Saturday, June 23, 249

The Frasrlund Road

written much later, from the memory palace

Short of the crack of dawn it was, mostly dark, and us awake thanks to Pounce. I rose and dressed in the foulest of moods. I hoped the local Dogs would find the leeching piss-pots who had set the fire. It would brighten my year if they could leave those Rats hanging from the wall that guarded the wayhouse. We’d almost met the God last night, each one of us. I wanted vengeance for that and for all those who’d burned.

Fire-starters. Canker-licking sewer swine.

While the others took the horses to the gate, a servant was directed to take Pounce, Achoo, and me to the shed where those who’d died lay under sheets on hastily built tables. I asked what he wanted with me and Tunstall had said, “Just go with the lad, Cooper.”

In the shed the servant remained by the door, watching us with suspicion on his face. Achoo and Pounce sat facing him, making it as plain as they could that they were not letting him any closer to me.

I looked around. The place had been cleared of all else to make it into a holding room for the night’s dead. Only prayer lamps and incense sat on the empty shelves, sending the lighter’s wishes to the Black God for those who had entered his care. The room was not completely empty of life, though. Two wood pigeons roosted above inside, heads tucked under their wings.

“Have you aught to say to me?” I called softly to the pigeons, my back to the servant. “I’m sorry to wake you, but they’re kicking us out.” I found the small bag of feed in my pack and drew a line on the dirt floor with the grain. The birds fluttered down to eat. Food was food, whatever the hour.

“It started in th’ corner of th’ attic,” the ghost of a mot whispered to me. “It was that cove as bought us all wine downstairs. Merchanty-lookin’, he was. Waited till most of the regular custom was in bed or gone home and bought us wine, us in service, for havin’ so much work and so little thanks.”

I thought it suspicious,” a second ghost, a cove, said. “Who buys drink for servants?”

“It never stopped you from havin’ your cup or five,” the mot replied tartly.

I had an ear straining for the innkeeper, thinking he might come to toss me out at any moment. “ ‘Merchanty-looking,’ you said,” I interrupted. “Meaning what?”

“Dark wool tunic,” said the cove’s ghost. “No leggings. Leather shoes with triple-leather soles. Chin beard and combed-back hair with sandalwood-scented oil.”

“I heard you sneezin’,” the mot’s ghost said. “Shoulda known sandalwood was in the house.”

“Sneezing’s what woke me up,” the dead cove said. “He was in the corner of the room where I was … sleeping with a guest. I only glimpsed his knife afore he cut me.”

“Did you see what he was doing in the corner?” I asked, setting another handful of grain before the pigeons.

“Same as he done in mine in the attic, I’ll wager,” the mot’s ghost said bitterly. “He kilt me before he went to work, pourin’ oil over a pile of rags he’d set there. Then he poured it on me, on my bed, since I wasn’t goin’ t’ squeak.”

“I didn’t wait to watch after he killed the guest I was with,” the ghost cove admitted. “I was terrified I’d burn, not knowing I was already gone. I jumped from the window and he acted like he didn’t even see. This bird who carries me now, it flew to me, and I landed on its back.”

“He opened the shutters in the attic,” the mot said. “Then he went down the center, dumpin’ oil after him and on the pallets. Lots of us hadn’t bothered to come upstairs, gods be thanked. The others was work-sleepin’. He could have rode an ox through there and they’d never stop snorin’.”

I watched the birds eat, thinking hard for a moment. “What caravan was he with?” I asked them.

“Well, there’s the funny thing,” the mot told me. “I don’t recall, Canart, do you?”

“I thought they must have come in while I was bringing up a keg,” the dead man—Canart—answered. “He didn’t seem to drink with anyone. Kept to hisself. But I saw him talking with the caravan folk.”

“I never saw him come with a caravan, neither,” the mot replied.

“He was tall as me—well, a hand taller than you, young Guard,” the cove said. “Thin, but strong and fast. I hope you catch him.”

“But don’t expect me to do it,” the mot said. “I’ve a yearnin’ to move on, now that I’ve talked with you.”

“And I feel the same,” the cove added. “I’ve never liked this place much.”

