The Great Road North
writ as I find the chance to do so
The others slept till near noon, as far as I could tell. Not so I. I woke when Achoo did, about mid-morning, and sleepily watched as she found the wards. With a sigh, she went among the horses to do the necessary, then came back to Pounce and me. Pounce was eating something with a tail. I did not examine it. Instead I softened meat strips in a cup of water for my hound.
My hands were trembling because my fear for the cat was so great. I finally asked, Pounce?
I do not know when the gods will choose to punish me, he replied, knowing my question before I could think it straight at him. We are at a crossroads in time, with all the possibilities so tightly woven together they may not even learn I have done it yet. Or they may know, and care less, because Achoo is one of the Beast People and not a human, and crossroads are governed by human fate. Or they are swept up in other matters. I believe the Goddess will take my side, since she has affection for me. Great Mithros may well do so, because he has an affection for loyal hounds like Achoo and has mentioned to me how he likes to see her work.
Mithros knows who Achoo is? I asked, giddy with the thought that my hound had drawn the favorable attention of the chief of the gods.
He is the patron of four-legged dogs and of the Provost’s Guard, Pounce said.
As I fed the softened meat to Achoo, I asked, What will they do to you?
Pounce curled up, having finished his own meal. What can they do? Bind me to my own stars for a century or two, that’s all. It’s only because I poke my nose into human affairs that they have any power over me. Now hush. I’m going to nap some more.
Once Achoo had gulped down her breakfast, she did the same. I found that, while I was no longer so fearful for my friend the cat, I could not go back to sleep. Instead I dressed and cleaned up, then set to bringing this journal up to date.
I also thought. Farmer was on watch last night, and thank the gods for that, or the enemy might have caught us abed, so quiet had they been. But how had they known exactly where we were camped? We had covered our tracks well, coming off the road.
Perhaps one of their mages was a tracker, though I’d never heard of such a thing. Of course, before Farmer, there were plenty of kinds of magic I’d never heard of. Still, Ahuda taught us, back in our Puppy days, “Go thinking everything is done by magic, and you’ll end with a knife in the back.” Most mages keep to one or two specialties in addition to some general guard, battle, and healing spells all mages are called on to use. The specialties were pretty well known among Dogs. The Viper was an all-around destroyer—a war mage. From things I’d heard at Queensgrace Castle, Elyot was good at defense and strength, while the count’s mage was a healer of land and crops as well as human beings.
No, it was far more likely the enemy had a very fine tracker. I need to stop looking for bogles where there are none.
Farmer rose as I was making porridge and tea for our breakfast. He brought the wards down and went to the stream to splash his face and clean his teeth. The noises he made brought Tunstall and Sabine around, both of them sitting up with swords in hand. I covered a grin and pointed to Farmer. Pounce and Achoo had already followed him to the water.
We made a quick meal and packed up. Though Achoo tried to tell us that she was fine, I coaxed her into riding a packhorse today. Pounce jumped up beside her to keep her from fussing. He also addressed a few comments to the horse when the mare seemed inclined to refuse her passengers.
“I don’t understand,” Sabine said when she saw me tie ropes to hold Achoo in place. “I suppose we can take it for granted they mean to continue on to Frasrlund, but what if they’ve left the road?”
“I’m Achoo today,” I told her. I had found my cuirass and was putting it on. “I run at the side of the road and check for the slave middens we sought out before. When I see one, we have Achoo give it a sniff. She’ll tell us if we’ve got the right scent. We did it once a year ago, when she broke her foreleg in a trap.”
Don’t look at me because I didn’t heal her then, Pounce said. The stakes weren’t so high.
“When will they punish you?” Farmer asked, his eyes worried. “The Great Gods?”
If Pounce had been human, he might have rolled his eyes. I could not begin to guess, he replied. It could be tonight, or tomorrow, or next year. They do not exactly understand mortal time, and the nature of the crisis confuses their vision of this world right now.
“Will they let us speak for you?” Tunstall asked. “Explain things?”
Let us worry when it happens, Pounce told him. If we may cease fussing, please, and go now?
We finished getting our armor on and bringing out the weapons we preferred to use. I noticed that today Sabine had strapped her longbow and quiver to her saddle, while Tunstall wore his short sword. Farmer had his embroidery hoop and thread ready for work, which made me grind my teeth. Though I can write in the saddle, I cannot sew without plunging the needle into my flesh over and over. It was very annoying.
The day was fine, cool turning to warm, but the road was in shade most of the time. I found the first evidence of several humans’ piss before my legs were even well stretched. Achoo told us all that Prince Gareth’s scent was there. On we went, the others riding close to my heels to guard Achoo and me. We did not even stop at the next wayhouse. Traffic was light, local folk with carts and two merchant caravans bound south.
By mid-afternoon the brightness was failing. Clouds fat with rain rolled over the trees. Achoo was tired of riding by then. At a stop when we still had a bit of sun in the sky she refused to return to her place atop the mare. I thought she would know if she was up to regular duty, and let her take the lead on foot. She did not waste time, but sniffed the midden, sneezed, and set out down the road. Now Tunstall rode beside us, Sabine and Farmer having dropped back to rest the bigger horses.
