Arenaver and points east
When the sleep dropped from us, I pulled a back muscle fighting to escape the straps, the bunk, and the cabin to reach the ship’s rail to puke. If Master Farmer had not woken and raised his spell that kept the door locked and the bolt frozen, there’s no telling what sort of mess I might have made in there. Of a certainty my belly threw every meal I’d had in some days out into the Tellerun’s waters, and mayhap even my hopes for future meals. At last I could heave no more. By then my cabinmates were being sick in their turn over other parts of the rail.
“Here yez go.” It was the dark-haired ship’s lad, the one who’d said not a word before. He stood at my elbow, offering me a thick mug. I was almost afraid to touch it, in case my heaves might begin again, but the scent that came from it was one of gentle herbs, a tea that meant well by my poor tripes. One sip, and I felt my belly settle.
“I don’t understand,” I said once I’d drunk a bit more. “This didn’t happen the last time we took a peregrine ship. Those leather bands are supposed to keep this from happening!”
“Oh, they stop ye from pukin’ in yer sleep,” he told me. “Didja eat afore ye came aboard last time?”
“No,” I said, thinking that it would be a dreadful thing if Pounce and Achoo were vomiting in their fleece. “I came to that ship in the middle of the night.” I turned to go back, but here they came, Achoo dancing with pleasure at being outside.
I let us out, Pounce said. Since you were busy.
I stared at him. “And the rich folk like to travel this way?” I asked.
He gave me a cheeky grin. “Ye think they go like ye done? Four hours under the sleep, and we wake ’em, let ’em walk the decks a bit, then back to the cabin they go. Four more hours, we put in, rouse ’em, rub they feet, bow and scrape, then back to sleep they go. And when they get where they’re goin’, they say how wearied they are.”
I finished the tea and returned the mug to him. “You’re a saucebox, laddybuck,” I told him.
He laughed and ran back down into the hold with the mug. He left me smiling. My brother Willes is much like him, so I have a soft spot for cheeky lads.
He returned with the other boy to offer the tea to my friends while I gave Pounce and Achoo a good petting. I judged my human companions were not ready for talk. The ship was being towed stern forward to dock by two smaller craft, now that it was too close to land for the mages to thrust it against the Tellerun’s current. I leaned against the rail, Pounce on my shoulder. My duties had never called me to Arenaver before. I looked at the city that rose on the point above the joining of the Tellerun and the Halseander Rivers.
Arenaver is not so big as even Blue Harbor, let alone Port Caynn or Corus. It’s a port for lumber and mining, so there were plenty of barges tied up at the docks on both sides of the point as we passed it on the right. The dying sunlight gilded them and the old gray stone walls of the city on the height. The docks lay outside the walls’ protection. The locals did not trust their trading partners to visit peacefully from the river, it seemed.
Great forests grew on either side of the rivers, rising on the slopes of tall hills. Despite the season, they kept the air cool and comfortable. The sun was already halfway below the horizon, and the voices of tiny frogs and big ones filled the air under the noise of the docks.
Hammering footsteps came up from below. Iceblade stepped onto the deck, his hair uncombed and his clothes rumpled. “Master Farmer!” he snapped. “Farmer Cape! You are going to tell me how in Mithros’s name you managed to put a blocking spell like that on your cabin—a spell none of us could budge!”
I watched him approach Master Farmer, who was finishing off his tea. Did all the mages who worked these ships concern themselves with what took place in their passengers’ cabins? Might they be Ferrets, or might there be Ferrets among the crew?
Iceblade seized Master Farmer by the shoulder. “Answer me, clodhopper! How did you do it, a dolt like you?”
Pounce leaped down from my shoulder and trotted over to Iceblade. Now what? I wondered, but I said naught.
As slow as a tortoise in autumn, Master Farmer looked at the hand on his shoulder, then along Iceblade’s arm, and up to his face. At last he gave Iceblade a large, silly grin. “I practiced,” he said.
“Practiced?” the mage snapped, his face crimson. “You could no more do work like that with practice—”
Pounce rose on his hindquarters, forepaws up. Gently he laid them on Iceblade’s thigh and began to knead, digging his claws into the mage’s silk robe. Iceblade yelled and spun, striking out at Pounce. The cat leaped straight up and hooked himself into Iceblade’s chest with all four paws. When Iceblade seized him and yanked him away, Pounce left four holes in the gold embroidery there.
“I’ll strangle you,” Iceblade threatened the cat. That was when Pounce vanished clean out of the mage’s grip.
Master Farmer made it back into the passengers’ cabin, but the whole ship heard his bellows of laughter. Lady Sabine, who’d been cleaning her face with a cloth fetched for her by the redheaded ship’s lad, used it to hide her grin. Tunstall didn’t bother to conceal his. Iceblade glared at everyone, even the laughing sailors and his amused fellow mages, and returned to wherever he’d stayed below.
“The count’s castle is north of his walled city, where the peninsula narrows.” Master Farmer had left the cabin again. He pointed over my shoulder, past the walls. “Count and governor of the district. He’s fair, but strict. His lady’s one of those iron-spined sorts. The heir’s a nasty bit of work. When he inherits, I mean to stay out of the area.”
I glanced up at him. He was ready to go, his packs hanging from his arms. From the way they drooped, they were heavy, but he gave no sign that their weight distressed him. “You seem to know him well.”
“I got some work here when I was studying with twin mages in the city,” he explained. “I worked for the count and his lady for two months.” Master Farmer shook his head. “Rabbits in the gardens, mold in the grain, damp in the linens. Small things that make people irritable in winter or during a siege. I got it sorted out—I have a knack for house and garden magic. My lady made sure I had warm clothes and boots that fit, for a while.” He smiled at me. “I was growing again.”
“How shall we do this?” Lady Sabine asked from behind us. We turned to look at her and Tunstall. The ship was coming into dock on the bank of the Halseander, sailors leaping down to tie her off as others lowered the anchors. Once the ship was steady, the horses’ gangplank was set out, and the great horses were led safely to land.