With that, they were gone. I spoke my blessing to the air they had left, just to let them know I was grateful. I glanced at the servant. He’d turned pale and was muttering his own silent prayers. I had a feeling he would have fled if he weren’t under orders from the innkeeper. I wasn’t certain he’d heard the ghosts. It seemed to vary. From experience I knew he was shaking in his boots either way. I shrugged at him, the best apology I could manage, then turned to the other corpses. My partners could wait for my news for a moment.

I stood with the dead, offering up my prayer and hope that the Black God would take them gently into his home. Then I looked for two in particular. The attic servants were set on one side of the shed, those guests from the third floor on the other. Carefully, keeping my back to my watcher, I examined the few burned bodies from the third floor. The throat cuts were visible even on such charred remains. They belonged to a tall cove and a small one. Canart and his guest? Silently I promised them both that the sandalwood-scented killer would pay for what he’d done. To keep my books even, I found the mot with the cut throat among the attic dead, and promised her the same.

The servant detailed to watch me cleared his throat. He flinched when I glared at him, but it was all for show. I was finished. I went outside to find my companions. Who should I tell? The keeper of the wayhouse? He already knew the fire had been set. Surely the Dogs who came to investigate must be informed, in case this throat cutter was known to them. I stripped a sheet from my journal and wrote the sandalwood-scented man’s description in it, saying I had it from one of those burned who died as we bore him out. There was no one who could give me the lie, since I’d carried plenty of victims last night. I closed it with a complicated set of folds since I had no seal with me, and addressed it to the Provost’s Guard investigators. The servant and I walked outside.

I stuffed the note in the front of my tunic, one corner scratching the underside of my chin as Pounce and I mounted Saucebox. Achoo, eager to be moving again, danced beside us. The servant left, making the Sign on his chest, as soon as I nudged Saucebox.

Sabine and Farmer were on horseback, holding Tunstall’s mount and the spares, near the open gate. The innkeeper and the chief hostler stood with them, their faces angry in the light of the torch held by the lady. Tunstall knelt just beside the gate, holding a lantern high and moving it over the ground.

Sabine rode to me after passing the torch she held to the chief hostler. “The gate was ajar,” she said, her voice low. “Since the mud is drying around the open position, it’s plain whoever opened it did so last night, while everything was still wet.” She nodded toward the brothers. “They are furious, and I can’t blame them. There are three horses missing. They can’t tell yet who has gone.”

“Pox and murrain,” I replied. I had a feeling in my gut that the fire-setting killer was one who’d ridden out that gate.

We returned to the brothers and Farmer and watched as Tunstall, walking at the edge of the road through the gate, went outside it. Ten feet away he crouched again, inspecting the road with the lantern held close. Suddenly he rose and paced a big circle around that part in the road, stopping to inspect grass he pulled from the margins. Having made his circle, he knelt and collected a pinch of earth, smelling it before he rubbed it in his fingers.

Despite the early hour, I enjoyed seeing him work. As much as Achoo, Tunstall is a master tracker. People scorn him sometimes because he’s a hillman, but everyone who wants to learn the skills of a tracker among the Corus Dogs comes to my partner for lessons.

Tunstall rose and came back to us, handing the lantern to the innkeeper. “One person on one horse,” he said, still partway inside that daze of concentration he has when he’s been working a complicated set of signs. “He helped himself, or herself, to spares, two of them, but they carried no burdens of any weight. The ground was sloppy, but starting to dry. We were abed by then and you coves were tidying up. Anyone awake was too busy to notice.” He sighed and took his gloves from his belt. I was startled to see them, and glanced at his feet, then Sabine’s. The innkeeper must have found them gloves and boots that fit somewhere. Most of these places kept stores of goods left behind for one reason or another. “He still had company,” Tunstall went on, taking his mount’s reins from Farmer. “A party of five horses was waiting where you saw me stop. The riders had been there some little while, long enough for the horses to eat grass. They left when he joined them. Are there any other roads besides the Great One going northwest from here? Their party didn’t turn south.”

“There’s the Ashford Road,” the chief hostler replied. I realized what I would be doing and began to strip off my boots. The hostler went on, “That’s southwest, just where the bridge is. Closer to us, on your right as you ride to the gorge, they’s Freedman Road. That leads northeast, up to Halleburn Lake.”

Sabine made the tiniest of grimaces. “I didn’t realize we were so close.” The men all looked at her. She shrugged. “My father is first cousin to the lord of Halleburn.”