We were an hour along and I wanted to stop to make a piss-mark of my own when I began to feel sommat was off. Thunder rolled in the distance. The wind was blowing in the strangest way, first from the east, then the south, whipping the trees madly. Branches tore off and flew through the air. One struck me on the right cheek. Sabine shouted an inquiry and I raised my hand in warning. I was fine, or fine enough, but Achoo was suddenly acting strange.
We were running up the slope of a hill. Near the top she halted, going from middle-air-seek, with her nose at the same level as her shoulder, to madly questing in the air, nose raised, mouth open, turning in the road. She smelled sommat she didn’t like. I hand-signaled trouble to Tunstall as I drew my baton and called Achoo to heel.
The bandits ran at us from the woods on both sides of the road at the hill’s crest. They were armed with crossbows. Achoo and I dove for the protection of a big tree without waiting to see if they meant to shoot or no.
They shot. A wall of Farmer’s blue flame ate their first arrows. Then a mage came out, eight feet tall and hooded and robed in fire. I bit my hand rather than scream. The thing wavered, to my relief. It was an image or disguise, not a true creature. It was deadly all the same, returning Farmer’s blue Gift with a bronze-colored blaze of its own. The two lines of fire met over the road and meshed, surging back and forth like arm wrestlers. I looked at Farmer. He was sweat-soaked and grim-faced.
Sabine dismounted from Drummer and walked forward, her longbow strung and an arrow already set to the string. She loosed and took a bandit through the throat. Drummer and the other horses save for Farmer’s gelding moved back, away from the lady. Sabine continued to shoot, using up the extra arrows she held in her mouth before plucking more from the quiver on her back. She killed three more bandits outright before the others stopped watching the mages and realized their own peril.
Tunstall’s saddle was empty, his mount backing up, seeking the safety of the herd of packhorses. Immediately I knew what my partner was up to. He’d gone into the brush and trees on the far side of the road, just as I’d sought the right side. “Tinggal, Achoo,” I whispered to her. She sat, whimpering. “I don’t care how you sarden feel, we are not risking you. We need you to seek, so you curst well tinggal.”
I left her hidden behind the tree as I went back into the forest. The wind steadied into a blow from the east—the mage had whipped it up before, I would wager, to keep Achoo from smelling the bandits beforetime. The thunder was closer and louder now. Its boom covered any noise I might have made.
I found the bandits’ camp and their horses first. Quickly I stripped the animals of their gear and slapped their backsides, scaring them into a flight through the woods. They were scrawny, half-starved things. I asked the Goddess to lead them to better owners if she would.
A bandit fleeing the action on the road discovered I had driven off his means of escape. He came at me with a battle-ax raised high. They always think I’ll try to meet such an attack from a longer weapon or blade and a taller foe. They never expect me to come in from the side opposite the weapon, driving my baton up between the rusher’s legs. He’d just grabbed my shoulder when my lead-cored weapon hit his loving muscles. That straightened him up. He gripped me still until I seized his hand and smashed the end of my baton up under his chin. That was the last of him for a while. I bound him hand and foot in case I hadn’t killed him, and went back the way he had come, looking for his nest mates.
Another coward on the run with a black arrow lodged in his shoulder raced down the trail. He was looking back toward the road and never saw me as I stepped aside and swung my baton right into his middle. Down he went. I bound him with strips torn from his filthy tunic and turned him over so he wasn’t jamming that arrow deeper into his flesh. I wasn’t sure if I ought to remove it or not, but decided to leave that decision for our mage.
I reached the road just as lightning struck the ground in front of Farmer. The Rats’ mage was too busy watching him and paying no attention to aught else. I looked for the solid form inside the wavering illusion and struck as hard as I could. The mage was female, as I learned right off. She must have used her protective magic in her battle with Farmer or she had trusted the bandits to guard her. The image vanished. The mage lay in the road, a dent in her head from my blow. I knelt, looking all around me as I checked the mage’s throat for a pulse. She was as dead as the first of our kings. Tunstall was pulling his short sword from a bandit’s corpse. Two Rats were on the ground before him, one moaning and the other still. Three more lay in the road with arrows in them. They would not be getting up again.
Sabine dismounted to help Farmer to his feet. His horse lay in the road unmoving, killed by the lightning at my guess. Farmer looked dazed, but no part of him was singed or burned.
The local weather god decided to receive the Great Gods’ gift of rain. The clouds split to bless the land, if not us, with a blinding downpour.
I started dragging the dead off the road. Tunstall’s moaner had gone to the Black God by the time I reached him. I’d moved two raw ones before I remembered Achoo and whistled for her. With my hound’s aid I was able to drag three more onto the side of the road closest to the camp.
That was when Sabine and Tunstall appeared out of the downpour, leading the horses. They had gotten Farmer onto Tunstall’s horse. He swayed in the saddle, his eyes half open. Even in the rain he smelled of smoke and cooked meat from his horse’s death. He looked at the enemy’s mage, who still lay in the road, and a slow smile spread across his face.
“I see she met Beka.” I barely heard him through the rain.
“It could have been Tunstall who did for her,” I called. “Though he’d have done the left side of her skull, then, or mayhap the whole thing.”
