Saturday, June 23, 249

Slavada Gorge Royal Wayhouse

written much later, so my own record will be complete, from the memory palace I had made for this Hunt
When I judged my watch time coming to an end, I returned to our stall to wake Farmer. As I shook his shoulder, a ripple of something exciting went up my arm. I’d felt it before when I touched him, and always thought it was his Gift. Was it coming back?

I was considering that and rubbing my wrist as Farmer got to his feet. I say this only because I wish to explain how it is he caught me by surprise when he leaned down and kissed me softly. His lips parted from mine gently, he stroked a lock of my hair away from my face, and then he went to the privies to ready himself for his watch. Trying to calm my galloping heart with slow breathing, I thought it was as if certain things were already understood between us. That of late we had been courting while we Hunted. I did try to tell myself he was wrong about him and me being suited, but I couldn’t even convince myself.

I was setting out my bedding when I smelled that first whiff of wood smoke. I looked around. Our lamp was just a bit of light inside its globe. Besides, these lamps burned oil, not wood.

Farmer returned to find me sniffing the air again. “Beka?” he asked, worried. “Is something wrong?”

“Do you smell smoke?” I asked him, turning my head as I sniffed the air. When I encountered a draft from the front of the building, I smelled it again. “Achoo, bangkit. Pounce—”

Awake, he replied.

I went into the broad aisle at the front of the stable, sniffing. I’d walk into drifts of scent, but not enough to lead me to the fire. Behind me I heard Farmer tell someone, “She went toward the front.”

Scrabbling at the whistle I wore clipped to my belt, I shoved open one of the small stable doors. The rain had ended. Fire blazed under the wayhouse roof and through the attic windows.

“Mithros!” the chief hostler said behind me, his voice shaking. “You, Master Mage. Take your creatures out the back doors, that way. There’s rails you can tether ’em to—”

That was the last thing I heard him say. I put my whistle to my lips as lances of fire suddenly shot through the third-story shutters on either side of the inn, where the staircases would be. Screams came from the attic. I blew my whistle in the Dog’s alarm call and ran for the inn. There seemed to be no flames on the second floor or the ground floor. That progression—fire in the attic, followed by fire in the third-floor stairwells, which usually acted like chimneys—kept puzzling me. Then I yanked open the unlocked kitchen door. I had important things to do, more important than wondering where the fire had started.

As I hoped, the maids and cooks slept on the kitchen floor. They scrambled to their feet as I shouted my news. The cook ordered them to form lines to the well as I ran into the taproom where the manservants were, blowing my alarm again and again. I got the men on their feet before I reached the stairs that led to the room shared by Tunstall and Sabine. Screams coming from the upper floors almost drowned out the sound of my whistle. I blew it with all my strength. Folk streamed down that stair and the one on the far side of the taproom, their things bundled in their arms. One mot near me tripped over clothing that trailed from her grip. She went down, forced to the floor by the panicky travelers behind her. I smashed a few with my baton, driving them away from me, and dragged her to her feet.

Upstairs I heard a sound that cut through the roar of screaming cityfolk. It was another Dog whistle blown in the signal that meant “All well—do your duty.” There was only one other Dog here. Tunstall was awake.

I replied with the signal for “Fire!” in case he didn’t know. Then I heard a shriek from the opposite stair. The steps were stone, like the floors and the walls. The railing was thick, hard wood, but the rush of people frantic to escape was too much for it. I could hear it crack.

In front of me, struggling to keep their feet on their way down the stairs, were two lads. One carried a baby while the other had a little gixie piggyback. They were fighting to stay upright with the press of folk behind them. I worked my way in until I had an arm around each. I kept them on their feet as we reached the floor. There I dragged them out of the flood of travelers, pulling them with me across the taproom. When we reached the door, I shoved them outside.

Next I helped some of the servants jam tables next to the steps. The rail was creaking dangerously—so was that of the other stair, where more folk did the same thing we did. When the railing snapped, those who were driven off the stairs did not fall as far as they might have without those tables. It was a rough drop, but with us to pull them free as they struck, they survived it.

As the crowd on the steps began to thin, I began to tug the ablest servants and guests into a line. Its end reached into the inn yard and to the big well there. Those nearest the well began to pass buckets, huge bowls, and pots. The empty ones went to the well as full ones were passed up the line. I took the first spot, bucket in one hand, baton in the other. Using my baton to keep those who still fled the blaze to the innermost side of the stair, I climbed to the next floor.