“We need mounts and packhorses, and we must check in with the Deputy Provost,” Tunstall explained, watching my lady as she took charge of Drummer and Steady. “We’ll need the latest reports from her trackers. Supplies, too.”
I saw movement at the warehouse that stood open nearby. Three Dogs in uniform walked out of it leading horses, three with riding saddles, seven with pack saddles. Two of the packhorses were already laden—supplies, I was near certain.
Tunstall smiled. “We’re expected.” Picking up as many of Lady Sabine’s packs as he could lift in addition to his own, he went to meet the local Dogs. Master Farmer gathered the rest of the packs as I tucked Pounce into the top of my shoulder kit. I had given up putting Achoo on a leash years ago. She never strayed from her position just off my left side when we were in a new place, just as now.
As Master Farmer and I settled our packs on the mounts that would carry them and chose riding horses, I listened to the local Dogs report to Tunstall.
“—didn’t get the rain folk that’s come upriver complain of,” the corporal said. “Been dry, so the farmers are tellin’ us. They’re sellin’ off children to pay the tax.”
“Not getting much for them, either,” one of the others, a mot, said. “The littles are bone skinny, half dead.”
“There’s a crazy hedgewitch, gets drunk off Market Circle,” said one, a Senior Dog. “She told any that would listen all our rain was stolen by a southern mage. She said she’d put a blood curse on ’im. We escorted her home—” He interrupted himself to say, “Now that’s a fine piece of horseflesh, there. Who’s the noble?”
Tunstall started to frown, so I kicked him in the ankle. Lady Sabine could handle disrespect if she felt she needed to.
“The destrier is called Drummer,” Farmer told the Senior Dog. “The palfrey’s Steady. And that is my lady Sabine of Macayhill, who’s well beyond loose-tongued folk!” Any other cove might have gotten the back of the Senior Dog’s hand for that, but the cheerfulness in Master Farmer’s eye and the Dog insignia hanging on his chest just made these tough woods Dogs grin or nudge him. They bowed as Sabine approached.
“Good evening to you,” she said, letting Tunstall hold Steady, who was saddled for riding. “Now, if one of these fine packhorses is for my things—oh, splendid, she’s all ready! I just need to put her on a string with my Drummer, here.”
While the Dogs eagerly offered their help, I noticed familiar signs in Achoo. I motioned for Tunstall’s attention and pointed to a corner a little way down the street in the long shadows to let him know we were moving back. He nodded, familiar with our routine. Away my hound and I trotted, staying clear of those who were ending their day’s labors.
Achoo took care of her business. Then she sniffed around, learning about everyone else who had favored that spot, or so I supposed. I looked back at our welcoming party. Everyone was chatting, building good will with the locals. When I turned back to Achoo, I found she had moved away from me. She was casting, sniffing back and forth an inch above the ground. She trotted a yard down the street, then another.
“Achoo?” I called quietly.
She replied with a near-silent whuff, one that meant “Don’t bother me, I’m busy.”
“Achoo!” I said a little louder.
She sneezed. Her tail began to wag furiously. Then she sneezed twice more. She was on a track, her nose right at her own height, on a proper scent. There was only one scent that she was supposed to be chasing right now, and she had it.
“Achoo, berhenti!” I cried. She halted and looked back at me, whining her protest. She wanted to chase that scent now.
“Tunstall!” I shouted. “Tunstall!” He faced me. I pointed to Achoo. Even in that light I could see Tunstall’s eyebrows go up. He ran to me, Master Farmer and the lady at his heels. I reached into the side pocket on my shoulder pack and brought out the sealed bag with the prince’s sample in it.
“She has a scent?” Tunstall asked when he reached us. “She has that scent?” He tapped a finger against his lips to warn me to speak carefully.
I held the cloth lure to Achoo, who sniffed it and danced, panting eagerly. She sneezed again. I put the lure in my pack. This way I didn’t have to say anything to Tunstall. Achoo had done so for me.
Now came the local Dogs with the horses. “How shall we manage this?” Lady Sabine asked. “We must still report to the Deputy Provost to find out if her people are already on this path and whether or not more information has come from the capital.”
Master Farmer was doing something with the horses. He said nothing.
“The Deputy Provost did say you was to report to her as soon as you docked.” The corporal’s voice was apologetic, but firm.
Tunstall took a deep breath. “Cooper, Farmer, you’re on the scent. Now’s the time to learn if your tags work, Farmer.”
“I’m hurt that you’d think they’d fail. Hurt,” Master Farmer told Tunstall, sorrow in his voice and eyes. He brought the horses forward. Now I saw what he’d been doing. He’d been tying his packhorse and mine into a string. “Cooper, will you ride?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I’d like to stay on the ground with her, for a while, anyway.” I took off my shoulder pack, which I’d donned before leaving the ship, and retrieved my stone lamp. The bits of white crystal speckled throughout the gray stone burned as brightly as they had when Master Farmer first lit the rock up. I tucked it in my pocket and put my pack back on as Tunstall murmured to someone behind me.
A local Dog went over to a nearby ship and talked with one of the officers. Coins changed hands as Lady Sabine and Tunstall spoke quietly together.
Set me on one of the packhorses, Pounce ordered. You know I hate it when you run. I transferred my entire pack to the horse who looked to be the calmer of the two. Pounce was usually good with horses, but I liked to be careful, for the sakes of the horse and of my friend.
The Dog who’d done business at the ship returned with a burning lantern. “He won’t get in trouble with his captain?” my lady asked.
The Dog grinned. “He is the captain, my lady,” he replied. “And I paid him twice what this is worth, fresh filled and all.” Master Farmer took the lantern as Tunstall tied my own saddled mount into Master Farmer’s string. All this while Achoo had been whining, half out of her nob with eagerness.
“Go,” Tunstall ordered. “We’ve got the Dog tags. We’ll catch up.”
I didn’t wait to hear any more. “Maji, maji, Achoo!” I said. Off she went, sniffing the air that carried the prince’s scent. I followed her, steadying into a run. She turned down a long street beside the heights that guarded the town. She took no turns that would lead to the gates of Arenaver. Whoever had the prince, they had not entered the city.
