depending on the nature of the pressure.
That applied to nonvoting citizens as well as voters; it was important that nonvoter citizens get a taste of democracy. Get someone hooked on deciding his or her own fate, and the security of cropping quickly lost its appeal. The trouble with sharecropping back on the Other Side hadn't been the basic idea of trading labor on someone else's fields for a portion of the harvest and a place to live; the flaw was that it could easily become a form of debt slavery.
In the short run, the cure for that was easy: Just make sure that there were more proven fields than there was labor to farm them. Let the landowners bid for labor, rather than letting laborers bid against each other.
"Should be straightforward, assuming things go right." Ahira nibbled at his sandwich. "Although we're likely to run into at least one challenge."
"See that kid over by the barbecue?"
Karl followed Ahira's pointing finger. The subject was a boy of about twelve, dressed in dirt and rags. He was busily feeding himself, wolfing down sandwich after sandwich.
"New arrival? What the hell is going on with supply?"
"Not new; he's a voter, believe it or not. He's been here for the last quarter. Aveneer brought him in while you were gone. Umm, Peters? No, Petros—Petros is his name. Stubborn kid. He didn't want to crop and build up his grubstake, so he managed to sweet-talk Stanish out of the use of some rusty old tools, then proved a field halfway up the mountain, just above and beyond Engineer Territory. It's barely inside the wards. I don't know what he's been living on, or how he managed to clear the ground without the woodknife, but he did. Then—
"Then, he trailed a flatbed carrying seed corn out to your fields, and picked up the spillings from the road—at least, that's what he says. More likely, he stole a few pounds of seed, but just try to prove it."
"I don't think so." The theft of a few pounds of seed didn't bother Karl. But a twelve-year-old child looking like a famine victim did. "He's working a full-sized field all by himself?"
"Yup. Scraggliest-looking field I've ever seen; I doubt that there's as much as one cornstalk per square meter. The rest is weeds. He sleeps under a brush lean-to. Last time I was inspecting, I saw what he had, and it's not much: crummy handmade bow and arrows, fire-hardened spear—probably lives off weeds and rabbit. There's at least one mountain lion working that area; likely he'll wake up in its belly some morning. Pitiful."
"Damn." Karl shook his head. "You really think anyone's going to challenge his vote?"
Ahira nodded. "He says he's fifteen, but nobody believes it. I think he should be in school, but you want to argue it with him?"
"Not at all. You'll have to excuse me; this is someone I've got to meet. Go do some politicking."
Karl worked his way through the crowd around the barbecue until he was next to the boy. It wasn't much of a problem; nobody wanted to be downwind of Petros.
"Greetings," he said.
The boy's eyes widened. "Are you who I think you are?"
Karl stuck out a hand. "Karl Cullinane."
Petros' eyes shot from side to side.
"T'rar ammalli." Karl smiled. "I just want to shake your hand; no harm."
The boy extended his own hand. Karl took it briefly, then released it, forcing himself not to wipe his own hand on his tunic. "I have a proposition for you."
Petros shook his head. "I will not crop for anyone. My field is mine, and so is my vote. I don't need help."
Then why do you look more like a Biafran refugee than anything else, kid? And has anybody ever told you what a bath is? But Karl didn't say that. A twelve-year-old former slave with this kind of pride, this kind of stubbornness, was a treasure. The trick was to make sure that this particular treasure survived, its pride intact. "Maybe not, but I could use yours—and not with cropping, either. You know Nehera?"
"The smith? Of course. What of it?"
"Take a walk with me," Karl said, taking a couple of sandwiches, then urging the boy away from the rest of the crowd.
Petros shrugged and followed him.
"I have a problem with Nehera," Karl said, handing the boy a sandwich and taking a bite out of the other one. "He hasn't gotten the idea that he's free. Thinks he has to belong to someone, and he figures that someone is me."
Karl let a bit of steel creep into his voice. "You think I own people, boy? Ever?"
"Well, no. I've heard about you."
"Better, then. As I was saying, I can't break him of the notion."
"Damn dwarves are supposed to make lousy slaves. That's what my mas—what someone who used to own me said."
Karl shrugged. "That's the theory. His spirit's broken, though. And I don't know how to go about fixing it. That's your job, if you want it."
"Broke spirit?" Petros snorted. "How am I supposed to fix that?"
"If I knew how, I wouldn't need you—that's your problem. I want you to play apprentice one day out of three. I'll clear it with the Engineers. While he's busy teaching you about smithing, I want you to teach him how to be free. Interested?"
"What's the pay?"
"Not much. You get to work on your own tools, and while you're playing apprentice, you eat out of Nehera's pot. Might even pick up a few skills while you're at it."
Petros shook his head. "My fields take too much time—"
"Nonsense. All you're doing between now and harvest is a bit of weeding. If you didn't have to spend so much time gathering food, you'd have plenty of spare time on your hands."
The boy considered it. "Maybe. That your best offer?"
"What else do you want?"
"Next planting, I want the use of a horse and plow."
Was that an honest counteroffer, or was the boy pushing, testing him?
Karl shook his head. "Just the horse. I've got plenty of horses. You'll have to rent a plow yourself."
"Deal." The boy stuck out his hand. "Shake on it."
"One more thing."
"Well?" Petros eyed him suspiciously.
"You smell like an outhouse." Karl jerked his thumb toward the lake. "Take a bath. Now. You can pick up a cake of soap at the schoolhouse. Tell Aeia I said so."
"Done. But I'll be back in time to vote. Nobody taking my vote from me."
The boy walked off toward the lake, trying his best to hold back a smile.
Karl didn't bother trying; he just turned his head away. Go ahead, Petros, think of me as a sucker.
Standing on the speaking platform, Ahira pounded his fist against the metal gong. "Your attention please," he called out, his voice even louder than the gong. "The twenty-third Home town meeting is hereby called to order. Get the food off the fire and plug the kegs," he called out to the cooks. "There is a decision to be made."
* * *
" . . . and the offer is a good one," Chton said, for the eighteenth time. Karl was sure it was eighteen. As he lay back on the grass, propped up on his elbow next to Andy-Andy, he hadn't had anything better to do than count.
Oh. Before I forget. Ahira says that there's a mountain lion around Petros' farm—
*Such as it is.*
Right. It would be kind of convenient if that lion got itself eaten.
*Consider it munched.*
" . . . what are we here? Just a few thousand, barely eking out a living from the soil and what we have to trade our blood and dying for."
That did it. Enough of that crap. Point of fact, please.
Chak, please. And cut out the Miss Piggy imitation; you don't have the right intonation down.
*Then you don't remember it clearly; I stole it from Andy-Andy's head, and she's got a better aural memory than you.*
"Point of fact," Chak said, leaping to his feet.
Chton tried to go on, but Ahira interrupted him. "Point of fact has been called. Your claim?"
"I don't remember Chton shedding any blood. I don't know him all that well, but I thought he was just a farmer."
Correct that, and quick.
Chak's eyes momentarily glazed over. "Pardon me, I didn't mean to say something bad about farmers. What I was objecting to was Chton's taking credit for the blood that the warriors and the Engineers shed—not him."
Ahira nodded judiciously. "You may continue, Chton, but omit taking credit for prices you haven't paid."
For a moment, Karl thought that Chton was going to burst a blood vessel. "Haven't paid? How about Werthan, and his woman and child? Were they not farmers? Is a farmer's blood any less red than a warrior's? Would they not be alive today instead of lying in cold graves if we were under the protection of Lord Khoral?"
Karl kept his face blank, but he couldn't help how his fists clenched. A child, body sprawled on a rough wood floor, her lifeblood a pool that would stain forever . . .
A murmur ran through the crowd.
*You'd better answer that, Karl. If that wasn't addressed to you, I don't know what is.*
No. There wasn't an answer; there wasn't an excuse.
Ihryk rose to his feet. "I'll answer him, Mr. Mayor."
"You?" Chton sneered. "One of Karl Cullinane's hirelings?"
"I don't remember that sneer in your voice when Karl pulled you and me out of the slave wagon, Chton. I don't even remember you at Werthan's houseraising." Ihryk raised his fist. "But I'll tell you this—Werthan and Anna would have spent their lives with collars around their necks if it weren't for the likes of Karl Cullinane. And so would you and I."
"Yes," Chton shot back, "the noble Karl Cullinane, the great man. Who just happens to be the richest man in the valley. If we join with Therranj, we'll all be as rich as he is, have as many servants as he does. Is that what bothers you, Karl Cullinane? Is that why you oppose Lord Khoral's offer?"
*Karl, I think it's about time. If he calls for the vote now—*
I know. Karl rose to his feet. "Point of personal privilege, Mr. Mayor."
Ahria nodded. "You may address the point."
