Tuesday, June 19, 249

The Banas River and northeast

When we rose, Ormer was gone, just as he’d promised. I was itching to leave, but Tunstall insisted we all have as sound a breakfast as our supplies would allow. As the others were packing up, I took a quick moment to rinse my spare, mud-caked uniform in a nearby pool. I could let it dry on the back of a packhorse. By the Goddess’s grace, the Dogs at Arenaver had chosen the most patient animals I’d ever met to carry our goods. Every night I had tried to show my thanks by giving them all a good combing. Not one of them had kicked or snapped despite slips and bug bites. If we all survive this and even find the prince, I will ask His Majesty to give these horses a fine stable, good food, kind grooms, and easy work for all of their days.

Pounce had yet to return, which was disheartening. Three years back I’d had to do a Hunt without him. It wasn’t the same. Having him about, knowing what he was, made nearly anything seem endurable. He was still here, wasn’t he? All our small human messes were just that, compared to what Pounce had seen.

This was the first Hunt I’d ever had that made me feel as if it might shake even Pounce’s home in the Divine Realms. I wanted him here to tell me I was acting like a sheep.

I fixed the leading reins for Saucebox and my packhorse, Breeze, together with those for Master Farmer’s packhorses. When Farmer took over the reins and he and the other two mounted up, I called Achoo to me. I offered the scent lure to my hound.

“Time to go to work, girl,” I whispered to her. “You won’t have to wait much longer. Let’s go!”

Achoo smelled the cloth and sneezed, then circled, her nose low. She didn’t have the scent here, but I didn’t expect her to. We were two miles from the place where we would pick up the Rivers Road, if the map was right. I set off at a good trot, the lure tucked in my belt. Achoo ran at my side, trusting me to start the Hunt again. I was a good couple of hundred yards down the marsh road when I heard my companions nudge their horses forward. They would keep us in view without hampering us.

I was fifty feet or so from the blackened remains of this side of the bridge when Achoo took off. She circled in the roadbed there, sniffing eagerly, then went to the side, her nose an inch off the ground. I caught up to see what had taken her attention. It was a small lump of muck, dried and nasty in its look—vomit, I’d wager. Achoo’s tail wagged ferociously. She whuffled over the bit of mess as if it were a choice cut of beef. Her quarry had tossed this up.

“But we know he’s not here, girl,” I told her. “Mencari!”

Achoo sneezed and raced east along the road. I placed one of my spare handkerchiefs over the puke in case Tunstall thought it was worth gathering, and ran after the hound. Mayhap Master Farmer could use it to trace the lad, though had that been true, he’d have done it by then.

Now that we were clear of that poxy marsh, the road began to rise again into tall hills guarded by high cliffs that were sheer faces of stone. The road had been cut through them like a channel. It gave me the shudders. There was no way to know if there were archers tucked in the green brush on those limestone heights, ready to shoot down any strangers in the uniform of the Dogs. Achoo didn’t so much as glance up. That is the marvel of her. She did not care at all that the scent she had was days old. To her it was as fresh as if it had been laid down this very morning. No rain had washed even a little of it away, no other riders had laid their scent on top of it. She was free to do the thing she loved best.

While she kept her mind on the scent, I watched the heights and did my best not to trip until I could hear the others closing the distance behind us. After that I relaxed. Master Farmer could handle any archers if they were there.

On we ran as the wind picked up in the ever-deeper cut through the hills. We were over the rise of the pass before Achoo swerved to the side, then back to the road. I checked the area where she had sniffed, but there was no sign other than trampled greenery. The prince must have pissed there, but it was dry by now.

I stopped for a moment to look out over the lands before us. I took a swig of water from my flask and rinsed my mouth before I spat it on the ground. Trees covered the slopes of the hills, but where the land leveled off lay a river. It was the Banas. Another chance of a burned bridge or even a ferry, and more delays. I picked up my run again, gaining on Achoo.

Our riders came up with us as we approached the river near noon. As Master Farmer held Saucebox so I could mount, Tunstall looked ahead. “I thought it was ferries at this crossing, not bridges,” he said. “The ferries look like no one’s done any harm to them.”

“Thank you, gods,” Lady Sabine commented. She and I sighed our relief together.

“Cooper, stay with Achoo,” Tunstall ordered. “My lady, if you will stay with Cooper? Master Farmer and I will question those who run this place to see if they can describe our quarry for us.”

I peeked at my lady to see if she disliked taking orders from a commoner, even if he was her man. To my pleasure, she nodded and lined up with me as if Tunstall had always been her commander.

“Achoo, tumit,” I called as we rode closer to the water. She snorted. “I mean it.” I pointed to her usual position at my side. “I know you have a scent, and I’ll turn you loose on the other side of the river. Don’t give me a blasted argument.”

“Do you think she really understands you?” Master Farmer asked as Tunstall rode forward to the ferryman’s house. A woman who’d stepped out of the building was blowing a horn to summon the ferry’s crew.

“She’s been with me long enough, she ought to,” I said, grubbing in the side pocket of my shoulder pack. Master Farmer grinned and followed Tunstall. I fished out two strips of dried meat and broke them into three pieces each. “Achoo, look here!” I tossed her each piece carefully. She ate them in one gulp, then whuffed. “Patience,” I said quietly, keeping an eye on things at the house. “Unless you tell us different, we must take a boat ride. Again.”

Three good-sized ferries were tied up on this side of the river. I dismounted. As if she knew my mind, Lady Sabine took Saucebox’s reins. Whistling to Achoo, I stuck my hands in my pockets and wandered down to look at the ferries, as innocent as I could be.

Achoo found the scent on the second boat.

“That beast best be trained,” called a man who spoke with Tunstall. I looked back. Tunstall and Farmer approached us with the cove who must work the ferry while the mot at the house rang a bell on the porch. The stranger, who’d spoken, pointed to Achoo.

“What is the problem with these folk that they can’t tell a hound that knows her manners from a Corus street cur?” I muttered to Achoo. I turned back and called, “She knows what’s allowed and what’s not!” I stepped onto the ferry with care, telling Achoo, “If you can keep your water to yourself in the palace of our very own king, you can very well keep it in some worm-rotted old raft, am I right?”

Achoo wagged her tail. I wasn’t sure as to her meaning. “You did behave yourself in the Summer Palace, didn’t you?” I asked. Achoo danced as if teasing me.

My lady joined Master Farmer, Tunstall, and the ferryman, leading our horses. Once they reached me Tunstall asked, “Cooper? Did they cross the river?”

“Achoo says in this very boat,” I said, nodding to her. Achoo was whuffing at a corner of the ferry in a way that showed she had the scent.

“I told you people, we took six slave trains one way or t’other that day, at least three of ’em with carts,” the ferryman said. “How are we supposed to tell ’em apart five days later? They all paid their coin and went on their way. Now, we’ll go faster if two of you get in the one by the dock, the one with the gangplank, and we divide the horses between two boats. Here come my lads to help you board.”