The road began to climb the riverbank and the sky got darker. We finally passed the great gates, running parallel to the road between the city and the count’s castle. About a mile past the city walls Achoo led me off the dock road. Here was a grassy area that had been torn up by a multitude of wagons. Plenty of animal dung was smashed there by feet and wheels. Beyond this hitching place Achoo sniffed her way across grass that was pressed flat and covered with fruit and vegetable husks, gnawed bones, ends of ribbon and scraps of cloth, tags of leather, heaps of wood shavings, and patches of grease. She was circling a place that had been well pissed and shit on.
“It was a fair, don’t you think?” Master Farmer had halted the mounts just inside the range of my stone lamp. The light from his lantern doubled the area I could see.
“Two days ago,” I said as Achoo sneezed and moved away from the spot where several people were kept for hours with no privy at hand. “The piss is dry, the dung mostly so.”
“A country matter,” he said. I looked up. The air around him sparkled. “Small charms, amulets, talismans were being sold, potions and herbs.” The sparkles brightened. I looked away to keep my sight from being affected even more than it was already by our lanterns. “Hah!” Master Farmer said, satisfaction in his voice. “There’s the great Gift, or Gifts. Two powerful mages stood here.” He pointed. “Looking at the slave area. Hmm.” He looked at the patch of grass and dirt that had caught Achoo’s attention.
Now my hound ran onto the road. “Is something wrong?” I asked Master Farmer as I kept an eye on her.
“Thought-provoking, not wrong. Do you need a horse yet?” he asked.
“Go!” he ordered. “I’ll catch up. This will be but a moment and some magic. The mages who travel with the slaves—I can gather samples of their Gifts.”
I would have liked to hear more, but Achoo was off. I left him there and raced to get her in view. We continued for two miles down the riverside road, where we found a ferry landing. Achoo ran onto the dock where a flat-bottomed boat lay at anchor, and whined, sniffing it over. Seeing a ferry parked on the other side of the dock, she jumped onto it.
“Hey!” a man yelled. “If she pisses in there, you’ll pay for the cleaning of it!” A broad fellow stood in the door of the ferryman’s house, a club in his hand.
I trotted up to the ferry, wondering if he’d charged his loads of goats, horses, chickens, and pigs for cleaning, too. From the odor, mayhap he had. The planks smelled of strong soap, though the scrubbing could not do away entirely with the animal reek.
“Moonhead! Chase! Brushtail!” The ferryman, or guard, put two fingers to his mouth and blew a whistle that hurt my ears. Three hounds scrambled into view, big ones, ready to fight for their master.
I held up my stone lamp and pulled out my insignia. “Ferryman, if you’d used your eyes, you’d’ve seen I wear the uniform of the Provost’s Guard. That’s a scent hound in your ferry, and we’re on a Hunt.”
The ferryman walked forward. I released my insignia and gripped my baton in case the cove decided to dance a set with me. Instead he halted two feet back and squinted at my insignia. Achoo, noting that a stranger had come too close to me, raced to my side and waited there, hackles up.
“Following my hound. The rest of my Hunt’s catching up,” I said. “We’re following a party with a small boy, four years or so.”
He snorted. “Good luck to you. Between the families and the fair merchants and the slave caravans that’ve crossed these last six days, you’ve a lot of folk to speak with! We just had the Strawberry Fair. Folk come for miles to buy and sell. I have to hire extra asides my boys and me.”
I looked about for his “boys,” not liking the thought that they might be stealing up behind me.
“Not here,” the ferryman said as if he knew my mind. “They have work in the city, they told me. ‘Work!’ says I. ‘Public houses, like as not!’ But they labored hard on the barges, so I don’t begrudge them.”
I had his measure by then. After four years of Dog work, I’d learned to weigh folk and judge how much harm they had in them. This cove would be a hard customer if I tried to take advantage of him, but he’d prove no trouble if I was honest. “Achoo, bau,” I ordered.
She hesitated, but she went to sniff the second boat she’d inspected. The ferryman’s hounds watched, but they did not interfere or move from his side. Once Achoo had gone over the ferry again, she sneezed heartily. Our quarry had crossed the Halseander in that one.
“I’ll need you to take me over,” I told the cove.
He looked down at me. “No more will I, till others come!” he said, cross as a wayward rooster. “Take a bit of a wench like you across, and no one else? You’ll wait for more passengers, mistress, even if it takes till dawn! I’m not a lad. I’m a father with a bad back!”
I did understand, but I wouldn’t delay, at least, not after Master Farmer came. “I expect my partner shortly,” I said. “And our horses. And we’ll pay, though by law we don’t have to. You needn’t have kittens over it.”
The ferryman spat on the ground. “If you’ve a partner and horses. Why couldn’t you have come earlier, when there were more folk crossing?”
I glared at him. “Because I wasn’t here then. And they say we mots complain!”
I saw a lantern’s approach, above the ground. Pounce? I called silently, so as not to bother the nervous cove. Is that you?
Me, and Farmer, the horses, and some fleas. Pounce’s voice came back to me. You seem to be enjoying yourself.
I snorted and went to the side of the road, where I saw a number of stones. I began to put down a trail sign that would let Tunstall know we had crossed the river on the ferry. I was almost done when Master Farmer and the horses drew up. “Trail sign?” he asked. “You don’t trust my Dog tags. My feelings are shattered. Just … shattered.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “What a folly lad you are,” I told him. “If I don’t leave it, even with Dog tags, Tunstall will worry that something’s happened to me—and to you, for that matter.”
“That’s so lovely of him,” Master Farmer told me as he slid from his horse. “And I was thinking he didn’t like me.” Sounding much more official, he turned to the local cove. “Ferryman, we need to cross sooner rather than later, I think.” Master Farmer looked at me. “I take it the scent brought Achoo to the ferry?”
“She even chose a boat,” I said, pointing. I went over to Pounce, enthroned on horseback, and scratched his ears.