Karl walked to the platform, forcing himself to move slowly, knowing that a hurried step might make it look as though Chton's taunts had scored.
He stepped up onto the rough wood and turned to face the crowd.
"About damn time, Karl," Ahira whispered. "This better be good."
"It will be." He raised his voice. "Chton has made a point, and a good one. I . . . guess I should be ashamed. Yes, of course, the reason that I don't want Home to become part of Therranj is that I'm afraid for my status. It's only logical, isn't it? If everyone is better off, then it only follows that I would be worse off. . . ."
He wrinkled his brow. "Wait. That doesn't make sense. Wouldn't I be better off, as well?" He nodded. "I know what Chton means, though." He picked a familiar face out of the crowd. "Harwen, I was just talking about it to you the other day, remember? I was complaining about your being out riding. I figured I'd be more comfortable riding both Carrot and your horse," he said, taking an absurdly wide stance.
A quiet chuckle ran through the crowd.
"And Ternius, you noticed me over by the cooking fire? I was glaring at everyone who was eating. After all, I can eat more than will fill my belly, can't I?" He glanced at the remaining roasts near the fire. "Well, I'll try, but I don't think I'd enjoy it.
"You know something, Chton? I just can't do it. I just can't ride more than one horse at a time, or sleep in more than one bed at once, or eat more than my belly will hold. Or lie with more than one woman at a time—"
"You had damn well better not, Karl Cullinane." Andy-Andy leaped to her feet. "Point of information, Mr. Mayor."
"Recognized. What information do you want?"
"None. It's information I'd better give. You cheat on me, Karl Cullinane, and you'll be missing something I have reason to know you're fond of." She produced a knife from the folds of her robes and considered the edge.
The quiet chuckle became a full-throated laugh.
*Now that you've got them laughing, what are you going to do?*
That was just the warm-up. Watch me.
Karl raised his hands in mock surrender. "You see my point, Chton."
"You've had your say; I'll have mine now." He hitched at the leather pouch at his waist. "Khoral doesn't want much from us, and that's a fact. All he wants is our fealty, and he'll give us much in return." Karl untied the pouch from his belt and held it in both hands. "Very much. He'll make me a baron, and give me the whole valley as my barony. Maybe, if I turn it down—and make no mistake, I would turn it down—he'll give it to Chton.
"He'll send us serfs. All of you who have farms will have people around who will have to work your fields for you, or starve. Doesn't that sound good? Doesn't that sound familiar? Khoral will divide up the land for us, and then we can make them farm it. We won't even have to clap collars around their necks—they'll either work for us or starve.
"And what does he want for this? Stand up, Lady Dhara, and tell us what he wants for this."
She stood, but Karl didn't give her a chance to answer. "All he wants is our fealty; each and every one of us. That's all. He will give us gold, he says, and promises that our taxes will be low. All he wants is our fealty. All he wants is for us to say that he, Lord Khoral, is better able to decide how we should live than we are. You like that idea, Tivar?" He beckoned to a farmer who he knew was undecided. "You like the idea of turning your destiny over to that elf?"
"Wait!" Chton spun on Karl. "What's the difference between having Khoral rule and letting you and Ahira run the valley as though it were your fief? Tell me that."
Karl walked to the ballot box and slammed his hand down on it. "This is the difference, fool. The difference is choice. Khoral wants you to trade this in—you know what he'll give you instead of this?"
Don't teach your grandfather— "Gold. That's what it comes down to, isn't it, Chton? You and the rest of your Joiners want gold, and Khoral offers gold." Karl dug his hand into his pouch. "I have some of that gold right here." He pulled his hand out.
The buttery golden collar shone in the bright daylight. "Is this what you want clamped around your neck?"
"No," several voices cried out, most of them Engineers.
"I can't hear you. Do you want this?"
"No!" The voices were stronger, although the warrior and Engineer factions were still the most vocal.
"Now," Karl said, deliberately lowering his voice, forcing them all to listen carefully, "you have a choice. You can vote your confidence in the Mayor, or you can throw him out. Even if Ahira stays in as Mayor, you can still change your minds later. But this?" He raised the golden collar over his head. "Once you clamp this around your throat, do you think you can decide to take it off later? What if it doesn't fit you, Chton?" He tossed the collar to the platform. "What if it chokes you?"
"Wait, that's not fair—"
"Fair? I'll show you fair. Lady Dhara—catch this." He kicked the collar at Dhara; she caught it automatically, then dropped it as though it were on fire. "You can take that back to Lord Khoral and tell him that Home might make a good ally for Therranj, but if he tries to swallow us, he'll choke."
He strode to the ballot box and stopped in front of the two barrels next to it. "You all can vote in privacy, if you wish," he said, selecting a single stone from the barrel of white ones, "but here's how I vote; I don't mind any of you seeing." He held it up for all to see. "I vote my confidence in Ahira—and for independence." He slammed the stone down into the ballot box, then walked off the platform.
*Daven, Andy-Andy, Tennetty, and half a dozen others want to know if they're supposed to join you.*
No, not yet. Let someone else go first.
Petros vaulted to the platform. "I vote with Karl Cullinane," he said, taking up a white stone. Somewhere or other, the boy had managed to procure a knife; now he brandished it. "Does anybody value his life little enough to try stopping me?" He dropped the white stone in the ballot box, then leaped from the platform, standing beside Karl.
Before Chton had his mouth half open, Ranella, the apprentice Engineer, had jumped to her feet. "The Engineers stand with Ahira," she said. "All of us."
"I do, too," Ternius said. "And I don't see any need to wait."
The trickle became a torrent, and then a flood.
* * *
"Transcending the political, eh, Karl?" Ahira smiled up at him as they walked down the road in the starlight. "Sounded to me like you were being very political, in your own way. Including lying."
"Lying? Me?" Karl stooped to pick a pebble from the road, then threw it off into the night.
"That golden collar was inspired."
Karl breathed on his fingernails and buffed them against his chest. "Thank you. I thought it made a nice metaphor. Didn't you?"
"Right. But I don't recall that as being one of Khoral's gifts."
"I never said it was, did I?"
"No. You didn't." Ahira was silent for a few minutes as they walked along the road toward the house that the dwarf shared with Walter and his family. "We make a good team, you and I. I can handle the day-to-day stuff, but I can't . . . inspire people, not the way you do." He shrugged. "Just not in me."
"Don't put yourself down."
"I'm not. It's just that if you hadn't been here, we might have lost. You might have found yourself faced with Chton as Mayor the next time you came Home."
"Stop talking around whatever it is that you want to talk about, Ahira. Just say it."
"You've got to settle down, Karl. Spend more time here, not on the road. If you'd been here, you might have been able to shame Chton into not pushing for a town meeting in the first place."
"Can't. Too much work to do. There's the Enkiar operation coming up, and I've promised to take Beralyn home."
The dwarf nodded grimly. "It might be best, in the long run. I've been talking to Gwellin; he's always thinking about going back to Endell."
"I knew that—but why you?"
"You notice a lot of dwarf women around?"
Karl nodded. "Well, it was always understood Gwellin and his people are only temporarily with us. But their word is as good as—"
"The word of Karl Cullinane." Ahira chuckled. "Quite right; no word will be said about guns. But, Karl . . ."
"Well, if they ever throw me out of office, I'm thinking that it might be a good idea if I went with him. I'm still not sure what I am, Karl. I've spent seven years now as a cross between a human and a dwarf, and I'm beginning to wonder . . ."
Karl stopped. "Ahira. Look me in the face. You wanted to lose today, didn't you?"
The dwarf didn't answer.
"Karl, I . . . just don't know." Ahira pounded his fist against the flat of his hand. "I really don't know, not anymore. It's different for me than it is for you. You subordinated Barak to your own needs years ago. I'm . . . still betwixt and between. And I know that I owe my life to Walter, and Riccetti, and Andy—and most particularly to you, but . . ." He looked up. "Dammit, Karl, why can't things be clearer to me? You always seem to know what you're doing."
"Not you. Please." Karl threw up his hands. "Don't you start to buy into the legend. I'm still me, Ahira, just plain old Karl Cullinane who staggers through life, improvising as he goes." And some of those improvisations have cost lives, Jimmy. "I just do the best I can." He clapped a hand to Ahira's shoulder. "But once I finish with this Enkiar operation and get Beralyn back to Bieme, what say I hang around Home for a while? Would that do for the time being?"
"Let's try it." The dwarf nodded. "I think so. It wouldn't be all bad, you know. You could teach some school, spend more time with your wife and son."
"Okay. Just give me time, Ahira. It'll take a while to finish up what I've started. One favor, though."
"When it's just the two of us alone, could I call you James Michael? It'd be sort of a taste of home."
"And it might remind me who I really am supposed to be, eh?"
