lois Mcmaster Bujold
The Hallowed Hunt
THE PRINCE WAS DEAD. Since the king was not, no unseemly rejoicing dared show in the faces of the men atop the castle gate. Merely, Ingrey thought, a furtive relief. Even that was extinguished as they watched Ingrey's troop of riders clatter under the gate's vaulting into the narrow courtyard. They recognized who he was-and, therefore, who must have sent him.
Ingrey's sweat grew clammy under his leather jerkin in the damp dullness of the autumn morning. The chill seemed cupped within the cobbled yard, funneled down by the whitewashed walls. The lightly armed courier bearing the news had raced from the prince's hunting seat here at Boar's Head Castle to the hallow king's hall at Easthome in just two days. Ingrey and his men, though more heavily equipped, had made the return journey in scarcely more time. As a castle groom scurried to take his horse's bridle, Ingrey swung down and straightened his scabbard, fingers lingering only briefly on the reassuring coolness of his sword hilt.
The late Prince Boleso's housemaster, Rider Ulkra, appeared around the keep from wherever he'd been lurking when Ingrey's troop had been spied climbing the road. Stout, usually stolid, he was breathless now with apprehension and hurry. He bowed. “Lord Ingrey. Welcome. Will you take drink and meat?”
“I've no need. See to these, though.” He gestured to the half dozen men who followed him. The troop's lieutenant, Rider Gesca, gave him an acknowledging nod of thanks, and Ulkra delivered men and horses into the hands of the castle servants.
Ingrey followed Ulkra up the short flight of steps to the thick-planked main doors. “What have you done so far?”
Ulkra lowered his voice. “Waited for instructions.” Worry scored his face; the men in Boleso's service were not long on initiative at the best of times. “Well, we moved the body into the cool. We could not leave it where it was. And we secured the prisoner.”
“Yes, my lord. This way. We cleared one of the butteries.”
They passed through the cluttered hall, the fire in its cavernous fieldstone fireplace allowed to burn low, the few red coals half-hidden in the ashes doing nothing to improve the discomfort of the chamber. A shaggy deerhound, gnawing a bone on the hearth, growled at them from the shadows. Down a staircase, through a kitchen where a cook and scullions fell silent and made themselves small as they passed, down again into a chilly chamber ill lit by two small windows high in the rocky walls.
The little room was presently unfurnished but for two trestles, the boards laid across them, and the sheeted shape that lay silently upon the boards. Reflexively, Ingrey signed himself, touching forehead, lip, navel, groin, and heart, spreading his hand over his heart: one theological point for each of the five gods. Daughter-Bastard-Mother-Father-Son. And where were all of You when this happened?
As Ingrey waited for his eyes to adjust to the shadows, Ulkra swallowed, and said, “The hallow king-how did he take the news?”
“It is hard to say,” said Ingrey, with politic vagueness. “Sealmaster Lord Hetwar sent me.”
Ingrey could read little in the housemaster's reaction, except the obvious, that Ulkra was glad to be handing responsibility for this on to someone else. Uneasily, Ulkra folded back the pale cloth covering his dead master. Ingrey frowned at the body.
Prince Boleso kin Stagthorne had been the youngest of the hallow king's surviving-of the hallow king's sons, Ingrey corrected his thought in flight. Boleso was still a young man, for all he had come to his full growth and strength some years ago. Tall, muscular, he shared the long jaw of his family, masked with a short brown beard. The darker brown hair of his head was tangled now, and matted with blood. His booming energy was stilled; drained of it, his face lost its former fascination, and left Ingrey wondering how he had once been fooled into thinking it handsome. He moved forward, hands cradling the skull, probing the wound. Wounds. The shattered bone beneath the scalp gave beneath his thumbs' pressure on either side of a pair of deep lacerations, blackened with dried gore.
“The prince's own war hammer. It was on the stand with his armor, in his bedchamber.”
“How very…unexpected. To him as well.” Grimly, Ingrey considered the fates of princes. All his short life, according to Hetwar, Boleso had been alternately petted and neglected by parents and servants both, the natural arrogance of his blood tainted with a precarious hunger for honor, fame, reward. The arrogance-or was it the anxiety?-had bloated of late to something overweening, desperately out of balance. And that which is out of balance…falls.
The prince wore a short open robe of worked wool, lined with fur, blood-splashed. He must have been wearing it when he'd died. Nothing more. No other recent wounds marked his pale skin. When the housemaster said they had waited for instructions, Ingrey decided, he had understated the case. The prince's retainers had evidently been so benumbed by the shocking event, they had not even dared wash or garb the corpse. Grime darkened the folds of Boleso's body…no, not grime. Ingrey ran a finger along a groove of chill flesh, and stared warily at the smear of color, dull blue and stamen yellow and, where they blended, a sickly green. Dye, paint, some colored powder? The dark fur of the inner robe, too, showed faint smears.
Ingrey straightened, and his eye fell on what he had at first taken for a bundle of furs laid along the far wall. He stepped closer and knelt. It was a dead leopard. Leopardess, he amended, turning the beast partly over. The fur was fine and soft, fascinating beneath his hands. He traced the cold, curving ears, the stiff white whiskers, the pattern of dark whorls upon golden silk. He picked up one heavy paw, feeling the leathery pads, the thick ivory claws. The claws had been clipped. A red silk cord was bound tightly around the neck, biting deeply into the fur. Its end was cut off. Ingrey's hairs prickled, a reaction he quelled.
“This is no creature of our woods. Where in the world did it come from?”
Ulkra cleared his throat. “The prince obtained it from some Darthacan merchants. He proposed to start a menagerie here at the castle. Or possibly train it for hunting. He said.”
“How long ago was this?”
“A few weeks. Just before his lady sister stopped here.”
Ingrey fingered the red cord, letting his brows rise. He nodded at the dead animal. “And how did this happen?”
“We found it hanging from a beam in the prince's bedroom. When we, um, went in.”
Ingrey sat back on his heels. He was beginning to see why no Temple divine had yet been called up to take charge of the funeral rites. The daubing, the red cord, the oak beam, hinted of an animal not merely slain but sacrificed, of someone dabbling in the old heresies, the forbidden forest magics. Had the sealmaster known of this, when he'd sent Ingrey? If so, he'd given no sign. “Who hung it?”
With the relief of a man telling a truth that could not hurt him, Ulkra said, “I did not see. I could not say. It was alive, leashed up in the corner and lying perfectly placidly, when we brought the girl in. We none of us heard or saw any more after that. Until the screams.”
“Whose screams?” “Well…the girl's.”
“She cried for help.”
Ingrey stood up from the exotic, spotted carcass, his riding leathers creaking in the quiet, and let the weight of his stare fall on Ulkra. “And you responded-how?”
Ulkra turned his head away. “We had our orders to guard the prince's repose. My lord.”
“Who heard the cries? Yourself, and…?”
“Two of the prince's guards, who had been told to wait his pleasure.”
“Three strong men, sworn to the prince's protection. Who stood-where?”
Ulkra's face might have been carved from rock. “In the corridor. Near his door.”
“Who stood in the corridor not ten feet from his murder, and did nothing.”
“We dared not. My lord. For he did not call. And anyway, the screams…stopped. We assumed, um, that the girl had yielded herself. She went in willingly enough.”
Willingly? Or despairingly? “She was no servant wench. She was a retainer of Prince Boleso's own lady sister, a dowered maiden of her household. Entrusted to her service by kin Badgerbank, no less.”
“Princess Fara herself yielded her up to her brother, my lord, when he begged the girl of her.”
Pressured, was how Ingrey had heard the gossip. “Which made her a retainer of this house. Did it not?”
Ulkra flinched. “Even a menial deserves better protection of his masters.”
The ugly incident with the murdered manservant was the reason Prince Boleso had suffered his internal exile to this remote crag. His known love of hunting made it a dubious punishment, but it had got the Temple out of the royal sealmaster's thinning hair. Too little payment for a crime, too much for an accident; Ingrey, who had observed the shambles next morning for Lord Hetwar before it had all been cleaned away, had judged it neither.
“Any lord would not then go on to skin and butcher his kill, Ulkra. There was more than drink behind that wild act. It was madness, and we all knew it.” And when the king and his retainers had let their judgment be swayed, after that night's fury, by an appeal to loyalty-not to the prince's own soul's need, but to the appearance, the reputation of his high house-this disaster had been laid in train.
Boleso would have been expected to reappear at court in another half year, duly chastened, or at least duly pretending to be. But Fara had broken her journey here from her earl-ordainer husband's holdings to her father's sickbed, and so her-Ingrey presumed, pretty-lady-in-waiting had fallen under the bored prince's eye. One could take one's pick of tales from the princess's retinue, arriving barely before the bad news at the king's hall in Easthome, whether the cursed girl had yielded her virtue in terror to the prince's importunate lusts, or in calculation to her own vaulting ambition.
If it had been calculation, it had gone badly awry. Ingrey sighed. “Take me to the prince's bedchamber.”
The late prince's room lay high in the central keep. The corridor outside was short and dim. Ingrey pictured Boleso's retainers huddled at the far end in the wavering candlelight, waiting for the screams to stop, then had to unset his teeth. The room's solid door featured a wooden bar on the inside, as well as an iron lock.
The windows to the right of the armor stand were narrow, with thick wavery circles of glass set in their leads. Ingrey pulled the casements inward, swung wide the shutters, and gazed out upon the green-forested folds of countryside falling away from the crag. In the watery light, wisps of mist rose from the ravines like the ghosts of streams. At the bottom of the valley, a small farming village hacked out of the woods pushed back the tide of trees: source, no doubt, of food, servants, firewood for the castle, all crude and simple.
The fall from the sill to the stones below was lethal, the jump to the walls beyond quite impossible even for anyone slim enough to wriggle out the opening. In the dark and the rain. No escape by that route, except to death. A half turn from the window, the armor stand would be under a panicked prey's groping hands. A battle-ax, its handle inlaid with gold and ruddy copper, still rested there.
The matching war hammer lay tossed upon the rumpled bed. Its claw-rimmed iron head-very like an animal's paw-was smeared with dried gore like the blotch on the rug. Ingrey measured it against his palm, noted the congruity with the wounds he had just seen. The hammer had been swung two-handed, with all the strength that terror might lend. But only a woman's strength, after all. The prince, half-stunned-half-mad?-had apparently kept coming. The second blow had been harder.
Ingrey strolled the length of the room, looking all around and then up at the beams. Ulkra, hands clutching one another, backed out of his way. Just above the bed dangled a frayed length of red cord. Ingrey stepped up on the bed frame, drew his belt knife, stretched upward, cut it through, and tucked the coil away in his jerkin. He jumped down and turned to the hovering Ulkra. “Boleso is to be buried at Easthome. Have his wounds and his body washed-more thoroughly-and pack him in salt for transport. Find a cart, a team-better hitch two pairs, with the mud on the roads-and a competent driver. Set the prince's guards as outriders; their ineptitude can do him no more harm now. Clean this room, set the keep to rights, appoint a caretaker, and follow on with the rest of his household and valuables.” Ingrey's gaze drifted around the chamber. Nothing else here…“Burn the leopard. Scatter its ashes.”
Should he and his captive travel with the slow cortege, or push on ahead? He wanted to be away from this place as swiftly as he could-it made his neck muscles ache-but the light was shortening with autumn's advent, and the day was half-spent already. “I must speak to the prisoner before I decide. Take me to her.”
It was a brief step, down one floor to a windowless, but dry, storeroom. Not dungeon, certainly not guest room, the choice of prisons bespoke a deep uncertainty over the status of its occupant. Ulkra rapped on the door, called, “My lady? You have a visitor,” unlocked it, and swung it wide. Ingrey stepped forward.
From the darkness, a pair of glowing eyes flashed up at him like some great cat's from a covert, in a forest that whispered. Ingrey recoiled, hand flying to his hilt. His blade had rasped halfway out when his elbow struck the jamb, pain tingling hotly from shoulder to fingertips; he backed farther to gain turning room, to lunge and strike.
Ulkra's startled grip fell on his forearm. The housemaster was staring at him in astonishment.
Ingrey froze, then jerked away so that Ulkra might not feel his trembling. His first concern was to quell the violent impulse blaring through his limbs, cursing his legacy anew-he had not been caught by surprise by it since…for a long time. I deny you, wolf-within. You shall not ascend. He slid his blade back into its sheath, snicked it firmly home, slowly unwrapped his fingers, and placed his palm flat against his leather-clad thigh.
Ingrey licked dry lips. “I cannot see you in that den.” And what I saw, I disavow. “Step into the light.”
The lift of a chin, the toss of a dark mane; she padded forward. She wore a fine linen dress dyed pale yellow, embroidered with flowers along the curving neckline; if not court dress, then certainly clothing of a maiden of rank. A dark brown spatter crossed it in a diagonal. In the light, her tumbling black hair grew reddish. Brilliant hazel eyes looked not up, but across, at Ingrey. Ingrey was of middle height for a man, compactly built; the girl was well grown for her sex, to match him so.
Hazel eyes, almost amber in this light, circled in black at the iris rim. Not glowing green. Not…
With a wary glance at him, Ulkra began speaking, performing the introduction as formally as if he were playing Boleso's house-master at some festal feast. “Lady Ijada, this is Lord Ingrey kin Wolf-cliff, who is Sealmaster Lord Hetwar's man. He is come to take you in charge. Lord Ingrey, Lady Ijada dy Castos, by her mother's blood kin Badgerbank.”
Ingrey blinked. Hetwar had named her only, Lady Ijada, some minor heiress in the Badgerbank tangle, five gods help us. “That is an Ibran patronymic, surely.”
“Chalionese,” she corrected coolly. “My father was a lord dedicat of the Son's Order, and captain of a Temple fort on the western marches of the Weald, when I was a child. He married a Wealding lady of kin Badgerbank.”
“And they are…dead?” Ingrey hazarded. She tilted her head in cold irony. “I should have been better protected, else.”
“Um…um…” After a moment's thought, Ulkra gestured them to follow. He did not, Ingrey noticed, hesitate to turn his back upon the girl. This prisoner did not fight or bite or scratch her jailers, it seemed. Her pace, following him, was steady. At the end of the next passage, Ulkra waved to a window seat overlooking the back side of the keep. “Will this do, my lord?”
“Yes.” Ingrey hesitated, as Lady Ijada gracefully swept her skirts aside and seated herself on the polished boards. Should he retain Ulkra, for corroboration, or dismiss him, to encourage frankness? Was the girl likely to become violent again? The unbidden picture of Ulkra crouching in the corridor above this one, waiting in the dark for screams to stop, troubled his mind. “You may go about your tasks, housemaster. Return in half an hour.”
Ulkra frowned uncertainly at the girl, but bowed himself out. Boleso's men, Ingrey was reminded, were out of the habit of questioning the sense of their superiors' orders. Or perhaps it was that any who dared were got rid of, one way or another; and these were the remainder. Residue. Scum.
A little awkwardly, for the short length of the seat forced them uncomfortably close together, Ingrey sat beside her. His presumption of prettiness, he decided, had been inadequate. The girl was luminous. Unless Boleso had gone blind as well as mad, she must have arrested his eye the moment it fell upon her. Wide brow, straight nose, sculpted chin…a livid blotch darkened one cheek, and others ringed her fair neck, a pattern of plum-colored bruises. Ingrey lifted his hands to lie lightly over them; she flinched a little, but then bore his probing touch. Boleso's hands were somewhat larger than his own, it appeared. Her skin was warm under his fingers, fascinating, transporting. A golden haze seemed to cloud his vision. His strangling grip tightened-he whipped his hands away, his gasp masked by hers, and clenched them on his knees. What was that…?
She sat back, her startled glance altering to a piercing regard. He caught her scent, neither perfume nor blood but grown woman, and, targeted by that gaze, for the first time wondered what he looked like-and smelled like-to her. Riding reek, cold iron and sweat-stained leather, chin dark-stubbled, tired. Weighed with sword and knife and dangerous duties. Why did she not recoil altogether?
“Which beginning?” she asked.
He stared at her for a blank and stupid instant. “From your arrival here at Boar's Head, I suppose.” Was there another? He must remember to return to that question.
She swallowed, possessed herself, began: “The princess had started out in haste for her father's hall, with only a small retinue, but she was overtaken by illness on the road. Nothing out of the usual, but her monthly time brings her dire headaches, and if she doesn't rest quietly through them, she becomes very sick. We turned aside to this place, for it was as close as anything, and besides, Princess Fara wished to see her brother. I think she remembered him from when he was younger and less…difficult.”
How very tactful. Ingrey could not decide if the turn of phrase was diplomacy or dry wit. Caution, he concluded, studying her closed and careful expression. Wits, not wittiness, kept close about her.
“We were made welcome, if not to her custom, then to this place's ability.”
“Had you ever met Prince Boleso before?” “No. I've only been a few months in Princess Fara's service. My stepfather placed me there. He said-” She stopped, began again. “Everything seemed usual at first. I mean, for a lord's hunting lodge. The days were quiet, because the prince invited her guardsmen out to the hunt. Prince Boleso and his men were very boisterous in the evenings, and drank a great deal, but the princess did not attend, being laid down in her chambers. I took down complaints from her of the noise twice, but I was little heeded. They set the dogs on a wild boar they'd caught alive, out in the courtyard beneath her window, and made bets on the fight. Boleso's huntsman was very distressed for his hounds. I wished Earl Horseriver had been there-he could have quelled them with a word. He has a deadly tongue, when he wishes. We bided here three days, until the princess was ready to travel again.”
Her lips thinned. “Not that I could tell. He was equally obnoxious to all his sister's ladies. I knew nothing of his…regard, supposed regard, until the morning we were to leave.”
She swallowed again. “My lady-Princess Fara-told me then I was to stay. That this might not have been my first choice, but that it would do me no harm in the long run. Another husband would be found for me, after. I begged her not to leave me here. She would not meet my eye. She said it was no worse a barter than any, and better than most, and that I should look to my own future. That it was just the woman's version of the same loyalty due from a man to his prince. I said I did not think most men would…well, I'm afraid I said something rude. She refused to speak with me after that. They rode away and left me. I would not beg at her stirrup, for fear the prince's men would mock me.” Her arms crossed, as if to clutch a tattered dignity about her anew.
“I told myself…maybe she was right. That it would be no worse than any other fate. Boleso wasn't ugly, or deformed, or old. Or diseased.”
Ingrey couldn't help checking himself against that list. At least he did not match any of the named categories, he trusted. Though there were others. Defiled sprang to mind.
“Then what happened?”
“At nightfall, they brought me to his chamber and thrust me within. He was waiting for me. He wore a robe, but under it his body was naked and all covered over with signs drawn in woad and madder and crocus. Old symbols, the sort you sometimes still see carved on ancient wooden foundations, or in the forest where the shrines once stood. He had his leopard tied up in a corner, drugged. He said-it turned out-it seemed he had not fallen in love with me after all. It wasn't even lust. He wanted a virgin for some rite he had-found, made up, I am not sure, he seemed very confused by this time-and I was the only one, his sister's other two ladies being one a wife and the other a widow. I tried to dissuade him, I told him it was heresy, dire sin and against his father's own laws, I said I would run away, that I would tell. He said he'd hunt me down with his dogs. That they would tear me apart as they had the pig. I said I would go to the Temple divine in the village. He said the man was only an acolyte, and a coward. And that he would kill anyone there who took me in. Even the acolyte. He was not afraid of the Temple, it was practically the property of kin Stagthorne and he could buy divines for a pittance.
“The rite was meant to catch the spirit of the leopard, as the old kin warriors were supposed to do. I said, it could not possibly work, nowadays. He said, he'd done it before, several times-that he meant to capture the spirits of every wisdom animal of the greater kinships. He thought it was going to give him some sort of power over the Weald.”
Ingrey, startled, said, “The Old Weald warriors only took one animal spirit to themselves, one in a lifetime. And even that risked madness. Miscarriage. Worse.” As I know to my everlasting cost.
Her velvety voice was growing faster, breathless. “He hauled the leopard up by its strangling cord. He hit me and threw me down on the bed. I fought him. He was muttering under his breath, spells or raving or both, I don't know. I believed him, that he had done this before-his very mind was a menagerie, howling. The leopard distracted him in its death throes, and I wrenched out from under him. I tried to run, but there was nowhere to go. The door was locked. He'd put the key in his robe.”
“I suppose so. I scarcely know. My throat was raw, after, so I suppose I must have. The window was hopeless. The forest beyond seemed to go on forever, in the night. I called on my father's spirit, on his god, for my aid, out of the dark.”
Ingrey couldn't help thinking that in such an extremity Lady Ijada would call on her proper patroness, the Daughter of Spring, the goddess to Whom virginity was sacred. It seemed very strange for a woman to call on Her Brother of Autumn. Though this is His season. The Lord of Autumn was the god of young men, harvest, the hunt, comradeship-and war. And the weapons of war?
“You turned,” said Ingrey, “and found the hammer handle under your hand.”
The hazel eyes widened. “How did you know?”
“I saw the chamber.”
“Oh.” She moistened her lips. “I struck him. He lunged at me, or…or lurched. I struck him again. He stopped. Fell, and did not rise. He wasn't dead yet-his body spasmed, when I was groping in his robe for the key, and I nearly fainted. I fell to the floor on my hands and knees, anyway, and the room darkened. I…it…Finally, I got the door unbarred and called his men in.”
“Were they-what? Angry?”
“More frightened than angry, I think. They argued forever, and blamed each other, and me, and whatever they could think of. Even Boleso. It took them ages to decide to lock me up and send a courier.”
“What did you do?” “I sat on the floor, mostly. I was feeling very unwell. They asked me such stupid questions. Had I killed him? Did they imagine he'd bludgeoned himself? I was glad for my cell, when they finally put me in it. I don't think Ulkra ever noticed I could bar its door from the inside.”
Her face lifted; her eyes glinted. “No.”
Truth rang in that voice, and a kind of rocky triumph. In the uttermost extremity, abandoned by all who should have protected her, she'd found that she need not abandon herself. A powerful lesson. A dangerous lesson.
In an equally flat tone he asked, “Did he complete his rite?”
This time, she hesitated. “I don't know. I am not sure…what his intent was.” She gazed down into her lap; her hands gripped each other. “What will happen next? Rider Ulkra said you would take me in charge. Where to?”
“Good,” she said, with unexpected fervor. “The Temple there will surely help me.”
“You do not fear your trial?”
“Trial? I defended myself! I was betrayed into this horror!”
“It is possible,” he said, still very level-voiced, “that some powerful people will not care to hear you proclaim so. Think. You cannot prove attempted rape, for one thing. A half dozen men could testify that you appeared to go to Boleso willingly.”
“Compared to fleeing into the woods to be eaten by the wild beasts, willing, yes. Compared to bringing a brutal death on anyone who tried to help me, willingly.” She stared at him in sudden incredulity. “Do you not believe me?”
“Oh, yes.” Oh, yes. “But I am not your judge.”
She frowned, a glint of white teeth pressing into a lower lip gone pale. In a moment, her spine straightened again. “In any case, if the rape was not witnessed, the unlawful rite was. They all saw the leopard. They saw the secret drawings on the prince's body. Not assertions, but material things, that any man might reach out and touch.”
A step sounded on the floorboards; Ingrey looked up to see Ulkra approaching, seeming to loom and crouch simultaneously. “Your pleasure, my lord?” he inquired nervously.
To be anywhere but here, doing anything but this.
He'd been over two days in the saddle. He was, he decided abruptly, too mortally tired to ride another mile today. Boleso could be in no hurry to gallop to his funeral, and divine judgment. And Ingrey had no burning desire to rush this accursed naive girl to her earthly judgment, either. She was not afraid of the right things. Five gods help him, she seemed not afraid of anything.
“Will you,” he said to her, “give me your word, if I order your guard lightened, that you will not attempt to escape?”
“Of course,” she said. As if surprised he even felt a need to ask.
He gestured to the housemaster. “Put her in a proper room. Give her her things back. Find a decent maid, if any is to be found in this place, to attend her and help her pack. We'll leave for Easthome with Boleso's body at first light tomorrow.”
“Yes, my lord,” said Ulkra, ducking his head in relieved assent.
Ingrey added as an afterthought, “Have any men of the household fled, since Boleso's death?”
“No, my lord. Why do you ask?”
Ingrey gave a vague gesture, indicating no reason that he cared to share. Ulkra did not pursue the question.
Ingrey creaked to his feet. He felt as if his muscles squeaked louder protest than his damp leathers. Lady Ijada gave him a grateful curtsey, and turned to follow the housemaster. She looked back over her shoulder at him as she turned onto the staircase, a grave, trusting glance.
THE CORTEGE, SUCH AS IT WAS, LUMBERED OUT THE CASTLE gate in the dawn fog. Ingrey set six of Boleso's guards riding before and six behind what might charitably be described as a farm wagon. The wagon was burdened with a hastily cobbled-together oblong box, heavy with Boleso's body and the coarse salt, meant to preserve game, which made his last bed. In some sad effort at proper ceremony, Rider Ulkra had found a stag hide to cover the coffin, and funereal cloths to wrap the posts at the corners of the wagon bed, in lieu of draperies unlikely to survive the local roads. Whatever attempts the guardsmen had made to furbish up their gear for this somber duty were lost from view in the clinging mists. Ingrey's eye was more concerned for the security of the ropes that bound the box in place.
The teamster that Ulkra had drafted was a local yeoman, owner of both wagon and team, and he kept his sturdy horses well in hand during the first precarious turns and bumps of the narrow road. By his side, his wife hung on grimly but expertly to the wooden brake, which shrieked against the wheel as the wagon descended. She was a staid older woman, a better female chaperone for his prisoner, Ingrey thought, than the slatternly and frightened young servant girl Ulkra had first offered, and she would be guarded in turn by her husband. Ingrey trusted his own men, but remembered that inner bar on the prisoner's chamber door; whatever Lady Ijada had supposed, Ingrey was quite sure that obstacle hadn't been an oversight on Ulkra's part. The whitewashed walls and conical green slate tower caps of the castle disappeared dreamlike among the smoke-gray trees, and the road widened and straightened for a short stretch. Ingrey gave a quiet salute to the two of his own escort bringing up the rear, which was as silently returned, and urged his horse forward around the wagon and its outriders. In the lead, the other two pairs of Ingrey's guards bracketed Lady Ijada.
Ingrey had no intention of making idle conversation with his charge, so merely favored her with a polite nod and pushed on to the head of the column. He rode in silence for a time. The dripping of water from high branches in the steep woods and the gurgling of freshets, running melodiously beneath the road through hollowedlog culverts, sounded loud in his ears despite the creaking of gear, groaning of the wagon wheels, and plodding of hooves behind him. They rounded a last dropping curve, the road leveled, and they emerged from beneath the leafy canopy into an unexpected well of light.
The sun had broken through a gap in the ridges to the east, turning the moist air to floating gold and the far slopes to a fiery green. Only one trickle of smoke, probably from a party of charcoal burners, marked any human occupation in the dense carpet of woods rising beyond the hamlet and its fields. The sight did not lift Ingrey's spirits. He frowned down at the mud of the road instead, then reined his horse aside to check that the tail of the cortege cleared the trees without incident. He turned back to find himself riding beside Lady Ijada.
“It's difficult and dangerous country,” said Ingrey, “but the roads will improve once we descend from the wastes.”
She tilted her head at his sour expression. “This place does not please you? My dower lands are a like waste, then, west of here in the marches where the mountains dwindle.” She hesitated. “My stepfather is of your mind about such silent tracts-but then he is a town-man bred, a master of works for the Temple in Badger-bridge, and likes trees best in the form of rafters and gates and trestles. He says it were better I made my face my dower than those haunted woods.” She grimaced abruptly, the light fading in her eyes. “He was so pleased for me when one of my Badgerbank aunts found me the place in the Horserivers' high household. And now this.”
“Did he imagine you would snare a husband, under the princess's eye?”
“Something like that. It was to be my great chance.” She shrugged. “I've since learned that high lords get to be such by being more concerned, not less, with dowers than other men. I should have anticipated…” Her mouth firmed. “I might have anticipated some seducer, arrogant in his rank. It was the heretical sorcery and howling madness that took me by surprise.”
For the first time, Ingrey wondered if the husband whose eye Ijada had snared might have been Earl Horseriver. Four years he had been married to the hallow king's daughter, and no children yet; was there anything more to the delay than ill luck? Reason indeed for the princess to barter her handmaiden out of her household at the first opportunity-and if jealous enough of her lovely rival, to a fate Fara must have known would not be pleasant…? Had the princess known of her brother's perilous plans? Aside from the rape, you mean?
“What did you think of Earl Horseriver?” Ingrey inquired, in a neutral voice. The earl was landed, of an ancient kin, but his most arresting power at present was doubtless his ordainer's vote, one of the thirteen needed to confirm a new hallow king. Yet such political concerns seemed quite over this young woman's head, however level it might be.
Now the lips pursed in a thoughtful frown. But not in dismay, Ingrey noted, nor in any flush of embarrassment. “I'm not sure. He's a strange…man. I almost said young man, but really, he scarcely seems young. I suppose it's partly the untimely gray in his hair. He's very sharp of wit, uncomfortably so at times. And moody. Sometimes he goes about for days in silence, as if lost in his own thoughts, and no one dares speak to him, not even the princess. At first I thought it was because of his little, you know, deformities, the spine and the oddly shaped face, but truly, he seems not to care about his body at all. It certainly doesn't impede him.” She glanced at Ingrey with belated wariness. “Do you know him well?”
“Not since we are grown,” said Ingrey. “I have a near tie to him by blood through his late mother. I met him a few times when we were both children.” Ingrey remembered the young Lord Wencel kin Horseriver as an undersized, clumsy boy, seeming slow of wit, with a rather wet mouth. Perhaps shyness had rendered Wencel tongue-tied; but the boy-Ingrey had lacked sympathy for a smaller cousin who did not keep up, and had made no effort to include him. Fortunately, in retrospect, Ingrey had made no effort to torment him, either. “His father and mine died within a few months of each other.”
Though the aged Earl Horseriver had died quietly and decently, of an ordinary stroke. Not in his prime, baying and foaming, his feverish screams echoing through the castle corridors as though rising from some pit of agony beneath the earth…Ingrey bit back the memory, hard.
“He was castlemaster of Birchgrove, under the lordship of old Earl Kasgut kin Wolfcliff.” And I am not. Would her rather too-quick wits notice, or would she merely assume him a younger son? “Birchgrove commands the valley of the Birchbeck, where it runs into the Lure.” Which did not, precisely, answer the question she'd asked. How had they drifted onto this dire subject? Her tone, he realized, had been as tensely neutral as his leading question about Horseriver.
“So Rider Ulkra told me.” She drew a long breath, staring ahead between her horse's ears. “He also said, it was rumored that your father died from the bite of a rabid wolf, that he'd tried to steal the spirit from, and that he gave you a wolf spirit, too, but it turned out to be crippled, and only made you very sick. And your life and wits were despaired of, which is why your uncle succeeded to Birchgrove and not you, but later your family sent you on pilgrimage, and you grew better. I wondered if all this was true, and why your father committed so reckless an act.” Only when she had spat out all this hurried chain of tattle did she turn her face to his, her eyes anxious and searching.
Ingrey's horse snorted and tossed its head at his jerk on the reins. Ingrey loosened his fist, and, a moment later, unclenched his teeth. He finally managed to growl, “Ulkra gossips. It is a fault.”
“He is afraid of you.”
“Not enough, it seems.” He yanked his horse away and pretended to inspect the cortege, returning up the other side to the head of the column. Alone. She looked after him as he passed, her mouth opening as if to speak, but he ignored her.
Forcing the cortege up the muddy road out of the valley diverted his mind enough to regain his calm, or at least replace his fuming with other irritations. On a steep incline, with the blowing team's hooves slipping, the wagon began to slide sideways toward a precipitous edge; the teamster's wife screeched alarm. Ingrey flung himself off his horse and led the quicker-witted among the guards to brace themselves and strain against the wagon's side and rear, pushing it away from the dizzying drop and up through the mire.
They paused at noon at a wide clearing just off the road, home to an ancient spring. His men unpacked the bread and cold meats provided by the castle cook, but Ingrey, calculating distances and hours of light, was more concerned for the horses. The team was mud-crusted and sweaty, so he set Boleso's surly retinue to assisting the teamster in unharnessing and rubbing them down before they were fed. The worst of the gradients were behind them now; with a suitable rest, he judged the beasts would last till nightfall, by which time he hoped to reach the Temple town of Reedmere, commandeer some more fitting conveyance, and send the rustic rig home.
More princely conveyance, Ingrey revised his thought. A former manure wagon seemed to him all too fitting. Closer to Easthome, he decided, he would send a rider ahead to guide a relief cortege to him, and hand off Boleso's body to more gaudy and noble ceremony, provided by those who cared for the prince. Or at least, cared for Boleso's rank and the show they made to each other. Maybe he'd send the rider tonight.
He washed his hands in the spring's outlet and accepted a slab of venison wrapped in bread from his lieutenant, Gesca. Gnawing, he looked around for his prisoner and her attendant. The teamster's wife was busy about the food baskets by the unhitched wagon. Lady Ijada was walking about the clearing-in that costume, she might whisk into the woods and disappear among the tall tree boles in a moment. Instead, she pried up a stone from the crumbled foundation above the spring and picked her way over to where Ingrey rested on a big fallen log.
Ingrey looked. On one side of the stone a spiral pattern was incised into the weathered surface.
“It's the same as one of the symbols Boleso had drawn on his body. In red madder, centered on his navel. Did you see it there?”
“No,” Ingrey admitted. “His body had been washed off already.”
“Oh,” she said, looking a little taken aback. “Well, it was.”
“I do not doubt you.” Though others will be free to. Had she realized this yet?
She stared around the clearing. “Do you think this place was a forest shrine, once?”