“Let’s get under cover for a bit,” Sabine shouted. “We’ll search the dead when it lets up some.”
I didn’t exactly like that, leaving what information those raw ones might hold in the road for passersby to loot, but with so hard a rain it was difficult to see. Quickly I dug in the pockets of the one closest to me, bringing out an amulet and a couple of copper coins. Then I gestured for my partners and their horses to follow me. I collected the prisoner with the arrow in his shoulder while Tunstall grabbed the other cove near the camp.
The gods be thanked, the trees were bigger and heavier here, so we did have some shelter from the drumming rain. We set the prisoners off to the side. Tunstall helped Farmer down from his horse. Once the mage was seated against a tree with enough leaves to keep him from getting wet, we searched the bandits’ gear. Their packs were poor things, with rags of clothes and carved wood charms, knives so worn from sharpening they were almost needles, and herb medicines.
“Locals recruited by the enemy,” Tunstall said with disgust when he and I had inspected the lot. He held up a leather purse he’d found in the best-quality pack of them all. It was heavy with jingling metal, but when we poured it out, we found only tin coles.
Farmer touched one and grimaced. “The count’s mage did this. He put a seeming on the coins, to make them look like silver. Poor men lost their lives for a lie.” He gathered up the rest of the pocket gleanings. “I can’t do anything with the amulets and charms, but later, when there’s time and I have the strength, I’ll go over the rest.”
“I’m just as grateful these men lost their lives, Farmer, if you don’t mind,” Sabine said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Given they wanted to kill us. And there’s sad news about our living prisoners.” While we’d been examining the bandits’ gear, the two coves we’d brought into the camp had decided not to wait for us to question them. They had swallowed their tongues. Like every other enemy we’d taken down this Hunt, they had naught in their pockets. “Pox,” my lady said.
She’d put it lightly. I stepped back a little ways in the trees, behind the horses, so I might be sick. Over the years I’d had to harden myself to crushed skulls, gaping and rotting wounds and their stink, cut bellies, the burned dead, and those who’d been gone and left unfound for a day or more. But there’s something about a mumper swallowing his tongue, or the magic that forces him to do it, that gives me the heaves.
There was nothing I could do with these poor Rats, so I went to the packhorses. Farmer needed sommat to perk him up. I don’t know if he’d had a chance to replenish the Gift in the ribbons he had used at the poisoned river, but he had other ribbons. He’d about done for the shelled almonds, too, but I could crack the ones in the pouch for him to eat.
I found Whitknees, the mare who carried Farmer’s gear, and was reaching to undo the straps that secured the bag with his magic things when I saw sommat odd. Dangling from a buckle on top of the pack was a bronze medallion I recognized right off. I reached for it and ran my fingers over that raised design—four leaves, pointed inward. The last time I had opened this bag, it had not been there. What was it doing on anything of ours, hanging out in the open like a signal to follow or to steal these packs and not Sabine’s, Tunstall’s, or mine?
I was tugging the buckle to the main compartment when Farmer’s big hands closed over mine. “I’ll do that,” he said wearily. He stopped for a moment, as if he was deciding what to say or how to say it. “I’ve been thinking, maybe I shouldn’t ask you to get things.… So much in there is dangerous.” He wouldn’t look at me but he did look, I saw, at that bronze medallion. After another pause he said, “I didn’t put that there.”
“I never thought you did,” I said warily. He wasn’t normally a pauser when he spoke to me. “Nor did I.”
He looked at me then, hard, asking me with his pale blue eyes if I’d tagged his pack. If I might be a traitor to our Hunt, to our realm. His hands tightened on mine. I held his gaze, trying to say without words that I’d had no part in marking his things with the enemy’s sign. It’s harder to do with the eyes than it is with words, but that’s the trick. It’s easy to lie with words. I’m told it is, anyway. I’m not good at it, so I seldom lie, but Farmer did not know me well and could not risk believing any speech of mine. He didn’t try to magic me in that moment. Tired as he was, I think he could have done it. He always seemed to have some little bit of Gift tucked away. But he didn’t try. He either respected me or wanted to believe I would not lie to him. I hoped for both.
And me? I’ve met so few folk in the world I trust to the bone. Can I be wrong about Farmer? Because that medallion says I am dead wrong about someone.
He released my hands. “I’ll get what I need, and thank you.”
Freshly helmed, with the rain ringing on the metal, I passed among the pack animals, making sure they were comfortable and promising I would take their burdens off if we were stopping there. I hoped not. I did not like that place. I also checked for other medallions.
As I was saying hello to Saucebox, I noticed that Pounce stood by Drummer and Steady. They were still worked up over the fight, shifting to and fro on their great steel-shod weapons of hooves. Since my eyes were drawn to Pounce on the ground, I also saw that the fighting horses’ hooves were bloody and caked with pieces of matter and lengths of hair. When had they killed anything?
I called to Sabine, who was talking intently with Tunstall. She walked over, shaking her head. “He wants to push on,” she called to Farmer as he cracked nuts at Whitknees’s side. “We’ll need a boat if this rain keeps up!” Coming to my side, she looked where I pointed. Then she said quietly, “Beka, let’s scout the road.” She hand-signaled Tunstall, murmuring to me, “We didn’t look behind us in that downpour, we just whistled the horses along.”