He grumbled, of course, when we chose not the boat that was ready, but the one that held Achoo. I thought we would have to listen to him all the way across the river, but Master Farmer slipped him a silver coin. Seemingly that was all the cove wanted, because he fell silent.
The ferryman was not exactly honest about his help. Mayhap his sons were in town, but a blast on a horn brought his wife and two daughters to help row us and our horses across. All the mots had good strong arms and were far more cheerful than their man.
While they worked, I took out my map of the district around Arenaver, studying it carefully. It looked like there were very few notable roads between here and the Banas River, since none were indicated on the map. Mapmakers usually only noted roads that would take heavy wagons. There was a marsh, a sizeable one, but someone had gone to the trouble to build a bridge across it. Hills were lightly marked in several areas along the road. There were no goodsized towns between here and the Banas, either. As with roads that couldn’t take big wagons, mapmakers ignored anything smaller than a town of two thousand.
The moment we touched shore Achoo cast around only briefly before she sneezed and ran down the road.
“Achoo, tunggu!” I cried, looking about for stones.
Master Farmer, helping the ferryman’s daughters to lead the horses off the boat, saw me collecting rocks. “Trail sign? I’ll do it,” he said as a young mot fluttered her lashes at him. “I have done country Hunts before.”
I waved my consent and took off after my hound, easing into my run and holding my fastest speed until I could see Achoo clearly once more. Then I settled back into the trot I could hold for hours, if need be. I thought of our early days together, when I’d believed a couple of hours at the run was hard work, and smiled at myself. The years behind Achoo had toughened me!
I looked back. Master Farmer was gone beyond sight. He’d been keeping the horses to a walk, so I wasn’t surprised. He would catch up.
The deep woods surrounded us, filling the chilly air with the scent of pine. It was impossible to accept it was June out here. I was glad that my running would keep me warm. I held my lamp down by my hip to light the road ahead. Achoo’s coat was a pale spot in the dark. I tried to keep to the hard places in the road so I would make less noise. The odds were against any bandits out there on a night that did not follow a holiday or market day, but I preferred to give them as little warning of my approach as I could.
All that met my ears were the sounds that I expected, the ones made by owls and small creatures in the undergrowth. A doe and her fawns startled Achoo and me alike, running across the road in front of us. A raccoon, sitting on a tree limb just over my head, gave us his opinion without niceties.
My lamp did not only show me rocks and ruts in the beaten earth. On its edges I noticed traces of unshod feet and the occasional wheel track where a wagon had swerved. Now and then the smells of scummer and piss struck my nose where folk had done their business to the side of the track. I’d bet a week’s wages these leavings were those of the slave train. I stopped a couple of times to pick up bits of leather and cloth. I might need them someday, to track the slavers if we lost the trail of the prince.
I caught up with Achoo when she stopped at a stream for water. I was about to scramble down to join her when I heard several horses. I tucked my lamp in my tunic and thought to hide in the brush when I saw the light and recognized the horses.
“Wait,” Master Farmer called.
I waited, as much to tell him, “Don’t shout out here!” as to find out what was so important I couldn’t have a drink first.
He dismounted while I scolded. “You’re right. Next time I’ll wave like this.” He waved his arm broadly twice. I eyed him, not sure if he was mocking me or not, as he went to the horse that was laden with packs I didn’t recognize. “I think,” he said, undoing a set of ties, “that these contain water. And I gave it a touch as we rode, so it’s clean.” He handed a water bottle to me.
I removed the cork and was about to drink when I had a silly thought. Or it may have been silly if I was on an ordinary Hunt, but was it silly now?
“When I gave it that touch, I also checked for poisons,” Master Farmer said quietly as if he heard my thoughts. “I expected you would ask me to.”
I grimaced at the bottle in my hands. It was discomfiting to have my mind known so well by someone who was a stranger. “Good thinking,” I replied carefully. He was four years older by my near-certain guess, and I did not want to give offense by grumbling.
“Yes, it was,” he said with such good cheer that I suspected he knew exactly what was on my mind again. I glared at him, but he was staring up at the trees, innocence in every line of his body.
I snorted, and took two deep swallows of the water. It was very good. I would have hated to slow us down while I shit my tripes out because someone had dumped offal upstream—or while I died of poison or spells. I wiped my mouth on my arm. Achoo was already on the roadbed, tail wagging. I slung my pack around and took out a couple of strips of dried meat. “Pounce, do you want any?” I asked as I fed her.
I thank you, no, he replied from his seat atop the light-colored packhorse. Everything had happened so fast I didn’t even know the horses’ names. I am enjoying my ride.
“I’m wondering if we ought to wait here for Tunstall and my lady,” I said to Master Farmer.
“Let’s go on if Achoo’s up to it,” Master Farmer said. I couldn’t tell if he really meant was I up to it, but said Achoo so I wouldn’t snap his nose off. “Arenaver’s Deputy Provost is a stickler for procedure. She’ll want to go over everything. And the destrier will slow them down.”
“I’d forgotten about Drummer. Pox and murrain,” I grumbled.
Master Farmer shrugged. “It can’t be helped. Let’s hope he and Steady are worth the extra trouble. In the meantime, I think we should keep going. Tunstall and the lady will catch up with us eventually.”
“So they will,” I replied. It was no use grousing. We had to go forward.
I don’t know how long we followed that rolling stretch in and out of the trees. At least an hour later we passed through an open part with a big pond on one side of the road. The air smelled of damp earth and greens, while frogs and owls held their nightly gossips. Luckily for us it was too chilly for the biting insects to be out and about. I saw a few lights at the far end and guessed it was a village. Master Farmer put a shadow over his lantern so that it gave out just enough light for him to see the road while I covered all but a spot on my stone lamp. Neither of us wanted anyone who might be up to see who was on the road so late at night.