“Very possibly.” He followed her glance, studying the stumps and the sizes of the trees. Whatever holy or unholy purposes the original possessors had held, the latest ax work had been done by humble itinerant woodcutters, by the evidence. “The spring suggests it. This place has been cleared, abandoned, and recleared more than once, if so.” Following, perhaps, the ebb and flow of the Darthacan Quintarian war against the forest heresies that had so disrupted the kin lands, four centuries ago when Audar the Great had first conquered the Weald.
“I wonder what the old ceremonies were really like,” she mused. “The divines scorn the animal sacrifice, but really…When I was a child at my father's Temple fort, I went a few times with…with a friend to the marsh people's autumn rites. The fen folk aren't of the same race or language as the Old Wealdings, but I could almost have imagined myself going back to those days. It was more like a grand party and outdoor roast than anything. I mean, they made some songs and rituals over the creatures before they slaughtered them, but what's the difference if we pray over our meat after it's cooked instead of before?” She added with an air of fairness, “Or so my friend said. The fort's divine disagreed, but then, the two of them disagreed a lot. I think my friend enjoyed baiting him.”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “that's true. Or at any rate, everyone ran about splashing each other and screaming with laughter. It was all very messy and silly, and rather smelly, but it was hard to see any evil in it. Of course, this tribe didn't sacrifice people.” She looked around the clearing as if imagining the ghostly image of some such evil slaying here.
“Indeed,” said Ingrey dryly. “That was the sticking point, between the Darthacan Quintarians and the Old Wealdings.” For all that both sides had worshipped the same five gods. “So when Audar the so-called Great slaughtered four thousand Wealding prisoners of war at Bloodfield, it's said he didn't pray at all. That made it a proper Quintarian act, I suppose, and not heresy. Some other crime, perhaps, but not human sacrifice. One of those theological fine points.”
That massacre of a generation of young spirit warriors had broken the back of the Wealding resistance to their eastern invaders, in any case. For the next hundred and fifty years, the Weald's lands, ceremonies, and people had been forcibly rearranged into Darthacan patterns, until Audar's vast empire broke apart in the bloody squabbles of his much less great descendants. Orthodox Quintarianism survived the empire that had fostered it, however. The suppressed animal practices and wisdom songs of the forest tribes had been lost and all but forgotten in the renewed Weald, except for rural superstitions, children's rhymes, and the odd ghost tale.
“I suppose we are all New Wealdings, now,” mused Ijada. She touched her Darthacan-dark hair, and nodded to Ingrey's own. “Almost every Wealding kin that survived has Darthacan forebears, too. Mongrels, to a man. Or to a lord, anyway. So we inherit Audar's sins and the tribes'. For all I know my Chalionese father had some Darthacan blood. The nobles there are a very mixed lot, really, he always said, for all that they carry on about their pedigrees.”
Ingrey bit, chewed, did not answer.
“When your father gave you your wolf,” she began, “how-”
“You should go eat,” he interrupted her, around a mouthful of cold roast. “It's going to be a long ride yet.” He rose and strode away from her, toward the wagon and its baskets. He did not want more food, but he did not want more of her chatter, either. He selected a not-too-wormy apple and nibbled it slowly while walking about. He stayed on the other side of the clearing from her, during the remainder of their rest.
AS THE CORTEGE RUMBLED ON THROUGH THE AFTERNOON, THE rugged angles of the hills grew gentler and hamlets more frequent, their fields more extensive. The sun was slanting toward the treetops when they came to an unanticipated check. A rocky ford, hock deep on the ride in, had risen with the rains and was now in full and muddy flood.
Ingrey halted his horse and looked over the problem. Boleso's wagon had not been made watertight with skins or tar, so the chance of its floating away at an awkward angle and yanking the horses off their feet was slight. The chance of its shipping water and bogging down, however, was good. He set mounted men at the wagon's four corners with ropes to help warp it through the hazard, and waved the yeoman onward with what speed he could muster from his tired team. The water came up past the horses' bellies, pushing the wagon off its wheels, but the outriders held it on course, and the whole assemblage struggled safely up the far bank. Only then did Ingrey motion Lady Ijada ahead of him into the water.
The cold water tugged at his knees as he urged his horse downstream. The dark head bobbed up by a trio of smooth rocks that stuck out of the spate boiling around them. An arm reached, caught…
“Hang on!” yelled Ingrey. “I'm coming to get you-!”
Two arms. Lady Ijada heaved herself upward, belly over the rock, wriggled and scrambled; by the time Ingrey brought his snorting horse close, she was standing upright, dripping and gasping. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her horse make it to the bank farther downstream, where it surged up, stumbled through the mud, and bolted into the woods. Ingrey spared it an unvoiced curse and waved one of his men after it.
He did not look to see if he was obeyed, for now he was within arm's reach of Lady Ijada. He leaned toward her, she leaned toward him…
A dark red fog seemed to come up over his brain, clouding his vision. Gripping her arms, he toppled into the stream, pulling her from her perch. Down, if he held her down…water filled his mouth. He spat, gasped, and went under again. He was blinded and tumbling. Some distant part of his mind, far, far off, was screaming at him: What are you doing, you fool! He must hold her down
The force of the water clubbed his head into something hard, and starry green sparks overflowed the red fog. All thought fled.
“Stop fighting me!” Lady Ijada's voice snapped in his ear. Something circling his neck tightened; he realized after a dizzy moment that it must be her arm. He must save her, drown her, save her-
She can swim. The belated realization slowed his flailing, if only in shock. Well, he could swim, too, after a fashion. He'd stayed alive through a shipwreck, once, admittedly mostly by hanging on to things that floated. The only thing floating here seemed to be Lady Ijada. Surely the weight of his blades and boots must drag them both down-his feet struck something. The current spat them into a back eddy, the river bottom flattened out, then she was dragging him up onto some welcome, blessed shore.
He twisted around out of her arm's grip, crawling up on hands and knees over the rocks onto the moss-covered bank. Pink water flowed from his hair, growing redder. He dashed it from his eyes and blinked around. The woods here were thick and tangled. He was not sure how far downstream they had come, but the ford, the wagon, and his men were nowhere in sight. He was shivering in shock from the head blow.
She stood up, water streaming from her clothes, and staggered out of the river toward him, her hand reaching. He cried out, a wordless bellow, and recoiled, wrapping his arms around a small tree, in part to hold himself upright, in part to hold…“Don't touch me!”
“What? Lord Ingrey, you're bleeding-”
“Don't come any nearer!”
“Lord Ingrey, if you will just-” His voice cracked. “My wolf is trying to kill you! It is coming unbound! Stay away!”
“Three times,” he gasped hoarsely. “That was the third time. Don't you realize, I tried to drown you just now? It's tried twice before. The first time I saw you, when I drew my steel, I meant to run you through on the spot. Then when we were sitting, I almost tried to strangle you.”
She was pale, thoughtful, intent. Not running away screaming. He wanted her to run, whether screaming or not made no matter to him. As long as she could outrun him…
Instead, maddeningly, she leaned against a tree bole and began to remove her squelching boots. It wasn't until she had tipped out the second one that she said, “It wasn't your wolf.”
His head was still ringing from the blow against the boulder. By the unpleasant rumbling in his gut, he was due to vomit some river water soon. He didn't comprehend her. “What?”
“It wasn't your wolf.” She set the boot down next to its mate and added in a tight, even voice, “I can smell your wolf, in a sense. Not smell really, but I don't know any other way to describe it.”
“It-I tried to kill you!”
“It wasn't your wolf. It wasn't you, either. It was the other smell. All three times.”
Now he merely stared, all words deserting him.
“Lord Ingrey-you never asked where the ghost of Boleso's leopard went.”
It wasn't a stare anymore, he feared. It was a gape.
“It came to me.” Her hazel eyes met his for one level, intent moment.
He retreated around his too-narrow tree, for what little privacy it could render him. He wished he could say the spasm gave him a moment to gather his wits, but they seemed scattered for a mile behind him up the river valley. Drowned, they were, without benefit of wine. All of the punishment, none of the reward.
He stumbled back around the tree to find her calmly wringing out her jacket. He gave up and sat down with a thump upon a mossy log. It was damp, but he was damper, his wet leathers sliding and squeaking unpleasantly.
She looked no different, to his eye. Well, wet, yes, sodden and wild, but still caressed by the slanting light as if the sun were her lover. He saw no cat shape in her shadow. He smelled nothing but himself, a sickly mix of wet leather, oil, sweat, and horse.
“I don't know if it was Boleso's intent that I should have it,” she continued in that same flat tone, undaunted by the repulsive interruption. “It came to me when I touched his dying body, looking for the key. The other animals stayed bound, and went with him. He had held them longer, or perhaps the rite hadn't been finished. The leopard's spirit was very frightened and frantic. It hid itself in my mind, but I could feel it.
“I did not know what to do, or what it might do. Boleso's men were fools. I said nothing about it, and no one asked.”
“Your defense-that could be your defense!” he said in sudden eagerness. “The leopard spirit killed the prince, in its frenzy. Not you. You were possessed by it. It was an accident.”
She blinked at him. “No,” she said in a voice of reason, “I just told you. The leopard did not come to me till Boleso lay dying.”
“Yes, but you could say otherwise. There is none to gainsay you.”
Her stare grew offended. We must return to this argument, I think. Ingrey waved a weak hand. “Well. And then…?”
“I first thought that I was going mad, but then I decided not. That closet was just like a cage, in a way; cruel and kind men brought food and cleaned it out. It was familiar. Calming.
“On the second night, I dreamed the leopard's dreams again. But this time…” Her voice faltered. Steadied. “This time, there came a Presence. There was nothing to see, in that black wood, but the smells were wonderful, beyond any perfume. Every good scent of the forest and field in the fall. Apples and wine, roast meat, crisp leaves and sharp blue air. I smelled the autumn stars, and cried out for their beauty. The leopard's spirit leapt in ecstasy, like a dog greeting its master or a cat rubbing around the skirts of its mistress. It purred, and writhed, and made eager noises.
“After that, the leopard's ghost seemed pacified. No longer frightened or wild. It just…lies there contentedly, waiting. No, more than contentedly. Joyfully. I don't know what it waits for.”
“A presence,” echoed Ingrey. No-she said, a Presence. “Did a-do you think-was it a god? That came to you, there in the dark?”
Did he doubt it? Luminous, Ingrey had called her, with a perception beyond sight, however denied. And even in those first confused moments, he had not mistaken it for mere physical beauty.
Her face grew suddenly fierce; she said through her teeth, “It didn't come to me, it came to the accursed cat. I wept for it to come to me. But it did not.” Her voice slowed. “Perhaps it could not. I am no saint, fit to have a god inhabit me.”
Ingrey grubbed in the moss with nervous fingers. His split scalp had stopped dripping blood into his eyebrows, finally. “It was also said-though not by the Quintarian divines-that the Old Wealdings used animal spirits to commune with the gods.”
Hers was not some idle curiosity, spurred by gossip. It was a most desperate need to know. And how much would he, in his first confusion so long ago, have given for some experienced mentor to tell him how to go on? Or even for a companion as confused as he, but sharing his experience, matching his confidences instead of denying them and naming him demented, defiled, and damned? And all the things he could never have explained even to a sympathetic ear, she had just experienced.
It still felt like hauling buckets from a well of memory with a rope that burned his hands. He gritted his teeth; began.
“I was but fourteen. It all came upon me without warning. I was brought to the ceremony uninstructed. My father had been for some days-or weeks-distraught about something that he would confide to no one. He suborned a Temple sorcerer to accomplish the rite. I do not know who caught the wolves, or how. The sorcerer disappeared immediately after-whether in fear of having botched the rite, or because he had deliberately betrayed us, I never found out. I was not fit to inquire, just then.”
“A sorcerer?” she echoed, leaning against a tree bole. “I saw no sorcerer with Boleso. Unless he had one hidden in disguise. If Boleso himself was demon-ridden, I saw no sign, not that I would. Well, you can't, unless you are god-sighted or a sorcerer yourself.”
“No, the Temple would have…” Ingrey hesitated. “In Easthome, some sensitive from the Temple must have detected it, if Boleso had caught a demon. If he'd caught it more recently, since his exile…he might not have encountered anyone with the gift to discern it.” But whatever had been wrong with Boleso had surely been going on since before he'd slain his manservant.
Because I have worked for a decade and more to cripple it, bind it down tight. And I thought I was safe, and now your questions frighten me worse than the wolf-within. “You said there was a thing, another…smell, not me or my wolf. A third thing.”
She stared at him unhappily, her brows drawing in, as though she grappled for a description of something that had no relation to language. “It is as if I can smell souls. Or the leopard does, and leaks it to me in patches. I can smell Ulkra, and know he is not to fear. Another few men in the retinue-I know to stay out of their reach. Your soul seems doubled: you, and something underneath, something dark and old and musty. It does not stir.”
“My wolf?” But his wolf had been a young one.
“I…maybe. But there is a third smell. It is wound about you like some parasitic vine, pulsing with blood, that has put tendrils and roots into your spirit to maintain itself. It whispers. I think it is some spell or geas.”
Ingrey was silent for a long moment, staring down at himself. How could she guess which was which? His wolf spirit was surely a kind of parasite. “Is it still there?”
His voice tightened. “Then in my next inattentive moment, I might try to kill you again.”
“Perhaps.” Her eyes narrowed and nostrils flared, as if seeking a sensation that had nothing to do with the senses of the body. As futile as trying to see with her hands, or taste with her ears. “Till it is rooted out.”
“Don't you see? I must get to the Temple at Easthome. I must find help. And you are taking me there as fast as may be.”
“The divines were never much help to me,” he said bitterly. “Or I would not still be afflicted. I tried for years-consulting theologians, sorcerers, even saints. I traveled all the way to Darthaca to find a saint of the Bastard who was reputed to banish demons from men's souls, to destroy illicit sorcerers. Even he could not disentangle my wolf spirit. Because, he told me, it was of this world, not of the other; even the Bastard, who commands a legion of demons of disorder and can summon or dismiss them at His will, had no power over it. If even saints cannot help, the ordinary Temple authorities will be useless. Worse than useless-a danger. In Easthome, the Temple is the tool of the powerful, and it seems you have offended the powerful.”
Her gaze sharpened. “Who put the geas on you? Must it have been someone powerful?”
His lips parted, closed again. “I am not sure. I cannot say. It all slips away from me. Unless I am reminded, I don't even remember, between one time and the next, trying to kill you. A moment's distraction on my part could be deadly to you!”
“Then I will undertake to remind you,” she said. “It should be easier, now that we both know.”
As he opened his mouth to protest, he heard a distant crashing in the woods. A man called, “Lord Ingrey?” and another, “I heard voices toward the river-over that way…!”
“They're coming!” He struggled to his feet, swaying dizzily, his hands extending to her in pleading. “Before they find us. Flee!”
“Like this?” she said indignantly, sweeping a hand down her damp costume, her bare feet. “Soaking wet, no money, no weapons, no help, I am to run off into the woods and-what? Be eaten by bears?” Her jaw set. “No. Boleso came from Easthome. Your geas came from Easthome. It is there that the source of this evil must be stalked. I will not be diverted.”
“Then you'd better not babble about this to anyone.”
“I don't babble-” he began in outrage, but then their rescuers were upon them, two of Ingrey's men on horseback hacking through the undergrowth. Now he wanted to talk to her, and could not.
“My lord!” cried Rider Gesca in gladness. “You have saved her!”
Since Ijada did not correct this misperception, neither did Ingrey. Evading her gaze, he climbed to his feet.
WHEN THEY ARRIVED BACK AT THE WAGON WAITING ON THE far bank, the sun had slipped behind the treetops. A level orange glint shone through the tangled branches by the time Ingrey and his prisoner had traded off for dry clothes and mounted their recaptured horses. Ingrey's head, wrapped in a makeshift strip of cloth, was pounding, and his shoulder was stiffening, but he refused even to contemplate the idea of sitting in the wagon atop Boleso's box. The cortege clambered out of the wooded valley and on into the gathering twilight.
A chill mist began to arise from the ditches and fields. Ingrey was just about to order his lead riders to light torches to guide them when a distant glow on the road resolved into a string of bobbing lanterns. A few minutes later, an anxious Halloo sounded above trotting hoofbeats. The man Ingrey had sent ahead that morning to ready Reedmere for Boleso spurred forward to greet them. He brought with him not only Temple servants with lights, but a fresh team of horses already harnessed, together with a wheelwright and his tools. Ingrey gave the prudent guardsman a heartfelt commendation, the teams were exchanged, and the procession started up again at a faster pace. In a few more miles, the lights above the walls of Reedmere shone to guide them to the gate held open for them.
The temple's outbuildings seemed mostly to consist of nearby houses recommissioned to new duties. The divine's residence was in a building with the Temple notary's office; the library and scriptorium shared quarters with the Daughter of Spring's Lady-school for the town's children; the Temple infirmary, dedicated to the Mother of Summer, occupied the back rooms of the local apothecary's shop. Ingrey saw his prisoner turned over to some stern-looking female Temple servants, gave a few coins to the wheelwright for his time, made sure the horses were stabled and his men housed, paid off the yeoman-teamster and his wife and found them and their horses lodgings in the town for the night, and, finally, reported to the infirmary to have his head stitched.
To his relief, Ingrey found that the Mother's practitioner here was more than just a local seamstress or midwife; she wore the braid of a school dedicat on the shoulder of her green robe. With briskly efficient hands she lit wax candles, washed his head with strong soap, and sutured his scalp.
She laughed. “Oh, not here, my lord! Three years ago, a Temple inquirer from the Father's Order brought a sorcerer with him to investigate a charge of demon magic against a local woman, but nothing was found. The inquirer gave her accusers a pretty scorching lecture, after, and they were fined his travel costs. I must say, the sorcerer was not what I expected-sour old fellow in Bastard's whites, not much amused, I gathered, to be dragged out onto the roads in winter. There was a petty saint of the Mother at my old school”-she sighed in memory-“I wished I'd had the half of his plain ordinary skill, as well as his holy sight and touch. As for scholars, Maraya who runs the Lady-school is about the best we can do, apart from the lord-divine himself.”
Ingrey was disappointed, but not surprised. But sorcerer or saint or someone Sighted, he must find, to confirm or deny Lady Ijada's disturbing assertions. And soon.
“There,” added the dedicat in satisfaction, giving a tug to her last knot. Ingrey turned a small yelp into a grunt. A snip of scissors told him this little ordeal was over, and, with difficulty, he straightened up again.
Voices and footsteps sounded at the back door of the shop, and the Mother's dedicat looked around. The pair of female Temple servants, one of the lay stewards, Lady Ijada, and Rider Gesca trooped in. The servants were carrying piles of bedding.
“What's this?” said the dedicat, with a suspicious glance at Lady Ijada.
“By your leave, Dedicat,” said the steward, “this woman will be housed here tonight, as there are no sick in your chambers. Her attendants will sleep in the room with her, and I will sleep outside the door. This man”-he nodded toward Ingrey's lieutenant-“will post a night sentry to check from time to time.”
Ingrey glanced around. The place was clean enough, certainly, but…“Here?”
Lady Ijada favored him with an ironical lift of her eyebrows. “By your order, I am not to be housed in the town lockup, for which I thank you. The divine's spare room is reserved for you. The inn is full of your men, and the temple hall is full of Boleso's retainers. More sleeping their vigil than standing it, I suppose, though some are drinking it. For some reason, no goodwife of Reedmere has volunteered to invite me into her home. So I am fallen back on the goddess's hospitality.” Her smile was rigid.
“Oh,” said Ingrey after a moment. “I see.”
To people who knew Boleso only as a rumor of a golden prince, she must appear…well, scarcely a heroine. Not merely a dangerous murderess in herself, but leaking a taint of treason on any who might be seen to aid her. And it will get worse the closer we get to Easthome. With no better solution to offer, Ingrey could only exchange an awkward nod of good night with her, and let the medical dedicat usher him to the door.
“Off to sleep with you, now, my lord,” the dedicat went on, standing on tiptoe to take one last look at her work and recovering her cheer. “With that knock to the head, you should stay in bed for a day or two.”
“My duties will not permit, alas.” He gave her a stiff bow, and went off across the square to fill at least the first half of her prescription.
The divine, finished with praying over Boleso, was waiting up for him. The man wanted to talk of further ceremonies, and after that, hear news from the capital. He was anxious for the hallow king's failing health; Ingrey, himself four days out of touch, elected to be reassuringly vague. Ingrey judged the Reedmere man an unlordly lord-divine, a sincere soul-shepherd, backbone of the rural Temple, but neither learned nor subtle. Not a man in whom to confide Lady Ijada's current spiritual situation. Or my own. Ingrey turned him firmly to the needs of tomorrow's travel, made excusing references to his injuries, and escaped to his bedchamber.
INGREY DREAMED OF WOLVES…
He would have thought black midnight to be the time for the rite, but his father summoned him to the castle hall in the middle of the afternoon. A cool shadowless light penetrated from the window slits that overlooked the gurgling Birchbeck sixty feet below. Good beeswax candles burned in sconces on the walls, their warm honeyed flicker mixing with the grayness.
Lord Ingalef kin Wolfcliff appeared calm, if grave with the strain that had ridden him of late, and he greeted his son with a reassuring nod and a brief, rare smile. Young Ingrey's throat was tight with nervous excitement and fear. The Temple sorcerer, Cumril, made known to Ingrey only the night before, stood at the ready, naked but for a breechcloth, bare skin daubed about with archaic signs. The sorcerer had looked old to Ingrey then, but through his dream-eyes he saw that Cumril had actually been a young man. With the foresight of his nightmare state, Ingrey searched Cumril's face for some intimation or mark-did he plot the betrayal to come? Or was he just in over his head-not in control, unlucky, incompetent? The worry in his shifting eyes could have betokened either-or, indeed, all.
Then young Ingrey's gaze locked upon the animals, the beautiful, dangerous animals, and he could scarcely thereafter look away. The grizzled huntsman who handled them would die of rabies three days before Ingrey's father.
The young wolf, barely more than a pup, scrabbled away from its larger comrade in evident fear, claws scratching on the floorboards. The huntsman took it for cowardly, but later Ingrey would come to believe it had known of the contagion. Otherwise, it was startlingly docile, attentive as a well-trained dog. Its fur was dark and wonderfully dense, its silver-gilt eyes clear, and it responded at once to Ingrey's arrival, straining toward him and sniffing, staring up in evident adoration. Ingrey loved it instantly, his hands aching to run through the pewter-black pelt.
The sorcerer directed Ingrey and his father to strip to the waist and kneel on the cold floor a few paces apart, facing each other. He intoned some phrases in the old tongue of the Weald, pronouncing them carefully with many a side glance at a piece of wrinkled paper plucked from his belt. The language seemed to hover maddeningly just on the edge of Ingrey's understanding.
At Cumril's sign, the huntsman dragged the old wolf to Lord Ingalef's arms. He let go of the young wolf's leash to do so, and the animal scampered to Ingrey's lap. Ingrey held its soft warmth close, and it wriggled around to eagerly lick his face. His hands buried themselves in its fur, petting and stroking; the creature emitted small, happy whines and tried to wash Ingrey's ear. The rough tongue tickled, and Ingrey had to choke down a reflexive, unfitting laugh.
Muttering briefly over the blade, the sorcerer delivered the sacred knife to Lord Ingalef's waiting hand, then stepped back hastily as the disturbed wolf snapped at him. The beast began to struggle as Lord Ingalef's grip tightened. The struggle redoubled as he grasped it by the muzzle and tried to tilt its head back. He lost his hold, the jaw straps slipped loose, and the animal sank its teeth in his left forearm, shaking its head and snarling, worrying the flesh. Muffling a curse, he regained a partial purchase with knees and the weight of his strong body. The blade flashed, sank into fur and flesh. Red blood spurted. The snarls died, the jaws loosed, and the furry bundle subsided limply; then, a moment later, into a more profound stillness.
“Oh,” he said, eyes wide and strange. “It worked. How very…odd that feels…”
Cumril cast him a worried look; the huntsman hastened to bind his savaged arm.
“My lord, should you not…?” Cumril began.
Lord Ingalef shook his head sharply and raised his sound hand in a unsteady Continue! gesture. “It worked! Go on!”
The sorcerer picked up the second blade, gleaming new-forged, from the cushion on which it rested, and trod forward mumbling again. He pressed the knife into Ingrey's hand and stepped back once more.
Ingrey's hand closed unhappily on the hilt, and he looked into the bright eyes of his wolf. I don't want to kill you. You are too beautiful. I want to keep you. The clean jaws opened, showing fine white teeth, and Cumril's breath drew in, but the young wolf only lolled out its pink tongue and licked Ingrey's hand. The cool black nose nudged his knife-clutching fist, and Ingrey blinked back tears. The wolf sat up between Ingrey's knees, raised its head, and twisted around to gaze into its killer's face with perfect trust.
He must not botch this, must not inflict unnecessary torment with repeated strikes. His hands felt the neck, traced the firm muscles and the soft ripple of artery and vein. The room was a silvered blur. The young wolf leaned into him as Ingrey laid the blade close. He drew back, struck, yanked with all his strength. Felt the flesh part, the hot blood spurt over his hands, wetting the fur. Felt the body relax in his arms.
Shouts of alarm: his father's voice, “Something's gone wrong! Curse you, Cumril, catch him!”
“He's gone all shaking-he's bitten his tongue, my lord-”
A shift of time and space, and his wolf was bound-no, he was bound-red-silk cords whispered and muttered around him, writhing, rooting in him like vines. His wolf snapped at them, white teeth closing, tearing, but the cords regrew with frightening speed. They wrapped his head, tightening painfully.
Unfamiliar voices invaded his delirium then, irritatingly. His wolf fled. The memory of his evil dream spattered and ran away like water.
“He can't be asleep; his eyes are half-open, see them gleam?”
“No, don't wake him up! I know what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to lead them back to bed quietly, or, I don't know, they go all wild, or something.”
“Then I'm not touching him with that sword in his hand!”
“Well, how else?”
“Get more light, woman. Oh, five gods be thanked, here's his own man.”
A hesitation; then, “Lord Ingrey? Lord Ingrey!”
Candlelight doubled, doubled again. Ingrey blinked, gasped, surged to wakefulness. His head ached abominably. He was standing up. Shock brought him fully alert.
He was standing once more in the temple infirmary, if the room in back of the apothecary's could be so designated. He wore the divine's nightshirt half-tucked into his trousers, but his feet were bare on the board floor. His right hand gripped his naked sword.
“I'm”-he had to stop, swallow, moisten his lips-“I'm awake.”
What am I doing here? How did I get over here?
He'd been sleepwalking, presumably. He had heard of such things. He'd never done it before. And it had been more than just blundering about in the dark. He'd partly dressed, found his weapon, somehow made his way in unobserved silence down a stairway, through a door-which surely must have been locked, so he must have turned the key-across the cobbled square, and into this other building.
Where Lady Ijada lies asleep. Five gods, let her go on sleeping. The door to the bedchamber was closed-now. In sudden horror, he glanced at his blade, but it was still gleaming and dry. No dripping gore stained it. Yet.
His guardsman, with a wary glance at his sword, came to him and took him by his left arm. “Are you all right, my lord?”
“Hurt my head today,” Ingrey mumbled. “The dedicat's medicines gave me strange dreams. Dizzy. Sorry…”
“Should I…um…take you back to bed, my lord?”
“Yes,” said Ingrey gratefully. “Yes”-the seldom-used phrase forced itself from his cold lips-“please you.” He was shivering now. It wasn't wholly from the chill.
He suffered the guardsman to guide him out the door, around the shop, back across the silent, dark square. Back into the divine's house. A servant who had slept through Ingrey's exit was awakened by their return and came out into the hall in sleepy alarm. Ingrey mumbled more excuses about the dedicat's potions, which served well enough given the porter's own muzzy state. Ingrey let his guardsman guide him all the way to his bed and even pull his covers up, sergeantly maternal. The man retreated in a clanking, board-creaking sort of tiptoe, pulling the door shut behind him.
He blew out the candle, went back to bed, lay stiffly for a time, then got up again and felt in the dark in his saddlebags for a length of rope. He tied a loop tightly around his ankle, played out a length, and tied another loop around a lower bedpost. Clumsily, he wrapped himself in his covers again.
His head throbbed, and his strained shoulder pulsed like a knot of fire under his skin. He tossed, turned, came up short against his rope. Well, at least it worked. He started to doze in sheer exhaustion, turned, and came up short again. He wallowed onto his back once more and lay staring up into the dark, teeth clenched. His eyes felt coated in sand.
Better than dreaming. He'd had the wolf dream again, for the first time in months, though it was now only slippery fragments in his memory. He had more than one reason to fear sleep, it seemed.
How did I get into this position? A week ago, he had been a happy man, or at least, contented enough. He had a comfortable chamber in Lord Hetwar's palace, a manservant, horse and clothing and arms by his lord's grace, a stipend sufficient for his amusements. The bustle of the hallow king's capital city at his feet. Better, he had an engagingly irregular but solid rank in the sealmaster's household, and a reputation as a trusted aide-not quite bravo, not quite clerk, but a man to be relied upon for unusual tasks discreetly done. As Hetwar's high courier, he delivered rewards intact, and threats suitably nuanced. He was not, he thought, proudly honest, as some men; perhaps he'd simply lost too much already to be tempted by trumpery. Indifference served him quite as well as integrity, and sometimes served Hetwar even better. His most pleasurable reward had usually been to have his curiosity satisfied.
The rope yanked his ankle again. His right hand clenched in the memory of his sword hilt. Curse that leopard girl! If she'd just lain down under Boleso like any other self-interested wench, spread her legs and thought of the jewelry and fine clothing she would undoubtedly have earned, all this could have been avoided. And Ingrey wouldn't be lying here with a line of bloody embroidery itching in his hair, half the muscles in his body twitching in agony, tied to his own bed, waiting for a leaden dawn.
Wondering if he was still sane.
THEY ESCAPED REEDMERE LATER IN THE MORNING THAN Ingrey had desired, owing to the insistence of the lord-divine in making a ceremony, with more choirs, out of loading Boleso's coffin aboard its new carrier. The wagon at least was tolerable-very well made, with somber draperies disguising its bright paint, if not the distinct smell of beer lingering about it. The six horses that came with it were grand tawny beasts, massive of shoulder, haunch, and hoof, with orange and black ribbons braided in manes and bound-up tails. The bells on their glossy harness were muffled with black flannel, for which Ingrey, head still throbbing from yesterday's blow, was grateful. Compared to their usual load, Ingrey imagined, the team would tow Boleso up hills and through mire as effortlessly as a child's sled.
Lady Ijada appeared as trim as she had yesterday morning, now in an even more elegant riding habit of gray-blue trimmed with silver thread. Clearly, she had slept through the night. Ingrey wavered between resentful and relieved, as his headache waxed and waned. An hour into the bright morning, he began to feel about as recovered as he was likely to get. Almost human. He gritted his teeth at the bitter joke and rode up and down the column taking stock.
Ijada's new female attendant, one of the middle-aged Temple servants on loan from Reedmere, rode in the wagon. She was wary of her ward, much more frigid than the rural wife from Boar's Head who had known more of Boleso. She seemed even more wary of Ingrey. He wondered if the woman had told Ijada of his sleepwalking episode.
Boleso's retainers, too, seemed edgier today, as they drew closer to Easthome and whatever chastisement awaited them for their failure to keep their banished prince alive. More than one cast glances of dark resentment at Boleso's victim-and-slayer, and Ingrey resolved to keep them from both drink and his prisoner until he could turn the whole lot and their dead leader over to someone, anyone, else. Ingrey had dispatched a Temple courier last night to Sealmaster Hetwar with the cortege's projected itinerary. If Hetwar left it to his discretion, Ingrey decided, Boleso was going to be galloped to his burial in record time.
Ingrey checked himself; this squealing prey did not seem to attract or excite him unduly, which was as well. He sat his horse in grim silence till the pigs had been driven again into the tangled verge. Lady Ijada, he noted, also sat her horse quietly, waiting, although with a curious inward expression on her face.
He did not attempt speech with her on the ride. His guards, by his order, kept close to her while she was mounted, and the servant woman dutifully dogged her steps during the stops to rest the horses. But his eye returned to her constantly. All too often he crossed her grave glance at him: not a frown of fear, more a look of concern. As though he were her charge. It was most irritating, as though they were tied to each other by a tugging leash, like a pair of coupled hounds. Not looking at or speaking with her seemed to consume all his energy and attention, and left him exhausted.
The town's superior size, however, meant it had not merely a larger inn, but three of them, and Ingrey had mustered the wit that morning to instruct his advance scout to bespeak rooms. The middle hostelry had also proved the cleanest. Ingrey himself escorted Lady Ijada and her warden up to its second floor, and the bedchamber and private parlor his man had secured. He inspected the portals. The windows overlooked the street, were small, and could not be readily accessed from the ground. The door bars were sound solid oak. Good.
He dug the rooms' keys from his belt pouch and handed them to Lady Ijada. The woman warden frowned curiously at him, but did not dare demur.
“Keep your doors locked at all times, tonight,” Ingrey told Lady Ijada. “And barred.”
Her brows rose a little, and she glanced around the peaceful chamber. “Is there anything special to fear, here?”
Nothing but what we brought with us. “I walked in my sleep last night,” he admitted with reluctance. “I was outside your door before anyone woke me.”
She gave him a slow nod, and another of those looks. He unset his teeth, and said, “I will be staying at one of the other inns. I know you gave me your word, but I want you to stay close in here, out of sight. You'll wish to eat privately. I'll have your dinner brought up.”
She said only, “Thank you, Lord Ingrey.”
With a short return nod, he took himself out. Ingrey went down to the taproom, lying off a short passage, to give orders for his prisoner's meal. A couple of Boleso's retainers and one of Ingrey's men were already there, raising tankards.
“We're housed everywhere, my lord,” said the man. “We've filled the other inns.”
“Better than bedrolls on the temple floor,” said Ingrey's man.
“Oh, aye,” said the first, and took a long swallow. His burlier comrade grunted something that might have been agreement.