She drew her longsword and followed me into the tree cover along the thin trail. Achoo wanted to come, but again I made her stay behind. Tunstall vanished into the woods behind the camp. I knew he would be silent and not take foolish risks while he searched in that direction. I also knew I’d feel much better if Farmer were up to strength and able to go with him.
Both of you managed without a pet mage for three years, I scolded myself. You split up all the time and it worked out very well. It’s just having Sabine and Farmer and all these animals along that makes you wish for baby minders.
It was easier to see along the road with the rain easing. Sabine and I walked along the place where we’d been attacked. Now we saw two black-clad corpses in the middle of it. They must have been hidden by the downpour when Sabine and Tunstall collected the horses.
“Stormwings,” Sabine whispered. “They distracted us to steal the packs.”
“I doubt they had a proper chance,” I replied, the image of the medallion on Farmer’s pack clear in my mind’s eye. “I think your horses put paid to that.”
Sure enough, when we got close, we saw the marks of heavy steel shoes in the bodies. They’d been sorely trampled.
“I’m thinking that when we give Lord Gershom the accounts for this Hunt, we ought to add Drummer and Steady to the pay roster,” I told Sabine as we searched the corpses. “They’re as good as two more Dogs, and they’re always sober.”
She grinned. “You should see them drunk.”
My raw one wore only a Mithran emblem at his neck, which I took. His pockets were empty. I stood with a sigh and Sabine too got to her feet. She showed me an earring, a plain amber drop. “These might tell Farmer something, when he has the strength for it.”
She tucked the drop in a pocket, bent, and gripped her corpse by the boots. I did the same. Neither of us wanted to touch the soggy mass around their heads and chests again. Together we dragged these two coves to the side of the road.
“I can’t help noticing,” I said as I tugged, “that Drummer and Steady appear to go out of their way to kick a foe in the head.” Looking at the remains of both raw ones with a gulp, I added, “They are truly enthusiastic when it comes to the head, in fact.”
“Ah, that,” Sabine replied. She dragged her corpse into line with those I had set by the road before. She helped me settle mine. Then she stood for a moment, looking at them in the mud side by side. Finally she said, “Being one of the sisterhood—the lady knights—it isn’t always easy. Plenty of men are happy to try to do to one of us what they’d never do to a male knight. Sadly, some of those happy men are our fellow knights. It happened to me but once. After that I not only trained Drummer and Steady to fight as all warhorses fight, I trained them to go for a man’s face. Once my fellow knights saw it, or talked to someone who had seen it, they left me alone.”
“Good plan,” I whispered in awe.
“I know a number of fine men,” Sabine told me. “Your partner is one of them.” She sighed. “If only he would give up this notion that he is not good enough for me.”
“I tell him you know your own mind when he mentions it,” I assured her. “That you’re a grown mot who knows what she needs and has.”
She gripped my shoulder. “So he says. I thank you. He respects your opinion.”
As we returned to the bandit camp, I wondered if he would respect it if I said we might have a traitor among us. But who? Farmer? He was the most likely, being the one we knew the least, but I could not fit my mind around it. Was I a fool to think there was no evil in that broad face, or those placid blue eyes?
I was not a sheltered young thing who could believe no wrong of a cove I liked. Nor was I terrified to face the idea of a turncoat. If we had one and he, or she, went uncaught, then we were as good as dead.
Those two dead men were the professionals, the ragamuffin bandits there simply to distract us. It was the professionals who’d set the bronze tag on Farmer’s pack before Drummer and Steady caught them. The count’s people had surely had plenty of time to learn what bags belonged to each of us. The threat came from outside our group. The trick would be to escape them without losing our quarry.
Farmer, Tunstall, Achoo, Pounce, and the horses were gathered under the spreading arms of an ancient oak, out of the rain, when we returned to them. “I searched down the other trail,” Tunstall said when we were within hearing. He pointed to the path opposite the direction of the road. “No camp. Someone halted within view of us and ran back to others on horses. They all rode south, but I could follow only a little before the storm washed out their tracks.”
“Two dead men in the road, attired the same as our attackers from Queensgrace,” Sabine replied. “Beka has an amulet from one—”
“Two,” I said. “The second is from a bandit. He had some coin as well.”
“And I have an amber earring,” Sabine continued. “Farmer?”
He was holding a silk bag against his forehead. I thought I’d seen it in his pack, wrapped about something square. “Not yet.” He opened the bag and held it out to us. “Put them in here. I’ll get to the earring and coins when I’ve got myself back up to strength. You know I can’t manage amulets. The rest—that won’t be today. I’ll try to get my Gift restored, but it won’t be enough for anything big.”
Thunder rolled in the distance. The storm was returning. Sabine grimaced. Tunstall ran his fingers through his hair. “Sore-biting lice on this Hunt,” he grumbled. “If I’m remembering the last road sign, there’s a wayhouse three miles along. Let’s stay there tonight. We can leave word of our dead bandits for the army patrols while we’re at it.”