“Curst lucky for you,” muttered the chief hostler. His brother glared at him. Since I was securing my boots and stockings to my mount’s saddle, I could hide my grin. The chief hostler, who seemed to run things here, plainly did not serve as the public face of the inn. Diplomacy did not appear to be one of his skills.

“We’ll try to send word back which road they took the first chance we get,” Tunstall promised the coves. “May we purchase a torch for Cooper?”

“I don’t need one,” I reminded him. I reached into my pocket and produced my stone lamp. “See?”

The chief hostler looked at me while the innkeeper stepped back. “Pretty,” he said. “Had we enough of those, we’d need never pay for lamps or torches again.”

Farmer grinned. “If I ever find enough stones and muster enough power, I’ll make you some to help repay you for the losses of the night.”

“You’ve done enough with your cough medicine,” the hostler told him. He looked at Tunstall, then at me. “One of you tracks standing and one running?” he asked me. “A sound way to divide the work.”

“If we had aught for scent of these Rats, Achoo would do it all,” Tunstall said. “My friends, our sorrows for what has happened to you this night—”

I held up my hand. “Your pardon, Tunstall, but I’ve more news that we all have to know. This is for the Provost’s Guard when they come,” I told the innkeeper as I passed the note to him. Then I told everyone about the sandalwood-scented fire-setter.

“How did you find this out?” the innkeeper demanded. “You knew this last night and you didn’t tell us?”

“I learned it just now, and you might not care for my means of learning this,” I said. “Look at my partners. Can’t you tell they’ve just heard it from me?”

“You have my word,” Sabine told the innkeeper, in a tone that informed him to accept that and seal his gob.

“Don’t go on about our Beka,” Farmer said with his biggest looby grin. “You wouldn’t ask me how I make up cough medicine, would you? All those sacrificed birds and so on. Magic.”

They both made the Sign on their chests and moved away from me. I had my back to them, so I could silently mouth at Farmer, You’re a bad man.

The cook came running toward us, her uncombed hair tumbling over her shoulders. She carried a basket. In answer to the innkeeper’s glare, she said, “The lady and her man saved my boy’s life last night. I’m not letting them ride hungry.” She handed it up to Sabine. “Gods all bless you folk. I pray you find what you Hunt,” she said.

“You saved more than us, with the water magic,” Sabine told her. “But thank you, and Goddess bless.”

That made us all remember what had taken place, and sweetened our moods. “I only wish our stay here had been happier for everyone concerned,” Sabine told the brothers. She leaned down and clasped hands with both of them. As she did, I saw a flash of gold each time. I hoped that coin would help them to rebuild.

As we rode off, the men closed the gates behind us and locked them.

Tunstall gave me a roll cut in half, with sliced ham and cheese between the pieces of bread. I ate it with appreciation as I ran ahead with Achoo, tracking both our prince and the horses of the inn’s horse thief.

The day dawned, if such a shining word might be used. It was chilly for June. Fog lay everywhere, muffling the forest sounds. Before I could see well without my lamp, we had reached the divide in the road and the sign that read Freedman Road, Halleburn Lake, Castle Halleburn. When I tried to go that way, following the very early-morning tracks the arsonist had joined, Achoo yelped. She might have had only a little of the scent left after so much rain, but it was enough to tell her that our true path lay on the Great Road. The Rat from the Wayhouse was someone else’s problem. Tunstall left a trail sign for the Dogs from Babet, should they come this way. It was all we could do, barring a message from the next stop where we could find someone to carry it.

I tucked my stone lamp away once there was light enough to see by. Now that we were done with the runaway arsonist from the inn, I mounted Saucebox, making Pounce grumble. He liked it very much when he didn’t have to share the saddle with me.

I confess, I napped as we rode on. I’d had too little sleep the night before and couldn’t help it.

When we halted, Farmer roused me. “Beka, we’re at the bridge.”

I pried my eyes open. A pair of men-at-arms stood before a small cabin at the side of the most immense bridge I’d ever seen, named on my maps as the Black Griffin Bridge. The men-at-arms wore the maroon and cream of the army, which meant there was a fort somewhere nearby. I watched them with suspicion, wondering if they were part of the lords’ and mages’ rebellion, with orders to shoot us down.