A commotion and a small shriek outside drew Ingrey to the taproom's curtained window, which looked out into the street. An open wagon pulled by a pair of stubby, sweaty horses had drawn up outside in the dusk, and one of its front wheels had just parted company with its axle and fallen onto the cobbles, leaving the wagon tilted at a drunken angle. Its lanterns swayed on their front posts, casting wavering shadows. A woman's brisk voice said, “Never mind, love, Bernan will fix it. That's why I-”
“Had me bring my toolbox, yes,” finished a weary male voice from the back of the wagon. “I'll get to it. Next.”
The manservant hopped out and set some wooden steps beside the now-sloping driver's box, and he and a woman servant helped a stout, short, cloaked figure to descend.
Ingrey turned away, thinking only that the late-arriving party might find rooms hard to come by in Red Dike tonight. The burly retainer drained his tankard, belched, and asked the tapster for directions to the privy. He lurched out of the taproom ahead of Ingrey and turned into the passageway.
The bulky cloaked woman had arrived therein; her maidservant was bent to the floor behind her, muttering imprecations and blocking the way. The voluminous cloak was grubby and tattered, and had clearly seen better days.
The burly retainer vented a curse, and growled, “Out of my way, you fat sow.”
The woman unhooked the clasp at her throat and let the cloak fall away; she was dressed in robes of Mother's green, and was not fat, but very pregnant. If some midwife-dedicat, she would shortly be in need of her own services, Ingrey thought bemusedly. The woman reached over her jutting belly to tap her left shoulder, and cleared her throat portentously. “See this, young man? Or are you too drunk to focus your eyes?”
“See what?” said the burly retainer, unimpressed by a midwife, still less if she were some gravid poor woman.
She followed his gaze to her frayed green-clad shoulder, and pursed her lips in annoyance. “Oh, dratsab. Hergi”-she twisted around to her maid, now rising to her feet-“they've fallen off again. I hope I haven't lost them on the road-”
“I have them right here, my lady,” wheezed the harried maid. “Here, I'll pin them back. Again.”
She came up from the floor with not one but two sets of Temple school braids clutched in her hands, and, tongue pinched between her teeth, began to affix them in their proper place of honor. The first loop was the dark green, straw-yellow, and metallic gold of a physician-divine of the Mother's Order. The second was the white, cream, and metallic silver of a sorceress-divine of the Bastard's Order. The first brought even Boleso's retainer into an attitude of, if not greater respect, at least less careless contempt; but it was the second that drained his face of blood.
The retainer scowled. “Those can't be yours!”
The blood had drained from his brain, too, evidently. Those who are unwilling to admit error are fated to repeat it? Prudently, Ingrey backed a few paces down the passage; also because it gave him a better view of the proceedings.
“I do not have time for you,” said the sorceress in aggravation. “If you insist on behaving as though you were in a sty, a pig you shall be, until you learn better manners.” She waved a hand in the retainer's general direction, and Ingrey quelled an impulse to duck. He was entirely unsurprised when the man fell to all fours and his yelp turned into a grunt. The sorceress sniffed, gathered up her robes, and stepped daintily around him. Her head-shaking maid, toting a leather case, scooped up the cloak in passing. Ingrey bowed the women politely into the taproom and turned to follow after, ignoring an agonized snuffle from the floor. His other two men edged around the taproom and peered worriedly into the passageway.
“Apologies, Learned,” said Ingrey smoothly, “but will your most salutary lesson last long? I only inquire because the man must be fit to ride tomorrow.”
The blond woman turned to frown at him, her floating strands of hair seeming now to be trying to escape in all directions. “Is he yours?”
“Not precisely. But though I am not responsible for his behavior, I am responsible for his arrival.”
“Oh. Well. I will doubtless restore him before I leave. Else the delusion will wear off on its own in a few hours. Meanwhile, the encouragement of others and all that. But I am in the greatest haste. There was a grand cortege that arrived in Red Dike tonight, of Prince Boleso who they say was murdered. Have you witnessed it? I seek its commander.” Ingrey half bowed again. “You have found him. Ingrey kin Wolf-cliff at your service and your gods', Learned.”
“She is in my charge.”
“Is she.” The stare sharpened. “Where?”
“She has chambers upstairs in this inn.”
The maidservant huffed in relief; the sorceress cast her a look of cheery triumph. “Third time is the charm,” murmured the sorceress. “Did I not say so?”
“This town only has three inns,” the maidservant pointed out.
“Are you,” Ingrey added hopefully, “sent by the Temple to take her into your hands?” And off mine?
“Not…precisely, no. But I must see her.”
Ingrey hesitated. “What is she to you?” Or you to her?
“An old friend, if she remembers me. I'm Learned Hallana. I heard of her plight when the news of the prince came to my seminary in Suttleaf. That is, we heard of Boleso's murder, and who had supposedly done the deed, and I presumed it for a plight.” Her stare at Ingrey did not grow less disconcerting. “We were sure the cortege must come by this road, but I feared I would have to chase after it.”
The seminary of the Mother's Order at Suttleaf, a town some twenty-five miles to the south of Red Dike, was well-known in the region for its training of physicians and other healing artisans-the dedicat who had stitched Ingrey's head last night had likely learned her craft there. Ingrey might have searched the surrounding three earldoms for a Temple sorcerer and never thought of looking at Suttleaf. Instead, she had found him…
Could she sense his wolf? A Temple sorcerer had inflicted it upon him; later, a Temple divine had helped him learn to bind it. Might this woman have been sent-by whom or what, Ingrey did not wish to guess-to help bind Ijada's leopard? Incomprehensible as the sorceress's presence here was, it seemed not to be a coincidence. The notion raised all the hackles of his neck and spine. On the whole, Ingrey thought he would prefer coincidence.
The woman favored him with a brief, approving nod. “Yes, please, Lord Ingrey.”
He preceded the women into the passageway and indicated the stairs to the left. In the opposite direction, the be-pigged retainer was still down on the floor, shoving his head against the door and grunting.
“My lord, what should we do with him?” asked his unnerved comrade.
Ingrey turned to observe the scene for a moment. “Watch over him. See he comes to no harm till his lesson passes off.”
The comrade glanced past Ingrey at the retreating sorceress and swallowed. “Yes, my lord. Um…anything else?”
“You could feed him some bran mash.”
The sorceress, making her way up the stairs with hand to the rail and her maid close behind, glanced back at this, her lips twitching. She lumbered on upward, and Ingrey hastened after.
To his satisfaction, he found the door to Lady Ijada's parlor locked. He rapped upon it.
“Who is there?” came her voice.
A slight pause. “Are you awake?”
He grimaced. “Yes. You have a visitor.”
Puzzled silence for a moment, then the clink of the key in the lock and the scrape of the bar being withdrawn. The warden drew the door wide, blinking in astonishment as the sorceress and her maid swept within. Ingrey followed.
“Ijada?” said the sorceress, sounding taken aback. “My word, child, how tall you've grown!”
Then Ijada's face was swept by such joy as Ingrey had never yet seen illuminate it. “Hallana!” she cried, and hurried forward.
The two women fell into each other's arms with feminine shrieks of recognition and pleasure. At length, Lady Ijada stood back with her hands upon the shorter woman's shoulders. “How ever did you come here?”
“The news of your misadventure came to the Mother's seminary at Suttleaf. I teach there now, you know. And then there were the dreams, of course.”
“And how came you there-you must tell me everything that has happened with you since-oh, Lord Ingrey.” Ijada turned to him, her face glowing. “This is my friend I told you of. She was a medical missioner at my father's fort on the west marches, and a student in the Bastard's Order as well, pursuing both her callings-learning the fen folk's wisdom songs, and treating what of their sicknesses she could, to draw them to the fort and our divine's Quintarian preachings. When she was younger, of course. And me-I was the most gangling awkward child. Hallana, I still don't know why you let me tail around after you all day long, but I adored you for it.”
“Well, aside from my not being immune to worship-makes me wonder about the gods, indeed it does-you did make yourself quite useful. You were not afraid of the marsh, or the woods, or the animals, or the fen folk, or of getting thoroughly muddy and scratched or of being scolded for it.”
Ijada laughed. “I still remember how you and that dreadfully priggish divine used to argue theology over the meal trestles-Learned Oswin would grow so furious, he would positively stamp out afterward. I should have worried for his digestion, if I had been older and less self-absorbed. Poor skinny fellow.”
“Oh, but look at you-here, you must sit down-” Lady Ijada and the maid Hergi joined forces briefly to find the best chair, pad it with cushions, and urge Learned Hallana into it. She sank down gratefully, blowing out her breath with a whoosh, and adjusted her belly in her lap. The maid scurried to prop her mistress's feet on a stool. Lady Ijada pulled a chair to the table opposite her friend, and Ingrey retreated to the window seat, no great distance away in the tiny room, where he could watch both women. The warden hung back, cautious and respectful.
“Your double scholarship is a most unusual combination, Learned,” said Ingrey, nodding to the woman's shoulder braids. Their pin was working loose again, and they hung precariously on their perch.
“Oh, yes. It came about by accident, if accident it was.” She shrugged, dislodging the braids; her maid sighed and wordlessly retrieved and reinstalled them. “I had started out to be a physician, like my mother and grandmother before me. My apprenticeship was quite complete, and I had begun to practice at the Temple hospital in Helmharbor. There I was called to attend upon a dying sorcerer.” She paused and glanced shrewdly at Ingrey. “What do you know about how Temple sorcerers are made, Lord Ingrey? Or illicit sorcerers, for that matter?”
His brows rose. “A person comes into possession of a demon of disorder, which has somehow escaped from the grip of the Bastard into the world of matter. The sorcerer takes it into his soul-or hers,” he added hastily. “And nourishes it there. In return, the demon lends its powers. The acquisition of a demon makes one a sorcerer much as the acquisition of a horse makes one a rider, or so I was taught.” “Very correct.” Hallana nodded approval. “It does not, of course, necessarily make one a good rider. That must be learned. Well. What is less well known, is that Temple sorcerers sometimes bequeath their demons to their Order, to be passed along to the next generation, with all that they have learned. Since, when a sorcerer dies, if she-or he-does not bear the demon back to the gods, it will jump away to the next living thing nearby that may sustain it in the world of matter. It is not a good thing to lose a powerful demon into a stray dog. Don't smile, it has happened. But done properly, a trained demon may be directed into one's chosen successor without ripping one's soul to pieces in the process.”
“You were ten. All the world is an equal mystery then.” She shifted in her chair, not without difficulty, evidently seeking a more comfortable position. “The Bastard's Order in Helmharbor had groomed this divine, a very scholarly young fellow, to receive his mentor's powers. All seemed to go as planned. The old sorcerer-my word, but he was a frail thing by then-breathed his last quite peacefully, all things considered. His successor held his hand and prayed. And the stupid demon jumped right over him and into me. No one was expecting it, least of all that lofty young divine. He was livid. I was distraught. How could I practice the healing arts when plagued with a demon of disorder itself? I tried for some time to be rid of it-even made pilgrimage to a saint reputed to have the Bastard's own power over His strayed elementals.”
“In Darthaca?” inquired Ingrey.
Her brows rose. “How did you know?”
The flare of her nostril expressed her dim opinion of that quip. “Well, so. We made the rite together. But the god would not take His demon back!” “Darthaca,” confirmed Ingrey glumly. “I believe I once met the same fellow. Remarkably useless.”
Lady Ijada bowed her head, a shadow crossing her face. “Ours was not a high-walled fort for no cause. Angry, foolish men, an imprudent ride out to attempt reason at a time when tempers were running too high…I had seen only the lovely side of the marsh country, and the kindness of its people. But they were only people after all.”
“What happened to you and your lady mother, after he was slain?”
“She went back to her own kin-my own kin-in the north of the Weald. In a year, she married again-another Temple-man, though not a soldier-her brother made little jokes about that. She did not love my stepfather in the way she had loved my father, but he was fond and she was ready to be comfortable. But she died-um.” Ijada stopped, glanced at Learned Hallana's belly, and bit her lip.
“I am a physician, too,” Hallana reminded her. “Childbed?”
“About four days after. She took a fever.”
The warden, listening in all too much fascination, signed herself in sympathy, caught Ingrey's eye upon her, and subsided.
“Hm,” said Hallana. “I wonder if-no, never mind. All too late. And your-?”
“Little brother. He lived. My stepfather dotes on him. But he was the reason my stepfather remarried so very quickly.”
It was the first Ingrey had heard Lady Ijada had living siblings. I hadn't thought to ask. “And so you found yourself living with…no one you'd ever planned to,” Learned Hallana mused. “And vice versa. Was your stepfamily comfortable?”
“And she's, ah, how many years older than you?”
A dry smile fleeted across Ijada's face. “Three.”
Hallana snorted. “And so when your chance came to go, she bade you farewell with right goodwill?”
“Well, it was goodwill. My Badgerbank uncle's wife actually found me the position with Princess Fara. She thought my stepfamily dreadfully common, and that I should be raised up out of it before yeomanry became a habit with me.”
Hallana's snort was more caustic, this time. The very learned divine, Ingrey realized, had not introduced herself as kin anyone.
“But Hallana,” Ijada continued, “physician or not, I do not understand how you may safely bear a demon and a baby at once. I thought demons were terribly dangerous, in that state.”
“They are.” Learned Hallana grimaced. “Disorder flows naturally from demons; it is the very spring of their power in matter. The creation of a child, wherein matter grows an entirely new soul, is the highest and most complex form of ordering known, apart from the gods themselves. Given all that can go wrong with the process without a demon, keeping the two apart becomes rather urgent. And difficult. The difficulty is why some divines discourage female sorcerers from becoming mothers, or women from seeking that power until they are grown old. Well, and some of them are just self-satisfied fools, but that's another subject. It's all very well, you know, but I saw no reason to stop my life for other people's theories. My risks are no greater-or different-than any other woman's, if my skills match them. Oh, apart from the danger of the demon entering the baby during the distractions of birth. Ordinary infants are demonic enough! The secret of safety turns out to be to, ah…how shall I put it. Shed excess disorder. By cascading small amounts of chaos continually, I keep my demon passive, and my baby safe.” A fond maternal smile lit her eyes. “Alas, it's a trifle hard on everyone around me for those months. I have a little hermitage on the edge of the seminary grounds that I move into.”
“Not at all. My dear husband brings the two older children to visit me every day. And some evenings without the children, too. I catch up on my reading and my studies-it makes the most wonderful retreat imaginable. I should be quite too inclined to repeat it, but I imagine a dozen babies would be a mistake, and anyway, I think my husband would draw the line well before then.”
The maid Hergi, who had made herself small and quiet near her mistress's feet, giggled in a remarkably unservile fashion.
“It is not, you know, different in kind from the sort of thoughtful self-discipline any Temple sorcerer must keep. To use disorder alone, never trying to reverse the flow of its nature, but in good cause…calm, careful, never yielding to the temptation of shortcuts. That was the salvation of my calling-when a certain brilliant logician pointed out that surgery destroys to heal. And I saw how to correctly use the powers that had been granted me in the direction my heart desired. I was so overjoyed, I married him.”
Ijada laughed. “I am so happy for you! You deserve all good things.”
“Ah, what we may deserve, well, the Father alone knows that, in the balance of His justice.” The sorceress's face grew solemn again. “So tell me, love, what truly happened out in that cold castle?”
IJADA'S LAUGHTER WAS ABRUPTLY EXTINGUISHED. INGREY QUIETLY rose and sent the warden out for the meal that he had been diverted from ordering, increasing the servings. This also removed her interested ear from the proceedings. She looked disappointed, but dared not disobey.
He was alert for discrepancies, but the tale Ijada told Learned Hallana was much the same as what she had-finally-told Ingrey, though this time all in order with nothing left out. Except that she revealed much more to Hallana of her suffocating fears. Hallana's expression grew so intent as to be stony during Ijada's account of her leopard dreams. Ijada brought her story up to her nearly disastrous fall at the ford, yesterday, and hesitated, glancing across at Ingrey. “I think the next part should be Lord Ingrey's to tell.”
Ingrey jerked in his seat, flushing. For an instant it almost seemed like the red fog returning, and his hand spasmed on the edge of the sill on which he sat. He became uncomfortably aware that he had grown careless again, on some dim assumption that the sorceress could protect both herself and Ijada. But sorcerers were not proof against steel, not once it closed on them. He'd allowed himself to be alone with the women while still armed. And now his direst secrets were challenged…
He blurted, “I tried to drown her. I've tried three other times to kill her, that I know of. I swear it is not my desire. She thinks it is some spell or geas.”
The sorceress pursed her lips and vented a long, thoughtful stream of breath. Then she sat back and closed her eyes, her face growing very still. When she opened them again, her expression was enigmatic.
“No sorcerer has currently bespelled you. You bear no sustaining link-no spirit-threads wind to or from you. No elemental from the fifth god lies within your soul. But something else does. It seems very dark.”
He looked away. “I know. It is my wolf.”
“If that's a wolf's soul, I'm the queen of Darthaca.” “It always was a strange wolf. But it is bound!”
“I don't know if I am…safe.”
Her brows twitched up; she looked him over, and he grew acutely conscious of his road stains and brigand's beard stubble. “I think I shall not argue with that. Ijada, what do you see in him?”
“I don't see anything,” she replied unhappily. “It is as though the leopard smells him, and I overhear…oversmell? Howsoever, I am lent these unfamiliar sensations. There's the dark wolf-thing you see-at least, it smells dark, like old leaf mold and campfire ashes and forest shadows-and a third thing. Whispering around him like a rumor. It has a most strange perfume. Acrid.”
Hallana tilted her head back and forth. “I see his soul, with my soul's eye. I see the dark thing. I do not see or hear the third thing. It is not of the Bastard in any way, not lent from the world of spirit that the gods rule. Yet-his soul has strange convolutions. A clear glass that one cannot see with the eyes, one might still touch with the fingers. I must risk a deeper touch.”
“Don't!” said Ingrey, panicked.
“Lady, ought you…?” murmured the maid, her face crimped with alarm. “Now?”
Hallana's lips moved on what might have been, Dratsab, dratsab, dratsab. “Let us think.”
A knock sounded at the door; the warden had returned, flanked by some inn servants with trays and the man Hallana had called Bernan, who lugged a large chest. He was a wiry, middle-aged fellow with an alert eye; his green-leather jerkin was spattered with old burn spots, like a smith's. He inhaled with deep appreciation as the trays were borne past him. The delectable odors of vinegared beef and onions seeping from under the crockery covers forcibly reminded Ingrey that he was both ravenous and exhausted.
Hallana brightened. “Better still, let us eat, then think.” The inn servants set the table in the little parlor, but after that the sorceress sent them away, saying she preferred to be served by her own folk. She whispered aside to Ingrey, “Actually, I make such a mess, just now, I don't dare eat in public.” Ingrey, warily circumspect, sent the warden downstairs to eat in the common room and tarry there until called for. She cast a curious look back as she reluctantly withdrew.
Hergi whipped a napkin the size of a tablecloth around her mistress and helped her to her food, deftly catching tilting glasses, skidding jugs, and sliding stew, often before they spilled, but sometimes not. “Drink up your wine,” the sorceress recommended. “It will go sour in half an hour. I should take myself off before the innkeeper discovers the trouble with his beer. Well, his store of fleas, lice, and bedbugs will not survive me, either, so I hope it is a fair exchange. If I linger, I may have to start in on the mice, poor things.”
Lady Ijada seemed as famished as Ingrey, and the conversation waned for a time. Hallana reopened it with a blunt inquiry of the origin of Ingrey's wolf-affliction. His stomach knotted despite his hunger, but he mumbled through an explanation rather fuller than he had yet confided to Ijada, as well as he could remember the confusing old events. Both women listened raptly. Ingrey was uneasily aware that Bernan, who had taken his plate to a seat on his wooden chest, and Hergi, who snitched bites standing between mopping up after her mistress, were listening, too. But a Temple sorceress's servants must surely be among the most discreet.
“Had your father had a previous interest in the animal magic of our Old Wealding forebears?” Hallana inquired, when he had finished describing the rite.
“Why attempt such a thing then?” said Ijada.
Ingrey shrugged. “All who knew died or fled. There were none left to tell by the time I recovered enough to ask.” His mind shrank from the fragmented memories of those dark, bewildered weeks. Some things were better forgotten.
Hallana chewed, swallowed, and asked, “How came you to learn to bind your wolf?”
Things like that, for example. Ingrey rubbed his tense neck, without relief. “Audar's ancient law, that those defiled by animal ghosts should be burned alive, had not been carried out within living memory at Birchbeck. Our local divine, who had known me all my life, was anxious that it not be invoked. As it turned out, the Temple inquirer sent to examine the case ruled that since the crime was not of my making, but imposed upon me by persons whose authority I was bound to obey, it would be tantamount to cutting off a man's hand for being robbed. So I was formally pardoned, my life spared.”
Ijada looked up with keen attention at the news of this precedent, her lips parting as if to speak, but then just shook her head.
Ingrey gave her an acknowledging nod, and continued, “Still I could not be left to wander freely. Sometimes I was lucid, you see, but sometimes…I could not well remember the other times. So our divine set about trying to cure me.”
“How?” asked the sorceress.
“Prayer first, of course. Then rituals, what old ones he could find. Some I think he made up new out of bits. None worked. Then he tried exhortations, lectures and sermons, he and his acolytes taking turns for days together. That was the most wearisome part. Then we tried to drive it out by force.”
“We?” Hallana cocked an eyebrow. “It was not…not done against my will. I was desperate by then.”
“We tried everything we could think of that wouldn't outright cripple me. Starvation, beatings, fire and threats of fire, water. It did not drive out the wolf, but at least I learned to gain ascendance, and my periods of confusion grew shorter.”
“Under those conditions, I should imagine you learned rather quickly.”
He glanced up defensively at her dry tone. “It was clearly working. Anyway, better to be shoved under the Birchbeck till my lungs burst than listen to more sermons all day and night. Our divine held everyone steadfast through the task, though it was hard. It was the last thing he could do for my father, whom he felt he had failed.”
Ingrey took a swallow of wine. “After some months, I was pronounced well enough to be let out. Castle Birchgrove had been settled on my uncle by then. I was sent on pilgrimage, in hopes of finding some more permanent cure. I was glad enough to go; though as hope failed, and I grew to man size and shed my keepers, my search turned into mere wanderings. When I ran out of money, I'd take what odd tasks came to hand.” Anything had seemed better than turning his steps toward home. And then…one day, it hadn't, anymore.
“I met Lord Hetwar when he was on an embassy to the king of Darthaca.” His desperate contrivances to win access to the sealmaster, he didn't think worth recounting. “He was curious how a Wealding kinsman should be serving strangers so far from home, so I told him my tale. He was not daunted by my wolf and gave me a place in his guard that I might work my way back to my own country. I made myself useful during some incidents on the road, and he was pleased to make my place permanent. I rose in his household thereafter.” Ingrey's mouth firmed in tight pride. “By my merits.”
He applied himself to his spiced meat, sopping up the last of its gingery gravy with the inn's good bread. Ijada had stopped eating a little while ago and sat solemn with thought, running her finger around the rim of her empty wine beaker. When she looked up and caught his eye, she managed a wan smile. Hallana waved away her maid's attempt to feed her a second apple tart, and Hergi rolled up the stained napkin and bundled it away.
“Yes,” he admitted reluctantly.
“Do you have any idea who laid this bridle on you?”
“No. It's hard to think about it. It almost bothers me more that I cannot feel it, between fits. I begin to mistrust everything in my mind. As if straining to see the insides of my own eyeballs.” He hesitated, marshaled his nerve. “Can you take it off me, Learned?”
She huffed uncertainly, while the manservant, behind her, made an urgent negative gesture to Ingrey, and Hergi squeaked protest.
“The one thing I might safely do right now,” said Hallana, “is add to the disorder in your spirit. Whether this would break or disrupt the hold of this strange thing Ijada smells upon you, I do not know. I dare attempt nothing more complex. If I were not pregnant, I might try-well, never mind. Yes, yes, I see you, Bernan, please refrain from bursting,” she added to the agitated manservant. “If I do not vent disorder into Lord Ingrey, here, I shall just have to kill some mice, and I like mice.”
Ingrey rubbed his tired face. “I am willing to have you try, but…fetter me, first.”
Her brows climbed. “You think it necessary?”
The sorceress's servants, at least, seemed greatly in favor of prudence in any form. While Ingrey laid his sword and belt knife against the wall by the door, Bernan opened what proved to be a well-stocked toolbox and rummaged within, producing a couple of lengths of sturdy chain. In consultation with Ingrey, he fitted loops tightly around Ingrey's booted ankles, and secured them with an iron staple and hasp. Ingrey crossed his hands at the wrists and suffered a similar arrangement there, then tested both bindings, twisting and straining. They seemed solid enough. Then he sat on the floor with his back to the window seat and had Bernan bolt the wrist chains to the ankle chains. He felt an utter fool, sitting crouched with his knees up halfway to his ears. His audience looked extremely bemused, but no one demurred.
The sense of heat flowing from her touch was pleasant for the first few seconds, and he leaned into her hand. But then it grew uncomfortably warm. A disturbing haze clouded his vision. Abruptly, the heat was roaring like a smithy's furnace across his mind, and he was seeing double. The second image parted from the first: twisted, altered.
The room was still present to his physical senses. But equally present was another place. In it…
In it, he was standing nude. Above his heart, his pale flesh puckered, then swelled. The skin burst. From it, a vine, no, a vein, sprouted, and began to wind and twist around him, climbing. He felt a second hot bulge burst on his forehead, and saw the vine-vein wind down from it, blurred by its proximity. Another from his navel, another from his genitals. Their moving tips muttered and dripped blood. His tongue, too, was transformed, pushing out from his mouth, forming into a pulsing tube.
In the material room, his body began to writhe and yank against his chains. Harder. His eyes half rolled back, but still he could see the Learned Hallana leaning near-she scrambled back as he opened his mouth to howl. But between her two glowing hands, held apart, violet fire still roared, spiraling into his horribly transformed mouth. The long tentacle growing from his tongue flapped and jerked in agony, its unintelligible whisper speeding into a hiss, yet seemed to devour the heat. The other four, mirroring its excitement, continued to mutter and thicken, splashing him with blood. The hot metallic smell and slippery feel of it drove him to distraction. His real body bucked and arched with near bone-cracking force, straining against his chains. His hair rippled, and his genitals engorged and stiffened. He fell sideways, convulsed, began to try to roll and rock himself across the room toward the wall where his sheathed sword leaned.
Its fur was a silken ripple over moving muscle, its claws carved ivory; its brilliant amber eyes flashed with golden lights. It fell upon the writhing veins for all the world like a kitten upon a mess of cords, paws patting, then clawing, then pulling the hissing things toward it to bite at them with its great teeth. The veins lashed like whips of acid, leaving black burns across the elegant, spotted coat, and the leopardess snarled, a rich sound that shook the air, that shook Ingrey to his heart. From somewhere deep inside him, an answering growl arose.
His jaw began to lengthen…
No. No! I deny you, wolf-within! He bit down, clenched his teeth. Fought wolf, fought tentacles, fought his body, fought his mind, rocked nearer to his sword. Fight. Kill…something…everything…
The tortured chain twisted, an iron link snapping like a stick. His wrists and ankles were still bound, but freed from each other. His body straightened, and then he could writhe and roll, arch and turn. His sword was very close. Panicked feet trampled about him.
His real hands were as slippery with real blood as his second body now was with the strange red spew that flowed out of himself, onto himself. To his utter horror, he began to feel the links slip from his bleeding wrists, over his yanking hands. If he freed his right hand, reached his sword…surely none would leave this room alive. Perhaps not even himself. He would take the yammering manservant's head first, with a single stroke. Then turn upon the screaming women. Ijada was already on her knees like an executioner's victim, strands of loosened hair falling forward veiling her face. The whipping sword edge, the pregnant one…his mind shied, denied.
His jaw lengthened, his teeth grew into sharp white knives. He began to bite and rip at the veins, snarling and shaking his head as a wolf shakes a rabbit to break its back. The hot blood spurted in his mouth, and he felt the pain of his own bites. He gripped, ripped. Pulled the things out of his body by their gory roots. Then it was no longer inside him, but in front of him, wriggling like some malevolent sea creature brought to the lethal air. He kicked at it with naked, clawed feet. The leopardess pounced, batted, rolled the shrieking red thing across the floor. It was, briefly, alive. Dying.
Then it was gone.
The second vision vanished, or rejoined the first, melting one into another, the leopardess into Ijada, his wolf-jaw-where?
His body sagged. He was lying on his back near the door, ankles still bound, bloody hands free. Bernan was standing over him, his face pale as parchment, a short iron crowbar gripped in his shaking hands.
A little silence fell.
“Well,” said Hallana's bright, strained voice. “Let us not do that again…”
A rumble of footsteps sounded from the corridor outside the chamber. An urgent thumping on the door: Ingrey's soldier called in alarm, “Hello? Is everyone all right in there? Lord Ingrey?”
The warden's frightened voice: “Was that really him, screaming like that? Oh, hurry, break it down!” A third man: “If you break my door, you'll pay for it! Hey in there! Open up!”
Hallana was standing with feet braced, breathing rapidly, staring at him with very wide eyes. “Yes,” she called out. “Lord Ingrey…tripped and upset the table. It's a bit of a mess in here just now. We'll see to it. Don't concern yourselves.”
“You don't sound all right.”
Ingrey swallowed, cleared his raw throat, adjusted his voice. “I'll come down to the taproom in a while. The divine's servants will deal with the…with the…mess. Go away.”
“We will take care of his injuries,” added Hallana.
A baffled silence, a mumble of argument: then the footsteps retreated.
A sigh seemed to go through everyone in the room but Bernan, who still brandished his crowbar. Ingrey lay back limply on the floorboards, feeling as though his bones were turned to porridge. He was sick to his stomach. After a moment, he raised his hands. The chains dangled heavily from his left wrist; his right, lubricated with blood, was free. He stared at it, barely comprehending the torn skin and throbbing pain. By the unpleasant trickle in his hair, his furious thumping around had ripped apart some of his new stitches, as well.
At this rate, I'm going to be dead before I ever get to Easthome, whether Lady Ijada survives me or not.
Ijada…He twisted around in feverish concern. Bernan made a warning noise and raised his crowbar higher. Ijada was still on her knees a pace or two away, her face very pale, her eyes huge and dark.
“No, Bernan!” she said. “He's all right now. It's gone.”
“I have seen a man afflicted with the falling sickness,” said Hallana in a distant tone. “This most assuredly wasn't that.” She ventured near Ingrey again and walked around him, peering down searchingly over her belly.
Hallana's head came round. “What did you just experience?”
“I fell to my knees-I was still on my knees, in this room, but at the same time, I was suddenly in the leopard's body. The leopard's spirit body-I did not mistake it for flesh. But oh, it was strong! Glorious. My senses were terribly acute. I could see! But I was mute-no, beyond mute. Wordless. We were in some bigger space, or other space-it was as big as it needed to be, anyway. You”-her gaze swung to Ingrey-“were in the place before me. Your body was sprouting scarlet horrors. They seemed to be of you, yet attacking you. I pounced on them and tried to bite them off you. They burned my jaws. Then you started to turn into a wolf, or a man-wolf, some strange hybrid-it was as if your body couldn't make up its mind. You grew a wolf's head, at least, and started tearing at the red horrors, too.” She looked at him sideways, in a fresh fascination.
Ingrey wondered, but dared not ask, if she'd hallucinated a loincloth for him as well. The wild arousal of his frenzied state was only now passing off, damped by confusion and pain.
“When we had ripped the burning, clutching things all out of you, they could be seen to be not many, but all one thing. For a moment it looked like a ball of mating snakes, raked from under a ledge in the springtime. Then it went silent and vanished, and I was back here. In this body.” She held up one long-fingered hand before her eyes as if still expecting to see pads and claws. “If that was anything like what the Old Weald warriors experienced…I think I begin to see why they desired this. Except not the part about the bleeding things. Yet even that…we won.” The pulsing dilation of her eyes was not just fear, Ingrey thought, but also a vast, astonished exhilaration. She added to Hallana, “Did you see my leopard? The bleeding things, the wolf's head?”
Ingrey started to shake his head, discovered that his brain felt as though it had come loose, and mumbled, “No!”
“I'm not sure,” said Ijada. “The leopard took me there-I didn't go myself. And it wasn't exactly a there. We were still here.”
Hallana's expression grew, if possible, more intent. “Did you sense any of the gods' presences, in that space?”
“No,” said Ijada. “None. There was a time I might not have known for sure, but after the leopard dream…no. I would have known, if He were back.” Despite her distress, a smile softened her lips. The smile was not for him, Ingrey knew. It still made him want to crawl toward her. Now, that was madness by any measure.
Hallana stretched her shoulders, which had alarming effects given her current girth, and grimaced. “Bernan, help Lord Ingrey up. Take off those bolts.”
“Are you sure, Learned?” the manservant said doubtfully. His eyes flicked toward Ingrey's sword, now lying in the room's corner; he had apparently kicked it out of Ingrey's rolling reach during his scramble to get into striking position with his crowbar.
“Lord Ingrey? What is your opinion? You were certainly correct before.”
“I don't think…I can move.” The oak floor was hard and chilly, but by the swimming of Ingrey's head, horizontal seemed vastly preferable to vertical.
He was forced to the vertical despite himself, dragged up and placed in the divine's vacated chair by the two servants. Bernan tapped off the bolts with a hammer and Hergi, clucking, collected a basin of fresh water, soap, towels, and the leather case of what proved to be medical instruments and supplies that she had brought in with her. She tended expertly to Ingrey's injuries, new and old, under the divine's eye, and it occurred to Ingrey belatedly that of course the sorceress would travel with her own midwife-dedicat, in her present state. He wondered if Hergi was married to the smith, if that was Bernan's real calling.
“In that place you found yourselves,” Hallana began again.
“It wasn't real,” mumbled Ingrey.
“Mm, well, yes. But while you were in that, um, state, what did you perceive of me, if anything?”