His “lads,” we learned, logged wood in the forest when they weren’t working on the ferry. They had come running at the sound of the bell. They were big men who made little work out of moving the gangplank from one ferry to another once a new set of horses was ready to go. I ended up on the second ferry with Tunstall.

“You’re doing all right, Cooper?” he asked me as three of “the lads” pushed us away from the shore.

I smiled up at him. “Of course I am,” I assured him. “What did you learn at the house?”

He shrugged. “What you heard the old grumbler say. They had enough folk come through here from three different roads that they don’t remember particulars. It’s trading season. No one looked off-kilter to these folk.”

I nodded. What was the enemy supposed to do, kill everyone at the ferry station? Better to pass unmarked with all the other travelers. I wish they’d at least looked sinister enough that the ferryman had remembered them. Knowing the enemy only by scent was scarcely useful for humans.

I looked for my hound. Achoo stood in the ferry’s bow, paws on the rail and her nose in the air. Her eyes were squinted nearly shut, all of her attention placed on what she smelled. I knew that look, for certain. Achoo had her scent from the air that passed over the coming riverbank already. She was feasting on it, in her way.

I shrugged out of my shoulder pack and took out the bag of dried meat strips, which I dropped down the front of my tunic. Then I secured my water flask on my belt so it would not bump my hip as I ran. Tunstall took my pack. I often ran with it on, but he and the others were coming right behind me, so there was no need to wear it today. It would be easier if I rode, but this way I could follow Achoo off the road instantly if she chose to leave it. Once the day got truly hot, as it promised, I’d be happy to mount up.

Achoo didn’t even wait for the ferry to come up by the dock on the eastern side of the river. When it was just two feet from the pier she leaped across, landing neatly. She raced down the length of the dock and onto the road beyond. I waited until the ferry scraped alongside the dock to jump off. I ran after Achoo, knowing the others would be delayed as they unloaded the horses.

Achoo actually slowed down a little so that she was in my view when I rounded the curve from the dock road. Here three different roads came together. I quickly halted and placed markers so the others would see that I had taken the northeastern road that led from that intersection.

There was a signpost. I glanced at it quickly to compare it against the map. On the road Achoo had taken, the sign pointed the way to Queensgrace, the Galla Highway, the Great Road North, and Richcaffery. Were the slavers taking their cargo to the lords of the northern mountains, or to Galla? If they stopped to sell, they would lose their lead.

My trail markers set, I began to run again. To my surprise and pleasure, Pounce suddenly appeared, running at my side. “I’m honored,” I said, feeling the weight rise from my shoulders. “Out for a little exercise?”

It is a fine day, and I am not likely to wear a coat of mud, he replied. Did you enjoy yourselves among the eels and the reeds?

“We dined like princes,” I replied. “I think my spine sways more.”

Pounce fell back a little, then caught up. No, your neck is as stiff as ever, he said. Not even five days of eely meals could change that aspect of yours. If it were so, I would shake you from my paws and find someone more amusing.

I could not help it. I seized him and hugged him. There was no one to see me in that hollow area of the road, save for Achoo.

Pounce bore it for a moment, then wriggled until I put him down. On we went again.

It was a beautiful place to run. Trees at regular spots on both sides of the road were marked with the Queensgrace coat of arms, a small crown over prayerful hands. I supposed it was the Count of Queensgrace I had to thank for this nearly flat road. They’d have filled out the ruts made by wagons fairly recently, since the new ones were scarcely cut into the earth. A good road like this would bring more coin to Queensgrace’s pocket. Local merchants would prefer this road, and the coin they spent in Queensgrace lands would eventually benefit the count. Tunstall had explained it all to me on our Hunts. Hillmen learn a great deal about why folk take one road and not another, so they know where to rob.

Though with the marsh bridge gone, these people would lose a chunk of their trade coin. This summer was going to be lean, thanks to our prey. It was another reason to bring them down.

The trees were old here, the kind we never see in the Lower City unless we venture to the Temple District. I heard all manner of birds going about their days. We crossed bridges over two lively streams, with Achoo halting only quickly to drink. Pounce did the same when we came to each one, while I stayed prudent and drank from my flask. It had taken but one Hunt to teach me the folly of drinking water that had not been boiled.

I watched the trail for Hunt sign. I noted the tracks of a horse with an off foreleg that had gone this way mayhap two days before, and of five mules in a string only yesterday. Several carts had traveled the ground as well over the last three or four days.

Pounce and I caught up with Achoo as she drank from another stream that crossed the road. Pounce joined her at the water, gulping almost as greedily as she did. The sun was high overhead and we all felt the heat.

Pelan, Achoo,” I told her. “Slow march.”

She looked at me as if I’d taken a meaty bone from her.

“None of that,” I said. “We’ll be at this all day. Let’s save our strength.” Achoo trotted ahead at a slower pace, her shoulders drooping as she followed the scent. Pounce leaped to my shoulders. He’d done a wonderful trick he used on other Hunts, making himself lighter than usual, so as not to wear me down with his weight.

I picked up my own pace to keep closer to Achoo. We’d gone some five hundred yards or so when I smelled cooked meat on a breeze from the northwest. Achoo had stopped. From the look of her, I knew the prince’s scent had left the road, leading down into the tall grasses on the left. She stepped onto the slope from the road into the weeds.

“Tunggu,” I called, trotting to catch up with her. I didn’t like her moving out of my sight. These weeds were up to my chest.

Pounce leaped down when I reached her. I looked about for stones to leave for Tunstall. Never mind that, Pounce said. I’ll let him know. Be careful. I don’t like the smell of this place.

“We’re always careful,” I replied. I looked about us. The weeds were bent back from a thin trail. A bigger group than normal had passed this way, leaving bend marks on the stems and yellowing leaves. I’d wager a good meal that Master Farmer would see magic had been done here to bring the weeds upright again.

Achoo chuffed at me. She never understood my needing to look around so slowly when she had something to follow. “Pelan,” I told her. That scent of cooked meat had the skin prickling at the nape of my neck. The stench didn’t belong here.

Achoo went ahead, tail drooping, staying no more than a couple of feet in front of me. She might complain, but she never broke the rules on a Hunt. How she could ignore the smell, I don’t know, but she managed it.

The weeds opened up. Before us lay a wide, bare strip of ground littered with a few young trees. Further on more and more of them grew until they joined with a forest. Achoo took a couple of steps ahead before I managed to scream, “Tak! Berhenti, Achoo, tak!

She turned her head to stare at me, but she moved not a muscle. I thanked Mithros, god of the Sun Dogs, for granting me such a fine hound, and ran up to her to show her the peril.