I was wrong. They took the coin for the toll from Tunstall, speaking with him in quiet voices. Impatient to ride on, I looked around. Achoo danced her own impatience at the foot of the statues that marked the corners of the bridge. These were griffins carved of strong black wood, both of them fifteen feet tall. One had wings halfway extended. The others kept hers neatly folded. They were lovely. I wished I could meet the one who’d made them so splendid, with each feather beautiful in its detail.

While I admired the carvings, Farmer stared into the fog-filled gorge. “I’m surprised she hasn’t done something to this bridge. It seems to be her favorite thing. Maybe the spells here are too strong,” he said, more to himself than me.

“Spells?” I asked.

He looked down at me. “Layers and layers of them, placed by more mages than I can count. Even small mages do it, so they can be certain the bridge will always be there.”

I ran my hand down the side of the griffin with his lifted wings. He looked as if he would take flight at any moment. I wanted to be on his back if he did. “You wish she’d spring the trap to your spell,” I suggested to Farmer.

He sighed. “If she did, it would be one less mage to worry about. Apart from Achoo keeping on the scent, we haven’t had a bit of luck on this Hunt.”

“Achoo’s a lucky dog,” I said, tossing her a bit of dried meat. She gobbled it and returned to dancing her impatience on the bridge.

Tunstall rode up to her, his talk with the guards over. “Let’s go, everyone,” he called.

I dismounted and tied Saucebox’s reins to the string of packhorses led by Farmer. With that done, I ran forward. Achoo didn’t even wait for me to give the order. She raced down the bridge.

When we were in the middle, Tunstall trotted up to me. “We’ll keep close today,” he said. “The guards told me the cart went this way two days ago.”

Soldiers were also posted on the far side of the bridge, but they just waved us by. I waved to them and Tunstall flipped them a silver coin for friendship’s sake. When I looked over my shoulder, surprised by his generosity, he shrugged. “It never hurts to butter the army, Cooper, you should know that.”

“Some of my best friends are soldiers,” Sabine agreed with a wave to the guards. Seeing Tunstall’s look, she grinned. “No, dearest Mattes, not that kind of friend.”

Nice as it was to have them so close, I wished they would be quiet. I needed to listen to the woods. I also cursed the road. The way was muddy, though more so on the sides than the middle. The first time Achoo stopped for a drink, I stripped off my breeches, which were splattered. I rinsed them in the stream where Achoo drank while the others waited for us. Quickly I draped them over my shoulder pack to dry. If I had to deal with folk in wayhouses and towns, I had no clean extra clothes to change into anymore. My tunic reached to my knees, which was respectable enough for country work, and I cared naught for running barefoot like this. I was so grateful to be directly on the chase that I would have run through sewers again.

The country on this side of the gorge was heavily forested. Far off I saw mountains with snow on their peaks, for all it was near the end of June. Tunstall and I had never gone so far north, and I truly didn’t want to do it now. The thought of the length of such a trip and the damage that would befall Their Majesties and their little boy over that time, was a nightmare. Still, they were beautiful, those mountains. They looked peaceful. Of course, they were far away. Everything looks peaceful when it’s not on top of you.

For the first time since we had begun to track the Viper and the prince using the small middens with the lad’s scent, I could now see clearly how many traveled with them. Once I had crossed the bridge, theirs were among the few tracks left on the right, as caravans had come south on the other side of the road and the travelers going north were scant of late. From the tracks around the cart’s wheels, with the guards’ feet marked by boots and the slaves’ by their bare footprints, I worked it out to be six guards. Two always flanked the cart. Four stayed with the six slaves. The lad must ride in the cart, because there were no footprints in his size. I worked it out on my fingers, which Sabine teased was a habit of the illiterate. Six guards, plus a driver for the wagon, plus the prince, plus at least two mages—the Viper and the other mot said to be in the cart. We would be tracking them for a long time until Lord Gershom could send enough Dogs to arrest them all.

We’d been running two hours off and on since the bridge. We’d encountered no one and heard naught but creatures and birds when Achoo and I stopped for a rest. Our Hunt mates drew up with us.

“Tunggu,” I ordered. Achoo found a dry rock in the sun and lay down.

Farmer inched his mount up between Tunstall and me. Carefully, I suspected so Tunstall wouldn’t grumble, he held out a hand. I took it without thinking. It was a good hand, warm and comforting.