We collected ourselves and I put my cuirass back on before we returned to the highway. Achoo was the only one in good humor, rolling gleefully in the mud. She did it twice more when she discovered I was too weary and lost in my thoughts to stop her. Sabine rode my Saucebox, giving Drummer and Steady a rest, though Pounce rode Drummer. Pounce gets surly when he’s wet, and he never wants to talk with anyone. At least he didn’t rub it in by vanishing to the Divine Realms.
I followed Achoo at a trot mixed with a walk. The scent she had was strong yet, thanks to the prince’s piss-markers. Another day or two of these hard rains and the scent would be overwhelmed. Only prayer could change that. I finally had to take off my boots and stockings and run barefoot as the mud got slippery under my hobnailed soles. Luckily for us the local folk kept the dirt of the road packed down hard, or we’d have been deep in mud.
The rain continued, growing harder as the storm got worse. I almost overran the wayhouse before I realized the black shape by the road was its wall.
The place was huge, walled all about, four stories tall from ground to attic. It was as big as Provost’s House, built to give cover to several caravans at a time as well as anyone that might come alone.
The wayhouse keeper would have put us in a dormitory with twenty or so other travelers, had he not spotted Lady Sabine’s shield and the haughty look she gave him as we waited on a long porch out of the downpour. He had but one room left, he told us, and it with two beds. He apologized over and over for the lack, saying his people would dry out our bedrolls in time for the extra two to sleep warm in the stables and we could eat for free, though not drink.
I did not miss the looks of regret Tunstall and Sabine exchanged. “One moment,” I told the man. “If you would set your folk to getting the room ready?” Once he had left us alone, I said to the others, “Someone ought to stay with the horses and Achoo, just in case. I’m volunteering. I prefer straw and animal smell to stale inn pallets and too many merchants.”
“That’s a good idea,” Farmer said. “Beka and I can trade off watches in the stable. You two can guard the packs in the room.”
“Who would bother the beasts?” Tunstall wanted to know. “Places like this—Sabine!”
She had delivered a hard elbow to his ribs. “Don’t be a hoddy-dod,” she said with a smile for Farmer and me. “They’re giving us a night alone. Let’s take the packs to the room. Say thank you while you’re about it.”
Tunstall blushed a fiery red. He muttered sommat that might have been a thank-you and hoisted some packs on both shoulders. I took charge of the other horses as Sabine brought Drummer and Steady along. The big horses would do naught unless she gave them the special signs and words to obey. I can’t help but think that it is like having two more Achoos, both the size of bears. If only they could be taught the craft of scent hounds, they would be the perfect creatures for Dogs.
The stable was bigger than Jane Street kennel. It was oddly built, with two long buildings that housed four rows of horses in each. The buildings were connected by a smaller one at the center. Hostlers raced out of that one to take control of our other mounts, showing Sabine where Drummer and Steady could be lodged. While she saw to them, I chanced a look out of a back door. From there I could see white-painted railings like fences, but regularly broken, about twenty yards behind the stable. Rows of them stood there between building and wall. I was confused, but then, we’d never had cause to stop in a really big wayhouse before this. Normally Tunstall and I preferred to sleep wild on a Hunt.
The hostlers were a cheery group. They were good enough to arrange an area where all of our animals could be near each other. When I explained to the chief hostler that Farmer and I would spend the night with our horses, he fetched out blankets and safe lanterns and kept an open box stall for us to bed down in. He took my coin and my thanks and bowed to Sabine, who had groomed Drummer and Steady as we settled the other horses. When Farmer arrived with his shoulder pack, he helped to groom our remaining animals with me, waving the stable lads and gixies off to their supper with a grin. For a time we all busied ourselves in quiet, looking after our pack animals and riding mounts alike, seeing to it that they got a decent supper when we were done. They had earned it.
I felt better there than I had all day, wrapped in the scent of horses, straw, and the old stone of which the stables were built. It was good simply to work there with Sabine and Farmer at their most silent, comfortable with the tasks of horse care. A couple of stable hounds came to sniff at Achoo as I cleaned her up, wagging their tails and acting like gentlemen. They were friendly folk, ranging in all sizes, down to one curly little thing who could rival the Butterfly Puppies. She and Achoo had quite a talk, nose to nose, before the little pup ran off into the shadows.
At last Sabine climbed the ladder to check the loft for anyone who might be lingering. Farmer and I, understanding what she did, inspected the rest of the place. Once we were certain we were alone, we joined Sabine at the stalls where Drummer and Steady were settled.
“I should have done this before,” Sabine told us. “It’s needful that you two be able to handle my lads here without trouble, just in case.” She took Farmer’s hand first and drew him over until he held his hand out, palm up, under Drummer’s nose. “Friend, Drummer,” she told the big gelding softly. “This is Farmer, and he’s a friend. Friend.” She pressed a lump of sommat she’d been holding onto Farmer’s hand. “Feed it to him, and say friend several times,” she told the mage. She did the same with me and Steady, then had us switch horses so that we were formally introduced to both. Inside me I had a little shiver. What if I was wrong, and Sabine was introducing her splendid warriors to a traitor? “You’ve done this with Tunstall?” I asked.
“Of course,” the lady replied. “Otherwise Drummer might have killed him the first time he saw us embrace!” She grinned. “Drummer can be most protective.”