With trembling hands I scratched her ears and talked to her to calm myself down. “See there, the dead creatures?” I pointed to the charred bodies a scant three yards ahead and babbled on. “I smelled the cooked doe and her fawn—you probably ignored them because you had our lad’s scent in your nose, you good girl. But look. There’s fried birds all along that stretch of grass, where it’s gone yellow, and rabbits, and voles and mice.” I groped around me for a stone and tossed it at the image of grass and trees that lay beyond the line of dead things. It turned red hot just as it flew over them and fell to the ground, smoking.

I kept a hand in Achoo’s collar and pulled the sample lure with the prince’s scent from my belt purse. I offered it to her. She sniffed it, sneezed once, then leaned forward against my pull on her collar. She scrabbled at the dirt with her forepaws, her nose pointed right at that deadly line.

“Sarden mage work,” I whispered. “They went to a lot of trouble to keep us from finding whatever’s here. Let’s meet the others and see what Tunstall says.” Back to the road we went.

I’d just finished combing a few burs from Achoo’s tail when Tunstall, Lady Sabine, and Master Farmer arrived. They all dismounted to hear my report.

“A pretty trap, and mayhap nothing to do with our search,” Tunstall said when I’d finished. “We could find the boundaries and take Achoo around. Or we might send her further up the road to see if the scent resumes there.”

“Or our quarry could be beyond that barrier,” Master Farmer said. “Let’s have a look. Better safe than skinned, my old ma always says.”

“What if the local people walk into that thing?” my lady asked. “It may have killed some of them already. We should destroy it if we can.”

Tunstall ducked his head. “You’ve all persuaded me,” he replied. “Let’s see this cooking illusion.”

Back down the path we went, Pounce riding one of the supply horses this time. When we came out of the high weeds into the clearer area, Master Farmer held up a hand and walked forward. “Very nasty,” he said, and lowered the hand. A great curtain of sparkles appeared just behind the line of dead animals. “A lot of power went into this. It feels like that of the two mages I picked up at the Arenaver fair.” He strode forward, and before I could stop the great bumwipe, he thrust his hand into the magic barrier.

I yelped, Lady Sabine gasped, and Master Farmer yanked his arm free quicker than he’d put it in. From elbow to fingertip it burned with a reddish-purple flame that ate his shirtsleeve and turned his fingernails black. Master Farmer, sweat rolling down his face, sketched a sign in the air with a finger that didn’t burn. The sign hung there, a bit of dark blue light. He clutched it with the burning hand and the fire went out.

I offered my water flask to him. He poured its contents all over the arm that had been in flames. The only signs left were his blackened fingernails, flushed skin from his fingers almost to his shoulder, and the missing sleeve. Without a word I went and refilled my flask from one of the spare jars carried by the packhorses.

When I returned, Tunstall was scratching his skull and Lady Sabine was patting her forehead with her handkerchief. I went over to Master Farmer and shoved him in the chest so hard that he fell onto the grass. He lay there, blinking at me. “Beka, what—?”

“Gapeseed! Claybrained hedge-born sheep biter!” I cried. I looked at Tunstall and my lady. “Aren’t mages supposed to be clever?” I turned back to Master Farmer. “Half the game in the district is cooked right before you and you stick your hand in there! Sweet Goddess tears, why aren’t you cooked?”

“Because I wasn’t so stupid that I didn’t protect myself first?” He asked it instead of telling it. He hadn’t tried to get up, which told me he had enough wit left to stay down until he knew for certain I wasn’t going to shove him again.

“And it did you so well your arm caught fire!” I pointed out. “Now there’s a useful plan!”

Master Farmer looked back and up at Tunstall and my lady. “Some help?” he asked with hope in his face.

My partner shook his head. He’d had such ratings from me before and knew what happened to those who tried to get in the way. Lady Sabine was tucking her handkerchief in her belt. “She says nothing I disagree with, and she says it with so much more eloquence,” my lady murmured. “Your life is not your own to risk on this mission. Surely that was understood?”

“I understood that I wasn’t risking my life,” Master Farmer retorted. He looked back at me. “I’m very fond of my body. I never risk it when I don’t have to. I’m not burned, you know. Just flushed. My nails turned color with the magic’s reaction to the breaking of the spell.” He held his arm—the unburned one—out to me. “A hand up?” he asked.

I scowled at him, then grabbed the arm and yanked. I had to step back to keep him from colliding with me. As it was, he nearabout mashed my nose with his collarbone.

“I will try not to anger you again,” he told me solemnly.

Tunstall gave his cough of a laugh. “You still don’t understand, book lad. She only talks so to those she likes and thinks need correction. You don’t want to see her angry.” When Master Farmer looked at him and raised his eyebrows in question, Tunstall pointed two fingers at his own eyes. “Ghost eyes. That’s how you’ll know she’s angry. Her eyes go pale with all the dead she’s talked to, and she’ll look at you with them. You’ll feel the god’s hand on the nape of your neck, I swear you will.”

“Enough!” I said, feeling cross. The magic burning just a few feet away made me uneasy. “We’ve got scent yet. If Master Farmer can break this thing, I wish he’d get to it. Elsewise me and Pounce and Achoo will go on around it and see if it ends and the prince came out somewhere.”

“Very true,” Master Farmer said. He walked a little closer to that edging of charred animals.

“It would be a pity if we got so caught up with the magic before us that villains caught us from behind. I’ll watch the road and the horses,” Lady Sabine offered. She fixed the horses’ reins into strings and led them back down the trail.

Master Farmer knelt, took off his pack, and set it before him. Opening it, he surveyed the corked bottles and jars inside. He picked up one, shook his head, replaced it, then chose another. Scowling, he put that back and got to his feet with a squat jar in his hand. Achoo and Pounce backed up until they stood with Tunstall, where the short grass gave way to tall weeds. I didn’t move. Master Farmer hadn’t indicated that I should, and I didn’t want to look as if I was afraid.

He opened the jar, stared at the contents, then corked it and set it in his pack. Next he raised an arm, the unscorched one, then shook his head. I heard him mutter, “That won’t work.”

“Do you mean to do something or do you not?” Tunstall called. “I finished my Puppy year and won my leather in the time it’s taking you to—”

Master Farmer put a black-nailed finger to his lips for silence. Then he pulled something from his right boot—a length of white ribbon embroidered in lively colors. Holding it on his unscorched hand, he murmured over it until an end of thread rose from its surface. Grasping it with two black-nailed fingers, Master Farmer drew the thread out of the embroidered design, somehow without ripping any of the other threads loose.

When he had the length of thread he wished, he spoke to it, and the thread broke. Farmer returned the ribbon to his boot and then wrapped his thread around his burned left hand. Pointing to the barrier with that hand, he let fly a stream of brown-colored magic.

An explosion knocked Master Farmer and me into the grass on the slope and deafened me for several moments.

My hearing returned as Pounce washed first one of my ears, then the other. I yelped because his tongue scratched. Don’t be ungrateful, he told me in my mind.