Farmer cleared his throat. “Beka.” I looked up at him. His cheeks were red. “That’s … I’ve never seen you … Usually you wear breeches with your tunic.”

I shrugged and pointed to the top of my pack, fingering my clothes. They were still drying. “I only have one uniform. It’s best if my breeches aren’t all over mud should I need to be civilized.”

“Oh, absolutely!” he said, nodding too hard. “It’s just that I’ve, I’ve never, well, you look different. Good. Very good,” he said quickly, turning redder. “I’m going to shut my gob now.”

Now it was my turn to blush and turn away. If I was right, he’d just complimented my legs. Most coves didn’t, those times I ran bare-legged. Either they felt they might eat my fist if they did or they were the object of my running.

“How many are we chasing, Cooper?” Tunstall asked. He dismounted and stretched. Sabine did the same.

“Sixteen is my count,” I told them, and added how many I thought were riding and how many were afoot.

“And a day or less ahead,” Tunstall added as Farmer let go of my hand and dismounted from his own horse. “I’d like to know what happened to those Dogs that were supposed to be coming from Frasrlund, or even if there are closer Dogs we can trust. Farmer, can you reach Lord Gershom yet?”

Farmer shook his head. “I can’t get through at all now,” he confessed. “Either someone has blocked Cassine, or me. Either one is bad. I do know from what I heard last that they’re not sure of the loyalties of the Dog stations between here and there. They were going to see about those that are more toward the northeast.”

“Loyalties. I wouldn’t trust the loyalties of anyone today,” Tunstall muttered. “Why do you tell us this only now?”

“When else should I have told you? Before the fire, when you were in the wayhouse and we were in the stable, or after the fire?” inquired Farmer.

“Mattes, enough,” Sabine told him, tugging his ear.

Achoo barked at me. She was tired of resting. I told her, “Maji!”

She sniffed beside the road, then took off. I raced to catch sight of her before she vanished around a curve. I was too late. She was out of my sight when she let out a howl that almost made me trip over my feet. I recovered from the stumble and ran to find her, rounding a large stone boulder at the roadside as I yanked my baton from its holding strap.

The first thing I saw as I passed the great stone was a wagon-house, a red-painted hut on wheels like moneyed folk took on the summer roads. The roof trim was painted yellow and decorated with signs for protection. More such signs were painted around the shuttered window and the door in the back, and on the yellow-trimmed wheels. It lay on its side, the door hanging open on its leather hinges. I saw no sign of whatever beast or beasts had pulled it. The shafts were empty. Bandits, I thought. They would have taken everything of value to sell and like as not the cart would slow them down.

But Achoo was not howling at the cart. She had halted there, but she stared into the woods, making that dreadful sound. I followed her, whispering, “Diamlah, Achoo!” in case the bandits were still nearby. I heard the jingle of reins and looked back, but it was only my partners. Their faces were as horrified as I felt. Achoo sounded more human than hound.

I went to see what had drawn her attention and fear. It was a pile that buzzed. I knew that sound, just as I knew the smell that was carried to me on the breeze. Enough, I thought, even as my feet carried me closer. First last night, and now this. How much can one Dog take?

The flies rose from the corpses as I came near, buzzing like demons chased from their treat. I slid my baton into its loop, knowing it could do no good against flies and it could not help the dead.

“Stop there, Beka,” I heard Farmer say. “Don’t go any closer. It could be a trap.”

A woman of full years lay closest to me. Of them all, she was the only one who had not been killed by a sword. Her face was bloated and black from the time she had lain here in the sun. She crawled with maggots. They all did. Even yesterday’s rain had not stopped the flies.

Some of the dead were younger, twenty and less, dressed in simple shifts. Some were blocky with muscle and armed with swords. None were as young as four.

“Is it a trap?” I heard Tunstall ask.

I couldn’t speak. My throat was too dry.

“I’ll find out. Beka, Achoo, move back,” Farmer said.

“What if it’s a trap for you?” Sabine wanted to know. “We can’t be too careful, Farmer.”

I slipped my bit of mirror out of my belt pouch. It showed me no magic, only flies, maggots, and day-old flesh. I let my partners look in their turn. “My mirror isn’t as strong as any Farmer could make,” I explained, “but if they’re rigging spells to catch Farmer, it would show here.”