"No. That you've got to decide for yourself."
They walked along in silence for a long time. In front of them, the lamp still burned on the porch. The dwarf climbed the steps and turned to him. "You do what you have to, Karl. And I'll hold out here just as long as I can. Who knows? This whole Joiner nonsense may subside."
But your own problem won't. "Maybe it will."
"About that favor . . ."
"I think you'd better call me Ahira. It's who I am, after all. Goodnight."
The voice of the turtledove speaks out. It says: Day breaks, which way are you going? Lay off, little bird, must you scold me so?
—Love Songs of the New Kingdom
Karl checked the third packhorse's cinch for the twentieth time as he eyed the house in the predawn light, wondering if he'd ever see it again. I've always got to make my goodbyes count, he thought. They may end up being all too real.
*You're stalling. Which is probably the most sensible thing you've ever done. You should let me—*
No. Case closed.
Beralyn and Tennetty sat astride their horses, waiting with patently false patience. Chak, sitting comfortably in the saddle on his gray gelding, was more phlegmatic. It didn't matter to him whether they left now or in a few minutes.
Karl shook his head. I'd better go.
Andy-Andy stood on the porch, watching him silently. There was nothing more to say; all of it had been said last night.
I'll miss you terribly, he mouthed. As always.
One more thing to do. He walked up the steps and into the foyer, then climbed the stairs to Jason's room.
Mikyn and Jason lay sleeping under their blankets.
Karl knelt on the floor and gently kissed Jason on the forehead. No need to wake him. Watch over him, will you? He tore himself away from the room, and the boy.
*As always, Karl.*
U'len caught up with him on the steps. "Look, you—be careful," she said, her voice a harsh whisper. "I have a bad feeling about this." She shook her head, her hands behind her back.
"You always have a bad feeling."
She snorted. "True enough. Here," she said, producing a muslin sack, then turning away. "For the road."
"But we've got plenty of food—" He stopped himself. "Thank you, U'len," he said. "See you soon."
She nodded gravely. "Maybe. Maybe this time. But one time you won't come back, Karl Cullinane. Get your fool ass killed, you will, sooner or later."
"Maybe." He forced a smile. "How about double or nothing on your salary? If I'm not back in, say, two hundred days, you get double your pay for that time—otherwise, you work for free for however long I'm out."
"I don't bet against you." She cocked her head to one side. "Although, if you'd care to give me odds?" She put her hands on his shoulder and turned him about, then pushed him toward the door. "If you're going, get out of here."
* * *
Andy-Andy was still waiting on the porch. "I still think you should let Ellegon fly you."
He shook his head. "I don't want him away from Home. Not until Gwellin and the rest are back on guard. They should be back in a couple of weeks at the outside; then he can go back to resupplying runs. But until then, I'd just as soon not have to worry about whether or not you're safe when I go to sleep at night."
"And I'm not supposed to—" She stopped and shook her head in apology. Arguing over a settled issue wasn't a luxury that Andy allowed herself. "Did you mean what you told Ahira the other night? About spending some more time around here, after this one?"
He nodded. "I think a couple of years of semiretirement would do me a bit of good—let Tennetty or Chak run the team for a while. Besides, if the guild keeps raiding into Therranj, I might just take a small group out for a tenday every now and then, keep them on their toes."
The whole world didn't rest on Karl's shoulders, not anymore. With Aveneer's and Daven's teams working, with rumors of others attacking and robbing slavers, the guild was on the run.
Even if he knew that he couldn't possibly live to see the end of the work, it was fairly begun. A phrase from Edmund Burke popped into his mind: "Slavery they can have everywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil."
Not any soil around me, Eddie. Just think of me as a weedkiller.
No. Lou Riccetti was the weedkiller, although eventually, the secret of gunpowder would get out. And that might not be a bad thing. Like them or not, guns were a leveling phenomenon, a democratizing one, in the long run. "All men are created equal," people would say. "Lou Riccetti made them that way."
He hitched at his swordbelt, then threw his arms around her, burying his face in her hair. "Be well," he whispered.
"You'd damn well better take care of yourself, hero." She pressed her lips to his and kissed him thoroughly.
He released her and walked down the steps, then over to the roan he had picked for the trip. Carrot was getting a bit too old to be taken into battle; this mare would have to serve until he was able to reclaim Stick from Slovotsky.
He levered himself into the saddle.
Tennetty tossed him a square of cloth. "Wipe your eyes, Karl."
He tossed it back. "Shut up. Let's get out of here."
Cease to ask what the morrow will bring forth, and set down as gain each day that Fortune grants.
—Quintus Horatius Raccus
The watchman picked them up less than a mile outside of camp.
"Two all-beef patties," a harsh voice whispered from somewhere in the trees, "special sauce, lettuce, cheese . . ."
The voice fell silent.
" . . . pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun," Karl called back, deciding that he was going to have to have a serious talk with Walter about the passwords Slovotsky was selecting.
It was a sound idea, in principle, and Karl had approved of it when Walter had suggested it several years before: The password phrases were culled out of Other Side popular culture, guaranteeing that Karl, Walter, or Ahira could answer a challenge without having been given the response ahead of time.
But this was just too much. It was too damn much. Karl had been dreaming of Big Macs and similar delicacies for years.
His mouth watering, he dropped his reins and turned to Beralyn. "Baroness, raise your hands."
"There is someone pointing a gun at you who doesn't know you, and doesn't know that you don't have a pistol trained on my back. He will know it if you get your hands high in the air. Now."
Slowly, she complied.
Peill stepped out onto the road, his slaver smoothbore carefully just out of line with the baroness' chest. "Greetings, Karl." The weapon didn't waver. "I don't recognize your . . . companion."
"Ta havath, Peill. Beralyn, Baroness Furnael, I'd like to introduce Peill ip Yratha."
"May I lower my hands now?"
"Certainly," Tennetty said. "If you really want a hole through your chest. Peill isn't going to take either Karl's or my word that you're harmless, not until he's sure that we're not under some sort of threat. You still could have a pistol up your sleeve; if you were fast enough, you'd be able to get it out before we could do anything about it. We've got to prove that you don't."
Chak snorted. "You could have warned her before you said 'certainly,' instead of after."
"It's more fun my way."
"Shut up, both of you." Karl slowly edged his horse over to the baroness, drew his saber, and held the point a scant few inches from her throat. "Satisfied, Peill?" He resheathed his sword.
The elf lowered his rifle. "Yes." He turned and gestured to someone hidden in the woods; leaves rustled momentarily.
Peill bowed deeply as he turned back. "Please lower your arms and accept my apologies, Baroness—Furnael?" He raised an eyebrow. "Rahff's mother?"
"Right." Karl nodded. "Now, I don't want to get shot on the way in. How much of a lead should we give your second?"
"He is quick on his feet, Karl Cullinane. I suggest you take a few moments to water your horses, then ride directly in." Peill eyed the late-afternoon sun. "We are camped in a clearing—you'll be met. I'd better move up and find another watch station. If you'll excuse me?" He bowed deeply toward Beralyn, then vanished into the bushes.
Karl dismounted, took a waterbag and a wooden bowl down from a packhorse's bags, and began to water the horses. "Sorry about the discourtesy," he said. "But it can save a bit of trouble. If you did have us covered, all we'd have to do is go along with whatever you wanted, and count on Peill to take care of things from the other end."
"There seem to be many . . . strange rituals involved in this business of yours."
* * *
The interior of the late wizard's wagon was elegant: The floor was deeply carpeted, the wooden walls covered with tapestries. Karl, Chak, Walter, and Henrad, Andy-Andy's apprentice, sat around a common bowl of stew, eating a late supper. Peill was busy settling the baroness in for the night, while Tennetty was off by herself, working on her disguise.
Setting down his spoon, Karl reached over to what had been the wizard's study desk, took down a leather-bound book, and idly flipped through the pages, ignoring Henrad's wince. He hadn't brought up the Henrad problem with Andy, but there was no sense in taking it any easier on the boy than necessary.
The pages of spells were just a blur to him, although anyone with the genes that allowed him to work magic would have found the letters sharp and black.
There was no sense in staining the pages; Karl tossed the book to the boy, then picked up his spoon.
"You cut it kind of close, Karl," Slovotsky said, folding his hands behind his head and lying back on a floor pillow. "I was beginning to worry. Peill, Henrad, and I have been talking about doing Enkiar without you. Why didn't you just have Ellegon fly you over? Come to think of it, why haven't you lost the beard, like we were talking about?"
Karl swallowed another mouthful of stew before answering. "I didn't have Ellegon fly me over because I'm nervous about leaving the family alone, after that last attempt. I want him guarding them until Gwellin, Daherrin, and the rest are Home, and on watch. Besides, there's another reason that I'm nervous about leaving the valley alone right now. . . ."