A couple of mots ran from door to door there, opening them to see that everyone had gotten out. Except for a fog of black smoke that flowed along the ceiling, I saw no evidence of fire, but I dared not take chances. I led the line down a separate hall, the building having the shape of a rectangle around an inner court. Carefully I felt those doors that were closed, checking them for heat before I hammered on them with my baton. When the door appeared safe, the cove behind me would open it if there was no answer—there were few answers—and check the room. Whether we took out folk too frightened to go or whether we found the room to be empty, he always closed the door afterward.

“Learned it in Port Caynn,” he shouted. “Never open a door to a fire!”

I nodded. I knew that, too. There were times when I’d been inside at Corus fires, getting folk out. I learned fast how bad it was to leave a route for the fire.

At last the others who’d followed me up and I had the floor emptied out. The fire had yet to reach this level, which was very strange. Had it started on the next floor? The thought made my heart pound and my throat squeeze thin. Were Tunstall and Sabine still alive? They were on the next floor up. I’d heard the whistle off and on, but I’d not heard it recently. Where were they?

I could not go upstairs right off. We still had work to do. Bucket by bucket, or with bowls and pots, we soaked the floor with water and sent each holder back down the line to be filled. Fresh containers of water came up, handed to one of us on every step and along the passages. With more empty buckets sent down and more filled ones in our hands, we returned to our stair and ventured up.

We were closer to the fire. I could hear its roar and the creak of ceiling beams. On the stair we found them that had encountered the blaze or its smoke, coughing fearsomely as they stumbled down past us. There were only a few of them, all marked by the fire.

I gripped the first one, a cove, by the arm. “Did you see a Provost’s Guard up there? Or a tall lady with a sword?” I shouted in his ear. The cove shook his head. I passed him, and the mot and gixie who clung to him, on to the folk behind me so they could be helped downstairs. After the family I’d questioned came a pair of Mithran priests. They had not seen Tunstall or Sabine, either.

The third floor was nearabout empty, with too many cursed open doors. A cove, half crazed, ran along the corridor ahead of us, ignoring the heavy black smoke that filled the hall from the ceiling down to the top of my head. “Halt!” I yelled to him, dashing forward. He was looking at room numbers. “Halt, you dolt! Don’t—”

He gripped the latch and screamed, pulling his hand away. Before I could shout for him to leave the door alone, he grabbed the latch a second time and yanked. The moment he opened the door, flame roared out to cover him as dragons’ fire must have once covered their victims. He was ablaze from head to foot as the fire spread around the door, flowing up and down as it burned. I retreated, waving back the other firefighters. At the stair landing, I looked down the other corridor. There was our room, the door was open. Tunstall’s and Sabine’s boots, still in front of it, were burning along with that half of the hall.

We looked at the stairs to the attic, but they were filled with fire. I could hear no voices, but I saw a burning body fallen on the steps. We began to fight the flames on the third floor instead, tossing bucket after bucket of water onto the blaze. Suddenly water began to pour through the landing’s window. We backed down the stair, wading through a waterfall that streamed from the attic. Clouds of steam came with it. On the ground floor, I saw a second waterfall that spilled along the other staircase. Curious, I looked out into the front courtyard.

Three people stood by the well. One was the cook. Her hands dripped a bright crimson fire into the well. A cove in his nightgown added a dark bronze Gift to their working, as a little girl whose Gift was shimmery yellow poured her power into it. Somehow their magics combined to draw up water in a great snakelike column that rose all the way to the attic, entering the window on that side of the building. A branch sprouted off to enter the third floor as another ran into the second floor. On the attic and third floors I could see the flames dying.

As I watched, I also looked. Wandering through the crowd, I saw no sign of Sabine or Tunstall. I knew not to blow my whistle again. If I did, I might startle these weeping folk into bolting for the gates. Tunstall knew the same thing. We’d been at the heart of a riot that began with an unwise use of the whistle.

Besides, those two were tougher than me, and I’d heard Tunstall’s whistle while I was still downstairs. If he was awake then, he’d have gotten my lady to safety, and she would have done the same for him. I just couldn’t find them right off.

Once the fire was out, we went back in to make certain the flames were quenched everywhere and there were no burning coals. The second floor was empty of the dead, but not the third floor. There we brought away twelve poor mumpers. Four had gotten the blessing of the Black God. The smoke had stolen the breath from them, leaving them to look as if they slept. They had not known or had to fear the burning. The others were not so lucky and required what sheets the wayhouse had left before we carried them away.