“Will this take too much of your strength?” Tunstall demanded of Farmer. “If it does, you do nothing. We need your Gift for our defense.”

Farmer looked at Tunstall and raised his eyebrows. The expression on his face turned him into a mage who would not be ordered about. I fought the urge to step back, knowing this wave of greatness that flooded from him was as much a part of Farmer as his silliness. Any who cared for him must deal with that.

“Strange,” Farmer said. “I thought my Gift was needed to help find our lad.” He rubbed his hands together, as he had over Vintor’s body, back in the swamp. His blue fire spilled from his fingers, sparkling as it went, until it covered that entire dreadful pile completely. Once all of the dead were sealed under that cover, Farmer did something different. He thrust his hands forward, palms down, then raised them. The sparkling cover turned solid, or mostly so, and rose up until it stood before him. By moving his hands, Farmer arranged it so that images of the piled dead were separated, letting us see each of them as clearly as if they’d been painted in bright colors on gauze. They looked as they must have done in their lives. The ones in shifts were comely lads and gixies with cloth-wrapped ropes hobbling their ankles, in order not to leave scars. The blockier ones were hired muscle, guards in dark red tunics with the sign of the four turned-in leaves at their right shoulders. These wore sword belts and weapons. Two carried whips. One, in a maroon tunic with no weapons, must have been the driver of the cart. And the mot was the Viper. I knew her face from the night I’d watched Farmer trap her.

“Stop it,” Sabine told our mage, her face white under its tan. “It’s too horrible. The youngsters’ promise is gone. I don’t weep for the guards, but those slaves … Please stop.”

Farmer closed his hands. The seeming vanished. The flies, scared off by the presence of magic as they often were, returned to their feast.

“We can’t get much from this,” Tunstall said with disgust. “It would be lovely to think we’d frightened them into getting rid of the extra weight, but for all we know, bandits stopped them and killed anyone they couldn’t carry.”

“It’s the wagon that was described to us,” Sabine reminded him.

“That’s the Viper,” Farmer and I began at once. He looked at me with the tiniest of smiles and went on. “When I cast the cocoon spell at the poisoned stream, we saw the mage who cast it. This woman is the Viper, and no sword touched her body. She was slain by magic. Strong magic, to break through the trap I had on her and defeat her own power.” Farmer glared down at the mot’s maggot-covered corpse. “I wanted to watch her stand trial, by Mithros, I did.”

“There are more of them,” Sabine reminded him. “The one that killed her, or the ones, and those who lead this rebellion. We shall have the chance to watch their trials. They’ll pay for all the lives they’ve ruined.”

I walked back toward the wagon. “Do you think there’s a shovel in there?”

“Cooper!” Tunstall called. “There’s no time! We’ve got fourteen dead. That’s a poxy deep hole to dig, even with four of us wielding shovels. Another good rain and we’re finished—the scent is fading. Whoever did this, they took the boy!”

“You’d leave them here?” I asked, turning to face him while I tried not to weep. “To the flies and the beasts?” I knew Tunstall was right, but it seemed to me that when we started to abandon the dead, we became more like the killers. By caring naught for them that were slaughtered, we made it possible for our hearts to care little for the living.

“I can burn them,” Farmer suggested.

“And warn any who are watching? Waste your Gift some more?” Tunstall demanded. “Use your common sense!”

Pounce and Achoo walked past us. They had been waiting by the wagon, where we’d left the horses. Now they came to sit a foot from the dead, watching that horrible pile with fixed attention. I opened my mouth to call Achoo, at least, back to me, but closed it again. She seemed to be waiting for sommat.

Farmer was arguing softly with Tunstall. “She’s worked herself to a shadow, running her legs off. Give her something human, before she starts to break.”

“Lads,” Sabine told them, her voice soft, “be silent.”

By then I could hear what she heard, mayhap what Achoo and Pounce had heard. It was the beating of wings, lots of them. The sky went briefly dark as the wood pigeons flew to the clearing to land all around it in every tree, each branch loaded with as many of the birds as it could take. They settled, fluttered their wings one last time, and folded them. They stared at the pile of the dead. I turned to face it to see what they did.

On the opposite side from me a great shape took form, one that was as big as the tall tree behind it. It was a being in a robe, its face hidden under the folds of a hood. At first the robe seemed black, as it always was in the statues. Then it changed color, turning brown, orange, white, blue, chestnut, yellow, and every other color that might possibly exist.