“Colored fire flowed from your hands. Into my mouth. It drove the vein growing there into a frenzy, which it passed on to the others. Its other parts, I suppose. It was as though your fire flushed them from their hiding places.” He ran his tongue around his mouth now, to reassure himself that the hideous distortion was truly gone. More disturbingly, he found his face was slimed with spittle. He started to wipe away the sticky foam with the bandage on his left wrist, but his hand was intercepted by Hergi, protecting her work. She gave him a disapproving headshake and wrung out a wet cloth instead. Ingrey swabbed and tried not to think about his father.
“The tongue is the Bastard's own sign and signifier upon our bodies,” Hallana mused.
“That ought to mean something. I wonder what? I wonder if there are any manuscripts of Old Weald lore that would illuminate this puzzle? When I get back to Suttleaf, I will search our library, but I'm afraid we've mostly medical tracts. The Darthacan Quintarians who conquered us were more interested in destroying the old ways than in chronicling them. It was as if they wished to put the old forest powers out of reach of everyone, even themselves. I'm not sure they were wrong.”
“When I was in the leopard-when I was the leopard,” said Ijada, “I saw the phantasmal images, too. But then it was all shut away from me again.” A faint regret tinged her tone.
“I, on the other hand”-the sorceress's fingers drummed on the closest level surface, which happened to be the top of her stomach-“saw nothing. Except for Lord Ingrey ripping his way out of iron chains that should have held a horse, that is. If that was typical of the strength their spirit animals lent the old warriors, it's no wonder they were prized.”
If the old warriors had hurt like this afterward, Ingrey wasn't so sure their ghost animals would have been as prized as all that. If the forest kin had carried on as he just had…he wanted to ask about the noises he'd made, but was too mortified.
“If there was anything to see, I should have seen it,” Hallana went on in increasing exasperation. She plunked down on a spare chair. “Dratsab, dratsab. Let us think.” After a moment, she narrowed her eyes at Ingrey. “You say the thing is gone. If we cannot say what it was-can you at least now remember who put it on you?”
Ingrey leaned forward, rubbing his scratchy eyes. He suspected they were glaringly bloodshot. “I'd better have these boots off.” At Hallana's gesture, Bernan knelt and assisted; Ingrey's ankles were indeed swelling and discolored. He stared down at them for a moment more.
Hallana sucked on her lower lip. “Think harder. A compulsion to kill your prisoner was more likely laid on you between the time the news came of Boleso's death and the time you left Easthome for Boar's Head. Before then, there was no reason, and after, no time. Whom did you see in that time?”
Put like that, it was even more disturbing. “Not very many men. I was called to Lord Hetwar's chambers in the evening. The courier was still there. Hetwar, Hetwar's secretary of the chamber, Prince Rigild the king's seneschal, Earl Badgerbank, Wencel kin Horseriver, Lord Alca kin Otterbine, the kin Boarford brothers…We spoke but briefly, as Lord Hetwar gave me the news and my instructions.”
“Retrieve Boleso's body, transport his killer…” Ingrey hesitated. “Make his death discreet.”
“What did that mean?” asked Ijada, sounding genuinely puzzled.
“Make all evidence of Boleso's indiscretions vanish.” Including his principal victim?
“What? But aren't you an officer of the king's justice?” she said indignantly.
“Strictly speaking, I serve Sealmaster Hetwar.” He added after a cautious moment, “It is Sealmaster Hetwar's steadfast purpose to serve the closest needs of the Weald and its royal house.”
Ijada fell silent, dismayed, her brows drawing down. The Temple sorceress tapped her lips with one finger. She, at least, did not look shocked. But when she spoke again, her swift thoughts had plainly darted down yet another road. “Nothing of spirit can exist in the world of matter without a being of matter to support it. Spells are sustained by sorcerers through their demons, which are necessary but not sufficient; the demon's sustenance must come from the sorcerer's body, ultimately. But your spell was being sustained by you. I suspect…hm. To use your word, Ijada, a parasite magic? The spell was somehow induced in you, and your life maintained it thereafter. If this strange sorcery has any resemblance to my own, it flows most readily, like water, downhill. It does not create, but steals its capabilities from its host.”
“But…” Ijada's lovely lips thinned with thought. “Sealmaster Hetwar must have a hundred swordsmen, soldiers, bravos. A half dozen of his guardsmen rode out with you. The…the person, whoever-might have laid the geas on any of them just as well. Why should the only man in Easthome who is known to bear an animal spirit be sent to me?”
A flash of expression-insight, satisfaction?-flew across Learned Hallana's face and vanished. But she did not speak, only sat back more intently, presumably because leaning forward more intently was not feasible. “Is it widely known, your spiritual affliction?” she asked.
Ingrey shrugged. “It is general gossip, yes. Variously garbled. My reputation is useful to Hetwar. I'm not someone most men want to cross.” Or have around them for very long, or invite to their tables, or, above all, introduce to their female kin. But I'm well accustomed to that, by now. Ijada's eyes widened. “You were chosen because your wolf could be blamed! Hetwar chose you. Therefore, he must be the source of the geas!”
Two extremely unpleasant realizations crept over Ingrey. One was that he was still bearing Lady Ijada toward her potential death. Her drowning in the river yesterday could have been no worse than some later poisoning or strangling in her cell, and a hundred times more merciful than the horrors of a dubious trial and subsequent hanging.
And the other was that an enemy of great and secret power was going to be seriously upset when they both arrived at Easthome alive.
INGREY WOKE FEVERISH FROM DIMLY REMEMBERED NIGHTMARES. He blinked in the level light coming through the dormer window in the tiny, but private, chamber high up in the eaves of his inn. Dawn. Time to move.
Movement unleashed pain in every strained and sprained muscle he possessed, which seemed to be most of them, and he hastily abandoned his attempt to sit up. But lying back did not bring relief. He gingerly turned his head, his neck on fire, and eyed the trap of crockery he'd set on the floor by his door. The teetering pile appeared undisturbed. Good sign.
The wraps on his wrists and right hand were holding, although stained with brown blood. He stretched and clenched his fingers. So. Last evening had been no dream, for all its hallucinatory terrors. His stomach tightened in anxiety-painfully-as the memories mounted.
Hinges squeaked; a clatter of crockery was overridden by Rider Gesca's startled swearing. Ingrey squinted at the door. Gesca, grimacing in bewilderment, picked his way across the dislodged barrier of tumbling beakers and plates. The lieutenant was dressed for the road in boots and leathers and Hetwar's slate-blue tabard, and tidied for the solemnity of the duty: drab blond hair combed, amiable face new-shaved. He stared down at Ingrey in dismay. “My lord?”
“Ah. Gesca.” When the noise of rolling saucers died away, Ingrey managed, “How is pig-boy this morning?”
Gesca shook his head, seeming caught between wariness and exasperation. “His delusions passed off about midnight. We put him to bed.”
“See that he does not approach or annoy Learned Hallana again.”
“I don't think that will be a problem.” Gesca's worried eyes summed the bruises and bandages. “Lord Ingrey-what happened to you last night?”
Ingrey hesitated. “What do they say happened?”
“They say you were locked in with that sorceress for a couple of hours when suddenly a racket rose from the room-howling, and thumping to bring down the plaster from the ceiling below, and yelling. Sounded like someone being murdered.”
“The sorceress and her servants went out later as though nothing had happened, and you left limping, not talking to anyone.”
Ingrey reviewed the excuses Hallana had called through the door, as well as he could remember them. “Yes. I was carrying a…ham, and a carving knife, and I tripped over a chair.” No, she hadn't said a chair. “Upended the table. Cut my hand going down.”
Gesca's face screwed up, as he no doubt tried to picture how this event could result in Ingrey's peculiar array of bandages and bruises. “We're almost ready to load up, out there. The Red Dike divine is waiting to bless Prince Boleso's coffin. Are you going to be able to ride? After your accident.” He added after a reflective moment, “Accidents.”
Do I look that bad? “Did you deliver my message for Lord Hetwar to the Temple courier?”
“Yes. She rode out at first light.”
“Then…tell the men to stand down. I expect instructions. Better wait. We'll take a day to rest the horses.”
Gesca gestured assent, but his stare plainly questioned why Ingrey had driven both men and animals to their limits for two long days only to spend the time so gained idling here. He picked up the crockery, set it on the washstand, gave Ingrey another bemused look, and made his way out.
Ingrey had scrawled his latest note to Lord Hetwar immediately upon their arrival last night, reporting the cortege in Red Dike and pressing for relief of his command, feigning inability to supply adequate ceremony. The note had contained, therefore, no word of the Temple sorceress or hint of the later events in that upstairs room. He hadn't mentioned the incident of the river, or, indeed, any remark upon his prisoner at all. Uneasy awareness of his duty to report the truth to the sealmaster warred now with fear, in his heart. Fear and rage. Who placed that grotesque geas in me, and how? Why was I made a witless tool?
His own anger frightened him even as his fear stoked his fury, tightening his throat and making his temples throb. He lay back, trying to remember the hard-won self-disciplines that had stilled him under the earnest holy tortures at Birchgrove. Slowly, he willed his screaming muscles to resistless quiet again.
His wolf had been released last night. He had unchained it. Was it leashed again this morning? And if not…what then? For all the aches in his body, his mind felt no different from any other morning of his adult life. So was his frozen hesitation here in Red Dike just old habit, or was it good sense? Simple prudence, to refuse to advance one step farther toward Easthome in his present lethal ignorance? His physical injuries made a plausible blind to hide behind. But were they a hunter's screen or just a coward's refuge? His caged thoughts circled.
Another tap at the door broke the tensing upward spiral of his disquiet, and a sharp female voice inquired, “Lord Ingrey? I need to see you.”
“Mistress Hergi. Come in.” Belatedly, Ingrey grew conscious of his shirtless state. But she was presumably an experienced dedicat of the Mother's order, and no blushing maiden. Still, it would be courteous to at least sit up. It would.
“Hm.” Her lips thinned as she stepped to the bedside and regarded him, a coolly capable glint in her eye. “Rider Gesca did not exaggerate. Well, there is no help for it; you must get up. Learned Madam wishes to see your prisoner before she leaves, and I would have her on the road home at the earliest moment. We had enough trouble getting here; I dread the return trip. Come, now. Oh, dear. Let me see, better start with…”
She plunked her leather case down on the washstand and rummaged within, withdrawing a square blue glass bottle and pulling out the cork stopper. She poured a sinister syrup into a spoon, and as Ingrey creaked up on one elbow to ask, “What is it?” popped it into his mouth. The liquid tasted utterly vile. He swallowed, afraid to spit it out under her steely gaze.
Ingrey swallowed medicine and a surge of bile. “It's revolting.”
“Eh, you'll change your mind about it soon enough, I warrant. Here. Let's see how my work is holding up.”
Efficiently, she unbound his wrappings, applied new ointment and fresh bandages, daubed the stitches in his hair with something that stung, combed out the tangles, washed his torso, and shaved him, batting his hands away as he tried to protest his own competence to dress himself. “Don't you be getting my new wraps wet, now, my lord. And stop fighting me. I'll have no delays out of you.”
He hadn't been dressed like this by a woman since he was six, but his pain was fading most deliciously away, to be replaced by a floating lassitude. He stopped fighting her. The intensity of her concentration, he realized dimly, had nothing to do with him.
“Is Learned Hallana all right? After last night?” he asked cautiously.
“Baby's shifted position. Could be a day, could be a week, but there are twenty-five miles of bad roads between here and Suttleaf, and I wish I had her home safe now. Now, you mind me, Lord Ingrey; don't you dare do anything to detain her. Whatever she wants from you, give it to her without argument, if you please.” She sniffed rather fiercely.
“Yes, Mistress,” Ingrey answered humbly. He added after a blinking moment, “Your potion seems very effective. Can I keep the bottle?”
“No.” She knelt by his feet. “Oh. Your boots won't do, will they? Do you have any other shoes with you…?” She scavenged ruthlessly in his saddlebags, to emerge with a pair of worn leather buskins that she jammed onto his feet. “Up you come, now.”
THE SORCERESS-PHYSICIAN WAS ALREADY WAITING IN THE TAP-room of Ijada's inn at the other end of Red Dike's main street. Learned Hallana eyed his bandages, and inquired politely, “I trust this morning finds you much recovered, Lord Ingrey?”
“Yes. Thank you. Your medicine helped. Though it made an odd breakfast.” He smiled at her, a trifle hazily he feared.
“Oh. It would.” She glanced at Hergi. “How much…?” Hergi held up two fingers. Ingrey could not decide if the twitch of the divine's eyebrows was censure or approval, for Hergi merely shrugged in return.
Ingrey followed both women upstairs once more. They were admitted to the parlor, a little doubtfully, by the female warden. Ingrey looked around surreptitiously for signs of his late frenzy, finding none but for a few faint bloodstains and dents on the oak floorboards. Ijada stepped from the bedchamber at the sound of their entry. She was dressed for travel in the same gray-blue riding costume as yesterday, but had put off her boots in favor of light leather shoes. Uneasily, Ingrey searched her pale face; her expression, returning his gaze, was sober and pensive.
More uneasily, he searched his own shifted perceptions. She seemed not so much different to him this morning as more, with an energetic density to her person that seized his focus. A heady warm scent, like sunlight in dry grass, arose from her. He found his lips parting to better taste that sun-smell-a futile effort, as it did not come through the air.
Hallana, too, had more than a taste of the uncanny about her, a dizzying busyness partly from her pregnancy but mostly from a subdued swirl, smelling like a whiff of wind after a lightning strike, that he took for her pacified demon. The two ordinary women, Hergi and the warden, seemed suddenly thin and flat and dry by comparison, as though drawn on paper.
“I must leave very soon, or we won't be home before dark,” the divine told her. “I wish I could go along with you, instead. This is all most disturbing, especially…” She jerked her head at Ingrey, indicating his late geas, and his lips twisted in agreement. “That alone would make this Temple business, even without…well, never mind. Five gods guard you on your journey. This is a note to the master of my order in Easthome, begging his interest in your case. With luck, he can take up with you where I am forced to leave off.” She glanced Ingrey's way again, an untrusting tension around her mouth. “I charge you, my lord, to help see that this arrives at its destination. And no other.”
He opened his hand in an ambiguous acknowledgment, and Hallana's lips thinned a little more. As Hetwar's agent, he had learned how to open and copy letters without leaving traces, and he was fairly certain she guessed he knew those tricks of a spy's trade. Yet the Bastard was the very god of spies; what tricks might His sorceress know? And to which of her two holy orders had she addressed her concerns? Still, if she had enspelled the missive in any way, it was not apparent to Ingrey's new perceptions.
“Learned…” Ijada's voice was suddenly thin and uncertain. Learned, not dear Hallana, Ingrey noted. Hergi stood alertly ready to usher her mistress out the door; she frowned in frustration as the divine turned back.
“No…never mind. It's nothing. Foolishness.”
“Suppose you let me be the judge of that.” Hallana lowered herself into a chair and tilted her head encouragingly.
“I had a very odd dream last night.” Ijada stepped nervously back and forth, then settled in the window seat. “A new one.”
“Unusually vivid. I remembered it in the morning right away, when I awoke, when my other dreams melted away out of my mind.”
“Go on.” Hallana's face seemed carved, so careful was her listening.
“It was brief, just a flash of a vision. It seemed to me I saw a sort of…I don't know. Death-haunt, in the shape of a stallion. Black as soot, black without gleam or reflection. Galloping, but very slowly. Its nostrils were red and glowing, and steamed; its mane and tail trailed fire. Sparks struck from its hooves, leaving prints of flame that burned all to ash in its wake. Clouds of ash and shadow. Its rider was as dark as it was.”
“Hm. Was the rider male or female?”
Ijada frowned. “That seems like the wrong question to ask. The rider's legs curved down to become the horse's ribs, as if their bodies were grown together. In the left hand, it held a leash. At the end of the leash ran a great wolf.”
Hallana's eyebrows went up, and she cast a glance at Ingrey. “Did you recognize this, ah, particular wolf?”
“I'm not sure. Maybe. Its pelt was pewter-black, just like…” Her voice trailed off, then firmed. “In my dream, anyway, I thought it felt familiar.” Briefly, her hazel eyes bored into Ingrey's, her sober look returning, to his immense discomfort. “But it was altogether a wolf, this time. It wore a spiked collar, but turned inside out, with the sharp points digging inward. Blood splashed from its paws as it ran, turning the ash it trod to splotches of black mud. Then the shadow and the cinders choked my breath and my sight, and I saw no more.”
Learned Hallana pursed her lips. “My word, child. Vivid, indeed. I'll have to think about that one.”
“Do you think it might have been significant? Or was it just an aftershock from…” She gestured around the room, plainly recalling the bizarre events of last evening here, then looked at Ingrey sideways through her lashes.
“No. It was very brief, as I said. Though intense.”
“What did you feel? Not when you awoke, but then, within the dream? Were you frightened?”
“Not frightened, exactly. Or at least, not for myself. I was more furious. Balked. As though I were trying to catch up, and could not.”
A little silence fell. After a moment Ijada ventured, “Learned? What should I do?”
Hallana seemed to wrench her distant expression into an unfelt smile. “Well…prayer never hurts.”
“That hardly seems like an answer.”
“In your case, it might be. This is not a reassurance.”
Ijada rubbed her forehead, as though it ached. “I'm not sure I want more such dreams.”
Ingrey, too, wanted to beg, Learned, what shall I do? But what answer, after all, could she give him? To stay frozen here? Easthome would only come to him, with all due ceremony. Travel on, as was his plain duty? Surely a Temple divine could advise no other course. Flee, or set Ijada to flight? Would she even go? He'd offered escape to her once, in that tangled wood. She'd sensibly refused. But what if her flight were made more practical? An escape in the night, with no hint to Ingrey's masters, oh no, as to how or from whose hand she had acquired horse, pack, money…escort? We must speak again of this. Or could he give her over to the sorceress, her friend-send her in secret to Suttleaf? Surely, if such a sanctuary were possible, Learned Hallana would have offered it already. He strangled his beginning noise of inquiry in a cough, scorning to be dismissed with instructions to pray. Hergi helped her mistress to rise again from her chair.
“Not for you, dear,” said Hallana in an absent tone. “Or not for you alone, at least. This is all much more complex than I anticipated. I long for the advice of my dear Oswin. He has such a logical mind.”
“Oswin?” said Ijada.
“Wait,” said Ijada, her eyes growing round with astonishment. “Not-not that Oswin? Our Oswin, Learned Oswin, from the fen fort? That fussy stick? All arms and legs, with a neck like a heron swallowing a frog?”
“The very same.” Oswin's spouse seemed unruffled by this unflattering description of her mate; her firm lips softened. “He's improved with age, I promise you. He was very callow then. And I, well, I trust I may have improved a trifle, too.”
“Of all the wonders-I can scarcely believe it! You two used to argue and fight all the time!”
“Only over theology,” said Hallana mildly. “Because we both cared, you know. Well…mostly over theology.” Her mouth twitched up at some unspoken memory. “One shared passion led to others, in due time. He followed me back to the Weald, when his cycle of duty was ended-I told him he just wanted to have the last word. He's still trying. He is a teacher, too, now. He still likes to argue-it's his greatest bliss. I should be cruel to deny it to him.”
“Learned Sir has a way with words, he does,” confirmed Hergi. “Which I do not look forward to hearing, if I don't get you home safe and soon as I promised him.”
“Yes, yes, dear Hergi.” Smiling, the sorceress at last turned to lumber out under the close attendance of her handmaiden. Hergi gave Ingrey a nod of judicious approval in passing, presumably for his cooperation, or at least, for his failure to interfere.
“Oh,” she said, one hand flying to her mouth.
“Oh what?” he inquired, puzzled.
“You can smile!” From her tone, this was a wonder tantamount to his sprouting wings and flapping up to the ceiling. He glanced upward, picturing himself doing so. The winged wolf. What? He shook his head to clear it of these odd thoughts, but it just made him dizzy. Perhaps it was as well that Hergi had taken the blue bottle away with her.
Ijada stepped to the window onto the street, and Ingrey followed. Together they watched Hergi load her mistress into the wagon, its wheel repaired, under Bernan's anxious eye. The groom, or smith, or whatever he was took up the reins, clucking at the stubby horses, and the wagon trundled up the street and turned out of sight. Behind them in the chamber, the warden made herself busy unpacking a case evidently bound up for the road, but like Boleso's coffin not loaded because of Ingrey's order of delay.
He was standing very close to Ijada, looking over her shoulder; he might readily reach up and rest his left hand on the nape of her neck, where her hair, lifted into its bundling net, revealed the pale skin. His breath stirred a stray strand there, yet she did not move away. She did turn her head, though, to meet his glance. No fear convulsed her features, no revulsion: just an intense scrutiny.
And yet she had seen not just that other vile thing, but his wolf; his defilement, his capacity for violence, was not rumor or gossip to her now, but a direct experience. Undeniable. She denies nothing. Why does she not recoil?
His perceptions spun. Turn it around: how did he feel about her cat? He had seen it, in that other reality, as clearly as she had seen his wolfishness. Logically, her defilement should seem twin to his own. Yet a god had passed her in the night, the mere brush of His cloak hem seeming a breath of exaltation. All the theological theories of all the Temple divines who'd dinned their lessons into Ingrey's unwilling ear seemed to melt away under the pitiless gaze of some great Fact, hovering just beyond the reach of his reason. Her secret beast had been gloriously beautiful. Terror, it seemed, had a new and entrancing dimension today, one Ingrey had never before suspected.
His mind lurched back into motion. It would be perfectly unexceptionable to conduct his prisoner to the temple without her chaperone; at this hour, it would be nearly deserted, and they might converse in plain sight undisturbed. “No one would wonder if I escorted you to the altars of the gods to pray for mercy, lady.”
Her lips twisted. “Say justice, rather, and it would do.”
He backed a little from her and made a sign of assent. Turning, he dismissed the warden to whatever of her own affairs she cared to pursue for an hour, and saw Ijada out of the parlor. When they gained the street and turned up it, Ijada tucked her hand in his elbow and picked her way carefully over the damp cobbles, not looking at him. The temple loomed up at length, built of the gray stone of this district, its size and style and solidity typical of great Audar's grandson's reign, before the Darthacan conquerors demonstrated that they, too, were capable of racking themselves to ruin in bloody kin wars.
They walked past the iron gates into the high-walled, quiet precincts, and under the imposing portico. The inner chambers were dim and cool after the bright morning outside, with narrow shafts of sunlight streaming down from the round windows high above. Some three or four persons were on their knees, or prone, before the Mother's altar in Her chamber. Ijada stiffened briefly on Ingrey's arm; he followed her glance through the archway to the Father's altar to catch sight of Boleso's coffin, set up on trestles, blanketed with brocades, and guarded by soldiers of the Red Dike city militia. But both the Daughter's chamber and the Son's were empty at this hour; Ijada turned into the Son's.
“What,” Ingrey began quietly, “did you think would happen to you once you reached Easthome? What had you planned to do?”
Her glance shifted to him, though she did not turn her head. In a like undertone, she replied, “I expect I shall be examined, by the King's justiciars or the Temple inquirers, or both. I should certainly expect the Temple inquirers will take an interest now, given what has lately happened and Learned Hallana's letter. I plan to tell the exact truth, for the truth is my surest defense.” A wry smile twitched her lips. “Besides, it's easier to remember, they say.”
Ingrey let out a long sigh. “What do you imagine Easthome is like, now?”
“Why-I've never been there, but I've always supposed it is a splendid place. The king's court must be its crown, of course, but Princess Fara told me tales of the river docks and the glassworks, the great Temple schools-the Royal College as well. Gardens and palaces. Fine dressmakers. Scriptoriums and goldsmiths and artisans of every sort. There are plays put on, and not just for holy days, but for the great lords in their high houses.”
Ingrey tried again. “Have you ever seen a flock of vultures circling the carcass of some great and dangerous beast, bull or bear, that is not quite dead enough yet? Most hold back, waiting, but some dart in to peck and tear, then duck away. All hover closer as the day wears on, and the sight of the wheeling death watch draws in more distant kin, hot with fear of missing the best tidbits when all close in at last for the disembowelment.”
Her lips thinned in distaste, and she turned her face toward him in question: What now? “At present”-Ingrey dropped his voice to a growl-“Easthome is more like that. Tell me, Lady Ijada, who do you think will be elected the next hallow king?”
“So many others had assumed, till the hallow king was struck down with that wasting disease, then this palsy-stroke. If the blow had held off for five more years, Hetwar believes the king might have secured Biast's election in his own lifetime. Or if the old man had died quickly-Biast might have been rammed through on the momentum of grief, before the opposition could muster. Few could have foreseen or planned for this living half death, lasting months, giving time and motive for the worst, as well as the best and all between, to maneuver. To think. To whisper to each other. To be tempted.” Kin Stagthorne had held the hallow kingship for five generations; more than one other kin believed it might now be their turn to seize that high seat.
“If the hallow king were to die tonight, not even Hetwar knows who would be elected next week. And if Hetwar doesn't know, I doubt anyone else can guess, either. But by the pattern of bribes and rumors, Hetwar thought Boleso was to be a surprise candidate.”
Her brows flew up. “A bad one, surely!”
“A stupid and exploitable one. From the point of view of certain men, ideal. I thought such men were underestimating just how dangerous his erratic nature had become, and would have lived to regret their success. And that was before I knew of any bleeding of the uncanny into the mix.” Ingrey frowned. Had Hetwar known of Boleso's blasphemous dabblings? “The sealmaster was concerned enough to have me deliver a deposit of some one hundred thousand crowns to the archdivine-ordainer of Waterpeak, to secure his vote for Biast. His Grace thanked me in nicely ambiguous terms, I thought.”
“The sealmaster bribed an archdivine?” Ingrey winced at her tone, so innocently aghast. “The only thing unusual about the transaction was me. Hetwar normally uses me to deliver his threats. I'm good at it. I especially enjoy it when they try to bribe or threaten me back. One of my few pleasures, leading them into ambush and then, ah, into enlightenment. I think I was intended to be a double message, for the archdivine was nervous enough. A fact that Hetwar put…well, wherever he puts such things.”
“Sometimes. Sometimes not.” Now, for example? “He knows I have a curious mind, and feeds me tidbits now and then. But I do not press. Or I should get none.”
Ingrey took a deep breath. “So. Since you have not taken my hints to heart, let me lay it out for you more plainly. You did not just defend your virtue, there on the top of Boar's Head Castle. Nor did you merely offend the royal house of Stagthorne by making its scion's death a public scandal. You upset a political plot that has already cost someone hundreds of thousands of crowns and months of secret preparation. And involved illicit sorcery of the most dangerous sort. I deduce from my geas that somewhere in Easthome is a man-or men-of power who does not want you blurting the truth about Boleso to anyone at all. Their attempt to kill you subtly has miscarried. I am guessing that the next attempt will be less subtle. Or were you picturing some heroic stand before a justiciar or inquirer as brave and honest as yourself? There may be such men, I do not know. But I guarantee you will meet only the other sort.”
Her jaw, he saw out of the corner of his eye, had set.
“I am…irritated,” he finally chose. “I decline to be made a party to this. I can arrange your escape. Dry-shod, this time, with money and without hungry bears. Tonight, if you like.” There: disloyalty of secret thought made public words. As the silence grew thicker, he stared at the floor between his knees.
Her voice was so low it vibrated. “How convenient for you. That way, you won't have to stand up to anybody. Nor speak dangerous truths to anyone for any honor's sake. All can go on for you just as it was.”
“Scarcely,” he said. “I have a target painted on my back now, too.” His lips drew back in a sort of grin, the one that usually made men step away from him.
“Does that amuse you?”
Ingrey considered this. “It stirs my interest, anyway.”
Ijada drummed her nails on the pavement. It sounded like the clicking of distant claws. “So much for high politics. What about high theology?”
“I felt a god brush past me, Ingrey! Why?”
He opened his mouth. Hesitated.
She continued in the same fierce whisper, “All my life I have prayed, and all my life I have been refused answer. I scarcely believed in the gods anymore, or if I did, it was only to curse them for their indifference. They betrayed my father, who had served Them loyally all his life. They betrayed my mother, or They were powerless to save her, which was as bad or worse. If a god has come to me, He certainly hasn't come for me! In all your calculating, how do you sum that?”
“High court politics,” said Ingrey slowly, “are as godless as anything I know. If you press on to Easthome, you choose your death. Martyrdom may be a glory, but suicide is a sin.”
“And just what do you press on to, Lord Ingrey?”
“I have Lord Hetwar himself as a patron.” I think. “You will have no one.”
“Not every Temple divine in Easthome can be venal. And I have my mother's kin!”
“Earl Badgerbank was at that conference that dispatched me. Are you so sure he was there in your interests? I'm not.”
Ingrey lay on his back and stared at the domed ceiling, angry, dizzy, and a little ill. Hergi's potion was beginning to wear off, he feared. His frustrated thought circled, then drifted, but not into piety. He let his tired eyelids shut.
After a formless time, Ijada's tart voice inquired, “Are you praying or napping? And are you, in either case, done?”
He blinked his eyes open to find her standing over him. Napping, apparently, for he had not heard her rise. “I am at your disposal, lady.” He started to sit up, stifled a yelp, and lay back more carefully.
“Yes, well, I'm not surprised, you know. Did you look, afterward, at what you did to those poor chains?” She held out an exasperated hand. Curious as to her strength, he grasped her hand and wrist with both hands. She leaned back like a sailor hauling on a rope, and he wallowed up.
As they made their way out under the portico into the autumn sun, Ingrey asked, “And what guidance did you receive for all your prayers, lady?”
She bit her lip. “None. Though my thoughts are less disordered, so a little quiet meditation did that much good at least.” Her sideways glance at him was enigmatic. “Somewhat less disordered. It's just that…I can't help thinking about…”
He made an encouraging noise of inquiry.
She burst out, “I still can't believe that Hallana married Oswin!”
THEY FOUND IJADA'S WARDEN IN THE TAPROOM OF HER INN. SHE was sitting in the corner with Rider Gesca, their heads bent together, tankards and a platter with bread crumbs, cheese rinds, and apple cores on the table between them. The walk up the warm street had loosened Ingrey's stiff muscles a trifle, and he fancied he strolled rather than limped over to them. They looked up, and their talk ceased.
“The cheese is excellent. Stay away from the beer, though-it's gone sour.”
Ijada's eyes widened, but she forbore comment.
“Ah. Thank you for the warning.” He leaned over and nabbed the last bread crust. “And what have you two been finding to talk about?”
The warden looked frightened, but Gesca, with a hint of challenge, merely said, “I've been telling Ingrey stories.”
“Ingrey stories?” Ijada said. “Are there many?”
Ingrey controlled a grimace.
Gesca, grinning at the encouragement, said, “I was just telling the tale of how Hetwar's train was attacked by those bandits in the forest of Aldenna, on the way home from Darthaca, and how you won your place in his household. It was my good word in the sealmaster's ear that did it, after all.”
“Was it?” said Ingrey, trying to decide if Gesca was gabbling nervously or not. And if so, why.
“We were a large party,” Gesca continued to the women, “and well armed, but this was a troop of outlaws who had fled to the forest and grown to over two hundred men, mostly by the addition of discharged soldiers and vagabonds and runaways. They were the plague of the country round about, and we likely looked rich enough that they dared to try us. I was right behind Ingrey in the van when they fell on us. They realized their mistake soon enough. Astonishing swordplay.” “I'm not that good,” said Ingrey. “They were bad.”
Ingrey had no memory of the moment, though he recalled the attack, of course. The beginning and the end of it, anyway. “Gesca, you are making up tales to swagger with.” Gesca was near a decade older than Ingrey; perhaps the staid middle-aged warden seemed a less unlikely object for dalliance to him.
“Ha. If I were making up grand lies for swagger, I'd tell them on myself. At that point, the rest turned and ran. You hewed down the slowest…” Gesca trailed off, not completing the story. Ingrey suddenly guessed why. He had come back to himself while methodically dispatching the wounded. Red to the elbows, the blood smell overpowering. Gesca, face appalled, gripping him by the shoulders and crying, Ingrey! Father's tears, man, save some for hanging! He had…not exactly forgotten that. He had merely refrained from revisiting the memory.
Gesca covered his hesitation by taking a swig of beer, evidently remembered its taste too late, and swallowed anyway. He made a face and wiped his lips. “It was at that point that I recommended to Hetwar that he make your place permanent. My thinking was purely selfish. I wanted to make sure that you never ended up on the opposite side to me in a fight.” Gesca smiled up at him, but not with his eyes.
Ingrey's return smile was equally austere. Subtlety, Gesca? How unlike you. What are you trying to say to me?
The ache from his head blow day before yesterday was returning. Ingrey decided to repair to his own inn to find food. He bade the warden to her duty, instructing the women to lock their chamber door once more, and withdrew.
returning. Ingrey decided to repair to his own inn to find food. He bade the warden to her duty, instructing the women to lock their chamber door once more, and withdrew. N
A FTER FORAGING A MEAL OF SORTS IN HIS INN'S COMMON room, Ingrey returned to his chamber to fall across his bed once more. He was a day and a half late fulfilling the Reedmere dedicat's prescription of rest for his aching head blow, and he apologized humbly in his heart to her. But for all his exhaustion, in the warming afternoon, sleep would not come.
It was no good dashing about arranging all in secret for Ijada's midnight escape if she refused to mount and ride away. She must be persuaded. If her secret beast was discovered, would they burn her? He imagined the flames licking up around her taut body, evil orange caresses, igniting the oil-soaked shift such prisoners were dressed in to speed their agony. He visualized her swinging from a hemp rope and oak beam, in vicious, senseless parody of an Old Wealding sacrifice hanged from a sacred forest tree. Or would the royal executioners allow her a silk rope, like her leopard, in honor of her kin rank? Though the old tribes, lacking silk, had used rope woven from shimmering nettle flax for their highest born, he had heard. Think of something else. But his thoughts circled in dreary morbidity.