I sat up. My hands were covered in soot. If Master Farmer’s face was any indication, my face was, too. His hair was blown back to stick out at the sides. He turned to yell at Tunstall, “There, now! Have I made you happy?”

Tunstall halted in the middle of one of his hillman good luck gestures. “Why didn’t you do that right off instead of canoodling with jars and bottles?” he demanded.

“Because there’s no craft to simply blowing something apart!” bellowed Master Farmer. “There’s no artistry! Would you like me to spell artistry for you, you lumbering ox? No doubt every mage in the district knows there’s a new idiot practicing between here and the Banas River now!”

From the road we heard Lady Sabine cry, “Are you alive in there?”

Tunstall turned and yelled, “Oh, aye.” To me he said, “Achoo has scent.”

Achoo had crossed the line of dead things and stood two yards inside it, whining and dancing. Tunstall was right. I lunged to my feet.

A black-nailed hand clamped around my arm. “Not alone,” Master Farmer said. “If there was one trap, there may be more.” He struggled to his feet and grabbed his pack.

Maji tak, Achoo,” I ordered her. I took the jar that Master Farmer had forgotten and handed it to him. Achoo went forward, her nose a foot from the ground, with Master Farmer and me close behind.

With the barrier gone, we could see the trail again as it led toward the woods. Achoo kept to that. She halted inside the younger trees that fought for room near the great oaks of the forest proper. An area about three square yards off the path had been cleared of greenery. The ground had been dug up, then put back.

Achoo sniffed all around the piled earth. I ground my teeth, fearful that the prince was dead and our Hunt was done, until I realized that she was scenting around, not on, what had to be a grave. The prince was not under the ground, then, but he’d been present when the dead were buried.

“She’d dig if he was buried here, wouldn’t she?” Master Farmer asked.

I nodded.

“We still have to make sure.” Tunstall had caught up with us. “Cooper, fetch the digging equipment. It’s on the horse with the black socks.”

“No need,” Master Farmer said. “Don’t make me talk to you about artistry again.” He strode toward the pile of tumbled earth as Pounce yawned.

Tunstall rolled his eyes at me. “He has artistry,” he repeated. “Because that’s what it takes to blow things up. And cook his arm.”

“He’s good at keeping bugs off,” I reminded my partner as we followed our mage to the grave. “And I’ve gotten that fond of his tea.”

“You interfere in my dreadful concentration,” Master Farmer said without turning around. He made his voice boom like the Players did in their performances. “You lack the proper respect for the wonders to unfold!”

I sighed. I am beginning to think that Lord Gershom has saddled us with the silliest mage in the Eastern Lands. Not the stupidest, not that by far. Only the silliest. I looked at him, his body still now as he eyed the turned earth. Funny. I hadn’t noticed before that he’s got such broad shoulders.

Master Farmer reached out with his unburned left hand, holding it palm up. “I learned this from Cassine,” he said absently. “It’s a housecleaning spell that I made bigger.” Instantly the tumbled earth of the grave began to quiver, then to shake. The protection sign disappeared into the moving grains of soil. Master Farmer beckoned with his outstretched hand and the earth rose, clods and single grains falling off to the sides.

Higher came a block of dirt, five feet deep, five feet wide, seven feet long, as close as I could measure, the earth falling off onto the sides of the grave. Achoo ran between my legs and quivered there. Tunstall gripped his belt with white-knuckled hands. As the dirt fell away two pairs of bare feet were visible to us.

Master Farmer raised his free hand and pulled it down from the one he’d already extended. The rest of the dirt separated from the dead and settled on one side of the hole. With the other hand, he beckoned the dead forward. When they were but a foot away, he gently let them settle on the grass.

He waved his hand slowly, from side to side, and the wind blew the remaining earth from the naked bodies. There were three, a mot my age with a swaddled babe laid on her breast, and at her side a brown-haired girl child near the age of our prince. The worms and beetles had been at them already. They were black and swollen with rot, their scant ragged clothes cutting into their flesh.

Glittering blue fire dripped from Master Farmer’s hand. When it touched the dead, there was a flash so bright my eyesight was filled with spots. Achoo whimpered, and I heard Tunstall cursing in Hurdik.

Master Farmer only said, “A rather good mage has been at work here. Interesting.”

“Interesting?” Tunstall asked. He sounded vexed.

“If it had been dangerous, I would have spoken out,” Master Farmer told him. “You get too excited over big flashes, Tunstall. Mages rely on that to make you think they have more power than you.” He set his pack on the ground, took the corked jar I had returned to him, and opened the jar with a whisper. He tapped a quantity of powder into his left hand. I knelt beside him and picked up the wide cork, gesturing for him to give me the jar. For a moment he blinked, as if he’d forgotten I was there, or as if he’d never considered that a second pair of hands might be useful. Then he passed me the jar.

As I corked it, Master Farmer walked alongside the dead, letting the wind blow the powder from his hand over the three abandoned corpses. It settled, glittering like tiny stars.

He said nothing, only looked at them, his eyes thoughtful and kind under their heavy lids. Plainly he’d forgotten Pounce, Tunstall, Achoo, and me. All his attention was on the dead. He still kept his hand outstretched, though motionless, as if he used it to welcome something that was to come forth. The sparkles on the swollen, rotting corpses twinkled and seemed to move, until they rose as a blanket. In midair they halted and faded, leaving in their wake the seeming of the dead as they must have looked the moment they were put in the ground.

Master Farmer lowered his hand. “I’ll say they’ve been dead four days. That’s given the stage of rot and bloat, and the work of the beetles and worms, all compared to their living bodies,” he said quietly. “The babe must have been scarcely three days old when she died. See the cleft in the upper lip goes all the way up into the nose? She may not have been able to nurse. A decent healer could have fixed it.”

“Slavers don’t heal newborns,” Tunstall said, his voice a quiet rumble from his chest. “Only if they’re old enough to work.”

“I know,” Master Farmer replied. “I know. The woman is the mother. The spell does not tell me if she had childbed fever. If the infant is only three days old, it could be the mother was ill with it, but the fever did not kill her.”

There was a dark slash under the mot’s left ear. Master Farmer was placed wrong to see it. I pointed it out to him. There was no sign of a knife. If she had done it to herself, they’d have buried it with her, a suicide’s knife being unlucky. Of course, how would a slave have gotten her ticklers on a blade?

Master Farmer turned his attention to the third corpse. The brown-haired little girl was unmarked save for a dark stripe all the way around her throat. “Strangled,” I said. “Not a rope, or it’d be more scratched up. Whip mark, it looks like.”

“Can we get a better look at the backs?” Tunstall asked. “If they’re branded, it will be on the blade of the shoulder.”

Master Farmer rubbed his lower lip with his thumbs. “I thought only the owners brand, not the slavers.”

“The sellers brand if it’s a special item they might be carrying around for a time,” Tunstall explained, his voice flat. “They use special ointment in the healing and when the item’s bought, the slaver just says the word and his brand’s gone.”