"Well?" Slovotsky raised an eyebrow. "Don't you trust me anymore?"
Karl forced a chuckle. It wouldn't do to go public about Ahira, and about Karl's own doubts that Ahira would want to stay on as Mayor forever. That was for Walter's ears only.
"No, not at all. It's just that . . . don't you think that this business with the baroness smells kind of funny? Supposedly, she, Thomen, and Rhuss were just witnesses that guns have been used in the Bieme-Holtun war. But why them in particular? Why did Khoral go to the trouble to find someone that he must have known I'd feel beholden to?"
"To get you out of the valley for as long as possible." Slovotsky nodded. "To let them push for another town meeting while you're gone. Why did you play along?"
Karl shrugged. "I think that Khoral is underestimating our people—the Engineers, in particular. I think I persuaded Dhara that they won't go along with any sort of fealty to Khoral. It's Riccetti's Engineers that Khoral really wants, not the land."
Henrad spoke up. "But what if you're wrong?"
"If we don't solve this powder problem, it doesn't matter," Chak said, talking around a mouthful of stew. "I think this slaver powder is more dangerous than all the elves in Therranj put together."
Slovotsky raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"Ow! This is hot," Chak said, his eyes tearing.
"You probably just bit into a pepper."
"Pass the water." Chak accepted the jug, tilted it back, and drank deeply. "You know, this isn't bad stew, but someone has to teach your cook that pepper's a spice, not a vegetable."
"You didn't answer my question."
Chak snorted. "I was busy being peppered to death. . . . It's a matter of status, of legend. We are . . . the feared Home raiders; we carry thunder and lightning with us. And as long as we're the only ones who can do that, local lords and princes are going to be nervous about interfering with us, no matter what the reward; as long as we don't make a habit of taking on local lords and princes, they won't feel obliged to.
"But what if they can come up with their own guns? Couldn't that change the whole balance?"
"Maybe." Karl wasn't sure that Chak had a solid point, but he didn't like contradicting him in public.
"In any case," Walter said, "you're probably right that Ellegon's the best person to keep an eye on things—including politics. Even if the elves are shielded, Chton and the rest of the joiners aren't, eh?"
"Right. But the person that they're really underestimating is Ahira, I think. He can keep a lid on Home for years." As long as his heart is in his work, Karl added to himself. "And then . . ."
He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. "We had a huge victory; I don't know if anyone else saw it. There's this twelve-year-old kid, name of Petros. He lives in a lean-to next to what Ahira says is the scraggliest field that he's ever seen. Doesn't crop for anyone, because he wants his own land, his own vote, and he wants it now."
Karl opened his eyes and smiled. "You give me another hundred like Petros, and I won't ever have to worry that Home might be bought out by anyone. Ever." He waved it away. "But forget about that for now. We've got Enkiar to deal with. And Ahrmin."
"Ahrmin." Walter shook his head. "I hope Ellegon's wrong about him. His father scared me shitless. The son is probably going to be worse."
"He's badly burned and scarred, but he's still alive—and he hired the assassins. In Enkiar."
Slovotsky pursed his mouth. "If I remember right, he's the one who killed Fialt. Tennetty'll be all over him like ugly on an ape—which explains her being here. I've got to admit that her being with you surprised me."
"Dammit." Karl threw up his hands. Of course. That was why Tennetty had changed her mind, decided that she was willing to play slave. Sometimes I think U'len's right about my lack of brains.
Slovotsky smiled. "You missed one, eh? Happens to the best of us. You think we'll have a shot at Ahrmin?"
"Maybe. If he's still in Enkiar. If he shows his face. If this whole thing isn't a trap for yours truly." Karl bit his lip. "Which is why we're going to do things a bit differently than we'd planned. I don't think that Lord—what's the name of the Lord of Enkiar?"
"Gyren," Chak said. "Otherwise known as Gyren the Neutral. Trying to make Enkiar the trading center of the Middle Lands—he never gets involved in anything."
"Exactly. I don't think we have to worry about the locals being involved in some sort of guild plot, but we do have to face the possibility that the other end of this gunrunning operation is going to put us face to face with Ahrmin."
Karl rubbed a hand against his face. "Which is why I haven't shaved. He's seen Tennetty and Chak, although only for a few minutes and in the dark. He probably won't recognize them. I'm the problem. No matter what I do, if Ahrmin sees me, he's going to recognize me."
"So? What are you going to do? Sit this one out?"
"No, Walter. I want you to keep an eye on Beralyn."
"You're going to stay behind?"
"No, I'm going ahead. I'm going to be the bait. Well, half of the bait, anyway."
Chak smiled. "If I'm reading your mind correctly, I'm the other half."
"Well . . . I've always liked it when you get tricky." Chak eyed the edge of his eating knife. "I liked Fialt a lot, Karl. And Rahff." He nodded grimly. "And if you'll recall, I was the one who chiseled through Anna Major's chains."
"Promise to save a piece of him for me. If you can."
"If I can. I won't try too hard, though."
Chak laughed. "At least you're honest."
"Someone has to be." He turned to Walter. "We brought only half a dozen rifles and four pistols. I can't exactly hide the rifles under my cloak—so I'll take whatever pistols you have."
"Hey, you had me send all of our weapons back Home with Gwellin. Don't blame me if—"
Karl held out a hand. "I love you like a brother, Walter, but that doesn't mean I don't know you. You held out a few pistols and rifles as insurance, didn't you?"
"Well . . ." Slovotsky spread his hands. "Can't blame a guy for trying."
"Not this time, anyway."
What we anticipate seldom occurs; what we least expected generally happens.
"I'm getting a bit irritated," Karl said, keeping his voice pitched low as they rode side by side down the street toward Enkiar's inn. "Nobody seems to have recognized me."
"What a pity!" Chak laughed. "So—Karl Cullinane is supposed to be the center of the world, eh? Have you been taking lessons from Walter Slovotsky on the sly? We don't have . . . teebee on This Side, remember?"
"Teevee, not teebee. Teebee is something else."
"In any case, we don't have it. As I was saying, your visage isn't all that well known. Which is just as well."
"Right." But if Ahrmin was still in the Enkiar area, he would certainly have somebody out watching, just on the off chance of spotting Karl Cullinane. The ill-feeling was mutual; Karl had killed Ahrmin's father, Ohlmin.
One of the few times I really enjoyed killing, he thought, remembering.
Whatever had happened to Ohlmin's head? They had left it behind in the wagon outside of Bremon, and the Gate Between Worlds; likely the skull was still there.
A sextet of foot soldiers approached them as they neared the inn.
"Greetings," their leader said. He was a tall and rangy man, perhaps in his mid-forties, though his hair and short beard were still coal-black. His stern blue eyes considered them carefully. "Your names and purpose in Enkiar?"
Chak spoke up first. "I am Ch'akresarkandyn ip Katharhdn—"
"I can see that you are a Katharhd, fellow." His pursed lips made it clear that seeing a Katharhd wasn't his idea of a great treat. "Your business?"
"I watch his back." Chak jerked a thumb toward Karl. "To see that it doesn't sprout knives."
"I see. And you are?"
"My name is Karl Cullinane." Karl smiled genially, raising his right hand, keeping his left hand near where the two pistols tucked into his belt were hidden by the folds of his cloak. "And I am just passing through. Have you any objection to that?"
"None. As long as you don't bring your . . . feud into Enkiar." The leader turned to the man next to him. "Though I don't believe that there are any Pandathaway guildsmen in Enkiar at the moment, are there?"
"No, Captain. There have not been for several tendays, at the least. Just the—"
"Good." He turned back to Karl. "Keep your war out of Enkiar, and you and your gold are welcome. Unless you intend to free our slaves?"
"Not today." Under special circumstances, Karl made exceptions, but a general policy of slicing up all slaveowners was a general policy of suicide. Give us a generation, and we'll change that.
The man next to him tugged at the captain's sleeve, then whispered in his ear for a moment.
Karl shook his head. "I wouldn't."
"You wouldn't what?"
"I wouldn't think too seriously about trying to collect the bounty that the Slavers' Guild has placed on my head, no matter what it's risen to. Not that you couldn't take me, but I do have friends; the final cost is likely to be far too high, all things considered. Best to check with your lord before taking the matter any further."
The captain smiled back at him, almost affectionately. "I will. Assuming that he doesn't want you poisoned, would you join me for dinner?"
"And if he does want me poisoned?"
"Would you join me for dinner anyway?" He smiled with patently genuine friendliness.
"My pleasure, Captain." Karl laughed. "My pleasure."
* * *
"Ta herat va ky 'the last run' ky, ka Haptoe Valeran," Karl said. It is called the last run, Captain Valeran. "The notion is that none of our lives are taken cheaply. Ever."