They had begun as messengers to the gods, those willing human sacrifices of the Old Weald. Sacred couriers to carry prayers directly to heaven in unholy hours of great need, when all mere spoken words, or prayers of the heart or hands, seemed to fly up into the void and vanish into a vast silence. Like mine, now. But then, under the generations-long pressure from the eastern borders, the tribes' needs had grown, and so had their fears. Battles and ground were lost; woes waxed and judgment slipped; quality gave way to quantity, in the desperate days, and heroic holy volunteers grew harder to find.
Their ranks were filled by the less willing, then the unwilling; at the last, captured soldiers, hostages, kidnapped camp followers, worse. The sacred trees bore a bumper crop. Children, Ingrey had heard, in some of the Quintarian divines' favorite gruesome martyr tales. Enemy children. And what benighted mind places the name of enemy on a bewildered child? At the very least, the Old Wealding tribal mages might have reflected on what prayers that river of sacrifice had really borne to the gods, in their victims' weeping hearts.
His thoughts were growing worse, he was uncomfortably aware, but not wider. At length, he dozed. It wasn't a good doze, but it was better than the writhing that went before.
HE WOKE AS THE AUTUMN SUN WAS GOING DOWN, AND TOOK himself again to Ijada's inn to invite her to evening prayer.
She cocked an eyebrow at him, and murmured, “You are grown pious, of a sudden.” But at his tight-lipped look of anguish, she relented and accompanied him to the temple once more.
When they were on their knees before the Brother's altar-both the Mother's and the Daughter's chambers were full of Red Dike supplicants again-he began under his breath, “Listen. I must decide tonight whether we ride or bide tomorrow. You cannot just drift into disaster with no plan, no attempt even to throw some rope to shore. Else it will become the rope that hangs you, and it drives me half-mad to picture you dangling as your leopard did. I should think you'd both have had enough of hanging.” “Ingrey, think,” she returned in as low a voice. “Even assuming I could escape unseen, where would I go? My mother's kin could not take me in or hide me. My poor stepfather-he hasn't the strength to fight such high foes, and besides, his would be among the first places they'd look for such a fugitive. A woman, a stranger, alone-I would be utterly conspicuous, and a target for the vile.” She had taken thought, too, it appeared.
A long silence; he glanced aside to see her face gone still, staring straight ahead, wide-eyed. “You would do that? Desert your company and your duty?”
He set his teeth. “Perhaps.”
“Then where would we go? Your kin could not take us in either, I think.”
“I cannot imagine going back to Birchgrove for any reason. No. We would have to get out of the Weald altogether, cross the borders. To the Alvian League, perhaps-slip into the Cantons over the northern mountains. Or to Darthaca. I can speak and write Darthacan, at least.”
“I cannot. I would be your mute…what? Burden, servant, pet, paramour?”
Ingrey reddened. “We could pretend you were my sister. I could swear to regard you with that respect. I wouldn't touch you.”
“How very enticing.” Her lips set in a flat line.
He paused, feeling like a man crossing river ice in winter and hearing a first faint cracking sound coming from under his feet. What did she mean me to make of that remark? “Ibran was your father's tongue, presumably. Do you speak it?”
“A little. Do you?”
“A little. We could make for the Peninsula, then. Chalion or Ibra or Brajar. You would not then be so mute.” There was work for swordsmen there, too, Ingrey had heard, in the interminable border wars with the heretical Quadrene coastal princedoms-and few questions asked of foreign volunteers, so long as they signed the Five.
“Which? She talked a great deal. Clouds of chatter.”
“Look to her silences, then.”
That sounded so like one of Lord Hetwar's favorite aphorisms that Ingrey jerked. “Did she have any?”
“She said she sought me out-at a moment of great inconvenience, perhaps peril, for herself, mind you-for two reasons. Because she'd heard the news-and for the dreams, of course. Only Hallana could make that second reason sound like an afterthought. That I have had strange and dark dreams, nightmares almost as disturbing as my waking life, I take to be the result of fear, weariness, and…and Boleso's gift.” She moistened her lips. “But why should Hallana dream of me or my troubles? She is a Temple woman to the bone, and no renegade, for all that she clears her own path. Did she speak to you of her dreams?”
“No. But I didn't think to ask.”
“She asked many questions, learned I-know-not-what from watching us, but she gave me no direction, one way or another. That, too, is a silence. All she gave me, in the end, was the letter.” She touched her left breast, fingering the fine-embroidered fabric of her riding jacket. Ingrey fancied he heard a faint rustle of paper beneath the cloth, from some inner pocket. “She seemed to expect me to deliver it. As the only thing resembling guidance that she gave me, I am loath to give it up for some chancy flight into exile with…with a man I'd not met till four days ago.” She was silent a moment. “Especially not as your little sister, five gods spare me!”
He did not understand her offense, but he certainly could not mistake her refusal. He said heavily, “We'll continue on toward Easthome tomorrow, then, with Boleso's coffin.” Which would give him perhaps three more days to come up with some better argument or plan, less the time he spent sleeping. If any.
As he neared his inn, a dark shape thrust itself off the wall where it had been leaning. Ingrey's hand strayed to his sword hilt, but relaxed again as the figure moved into the yellow light of the lantern above the door, and he recognized Gesca. The lieutenant gave him a nod.
“Walk with me, Ingrey. I would have a word in private.”
Ingrey's brows twitched up, but he fell in willingly enough. They matched steps on the cobblestones, took a turn about the next square up the street near the city gates, and settled on a wooden bench by the covered well in the square's center. A servant turned away and stumped off past them with a pair of dripping buckets hung from a yoke over his shoulders. Beyond, in the street, a couple hurried home, the woman holding a lantern, the man with a boy atop his shoulder, who curled his small hands in the man's hair; the man laughed protest at the grip. The man's eyes shifted to assay the two loitering swordsmen, took reassurance from their repose, and returned to his woman. Their footsteps faded.
Silence fell, and lengthened. Gesca's fingers drummed uneasily on his thigh. “Is there a problem in the troop?” Ingrey prompted at last. “Or with Boleso's men?”
“Huh.” Gesca sat up and straightened his shoulders. “Maybe you'll tell me.” He hesitated again, sucked on his lower lip, then said abruptly, “Are you falling in love with that accursed girl, Ingrey?”
Ingrey stiffened. “Why should you think that?”
Sarcasm edged Gesca's voice. “Well, let me see. What could possibly have suggested this thing? Could it be the way you speak to her apart at every chance? Or could it be the way you plunged like a madman into a raging torrent to save her? Could it have been how you were surprised, half-dressed, trying to sneak into her bedchamber at midnight? The pale and starveling look on your face, when you think no one is watching you, when you look at her? The way the lovesick circles darken daily under your eyes? I admit, only Ingrey kin Wolfcliff would ignite with lust for a woman who bludgeons her lovers to death, but for you, that's not a deterrent, it's a lure!” Gesca snorted.
“That she bludgeoned.” He added after a moment, “I admit, whatever her game bag lacks in numbers, it makes up in weight.” And after another moment, “In any case, she isn't attracted to me, so your fears are moot.”
“Not true. She thinks you a very comely man, though glum.”
“How do you know that?” Ingrey rapidly reviewed the past days-when had Gesca ever spoken with the prisoner?
“She discussed you with her warden, or perhaps it was the other way around. Quite frank and outspoken, that one, when you get her going. The Mother's work does that to some women.”
“The warden doesn't speak so to me.”
“That's because you terrify her. I don't. At least by contrast. Very useful, from my point of view. But have you ever overheard two women discussing men? Men are crude liars, comparing their drabs, but women-I'd rather have a Mother's anatomist dissect me alive than to listen to the things the ladies say about us when they think they are alone.” Gesca shuddered.
Ingrey managed not to blurt, What else did Ijada say of me? His prisoner, it occurred to him, would have had to fill the hours with something, when locked up with that countrywoman; and inconsequential chatter might conceal dire secrets better than silence itself. So. He ventured a blander, “Is there anything else I should know?”
Gesca's smile, Ingrey thought, was an altogether evil smirk. Evidently, however, the shadows were not deep enough yet to hide Ingrey's return glare, or possibly it burned through the darkness with its own heat, for Gesca sobered, raising a warding hand.
“Ingrey, look.” Gesca's voice grew serious. “I don't want to see you do something stupid. You have a future in Hetwar's house, far beyond mine, and it's not just your kinship that gives you the leg up. For me, maybe I'll make guard captain someday. You're a lettered man in two tongues, Hetwar talks to you as an equal-not just in blood, but in wits-and you give him back as good as you get. Listening to the two of you makes my head spin round, sometimes. I don't even want to walk the paths you seem destined to tread. Heights make me dizzy, and I like my head where it is. But most of all…I don't ever want to be the officer who's sent to arrest you.”
Ingrey unset his teeth. “Fair enough.”
“We ride again tomorrow.”
“If I can get my boots on.”
“I'll come help you.”
And I will dismiss that prying, spying, gossiping warden back to Reedmere, and replace her with another. Or with none. Feminine chatter was annoying enough, but what if her gossip dared extend to the curious events she had witnessed swirling around Hallana's visits? What if it already has?
So. Gesca watches me. But why? Idle-or carnal-curiosity? Self-interest, as he claimed? Worried comradeship? Strange gossip? It occurred to Ingrey that for all Gesca's modest claims to be an unlettered man, he was perfectly capable of penning a brief report. The sentences might be simple, the word choices infelicitous, the spelling erratic, but he could get his observations down in a logical enough order for all practical purposes.
And if Hetwar had both men's letters before him, which would be very like Hetwar…Ingrey's silences would shout.
Ingrey swallowed a curse and went indoors.
DURING THE NEXT DAY'S RIDE, THE AUTUMN COUNTRYSIDE PASSED in a blur of inattention for Ingrey. But he was all too keenly aware of Ijada, riding alongside the wagon near her new warden, a daunted young dedicat from the Daughter's Order in Red Dike, plucked by the local divine from her teaching duties for this unaccustomed task.
Once, when they first mounted up, Ijada smiled at him. Ingrey almost smiled back, till Gesca's mockery echoed in his mind, freezing his face in an uncomfortable distorted grimace that made her eyes widen, then slide away. He spurred ahead before his mouth muscles went into spasms.
He wondered what madness had seized his tongue last night in the temple. Of course Ijada must refuse to fly, even from the gallows, with a man who had tried to kill her, what, three times? Five? What sort of choice was that to lay before the girl? Think, man. Might he offer her another escort? Where could one be found, that he could trust? A vision of kidnapping her and riding off with her across his saddlebow led to even less useful imaginings. He knew the speed and ferocity his wolf could lend to him; what might her leopard do for her, woman though she most undoubtedly was? She had already slain Boleso, a bigger man than Ingrey, though admittedly, she had taken the prince by surprise. She'd even surprised herself, or so Ingrey read her. If she chose to resist him-if he then…and then she…The curiously absorbing reverie was shattered by his memory of Gesca's other jibe- For you, it's a lure!-and his scowl deepened.
Nor in lust.
Nothing that he could not fully control, anyway.
He spent the rest of the day not smiling at her, nor looking at her, nor riding near her, nor speaking to her, nor betraying any awareness of her existence in any way whatsoever. The effect seemed contagious; Gesca trotted near him to make some remark, took one look at his face, swallowed his words, and prudently retreated to the opposite end of the column. No one else approached him either, and Boleso's retainers shrank from his glower. At his few commands, men hastened to obey.
Their start had been late and their progress slow, seldom pushing the horses faster than a walk. As a result they arrived that afternoon at a smaller town than any prior stop, though still more miles nearer Easthome than Ingrey would have liked. Ingrey ruthlessly sent Boleso's men to bed down with their late master in Middletown's rustic temple, and seized the sole inn for himself, his prisoner and her duenna, and Hetwar's troop. He stalked the town's perimeter in the twilight, all too brief a task. There could be no excursion this night to that crowded temple for undervoiced argument. Tomorrow night, he must select a larger town for their halt, Ingrey determined. And the next night…there weren't enough next nights.
Since Gesca chose a bedroll in the taproom rather than to share Ingrey's chamber, Ingrey took his still-recovering hurts to bed early, and alone. WITH A SHORT LEG PLANNED FOR THEIR JOURNEY, INGREY DID not drive his men to an early start the next morning, either. He was still desultorily drinking bitter herb tea and nibbling bread in the little inn's taproom when Lady Ijada descended with her new warden. He managed to return her nod without undue distortion of his features.
“It sufficed.” Her return frown was searching, but better than that hazardous smile.
He thought of asking after her dreams, but hesitated for the fear that this would prove not a neutral topic at all. Perhaps he might dare to ride by her side for a time later today; she seemed fully capable, once given the lead, of carrying on an oblique conversation before unfriendly ears that might convey more information than it appeared.
The sound of horses' hooves and a jingle of harness from outside turned both their heads. “Halloo the house!” a hoarse voice shouted, and the tapster-and-owner scurried out through the hall to greet these new customers, pausing to send a servant to roust the stableboys to take the gentlemen's horses.
Ijada's nostrils flared; she drifted toward the door in the innkeeper's wake. Ingrey drained his clay beaker and followed, left hand reflexively checking his sword hilt. He came up behind her shoulder as she stepped onto the wooden porch.
Four armed men were dismounting. One was clearly a servant, two wore a familiar livery, and the last…Ingrey's breath stopped in surprise. And then blew out in shock.
Earl-ordainer Wencel kin Horseriver paused in his saddle, his reins gathered in his gloved hands. The young earl was a slender man, wearing a tunic from which gold threads winked under a leather coat dyed wine-red. The coat's wide collar was trimmed with marten fur, disguising his uneven build. His dark blond hair, lightened with a few streaks of premature gray, hung to his shoulders in ratty corkscrew strands, disheveled by his ride. His face was elongated, his forehead prominent, but his odd features were redeemed from potential ugliness by sharp blue eyes, fixed now on Ingrey. His presence here on this bright morning was unexpected enough. But the shock…
And I have never perceived it before.
Ingrey's head jerked toward Ijada; her face, also, had gone still with astonishment.
She senses it-smells it? Sees it? And it is a new thing to her as well. How new is it?
The perceptions, it appeared, ran three ways, for Wencel sat up with his head cocked, eyes widening, as his gaze first summed Ingrey, then turned to Ijada. Wencel's lips parted as his jaw dropped a fraction, then tightened again in a crooked smile.
Of the three of them, the earl recovered first. “Well, well, well,” he murmured. A pair of gloved fingers waved past his forehead in salute to Ingrey, then went to his heart to convey a shadow-bow to Ijada. “How very strangely met we three are. I have not been so taken by surprise for…longer than you would believe.”
The innkeeper began a gabble of welcome, intercepted, at a jerk of Wencel's chin, by one of his guardsmen, who took the man aside, presumably to explain what would be wanted of his humble house by his highborn guests. By trained civility, Ingrey went to Wencel's horse's head, though he did not really want to stand any nearer to the earl. The animal snorted and sidled at his hand on the bridle, and his grip tightened. The horse's shoulders were wet with sweat from the morning's gallop, the chestnut hairs curled and darkened, white lather showing between its legs. Whatever brings him, Wencel wastes no time.
Ingrey licked dry lips. “That will be a relief.”
“I thought it might be.” His eyes went to Ijada, and the sardonic, rehearsed cadences ceased. He lowered his head. “Lady Ijada. I cannot tell you how sorry I am for what has happened-for what was done to you. I regret that I was not there at Boar's Head to prevent this.”
Ijada inclined her head in acknowledgment, if not, precisely, in forgiveness. “I'm sorry you were not at Boar's Head, too. I did not desire this high blood on my hands, nor…the other consequences.”
“Yes…” Wencel drawled the word out. “It seems we have much more to discuss than I'd thought.” He shot Ingrey a tight-lipped smile and dismounted. At his adult height, Wencel was only half a hand shorter than his cousin; for reasons unclear to Ingrey, men regularly estimated his own height as greater than it was. In a much lower voice, Wencel added, “Strangely secret things, since you did not choose to discuss them even with the sealmaster. Some might chide you for that. Be assured, I am not one of them.”
Wencel murmured a few orders to his guardsmen; Ingrey gave up the reins to Wencel's servant, and the inn's stableboys came pelting up to lead the retinue away around the building.
“Where might we go to talk?” said Wencel. “Privately.” “Taproom?” said Ingrey, nodding to the inn.
Ingrey would have preferred to follow, but led off perforce. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Wencel offer a polite arm to Lady Ijada, which she warily evaded by making play with lifting her riding skirts up the steps and passing ahead of him.
“Out,” Ingrey said to Hetwar's two breakfasting men, who scrambled up in surprise at the sight of the earl. “You can take your bread and meat with you. Wait outside. See that no one disturbs us.” He closed the taproom door behind them and the confused warden.
Wencel, after an indifferent glance around the old-fashioned rush-strewn chamber, tucked his gloves in his belt, seated himself at one of the trestle tables, and waved Ingrey and Ijada to the bench across from him. His hands clasped each other on the polished boards, motionless but not relaxed.
Ingrey was uncertain what creature Wencel bore within. Of course, he'd had no clear perception of Ijada's, either, till his wolf had come unbound again. Even now, if he had not known from seeing both the leopard's corpse and its renewed spirit in their place of battle with the geas, he might not have been able to put a name to that disquieting wild presence within her.
Far more disturbing to Ingrey was the question, When? He had seen Wencel only twice since his own return from his Darthacan exile four years ago. The earl had been but lately married to Princess Fara, and had taken his bride back to his rich family lands along the lower Lure River, two hundred miles from Easthome. The first time the new-wed Horserivers had returned to the capital, for a midwinter celebration of the Father's Day three years back, Ingrey had been away on a mission for Hetwar to the Cantons. The next visit, he had seen his cousin only at a gathering at the king's hall when Prince Biast had received his marshal's spear and pennant from his father's hand. Wencel had been taken up with the ceremony, and Ingrey had been tied down in Hetwar's train. They'd passed face-to-face but briefly. The earl had acknowledged his disreputable and disinherited cousin with a courteous nod, unsurprised recognition with no hint of aversion, but had not sought him out thereafter. Ingrey had thought Wencel vastly improved over the unprepossessing youth he remembered, and had assumed that the burden of his early inheritance and high marriage had matured him, gifted him with that peculiar gravity. Had there been something strange underlying that gravity, even then? The next time they had met was in Hetwar's chambers, a week ago. Wencel had been quiet, self-effacing, among that group of grim older men-mortified, or so Ingrey had guessed, for he would not meet Ingrey's eyes. Ingrey could barely remember his saying anything at all.
The intensity of his gaze upon Ijada was not only, Ingrey thought, perturbation with her leopard. I think Princess Fara was not so astray in her jealousy as Wencel feigns. Four years married, and no heir to the great and ancient house of Horseriver; did that silence conceal barrenness, disaffection, some subtler impotence? Had it fueled a wife's fears, justly or no?
“I do not know how you may do so either,” returned Ijada. Ingrey was uncertain if the edgy chill of this represented anger or fear, and stole a glance at her face. That pure profile was remarkably expressionless. He suddenly wanted to know exactly what she saw when she looked at Wencel.
Wencel tilted his head in no less frowning a regard. “What is that, anyway? Surely not a badger. I would guess a lynx.”
Wencel's mouth screwed up in surprise. “That is no…and where did that fool Boleso get a…and why…my lady, I think you had better tell me all that happened there at Boar's Head.”
She glanced at Ingrey; he gave a slow nod. Wencel was as wound up in this as any of them, it seemed, on more than one level, and he appeared to have Hetwar's confidence. So…does Hetwar know of Wencel's beast, or not?
Ijada gave a short, blunt account of the night's deeds, factual as Ingrey understood the events, but with almost no hint of her own thoughts or emotions, devoid of interpretations or guesses. Her voice was flat. It was like watching a dumb show.
Wencel, who had listened with utmost attention, but without comment, turned his sharp gaze to Ingrey. “So where is the sorcerer?”
He gestured at Ijada. “That did not happen spontaneously. There must have been a sorcerer. Illicit, to be sure, if he was both dabbler in the forbidden and tool to such a dolt as Boleso.”
“Lady Ijada-my impression from Lady Ijada's testimony was that Boleso performed the rite himself.”
“We were alone together in his bedchamber, certainly,” said Ijada. “If I ever encountered any such person in Boleso's household, I never recognized him as a sorcerer.”
Wencel absently scratched the back of his neck. “Hm. Perhaps. Yet…Boleso never learned such a rite by himself. He'd taken up many creatures, you say? Gods, what a fool. Indeed…No. If his mentor was not with him, he must certainly have been there recently. Or disguised. Hidden in the next room. Or fled?”
“I did wonder if Boleso might have had some accomplice,” Ingrey admitted. “But Rider Ulkra asserted that no servant of the house had slipped away since the prince's death. And Lord Hetwar would surely not have sent even me to arrest such a perilous power without Temple assistance.” Yes, Ingrey might have encountered something far less benign than salutary pig-delusions.
“The reports of the tragedy that Hetwar received that first night were garbled and inadequate, I grant you,” said Wencel with a scowl. “Leopards were entirely missing from them, among other things. Still…I could wish you had secured the sorcerer, whoever he was.” His gaze wandered back to Ijada. “At the least, confession from such a prisoner might have helped a lady of my household to whom I owe protection.”
Ingrey flinched at the cogency of that. “I doubt I should be here, alive or sane, if I had surprised the man.”
“An arguable point,” Wencel conceded. “But you, of all men, should have known to look.”
Had the geas been fogging Ingrey's thinking? Or just his own numb distaste for his task? He sat back a little, and, having no defense, countered on another flank: “What sorcerer did you encounter? And when?”
Wencel's sandy brows twitched up. “Can you not guess?”
“No. I did not sense your…difference, in Hetwar's chamber. Nor at Biast's installation, which was the last time I'd seen you before.”
“Truly? I was not sure if I had managed to conceal my affliction from you, or you had merely chosen to be discreet. I was grateful, if so.”
“I did not sense it.” He almost added, My wolf was bound, but to do so would be to admit that it now was not. And he had no idea where he presently stood with Wencel. “That's a comfort. Well. It came to me at much the same time as yours, if you must know. At the time of your father's death-or perhaps, I should say, of my mother's.” At Ijada's look and half-voiced query, he added aside to her, “My mother was sister to Ingrey's father. Which would make me half a Wolfcliff, except for all the Horseriver brides that went to his clan in earlier generations. I should need a pen and paper to map out all the complications of our cousinship.”
“Close and tangled. And I have long suspected that all those tragedies falling together like that were somehow bound up one in another.”
Ingrey said slowly, “I knew my aunt had died sometime during my illness, but I had not realized it was so near to my father's death. No one spoke of it to me. I'd assumed it was grief, or one of those mysterious wastings that happen to women in middle age.”
“No. It was an accident. Strangely timed.”
Ingrey hesitated. “Ties…Did you meet the sorcerer who placed your beast in you? Was it Cumril for you, too?”
Wencel shook his head. “Whatever was done to me was done while I was sleeping. And if you think that wasn't the most confusing awakening of my life…!”
“Did it not sicken you, or drive you mad?”
“Not so much as yours, apparently. There was clearly something wrong with yours. I mean, over and above the horror that happened to your father.”
“Why did you never say anything to me? My disaster was no secret. I wish I had known I was not alone!”
“Ingrey, I was thirteen, and terrified! Not least that if my defilement were discovered, they would do to me what they were doing to you! I didn't think I could survive it. I was never strong and athletic, like you. The thought of such torture as you endured sickened me. My only hope seemed concealment, at all costs. By the time I was sure of my own sanity again, and I began to regain my courage, you were gone, exiled, shuffled out of the Weald by your embarrassed uncle. And how could I have communicated? A letter? It would certainly have been intercepted and read, by your keepers or mine.” He breathed deeply, and brought his rapid and shaky voice back under control. “How odd it is to find us roped together now. We could all burn jointly, you know. Back to back to back.”
“Powers that can grant such mercies can also rescind them,” said Wencel darkly. “Ijada and I, then. Not the relation, front to front, that my wife feared, but a holy union of sorts.”
Ijada did not flinch from this remark, but stared at Wencel with a tense new interest, her brows drawn in. Reassessing, perhaps, a man she'd thought she'd known, that she was discovering she had not known at all? As I am?
Wencel focused on Ingrey's grubby bandages. “What happened to your hands?”
“Tripped over a table. Cut myself with a carving knife,” Ingrey answered, as indifferently as possible. He caught Ijada's curious look, out of the corner of his eye, and prayed she would not see fit to expand upon the tale. Not yet, anyway.
Instead, she asked the earl, “What is your beast? Do you know?”
He shrugged. “I had always thought it was a horse, for the Horserivers. That made sense to me, as much as anything in this could.” He drew a long, thoughtful breath, and his chill blue eyes rose to meet theirs. “There have been no spirit warriors in the Weald for centuries, unless maybe some remnant survived hidden in remote refuges. Now there are three new-made, not just in the same generation, but in the same room. Ingrey and I, I have long suspected were of a piece. But you, Lady Ijada…I do not understand. You do not fit. I would urge you search for this missing sorcerer, Ingrey. At the very least, the hunt for such a vital witness might delay proceedings against Ijada.”
Wencel's hands spread flat on the table in unease. “We are all in each other's hands now. I had imagined my secret safe with you, Ingrey, but now it seems you were merely ignorant of it. I've been alone so long. It is hard for me to learn trust, so late.”
Ingrey bent his head in wry agreement.
Wencel pulled his shoulders back, wincing as though they ached. “Well. I must refresh myself, and pay my respects to my late brother-in-law's remains. How are they preserved, by the way?”
“He's packed in salt,” said Ingrey. “They had a plentiful supply at Boar's Head, for keeping game.”
A bleak amusement flashed in Wencel's face. “How very direct of you.”
“I didn't have him properly skinned and gutted, though, so I expect the effect will be imperfect.”
“It's as well the weather is no warmer, then. But it seems we'd best not delay.” Wencel let out a sigh, planted both palms on the tabletop, and pushed himself wearily to his feet. For an instant, the blackness of his spirit seemed to strike Ingrey like a blow, then he was just a tired young man again, burdened too soon in life with dangerous dilemmas. “We'll speak again.”
The earl made his way out to the porch, where his retainers jumped alertly to their feet to escort him toward the town temple. In the door of the taproom, Ingrey touched Ijada's arm. She turned, her lips tight.
“What do you make of Wencel's beast?” he asked her, low-voiced.
She murmured back, “To quote Learned Hallana, if that's a stallion, I'm the queen of Darthaca.” Her eyes rose to meet his, level and intent. “Your wolf is not much like a wolf. And his horse is not much like a horse. But I will say this, Ingrey; they are both a lot like each other.”
much like a horse. But I will say this, Ingrey; they are both a lot like each other.” T
I NGREY RETURNED UPSTAIRS TO PACK HIS SADDLEBAGS, THEN
sought Gesca. The lieutenant's gear was gone from the corner of the taproom. Ingrey walked down the muddy street of Middletown-better named Middlehamlet, in his view-to the small wooden temple, in hopes of finding him. He reviewed which of the half dozen village stables they had commandeered for their horses and equipment Gesca was likely to have gone to next, but the plan proved unnecessary; Gesca was standing in the shade of the temple's wide porch. Speaking, or being spoken to, by Earl Horseriver.
Gesca glanced up at Ingrey, twitched, and fell silent; Wencel merely gave him a nod.
“Ingrey,” said Wencel. “Where is Rider Ulkra and the rest of Boleso's household now? Still at Boar's Head, or do they follow you?”
“They follow, or so I ordered. How swiftly, I do not know. Ulkra cannot expect much joy to await him in Easthome.”
“No matter. By the time I have leisure to attend to them, they will have arrived there, no doubt.” He sighed. “My horses could use a little rest. Arrange things, if you will, to depart at noon. We'll still reach Oxmeade before dark.”
“Certainly, my lord,” said Ingrey formally. He jerked his head at the unhappy-looking Gesca, and Wencel gave them a short wave of farewell and turned for the temple.
“And what did Earl Horseriver have to say to you?” Ingrey inquired of Gesca, low-voiced, as they trod down the street again.
“He's not a glad man. I cringe to think how black things would be if he'd actually liked his brother-in-law. But it's plain he does not love this mess.”
“That, I had already gathered.” “Still, an impressive young fellow, in his way, despite his looks. I thought so back at Princess Fara's wedding.”
“Eh. It wasn't that he did anything special. He just never…”
Gesca's lips twisted. “I…it's hard to say. He never made a mistake, or looked nervous, never late or early…never drunk. It just crept up on you. Formidable, that's the word I want. In a way, he reminds me of you, if it was brains and not brawn that was wanted.” Gesca hesitated, then, perhaps prudently, declined to pursue this comparison any farther down the slope into the swamp.
“We are cousins,” Ingrey observed blandly.
“Indeed, m'lord.” Gesca gave him a sideways glance. “He was very interested in Learned Hallana.”
Ingrey grimaced. Well, that was inevitable. He would hear more from Wencel on that subject before the day was done, he was sure.
THE MIDDLETOWN TEMPLE DIVINE WAS A MERE YOUNG ACOLYTE, and had been thrown into panic by the descent upon him, on only a half day's notice, of the prince's cortege. But however much ceremony Earl Horseriver was sent to provide, it was clear it was not starting yet. The cavalcade left town promptly at noon with a grimmer efficiency than Ingrey in his vilest mood would have dared deploy. He applauded in his heart, and left the pallid acolyte a suitable purse to console him for his terrors.
Middletown was not yet out of sight on the road behind them when Wencel wheeled his chestnut horse around beside Ingrey's, and murmured, “Ride ahead with me. I need to speak with you.”
“Certainly.” Ingrey kneed his horse into a trot; he gave what he hoped was a reassuring nod to Ijada as they passed around her riding beside the wagon. Wencel favored her with a somewhat ambiguous salute.
“Ha. At least one thing about his funeral will match poor Boleso's taste. They're hauling that silver-plated royal hearse from Easthome to meet us in Oxmeade. I trust it will not collapse any bridges on the way.”
“Indeed.” Ingrey tried to keep his lips from twitching.
“My household awaits me in Oxmeade to attend to my comfort tonight. And yours, if you will join me. I recommend you do so. There will be no lodgings to be found for love nor money once the court arrives there for this procession.”
“Thank you,” said Ingrey sincerely. There had been duels fought by desperate retainers over the possession of haylofts, in certain unwieldy royal excursions of Ingrey's experience. Wencel would certainly have secured the best chambers available.
“Tell me of this Learned Hallana, Ingrey,” said Wencel abruptly.
At least he did not tax Ingrey for his failure to mention her before. Ingrey wondered whether to feel relieved. “I judged her to be exactly what she claimed to be. A friend of Lady Ijada's who had known her as a child. She'd been a physician at some fort of the Son's Order out west in the fen marches-Ijada's father was a lord dedicat, and its captain, at the time.”
“I knew something of Lord dy Castos, yes. Ijada has spoken of him. But my mind picks at the coincidence. A sorcerer with some connection with Lady Ijada-and her new affliction-disappears from Boar's Head. Days later, a sorcerer-or sorceress-with a connection with Ijada comes to her in Red Dike. Is this two sorcerers, or one?”
Ingrey shook his head. “I cannot imagine Learned Hallana passing without note at Boar's Head. Inconspicuous, she was not. And she was very pregnant, which I gather lays great constraint upon her use of her demon for the duration. She stays in a hermitage at Suttleaf, for safety. I admit my evidence is indirect, but I'm certain that Boleso was already deep into his disastrous experiments when he murdered his manservant so grotesquely, six months ago. Which must put his pet sorcerer at Easthome then, or near then, as well.”
“It is as much an error to take truth for lies, as lies for truth,” Ingrey pointed out. “The dual-divine was a most unusual lady, but that she might also be Boleso's puppet is one too many things to believe about her. It doesn't fit. For one thing, she was no fool.”
Wencel tilted his head, conceding the point. “Suppose she were his puppet master, then?”
“Less unlikely,” Ingrey granted reluctantly. “But…no.”
Wencel sighed. “I shall give up my simplifying conjecture, then. We have two separate sorcerers. But-how separate? Might Boleso's tool have fled to her, after the debacle? The two in league?”
An uncomfortable idea. It occurred to Ingrey suddenly that the suggestion-misdirection?-that his geas had been laid on him at Easthome had come from Hallana. “The timing…would not be impossible.”
Wencel grunted disconsolately, staring between his horse's ears for a moment. “I understand the learned divine wrote a letter. Have you read it yet?”
Curse you, Gesca. And curse that gossiping warden. How much else did Wencel already know? “It was not entrusted to me. She handed it directly to Lady Ijada. Sealed.”
Wencel waved a hand in dismissal of this. “I'm sure you've been taught how to do the thing.”
“For ordinary correspondence, certainly. This is one from a Temple sorcerer. I hesitate to think what might happen to the letter-or to me-if I attempted to tamper with it. Burst into flame, maybe.” He left it to Wencel to decide if he meant the paper, or Ingrey himself. “Passing it on to Hetwar also has problems. At the least, he would need another Temple sorcerer to open it. I should think even the royal sealmaster would find it a challenge to suborn one to pry into letters addressed to the head of his own order.”
“If this multiplication of hypothetical sorcerers goes on, we shall have to hang them from the rafters like hams to make room.” Although, Ingrey was uncomfortably reminded, there was still his strange geas to account for.
Wencel gave a short, unhappy nod, then fell silent for a little. “Yes, speaking of hams,” he finally said. His voice grew conversational. “It is not, you know, that you lie well, cousin. It's merely that no one is foolhardy enough to call you on it. This may have given you an inflated idea of your skill at dissimulation.” The voice hardened. “What really happened in that upstairs room?”
“If I had anything more to report, it would be my duty to report it first to Lord Hetwar.”
Wencel's brows climbed. “Oh, really? First, and yet somehow…not yet? I saw your letters to Hetwar, such as they were. The number of items missing from them turns out to be quite notable. Leopards. Sorceresses. Strange brawls. Near drownings. Your romantic lieutenant Gesca would even have it that you have fallen in love-also, if more understandably, without hint in your scribblings.”