Scowling, Master Farmer reached over the dead. Sparkles fell from his fingers. In a slow and creepy fashion, both the mot and the gixie turned to the right, like they was turning over in bed. The babe stayed on the mot’s chest. My tripes surged. I clapped a hand over my mouth to keep my breakfast from coming up. I don’t know why. Surely I’ve seen worse in the last four years. Yet there was sommat dreadful in those open-eyed bodies moving, sommat I wished I could un-see.

Tunstall stepped forward, his baton in his hand, and pointed to the back of the mot’s shoulder. It showed no mark. The gixie, though, was fresh branded when she went to the Black God. The flesh around it was red and puffy, new-burnt.

I moved closer. That brand, I’d seen it before.

Master Farmer and Tunstall stepped closer, too. Tunstall brought a piece of parchment from his belt purse. He’d put my drawing of the brass token there. We all compared it to the tattoo. They were the same.

“We need to get word to Gershom that we’re on the right track,” Master Farmer said quietly. “Perhaps he can get other Hunters into Frasrlund. They can come down the Great Road North. We might catch the enemy between us.”

“How do you intend to get word to him?” Tunstall asked. “Split one of us off? I think any of us who rides away will be picked up sooner than I can say Ma’s name. A couple of coins will have any farmer or ferryman talking of Dogs Hunting in company with a lady knight.”

Master Farmer shook his head and went to his pack. Crouching, he opened it out, removing box after box. At last he produced a small dish and a little box of ebony wood, closed and locked with silver. “Water, one of you?” he asked, sitting on the grass. He sat cross-legged and accepted Tunstall’s water flask. He poured a little bit of water into the dish and returned the flask, then set the dish aside. “I may be a little odd after this,” he warned us.

“What’s ‘a little odd’?” I asked.

“Cassine made this powder to extend my hearing and speaking range,” he explained. “Also to ensure that only the person I intend to hear me does so, while anyone who tries to overhear me or find me does not.” He wet a finger, opened the box, and touched his fingertip to the odd, purplish dust inside. Instantly his finger began to glow. Master Farmer closed the box and touched his now-glowing finger to the end of his tongue and both eyelids. They too glowed. He shut his mouth and eyes, grimacing as he did. Then he held out the box, obviously wanting one of us to take it. Tunstall shook his head and made the Sign against evil on his chest. I accepted it. Once the box was in my hand, I closed the tiny locks and set it in Master Farmer’s pack. I hoped that’s what Master Farmer wanted me to do, because I make it a rule never to eat things that glow. After I returned the box to his pack, I loaded the rest of his things into it.

When I turned back to the men, Tunstall had moved further up on the trail. Achoo stood behind him. Next to me Master Farmer held the small dish in both hands. He looked into it with his glowing eyes. “Come on,” he whispered. “Ironwood, Orielle, one of you, hear me. One of you must be able to hear. You’re both supposed to have—”

“Who are you?” Tunstall and I jumped. The voice came from the dead child, but it was that of a grown mot. “Mage! Identify yourself! Why have you pried at my work?”

Master Farmer gave no reply. I stayed where I was, trying not to shiver my way out of my boots.

“Answer me, fool!” ordered the female mage. “Did you think we would not lay a trap for prying idiots? Speak, or I will stop your heart dead!”

Master Farmer looked at the child and opened his mouth. Blue-green fire shot out of it to collide with a gout of pale yellow fire that roared up from the bodies. “Did you think I would not be ready? Tell me your name!” he cried, though his mouth didn’t move. The unseen mage howled in rage. The two magics clashed and vanished. The dead were burned to the bone.

Master Farmer’s eyes still glowed. He emptied the water dish with a trembling hand and set it aside. He straightened one leg at a time as if he’d forgotten how they worked. Then, as slowly as my granny Fern, he began to get to his feet. I watched him fumble, trying to brace his hands on the earth or to lever himself upright with one leg. I glanced at Tunstall. He had fetched a good luck charm from his pocket and was praying over it as he petted the shaking Achoo with his free hand.

He’ll be all right, Pounce said. Until that moment I’d forgotten he was with us. He’s not at his best with big magics, remember. This was quite big.

“Why didn’t you do something?” I asked.

When Pounce glared at me, I said it along with him, “Because you’re not allowed.”

Why ask me foolish questions, then, if you know what I will say? Pounce wanted to know.

“Because I want to be surprised,” I snapped. Then I looked at Master Farmer, who still sat on the grass. I scolded myself, saying that a servant of the god of death ought to be made of stronger stuff than I was showing, until I finally found the sack to go to the mage. Carefully, not knowing if I was courting a lightning bolt or some such nasty thing, I got both hands under one of his arms and braced one of his outstretched legs with my feet. He looked at me blindly, startled, his eyes alight. He said something, but it was in no language I knew.

“It’s all right,” I said, talking to him as I had to my brothers and sisters when they were sick. “We’ll get you on your feet if you can manage it. My, that trull was a nasty bit of slum stew, wasn’t she? Arm around my shoulders—good lad!”

Tunstall got over his bit of religion and came to aid us. Together we helped Master Farmer up and slid him into his shoulder pack. I have to say, that man is one weighty piece of beef.

We were about to try for the road when Master Farmer mumbled, “A little rest and I can bury the bones again.” His eyes were shimmering only now. I could see the irises through the odd blue-green veil.

“I’d like a bit more warning, next time,” Tunstall said gruffly, looking at the ground. “I was certain Morni the Mad had you.”

That explained his fit of strangeness. Morni was the hill people’s war goddess and mad as a rabid cat. I wouldn’t want to be near her, either.

“Sorry,” Master Farmer mumbled. “You don’t usually find that much power in a hidden grave.”

“A trap,” Tunstall said. “She knew you were coming.”

“She wasn’t the only one. There were two magics in that, very strong ones. Very strong,” he repeated, rubbing his eyes.

I pulled Farmer’s hand away. “Stop that,” I said. “It’s not good to rub your eyes.”

Tunstall gave me the oddest look. I glared at him. “It isn’t. Don’t I tell you the same?”

“You do,” he said seriously. “After you’d known me two years.”

“The other mage didn’t speak at all.” Master Farmer was looking at his hand, as if he wondered why I held his wrist. I let it go. “There were two. I tried to put a hook into one of them, but I wasn’t prepared to work that kind of magic.” He glanced at me, then Tunstall, then Pounce. “It needs preparation, see. And a brazier, and at least two things I’d left in my bag, not thinking I’d need them.” The muscles flexed in his cheeks. “I will if we meet again. There’s a replacement for the brazier, if I work that ahead of time.” He stood with his weight more on his own feet now. His eyes were his own again. He still shook a bit, but mostly he looked like the Master Farmer I was used to. I slid out from under his arm. He stayed upright.

With a nod, I stepped away from them. “A moment,” I said quietly. I went to the piles of burned bones. I had no fear of the mages biting at me. It was plain they’d fled Master Farmer, and him but one man. I wondered if he’d noticed that yet.