A servant brought another bottle of wine. Valeran pulled his sleeves back before uncorking it, then splashed some wine first in his own glass, then in Karl's, then in Chak's.
Valeran drank first. "Not bad. I think you'll like it. And as for this 'last run' of yours, I have heard about it. Reminds you of the old days, Halvin, eh?" He smiled at the silent soldier standing next to the door. "It tends to take all the fun out of treating you and your people as outlaws, I suspect." Valeran nodded sagely, then sighed. "Not my sort of life, not anymore, but an . . . interesting one, I take it."
Karl chuckled. "There's an old curse, back in my homeland: 'May you live in interesting times.' " Well, that wasn't much of a lie; from here, China was as close as America. Or as far. "Not something I'd suggest, given an alternate. And it looks like you have a good one, here. You're from Nyphien, originally?"
"All my men are; we were first blooded against the Katharhds, in the Mountain Wars." He considered Chak carefully. There was a trace of hostility in Valeran's voice, although the Mountain Wars between the Nyphs and the Katharhds had fizzled out more than fifteen years before. "I've always preferred being a barracks commander to being a field soldier, even being a field soldier against the Katharhds."
The little man shrugged. "My family was in the north during the Mountain Wars, Captain Valeran. My father died fighting against the Therranji and their dwarf hirelings. Bloody work, Captain Valeran, just as bloody as the Mountain Wars."
"Yes," Valeran conceded. "It was bloody. But . . . I must confess I miss it, from time to time. There was a certain something to it, no?"
Karl shook his head. "All things considered, I'd rather be in Phil—I'd rather be bored."
"Then I beg to suggest that you could find boring employment as a soldier anywhere in the Eren regions. Although . . . perhaps Lord Mehlên of Metreyll wouldn't be interested, or Lund of Lundeyll, come to think of it—and perhaps Enkiar's neutrality would make it difficult for my lord to employ you. But, if you'd like, I could broach the subject to Lord Gyren?"
"I'm not much for giving fealty."
Chak snickered. Karl silenced him with a glance, then turned back to Valeran. "Meaning no offense, in my native land your present function wouldn't be considered a soldierly one."
"No?" Valeran raised an eyebrow as he sipped his wine. "What would they call me, a doxy?"
Karl had found himself liking the guard captain. There was an undefinable something in the captain's manner that made Karl certain he was a man to whom honor wasn't just a word, but a valued possession.
"No, not at all," Karl said. "We would call you a 'policeman'— your primary task is to maintain internal order, not protect Enkiar from invading forces."
"True, true, but it must be a strange country you come from, Karl Cullinane, where such subtle distinctions are considered important."
Karl laughed. "We had many strange distinctions. There's the color of one's skin, for example. In my land, my friendship with Ch'akresarkandyn would be thought strange—"
"—as it is here; I've no fondness for Katharhds. Meaning no offense," he said, ducking his head momentarily in Chak's direction. "Are you certain you'd care for nothing?"
"I can't eat the local food," Chak said, glaring at Karl. Just once, his look said, could you be the one with the delicate digestion?
"You were telling me why those in your land would think your friendship strange, I believe?"
"Because of Chak's skin color. Or mine, for that matter. Depending on which point of view you took, he would be considered too dark, or I too light. It was our version of racial prejudice."
"Racial? But he's every bit as human as you and I. It's not as though he were a dwarf or an elf."
"In my world there are no elves or dwarves. We have to make do with . . . peripheral distinctions."
"Skin color. Skin color. Skin color." Valeran tried the words as though tasting them. "Skin color." He shook his head. "And were you and I friends, my own coloring would cause comment?" Valeran extended a deeply tanned arm.
"No, because it's acquired, not natural. You tan more thoroughly than I do, that's all. It wouldn't be a matter of import."
"And I suppose that, say, a Mel's eyefolds would be considered significant."
Valeran laughed. "A strange land, indeed. You were telling me in which direction it lies?"
"No, I wasn't. Although if you're interested, there is a way to get there, if you'd like to try it. You just have to tiptoe past the father of dragons, that's all."
"No, though I thank you for the kind suggestion."
They drank in silence for a few minutes.
"It must be interesting work, though," Karl said. "Few people meet many outlanders; you must encounter them all the time."
"True, true. And a strange lot many of them are." He snorted. "We have had a lot of Biemish and Holts coming through, of late—some deserters, more slaves. Vicious war—and over what?"
Valeran meant it as a rhetorical question, but Karl decided not to take it that way. "Depends on how you look at it. Last I heard, the war was started by some raiders coming down from Aershtyn into Holtun. The Holts decided that Bieme was responsible, and there you have it."
"War, and a dirty one. You can tell by the scavengers, coming through with chains of slaves. We had another one here, just a couple of tendays ago."
"Really? The guild operates regularly out of Enkiar?"
"Not a guild man, no—we haven't had one since Ahrmin was here."
Karl's wineglass snapped in his hands.
Valeran laughed again. "So. That is what this is all about. You have been prying for information on Ahrmin, eh?" He shook his head. "You won't find him here; he left . . . some time ago, to pick up another chain of slaves . . . somewhere or other. Nice fellow, actually, although it's pitiful the way he looks. Did you have something to do with that?"
"Why do you ask?"
"He was just as eager for news of you as you are for word of him."
"Understandable." Karl nodded. "I . . . burned him a little."
"I wouldn't have thought you so foolish. You should have killed him, or let him be."
Chak snorted. "He has a point there, Karl."
"I thought I had killed him; I'd intended to. He was bound for Bieme, you said?"
"I didn't say. And won't. He will be back here eventually, although you will be long gone by that time."
"I'm afraid I'd have to insist." Valeran looked him straight in the eye. "I'm really afraid I would."
At the door, a soldier thumped his hand against his breastplate. "Message, Captain," he said, entering the room at the captain's nod of permission and handing Valeran a scrap of paper.
Valeran read the message twice before cocking his head to one side and looking Karl over. "I am not one to believe in coincidences, Karl Cullinane. It seems that a group of guild slavers have just entered the town and taken rooms at the inn. I'm curious as to your intentions."
Karl sat back, pretending to consider the matter. "How many of them are there?"
"Thirty or so. And they are armed with guns, as you may have gathered. I wouldn't suggest that you attack them, not in Enkiar."
Valeran raised an eyebrow. "I'm surprised. You agree not to attack them?"
"No, all I agreed was that you would suggest that I not attack them."
"Thirty to two?" Chak put in. "Long odds—"
"Then you will agree to leave them alone while in Enkiar?"
"—but I guess they'll just have to take their chances."
Karl raised a hand. "I'll give you my word, Captain. This group of slavers . . . as long as they do not attack either Chak or me, we will not attack them, for as long as they remain in Enkiar." He wrinkled his brow. "Or let us say for up to a tenday. I wouldn't want them to think that they can safely set up shop permanently here, or anywhere else."
"I have your word on this?"
"You do. I'll swear it on my sword, if you'd like." Slowly, Karl drew his saber and balanced it on the flat of his palms. "As I have agreed, so will I do." He polished the blade with a soft cloth before resheathing it.
"Very well. You won't object to my posting a guard outside of your rooms, will you?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"Certainly. You may object, or you may not object." Valeran shrugged. "I'll post guards, either way."
* * *
The Enkiar inn was seven two-storied buildings of varying sizes, grouped around a common courtyard. Karl and Chak's suite was on the second floor of one of the smaller buildings. Its balcony and windows faced outward, away from the courtyard. The inn was at the edge of the town; beyond the road, a sea of wheat beckoned in the starlight.
Below, Karl could see three soldiers on watch, although there were others nearby; he knew of another three on guard outside the single entrance to the suite.
That could be trouble. Karl couldn't see a way out of the suite that wouldn't involve fighting past the guards. He drew the curtains.
"I can't think of anything useful to do," Chak said. "We're fairly neatly hemmed in for the night. Best to leave things to Slovotsky, eh? Come morning, he should have some idea of who's buying the guns and powder, and maybe what Ahrmin's connection is. We might as well get some sleep, eh?"
"Might as well."
* * *
Bare feet thudded quietly on the balcony outside. The curtains were momentarily whisked aside, and a dark shape moved into the darkness of the sleeping room. It stepped toward the nearest of the two beds and leaned over it.
Karl silently rose from the pile of blankets in the corner and tackled the intruder, grasping the other's right wrist and bringing the arm up behind the other's back, to the hammer-lock point.
"It's just me, dammit," Walter Slovotsky said. "Leggo."
Karl released him. "Sorry. Announce yourself next time, okay?"