It was plain to me as I went up and down that the worst of the fire began in the attic and in the wing near Tunstall and Sabine. The rooms on that part of the third floor were destroyed, eleven more dead still inside. Two in separate rooms had gotten to their windows and opened the shutters, blowing the fire into the courtyard instead of into the hall. Perhaps only that had given my partners time to escape. To my relief, there were no bodies in their room. From what I could tell of the ruins, most of our packs and weapons had burned. The arsonist hadn’t killed us—the origins of the fire told me we had an arsonist—but he, or she, had hurt us with the destruction of our belongings.

Once the dead were cleared and the flames out, I made sure those that had fought the fire with me were all right or being seen to. Mostly we firefighters had been hurt by smoke and small burns. We all coughed and coughed, spitting black stuff onto the ground.

At last I walked through the stable, where the hands were busy returning horses to their stalls. They told me with pride that the inn hadn’t lost a single beast, thanks to my warning. Those who had survived the inn were also bedding down in stalls and up in the loft.

The chief hostler grabbed me by the arm and nearabout got punched for his effort. I was weary top to toe and not as attentive as I should have been. “Your places are safe. I told the lady and your partner,” he said.

They were alive and well. Tunstall and the lady had survived and were nearby.

“None will argue with the room that’s needed for warhorses and them that care for them, nor for what’s granted to any of you,” the hostler went on. “You all saved lives this night.”

I thought of the stupid mumper who’d opened that door before I could stop him. “Would I could see it that way,” I muttered.

“You young ’uns, always counting them you lose, not them that you save,” he replied, shaking his head. “You’ll learn.” He listened to me hack and said, “See that mage of yours. T’warn’t enough for him to show the mages we had how to put out the fire. He’s got sommat for the smoke cough, Goddess bless ’im.” He waved me off.

Farmer was behind the stables, near our small horse herd. They were still tied to the rails. He was mixing sommat in a bowl held by a smoke-streaked mot. Sabine and Tunstall leaned together on a nearby rail, pale spots on their faces showing they’d had a chance to wash. Achoo and Pounce raced over to me, Pounce actually leaping onto my shoulder. I ached from all the carrying I had done, but I had no heart to shift him, not when he was so very soft and his purr shook the pain from my backbone. Achoo flung herself onto my feet and lay there, panting.

“That should last a while,” Farmer said to the mot, taking the dagger he’d used to stir out of the bowl. “A small spoonful for each. Two if they continue to cough. If two spoons don’t finish the hacking, fetch me.” She nodded and carried the bowl away.

Farmer looked up and saw me. His face lit, even in the shadows with only torches on the stable walls for light. He took a step toward me, but Tunstall and Sabine left their resting spot to approach us as well. I felt my tripes clench. Had Farmer meant to kiss me a second time? Of course I’d have to tell him we were on a Hunt and had no right to be canoodling, but I did wish our other partners had been looking the other way for just a moment.

“All well?” Tunstall asked. “Burns?”

“Little ones,” I croaked. Of course I began to cough. This one was bad enough that I bent over, bracing myself on my knees to make it easier on my chest.

A big hand settled under my chin and pressed up. As I rose, Farmer put a slender bottle to my lips. At my next gasp he let a trickle of liquid into my mouth. I held my breath so I would not choke on it and swallowed. It tasted like the weariest wine ever pressed from a grape. Even the way it rolled down my throat felt tired. I coughed, then stopped.

“A small sip,” Farmer said, putting the bottle to my lips again.

I obeyed. I drank it and straightened all the way.

Had I wanted to bounce up and down, I would have picked a tree branch, Pounce complained. Somehow he had remained on my back. This is what happens when I spoil you by welcoming you—Uh-oh.

He leaped away. I had no time to ask him what was wrong when the worst series of coughs struck me, scouring my chest like pieces of glass. A wad of stuff worked its way up my throat. Horrified, I hacked it onto the handkerchief that Farmer held in front of my mouth. I would have accused him of knowing this would happen, but another billow of coughs rammed up my throat, and another. Both carried more black phlegm out of my chest.

When I was finally granted the ease of standing still to catch my breath, Tunstall squeezed my shoulder. “Nasty, isn’t it?”

I looked at Farmer. He passed a water flask to me. I used it to rinse my mouth and spit yet more black into the grass. “Thank you,” I squeaked as I handed it back to him. I was thinking, Well, there’s the end of that. No cove’s going to look at a mot with dreams in his eyes when he’s seen her covered in mud and soot and hacking up black nasties. Then Farmer placed a warm hand on the back of my neck and gave it a gentle squeeze. He smiled, and I knew he still cared for me, snot and all.

“You need sleep,” Tunstall said. “All of us do.” He looked at Pounce and Achoo. “Would you take guard detail for the rest of the night? There isn’t much of it left.”