“Black God take you gentle,” I whispered to the poor corpses. “Let his messengers guide you to the Peaceful Realms, where you’ll forget what happened here.”

The clatter of wings got my attention. I looked up. Three wood pigeons had taken to the air. They must have been in the nearby trees. Were they carrying the spirits of these poor folk? Seemingly neither mot nor gixie had any unfinished business for me. Like other slaves, mayhap they were eager to leave such a hard world.

I stood and nodded to Master Farmer. Hanging on to Tunstall’s arm, he raised the bones just enough to move them over to their grave. A mother putting her babes to bed could not have been more gentle as he settled them into the hole. Once they were down, he lifted his right hand and summoned the pile of earth that he’d set aside. It tumbled in swiftly until the grave was full again. At the very last, Master Farmer drew a sign for protection in the dirt. It shone with a steady, bright light. I didn’t believe any carrion eaters would be digging these folk up.

Tunstall asked, “Is all the barrier gone?”

Master Farmer nodded. “No one else will die here.”

Achoo, seeing that we were done with scary things, moved to a spot in the grass where a dead bird’s carcass lay in the middle of another path. Her tail was wagging again. She was sniffing, but not at the dead creature. She circled back to a spot that was spattered with brown drops—old piss—sniffed it, and returned to the dead bird. Then she ran a few feet down the path, halted, and danced.

“They didn’t take them back to the road by the path we used,” I said. “It’s a guess, but Achoo says her trail leads that way. I’ll wager that trail either picks up with the main road ahead, or leads to a village.”

Tunstall trotted back the way we’d come to get Lady Sabine and the horses.

Master Farmer sat on the grass once more. Achoo, thinking we faced another delay, whined miserably.

“Mudah,” I called to her. “We humans need a bit more than our legs and our nose to go along with.” I crouched beside Master Farmer.

“I hate the waste of it, the waste of life that criminals leave behind,” he said wearily. He fumbled at his belt, trying to undo the ties that held his water flask. I slapped his hand away and freed it, then opened it for him. Master Farmer took it with a nod of thanks. “Each of us has power, a kind of magic,” he told me, speaking as if I were a scholar like him. “We spend it somehow as we live, in great and lesser ways. Those three never even had a chance to use theirs.” He drank from his water flask and tried to fix it on his belt, but his hands still shook too much.

I took the thing from his grip and secured it to his belt again, then fed Achoo some meat strips. I said nothing, I was thinking about his words. They made sense. That was one of my reasons for doing what I did. I want more folk to make sommat of their lives, instead of losing them to slavery or prison or murder. But I’d never thought of it this way, that we each had a fire of some kind. We could each make a difference.

Tunstall returned with my lady and the horses. As Master Farmer was dragging himself onto his mount, Lady Sabine asked, “How did these mages know you were looking at this? Surely they weren’t watching all this time?”

Master Farmer smiled as he hauled himself into the saddle. It was a cold smile, a schoolmaster’s smile. “They didn’t need to. If I’d laid this trap, I’d have set the barrier with a spell, a ‘bee.’ In the unlikely event a mage who was powerful enough to break the barrier came along, the bee would go instantly to the casting mage. She wouldn’t even need her partner to spring the trap, if she’s one of the two who’s riding with that slave train.”

I dug in one of the packhorse’s bags. The mage needed to eat something. I cut a chunk off a ham that was conveniently near the top of one pack and some off the cheese that was its neighbor, and shoved them into Master Farmer’s hand. Then I cut more for Tunstall so he wouldn’t whine that I favored the mage. When I held up my knife and looked at my lady, she shook her head and raised a hand in thanks. I put away the food and mounted my own horse. Pounce jumped up onto my lap while Achoo pranced and whined on the ground.

Maji, Achoo,” I called. I rode first down the trail following her, giving Saucebox the nudge to trot a bit.

“There’s another bad thing,” I heard Master Farmer say. “She blocked me from reaching any mage close to Gershom. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get through down the road.”

If the other two said anything about that, I didn’t hear it. I made the Sign on my chest and prayed Master Farmer would reach my lord soon.

The trail led Achoo and the rest of us back to the main road after a couple of miles. Short of it, in a glade by a stream that followed the road for a good ways, we stopped to rest the horses and eat a proper late lunch.

“Let’s talk about our story again,” Lady Sabine suggested between bites. “We can back peasants down with talk of a Hunt and a wave of papers and seals, but that won’t work with nobles. At the level of magic we found back there, we’re going to find money. They won’t be impressed by our documents.”

“She’s right,” Master Farmer said. Even after ham and cheese by the burial ground, he’d eaten a big chunk of bread, cheese, and more ham as if he was starving. Now he eyed a meat pie that lay broken in its wrappings.

“Eat that,” Tunstall said. He lay on his back, staring at the sky and picking his teeth. “It won’t last forever. Our story. I’ve been thinking. A noble’s child’s been kidnapped, but he’s ten, see? That accounts for the four of us. They’d never send another noble and a mage out for a merchant, however rich. All we can say is the noble’s from the southeast, and there’s added trouble with Tusaine if we fail. We’ve been sworn to reveal no more, and our Birdies tell us that the kidnappers came this way.”

“We’ll be pressed for more,” my lady said. “If we run into any powerful nobles, they won’t settle for that.”

“Give it to them bit by bit. Hint it’s mayhap a fight between father and mother, the mother being from the northern mountains. The father’s from the south.” Tunstall dug at a back tooth with the pick. When she’d found out he had this habit, my lady had gotten him a set of ivory ones, all very nicely made. “And no, we’ll give no name, no mention of politics or rebel mages. It’s a straight kidnapping. Let anyone who’s so eager to know pester Lord Gershom for it themselves, if they want it so bad.”

I chuckled. My lord was famous for his response when folk came to bother him about things he considered to be none of their business. Anyone who knew him would decide life was better if they left my lord alone. Anyone who didn’t know of him beforehand would remember forever after.

Lady Sabine fingered the moon charm she wore about her neck. “It should do,” she said at last. “For all that the nobility dislikes Dogs, they know it looks bad if they pry too deep, the way the nation’s politics are these days.”

“I’d think a mention of Ferrets would back them off as well,” Farmer observed. He was sharing the broken meat pie with Pounce and Achoo.

“We don’t need farting Ferrets,” Tunstall said, his voice a rumble of vexation. “We’re worth fearing ourselves, right, Cooper?”

I was on my feet, restless and wanting to be on the move again. “Specially anyone that’s seen us work,” I said absently. Over the far ridge I saw a hint of what might be chimney smoke. It could be a farm, a charcoal burner’s hut, or the first outlier of a village or town. “It’s a fine story, Tunstall. You always make up good ones.” I could hear them stirring behind me, collecting their gear at last. “And if they don’t believe us, I can give them the ghost eyes, you can go all big and threatening, Farmer can do his cracknob simpleton, and my lady can don her nobleness. We’ll do all right.” They were laughing as I told Achoo to maji.