"Definitely. I'd have done it this time except there's a guard patrolling below, and I was sure he'd hear." Slovotsky seated himself on the bed, rubbing his right shoulder. "Do me a favor and put that down, Chak." He gestured a greeting at the little man, who sat in his pile of blankets, a cocked pistol pointed at Walter's midsection.
Chak uncocked the pistol and set it on the floor. "We weren't supposed to see you until tomorrow. And how did you get past the guards?"
"I came over the roof—that sort of thing's my specialty, remember?" He eyed the ripped hem of his pantaloons with distaste. "Got my pants caught between two shingles; had to rip them loose.
"We've got trouble. They made contact too quickly. The deal's been concluded."
"Because I didn't have any choice!" Slovotsky's whisper was harsh. "Because there wasn't any way to stall without making things look funny. The Holts have taken their powder and guns and left town, leaving me with the claim token to the slaves in the pens." He spread his hands. "Nothing I could do."
Slovotsky nodded. "They're the buyers. Prince Uldren sent Baron Keranahan, his nephew. We got more than three hundred slaves, all Biemish. They're apparently most of what's left of barony Krathael; the fighting there has been bloody. I tried to stall, honest, telling him about the raid by you, but that only made him more eager to finish things up and get out of here. He's a lot more interested in getting the guns and powder to Holtun and passing along word of your location than he is in trying for the bounty himself."
"Did he say who he was going to pass word along to?"
"No, but I've got a good guess. Ahrmin. I don't know exactly what's going on, but that little bastard seems to be working hand in hand with Holtun—and with the Aershtyn raiders—"
"Shut up for a second." Karl waved Slovotsky to silence.
It was finally starting to make sense. Bieme and Holtun had been at peace for two generations, until the raiders from Aershtyn had reawakened old hostilities. It was possible, perhaps even likely, that the Aershtyn raiders who had triggered the war had been encouraged by the Slavers' Guild, if they were not actually part of the guild itself.
Cui bono? Who benefits? That was the question.
The answer was simple: The war left the guild and its allies easy pickings in its wake.
Karl nodded. Guild backing also explained why the Holts were able to keep the war going, despite the incompetent generalship of Prince Uldren: With the guild supplying Holtun with guns and powder, it was possible that the Holts could win, or that the war would go on forever.
The only beneficiaries would be the guild. And the buzzards.
"There's more," Walter said. "And you're not going to like it. Tennetty went with them."
"Her idea—she doesn't want to see the powder get to Holtun, and she had this crazy idea that she can do something about it. And Keranahan seemed sort of interested in her, so I . . . kind of gave her to him. But she was still wearing those trick chains. She should be able to—"
"She'll get her fool ass killed is what she'll do. You spotted the reason she decided to play slave, to come along. How could you be such an idiot?" Tennetty wasn't going to do anything about the powder, not until she got within range of Ahrmin. She hated Ahrmin as much as Karl did; the little bastard had killed Fialt, speared him through the chest.
No. Not Tennetty, too.
Karl sat down on the bed and rubbed his hands against his eyes.
"Karl," Chak said, "we can't do anything about it tonight. We have to trust her to know what she was doing."
"Like hell we do." He stood. "Walter, get going, over the roof. You're pulling up stakes and heading out tonight. Your story is that you're nervous after hearing that I'm in town. Leave one of your knives stuck in the roof, right near the peak."
"Shut up. Have Peill split off and work his way around; I'll meet him east of town—tonight if I can manage it, tomorrow if not. He's to have two extra horses, healing draughts, his longbow, and all the guns and powder that you can scrape together."
"What do I do?"
Karl closed his eyes, concentrating. "One: Play slaver—take the Biemish slaves down the road to the rendezvous; wait for Ellegon. Explain to the Biemish who you are and that they have a choice of going back to Bieme or going to Home. We're going to have to split the team more, dammit.
"Two: Those who want to go to Home, send them back with the smallest group you think safe.
"Three: Drop the masquerade—"
"All right!" Slovotsky slapped his hands together. "You mean I can stop playing slaver?"
"Shut up and listen. I want you to wait at the rendezvous for Ellegon's supply drop. He should be there any day now, and he'll probably have some guns and powder. Tell him I'll want a massive drop outside of Biemestren—we'll use barony Furnael as a backup—every gun Home can spare, powder, grenades, the bloody works. Tell him to add Nehera and a couple of apprentice Engineers to the drop.
"Four: Once you've rendezvoused with the dragon, I want you to ride after us. With a bit of luck, you'll catch up with us this side of Bieme. Make sure you keep Beralyn safe—she's our passport." Karl opened his eyes. "Am I missing anything?"
"I don't like this." Chak shook his head. "I thought you didn't want to choose sides in this stupid war."
"I didn't; it seems that Ahrmin's chosen them for me. The way I read it, the guild is backing the Holts. We're siding with Bieme, at least long enough to break up the guild–Holt alliance."
"And what are we going to do about Tennetty?"
Karl bit his lip. "Walter, how many of them are there?"
"Fifty or so. All armed to the teeth, now." Slovotsky spread his hands. "I'm sorry, Karl, but you know Tennetty. When she's got her mind set on something . . ."
"Just get out of here."
White-faced, Slovotsky turned to go, but Karl caught his arm. "Walter . . ."
"I'm sorry. I should have anticipated this." Tennetty hadn't had any enthusiasm for this, not until she had heard that Ahrmin was still alive, and had been in Enkiar. This was what she had been planning all along. Damn—if Karl had thought it through, or had Ellegon probe her, this could have been avoided.
It isn't Slovotsky's fault; it's mine.
"Right." Slovotsky shook his head. "I'll be telling myself that for years." He clasped Karl's hand. "You getting her out of it?"
"I'm going to try. Now get lost."
* * *
Chak looked at Karl and raised an eyebrow. "You, me, and Peill against fifty?"
"Don't forget Tennetty."
"I wasn't. But I don't know how useful she's going to be, not in this."
"You don't like the odds?"
"No. Not one little bit." Chak shrugged. "Do you see another choice?"
"Maybe." Karl pounded on the door, then swung it open. "Hey! I want to talk to Captain Valeran, and I want to talk to him now."
* * *
"I thought Enkiar claimed to be neutral in the war between Holtun and Bieme, Captain." Karl gestured Valeran to a chair and poured each of them a mug of water.
"Yes, Enkiar is neutral, Karl Cullinane. Anyone may trade for anything here." Valeran rubbed a knuckle against sleepy eyes, then sipped at his water. "Am I to assume that you had me waked at this hour to discuss our neutrality?" he asked acidly.
"No. I had you waked to discuss Enkiar's siding with Holtun in the war—a fact that is shortly to become very public knowledge, from Sciforth to Ehvenor."
"Nonsense. Lord Gyren does not take sides; both Holtun and Bieme are free to trade in Enkiar."
"Including for gunpowder? You consider allowing the Holts and the Slavers' Guild to trade here in guns and gunpowder to be neutral?"
"What is this nonsense?"
"Baron Keranahan brought in a chain of slaves to trade with the guild—"
"Yes, yes, for gold. To pay—"
"No. For this." Karl took a small vial of slaver powder from his pouch. "A form of gunpowder, made in Pandathaway. Enkiar has been where the trade has taken place." He tipped a spoonful onto the floor—"Stand back, please"—then picked up a water pitcher, stepped away, scooped up a handful of water, and threw it.
"Think about this long and hard, Captain. Bieme will soon know that the Holts were able to trade for guns and powder in Enkiar, while the Biemish weren't. Do you think that they will consider that neutral?" Karl cocked his head to one side. "If you were they, would you? Do you think that anyone will think of Enkiar as neutral?"
"N-no. Not if . . . what you say is true," Valeran said slowly, eyeing Karl with suspicion. "How do you know all this?"
Karl smiled. "That's the first good question you've asked, Captain. Sit back and relax; this is going to take a while. Now . . . we were on a sweep through the forests near Wehnest, when I received a report that there were slavers in the meadow below with guns. . . ."
* * *
" . . . and I can tell you that if you were to search Keranahan's wagons, you'd find almost one hundred guns, and eight large barrels full of this," Karl finished.
"Which your man sold to him, Karl Cullinane. Not the Slavers' Guild—"
"Captain. You are trying to avoid facing the simple truth that the Holts have used Enkiar as an unintentional partner in their . . . arrangement with the guild. Do you really think that tonight was the first time Enkiar has been used to trade slaves for powder?" Karl said. "Tell me, Captain, how do you think that would reflect on Enkiar's supposed neutrality?"
"Not well." Valeran shook his head slowly. "But what do you expect me to do?"
"That all depends on whether you are only Lord Gyren's puppet, or can think for yourself. You and your men are sworn to uphold Enkiar's neutrality?"