When the ground began to rise, I decided there was no point in trying to show Master Farmer how tough I was. The muscle I had pulled before the boat landed was making my back hurt. It was time to ride. I think I disturbed the horse saddled for me. He snorted and shook his head as I took his reins from the string with the three packhorses. “Sorry to wake you,” I said, tipping his face up. “Did you think you were on holiday?” I stroked his neck, then blew carefully into his nostrils to make his acquaintance.
Treat her well, peasant, or you will deal with me, Pounce called from his throne.
The horse very carefully turned until his rump faced Pounce, raised his tail, and let fall a great pile of manure. He stopped, waited for a moment, then did the same again, as deliberately as Pounce would have done himself.
Insolent mortal, Pounce grumbled.
Master Farmer was laughing into the crook of his arm to keep the noise from carrying. I thought he might strangle at first. Finally he raised his head and wiped his streaming eyes. “I didn’t think … gods or … horses … had a sense of humor,” he said, gasping for air as he spoke.
“He’s a constellation, not a god,” I said as I gripped the saddle horn. The horse looked at me. “With your permission, good sir,” I told him, bowing. He snorted. I took that as a yes and mounted up.
Achoo whuffed impatiently, not liking the pause. She thought we had taken enough time for a change of transport. She didn’t understand that when the work was so dire, it helped to have a laugh now and then. “Coming,” I said, and nudged the gelding forward.
On we went as the road continued to rise. I put my stone lamp away, happy to rely on Master Farmer’s lantern. He’d picked up a long tree limb somewhere. He hung his lamp from one end and held it out well in front of him to show the way. It revealed hoofprints and cart tracks in the road as well as the normal bumps.
“Why don’t you just magic up a light?” I asked him, trying not to shiver. Now that I wasn’t running, the cold was starting to nibble at my skin. “It’d be easier.”
“Mayhap so, but not as wise,” Master Farmer replied, his eyes focused on the edges of the road. “We’d be in a fine pickle if I wasted strength on keeping a light in midair, only to need plenty of my Gift further along. Your lamp is different. I didn’t have to keep using my power once it was made. If I find a big enough piece of crystal or rock mixed with it, I’ll make another, but there’s no sense wasting this lantern.”
It was a little comforting to know he didn’t have so much power that he could use it on all of his chores.
“Cooper, are you sure we’re on the proper trail?” he asked. “What if they’ve dropped a lure for Achoo?”
“She got a strong scent,” I told Master Farmer. “If it was a lure, the scent would fade. The real one stays strong. Our lad gives it off all of the time. Besides, there’s signs from the slave caravan all along the road.” I pointed out the middens and the resting places on the roadside as we followed Achoo through the high point of a small pass cut through hills. I was guessing that they were hills. They were marked as such on my map of the district, where they ran between Arenaver and the Halseander River. We never could have told their height then, the dark being so thick and the stars being blocked by clouds.
“Very much so. That strong smell hangs on long past scent in the air, and the drops of liquid stick to the ground and the ground cover.” I smiled. “I hate the stuff most of the time, but when I’m out with Achoo, it makes my life so much easier.”
He fell silent. We both did as we rode on and up. Over the top of the pass, the breeze rose, plucking at my sleeves and making me shiver. I turned and grubbed in the packs on my mount. I hoped that my coat was here and not among my things on one of the other horses.
Master Farmer settled the branch on which he carried the lamp between his knee and his stirrup, and opened one of his own packs. “Here,” he said, holding out something bulky and dark. “This will keep you warm.”
I accepted what he offered, shaking out the folds. “A shawl?” I asked, startled. I hadn’t worn one since I got my Dog’s coat.
“I like shawls,” Master Farmer said. He sounded a little defensive to me. “I hate having a draft on my neck, and I hate having my arms hampered. I tie a shawl right and my neck and back are warm while my hands and arms can move as I need.”
The shawl was a big one. I wrapped it around me and draped one end over my back to hold it in place as we continued to ride down. New smells reached my nose from the folds: spices and musk, burned wood, wax. I remember thinking that this must be what mages smell like, before I raised my face to look ahead. New scents were coming on the breeze that flowed through the pass, too, odors I commonly think of as green ones. They are those of broken and rotting greenery and wood, the water in which those things rot, and soggy earth. The scent was heavy enough to worry me. I nudged my mount into a quicker walk, almost a trot. He picked up his pace without complaint. Master Farmer took his cue. I still kept an eye out for leavings from the slaves. They must have entered a clearing to one side. Crushed grass and footprints leading to and from the road told me that a large group had stopped there. Were they moving slowly enough that we might catch up with them in the next day or two?
The road was steeper than it was on the way up. The forest was shrinking, opening on both sides. Then we heard Achoo give a mournful howl, her sign that something had gone amiss. Master Farmer and I urged our horses into a trot. “Is she hurt?” Master Farmer called to me.
“No. Something’s mucked up her Hunt,” I replied.
When we reached Achoo, I found the source of the newest smells. A marsh lay on both sides of the roadbed, which had been built up a little ways into it. Achoo stood at the end of the road. Beside her was the beginning of what must have been a good bridge at one time. It thrust no more than a foot away from the land before it ended in blackened timbers.
I slid out of the saddle and went to look at the swine-swiving mess. Behind me the lantern light brightened until I could see clearly out into the marsh for a good way, which was part of the issue—it was a good way, yet Master Farmer’s mage-light did not touch the far side. What it did show was smoke-marked stone piers that crossed the marsh, some with a few bits of charred wood stuck to them yet. I crouched beside the ruins on the road and broke off a piece of wood. Achoo whimpered and paced back and forth, stopping twice to nudge me in the back as if she said, “Can’t you do something?”
“Master Farmer, we don’t need so much light,” I reminded him.
The smoke drifted in the air around us. The thick boards that remained within reach were cool, so it had been more than a day since the fire, but not much more. The smoke would have been entirely gone in that case. I swiveled on my toes to check to either side. There was a well-used footpath leading away on my right. On my left was a small road that led north, skirting the marsh. If there was a village or town nearby, it would be that way. I heard nothing but the cheep of crickets and frogs and the sounds made by calm horses.