Ingrey flushed. “Letters can go astray. Or be read by unfriendly eyes.” He glowered, pointedly, at the earl.
Wencel's lips parted, closed. He attended for a moment to his horse, as he and Ingrey separated to ride around a patch of mire. When they were stirrup to stirrup again, Wencel said, “Your pardon if I seem anxious. I have a great deal to lose.”
With false cheeriness, Ingrey replied, “While I, on the other hand, have already lost it all. Earl-ordainer.”
It was Ingrey's turn to fall silent, abashed. Because Wencel's marriage was arranged-and, up till now, barren-did not necessarily entail that it was also loveless. On either side. Indeed, Princess Fara's betrayal of her handmaiden spoke of a hot unhappy jealousy, which could not be a product of bored indifference. And the hallow king's daughter must have seemed a great prize to so homely a young man, despite his own high rank.
“Besides,” Wencel's voice lightened again, “burning alive is a most painful death. I do not recommend it. I think this missing sorcerer could be a threat to us both, in that regard alone. He knows many things that he should not. We should find him first. If he proves to contain nothing, ah, personally dangerous, I'd be glad enough to pass him along to Hetwar thereafter.”
And if the sorcerer was dangerous to him, what did Wencel propose to do then? And, five gods, how? “Leaving aside all questions of duty-this is not an arrest I am equipped to handle, privately or otherwise.”
“How if you were? Does having first knowledge not attract you?”
“To what end?”
“I am surviving.”
“You were. But your dispensation from the Temple depends, in part, upon a bond of surety now broken.”
Ingrey's eyes flicked to him, wary. “How so?”
Wencel's lips tightened in a small smile. “I could deduce it by the change in your perception of me alone, but I don't have to; I can see it. Your beast lies quietly within you, by long habit if nothing else, but nothing constrains it except that you do not call it up. Sooner or later, some Temple sensitive is bound to notice, or else you will make some revealing blunder.” His voice grew low and intense. “There are alternatives to cutting off your hand for fear of your fist, Ingrey.”
Wencel's hesitation was longer, this time. “The library at Castle Horseriver is a remarkable thing,” he began obliquely. “Several of my Horseriver forefathers were collectors of lore, and at least one was a scholar of note. Documents lie there that I am certain exist nowhere else, some of them hundreds of years old. Things old Audar's Temple-men would not have hesitated to burn. The most amazing eyewitness accounts-I should tell you some of the anecdotes, sometime. Enough to lure a not very bookish boy to read on. And then, later-to read as though his life depended on it.” His gaze found Ingrey's. “You dealt with your so-called defilement by running away from all knowledge, and acknowledgment. I dealt with mine by running toward. Which of us do you think has the best grip by now?”
Ingrey blew out his breath. “You give me a lot to think about, Wencel.”
“Do so, then. But do not turn away from understanding, this time, I beg you.” He added more softly, “Do not turn your back on me.”
Indeed not. I should not dare. He gave Wencel an equivocal salute.
The cortege came then to a rocky ford, fortunately not in so great a spate as the near-disastrous crossing on the first day, and Ingrey turned his attention to getting all across in safety. A mile farther on, the wagon nearly bogged in a stretch of mud, then a guardsman's mount went lame from a lost shoe. Then, at a stop to water the horses, a fight broke out between two of Boleso's retainers, some smoldering private quarrel that burst into flame. Ingrey's customary menace almost did not contain it, and he turned away from the separated pair pale with worry, which they fortunately took for rage, about what might happen the next time if mere threat was not enough, and he was forced to follow with action.
Ingrey had thought his anxiety over the strange geas to be his most pressing problem. The notion that Wencel's lore might contain clues to the matter was doubly exciting. It suggested Ingrey might have an ally to hand. It equally suggested that Ingrey might have found his unknown enemy. Or, how was it that Wencel seemed to regard illicit sorcerers as minor inconveniences, to be so readily handled? He glanced toward the head of the cortege where Wencel now rode, beyond earshot once more, interrogating one of Boleso's men. The guardsman was a big fellow, yet his shoulders were bowed as though trying to make himself smaller.
Wencel had dragged a number of lures across Ingrey's trail, yet it was not the new mystery but the old one that most arrested him, caught and held him suspended between fascination and fear. What does Wencel know about my father and his mother that I do not?
OXMEADE WAS LARGER THAN RED DIKE, BUT BOLESO'S CORTEGE was received at its big stone temple that afternoon with only moderate ceremony, mostly, it seemed, because the town was a madhouse of preparation for greater events tomorrow. Ingrey was hugely relieved finally to hand off responsibility for the corpse and its outriders to Wencel, who handed them in turn to his sober seneschal, a gaggle of Easthome Temple divines, and a formidable array of retainers and clerks. Princess Fara and her own household, Ingrey was glad to learn, had not followed on, but awaited them all in the capital. It was not yet twilight when Ingrey and his guard mounted up again with their prisoner and followed Wencel through the winding streets. Passing along the edge of a crowded square, Wencel pulled up his horse, and Ingrey stopped beside him. A street market was open late, presumably to serve the needs of the courtiers and their households already starting to arrive for the last leg of Boleso's funeral procession. Ingrey was not sure at first what had caught Wencel's attention, but he followed the earl's gaze past the busy booths to a corner where a fiddler played, his hat invitingly laid upside down at his feet. The musician was better than the usual sort, certainly, and his mellow instrument cast a strange, plaintive song into the golden evening air.
Wencel kept his face averted until the song ended. When he looked forward his profile was strange. Tense, but not with anger or fear; more like a man about to weep for some inconsolable, incalculable loss. Wencel grimaced the tension away and clucked his horse onward without looking back, nor sending anyone to throw a coin in the hat, though the fiddler looked after the rich party with thwarted hope.
They came at length to the large house Wencel had rented, or commandeered, one of several in a row in this wealthy merchants' quarter. Bright brass bosses in sunburst patterns studded the heavy planks of its front door. Ingrey handed off his horse to Gesca, shouldered his saddlebags, and oversaw Lady Ijada and her young warden taken upstairs by a maid. By their strained greetings, this was a servant who had known Ijada before. The Horseriver household, it seemed, found the justice of Ijada's case as disturbingly ambiguous as did their master.
Before Wencel went off to deal with the sheaf of messages that had arrived in his absence, he murmured to Ingrey, “We shall eat in an hour, you and Ijada and I. It may be our last chance for private speech for a while.”
Ingrey nodded. He was guided to a tiny chamber on the top floor, where a basin and a can of hot water were already waiting for him. It was clearly a servant's room, of whatever wealthy family the earl had dislodged, but its solitude was most welcome to him. Horseriver's own servants were likely crowded into some lesser dormitory or stable loft in this crisis, and Gesca and his men would fare little better. Ingrey trusted Horseriver's cook would console them.
Wencel was speaking to Ijada's warden, who was listening with a wide-eyed, daunted expression. He wheeled at the sound of Ingrey's step, and grimaced. “You may go,” he said to the warden, who bobbed a curtsey and withdrew into what was presumably Ijada's chamber. Wencel joined Ingrey at the staircase, motioning him ahead, but excused himself when they reached the ground floor to go off and confer with his clerk.
Ingrey stepped outside in the dusk and made his circuit of the environs of the house. Arriving again at the front door, he was passed from the porter to another servant and into a chamber at the back of the second floor. It was not the grand dining room, almost suitable to an earl's estate, but a small breakfast parlor, overlooking a kitchen garden and the mews. Its single door was heavy, and would muffle sound well, Ingrey judged. A little round table was set for three.
Ijada arrived escorted by a maidservant, who curtseyed to Ingrey and left her. She wore an overdress of wheatstraw-colored wool upon clean linen high to her neck. The effect was modest and maidenly, though Ingrey supposed the lace collar was mostly to hide the greening bruises on her throat. Wencel came in almost on her heels, glittering in the abundant candlelight, having also changed into richer garb than what he'd ridden in. And cleaner. Ingrey briefly wished his own saddlebags had held a better choice than least smelly.
“Ah,” murmured Wencel, lifting a silver cover and revealing a ham. “Dare I ask you to carve, Lord Ingrey?”
Ijada blinked warily. Ingrey returned Wencel an equally tight smile and haggled off slices. He slipped his hands below the table, after, to pull his cuffs down again over the bandages on his wrists. He waited to see how Wencel would bend the talk next, which resulted in a silence for a space, as all applied themselves to the meal.
At length Wencel remarked, “I had nothing but secondhand reports about the dire events at Birchgrove that left your father dead and you…well. They were quite jumbled and wild. And certainly incomplete. Would you tell me the full tale?”
Ingrey, braced for more questions about Hallana, hesitated in confusion, then mustered his memories once more. He had held them for years in silence, yet now recounted them aloud for the third time in a week. His story seemed to grow smoother with repetition, as though the account were slowly coming to replace the event, even in his own mind. Wencel chewed and listened, frowning.
“Your wolf was different than your father's,” he said, as Ingrey wound down after describing, as best he could, the wolfish turmoil in his mind that had blended into his weeks of delirium.
“Well, yes. For one thing, it was not diseased. Or at least…not in the same way. It made me wonder if animals could get the falling sickness, or some like disease of the mind.”
“I do not know. He was dead before I recovered enough to ask anything.”
“Huh. For I had heard”-a slight emphasis on that last word, a significant pause-“that it was not the wolf originally intended for you. That the rabid wolf had killed its pack mate, a day before the rite was to be held. And that the new wolf was found that night, sitting outside the sick wolf's cage.”
“Then you have heard more than I was told. It could be, I suppose.”
Wencel tapped his spoon beside his plate in a faint, nervous tattoo, seemed to catch himself, and set it down.
Ingrey added, “Did your mother say anything to you about your stallion? That morning when you awoke changed.”
“No. That was the morning she died.”
“Not of rabies!”
“No. And yet I have wondered, since. She died in a fall from a horse.”
Ingrey pursed his lips. Ijada's eyes widened.
“It died in the accident, too,” Wencel added. “Broke its leg. The groom cut its throat-it was said. By the time I came to wonder about it-some time afterward-she was long buried, and the horse butchered and gone. I have meditated by her grave, but there is no lingering aura to be sensed there. No ghosts, no answers. Her death was wrenching to me, so soon, just four months after my father's. I was not insensible to the parallels with your case, Ingrey, but if Wolfcliff brother and sister had some plan concocted, some intent, no one confided it to me.”
“Or some conflict,” Ijada suggested thoughtfully, looking back and forth between the pair of them. “Like two rival castles, one on each side of the Lure, building their battlements higher.” Wencel opened a hand in acknowledgment of the possible point, though his frown suggested that the idea did not sit easily with him.
Wencel shrugged. “Guesses, conjectures, fantasies, more like. My nights grew full of them, till I was wearied beyond measure with the wondering.”
Ingrey chased his last bite of dumpling across his plate, and said in a lower tone, “Why did you never approach me before, then?”
“You were gone to Darthaca. Permanent exile, for all I knew. Then your family lost all trace of you. You might have been dead, as far as anyone had heard to the contrary.”
“Yes, but what about after? When I returned?”
“You seemed to have reached a place of safety, under Hetwar's protection. Safer with your dispensation than I was with my secrets, certainly. I envied you that. Would you have thanked me for throwing your life back into doubt and disarray?”
“Perhaps not,” Ingrey conceded reluctantly.
A crisp double knock sounded at the room's thick door. Ijada started, but Wencel merely called, “Come!”
Wencel's clerk poked his head around the door and murmured apologetically, “The message you were awaiting has arrived, my lord.”
“Ah, good. Thank you.” Wencel pushed back from the table, and to his feet. “Excuse me. I shall return in a few moments. Pray continue.” He gestured at the serving dishes.
As soon as Wencel exited, a pair of servants bustled in to clear used plates, lay new courses, renew the wine and water, and retreat again with equally wordless bows. Ingrey and Ijada were left looking at each other. Some tentative exploration under the dish covers revealed dainties, fruits, and sweets, and Ijada brightened. They helped one another to the most interesting tidbits. Ingrey glanced at the closed door. “Do you think Princess Fara knows of Wencel's beast?” he asked her.
“Was he not courtly?”
“Oh, he was always polite, that I saw. Cool and courteous. I never saw why she seemed to have always a touch of fear around him, for he never raised his hand or even his voice to her. But if it was fear for him, and not-or not just-of him, perhaps that explains it.”
“And was he in love with her?”
Her frown deepened. “It's hard to say. He was so often moody, so distant and silent, for days on end it seemed. Sometimes, if there were visitors to Castle Horseriver, he would rouse himself, and there would be a spate of conversation and wit-he's really extraordinarily learned. Yet he has spoken more in one evening to you, here, than I ever heard him speak at any meal with his wife. But then…you are arresting to him in ways that she is not.” Her eyes slid toward and away from him, and he knew she tested her inner senses.
So are you, now, Ingrey realized. “He has only a little time to assure himself of his own safety in this new tangle. Perhaps that explains why he's pushing. He is pushing-don't you think?” Ingrey at least felt pressed.
“Oh, yes.” She paused in thought. “Too, it may be an outpouring long suppressed. Who could he speak to of this, before us, now? He's worried, yes, but also…I don't know. Excited? No-subtler or stranger than that. Surely joyful cannot be the word.” Her lips screwed up.
“I shouldn't think so,” Ingrey said dryly. The door clicked open, and Ingrey's gaze jerked up. It was Wencel, returning. He seated himself again with an apologetic gesture.
“Well enough. If I have not yet said so, Ingrey, let me congratulate you on the speed of your mission. It does not look as though I shall be able to emulate it, to my regret. I'll likely send you ahead with Lady Ijada tomorrow, as her presence in the cortege is like to be, hm, awkward, as it is turned into a parade. At half march all the way on to Easthome, five gods spare me.”
“Where in Easthome am I to be sent?” Ijada asked, a little tensely.
“That is a matter still being settled. I should know by tomorrow morning. No place vile, if I have my way.” He stared at her through lidded eyes.
Ingrey stared at them both, daring to extend his senses beyond sight. “You two are different from each other. Your beast is much darker, Wencel. Or something. Her cat makes me think of sundappled shade, but yours…goes all the way down.” Past the limits of his perceptions.
“Indeed, I think that leopardess must have been at the peak of its condition,” said Wencel. He cast Ijada a smile, as if to reassure her that the comment was well meant. “It has a fresh and pure power. A Weald warrior would have been proud to bear it, if there had been such a clan as kin Leopardtree back then.”
“But I am a woman, not a warrior,” said Ijada, watching him back.
“The women of the Old Weald used to take in sacred animals as well. Did you not know?”
“No!” Her eyes lit with interest. “Truly?”
“Oh, seldom as warriors, though there were always a few such called. Some tribes used theirs as their banner-carriers, and they were valued above all women. But there was a second sort…another sort of hallowed animal made, that women took more often. Well, more proportionally; they were much rarer to start with.”
“Made?” said Ingrey.
Wencel's lips curved up at the tautness in his voice, in an angler's smile. “Weald warriors were made by sending the soul of a sacrificed animal into a man. But something else was made when the soul of an animal was sacrificed into another animal.”
Ijada shook off her arrested look, and began, “Do you think Boleso was attempting-wait, no.”
“I have still not quite unraveled what Boleso thought he was about, but if it was in pursuit of some rumor of this old magic, he had it wrong. The animal was sacrificed, at the end of its life, into the body of a young animal, always of the same sort and sex. And all the wisdom and training it had learned went with it. And then, at the end of its life, that animal was sacrificed into another. And another. And another. Accumulating a great density of life. And-at some point along the chain, five or six or ten generations or more-it became something that was not an animal anymore.”
“An…animal god?” ventured Ijada.
Wencel spread his hands. “In some shadowy sense, perhaps. It's what some say the gods are-all the life of the world flows into them, through the gates of death. They accumulate us all. And yet the gods are an iteration stranger still, for they absorb without destroying, becoming ever more Themselves with each perfectly retained addition. The great hallowed animals were a thing apart.”
“How long did it take to make one?” asked Ingrey. His heart was starting to beat faster, and he knew his breath was quickening. And he knew Wencel marked it. Why am I suddenly terrified at Wencel's bedtime tale? His very blood seemed to growl in response to it.
“Decades-lifetimes-centuries, sometimes. They were vastly valued, for as animals, they were tame and trainable, uncannily intelligent; they came to understand the speech of men. Yet this great continuity suffered continuous attrition, and not just through ordinary mischance. For when a Weald man or woman took one of the great beasts into their soul, they became something far more than a warrior. Greater and more dangerous. Few of the oldest and best of the creatures survived unharvested under the pressure of Audar's invasion. Many were sacrificed prematurely just to save them from the Darthacan troops. Audar's Temple-men were specially disposed to slay them whenever they were found, in fear of what they could become. Of what they could make us into.”
Wencel bent his hand back and forth. “Let us not become confused in our language. A sorcerer, proper-or improper, if illicit and not bound by Temple disciplines-is possessed of an elemental of disorder and chaos, sacred to the Bastard, and the magic the creature endows is constrained into channels of destruction thereby. Such demons are bound up in the balance of the world of matter and the world of spirit. And the old tribes had such sorcerers, too, with their own traditions of discipline under the white god.
“The great hallowed animals were of this world, and had not ever been in the hands of the gods. Not part of their powers. Not constrained to destruction, either. A purely Wealding thing. Although their magic was wholly of the mind and spirit, they also could affect the body that the mind and spirit rule. The animal shamans had a quite separate tradition from the tribal sorcerers, and not always in alliance with them even in the same clan. One of the many divisions that weakened us in the face of the Darthacan onslaught.” Wencel's eyes grew distant, considering this ancient lapse.
Ijada was looking back and forth between Wencel and Ingrey. “Oh,” she breathed.
Ingrey's face felt drained. It was as if his fortress walls were crumbling, inside his mind, in the face of Wencel's sapping. No. No. This is rubbish, nonsense, old tales for children, some sort of vile joke Wencel is having on me, to see how much I can be persuaded to swallow. What he whispered instead was, “How?”
Ijada sat up with an even sharper stare. A flick of Wencel's eyes acknowledged his audience, and he continued: “Even a century and a half of persecution afterward did not erase all knowledge, though not for lack of trying. Pockets endured, though very few in writing like the library at Castle Horseriver-specially collected by certain of my ancestors, to be sure, but collected from somewhere. But in remote regions, fens and mountains, poor hamlets-the Cantons broke from the Darthacan yoke early-traditions, if not their wisdom, continued for long. Passed down from generation to generation as secret family or village rites, always dimming in ignorance. What even Audar could not accomplish, Time the destroyer did. I had not imagined any to be left, after the relentless erosion of centuries. But it seems there were at least…two.” His blue gaze pierced Ingrey.
Ingrey's thoughts felt like frantic claws scrambling and scraping on the floor of a cage. He managed only an inarticulate noise.
“For your consolation,” Wencel continued, “it explains your long delirium. Your wolf was a far more powerful intrusion upon your soul than your father's or Ijada's simple creatures. Four hundred years old seems impossible-how many wolf generations must that be?-and yet…” His gaze on Ingrey grew uneasy. “All the way down, indeed. An apt description. The spirit warriors mastered their beasts with little effort, for the ordinary animals were readily subordinated to the more powerful human mind. In the Old Weald, if you'd been destined to be gifted with a great beast, you would have had much preparation and study, and the support of others of your kind. Not abandoned to find your own way, stumbling in fear and doubt and near madness. No wonder you responded by crippling yourself.”
Ijada, her tone shrewd, said to Wencel, “And are you?”
He held a palm out. “Less so. I have my own burdens.”
How much less so, Wencel? Yet Ingrey was less moved by the suspicion that he might have found the source of his geas, as by the notion that he might have found his mirror.
Wencel turned again to Ingrey. “In the event, yours was a happy ignorance. If the Temple had suspected what manner of beast you really bore, you would not have found that dispensation so easy to come by.”
“It wasn't easy,” muttered Ingrey.
Wencel hesitated, as if considering a new thought. “Indeed. To bind a great beast could have been no small task.” A respectful, even wary, smile turned one corner of his mouth. He glanced at the candles burning down in their holders on the center of the table. “It grows late. Tomorrow's duties crowd the dawn. We must part company for a while, but Ingrey, I beg you-do nothing to draw fresh attention to yourself till we can talk again.”
Ingrey scarcely dared breathe. “I thought my wolf was just a well of violence. Rage, destruction, killing. What else can it-could I do?”
“That is the next lesson. Come to me for it when we are both back in Easthome. Meantime, if you value your life, keep your secrets-and mine.” Wencel pushed himself up, wearily. He ushered them out the door before him, plain signal that both the dinner and the revelations were done for the night. Ingrey, nearly sick to his stomach, could only be thankful. CHAPTER NINE
THE SERVANT'S COT CREAKED IN THE NIGHT SILENCE OF THE house as Ingrey sat down and clenched his hands upon his knees. Introspection was a habit he'd long avoided, for aversion to what it must confront. Tonight, at last, he forced his perceptions inward.
He pushed past the generalized dull terror, as through a too-familiar fog. Brushed aside clinging tendrils of self-deception, a veil on his inner sight. He had no time or patience for them anymore. Once, he had conceived of his bound wolf as a sort of knot under his belly, encysted, like an extra organ, but one without function. The knot, the wolf, was not there now. Nor in his heart, nor in his mind, exactly, though trying to see into his own mind felt like trying to see the back of his own head. The beast was truly unbound. So…where…?
It is in my blood, he realized. Not a part, but every part of him. It wasn't just in him, now; it was him. Not to be ripped out as readily as cutting off his fist, or tearing out his eyes, no, no such trivial surgery would answer.
It came to him then, a possible reason why the fen folk practiced their peculiar blood sacrifices, a meaning lost in the depths of time even to themselves. The marsh people were old enemies of the Old Wealdings. They had faced the forest tribes' spirit warriors and animal shamans in battle and raid along their marches for centuries out of mind-taken captives, perhaps including prisoners far too dangerous to hold. Had those sanguinary drainings once had a more grim and practical purpose?
Could a mere physical separation, of blood from body, also create a spiritual one, of sin from soul?
Denial, it seemed, ran at the end of its long road down into a bog of blood. More in a sort of chill curiosity than any other emotion, Ingrey rummaged in his saddlebags and drew out his coil of rope. He laid it and his belt knife out on the quilt beside him and glanced upward in the light of his single candle at the shadowy ceiling beams. Yes, it could be done, the supreme self-sacrifice. Bind his own ankles, hoist himself up, loop a knot. Hang upside down. Lift the finely honed blade to his own throat. He could let his wolf out in a hot scarlet stream, end its haunting of him, right here and now. Free himself of all defilement in the ultimate no.
So would his soul, rejected by the gods, just fade quietly into oblivion as the sundered and damned ghosts were said to do? It seemed no fearful fate. Or-if he had misjudged the rite-would his lost spirit, augmented by this unknown force, turn into something…else? Something presently unimaginable?
Did Wencel know what?
All those lures the young earl had thrown out, all that bait, were plain enough indicators of how Wencel thought of Ingrey, and about him. I am prey, in his eyes. Watch me run. He could deny Wencel his quarry.
Ingrey stood up, reached, felt along the beam, tucked the rope through a slight warped gap between the timber and the attic floor above, sat again and studied the cord's dangling length in the shadows. He touched the gray twist; his brain felt cool and distant, in this contemplation, and yet his hand shook. That much blood would make a mighty mess on the floor for some horrified servant to clean up in the morning. Or would it flow between the floorboards, seep through the ceiling of the room below? Announce the event overhead by a dripping in the dark, spattering wetly upon a pillow or a sleeping face? Was that thunder, does the roof leak? Until a light was struck, and its bright flare revealed the drizzle as a redder rain. Would there be screams?
Was Lady Ijada's room below his? He calculated the placement of corridors, and of the chamber door into which the warden had retreated. Perhaps. It hardly mattered.
He paused for a long time, barely breathing, balanced on the cusp of the night. No.
The thought did very odd things to his heart. He rejected the poets' phrases as drivel; his heart did not turn over, nor inside out, nor, most certainly not ever, dance. It went on beating right side up in his chest as usual, if a little faster and tighter-seeming. Was he odd, to relish the peculiar perilous sensation so? It wasn't exactly pleasant. Exactly. But what he relished in the darkness of his dreams wasn't what most men he'd known spoke of, in the crude braggings of their lusts, as pleasant; he'd been aware of that for some time.
His hand drew back, clenched closed.
So if I choose not to wake you so redly, Ijada, what then?
He had come to the end of the road of No; he could go no further down it without drowning in his own blood. I have three choices, I think. To wade into the red swamp and never come up again. To linger in numbness and immobility as before-yet it was certain that neither the tide of events nor the relentless Wencel would permit the continuation of his paralysis very much longer. Or…he might turn around and walk the other way.
So what does that mean, or has my thinking turned altogether to a poet's twaddle? His bedchamber was so quiet he could hear the susurrus of the blood in his ears like an animal's panting.
Could he stop denying himself, and deny others instead? He tested the phrases on his tongue. No, you are wrong, all of you, Temple and Court and folk in the streets. You always were wrong. I am not…am not… what? And are these the only terms I can think in, these shouted nos? Ah, habit.
Or Who I may meet along it, and that thought disturbed him more than knife and cord and haunted blood together.
Though if I can find a darker dark along it than this one, I shall be surprised.
He rose, sheathed his knife, packed the rope away. Stripped for sleep and lay down under the servant's sheets. Old and thin and mended, they were, but clean; it was a rich household that afforded even its servants such refinements.
I do not know where I am going. But I am quite weary enough of where I've been.
AFTER THE BRIEFEST DAWN MEETING WITH WENCEL, ALL practicalities, Ingrey took his prisoner on the road. Hetwar's troop still escorted them, glad enough to be lighter by one dead prince and a dozen surly retainers and all their baggage. Ingrey had even sent the latest warden-dedicat home, her place taken by a middle-aged maidservant of Horseriver's household who rode pillion behind Gesca. The small cavalcade climbed out of the valley of Oxmeade into the breaking day, and began to wind through the settled country of the rich lowlands belonging to the earldom of Stagthorne.
Taking a lead from Horseriver, Ingrey edged his mount forward and without apology motioned Ijada to ride ahead with him. He was nonetheless conscious of Gesca's narrow gaze, following them. Just so they outdistanced the curious lieutenant's ears.
Ijada was unusually pale and withdrawn this morning, with gray smudges under her eyes. Her smile, returning his curt nod, was brief and muted. Was she finally coming to realize that she rode into a trap? Too late? “We cannot continue to flounder along with no attempt at a plan,” he began firmly. “You've rejected mine. Have you a better?”
His mouth, tightening, paused. The first hour I saw you at Boar's Head, five gods help me. “In the upstairs room of that inn at Red Dike,” he answered instead.
She tilted her head in a conciliating nod.
“We share a certain problem apart from your legal morass,” he continued. “Cat maiden.”
“Oh, it's not apart. Dog lord.”
Despite himself, his lips twisted up in return. Did he truly smile so little, that his mouth should feel so odd doing this? “Earl Horseriver has promised this much to shield you. He told me this morning that you are to be lodged in a house in the capital that he owns, with his servants about you. Better than some dank cell down by the river, and a sign, I think, that your destruction is not yet set in train. There may be a little time.”
“He means to keep me close,” she said thoughtfully.
“At Wencel's request, Lord Hetwar has appointed me your house warden for this arrest.” No need to mention how his breath had skipped at this unexpected stroke of good fortune. “Judging by the note his courier brought me, Hetwar is glad enough to have you kept out of sight for a time.”
Her eyes flew up. “Wencel means to keep us both close, then. Why?”
“I judge…” his voice slowed, uncertain. “I judge he is a little off-balance, just now. So much is happening at once, with the funeral and his distraught wife, atop the roil already with the hallow king's illness and-the Mother avert, but it seems most probable-the impending election. Biast and his retinue will be arriving in Easthome, and the prince will certainly draw his brother-in-law into the concerns of his party. Beneath that lie Wencel's other uncanny secrets, old and new. If Wencel can make one piece of his puzzle hold still till he has time to attend to it, well, so much the better. For him. As for me, I don't intend to hold still.”
“I've had one idea, so far. If, as I suspect, more than one power in Easthome would like to see your trial suppressed, this scandal swept quietly aside, it might even be accepted. Your kin might call on the old kin-law, and offer a blood-price for Prince Boleso.”
She inhaled, brows climbing in surprise. “Will the Temple care to have its justiciars excluded from so high a case?”
“If the highest lords of kin Stagthorne and kin Badgerbank agree, the divines of the Father's Order will have no choice. There lies my first doubt, for the king is unfit to accept any proposal; at the time I left Easthome, Hetwar was uncertain that the old man had even been made to understand that Boleso had, um, met his death. Biast, once he arrives, will be half-prepared and wholly distracted. Clear decisions from the Court at Easthome have been hard to come by, these past weeks, and it will likely get worse before it gets better. But Earl-ordainer Badgerbank is no small power in his own right. If he could be convinced, for the honor of his house, to sponsor you, and Wencel urged to help persuade him, the scheme might have a chance.”
“A prince's blood-price could be no small sum. Far beyond my poor stepfather's means.”
“It would have to come from Badgerbank's purse. With Wencel, perhaps, helping fill it on the left hand.”
“Have you met Earl Badgerbank? I did not think he had the reputation as a generous man.”
“Um…” Ingrey hesitated, then answered honestly, “no, he doesn't.” He glanced across at her, riding in the warming morning light. “But if the money-”
“Bribe?” she muttered. “-were raised elsewhere, I think there would be less trouble coaxing him to lend his name. Your dower lands-how large are they?”
Ingrey blinked, taken aback. “That is rather larger than you led me to picture. A forested tract is no small resource; it may yield up game, timber, charcoal, mast for pigs, perhaps a great prize of minerals beneath…you have nearly the price of a prince right there, I think! How many villages or hamlets are to be found there, how many hearths in the tax census?”
“None. Not in those lands. No one hunts there. No one goes in.”
The sudden tension in her tone arrested him. “Why not?”
She shrugged, unconvincingly. “They are accursed. Haunted woods, whispering woods. The Wounded Woods, they are called, and indeed, the trees seem sick. All who enter are plagued by nightmares of blood and death, they say.”
“Tales,” Ingrey scoffed.
“I went in,” Ijada replied steadily. “After my mother died, and it was at last made clear that the tract had indeed come to me. I went to see for myself, for I believed I had the right. And duty. The forester was reluctant to escort me, but I made him. My stepfather's grooms and my maid were terrified. For a full day we rode in, then made a camp. Most of the land is raw and steep, all ravines and abrupt cliffs, briars and stones poking through, and gloomy hollows. At the center is one broad, flat valley, filled with great oak trees, centuries old. That is the darkest part, said to be the most haunted, a cursed shrine of the Old Weald. Local legend says it is lost Bloodfield itself, for all that two other earldoms along the Ravens claim that doubtful honor.”
“Many old shrine sites have become farmers' fields, in time.”
“Not this one. We slept there that night, much against the will of my escort. And indeed, we dreamed. The grooms dreamed of being torn apart by animals, and woke screaming. My maid dreamed that she drowned in blood. Come morning, they were all wild to get away.”
She hesitated so long this time he almost asked again, but held his tongue. His patience was rewarded at length when she murmured, “We all dreamed. It took me some time to realize that my dream was different.”
Silences, he reminded himself, had a power all their own. He waited some more. She regarded him under her lashes, as if gauging his tolerance for further tales of the uncanny.
She began, he thought, obliquely. “Have you ever witnessed an almsgiver mobbed by famished beggars? How they gather in a vast swirl, each one weak, but in their numbers strong and frightening, frantic? Give to us, give, for we starve… Yet however much you gave, all that you had, it would not be enough; they might tear you apart and devour you without being satisfied.”
He granted her a wary nod, uncertain where this was tending.
“In my dream…men came to me out of the trees. Bloody-handed men, many headless, in the rusted armor of the Old Weald. Some bore animal standards, the skulls all decorated about with colored stones, or wore capes of skins; stag and bear, horse and wolf, badger and otter, boar and lynx and ox and I know not what else. Faceless, blurred, horribly hacked. They raved around me in a great begging crowd, as though I were their queen, or liege-lady, come to spread some strange largesse among them. I could not understand their language, and their signs bewildered me. I was not afraid of them, for all they pawed my garments with rotting hands until my dress was soaked in cold black blood. They wanted something of me. I could not make out what it was. But I knew they were owed it.”
“A terrifying dream,” he said, in the most detached voice he could muster.
“I did not fear them. But they split my heart.” “Were they so pitiful?”
Began again. “Until Wencel said those words last night. Banner-carrier. I had half forgotten the dream, in the press of more recent woes, but at those words the memory of it slammed back, so vivid it was like a blow-I don't think you know how close I came to fainting.”
“I…no. To me, you just looked interested.”
She gave a relieved nod. “Good.”
“And so what new thing do you make of your dream as a result?”
“I thought…I think…I think now the dead warriors made me their banner-carrier, that night.” Her right hand rose from her rein to her left breast, and spread there in the sacred gesture; he thought the fingers clutched in a tiny spasm. “And I was suddenly reminded that the heart is the sign and signifier of the Son of Autumn. The heart for courage. And loyalty. And love.”
Ingrey had tried to wrench their thoughts to shrewd politics, to good, solid, reasonable, practical plans. How had he stepped hip deep into the eerie once again? “It was but a dream. How long ago?”'
“Some months. The others could not wait to break camp and gallop home, next morning, but I rode slowly, looking back.” “What did you see?”
“Surely someone might be found who does not know their local reputation.”
She shook her head. “You don't understand.”
“What, are the lands entailed to you?”
“Already pledged for debt?”
“No! Nor shall they be. How would I ever redeem them?” She laughed mirthlessly. “No great marriage, or likely, any marriage, looms in my future now; and I have no other prospects of inheritance.”
“But if it might save your life, Ijada-”
“You don't understand. Five gods help me, I don't understand. But…they laid the woods into my charge, the dead men. I cannot lay that charge down until my men are…paid.”