"My oath is to Enkiar; my men are fealty-sworn to me." Valeran pounded his fist on his open palm. "But I can't remain faithful to that oath, not and challenge Baron Keranahan at the same time. That would kill the neutrality, just as surely as if Enkiar was seen as taking sides with Holtun. It's the principle, Karl Cullinane: Once Enkiar's neutrality is shattered, it can't be restored." He pursed his lips for a moment. "Unless . . . unless nobody ever hears of how Enkiar's neutrality has been violated. The Holts could be quietly persuaded to conduct their gunpowder trade elsewhere. . . ."
"It's too late for that," Karl said. "My friend Walter Slovotsky has already been in and out of here tonight."
"So you told me." The accent on the second-to-last word was definite. Valeran eyed him levelly, as though to say, I may well not be your match, Karl Cullinane, but that will not stop me from trying to do my duty.
Karl nodded his understanding. "Unless I tell him otherwise, the story will soon be spread wide and far of how Enkiar has been the place where Holtun got guns and powder. And to tell him otherwise, I'll have to live."
"That would go well with some proof."
"Check the roof. You'll find a knife at its peak. Slovotsky left that as a bit of evidence that he was here. Or do you want to believe that I walked out on the balcony and climbed up the sheer face to the roof without being spotted?" Karl rose to his full height and stretched. "I don't think I can climb that quietly—do you?"
"No. I'll have it checked immediately." Valeran beckoned to the guard at the door and whispered briefly in his ear. The man ran out of the room.
"But I ask again," Valeran went on. "Assuming that you're telling the truth, what do you suggest that I do?"
"It all depends on you, Captain Valeran, you and your twenty men. I ask again: How loyal are you to Lord Gyren?"
"What do you mean, sir?" Valeran drew himself up straight. "Are you questioning—"
"No, I'm not questioning your honor, Captain. I'm asking if you're loyal enough to Gyren to have him put a price on your head, if it comes to that. Well?"
Valeran sat silently for a moment. "I see what you mean. And the answer is yes, Karl Cullinane. But if you've lied to me . . ."
"I know. But I haven't."
Valeran sighed. "Then I must see Lord Gyren, explain the situation, and . . . resign from his service. He will understand, Karl Cullinane. I assume you wish to employ my men and me in hunting down the Holts?"
"Obviously. You and your men have families?"
"Not I, but most do, yes."
"Chak, how are we fixed for money?"
The little man nodded. "Well enough. I've got about six pieces of Pandathaway gold on me, five sil—"
"Fine. Give." Karl accepted the pouch from Chak and tossed it to Valeran. "That is for their women and children, to maintain them until a group from Home comes to guide them. Leave one of your men; they will remain in his charge until then."
Valeran bounced the leather pouch up and down on his palm. "I may regret doing this, but . . ." He nodded, a vague smile playing across his lips. "Damn me, but it's good to be alive again. Halvin!"
The guard at the door turned about. "Yes, Captain."
"I thought I would never say this, but . . . we ride tonight."
Halvin gave him a gap-toothed smile. "Yes, Captain. It has been a while, sir."
"Put that smile away, fool. Your memory fails you." Valeran turned to Karl. "I repeat: Should I find that you have lied to me, Karl Cullinane, one of us will die."
"Understood. And until then?"
"Until then . . ." Valeran got to his feet and drew himself into a rigid brace. "What are your orders, sir?"
Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash. . . . The most vital quality a soldier can possess is self-confidence, utter, complete and bumptious.
Ahead, the well-rutted road twisted and turned in the predawn light. As Stick cantered down the road, Karl reached down and patted at the stallion's neck. "Faster, Stick, faster," he said, digging in his heels and settling himself more firmly in the saddle, his hand automatically checking to see that the rifle was still secure in its boot.
Valeran spurred his large black gelding, barely matching Stick's pace. "I would like to hear your plan, Karl Cullinane, if that's permitted," he called out above the clattering of hooves. "You do have a plan, don't you?"
"Of sorts. Be still for now—and hang back, if you don't want to risk getting shot."
Peill was waiting around the next bend. Karl pulled on Stick's reins, swinging his leg over the saddle and dismounting as the stallion halted.
The elf was not pleased. "Ch'akresarkandyn told me what you're going to do—what you're going to try to do. I don't like it at all."
"I don't remember asking your opinion."
He snorted. "You're going to hear it anyway—"
"Shut up." Karl reached up and gripped the front of the elf's tunic. "If you want out, you've got it. Just leave the bow and guns and get the hell out of my way."
"Ta havath." Peill raised both palms. "Ta havath, Karl."
As the others rounded the bend and cantered into sight, Karl released the elf. "How many rifles do you have?"
"Five—and I have two shotguns left; I gave one to Chak. I also have my bow and just over twoscore arrows."
"Can you rig a few of the arrows for fire?" Karl asked, beckoning to Valeran and his men to dismount.
"Yes. You intend to fire the wagons?"
Karl nodded. "Think about what happens if they try to put out the one with the slaver powder in it."
"I have." The elf smiled. "Do you think we can actually get Tennetty out?"
"Oh? So you're in on this?"
"I always was."
Karl took his shrouded lantern down from his saddle, pulled back the baffles, and hung it from a knot in a tree. He turned to Valeran. "It normally takes anywhere from two to ten days to teach someone how to use a gun correctly. We don't have the time to teach reloading and safety, but I'm going to teach you and four of your men to use guns right now." He extended his hand. "Unloaded?" he asked, flicking open the pan and feeling inside.
"Good. Valeran, pick four of your people."
Valeran pointed at four of his men. "Over here, if you please."
Karl called out to the other fifteen. "You can listen to this, too, but those of you with crossbows, get them cocked and loaded.
"Now . . . using a rifle is simplicity itself. There are five steps. First, you pull back the hammer—that's this thing—until it locks." He thumbed the hammer back until it clicked. "Hear that sound? Second, you raise the rifle to your shoulder, selecting a target."
He aimed the empty rifle at a nearby tree. "Third, you line up your front and back sights right on the center of whoever you're going to shoot. At the range we're going to be, do not allow for drop as you would with a crossbow. Four, hold your breath and squeeze the trigger—"
Snap! Sparks flew from the lock.
Halvin spoke up. "You said that there were five steps?"
"Yes. Five: Drop the damn rifle and get your sword into your hand as quickly as you can, because there are going to be one hell of a lot of very angry Holts around you, even if you've killed your target."
He tossed the rifle to Halvin. "Practice."
Hoofbeats sounded from down the road; Karl beckoned Valeran and his soldiers over to one side, drawing a pistol and cocking it.
It was only Chak. His horse was panting, the cloths wrapped around its hooves cut to ribbons.
The little man dismounted, almost out of breath. "They're not moving too quickly; we should be able to get around in front of them by taking the north road."
"Did they see you?"
Chak snorted. "Screw you, kemo sabe," he said in his halting English. "Your nerves are making your mouth say stupid things."
"True. Sorry." Karl jerked his head toward the road. "Grab another shotgun, and a crossbow. I want you and Peill to take the north road, and set up some sort of roadblock; the rest of us will lag behind until we hear shots. Peill, listen up: When they near your roadblock, I want you to drop the lead horse of the lead wagon, then fire that wagon. Got it?"
Valeran opened his mouth as though to say something, then changed his mind.
God, but I wish Ellegon were here. Was Valeran as trustworthy as he seemed? The dragon could have found out with a moment's effort.
Karl shrugged. No point in worrying about it; he was already committed to trusting Valeran. He lowered the pistol's hammer, flipped the pistol, and caught it by the barrel. He held it out to Valeran. "This works just like a rifle; you hold it at arm's length, pull the hammer back, then sight down your arm. Squeeze the trigger gently; don't pull at it. Or you can just press the gun against my back."
"You're wondering if I've been leading you on—if I have, you can get even very quickly. In the meantime, mount up."
* * *
A single shot sounded from down the road. Karl kicked Stick into a gallop; behind him, Valeran urged the others along.
Ahead of them, the Holts had dismounted from their horses and the three wagons. The lead wagon was skewed sideways across the road, its lead horse lying on its side on the road, whinnying in pain, an arrow projecting from its chest.
Damn. "Take cover, everyone. Valeran, assign somebody to handle the horses. Make sure he keeps a good grip on their reins."
So much for Karl's original idea. Peill could have picked a worse place for the ambush, but not much worse. The Holts had already set up a line of defense behind their wagons and in the irrigation ditch along the side of the road. Rushing them would just be suicide. The worst of it was that dawn was already breaking; in the light, Karl's people, already outnumbered and outgunned, would be even more vulnerable.
Another shot sounded; a bullet whizzed overhead, snapping through the leaves.
"Don't shoot yet," Karl shouted, untying his own rifle from the saddleboot, slinging his saddlebags over his shoulder.