I lifted the bit of wood close to my nose and sniffed. Under the odor of burned wood was another smell, one I knew. I took the piece away, snorted to clear my nose, then brought the wood up again. I knew that scent. Tunstall and I have worked enough burnings-for-hire for me to recognize magefire when I smell it.
I rose and carried the piece of wood back to Master Farmer. He smelled it and said, “Magefire.”
“Craven canker-licking sarden arseworms,” I said. I wanted to break a few kidnappers’ heads just to relieve my feelings.
“I think you’re being too kind,” Master Farmer replied, turning the wood over in his fingers as if it might talk to him. “What’s the matter with Achoo?”
“She’s poxy mad with frustration,” I snapped, “aren’t you?” Then I looked at her afresh. She had run a yard down the footpath, away from the road, then back to the bridge. She turned back and forth for a moment, her movement saying as clear as Common that she was torn between two problems. Then she trotted down the footpath that short distance, only to return. Something that bothered her lay not far down that path, close enough for her to smell. It also gave off an odor she recognized as one she would follow while on duty. Only another official business smell would distract her on a Hunt.
I took my baton from its straps and drew my horse’s reins over his head, leaving them to drag on the ground so he would not stray. Master Farmer had dismounted and let the reins to his own horse hang. He lifted his lamp from the long stick in his right hand and nodded for me to take the lead.
“Dukduk, Achoo,” I ordered her quietly. If the problem was close by, I would not need her skills. I also did not want to risk falling over her if we ventured into the tall reeds that bordered the path on both sides.
As we went forward, the closest frogs fell silent. Nearby I heard a splash. We had frightened one into the water. The crickets were undaunted, and continued their calls.
We had not walked more than two yards along the path when Master Farmer halted, covering his nose with his free arm. I nodded and tugged him along. Now the smell was as obvious to us as it had been to my hound back on the road. No wonder Achoo had been worrying her poor head over which scent to follow. She knew she was supposed to pursue the prince now, but we have Hunted for corpses so often that she may have thought she had to get both.
The Dog lay half in the water, half out, just ten feet from the road. Animals had been at her legs. When we pulled her from the water, we saw fishes had been at the rest of her. Her tunic was untouched in the front, no holes or slashes. There were no strangler’s marks that I could see on her throat, but they could have been destroyed. Her insignia, brass, hung on a chain around her neck. I took it in my hand and turned it over. Her name was carved there—Palisa Vintor. Her district, Arenaver. Her years as a brass badge, four strokes cut into the metal. She would have gotten her silver badge next April.
I told Master Farmer all these things, hearing my voice as if I stood away from my body. I sounded polite and quiet. I’d retreated into myself as I always do when it’s a woman, a child, or another Dog. I don’t want to show weakness. I let myself be another mot who knows how to look at the dead without making a looby of herself. “Would you help me turn her, please?” I asked.
“Are you all right?” he inquired as he gently set Vintor on her right side.
“It’s my work, Master Farmer,” I replied. I held my stone lamp close to the body. No slashes or holes on Vintor’s back that I could make out, either. “Curst if I know how she died, unless she was strangled and the signs are hid under the damage. You can put her back now.”
“These Rats are profligate with their magic,” he said, making the Sign on his chest. I did the same. “They’ve got so much they spend it like water. Good. They leave more for me. Cooper. They smothered her at a distance—probably from the bridge—and sent the slaves to hide her. They left too much magic on the Guardswoman, and the slaves’ hands left their marks. I suspect guardswoman Vintor here is one of the Dogs sent to follow the new arrivals by the Deputy Provost.”
Her purse flapped open and limp on her belt. I checked and found it empty of anything, coin or orders. Next I took off her boots to see if she’d hidden orders there. They were empty, though Vintor had slender pockets in both for just such a purpose. Had she stitched them there herself? I wondered.
I had to look inside her tunic, but cutting it open would take even more dignity from her. Instead I cut the cloth along the side seam and reached in that way. No documents. If the Deputy Provost had given her written orders, the slavers would know there was a Hunt for them, or someone like them.
“I thought, all you told me before, you’d done your examination,” I said.
“That was just what I knew after casting a general spell,” he replied. “I’ve yet to truly examine her, which means you and all those charms you carry—my tag, the spelled mirror in your belt pouch, the Goddess and Mithros charms on your belt—need to get back. That magic will interfere.”
My irritation broke the idea of being somewhere else that I used to keep myself strong. I glared at Master Farmer, thinking, Forgive me for being needed in the Hunt at all! But I backed up to the edge of the reeds on the far side of the path from the marsh. He told me when to halt. Mind my tail, Pounce said. I hadn’t seen him arrive. I want to watch.
“I’ll try not to disappoint,” Master Farmer replied, rubbing his hands together. “But this won’t be anything complicated. Just something basic I created for Dog work.” His eyes were intent as sparkling fire spilled from his hands to Vintor. It spread over her like honey, coating her from top to toe. As it filled in the spaces where the fish and the animals had gotten to her, I saw her body take shape under it—eyes, calves, nose, throat. When she seemed whole again, the fire vanished, leaving only a corpse untouched by anything. The effect was not one of solid flesh, but more like a painting that was a little sheer. It was solid enough to show no sign of scarf, belt, or cord around this Dog’s neck.
The illusion soon faded away. I bowed my head and made my prayer to the Black God.
“So mote it be,” whispered Master Farmer when I was done.
“What now?” I asked. “We cannot go forward.” It was one thing to follow Achoo. It was another to sit in the middle of no familiar place, our lad’s scent in midair with no way to follow it, a dead Dog on our hands, and no Tunstall to make decisions.
“I want to seal this poor mot off from more damage,” Master Farmer said. “If you and Pounce will move well back again?”
As we obeyed, the sparkling fire that Master Farmer had used to blanket Vintor once reappeared, as if it had only seemed to vanish before. The bits of white fire grew thicker, until the entire corpse shone. They faded. Now Palisa Vintor looked to be sheathed in glass.
“I don’t know our next step,” I admitted to Master Farmer. “On my own I’d go find the nearest village. We need to cross this marsh, and word must be sent to the Deputy Provost that one of her people is dead here.”