“Paid? What coin can ghosts desire? Or hallucinations, as the case may be,” he added testily.
She grimaced in frustration, and with a little slice of her hand batted down his doubting shot. “I don't know. But they wanted something.”
“Then I shall just have to find another way,” Ingrey muttered. Or return to this argument later.
Now it was her turn to stare thoughtfully at him. “And what plans have you made to seek out the source of your geas?”
“None, yet,” he admitted. “Though after, um, Red Dike, I think no such thing could be laid upon me again without my seeing it. Resisting it.” Stung by the doubtful quirk of her eyebrows, he added more sternly, “I plan to be on my guard, and look about me.”
Ingrey's frown deepened at this unwelcome thought. “Many men. It's my calling. But I always figured an enemy would just send paid bravos.”
“Do you think the average bravo would be inclined to take you on?”
His lips lifted a little at this. “They might have to raise the price.”
Her lips curved, too. “Perhaps your unknown enemy is a pinch-purse, then. The bounty for a wild wolf warrior might be too steep for him.”
Ingrey chuckled. “My reputation is more lurid than my sword arm can sustain, I'm afraid. An adversary has merely to send enough men, or shoot from behind in the dark. Easily enough done. Men alone are not hard to kill, despite our swagger.”
“Indeed,” she murmured bleakly, and Ingrey cursed his careless tongue. After a moment, she added, “It's still a good question, though. What would have happened to you if the geas had worked as planned?”
Ingrey shrugged. “Disgraced. Dismissed from Hetwar's service. Maybe hanged. Our drowning would have passed as an accident, true. Some several men might have been happy that I'd relieved them of a dilemma, but I should not have looked to them for gratitude.”
“But it would be safe to say you'd have been removed as a force in the capital.”
“I'm no force in the capital. I'm just one of Hetwar's more dubious servants.”
“Such a charitable man Hetwar is to sponsor you, then.” Ingrey's lips opened, closed. “Mm.”
You thought it, too? Ijada, Ingrey reminded himself, had never known Wencel as a small, slow child. But did that leave her to overestimate, or Ingrey to underestimate, his cousin?
Ijada continued, “But in that case, I do not understand why we were both allowed to leave his house alive today.”
“That would have been too crude,” said Ingrey. “A hired assassin is always his own witness, but the geas would have left none. The spell-caster, Wencel or not, desired greater subtlety. Presumably.” He frowned in renewed doubt.
“He was never a comfortable man, but this new Wencel scares me to death.”
“Well, he does not me.” Ingrey's mouth and mind froze as he was suddenly reminded of how close he'd come to death at his own hand, not twelve hours past. A subtle enough death to pass unquestioned even under Wencel's roof? It was no geas that time, though. I did it to myself.
After Wencel cried wolf at me…
“Now what makes you grow grim?” Ijada demanded. “Nothing.” Her lips twisted in exasperation. “To be sure.” After a few more minutes of riding in silence, she added, “I want
to know what else Wencel knows of Bloodfield-or Holytree, as he called it-if he's such a scholar of the Old Weald as he claims. Tax him on it, if-when-you speak again. But do not tell him of my dream.”
Ingrey nodded agreement. “Had you ever discussed your legacy with him?”
“Never.” “With Princess Fara?”
Ingrey drummed his fingers on the thigh of his riding leathers. “It must have been but a dream. Most souls would have been taken up by the gods at the hour of their deaths, whether your woods were Bloodfield or some lesser Wealding defeat. Any sundered who refused the gods would have blurred to oblivion centuries ago, or so the divines taught me. Four hundred years is far too long for ghosts to survive so entire.”
“I saw what I saw.” Her tone neither offered nor requested rationalizations.
“Maybe that's what the addition of animal spirits does to men's souls,” Ingrey continued in a spurt of inspiration. “Instead of dissolution, damnation becomes an eternal, cold, and silent torment. Trapped between matter and spirit. All the pain of death lingering, all the joy of life stripped away…” He swallowed in sudden fear.
Ijada's gaze grew distant, looking down the winding road. “I trust not. The warriors were worn and tormented, but not joyless, for they took joy in me, I thought.” Her eyes, turning toward him, crinkled a little at the edges. “A moment ago, you said it must be a dream, but now you take it for truth, and your doom foreshadowed. You can't have it both ways, however delightfully glum piling up the prospects makes you.”
Ingrey was surprised into a snort; his lips curled up at the sides, just a little bit. He yanked them back straight. “So which do you think it is?”
“I think…” she said slowly, “that if I could go back now, I would know.” Her lids lowered briefly, and the next look she gave him seemed to weigh him. “I think you might, too.”
They were interrupted then by a crowd on the road, some kinlord's entourage from Easthome traveling to the funereal duty at Oxmeade. Ingrey motioned his men aside, scanning the mob of outriders for faces he recognized. He saw a few, and exchanged brief, sober salutes. Boarford's men, and therefore the two brotherearls and their wives sheltered in the tapestry-covered wagon that jounced along the ruts. Almost immediately thereafter, Ingrey's troop had to make way again for a procession of Temple-men, lord dedicats and high divines, richly dressed and well mounted.
THEY CRESTED THE RANGE OF LOW HILLS NORTHEAST OF THE capital in the late afternoon. The town and the broad southern plains beyond spread out before their gaze. The river Stork curled away from the town's foot in a bright silver line, growing more crooked until lost in the autumn haze. A few boats, merchant craft, sculled laboriously up or drifted down its length, making their way from or to the cold sea some eighty miles distant. As Ingrey reined back beside her, Ijada rose in her stirrups and stared.
He studied her expression, which was part fascinated, part wary. Easthome might well be the largest city she'd seen in her life, for all that perhaps a dozen Darthacan provincial seats eclipsed it, and the Darthacan royal capital could have held it six times over.
“The town is divided into two halves, Templetown and Kingstown,” Ingrey told her. “The upper town, on those high bluffs, holds the temple, the archdivine's palace, and all the offices of the holy orders. The lower town has the warehouses and the merchants' quarters. You can see the wharves beyond the wall, where the drainage runs out to join the Stork. The hallow king's hall and most of the kin-lords' houses are on the opposite end from the docks.” His hand swept out the sections. “Easthome used to be two villages, back in the old days, belonging to two different tribes. They feuded and fought across the creek that divided them till it ran with blood, they say, practically up to the time Audar's grandson seized the place for his western capital, and stamped out all division with his new stonework. You can scarcely see the creek now, it is so built across. And no one now chooses to die for the sake of a sewer. Hetwar told me this tale; he takes it for a parable, but I'm not sure what he thinks the moral is.”
They came at length to a narrow curving street in the merchants' quarter, and dismounted before a slim stone house in a row of several such built abutting one another, though obviously at different times by different masons. Ingrey wondered if Horseriver owned not just this house but the row, and if such lucrative property had come to him with Princess Fara. The house was neither so rich nor so large as last night's lodging, but it appeared decent enough, quiet and close.
Ingrey dismounted and passed his and Ijada's horses to Gesca's care.
“Tell my lord Hetwar I will report to him as soon as I see the prisoner secured. Send me my manservant Tesko, if you find him sober, with what things I am likely to need for the next few days. Clean clothes, for one.” Ingrey grimaced, stretching his aching back; his leathers reeked of horse and the grime of the road, and the stitches in his scalp were itching again, maddeningly. Ijada, stripping off her riding gloves and craning her neck, managed somehow to appear nearly as trim and cool as she had that morning.
The house's porter saw them inside; the woman warden-servant, guided by a housemaid, marshaled Ijada at once up the stairs, her leather-strapped case hoisted after by the porter's boy. Ingrey set down his saddlebags and stared around the narrow hall.
Ingrey grunted, and said, “No hurry. If this place is to be my charge, I had best look it over.” He prowled off through the nearest doorway.
The house seemed simple enough. The cellar and the ground floor were devoted to storage, a kitchen with antechamber and pallets for cook and scullion, an eating hall, a parlor, and a cubby under the stairs where the porter lurked. Ingrey poked his head out the only other outer door, which led to a back court with a covered well. The second floor included what might have been meant for a study, as well as two bedrooms. Passing the door of similar chambers on the next floor up, Ingrey heard the murmur of women's voices, Ijada and her warden. The top floor was divided up into smaller rooms for the servants.
He descended again to find the porter's boy lugging his saddlebags into one of the bedrooms on the second floor. The furnishings were sparse-narrow bed, washstand, a single chair, a battered wardrobe-and Ingrey wondered if the place had been tenanted or not before Horseriver's couriers had arrived last night demanding its possession. Light, distinctive footsteps and the creaking of, perhaps, a bed overhead marked Ijada's location. The proximity was both reassuring and unsettling. When he heard her steps on the stairs, he turned for the hall.
She had her hand raised to knock on his door as he opened it. In the other, she held Learned Hallana's letter, a little crumpled now. Her warden-or was that, Wencel's warden?-hovered behind her, peering suspiciously.
“Lord Ingrey,” she said, reverting to formality. “Learned Hallana charged you to deliver this. Will you do so?” Her level eyes seemed to bore into his, silently reminding him of the rest of the sorceress's words: to its destination, and no other.
He took it, glancing at the scrawled direction. “Do you know who this”-he peered more closely-“Learned Lewko may be?”
What does that prove? Hallana trusted me. And a Temple-man neither foolish nor untrue might yet be no friend to the defiled.
Still, Ingrey remained deathly curious as to what Hallana had reported of him, and of the strange events at Red Dike. The only way he might find out short of opening the letter himself was to be there when it was opened. And if he delivered it on his way to Hetwar's palace, he would be relieved of any possible need to conceal it or lie about it to his master. Hetwar could not demand it of him then. If chided, Ingrey could feign its faithful delivery was just the sort of virtuous act Hetwar might properly expect of his henchman.
“Yes. I will undertake the charge.”
Ijada nodded intently, and he wondered if she read his corkscrew thoughts in his eyes, or not: or if she judged him as blithely as Hallana had.
He added, “Stay in; stay safe. Lock your inner doors as well. I presume whatever comforts this house may offer are yours for the asking.” He let his eye fall on the servant-warden, and she made a circumspect curtsey of acknowledgment. “I don't know what else Lord Hetwar may want of me tonight, so eat when you will. I'll be back as soon as I can.”
He tucked the letter in his jerkin, bowed her a polite farewell, and made his way down the stairs. He wanted a bath, clean clothes, and a meal, in that order, but all such niceties would have to wait.
Leaving instructions with the porter for his servant, should Tesko arrive before he returned, Ingrey walked out into the town.
Familiar smells and sights subtly reassured him. He wound his way through the cobbled streets of Kingstown and across the half-buried creek, then climbed the steep steps up the near cliff of the temple side. Two switchbacks and a breathless ten minutes brought him to the stair-gate, winding crookedly under a tower and two houses, into the upper town. In the dark corner where the passage turned, a little shrine for the safety of the city stood, a few candles flickering in the dim drafts flanked by wilted garlands; reflexively, Ingrey made the fivefold sign in passing. He came out again into the early-evening light and turned right.
The central court was open to the air, and in its middle the holy fire burned quietly on its plinth. Through an archway into one of the five great stone domes surrounding it, Ingrey could see a ceremony beginning-a funeral, he realized, for he could glimpse a bier, surrounded by shuffling mourners, being set down before the Father's altar. In a few days, Prince Boleso's body, too, would pass through these rites here.
On the other side of the court, the acolyte-grooms were marshaling their sacred animals for the little miracle of the choosing. Each creature, led by its handler dressed in the color of his or her order, would be presented before the bier, and the divine would interpret by its actions which god had taken up the soul of the recent dead. This not only guided the prayers of the mourners, but also their more material offerings, to the altar and the order of the proper god. Ingrey would be more cynical about this, but that he had more than once seen results clearly unexpected to all parties involved.
A woman in Mother's greens had a large green bird, which cawed nervously, perched upon her shoulder. A maiden in Daughter's blue held a young hen with purple-blue feathers tightly under her arm. An immensely fluffy gray dog cowered close to the gray robes of an elderly groom of the Father's Order. A young man in the reds and browns of the Son led a skittish chestnut colt, its coat brushed to a shimmering copper and its eyes rolling whitely. The animal snorted and sidled, yanking its groom almost off his feet, and in a moment, Ingrey saw why.
The man was nearly as arresting as the bear. He was broad-shouldered to match his height, with hair in a dense red horsetail down his back. Thick silver clamps held it in place, and thick silver bracelets clanked on his arms. Bright blue eyes held an expression of amiable bemusement which Ingrey was not sure whether to take as acuity or vacuity. His clothes-tunic, trousers, a swinging coat-were simple enough in cut, but colorfully dyed and decorated with elaborate embroidery. Big boots were stamped with silver designs, and the hilt of his long sword glittered with crudely cut gems. In the belt sheath at his back rested not a knife, but an ax, also elaborately inlaid, its blade gleaming razor-honed.
A brown-haired man in similar but less gaudy dress, a good head shorter than his fellow yet still tall, leaned against a pillar with his arms folded, watching the proceedings with a most dubious expression. Some of the grooms shot him looks of supplication, which he steadfastly ignored.
Ingrey tore his attention from this peculiar drama as he saw an older woman in the white-and-cream robes of the Bastard, the loops of a divine's braid bouncing on her shoulder and her arms laden with folded cloth, scurry through the court, evidently intent upon some shortcut. Ingrey barely caught her sleeve as she sped past. She jerked to a halt and eyed him unfavorably.
“Excuse me, Learned. I carry a letter for one Learned Lewko, which I am charged to deliver into his hand.” Her expression altered at once into something, if not more friendly, much more interested. She looked him up and down; indeed, he imagined he looked the part of a road-weary courier, just now.
She led him through a discreet side entry, down and up some steps, back outside behind the temple, and past the archdivine's palace into the next street. Down one more narrow alley they came to a long stone building some two stories high, passed through a side door, and wended up more stairs. Ingrey began to be grateful he hadn't just asked for directions. They passed a succession of well-lit rooms devoted to scriptoria, judging by the heads bent over tables and scratching of quills.
Coming to a closed door in the same row, she knocked, and a man's calm voice bade, “Enter.”
The door swung open on a narrower room, or perhaps that was an illusion created by the contents. Crammed shelves lined the chamber, and a pair of tables overflowed with books, papers, scrolls, and a great deal of more miscellaneous litter. A saddle sat propped on its pommel in one corner.
The man, sitting in a chair beyond one table near the window, looked up from the sheaf of papers he was reading and raised his brows. He, too, was dressed in Bastard's whites, but the robes were slightly shabby and without any mark of rank upon them. He was middle-aged, spare, perhaps a little taller than Ingrey, clean-shaven, with sandy-gray hair trimmed short. Ingrey would have taken him for some important man's clerk or secretary, except that the woman divine pressed her hand to her lips and bowed her head in a gesture of utmost respect before she spoke again.
“Learned, here is a man with a letter for you.” She glanced up at Ingrey. “Your name, sir?”
“Ingrey kin Wolfcliff.”
No special reaction or recognition showed in her face, but the spare man's brows notched a trifle higher. “Thank you, Marda,” he said, polite dismissal clear in his tone. She touched her lips again and withdrew, shutting the door behind Ingrey.
Learned Lewko set down his sheaf of papers rather abruptly and sat up to take it. “Hallana! Not ill news, I trust?”
“Not…that is, she was well when I last saw her.”
Lewko eyed the missive more warily. “Is it complicated?”
Ingrey considered his answer. “She did not show me the contents. But I expect so.”
Lewko sighed. “As long as it's not another ice bear. I don't think she would gift me with an ice bear. I hope.”
Ingrey was briefly diverted. “I saw an ice bear in the temple court, as I came in. It was, um, most impressive.”
“It is utterly horrifying, I think. The grooms were weeping. Bastard forfend, are they actually trying to use it in a funeral?”
“So it appeared.”
“We should have just told the prince thank you, and put it in a menagerie. Somewhere out in the country.”
“How did it come here?”
“By surprise. Also by boat.”
“How big was the boat?”
Lewko grinned at Ingrey's tone, and looked suddenly younger thereby. “I saw it yesterday, tied up at the wharf below Kingstown. Not nearly as big as one would think.” He ran a hand through his hair. “The beast was a gift, or perhaps a bribe. Brought by this giant red hairy fellow from some island on the frozen side of the south sea, who is either a prince, or a pirate-it is hard to be sure. Prince Jokol, fondly nicknamed by his loyal crew Jokol Skullsplitter, I am informed. I didn't think those white bears could be tamed, but he seems to have made a pet of this one since it was a cub, which makes the gift even more dear, I suppose. I cannot imagine what the voyage was like; they say they met storms. I suspect he is quite mad. In any case, he also brought several large ingots of high-grade silver for the bear's upkeep, which apparently robbed the temple menagerie-master of the wits to refuse the gift. Or bribe.”
“The Skullsplitter wants a divine, to carry off to his glacier-ridden island in place of his bear. This is a fine work of missionary duty that any divine should be proud to undertake. Volunteers have been called for. Twice. If none steps forth by the time the prince is ready to cast off again, one will simply have to be found. Dragged from under a bed, perhaps.” His grin flickered again. “I can afford to laugh; they can't send me. Ah, well.” He sighed once more and set the letter before him on the table, with the wax seal uppermost. He bent his head over it.
The amusement drained from Ingrey, and he came alert. His blood-that blood-seemed to spin up like a vortex. Lewko did not bear the braid of a sorcerer, he did not smell of a demon, and yet Temple sorcerers answered to him…? Threw their most complicated dilemmas in his lap?
Lewko laid his hand across the wax seal, and his eyes closed briefly. Something flared about him. It was nothing Ingrey saw with his eyes or smelled with his nose, but it made the hair stir at the nape of his neck. He'd felt a trace of this stomach-wrenching awe once before, from a stronger source, but with inner senses at the time much weaker. At the end of his futile pilgrimage to Darthaca, in the presence of a small, stout, harried fellow, to all appearances ordinary, who sat down quietly and let a god reach through him into the world of matter.
Lewko's not a sorcerer. He's a saint, or petty saint. And he knew who Ingrey was, and he had seemingly been here at the temple for years, judging by the state of his study, but Ingrey had never seen-or was that, noticed?-him before. Certainly not in the company of any of the high Temple divines who waited upon the sealmaster or the king's court, all of whom Ingrey had dutifully memorized.
“This letter has been opened.”
“Not by me, Learned.”
Ingrey's mind sped back. From Hallana to Ijada to him…Ijada? Surely not. Had it ever been out of her possession, parted from her bosom? It had rested in that inner pocket of the riding habit, which she had worn…all but at the dinner at Earl Horseriver's. And Wencel had left the table to receive an urgent message…indeed. Easy enough for the earl to overawe and suborn that warden to rifle Ijada's luggage, but had Wencel thought to use some shaman trick to fool a sorcerer about his prying? But Lewko is not a sorcerer, now, is he. Not exactly. Ingrey temporized: “Without proof, any guess of mine would be but slander, Learned.”
Lewko's look grew uncomfortably penetrating, but to Ingrey's relief he dropped his eyes to the letter again. “Well, let us see,” he muttered, and stripped it open, scattering wax.
He read intently for a few minutes, then shook his head and stood to lean nearer to the window. Twice, he turned the closely written paper sideways. Once, he glanced across at Ingrey and inquired rather plaintively, “Does the phrase broke his chants mean anything to you?”
“Um, could that be, chains?” Ingrey ventured.
Lewko brightened. “Ah! Yes, it could! That makes much more sense.” He read on. “Or perhaps it doesn't…”
Lewko came to the end, frowned, and started over. He waved vaguely toward a wall. “I believe there is a camp stool under that pile. Help yourself, Lord Ingrey.”
“I pity the spy who had to decipher this,” he said, without heat.
“Is it in code?”
“No: Hallana's handwriting. Written in haste, I deem. It takes practice-which I grant I have-to unravel. Well, I've suffered worse for less reward. Not from Hallana, she always touches the essential. One of her several uncomfortable talents. That demure smile masks a holy recklessness. And ruthlessness. The Father be thanked for Oswin's moderating influence. Such as it is.”
“You know her well?” Ingrey inquired. Or, why does this paragon write to you, alone of all the Temple functionaries in Easthome?
Lewko rolled the letter and tapped it gently on the edge of the table. “I was assigned to be her mentor, many years ago, when she so unexpectedly became a sorceress.”
Surely it took one sorcerer to teach another. Therefore and therefore…Like a stone across the water, Ingrey's mind skipped two begged questions to arrive at a third. “How does a man become a former sorcerer? Undamaged?” It was the task of that Darthacan saint to destroy illicit sorcerers, who were reported to fight like madmen against the amputation of their powers, but Learned Lewko had surely not been such a renegade.
“It is possible to lay down the gift.” Lewko's mouth hovered between faint amusement and faint regret. “If one chooses to in time.”
“Is it not a wrench?”
“I didn't say it was easy. In fact”-his voice softened still further-“it takes a miracle.”
What was this man? “I have served four years here in Easthome. I'm surprised our paths have not crossed before.” “But they have. In a sense. I am very familiar with your case, Lord Ingrey.”
“No, that was another man. My involvement at the time was less direct. The inquirer brought me a bag of ashes from the castle, to turn back into a letter of confession.”
Ingrey's brow wrinkled. “Isn't that what I believe Learned Hallana would call a bit uphill for Temple magic? Chaos forced back to order?”
“Indeed and alas, it was. It cost me a month's work and probably a year of my calling. And all for very little, as it turned out, to my fury. What do you remember of Learned Cumril? The young Temple sorcerer whom your father suborned?”
Ingrey stiffened still further. “From an acquaintance lasting the space of an hour's meal and a quarter of an hour's rite, not much. All his attention was on my father. I was an afterthought.” He added truculently, “And how do you know who suborned whom, after all?”
“That much was clear. Less clear was how. Not for money. I think not for threats. There was a reason-Cumril imagined himself doing something good, or at least heroic, that went horribly awry.”
“How can you guess his heart when you don't even know what his mind was about?”
“Oh, that part I don't have to guess. It was in his letter. Once I'd reassembled it. A three-page screed descanting upon his woe, guilt, and remorse. And scarcely one useful fact that we didn't already know.” Lewko grimaced.
“If Cumril wrote the confession, who burned it?” asked Ingrey.
“Now, that is a guess of mine.” Lewko leaned back in his chair, eyeing Ingrey shrewdly. “And yet I am surer of it than many an assertion for which I had more material proof. Do you understand the difference between a sorcerer who rides his demon, and one who is ridden?”
“Not from the inside. The difference is very clear. The gulf between a man who uses a power for his purposes, and a power that uses a man for its purposes, is…sometimes less than an ant's stride across. I know. I rode dangerously close to that line myself, once. It is my belief, after the debacle that left your father dead and you…well, as you are, Cumril was taken by his demon. Whether despair made him weak, whether he was overmatched from the first, I can't now guess, but I believe in my heart that the writing of that confession was Cumril's last act. And the burning of it, the demon's first.”
Ingrey opened his mouth, then closed it. In his mind, he had always cast Cumril in the part of betrayer; it was uncomfortable to consider that the young sorcerer, too, might have been in some strange sense betrayed.
“So you see,” said Lewko softly, “Cumril's fate concerns me. More, it nags me. I fear I cannot encounter you without being reminded of it.”
“Did the Temple ever find out if he was alive or dead?”
“No. There was a report of an illicit sorcerer in the Cantons some five years ago that might have been him, but all trace was lost thereafter.”
Ingrey's lips started to shape the word Who… but he changed it: “What are you?”
Lewko's hand opened. “Just a simple Temple overseer, now.”
Of what? Of all the Temple sorcerers of the Weald, perhaps? Just seemed scarcely the word for it, nor did simple. This man could be very dangerous to me, Ingrey reminded himself. He knows too much already.
And he was about to learn more, unfortunately, for he glanced down at the paper and asked Ingrey to describe the events at Red Dike. No great surprise; Ingrey had certainly guessed those at least would be in the letter.
“Who do you think placed this murderous compulsion, this strange scarlet geas, upon you, Lord Ingrey?”
“I very much wish to know.”
“Well, that makes two of us.”
“I am glad of that,” said Ingrey, and was surprised to realize it was true.
Then Lewko asked, “What do you think of this Lady Ijada?”
Ingrey swallowed, his mind seeming to spiral down like a bird shot out of the air. He asked me what I think about her, not what I feel about her, he reminded himself firmly. “She undoubtedly bashed Boleso's head in. He undoubtedly deserved it.”
A silence seemed to stretch from this succinct obituary. Did Lewko, too, understand the uses of silences? “My lord Hetwar did not desire all these posthumous scandals,” Ingrey added. “I think he has even less than your relish for complications.”
More silence. “She sustains the leopard spirit. It is…lovely in her.” Five gods, I must say something to protect her. “I think she is more god-touched than she knows.”
That won a response. Lewko sat up, his eyes suddenly cooler and more intent. “How do you know?”
Ingrey's chin rose at the hint of challenge. “The same way I know that you are, Blessed One. I feel it in my blood.”
The jolt between them then made Ingrey certain he'd overstepped. But Lewko eased back in his chair, deliberately tenting his hands. “Truly?”
“I do not think you are a fool at all, Lord Ingrey.” Lewko tapped his fingers on the letter, looked away for a moment, then looked back. “Yes. I shall obey my Hallana's marching orders and examine this young woman, I think. Where is she being held?”
“More housed than held, so far.” Ingrey gave directions to the slim house in the merchants' quarter.
“When is she to be bound over to stand her indictment?”
“I would guess not till after Boleso's funeral, since it is so near. I'll know more once I speak with Sealmaster Hetwar. Where I am obliged by my duty to go next,” Ingrey added by way of a broad hint. Yes-he needed to escape this room before Lewko's questions grew even more probing. He stood up.
“I shall try to come tomorrow,” said Lewko, yielding to this move.
Ingrey managed a polite, “Thank you. I shall look for you then,” a bow, and his removal from the room without, he trusted, looking as though he were running like a rabbit.
He closed the door behind himself and blew out his breath in unease. Was this Lewko potential help or potential harm? He remembered Wencel's parting words to him: If you value your life, keep your secrets and mine. Had that been a threat, or a warning?
He had at least managed to keep all mention of Horseriver from this first interview. There could be no hint of Wencel in the letter; his cousin had not impinged on Ingrey's life until after Hallana had been left behind, thankfully. But what about tomorrow? What about half an hour from now, when he stood in his road dirt before Hetwar to report his journey and its incidents?
Horseriver. Hallana. Gesca. Now Lewko. Hetwar. Ingrey was starting to lose track of what all he had not said to whom. He found the correct direction and began to retrace his steps back to the shortcut through the temple, keeping the cadence of his footfalls deliberate.
AS INGREY MADE HIS WAY UP THE CORRIDOR TOWARD THE side entrance of the temple court, a cry of dismay echoed along the walls. His steps quickened in curiosity, then alarm, as the cry was succeeded by a scream. Frightened shouts erupted. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword as he burst into the central area, his head swiveling in search of the source of the uproar.
A bizarre melee was pouring out of the archway to the Father's court. Foremost was the great ice bear. Clamped in its jaws was the foot of the deceased man, an aged fellow dressed in clothes befitting a wealthy merchant, the stiff corpse bouncing along like some huge doll as the bear growled and shook its head. At the end of the silver chain hooked to the bear's collar, the groom-acolyte swung in a wide and stumbling arc. Some of the braver or more distraught mourners pelted after, shouting advice and demands.
His voice nearly squeaking, the panicked groom advanced on the bear, yanking the chain, then grabbing for the corpse's arm and pulling. The bear half rose, and one heavy paw lashed out; the groom staggered back, screaming in earnest now, clutching his side from which red drops spattered.
Ingrey drew his blade and ran forward, skidding to a stop before the maddened beast. From the corner of his eye he could see Prince Jokol, grasped in a restraining hug from behind by his companion, struggling toward him. “No, no, no!” cried the red-haired man in a voice of anguish. “Fafa only thought they were offering him a meal! Don't, don't hurt him!” By him, Ingrey realized, blinking, Jokol meant the bear…
Everything around him slowed, and Ingrey's perceptions came alight, in the black exultation of his wolf ascending, seemingly pumped from his heart up into his reeling brain. The noise in the court became a distant rumble. His sword in his hand felt weightless; the tip rose, then began to curve away in a glittering back-swing. His mind sketched the plunge of the steel, into the bear's heart and out again before it could even begin to react, caught as it was in that other, more sluggish stream of time.
It was then that he felt, more than saw, the faint god light sputtering from the bear like sparks off a cat petted in the winter dark. The light's beauty confounded him, burning into his eyes. His heightened perceptions reached for it in a desperate grasping after the fading god, and suddenly, his mind was in the bear's.
He saw himself, foreshortened: a doubled image of leather-clad man and moving blade, and a vast, dark, dense wolf with glowing silver-tipped fur spewing light in an aureole all around him. As his heart reached after the god light, so the bear's astounded senses reached toward him, and for an instant, a three-way circle completed itself.
A laughing Voice murmured in his mind, but not in his ear: “I see my Brother's pup is in better pelt, now. Good. Pray continue…” Ingrey's mind seemed to explode with the weight and pressure of that utterance.
For a moment, the bear's dazed and wordless memories became his. The recent procession into the Father's court, with the other animals all about. The distraction of the groom, the stink of his fear, but the reassurance of the familiar one, his smell and his voice, providing a link to calm in this disordered stone world. Voices droning, on and on. A dim comprehension of movement, positioning, yes, there had been food not long ago, when he did this, and let them lead him over there…And then his bear-heart swelled and burst with the overwhelming arrival of the god, followed by the happy certainty of a rocking amble toward the bier. Then confusion and pain; the small man hooked on the end of his chain was pulling back, yanking, punishing him for doing this thing, frustrating his happiness. He lunged forward in an attempt to complete his god-given task. More of these puny creatures ran about getting in his way. A red rage rose in his brain like a tide, and he grabbed that cold odd-smelling lump of meat and lumbered off with it toward the laughing light Who called him, Who was, confusingly, everywhere and yet nowhere…
Ingrey seemed to reach deep into his chest, his belly, his bowels, and brought out one word: “Down!” The command flew through the air with the weight of a stone from a catapult.
His sword tip circled once, then fell in a silver arc to the pavement before his feet. The bear's snout tracked it, following it down, and down, until the great beast was crouched before Ingrey's boots, pressing its jaw to the tiles, its paws drawn in close to its head, its massive haunches bunching up behind. The yellow eyes looked up at him in bear-bewilderment, and awe.
Ingrey glowered around to find the groom-acolyte scrabbling away on hands and knees nearby, white robes bloodied, eyes now more huge on Ingrey than they'd been on the ice bear. The claws had merely grazed his ribs, else he might have been disemboweled. The bear's rage still boiled up in Ingrey's brain. Letting his sword fall with a clang, he advanced upon the man. He scooped him up by the front of his robes, jamming him against the plinth of the holy fire. The man was as tall as Ingrey, and broader in the beam, but he seemed to float in Ingrey's grasp. Ingrey bent him backward over the licking heat. The groom's flailing feet sought the floor, without success, and his squeaking strained up beyond sound into silence.
“What did they pay you, to thwart the god's blessing? Who dared this execration?” Ingrey snarled into the groom's contorted face. His voice, pitched low and vibrating, snaked all around the stone walls like a rustle of velvet, and back into his own ears like a purr.
“He lies!” yelped the groom in the Father's livery, dragging his frightened gray dog on its lead, circling wide around the still-crouching bear.
The white-clad groom's eyes focused on Ingrey's, inches from his face, and he inhaled deeply and screamed, “I confess! Don't, don't, don't…”
Don't what? With difficulty, Ingrey straightened, opened his hands, and let the man fall back to his feet. He kept on going down, however, knees crumpling, till he was curled up in a bleeding ball at the base of the plinth, sniveling.
“Nij, you fool!” screamed the Father's groom. “Shut up!”
“I couldn't help it!” cried the Bastard's groom, cowering from Ingrey. “His eyes shone silver, and his voice had a terrible weirding on it!”
“Then you'd best listen, hadn't you,” said an unsympathetic voice at Ingrey's elbow.
Ingrey jerked away to find Learned Lewko, out of breath, exasperation manifest in the set of his teeth, standing looking over the chaotic scene.
Ingrey inhaled deeply, desperately trying to slow his heart, will time to its normal flow, calm his exacerbated senses. Light, shade, color, sound, all seemed to strike at him like ax blades, and the people all around him burned like fires. It was gradually borne in upon him how many people were staring at him now, mouths agape: some thirty or so mourners, the divine conducting the ceremony, all five groom-acolytes, Prince Jokol and his dumbfounded friend, and now, Learned Lewko. Who was not looking at all dumbfounded. I have let my wolf ascend, Ingrey reflected in a dizzied delirium. In front of forty witnesses. In the middle of the main temple court of Easthome.
“Learned, Learned, help me, mercy…” mumbled the injured groom, crawling to Lewko's feet and grabbing the hem of his robe. Lewko's look of exasperation deepened.
A dozen people now seemed to be arguing at once, accusations and counteraccusations of both bribes and threats, as the mourners fell apart into two camps. An inheritance seemed to be at stake, from the fragments of speech that reached Ingrey's ears, although the thread of this instantly tangled with other old grudges, slights, and resentments. The hapless divine who had been conducting the funeral ceremony made a few feeble attempts to restore order among his flock while simultaneously threatening discipline upon his grooms, then, thwarted in both tasks, turned instead to an easier target.
He whirled to Prince Jokol, and pointed a shaking hand at the bear. “Take that thing back,” he snarled. “Get it out of this temple at once! Never return!”
The towering red-haired man seemed nearly in tears. “But I was promised a divine! I must have one! If I do not bring one back to my island, my beautiful Breiga will not marry me!”
Ingrey stepped forward, chin up, and put all the authority of Sealmaster Hetwar's most dangerous sword hand into his voice. And perhaps…something extra. “The Temple of Easthome will give you a missioner in exchange for your silver ingots, Prince. Or perhaps I missed the offer to return them?” He let his eye fall stonily on the harassed divine.