“Remind me to stay on his good side,” Farmer said, giving Steady a nervous pat. “I take it what’s in these balls isn’t just sugar or fruit?”
“You take it rightly,” Sabine replied. “It’s my own special mixture. They’re trained to take ordinary food from stable folk, but any who try to feed them by hand will get an unpleasant surprise. Honest people know better than to get in close with a knight’s horses.”
“What about mashes?” I asked. “Food in buckets?”
“They know the common poisons by smell,” Sabine replied, stroking Drummer’s big nose. “If they detect even the tiniest hint, they refuse the meal. They’re my good, clever lads.”
While Farmer and Sabine talked about horse training, I ordered Achoo to stay with them. Then I went to cleanse myself of the mud that was splattered all over me. As I rinsed off the mud on the kitchen porch I listened to the help’s talk. Mostly it was about sweethearts, hard work, and the busy night ahead with so many travelers in the house. One thing in particular caught my ear. It seemed the local lordling had raised the tax on his people without even waiting to see if the harvest would be good or bad. If it was bad, a great many starving folk would be on the roads this autumn, looking for work and a place to live.
Once I was clean, I went to the taproom. There a serving mot told me where to find the room given to our party. Looking about me as I crossed to the stairs, I saw eaters and drinkers pleased to be out of the rain. None wore only black. They were a mixed lot, farmers on their way to a wedding, merchants and their guards bound south and complaining loudly of the fees lords were charging on the side roads, a knight and his sister, accompanied by their guards and servants. I gathered all this as I crossed to the stairs that would take me to my partners’ room.
“Be careful as you travel,” the innkeeper advised everyone from his place by the taps. “Bandits and slave takers on the road of late. And the lords are that irritable nowadays. Troublesome times …” He shook his head.
I did not like hearing that, either, but none of this bad news was my problem. Wearily I climbed two flights of stairs to reach the room. I could recognize it by the familiar pairs of boots set beside the door to dry.
Somehow Farmer and Sabine had beat me there. Perhaps they had not been eavesdropping downstairs. They and Tunstall were on the thin beds, bowls of soup in their hands and cups of ale on the floor by their feet. I picked up the bowl on the floor next to Sabine. She and I sat directly across from the lads.
“No bread?” I asked, staring into the bowl. It held meat stripped from the bone, turnips, onions, noodles, fresh peas, chunks of this and that, garlic, thyme, and who knew what else. It was a basic bordel stew, left to simmer at the back of the stove and changing as the cook dumped each day’s scraps into the pot. The results went one of two ways.
I tasted it, using the spoon I kept in a side pocket of my shoulder pack, and sighed happily. This batch had gone well.
Sabine passed me a chunk of heavy, moist bread and the butter pot. “The choice was cold ham, bordel stew, or wait two hours before the beef they’d just put on to roast was done,” she explained. “The innkeeper told me they almost never ran out of mains before in all the days his family’s run this place for the Crown.”
I nodded and dipped a serious mouthful out with my spoon. “Achoo and Pounce?” I asked before I ate it.
We have been fed, Pounce told me sleepily. I told Achoo it was all right to do so. He was curled up on the bed where the men sat, snug against Farmer’s heavy thigh. I yanked my eyes away from the discovery that Farmer’s legs were very well muscled. Achoo is under the bed with a bone. She fears someone will take it, though none of us have ever done so.
Now that Pounce mentioned it, I could hear the sound of Achoo crunching a bone eagerly. Sabine was grinning.
“She pays us the compliment of thinking we are like her, grumpy one,” Sabine told Pounce.
It is not a compliment to me, replied Pounce.
I looked at Tunstall, who ate without speaking. It should have occurred to me that his bones would be aching, given the weather.
From the way she sagged against the wall, her face strained, Sabine was too weary to have thought of it. “Donkey puke,” she whispered. “Mattes?”
“I do not want nursemaids,” Tunstall snapped. “A man pays no heed to pain of any kind, not traitors and their weapons, and not bones. The only pain he should heed is what he serves up for his enemies.”
I rolled my eyes and caught Sabine doing the same. The pain must be bad for Tunstall to talk like a hillman.
I glanced at Farmer to see if he could help Tunstall, but he was trying to dig a thread of meat from between his teeth, using his bone pick. Seemingly he was not about to say anything. Before I could swat him for being annoying, he put the pick away.
Farmer, the things you mean to use make my nose itch, Pounce complained.
“I’ll need you to take your breeches off,” Farmer told Tunstall lazily. “And I am sorry, Master Constellation, but my medicines are the easiest solution just now.”
Sabine and I looked at each other. “I’ll check the animals,” I offered just as Sabine said, “I should take a last look at my horses.”
“Cowards,” Farmer told us as Tunstall glared at him. “Ask the house to send up a small pot of hot water, if you will.”
“Hurt me and you’re a dead cove, mage,” Tunstall announced.
Farmer glared at Tunstall. Now there were sparks in his blue eyes. Tunstall had finally gotten under his skin. “Enough carping, curse it all! I have a headache!” he snapped at Tunstall. “You haven’t been holding off four or more harmful spells a day along with everything else, you rock-skulled hillman. We’ve been under constant assault. If Gershom hadn’t been lucky enough to have me at Blue Harbor, you’d be dead by now, do you understand that?”