Pounce flipped his tail to and fro. Why not? I can sleep as we ride in the morning. Achoo can sleep now. She will wake if she hears anything.

Tunstall bowed to him. “Thank you, hestaka.

We were walking toward the stable, our mounts’ reins in hand, when the chief hostler came out to meet us.

“A word, if I may?” he asked, looking us over.

Tunstall grumbled deep in his throat, but we all moved out of the way of remaining guests who were taking their horses inside. “I’ve found it’s never good news when countryfolk want to talk private after a disaster,” Tunstall told the hostler quietly. “I’ll remind you that my lady and I were near roasted ourselves, and we’ve all lost most of our belongings.”

“My brother, as runs this place, and I won’t ever forget it,” the chief hostler said. “Nor will we forget the lives you’ve saved and the healing your mage friend did. But there’s nearabout eighty folk as will be sore unhappy and wantin’ answers in the mornin’. We’ve sent to Babet for the Provost’s Guard and healers. It won’t take them much past dawn to get here. We’d like you four to be gone before that.”

“Before that!” protested Sabine. “On next to no sleep? Listen, fellow, we’ve done you a good job of work. We deserve better treatment than this.”

“Another time I’d give it, my lady,” the cove replied. “But they’ll find out you four was on a Hunt, and they’ll blame the fire on trouble you brung down on the inn. They’ll say ’twas your enemies that did this. We’ll have a bad enough time keepin’ them here till a proper questioner arrives. If they think ’twas all your fault, they’ll demand we let them go. They might even do more than demand. We don’t have enough of our own folk to hold ’em.”

“And doubtless it will be someone of your folk who lets them know we are here,” Tunstall pointed out. “Folk in general lose control of their tongues when they are frightened.”

“True enough,” the chief hostler said with a grim smile. “But you’re Provost’s Guards, aren’t you, and under Crown orders to boot. We’re a Crown wayhouse, with permanent orders to assist you on your task in any way. Do you want to be stuck here whilst your Dog brothers from Babet ask their questions? Write up what you want the local Provost’s Guards to know. Dawn comes early, this time o’ year.”

Sabine, Farmer, the chief hostler, and I settled the horses. Using Dog cipher, Tunstall set out our group’s description of what happened. He ended by telling the locals that if the investigators had a problem with our departure, they must take it up with Lord Gershom.

As Tunstall wrote, I asked the hostler, “Has anyone said yet if the fire happened natural, or if it was set?”

He snorted. “In all my days we’ve not had a fire that got more than two rooms,” he told me. “A’ course I think ’twas set. And I’ll be plumb sorry your lot stopped here if ’twas your enemies that set it.” I think we all cringed at that.

Once Tunstall had finished his note and sealed it, he had a turn at speaking with the chief hostler, taking him out into the stable aisle. Once we four were alone again, with Achoo and Pounce on watch, Tunstall said, “We’ll take only our riding mounts and spares. These people will return the other horses to the Provost’s Guard. There’s no point in bringing them to carry supplies we no longer have.”

“None?” I asked, feeling the skin creep over my spine.

“Sabine and I had no chance to bring aught but our shoulder packs when we escaped our room, and we were busy after,” Tunstall said tightly. “It all burned—our big packs, yours, and Farmer’s. We heard that whole end of the floor burned.”

I nodded. “I saw it.”

“It will be curst hard to forget,” Sabine added.

With that, we all tried to obey Tunstall’s order to grab as much sleep as we could. I lay down and closed my eyes, but I could not relax. For the first time I thought of my large pack, with my changes of uniform, my gorget, my jerkin, my cuirass. That armor was curst expensive, and now I’d be nearabout naked in the woods, with Rats shooting at me! I began to choose curses for them that had started the fire, unpleasant curses that might not go where I sent them, but made me feel better to think of them. If it was Prince Baird who led this plot, I wanted to grab him by the throat and shake him like the terrier folk back home called me. All this and the torture of a little boy for a bloody chair and the ability to tell others what to do! Who among the sane would want such a life? Who would want the burden of so many lives and decisions?

With such angry thoughts and the screams of those killed in the fire rattling in my head, I lay awake. At last I carefully rose and went into the aisle to stand watch with Pounce and Achoo. Only when Pounce demanded that I sit so he might curl up on my lap did I even settle, leaning against my pack. With Pounce in my lap and Achoo at my side, I glared into the shadows. The cat began to purr, demanding that I stroke him. Somewhere between one movement of my hand and the next, I slept after all.

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