As we moved on the country widened out to show us farms and orchards. Lady Sabine and Farmer got into a discussion of apples, which my lady’s family was known for growing. Tunstall listened, mayhap for ideas for his tiny flowers. None of them took their eyes off of our surroundings. Anyone could be in the weeds, trees, or bushes, watching us or following.

As the others kept an eye open for trouble, I kept my hound in view. Achoo never wavered. The scent was plain.

A courier passed us by, riding south. Tunstall halted him and gave him our latest report to Lord Gershom, wrapped and sealed, with a gold coin to inspire the courier. Official messengers are made to sign all manner of vows, which meant they were safer than most when it came to their work. Also Tunstall, like me, writes everything in private Dog codes.

We met a goatherd with his flock and a carter with a load of chickens in crates. Further on we overtook huntsmen with braces of rabbits from their night’s traps. More and more houses lined the road, along with barns and outbuildings, some with walls built of wood or stone. Folk were much in evidence, hanging clothes to dry, spinning in the sun, hoeing, tending flocks, making butter. We could see herds everywhere, sheep, more goats, one of horses. There were small roads that led away from our road to local manors, perhaps, or villages.

On our second rest of the afternoon, Lady Sabine climbed a nearby hill to have a look at what lay ahead. “We’re coming up on a small river and village,” she said when she returned. “Queensgrace Castle is beyond.”

“If we’re lucky we’ll pass the castle by,” Tunstall said.

“I never depend on luck, my dear,” the lady said, rooting in one of her long packs. She produced what looked like a three-sectioned staff. She fitted the pieces one atop the other, twisting each until it clicked into place. The whole formed a staff of seven feet in length. From the same pack she brought out a banner and fixed it to the wood. It was her shield device, the green flame above the green hill on a field of black, with the green ring and the black ring to show she was a lady knight. It seemed as though someone had shot a couple of arrows through the banner. My lady looked it over, mumbling about wedging it in the stirrup.

“Let me carry it,” Farmer said. He and Tunstall had saddled their mounts as she put her flag together. Farmer was the first to get it all done and mount up. “Beka has to stay with Achoo, and Tunstall has his pride. I don’t have any.”

“I can manage it,” my lady said, looking up at him.

“The house of Queensgrace is said to hold itself very high up. I heard of late they’ve turned to that new cult of the Gentle Mother,” Farmer told her. “They make their women ride mules and forbid them any use of weapons. One daughter was cast off when she refused to leave squire’s training.”

Tunstall said, “Let us give you all the dignity we can manage.”

“This Gentle Mother nonsense is starting to give me a pain in my parsnips,” I said as I got ready to run some more. Castles meant villages, which meant possible turns down narrow lanes and into houses and yards. I needed to be afoot. “Are they mad, hoping some cove will always be about to guard them? I’ll protect my own self, thank you very nicely. That way I can be certain the job will get done.”

Lady Sabine’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “They would rather their women go pure and gentle to the grave than sully themselves with an enemy’s blood,” she told me.

I gawped at her like a countryman at the fair.

My lady grimaced. “My family had me attend three of the Gentle Mother’s services four years ago. Then I threatened to become a prostitute at the temple of the Mother of Delight. After that, I was left to be ungentle.”

“Goddess be thanked,” Tunstall said, and spat.

Achoo whined. “Maji,” I said, and off she went. I ran behind her. My muscles griped a little, as they always did after a rest, but they soon warmed up. Folk watched us as we passed, but while curious, they kept their distance. No one liked strange Dogs in their districts, just as no one ever felt innocent when a Dog was in view.

When I glimpsed back, I could see that unlike before, when the local folk had passed my friends with a nod and a wave, they now stood at the side of the road, removed their headgear, and bowed or curtsied. That was the change caused by Lady Sabine’s banner. Corus folk never did that. If we did, with all the nobles in the city, we’d never get anything done. Here I had the feeling that them that didn’t act respectful saw the wrong end of the count’s riding crop, or that of his steward. These locals were just too wary as they watched us pass, even me and the hound. They were too fast to move aside for Lady Sabine and the others behind Achoo and me.

It made me growl under my breath.

As Achoo and I crested a long hill, I saw Queensgrace Castle. It stood on its own steep hill across the valley from us, commanding a river view. The inner wall stood higher than the outer, with three different towers inside that rose above the whole. The flat-topped one that would be the main keep flew three banners, those of the Count of Queensgrace and two noble guests, if my memory for such things was right. Between it and us lay a couple of miles of green land split with a winding river, the Retha on the maps. On its banks was a village with a good stone wall and a number of farms outside, but they were just dabs compared to the castle. This would be the reason for the deference of those on foot in the road. They were used to the count, his family, and their guests expecting hats off and low bows for their greatness.

Achoo led us down into the village. I rattled off fast apologies as I ducked around folk doing business or talking, half tripping over a mot who backed away too soon from the village well. I managed, barely, to keep my feet. Achoo and I thumped across the sturdy river bridge. We annoyed three young coves wearing shiny brass shoulder badges hung with Queensgrace red and gray ribbons. They shouted for me to come back, but I ignored them. My lady could deal with the men of the Queensgrace household.

I prayed for Achoo to take the turning of the road, the one with the sign marked The Galla Highway, the Great Road North, Richcaffery. She continued straight, onto the castle way. I cursed to myself and followed. Carters and riders squalled at us as we ducked around them.

Whatever happened to the quiet life of the country? I asked myself, picking up my pace so I could be closer to Achoo. I could find as much annoyance at any palace gate. Queensgrace was no duchy to give itself airs.

The hill was monstrous long and steep. My poor thighs were quivering when I reached the top, and the lower part of my back throbbed like a bad tooth. Looking around, I saw the castle stood atop a bluff overlooking the small river that ran through the village. There was no moat, but I guessed the steep hill was hard enough on charging horses. Then I was too close to the castle to see around it. The gate ahead was as great as any at the royal palace, with no guard in sight. Times were peaceful this far from all the borders. Seemingly the count had no enemies among the nearby nobles, to leave his gate open and undefended. Of course, there were men-at-arms with crossbows patrolling the wall overhead.

Achoo charged through the gate and I followed after. “Achoo, berhenti!” I shouted as we came out of the thick tunnel and into the sunlight of the vast outer bailey. She halted halfway across, looked at me, and turned to run closer to a gateway in the castle’s inner wall. “Berhenti!” I cried. I was no fool. We might have come this far, but we would never be allowed into the inner bailey without someone to vouch for us. “Kemari, Achoo,” I said, pointing to the ground beside my foot. “Pox and murrain on it all,” I muttered to myself, hating the need to stop.