“Ho, the great mage!” Tunstall cried, rising from his seat on the bed. “So you’ve halted the rebellion all by yourself, have you? Just you, a stink-assed pig’s knuckle from the midlands!”
I began to wonder if they hadn’t had enough cold water that day and if I ought to fetch a bucket of it to throw on both of them.
“Chaos take us all, have you a brain that you actually use?” Farmer demanded. “Of course not! But I am keeping some enemy mages busy, folk I imagine they thought they’d be putting to better use than keeping one four-Dog Hunt under watch!”
“It’s more than the four of us!” Tunstall snapped. “You poxy cityman, what do you know of the way a Hunt’s done? There’s the Dogs we’ve requested from Frasrlund—”
“Are there?” Farmer asked. “Are there? How would you know? We’re cut off from everyone, remember?”
“And the teams in Corus!” Tunstall shouted. “They’ve met and combined notes and read our reports by now, and they’re on the Hunt, too, hobbling these Rats in their dens!”
“Wonderful!” Farmer shouted back. “I’ll just go and let one of those teams snap at my tail awhile, so you may have some rest!” He clenched his fists, took a breath, and looked at Sabine and me. “Now, if I’m to heal this oaf, I need hot water.” He glared at Tunstall. “Unless you like to suffer?”
Sabine and I hurried out. On our way downstairs, I told her, “There was this fortuneteller we saw once, at a fair in Kleo.”
Sabine nodded. “The Bazhir trade there.”
“Yes,” I replied. “The fortuneteller said to Tunstall that his was a sunny nature that would bind friends to him.” Sabine’s mouth twitched. I added, just between us mots, “I always wondered what she’d been drinking, and if I should try it.”
Sabine burst into laughter.
I didn’t hear our door open or close, but a moment later Pounce and Achoo caught up with us. “Did you know about the spell attacks?” Sabine asked Pounce loudly. The sound of the taproom was drowning out any noise on the stair.
Pounce answered with his mind. I did. He didn’t want you to know you’ve all been under spell-siege. I thought you were clever enough to have thought of it, given the bad luck that’s befallen this Hunt. There’s only so much one mage can do, as good as this one is.
Sabine cajoled the pot of hot water from one of the cooks. “I’ll take it back to the lads,” she told me when she had the pot in hand. “I trust you to look after the horses.” She winked at me. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
The cook gave me a gift of berry turnovers before I went back out into the wet. As I made my way back to the barn, I wrestled with envy. The best thing about Holborn was our time in bed. I missed the bedding, though not the man, and I deeply envied Sabine and Tunstall that night.
Outside I discovered that the rain continued to beat down as hard as before. At least there was a covered wood path from the inn to all three parts of the stables. I stayed mostly dry but for a few wind-driven spits of water. The central building turned out to be a station and residence for the stablemen. They were gathered in their watch room with an after-supper drink. They waved to me as I passed through on my way into our stable building. There were a few lamps for light, the horses being well asleep, so I found my way easily to the section where we’d been placed. Over the box stall where Farmer and I had set up for the night, I saw the hostlers had hung a good lamp. Achoo and Pounce were curled up in the straw already.
I went back into the shadows where Saucebox dreamed whatever horses dreamed. I slipped her a treat when she roused. Then I hurriedly took off my muddy, damp clothes and put on dry things, keeping to the rear of the enclosure in case anyone came by. The feel of dry cloth was wonderful. I left the wet clothes there to dry, hung on hooks like tack, and returned to my cat and hound. Once seated in the fragrant straw with my back against the wooden wall, I had a turnover and gave a happy sigh.
I was just nodding off in spite of myself when I heard approaching footsteps. I grabbed my baton, which lay within reach, then relaxed as Farmer came into view. He carried a steaming mug in one hand. “Do you want some?” he asked me. “It’s herb tea—mint.”
“No, thank you,” I replied. “It might make me sleepier, and I want the first watch.” We said nothing as he put out his bedding and his embroidery work. It was only after he’d settled, his back against the wall, and began to stitch on a length of ribbon that I spoke again. “I thought you didn’t have much power left to you.”
He smiled at me and winced as he stuck a fingertip. “I have more. And I’m gathering some now.”
I squinted at him, but saw no threads of Gift. “I don’t understand.”
I smiled at that. He sounded like a priest when the collection of coin is not what he hoped for. “I never asked before—I thought mages couldn’t use other mages’ Gifts.”
“They can’t,” he replied. “But when it’s sent out into the world to be worked, then those with a talent for it can gather it up for their own use.”
“But that’s not common.” I said it rather than asked, because I was near certain of the answer.
“No, my dear, it’s not, any more than talking to the dead as they ride pigeon-back is common. I’d only heard once or twice of such mages, and I never heard of mages who could talk with dust spinners.”
That made me uncomfortable. “It’s not like either one is very useful to any but a Dog.”
“And I happen to think that is important enough. I’d like to write about it, one day, if you’ll permit me. It might help teachers locate others like you,” he explained.