Learned Lewko, in a tone seeming singularly calm compared to everyone else's, soothed, “The Temple will make all right, Prince, once we have ironed out this regrettable internal fault. It seems that your fine bear was the victim of an impious machination. For now, will you please take Fafa back to your boat for safekeeping?” He added out of the corner of his mouth to Ingrey, “And you, my lord, would oblige me vastly if you would go with them, and see that they both get there without eating any small children on the way.”
Lewko's eyelids flicked down; he added, “And take care of that.”
Ingrey followed his glance. New blood was leaking in a dark trickle down his fingers from beneath the soiled bandage on his right hand. Something half-healed had burst during his manhandling of the guilty groom, presumably. He'd felt nothing.
He looked up to find himself fixed with a fierce blue stare. Jokol's eyes narrowed; he bent his head for a low-voiced, rapid exchange with his brown-haired comrade. Then he looked up and favored Lewko with an abrupt nod, which he extended to Ingrey. “Yes. We like this one, eh, Ottovin?” He gave his companion a nudge in the ribs that might have knocked over a lesser man, and marched over to his bear. He picked up the silver chain. “Come, Fafa.”
The bear whined and shuffled a little, but kept its crouching pose.
Lewko's hand griped Ingrey's shoulder; a nearly soundless breath in his ear said, “Let it up again, Lord Ingrey. I think it is calmer now.”
“I…” Ingrey stepped nearer to the bear, and scooped up and resheathed his sword. The bear shuffled about some more, pressed its black nose to Ingrey's boots, and stared up at him piteously. Ingrey swallowed, and tried in a cracked voice: “Up.”
Nothing happened. The bear whimpered.
He reached down into a deep, deep well within himself, and brought up the word again; but a word given weight, a growling song that made his own bones vibrate. “Up.”
The great animal seemed to unfold. It lumbered to its master then, and Jokol dropped to his knees and petted the huge beast, big hands ruffling the thick fur of its neck, murmuring soothing endearments in a tongue Ingrey's ear could not translate. The ice bear rubbed its head on the prince's embroidered tunic, smearing it with bear spit and white hairs.
The short, strange parade exited the temple, leaving Learned Lewko to manage the babble and wailing left in their wake. Ingrey heard his crisp voice, addressed to the still-yammering groom and anyone else within earshot, “…then it must have been a trick of the light.” At Ingrey's last glance over his shoulder, Lewko's eyes met his, and his lips formed the word Tomorrow. Ingrey found it an un-reassuring but credible promise.
His eyes shone silver, and his voice had a terrible weirding on it… Familiar pain crept over Ingrey, and he realized he had done some most unpleasant things to his still-healing back, as well as to his hand. But the ringing in his ears was new, as was the thick tightening in his raw throat.
His memory returned unbidden to his old torments at Birchgrove. Of his head shoved under the Birchbeck, his lungs pulsing with red pain. Not even screams had been possible in that breathless cold. Of all his trials, that had proved the most effective, and his excited handlers had repeated it often, until his lucidity locked in. The strength of his silence, appallingly grim in a barely-boy, had been forged and quenched in that icy stream: stronger than his tormentors by far, stronger than fear of death.
He shook off the disquieting recollection and attended to guiding the island men back to the docks below Kingstown through the least crowded streets he could find. Lewko's concerns seemed less a joke when they picked up a tail of excited children, all pointing and chirping at the bear. Jokol grinned at them. Ingrey scowled and waved them off. His intensified senses seemed to be quieting, his heart slowing at last. Jokol and Ottovin spoke to each other in their own dialect, with frequent glances in Ingrey's direction.
Jokol grimaced apologetically. “I fear I am a very stupid man in your talk. Well, my mouth will get better.”
“You speak Wealdean well,” said Ingrey diplomatically. “My Darthacan is hardly more fluent, and I do not speak your tongue at all.”
“Ah, Darthacan.” Jokol shrugged. “That is a hard talk.” His blue gaze narrowed. “Do you write?”
“That is good. I cannot.” The big man sighed mournfully. “All feathers break in these.” He held out one thick hand for Ingrey's inspection; Ingrey nodded in an attempt at sympathy. He did not doubt Jokol's assertion in the least.
At the ice bear's ambling pace, they came at length to the gate in the Kingstown walls that led out to the cut-stone embankment and wooden wharves. A grove of masts and spars made a black tangle against the luminous evening sky. The working riverboats were flat and crude, for the most part, but scattered among them were a few seagoing vessels of light draft, up from the mouth of the Stork. Above Easthome no such ships went, for the rising hills created impassable rapids, although timber and other goods, on rafts or in barrels, were routinely floated down them whenever the water rose high enough.
Jokol's ship, tied up alongside one outthrusting jetty, proved altogether a different breed. It was easily forty feet long, curved out in the middle as gracefully as a woman's hips, narrowing on each end to where matching prows curled up, artfully carved with entwined rows of sea birds. It had a single mast, and a single deck; its passengers must presumably suffer the elements when it sailed, although at the moment, a large tent was arranged along the back half.
A crew of perhaps two dozen welcomed their prince back gladly, and the bear, if less gladly, at least familiarly. They were all strong-looking men, though none so tall as their leader: most as young, but a few grizzled. Some kept their hair in similar horsetails, some braided, and one had a shaved head, though judging from his pale and mottled scalp, that might have been in some desperate recent attempt to combat an infestation of vermin. None was ill clothed, and, taking a swift count of the weapons neatly stored along the vessel's sides with the shipped oars, none ill armed. Retainers, warriors, sailors, rowers? All men here did all work, Ingrey suspected; there could be no room for purposeless distinctions on this boat when the seas rose high.
The bear delivered, Ingrey considered escape, but as Hetwar's man he supposed he'd better accept Prince Jokol's bowl first, lest he give some offense that might reflect on the sealmaster. He trusted the ritual would be brief. Jokol waved Ingrey into his tent, which made a spacious enough hall. The fabric was wool, made waterproof with fat; Ingrey decided his nose would grow used to its odor soon. Two trestle tables with benches were set up within, and another bench at the side to which his host led Ingrey. Jokol and Ottovin plunked down on either side of him; the other men bustled about, efficiently setting out utensils and food.
Beyond the far end of the tent, through an open flap, a brazier and temporary kitchen were set up, and a smell of grilling meat made Ingrey's mouth abruptly water. “We will eat much soon,” Jokol assured him, with the smile of a host anxious to please.
Ingrey would have to eat sometime, to be sure; and drinking this pungent brew on an empty stomach seemed a dangerous indulgence just before an interview with the sealmaster. He nodded. Jokol slapped him on the back and grinned.
Jokol's grin faded as his eye fell on Ingrey's gory right hand. The prince caught a comrade by the sleeve, and gave a low-voiced order. In a few minutes, one of the older men appeared, laden with a basin, cloths, and a bundle. He evicted Ottovin from the bench and signed Ingrey to give over his wounded hand. As the grubby bandage came off, the man winced at the new rupture and the aging, dark purple bruises. Ottovin, leaning over to watch, gave a short whistle, and said something that made Jokol bark a laugh. Jokol kindly held the drinking bowl to Ingrey's lips again before the grizzled fellow stabbed and sewed the flesh once more. When the fellow had finished, wrapped the hand, gathered his gear, ducked his head, and gone off again, Ingrey resisted the strong desire to put his head down between his knees for sheer dizziness. It was plain he was not going anywhere just yet.
Full night had fallen before the men began actively to resist their cheerful kitchen comrades' attempts to reload their platters. Ingrey's plan to let time and the meal sober him enough to rise and go seek the sealmaster's palace seemed to need more time. Or less meal…The lamps blazed brightly on flushed and shining faces all around.
A babble of talk resolved in one man making some petition to their prince, who smiled and shook his head, but then made some compromise involving offering up Ottovin.
“They want tales,” Jokol whispered to Ingrey, as Ottovin rose and put one booted foot on the bench, and cleared his throat. “We shall have many, this night.”
Now, a new drink was offered around. Ingrey sipped cautiously. This one tasted like pine needles and lamp oil, and even Jokol's men took it in small glasses.
Ottovin launched into the sonorous speech of the islands, which seemed to bounce around the tent in rich rhythms. The dialect lay, maddeningly, just on the other side of Ingrey's understanding, though recognizable words seemed to spring out of the stream here and there. Whether they were Wealdean cognates or just accidents of similar sound, Ingrey was not sure.
“He is telling the tale of Yetta and the three cows,” Jokol whispered to Ingrey. “It is a favorite.”
“Can you translate it?” Ingrey whispered back. “Alas, no.”
Jokol's blue eyes danced, and he blushed. “Too filthy.”
“What, don't you know all those short words?”
Jokol sniggered happily, leaned back, and crossed his legs, his hand tapping his knee keeping time to Ottovin's voice. Ingrey realized that he'd just managed to make a joke. Across a language barrier. And had not even given offense. He smiled muzzily and took another sip of his liquid pine needles. The men crowding the benches and ranged along the walls laughed uproariously, and Ottovin bowed and sat, collecting his due drink; the custom seemed to involve tipping it back in one gulp. The islanders applauded, then began shouting at their prince, who acquiesced and rose in turn to his feet. After a rustling and murmur, the tent fell so silent Ingrey could hear the river waves lapping gently on the hull.
Jokol drew a deep breath and began. After the first few sentences, Ingrey realized he was listening to verse, rhythmic and alliterative. After the first few minutes, he realized that this was to be no short or simple offering.
“This is an adventure tale, good,” Ottovin confided to Ingrey in the usual behind-the-hand whisper. “These days, it is hard to get anything but love stories out of him.”
The sound of Jokol's voice washed over Ingrey like the rocking of a boat, a cradle, a horse's stride. The beat never wavered; he never seemed to pause at a loss for a word or phrase. His listeners sometimes giggled, sometimes gasped, but most often sat as though enspelled, lips parted, the lamplight caressing their faces and gleaming from their eyes.
“He's memorized all that?” Ingrey whispered in astonishment to Ottovin. And at the man's slightly blank look, repeated, tapping his forehead, “The words are all in his head?”
Ottovin smiled proudly. “That and a hundred hundred more. Why do you think we call him Skullsplitter? He makes our heads burst with his tales. My sister Breiga will be the happiest of women, aye.”
At astounding length, Jokol finished, to the enthusiastic applause of his men; they cheered as he knocked back his drink. He grinned sheepishly and waved away an immediate demand for more, with some vociferous debate over the selection. “Soon, soon! It will be ready for you soon,” he promised, tapping his lips, and sat for a time, smiling absently.
One of the other men took a turn then, though not in verse this time; judging from the raucous laughter, it was another that Prince Jokol might be too shy to translate.
“Ah,” said Jokol, leaning close to Ingrey to refill his glass. “You grow less glum. Good! Now I shall honor you with Ingorry's Tale.”
He rose again, and seemed to settle into himself, his face growing solemn. He launched again into verse, serious and, at moments, even sinister, judging from the riveted looks of his listeners. In very short order, Ingrey realized Jokol was retelling the tale of the corrupted funeral, and of Ingrey's rescue of the bear and the situation, for Ingrey's own name, in Jokol's rolling pronunciation, and that of Fafa, appeared often. The titles of the gods were quite distinct. And, to Ingrey's dismay, so was the term weirding. Which, judging by the way the men's eyes shifted to look warily at Ingrey, meant much the same thing in the island dialect as it did in the Weald.
Ingrey studied Jokol once more, considering the nature of a mind that could take his disaster of sunset and transmute it into heroic poetry by midnight. Extemporaneously. Or perhaps that was, into a campfire tale-the sort designed to send one's spooked listeners off to bed, but not to sleep…If the sense was represented by the sound, Jokol's observations had been more acute and detailed than Ingrey would have believed possible, not that his own had been exactly coherent. There seemed not to be any references to wolves, though. The response when Jokol finished this time was not raucous applause but something more like a sigh of awe. It became a murmur of commentary and, Ingrey suspected from certain voices rising from the back row, interested critique. Jokol's smile was more sly, this time, as he tipped back his glass.
“Tomorrow night,” said Jokol, “I will make them listen to a love story, in honor of my beautiful Breiga, or they shall get none. You are a young fellow like me, I think, Lord Ingorry. Do you love a one?”
Ingrey blinked, a bit owlishly. Hesitated. Claimed. “Yes. Yes, I do.” Sat shocked to hear those words coming from his mouth, in this place. Curse that horse urine.
“Ah! That is a good thing. Happy man! But you do not smile. Does she not love you back?”
“I…don't know. But we have other troubles.”
Jokol's brows rose. “Unwilling parents?” he inquired sympathetically.
“No. It's not like…It's…She may be under a death sentence.”
Jokol sat back, stunned serious. “No! For why?”
It was the inebriated haze he was seeing everything through, Ingrey decided, that made this southern madman seem such a cheerful confidant, a brotherly repository of the most intimate fears of his heart. Maybe…maybe no one would remember these words in the morning. “Have you heard of the death of Prince Boleso, the hallow king's son?”
“Oh, aye.” “She beat in his brains with his own war hammer.” This seemed too bald. He added by way of clarification, “He was trying to rape her at the time.” The uncanny complications seemed beyond explanation, at the moment.
Brother indeed! “What came of it?”
“Well, I asked her to marry me.” Jokol's grin flashed. “They were my horses. The thieves' blood-price was made low, because of the dishonor of their crime. I added it to her bride gift, aye, to please her father.” He glanced benignly over at Ottovin-his future brother-in-law?-who had slid off the bench a short while ago and now sat draped half over it with his head pillowed on his arm, snoring gently.
“Justice is not so simple, in the Weald.” Ingrey sighed. “And the blood-price of a prince is far beyond my purse.”
Jokol cocked an interested eye. “You are not a landed man, Lord Ingorry?”
“No. I have only my sword arm. Such as it is.” Ingrey flexed his bandaged right hand ruefully. “No other power.”
“I think you have one more thing than that, Ingorry.” Jokol tapped the side of his head. “I have a good ear. I know what I heard, when my Fafa bowed to you.”
Ingrey froze. His first panicked impulse, to deny everything, died on his lips under Jokol's shrewd gaze. Yet he must discourage further dangerous gossip on this topic, however poetic. “This”-he pressed his hand to his lips, then spread it on his heart, to indicate what he dared not name aloud-“must stay bound in silence, or the Temple will make me outlaw.”
Jokol pursed his lips, sat up a little, and frowned as he digested this. Ingrey's somewhat liquefied thoughts sloshed in his head and tossed up a new fear on the shores of his wits. Jokol's face bore no look of dismay or revulsion, though his interest was plainly deeply stirred. Yet even a good ear could not recognize something it had never before heard. “This, earlier”-he touched his throat, swept his hand down his torso-“have you ever heard the like?”
Jokol shrugged. “When I asked the singing woman at the forest's edge to bless my voyage, she gave me words in such a weirding voice as that.”
The phrase seemed to slide through Ingrey's head as sharply as the scent of pine needles. The singing woman at the forest's edge. The singing woman at… Yet Jokol seemed untouched by the uncanny; no demon-smell hung about him, certainly, no animal spirit hid within him, no geas clung to him like some acrid parasite. He gazed back at Ingrey with a blank affability that one might easily-fatally-mistake for oxlike stupidity.
A thump sounded upon the deck from outside the tent, then a silvery rattling, a bass growl, and a strangled cry.
“Fafa at least does not sleep through his watch,” murmured Jokol in satisfaction, and rose to his feet. He prodded Ottovin with a booted toe, but his kinsman-to-be merely stirred and mumbled. Jokol slipped a big hand under Ingrey's elbow and heaved up.
“I don't,” Ingrey began. “Whups…” The ship's deck heaved and swayed under his feet, though the tent's sides hung slack in the windless and waveless night. The lamps were burning low. Jokol's smile twitched, and he kindly kept Ingrey's arm, guiding him toward the tent flap. They stepped out into the gilded shadows to find Fafa sniffing and straining at the end of the taut chain toward an immobilized figure with his back pressed to the vessel's thwart.
Jokol murmured some soothing words in his own tongue to his pet, and the bear lost interest in its quarry and returned to flop down again by the mast. Ingrey staggered as the boat really rocked, this time, and Jokol's grip on his arm tightened.
“Oh,” said Ingrey. “Gesca. 'Ware the bear.” Ingrey smiled at his rhyme. The big islander shouldn't own all the good poetry. “Yes. I was just coming to see m'lord Hewwar. Het-war.”
“My lord Hetwar,” said Gesca, recovering his dignity and a frosty tone, “has gone to bed. He instructed me to-after I found you-inform you that you may wait upon him first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Ah,” mumbled Ingrey wisely. Ouch. “Then I'd best get some sleep. Hadn't I.”
“While you can,” muttered Gesca.
“A friend?” Jokol inquired, with a nod at Gesca.
“More or less,” said Ingrey. He wondered which. But Jokol seemed to take him at his word, and he handed off Ingrey to his lieutenant. “I don't need…”
“Lord Ingorry, I thank you for your company. And other things, you bet. Any man who can drink my Ottovin off his bench is welcome on my ship anytime. I hope I see you again, in Easthome.”
“You…you, too. Give my bes' to dear Fafa.” He groped with his numb tongue for further suitably princely farewells, but Gesca was steering him toward the gangplank.
The gangplank proved a challenge, as it was seized with the same wavering motions as the ship, and was much narrower, after all. Ingrey, after a short pause for consideration, solved the problem by tackling it on all fours. After crawling across without falling into the Stork, he rolled over and sat up triumphantly upon the dock. “See?” he told Gesca. “Not so drunk. Jokol is a prince, you know. S'all good diplomacy.”
Ingrey, a little sobered in mind, though his body still lagged, made an effort to put his boots one in front of the other for a time, as they made their way up through the gates and began to wind through the dark streets of Kingstown.
Gesca said in a voice of aggravation, “I've been hunting all over the city for you. At the house, they said you'd gone to the temple. At the temple, they said you were carried off by a pirate.”
“No; worse.” Ingrey cackled. “A poet.”
Gesca's face turned; even in the shadows, Ingrey could see the lieutenant was looking at him as though he'd just put his head on backward.
“Three people up there said they'd seen you enspell a giant ice bear. One said it was a miracle of the Bastard. Two others said it was no such thing.”
Ingrey remembered the Voice in his head, and shivered. “You know what nonsense frantic folks in crowds come up with.” He was starting to feel steadier on his feet. He withdrew his arm from Gesca's shoulder. Anyway, in the absence of a menacing bear in the midst of a funeral miracle, it hardly seemed something likely to happen again. No god-voice jarred him now, and animals were a quite different proposition from men. “Don't be gullible, Gesca. It's not as though I could say”-he reached down within himself for that hot velvet rumble-“ halt, and have you suddenly-”
Ingrey became aware that he was walking on alone.
He wheeled around. Gesca was standing frozen in the dim light from a wall lantern.
Ingrey's belly twisted up in a cold knot. “Gesca! That's not amusing!” He strode back, angry. “Stop that.” He gave Gesca a short shove in the chest. The man rocked a little, but did not move. He reached up with his bandaged hand-it trembled-and took Gesca by the jaw. “Are you mocking me?”
Ingrey licked his lips, stepped back. His throat seemed almost too tight to speak at all. He had to take two breaths before he could reach down again, and that barely. “Move.”
The paralysis broke. Gesca gasped, scrambled back to the nearest wall, and drew steel. Both wheezing, they stared at each other. Ingrey was suddenly feeling far too sober. He opened his hands at his sides, placating, praying Gesca would not lunge.
Slowly, Gesca resheathed his sword. After a moment, he said in a thick voice, “The prison house is just around the corner. Tesko is there waiting to put you to bed. Can you make it?”
Ingrey swallowed. He had to force his voice above a whisper. “I think so.”
“Good. Good.” Gesca backed along the wall, then turned and walked rapidly away into the shadows, glancing often over his shoulder.
Jaws clamped shut, hardly daring to breathe, Ingrey paced the other way, turning at the corner. A lantern hanging on a bracket beside the door of the narrow house burned steadily, guiding him in.
INGREY DIDN'T HAVE TO POUND ON THE DOOR TO WAKE THE house, for the porter, though wearing a nightshirt and with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, came at his first quiet knock. The firm way the man locked up again behind Ingrey did convey a strong hint that this should be the last expedition of the night. He readied a candle in a glass holder to assist Ingrey's way up the stairs.
Ingrey took it with muttered thanks and scuffed up the steps. Light glimmered above on his landing, which proved to be from both a lamp burning low on a table and another candlestick sitting on the steps up to the next floor. Beside it, Lady Ijada crouched, wrapped in a robe of some dark material. She raised her head from her knees as Ingrey swung out of the constricted staircase with a slight clatter of his sword sheath against the wood.
Ingrey blinked around into the shadows, startled. The last time any woman had waited up in concern for him was…beyond the reach of his memory. There was no sign of her warden, nor of his servant Tesko. “Should I not be?”
“Gesca came, three hours ago or more, and said you'd never come to Lord Hetwar's!”
“Oh. Yes. I was diverted.”
“I was imagining the most bizarre things befalling you.”
“Did they include a six-hundred-pound ice bear and a pirate poet?”
“Then they weren't the most bizarre after all.”
Her brows drew down; she rose and stepped off the stairs, recoiling as his no-doubt vaporous breath reached her flaring nostrils. She waved a hand to disperse the reek and made a face. “Are you drunk?”
“By my standards, yes. Although I can still walk and talk and dread tomorrow morning. I spent the evening trapped with twenty-five mad southern islanders and the ice bear on their boat. They did feed me. Have you seen Tesko?”
She nodded toward his closed door. “He came with your things. I think he fell asleep awaiting you.”
“What of my letter? I worried it had gone astray.” Oh. It was her letter she'd feared for, why she had waited up in the dark. “Safely delivered.” Ingrey considered this. “Delivered, anyway. How safe a man Learned Lewko is, I would hesitate to guess. He dresses like a Temple clerk, but he's not one.”
“I…doubt he's a bribable man. It does not follow that he will be on your side.” Ingrey hesitated. “He is god-touched.”
She cocked her head. “You look a little god-touched yourself, just now.”
Ingrey jerked. “How can you tell?”
Her pale fingers extended, in the flickering shadows, as if to feel his face. “I once saw one of my father's men dragged by his horse. He was not badly hurt, but he rose very shaken. Your face is more set, and not covered with blood and dirt, but your eyes look like his did. A bit wild.”
He almost leaned into her hand, but it fell back too soon. “I've had a very strange night. Something happened at the temple. Lewko is coming to see you tomorrow, by the way. And me. I think I'm in trouble.”
“Come, then, and tell me.” She drew him down to sit beside her on the steps, her eyes wide and dark with renewed disquiet.
Ingrey stumbled through a description of his encounter with the bear and its god in the temple court, which twice made her gasp and once made her giggle. He was a little taken aback at the giggle. She listened with fascination to his description of Jokol, his boat, and his verse. “I thought,” said Ingrey, “what happened with Fafa was the white god's doing, in His wrath at the dishonest grooms. But just now, coming back here with Gesca, it happened again. The weirding voice. I did not know if it was my wolf, or me. Five gods, I am no longer sure where I leave off and it begins! It has never spoken like this before. It has never spoken at all.” Ijada said thoughtfully, “The fen folk claimed that wisdom songs were magical, once. Long ago.”
Ijada sat up and caught her breath. “Oh! What did the letter say?”
“I did not read it, but I gather it described the events at Red Dike in some detail. So, at least from the time he came back in to join us at the table, Wencel knew of the geas, and he knew that I concealed it from him. Did you sense a change in his conversation, then?”
Ijada frowned. “If anything, he seemed more forthcoming. In hope of coaxing a like frankness?”
Ingrey shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“What do you know of banner-carriers?”
“Scarcely more than I know of shamans. I have read some Darthacan accounts of battles with the Old Wealdings. The Darthacans did not love our bannermen. The spirit warriors, and indeed, all the kin warriors, fought fiercely to defend their standards. If the banner-carrier refused to retreat, then the warriors would fight to the last around him-or her, I suppose, if Wencel speaks true. Audar's soldiers always tried to bring the banners down as quickly as possible, for that reason. It was said one of the banner-carrier's tasks was to cut the throats of our own who were too wounded to carry away. It was considered an honorable ending. The wounded warrior, if he still could speak, was expected to bless the bannerman and thank the blade.”
Ijada shivered. “I did not know that part.” Her expression grew inward for a moment, on what thoughts Ingrey could scarcely guess. Her dream at the Wounded Woods? But warriors already dead could scarcely require such a gruesome service from their bannerwoman.
“Mm, and there's another meeting I'm not looking forward to. I don't think Wencel is going to be best pleased with me over this spectacle tonight. Farcical as it was, I drew the Temple's attention in the most serious way. I am afraid of Lewko.”
“Why? If he is a friend and mentor of Hallana's, he cannot be dishonorable.”
“Oh, I'm sure he would be a good friend. And an implacable enemy. It is merely worrisome to imagine him on the other side.” Or was this just habit? He remembered the earnest divines at Birchgrove, torturing him back to silent sanity. It had left pain as an unreliable guide to Ingrey of the line between his friends and his enemies.
Ijada said impatiently, “What side do you imagine you are on?”
Ingrey's thoughts came to a full stop. “I don't know. Every wall seems to curve away from me. I spin in circles.” He glanced up, finding her eyes, close to his, turned amber in the shadows. The pupils were wide in the dimness, as if to drink him in. He might fall into them as deep wells, and drink deep in turn. She possessed physical beauty, yes, and beneath that the edgy thrilling wildness of her leopard spirit. But beyond that…something more. He wanted to reach through her to that something, something terribly important…“You are my side. And you are not alone.”
“Then,” she breathed, “neither are you.”
Oh. Neither time nor his heart stopped, surely, and yet he floated for the space of a breath as though he'd stepped from some great height, but not begun to fall. Weightless. “Sweet logician.”
Closing the handbreadth between their lips was the work of a second. Her eyes flared open.
A wave of lust ran in the track of that first shock, firing his loins, kindling an awareness of just how long it had been since he'd held a woman like this…. No, he'd never held a woman like this. The kiss grew abruptly passionate, and not chaste at all. He explored her mouth in desperate haste, and the white hands wrapping him fairly wrenched him toward her, crushing the softness of her body against his. Their breath synchronized; their heartbeats began hammering in time.
And then they were reaching through each other…
A magical kiss was suddenly not a romantic turn of phrase. It was not, in fact, romantic at all. It was terrifying beyond breath. She choked, he gasped, they drew apart, though their hands still gripped; not lustful now, but more like two people drowning.
Her eyes, wide before, were huge, the pupils stretched black with only a narrow ring of gold iris shimmering around them. “What are you…?” she began, as he panted, “What have you done?”
One hand released him to clutch at her heart, beneath the dark robe. “What was that?”
“I don't know. I've never…felt…”
A creak of floorboards, a clank, a scrape; Ingrey sprang back as his chamber door opened. Ijada folded her arms together like a woman freezing, and spat an unexpected short word under her breath. He had just time to cock a wry eyebrow at her, and she to grimace back at him, before he twisted to see Tesko poke his yawning face through the door into the dim hallway. “M'lord?” he inquired. “I heard voices…” He blinked in mild surprise at the pair sitting on the steps.
For a brief, self-indulgent moment, Ingrey pictured himself drawing his steel and beheading his servant. Alas, the hall was too narrow for such a swing to be executed properly. He gave over the vision with a long sigh and levered himself to his feet.
Tesko, perhaps sensing Ingrey's displeasure at the ill-timed interruption, bowed him warily into his chamber. The clubfooted youth had been issued half-trained to Ingrey when he had first taken up his place as Hetwar's more-than-courier. Used to caring for his own needs, Ingrey had treated the menial with an indifference that had overcome Tesko's initial terror of his violent reputation a little too completely. The day he had caught Tesko pilfering his sparse property, however, he had replaced repute with a vivid demonstration. After that Hetwar's other servants did more to whip their junior into shape than Ingrey ever had, for if Tesko were dismissed, he would have to be replaced with one of them.
Ingrey let Tesko remove his boots, gave curt orders for the predawn, and fell into bed. But not to sleep.
He was too spun up to sleep, too drunk to think straight, too exhausted to sit up. His blood seemed to hiss through his veins, growl in his ears. He was intensely conscious of every faint creak from overhead. Did Ijada's breathing still rise and fall in time with his? He was still aroused, and more than half-afraid to do anything about it, because if she felt his every heartbeat and movement the way he seemed to feel hers…
They had surely been falling toward that moment of meeting for days. He felt coupled to her now as though they were two hunting dogs, leashed to each other for their training. So who is the huntsman? What is the quarry? The heavy click of that binding reverberated in his bones: chains thinner than gossamer, stronger than iron, less readily parted.
HE MUST HAVE SLEPT EVENTUALLY, FOR TESKO NEARLY HAD TO pull him from the covers and onto the floor to wake him again. Tesko's jerky motions betrayed a fear balanced between the dangers of dealing with an Ingrey half-awake and the dangers of disobeying; Ingrey swallowed the glue from his mouth and assured his servant that disobeying would have been worse. Sitting up proved painful but not impossible.
He let Tesko help wash, shave, and dress him, in the interest of protecting his new bandage; Ingrey frowned to see it nearly soaked through again with browning blood, but there was not time to change it now. The filthy covering on his left wrist he at last abandoned, as that wound was now better than half-healed, all black scabs and new pink scars and greening bruises. The sleeves of his town garb-gray and dark gray-covered it well enough. With sword, knife, and clean boots, he was made presentable, if one ignored the bloodshot eyes and pale face.
He rejected bread with loathing, gulped tea, and took the stairs down with a faint clatter. He glanced up through two opaque floors. Ijada still sleeps. Good.
The chill, moist air outside was tinged with just enough light for Ingrey to make his way through the streets. He arrived at the opposite end of Kingstown with his head, though still aching, a little clearer for the walk.
Color was leaking back into the world with the dawn. The stolid cut stone of the wide front of Hetwar's palace took on a buttery hue. The night porter recognized Ingrey at once through the hatch in the heavy carved front doors, and swung one leaf just wide enough to admit him into the hushed, rich dimness. Ingrey turned down the offer of a page to announce him and made his way up the stairs toward the sealmaster's study. A few servants moved quietly about, drawing back curtains, stirring fires, carrying water.
“Is the prince here?” Ingrey murmured to him.
“When did you arrive?”
“We reached the Kingstown gate about two hours ago. The prince left his baggage train in the mire near Newtemple. We rode all night.” Symark hitched his shoulders, dislodging a few small lumps of drying mud from his coat.
“Is that you, Ingrey?” Hetwar's voice called from within. “Enter.”
Symark raised a brow at him; Ingrey slipped inside. Hetwar, seated at his desk, motioned him to close the door behind him.
Ingrey made his bow to the prince-marshal, seated with his booted legs stretched out before him in a chair opposite Hetwar, then to the sealmaster. Both men returned acknowledging nods, and Ingrey stood with his hands clasped behind his back to await his next cue.
Biast looked as mud-flecked and road-weary as his bannerman. Prince Biast was a little shorter than his younger brother Boleso, and not quite as broadly built, but still shared the Stagthorne athleticism, brown hair, and long jaw, resolutely shaved. His eyes were a touch shrewder, and if he shared Boleso's sensuality and temper, they were rather better controlled. Biast had become heir presumptive only three years ago, on the untimely death through illness of the eldest Stagthorne brother, Byza. Prior to those expectations falling so heavily upon him, the middle prince had been guided toward a military career, the rigors of which had left him little time to match either Byza's reputation for courtly diplomacy or Boleso's notoriety for self-indulgence.
What neither sealmaster nor prince-marshal bore was any smell of the uncanny, to Ingrey's newly awakened inner senses. The perception did not ease him much. Magical powers worked sometimes; material powers worked all the time, and this chamber, these two men, fairly resonated with the latter.
Hetwar ran a hand through his thinning hair and favored Ingrey with a glower. “About time you showed up.”
“Sir,” said Ingrey neutrally.
Hetwar's brows rose at his tone, and his attention sharpened. “Where were you last night?”
“What have you heard so far, sir?”
Hetwar's lips curved a little at the cautious riposte. “An extraordinarily garbled tale from my manservant this morning. I trust that you did not actually enspell a giant rampaging ice bear in the temple court yesterday evening. What really happened?”
“I had gone up there for a brief errand on my way here, sir. Indeed, an acolyte had lost his hold on a new sacred animal, which had injured him. I, um, helped them regain control of the beast. When the Temple returned it to its donor, Learned Lewko requested me to accompany it back through town, for safety's sake, which I did.” Hetwar's eyes flashed up at Lewko's name. So, Hetwar knew who Lewko was, even if Ingrey had not.
A small snort from Biast, with a renewed look at Ingrey's pallor, testified to the prince-marshal's amusement. Good. Better to be the butt of a tale of drunken foolishness than the nexus of out-of-control illegal magic, shattering miracle, and worse.
Ingrey added, “Learned Lewko was witness to the whole of the incident with the bear, and the only one I would suggest that you regard as reliable.”
“He is peculiarly qualified.”
“So I understood, sir.”
A passing stillness of Hetwar's hands was all that revealed his reaction to this. He frowned and went on. “Enough of last night. I am told your journey with Prince Boleso's coffin was more eventful than your letters to me revealed.”
Ingrey ducked his head. “What did your letters from Gesca say?”
“Letters from Gesca?”
“He was not reporting to you?”
“He reported to me yesterday evening.”
“I suspected he was penning reports. I assumed it was to you.”
“Did you see this?”
“No,” Ingrey admitted.
The eyebrows climbed again. Ingrey took a breath. “There are some things that happened on the journey even Gesca does not know.”
“Were you aware, sir, that Prince Boleso was experimenting with spirit magic? Animal sacrifice?”
Biast jerked in surprise at this; Hetwar grimaced, and said, “Rider Ulkra apprised me of some dabblings. Leaving a young man with that much energy too idle may have been a mistake. I trust you removed any unfortunate traces, as I requested; there is no point in besmirching the dead.”