Achoo and I had been through this before, though never in houses so great. Every noble demanded his amount of bum-kissing before he would allow the king’s law to be enforced, if he was behaving. They thought, if they delayed us, that it bought them time to rid themselves of evidence. They never realized that they could hide very little from my beautiful hound.

Horses clattered in the tunnel, reminding me to be grateful that I was afoot and not being deafened as I rode in.

“Tunggu, dukduk,” I told Achoo, and crouched beside her. She sat and sighed. She knew what this was as well as I did. We had come into other hounds’ territory and had to introduce ourselves before we would be permitted to continue. She was accustomed. She did not like it. No more did I. Scents get muddled while we wait for orders to be shown and locals to be appeased. One day I would like it to be so a Dog might flash her insignia anywhere she went and everyone, commoners to lords, would stand away.

The guardsmen, who were so invisible when Achoo and I had seemed to be locals rushing in, came out to greet my lady, Tunstall, and Farmer. The mage held Lady Sabine’s flag, the foot of the pole tucked into his left stirrup, as casually as if he were always her bannerman. Tunstall halted at half a horse length to her left, his eyes promising trouble to any who did not treat her with courtesy.

She did not get ill treatment here. As the guards looked at her banner—a chance bit of wind puffed it straight out at that moment—they straightened up and bowed. One of them ran off through the gate to the inner courtyard, dodging geese. Another put two fingers to his lips and whistled up three stable lads, who’d been loitering near the smithy. They bowed to my lady and offered to take the horses. One of them jumped as Pounce leaped down from the packs on Saucebox and trotted over to me. Farmer grabbed my shoulder pack from Saucebox’s back before the horses were led to the stable.

One winter’s night, over hot cider, Lady Sabine had told Goodwin, Tunstall, my friends, and me about her family. The Macayhills weren’t particularly wealthy, but they were related to nearabout everyone. It came from their house being old enough to be listed in The Book of Gold and, my lady said, throwing enough fillies to ensure marriages with everyone who mattered. She’d named Queensgrace that night among the other holdings where she had kin.

Lady Sabine pointed me out now to the guards. I took it as my sign. “Achoo, tumit,” I said, and walked over to the group. Farmer handed over my pack when I reached him.

Two of the guards returned to the shadows by the gate after bowing to my lady a second time. She nodded, then turned to watch the boy who had Drummer’s and Steady’s reins. “You know how to handle a warhorse?” she asked, more lordly than I’d ever heard her speak.

“Don’t you worry, my lady,” said the guardsman who remained. “Our chief hostler trusts that lad with any horse in the stable. Ah, here comes Niccols. He’ll make you comfortable.”

From the guard’s introduction, I knew the soft-bellied cove who strode toward us from the inner gate was the steward of Queensgrace Castle. His scarlet tunic sported some nice yellow and blue embroideries at the hems, and he could afford a matching small round yellow hat. A ring of keys jingled from his belt.

I ignored the introductions as my lady told the steward, Niccols, who we were. There were banners that hung from a balcony that overlooked the inner courtyard. Chasing Achoo as I’d done, I had not read the flags that flew over the castle. These I could not mistake. One was the blue shield of the Conté house with the royal silver sword-in-crown, topped by a silver crescent with its horns up. Prince Baird was here!

Beside that banner hung another, a red buck deer on a green field under what looked like a yellow strip that was crenellated and laid upside down. Niccols was leading us to the inner gate, where we would pass straight under the banners. I called Achoo to heel. When I looked to see if Tunstall knew what they meant, I discovered Farmer at my elbow. Tunstall was trying to get within earshot of the steward and Lady Sabine without seeming to do so.

“That’s Baron Something-or-other of Aspen Vale,” Farmer told me. “The label, the three triangles with a line laid over the points, indicates the older son. The other one, the same flag but with the mark of the second son, belongs to Master Elyot of Aspen Vale.” Farmer grimaced. “He is a very powerful mage—the pride of the City of the Gods. And being from Corus, I suppose you already know Prince Baird’s coat of arms.”

I nodded. “I’m thinking this makes our luck good,” I told him, keeping my voice low. “With so many guests about, they’ll be too busy to watch us.” I grabbed for Achoo’s collar as she trotted away from me, but it was too late. She’d picked up the scent again.

She knows as well as I that we can’t go where we please in a castle. We must present our papers to the master or mistress first and get their approval, or they will howl the gods’ own red murder at the next high court.

I took the lead I always wear clipped to my belt and freed it. “Achoo!” I called softly. “Berhenti, you ill-bred wench! Right now, berhenti, or I’ll make you into a shawl for Farmer!”

Achoo looked back at me. When she saw the lead in my hands, her ears and tail drooped. She slumped as she stood.

“Curst right, you’re going on the leash! You know this sarden game better than me, you swine’s get, and looking woeful buys you no beans!” I reached her and threaded the lead around her collar as she looked pitiful for any who watched. “Pretending you don’t know how to act in some clench-arsed noble’s place, when you’ve been in more of them than me! Now tumit, and no more sauce from you, or you get cold eels and vegetable broth for your supper!” She does not care one bit for cold eel, nor for broth made of anything that is not meat and does not have legs. I had to be sure that she understood. From time to time she deliberately ignores me. It is the nature of four-legged dogs and two-legged Dogs alike, to challenge the leader from time to time. Each such challenge must be met forcefully, or the Dog, hound or human, will not obey other orders.

When I caught up with the others, Niccols was telling my lady, “—understand we are pressed for space with His Highness, the baron, and Master Elyot staying. I’m certain the mistress will find a place for my lady in women’s quarters, and proper garb for supper tonight—” I wanted to punch him in the kidneys for the look he gave my lady’s riding clothes. He babbled on, “Your, ah, attendants will sleep in the great hall. I will try to ensure they have pallets—”

“Niccols, apparently you did not listen to me before.” Lady Sabine’s voice was chilly and clipped. “I am not in charge of our company. Senior Corporal Tunstall is in charge. We are not here for last-minute hospitality.” She looked at Tunstall.

He stepped forward. “We are on a Hunt,” he informed the steward. “I have documents from the Lord Provost, which I will show Count Dewin and his lady. We require an immediate meeting with His Lordship to that end. Depending on what we discover and at what time, we may not remain.”

“And if we do, we shall do so together,” my lady said firmly. “In a stable loft if necessary.”

That put Niccols into a complete fidget. Mating pigeons flutter less. The count and his lady were out hawking with the guests, he said. We must await their permission to search the castle, he told us firmly. He sent one servant to the kitchen and another for maids. Before we knew it we’d been placed in a fine armory off the main hall, among a collection of very good weapons and armor. A cushion was brought for Lady Sabine to sit on at the table in the center of the room, while we commoners made do with our own rumps on the wooden benches. Niccols assured us over and over that he would come for us as soon as the count returned, then skittered away to do other chores.

I must end here. My eyes burn from the scant light, and there is still so much more to write of this very long day. I will take up the report again when chance offers.

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