You need not try to bury them, my finest priestess. I will do so, he told me.

The god I’d been taught to call black reached out hands gloved in ever-changing colors, holding them over the murdered slaves, the guards, and the Viper. Suddenly green tendrils sprouted from the earth, twining around limbs and bodies like so many agile snakes. As they moved they grew, turning thicker and putting out leaves. Buds formed and sprouted until the bodies were covered by a riot of flowers of every shade in the god’s robe. They continue to grow solid and fat as the mound beneath them shrank and collapsed. By the time they had stopped, the ground where the dead had lain was sunken. It looked as if their remains had been placed there decades ago and only flowers remained.

I glanced back at my companions. They were on their knees, their heads bent. I wondered if I ought to do the same. Surely I’d have felt the need to bow if the god had expected it of me.

He raised a hand and pushed his hood back from his face. I say he, but he could as well have been a she. He didn’t correct me, so I continue to think of him as I have always done.

I cannot remember his face, though I do remember his words.

They are safe in my Realm. They shall have a rest, and then another chance. Continue your work, Rebakah Cooper. You are a good servant to me, and a good friend to my messengers.

Thinking of all the times I’d been wing-slapped, pecked, bitten, and splattered with pigeon piss and dung, I could not think the birds agreed with their master, but I bowed my head and nodded.

He was gone, just like that. The pigeons leaped into the air in an explosion of powerful wings, a feathered clap of thunder that made all of us duck.

We dared not let our feelings overwhelm us for too long. We still had a Hunt. The prince had been missing from that ugly pile, and the second mage reported to be with the cart was not there, either. Immediately after we returned to the road, we found horse tracks pressed into the mud, sixteen sets altogether. Could these be the killers who had left with the prince? Important to us, was the mage who had helped the Viper among them? And why had they killed the slaves, the guards, and the Viper here, particularly? Bandits would have kept the slaves—they were worth money. They wouldn’t have needed a mage of their own because Farmer’s spell would have brought down the Viper the moment she used her Gift to fight bandits. Only another, stronger mage would have left her in that pile.

I was struggling with my questions when Achoo found another midden. She caught the prince’s scent off to the side of his companions’ piddle. Had he thought to do so himself, to keep his scent from being covered by those who had taken him? I hoped so, but the lad was only four. I could not expect too much.

Shortly after that I saw a road sign ahead. Achoo turned into the road leading away from the one we’d been following. She’d gone but a couple of yards that way when she shrieked and leaped into the air, dropping to the ground like a stone. I screamed and cut across the grassy turf between me and her, running for all I was worth. It was when I reached her that everything went white.

When I roused, I was sitting upright on a horse’s back. My head throbbed and my nose ran. I felt in my breeches pocket for a handkerchief and discovered I was hobbled so tight around my waist that I couldn’t reach very far. I had to bend over to blow my nose. I could reach my saddle horn, but not the reins. My feet were tied to the stirrups and the mount was being led. I blew my nose and cringed from the pain.

“I know,” a mot’s voice said. “That spell would rip a monkey’s gut out with the monkey on the fly. Try this.” A hand gloved in fine gray kid pressed a lump of green jellylike stuff into my hand. “Doesn’t taste very grand, but it’s good for the aches.”

I was tied to a horse—not Saucebox, but one of our spares. I held my hand out and let the lump roll off his withers to the ground.

“Suit yourself,” the mot said carelessly. “It’s no hair off my head if you want to waste it.”

I squinted at her through bright sunlight that made everything sparkle, or mayhap that was just the magic that seemed to float everywhere around us. She rode beside me on a gray mare that matched her gloves and boots. The mot herself was my age, a glorious creature in pink silk leggings and a matching pink silk tunic. She had fine, shining blond hair pinned up in loops around her head, with a frivolous sheer white veil over it. When she turned and smiled, I thought I was looking at the most beautiful lady in the world, even more beautiful than the queen. Her gray eyes glittered.

“What a scruffy thing you are,” she told me, her voice soft, pretty, and playful. “I can’t believe so much worry and thought has been expended on you. Does Farmer keep you going? I never thought he was so dedicated a Hunter, myself, but I have never had a chance to speak with him at length. Sabine’s just a crude brawler, mad for sex and fighting. I can’t say much for her latest toy, but maybe he’s more clever than he looks.”