“Then let’s pitch camp—maybe on the other side of the road, for all our sakes—and wait for Tunstall and the lady,” Master Farmer suggested. “I don’t suppose Achoo will be happy, but she won’t like it when we take her around the marsh, either. Unless you mean to take her straight across somehow?”
I was grinding my teeth. “Cod-kicking craven churls,” I muttered to myself. “Bad enough they’ve put us off, but they’ve bum-swived every last local and traveler, burning that festering bridge.” I went to the road and considered the marsh. If I cut a long pole to test the bottom in front of me … Achoo could swim the water and walk the reed islands to follow the scent in the air. She’d done it before. I could swim the deep spaces, but not with the gear I needed for a long Hunt. Going alone was a risk, but gods rot these mewling, snake-hearted villains, they put even more sarden ground between us as we stood yattering there, and they were already a day or two ahead.
Camp, Beka, Pounce said. When you’re reduced to swearing and grinding your teeth, you’re too tired to choose well. I can feel at least one ten-foot drop-off within six feet of that bridge. There’s one that’s not just twenty feet deep, but thirty foot wide beyond those first two hummocks there. He wound around my legs, purring. My eyelids felt heavy. I barely noticed when he began to lean against my calves, nudging me toward the small road that led north. Achoo ran ahead of us, though she often looked at the marsh and whined. Master Farmer came behind us with the horses.
We found an area back from the northern road, screened by the trees, yet still within hearing of the main way. One thing I can say about camping by a marsh, the grass was thick and green. Without talking, Master Farmer and I cared for the horses and picketed them where they could graze. We were about to settle ourselves when I noticed that Achoo stared toward the road, her ears up, her eyes alert. I hand-signaled Master Farmer to look at her. Then we heard the sounds of approaching riders. Lantern light shone just over the brush that screened us from the road.
I was drawing my baton when Achoo whuffed, her tail wagging. Then I heard Tunstall’s familiar voice say, “Mithros’s balls, where’s the boar-buggering bridge?!”
“Put out another bowl, Mother, we’ve company for supper,” Master Farmer murmured. We both walked out to the road, Achoo racing to meet our companions.
Tunstall was at the remains of the bridge, dismounting from his horse. Holding a lantern of his own up high, he was cursing our prey steadily, not repeating a single word. I still do not have Tunstall’s skill in swearing.
Lady Sabine waited on Steady three horse lengths to Tunstall’s rear, Drummer off the horse string at her side. The lady must have thrust the pole from which her own lantern dangled between the branches of a nearby tree, because there it was where none had hung earlier. She had a small round shield on her right arm and her sword in her left hand as she waited for us to come into view. Had we walked straight into the main road to attack Tunstall as bandits, the lady knight and the warhorse would have been on us in an instant, Drummer and Steady smashing us with their hooves while Lady Sabine cut us up.
Now, seeing Achoo, and then Master Farmer and me, she grinned and sheathed her blade. Drummer snorted and did some quick turns in the roadway to relax as Steady and Achoo watched. “Don’t mind my fellow, there,” Lady Sabine told us. “If he can’t fight, he needs to cool down a little.”
“Cooper,” Tunstall said, still looking at what was left of the bridge, “report.”
“The scent goes that way,” I replied. “And we can’t. There’s a raw Dog over there that Master Farmer preserved in glass or sommat.” Folk that aren’t Dogs exclaim sometimes when they hear one of us report the death of one of our own. Do they expect us to go down weeping? There’s the work to finish. Tearing clothes and sobbing won’t help a lost Dog. Vintor would be avenged only when her killers were hung.
“We’re betting that this Dog, Palisa Vintor, was sent by the Deputy Provost to chase one of the two slave trains that came to Arenaver in the last few days,” Master Farmer explained. “She had the misfortune to find the people who have our lad. They have two very nasty mages with them.”
Tunstall nodded, tugging his beard with his free hand. “The Deputy Provost told us Palisa Vintor went after the smaller caravan, and she had not reported in,” he said. “The other three tracking Dogs came back with reports that ruled out the remaining targets.”
“These slavers have him, we know that,” I said, offended anyone might think otherwise. “Achoo’s never wrong.”
Tunstall looked back at me and smiled. “The Deputy Provost doesn’t know Achoo. Hestaka, it’s good to see you.” Pounce jumped up onto his shoulder. “Cooper, finish your report.”
I told all the night’s events to him and the lady as they’d happened. When I finished, Farmer added what he had learned.
Tunstall sighed and spat on the road. Then he said, “Take me to Vintor.”
“You don’t need me for this,” Lady Sabine reminded us. “Where are the other horses picketed? Mine could use a rest from the saddle.”
“One moment, my lady. I’ll go with you,” Master Farmer said. He raised his hand, palm out, in the direction of Vintor’s body. For a moment he closed his eyes. Then he opened them and nodded. “You’ll be able to examine her now, Tunstall. I’ll enclose her again when you’re finished. My lady?”
My partner and I set off down the path, Pounce still riding Tunstall’s shoulders. Achoo thought that she ought to come, but I sent her back to Lady Sabine. It was silly to let my hound be upset all over again by the encounter with a dead human.
The glasslike covering that Master Farmer had placed around Vintor was indeed gone. Tunstall examined her as I answered his questions.
Pounce stayed on Tunstall, balancing easily as he shifted. “Have you an opinion, hestaka?” Tunstall asked him.
You are all weary, the cat said. You need rest, for the horses if you will not take it for yourselves. You are lucky it was but a bridge destroyed, and not fighters left to take you. They do not think much of you at the moment.
“Swive what they think of us,” I said.
Tunstall patted my shoulder. “Pounce is right. As for this poor mot …” He sighed. “We must get word to the Deputy Provost, the first chance we have. She can send people to take Guardswoman Vintor home.”
We walked back across the road and along the lesser track in silence. Pounce jumped down from Tunstall when we reached our campsite, and trotted into the woods. I was about to tell him to stay close when I realized my folly. Pounce has never gotten himself into trouble that I know of, while my own record is not so clean.