"Go!" He slapped Stick on the rump, sending the stallion back down the road, out of the line of fire. He ducked into the ditch on the right side of the road, tossing the saddlebags to one side.
"Peill, can you hear me?" he called out in English, knowing that Tennetty would also recognize his voice. "Fire the wagons, now. Then move; I don't want them fixing on your position." He cocked the rifle, then looked out onto the road. There were plenty of targets: the Holts weren't used to facing guns. Karl took aim at a head, took a quick breath and held it, then squeezed slowly on the trigger.
The rifle kicked against his shoulder as the Holt's head exploded in a bloody shower; Karl ducked back behind into the ditch, fumbling in his pouch for a rag and his powder horn, leaving the tallow box—here, a spit patch would serve just as well.
Coughing in the acrid smoke, he blew down the barrel to clear it, then poured a measure of powder from the horn into the rifle, spat on a patch and slipped it over the hole, then thumbed a ball into place. He drew his ramrod and shoved the ball and patch down the barrel, seating them firmly.
"Karl Cullinane," Valeran called out. "There are a group of them, moving toward us."
"On my command," he called back. "You with the rifles will rise, raise your weapon to your shoulder, pick a target, and fire—and then duck back down, quickly." He pulled back the hammer to half-cock, quickly cleared the vent with his vent pick, then took out his vial of priming powder.
"They're moving, again."
Gunshots thundered. Karl charged the pan, then snapped the frizzen securely into place.
He raised his head above the ditch. All of the Holts had taken cover, except for one wounded man lying on the road, cradling his belly in his hands. One out of four shots reaching a target wasn't too bad, not under the circumstances.
Another of the Holts rose, only to drop his rifle and scream as a longbow's arrow sprouted from his side.
But this wouldn't do. The Holts would gather themselves for a charge in a few minutes, once they realized that they had their enemy outgunned and outmanned.
"Bows, covering fire. Valeran, get that lamp to me." He untied the straps from his saddlebags, then pulled out the box of grenades, opened it, and extracted one from its padded compartment.
Valeran arrived with the lantern. "I don't like this. They have all used rifles before, and we haven't. And my men aren't used to facing these . . . guns."
"I know." Karl slid the lamp's baffle open just a crack, then stuck the end of the fuse into the flame.
It caught immediately. He raised his head above the boulder and threw the grenade high and far, directly for the spot in the ditch where he hoped the remaining nine rushing Holtish soldiers were.
"Down!" he called, following his own advice.
The grenade dropped behind the road and into the ditch, then exploded with a loud crump! followed by a chorus of screams.
Karl looked out. The lead wagon was burning nicely; Peill's fire arrow must have gone inside and caught something flammable. Tennetty's slim form was outlined against the fire as she worked her way behind one of the Holtish soldiers, then slipped an improvised garrote around his neck, pulling him back, out of sight.
Good. She'd worked her way free. The Holts didn't know it, but they had more to worry about than some outsiders attacking; they had a tiger among them.
More gunshots sounded. One of Valeran's men pitched forward, clutching at his throat; another stooped, uncorking a bottle of healing draughts, then shaking his head and recorking it.
This just wasn't going to make it. There're too many of them, and Valeran's people aren't used to this kind of fighting.
Karl didn't like it, but he would have to settle for getting Tennetty out and forget about the slaver powder.
"Withdraw," he called out. "Everybody—and I mean everybody!" he shouted, hoping that Tennetty could hear him over the crackling of the fire. He sneaked another glance. One of the Holts had spotted her and was bringing his gun to bear.
Karl raised his rifle to his shoulder and took aim, ignoring the whipcrack of bullets around him, then squeezed the trigger. The bullet caught the Holt on his chestplate; it knocked him down, his own weapon discharging toward the sky. Tennetty dove for cover, disappearing into the ditch.
"Withdraw," Karl repeated. "Peill and Chak, acknowledge, dammit."
A distant shout marked Peill's position, but where was Chak? Perhaps it was just as well. If Karl couldn't spot him, likely the Holts couldn't, either.
Chak sprang up next to the second wagon, fired his shotgun into an intervening soldier, then disappeared into the wagon's interior, a waterbag clutched in his hands.
What the hell does he think he's doing? Karl had given the order to withdraw. The main objective had been accomplished; they would just have to let the powder go by.
Three of the Holtish soldiers followed Chak into the wagon. That was probably their mistake. In the close quarters of the wagon, they would probably get in each other's way more than Chak's. But what's he doing with a waterbag—
The wagon exploded in a cloud of steam and dust, sending pieces of horses and soldiers tumbling into the still air.
That was enough for the few uninjured Holts. Some mounted their horses and galloped away; others just ran.
Valeran grabbed at Karl's arm. "What happened?"
"Chak. He . . . took out their powder. Lord Gyren will be satisfied," he said, his voice sounding curiously flat and emotionless even to his own ears. "We have preserved Enkiar's neutrality."
"There are still some of them alive."
Karl tossed his rifle to one side, bringing his sword into his right hand and drawing his remaining pistol with his left. "Not for long. Follow me."
* * *
There is nothing quite as ugly as sunrise over a battlefield. In the dark, it is possible to ignore the spilled contents of the bags of skin, the flesh, blood, and bones that once were human beings.
During a battle, it's necessary to look beyond the carnage, in order to avoid becoming part of it.
But in the light of day, it's a different matter entirely. This battlefield had once been a wheat field. It would again be just a wheat field, someday.
But not this day. Now, it was the blood-drenched floor of a slaughtering ground, corpses already attracting scavengers.
Using his saber like a flail, Karl shooed two crows away from the body of a Holtish soldier and forced himself to look at the man's face.
No, not a man, a boy, perhaps seventeen, maybe eighteen years old, beardless. Under a shock of brown hair, his ashen face was pale, still; a casual glance would have made Karl think he was only sleeping.
Valeran cleared his throat. Karl turned to see Tennetty standing next to the captain.
"Karl—" she started, then caught herself. "We . . . haven't found any sign of Chak. Could he—"
"No." Karl shook his head. "There was only one door to the wagon. He must have set the waterbag on top of one of the powder barrels, then put his pistol right up against the bag."
He could almost see it in his mind's eye: the three Holts satisfied that they had Chak cornered; Chak quirking a smile at them as he fired, the bullet crashing through the bag and wood, driving the water into the slaver powder, then . . .
He looked Tennetty square in the face, at first not trusting himself to speak. If only she had followed orders, none of this would have happened; Karl would have let this shipment get by, rather than attack at such unfavorable odds.
And Tennetty knew that. Let her live with the guilt.
Why, dammit, Chak—why?
What happens when you decide that some objective is more important than your own life is?
But it wasn't as important as Chak's life, not this. The Holtish had gotten powder before, and would again. Not in Enkiar, though. Enkiar would now be closed to them for the trade in slaver powder, but Enkiar would have been closed to them in any case.
It wasn't worth Chak's life. But it had been, to Ch'akresarkandyn.
That wasn't enough. "Tennetty."
"Yes, Karl." She stood in front of him, her hands well away from the sword at her waist, making no movement to protect herself.
"We're moving out." He kept his voice low, little more than a whisper. He knew that if he started shouting, he would lose control completely. "I want you to start Valeran and his men on marksmanship tonight, when we camp. By the time we reach Bieme, they are to be as competent as possible. When Slovotsky and his people catch up with us, you turn the training over to him. Bieme is going to be tough; I want us up to strength."
"Yes, Karl. Although I don't know what you think a few tens of us can do in that sort of—"
He reached out and gripped her throat, the tips of his fingers resting against her trachea. He could bring his fingers together—
—but that wouldn't bring Chak back. "Shut your mouth," he said, dropping his hand. "If I want your opinion, I'll ask for it."
She started to turn away.
"One more thing, Tennetty," he said, grabbing her by the arm, spinning her back to face him. "I don't want you to get yourself killed. You're to live a long, long life—hear me? And every day, you're to remember that it was you who killed Chak, just as surely as if you'd slipped a knife between his ribs. If you hadn't gone independent, if you had just played things out as I told you to, this wouldn't have happened."
"If you had let me try for Ahrmin—"
He backhanded her to the ground, then booted her in the shoulder as she started to rise, sending her sprawling on the dirt. "Don't speak to me, not anymore. Not unless I speak to you first. Understood?"
Her hand slipped to the hilt of her sword.
"Go ahead, Tennetty, please."
She shook her head slowly, her hand falling away from her sword. It wasn't fear that saved her life at that moment, it was guilt.
And what do I do about my own guilt? he thought.
There wasn't any answer.
"Just get out of my sight," Karl Cullinane said, as he turned to Valeran. "Have you buried your man?"
Valeran shook his head. "Not yet."