I put my head down, because I could feel myself blushing. “Let’s survive this Hunt first.”
“So mote it be,” he murmured. We were silent again for a little while, until Farmer cleared his throat. “I’m sorry about what happened, back there. I’ll apologize to Tunstall in the morning.”
I smiled at the way his words mimicked Tunstall’s. “Don’t talk of sorries to me. You’ve been under the hammer. It stands to reason you’d need to clear your head.”
“I wasn’t bragging.” He looked up at me then, his eyes intense. “About the other attacks. I wasn’t making it up.”
I took off my arm guards and fetched a sharp-stone and cloth out of my shoulder pack. “I never thought you were. I wish you’d said sommat earlier, though—we’d have tried to make other things easier for you.”
But Farmer was shaking his head. “I don’t like special attention.”
Now he had me interested. “You learned to hide your spell-working to hide for other reasons, right? It’s not just for them that try to sell your folk as special slaves. You were hiding that others attacked you, too. Why? A mage’s work is partly to defend against spell-casting.”
“It’s all of a piece,” he explained. “We Dogs have the right way of looking at things. What a person does is worthy of respect. Not the social gain that can be had, because there isn’t any. Not the power over great lords and governments, because there isn’t any. So many strong mages want kings and lords to dance to their tunes, to ask their advice and pay them richly, even seek them for marriages to have their power in the family lines.”
“But you can’t be bothered with any of that.” It wasn’t a question on my part. I knew him better.
“It’s boring. It’s so curst boring. Out here, in the world, there’s always something new,” he told me. “When I’m at the kennel or on a Hunt, I’m doing work that means a great deal. It sets the balance between order and chaos right, in that one area, anyway. Maybe you think I’m being foolish.… ”
I smiled at him. “I don’t think you’re foolish. I don’t know about order and chaos, but doing good for them that have no one to speak for them, that’s important. The rich have plenty of folk to aid them if trouble comes. They can hire all manner of help. But where Tunstall and me work, the people can’t do that.” I grimaced, feeling like a fool. “I didn’t mean to make a speech of it.”
Farmer was looking at me very seriously. “You do know.”
“There’s so much to learn, Beka. So much I haven’t seen or tried.” I glanced at him as I drew the first of my blades along the sharp-stone. His face was bright and eager, that of a lad who’s found a gixie who likes him. Farmer stared off into the shadows as he went on. “There’s a tribe in southern Carthak where they work their Gifts with music. I’d love to learn what I can from them. And my master believes there’s a kind of magic that isn’t worked with spells and charms like the Gift. It comes from living things—animals, or sprites. I think it’s in Sabine’s family.”
Pounce opened his eyes. Oh, indeed?
Farmer nodded. “They call it wild magic, my master and those who speak or write of it. It’s not taught, though. There are tests for the Gift and for spells, but who can test magic that only works through certain people for specific things? Take the Macayhill line. They’ve always been known for their fine horses. Always, from Kellyne, the first Lady Macayhill. Particular individuals have stood out for the horses they’ve bred and trained, but the whole family is good at it. And it’s known in particular circles that if you have the coin and the correct approach, Lord Norow, his son Martinin, or his youngest daughter Sabine will teach your warhorses special techniques.”
“So my lady’s a mage?” I asked, keeping my eyes on my work. I wasn’t sure about this. Magic no one had heard of?
“Not as the teachers in the City of the Gods or those at the Carthaki university see it,” Farmer replied, stretching his long body out with a great sigh. I stole a glance at that body. It was as pleasing to look at as his voice was to hear. “They think that if magic can’t be tested or taught, it’s not worth the bother. They haven’t even found ways to see it. At the City of the Gods they just told Mistress Cassine that the Council of Mages has no interest in the doings of those with a lesser degree of ability. So I’ve been digging around, to see what I can learn.” He locked his hands behind his head. “Most folk with wild magic don’t even know what they have. I’ve been thinking what you have is wild magic, more than the Gift.”
I shrugged. “Anything’s possible, I suppose,” I replied. Survival was even starting to look like a possibility. Achoo and Pounce were yet with us, and we four humans remained healthy and on the trail. Help was on the way from Frasrlund and mayhap closer. I had forgotten those other Dog teams back in Corus. If Nyler Jewel and his partner was put on this Hunt, that would be as good as having an army. As soon as we had regular communication again, I’d see if Farmer could learn who else was out there.
I looked up to tell him so, but he’d fallen asleep with his needlework on his lap. I set my things aside quietly and went to pull a blanket up over him. I was just settling the coarse wool over his shoulders when his eyes popped open and he gripped my arms. I waited for him to recognize me. I’d done more than seize them when folk touched me as I slept.
He froze briefly, then released my arms. “Beka. Sorry,” he whispered.
I brushed a lock of hair out of his eyes. “No harm done. Sleep. I’ll wake you for your watch.”
He gave me the sweetest of smiles and pulled his stitchery out from under his blanket. He stroked my cheek with one hand, then turned on one side and went to sleep.
The hostlers went to their beds. I set aside my arm guards to write in my journal, breaking the work up by walking around the stables. I ran into the head hostler around midnight. We talked a little, then went our different ways, he to his bed and I to continue my watch.