Master Farmer and I had stumbled across a favored travelers’ site when we’d left the horses there. He or Lady Sabine had cleared out a stone-lined fire pit that others had built near the edge of the trees. They had a pile of dried wood nearby and a fire already blazing where the lady, Master Farmer, and Achoo now sat. The pit was so well set in the ground that it was only when we came into the cleared area that we saw the fire. No one on the main road or across the marsh would see the flames, and the dead, dry wood ensured that the fire gave off little smoke. The scent of cooking sausages was another matter. My belly growled. I remembered that I’d thrown up my last meal.
Lady Sabine had unpacked a small basket onto a spread cloth. “The Deputy Provost gave us this in addition to the supplies already packed,” she explained. “There’s Galla pasties, parsnip fritters, lamb cakes, and nice, dark bread rolls. Ale for those who want it, raspberry twilsey for the rest. Chopped meat for Achoo and Pounce. Achoo has already eaten her share.” Lady Sabine pointed to a space behind Achoo where Pounce was eating a small pile of food. There were signs that another such pile had been next to his, but only a few bits of meat, small enough for Achoo to miss in the grass, were left. Achoo now busied herself with a bone.
I took out one of my many handkerchiefs and folded it over, then chose what I would eat. When I sat between Lady Sabine and Master Farmer, she passed a cup of the twilsey to me. Tunstall had yet to sit. He’d wandered over to the edge of the marsh to think.
“You made good time catching up, better than we expected,” I said to my lady.
She laughed. “Master Farmer here said the same thing. My family has been breeding ladyhorses for generations. They may not have liked my choice, but Father said he was cursed if a Macayhill, any Macayhill, would serve the Crown poorly mounted. Drummer and Steady are faster than any other knights’ horses I’ve known.”
“I still wouldn’t put any coin on them at the races,” Tunstall said, returning from his thinking spasm.
My lady smiled up at him with just her eyes. It was an interesting trick. I wondered if she was trying to be proper and not let the love between them creep into our Hunt. It still showed. It put a needle in my heart. Had I ever looked at Holborn that way, even in the beginning? I didn’t believe I had.
Pounce rammed himself under my right elbow. I ran my fingers into his thick, soft fur and let it warm my fingers. Thank you, I thought to him as hard as I could.
He butted my thigh with his head. Stop hating yourself because of him, he ordered me. Holborn wasn’t good enough. You didn’t even like him, not at first, not by the end. You just loved him for a short while.
“What are your orders, then?” Master Farmer asked Tunstall. “Since you’re in charge.”
Tunstall tugged his beard. “This road is traveled enough. There are always villages in marsh country—the living’s good. We’ll follow this road north and see if there is a village where we can get someone to take a message to the Deputy Provost about her missing Dog. We need a ferry across the marsh”—he looked at the horses—“or another bridge. What about it, Cooper? Are villages or bridges on one of your maps?”
“This bridge was on the map, but no others,” I said, recalling the district map from memory. “And no towns are marked hereabouts, either. Or villages, but they never mark villages.”
“From the path here, I’d say there’s a village,” Tunstall said. “Cattle tracks, sheep tracks. If we don’t have a village or ferry, we’re swived, and we’ll have to go all the way around the curst thing.”
I fetched my pack and found the waterproofed leather envelope with its precious documents. I gave it a more thorough search than I had on the ferry and discovered a second map of the area, labeled The Tellerun Valley to the Great Road North. It had more details than the district map. I spread it open and found the land between the Tellerun and the Halseander Rivers. There was an area colored blue. Written small over it was the name War Gorge Marsh. I used the first joint of my thumb, which was almost exactly an inch of length, and placed it along and across the area marked as the marsh. I checked it twice, to be sure, muttering “Pox” to myself when it came out the same both times.
“If I’ve worked the change from inches to miles right, this festering slice of mud is near forty miles long, with us right in the middle,” I told the others. “It’s eight miles wide at the widest part and six at the thinnest. There’s no road of any kind marked either on the far side of the marsh or on this side of the bridge going to the southern end of the marsh. The only village is in that direction on this side.” I looked up to see that Master Farmer was staring at me. “What?” I asked.
“I don’t think I’ve heard you say so many words in the entire time I’ve known you,” he replied. “Is it because you’re tired? Is there something in the lamb cakes, or the marsh air?”
Tunstall grinned, the mumper. “Cooper likes maps.”
“She talks enough, when you know her,” Lady Sabine added.
I scowled at the document before me. I was going to ignore Master Farmer. What could I say, after all? Just because I’m no jaw clacker doesn’t mean there should be a ruction put up whenever I have sommat to say. “There is a village, seven miles down this road,” I told them. “I don’t see marks for any other bridges but the one that got burned.”
Tunstall sighed. “We’ll go around if we must, then, but if our luck’s in, the village will have a ferry. They can’t manage with only one bridge. Very well. It’s an hour, mayhap two, after midnight. We’ll take a four-hour rest now. I’ll have a one-hour watch. Sabine the second, Cooper the third, Master Farmer the last.”
I wondered if Master Farmer would know when to rouse us, then realized that he must. Good mages learn to track the sun and moon whether they can see them or not, so they work their spells properly. Kora can do it, and she never pretends to be any greater than a hedgewitch with bite.
Lady Sabine and Master Farmer did not wait for Tunstall to change his mind. They wrapped themselves in blankets and lay down. My lady used her saddle for a bolster. Leaning against it, she seemed to plan to sleep sitting up. When she saw me looking at her, she smiled. “If I sleep flat after a meal, it comes right up. Annoying, but better this than puking on the good bed linens.”
I had it in mind to write in this journal for an hour before I slept, but Tunstall would have none of that. “You can write in the saddle, I’ve seen you do it,” he told me sternly, taking my shoulder pack from my hands. “Bank the fire and sleep, Cooper.”
I did as ordered. Achoo and Pounce curled up with me, which was a comfort. I slept.