For a moment rage filled my head over her saying those things about my friends, but suddenly my mood reversed. I wanted her to like me. She was so beautiful and sweet. If she didn’t like me, why would the friendship of those other three dirty, tattered people matter? I was confused by the change of my own feelings, so I looked around instead.

My fellow Hunters were alive. Like me they rode upright in the saddle, tied to it as I was, their horses each led by a guard. Farmer rode a little way behind me, a small frown on his face, staring into the distance. Sabine and Tunstall were ahead in our line of riders, encircled by rough-looking huntsmen, those behind and on both sides holding crossbows aimed straight at them. Sabine happened to glance back as I was looking at her. She gave me a tiny nod before the guard at her side punched her arm.

The warriors beside and behind Farmer also bore crossbows. Another row of archers rode farther out, their bows pointed at Farmer as well. Far behind Farmer’s guard rode a small group of men, but the light was too bright for me to make out their faces. Either I was not regarded as a threat or no one wished to risk shooting my riding companion, because we only had a cove to lead my horse. Nowhere did I see Pounce or Achoo. I closed my eyes and sent a brief prayer of thanks to the gods. Then I looked at the delightful creature beside me again.

“Who are you, what have you done to Farmer, and where are we going?” I demanded. All those archers told me how they kept Sabine and Tunstall under control. I just couldn’t see a mere clutch of archers slowing Farmer, even a double ring of them. I’d had a sense he held more of his power back than he was letting on. Why wasn’t he putting it to use?

She simpered. “I am Dolsa Silkweb. Farmer is fine, such as he is. Really, is he the best you people could get?”

Part of my mind said, He’s better than you, while another part said, He certainly isn’t as good as you! I didn’t know which was real, not entirely. I settled for blandness. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“I know all about your little Hunt,” Dolsa told me. “We tried and tried to stop you, but it never pays to use hirelings. My lord said to cut our losses and bring you four straight to him. For days I rode in that stinky little cart with your brat of a prince and that bossy woman! My lord had best remember my sacrifices for this.” Her gray eyes slanted sidelong with a glitter like ice. “Or I’ll help him remember.”

So she had been aiding the Viper.

“What have you done to Farmer?” I insisted on asking. It seemed she would only talk at length about herself.

“Oh, he still thinks he’s riding along the road after you. He’s terrible at illusions, I’m sad to say. Why don’t you call in that hound?” She asked it quickly, without warning, her charm gripping me so tight that my mouth instantly opened to call Achoo. I remembered Achoo lying on the ground, the killing wound open in her side, Farmer with his hand on her, and shut my mouth. For good measure, I ground my teeth together.

Dolsa looked at me for a long moment, her slender brows knit. I could feel the need to please her press on me, wrap around me, even seek ways into me through my nose, ears, and eyes. I bit the inside of my cheek until it bled to fight her Gift, forcing myself to see Achoo beg me for scraps, curl up with Pounce, and chase her toy in the park with Tunstall.

At last Dolsa sighed. “I suppose you have some charm or other on you, to fight my spells. Or you’re like most common dullards, not imaginative enough for my Gift. We’ll have any protective magic off you before nightfall, you know.” She tugged her gloves until they sat her hands more neatly. “Truly, the hound isn’t necessary. I just thought you’d be more pliable, if we had your animal to work on. Still, the woods aren’t kind hereabouts. Something will get her, eventually. Maybe even one of our own hunters.”

“Where do you come from, Lady Silkweb?” I asked, letting her spell squeeze the lady out of me. “Who do you serve?”

She laughed. It was a musical sound that made a number of the guards turn to smile at her. She snapped her fingers imperiously. Every one of them yelped and flinched, as if that dull snap of the fingers—it didn’t work in gloves—had the power to hurt them. I had the feeling it had done just that. “Idiots!” she cried. She’d made her voice louder somehow, so everyone could hear. “Keep your eyes on your prisoner! Next time it won’t be a bite on the ear!” She looked at me. “That’s the punishment,” she told me, her voice at its normal loudness for only me to hear. “I took the pain from the time a horse bit me and tucked it into a little spell. I touched each guard on the shoulder as we readied to go, and …” She shrugged one shoulder, very pleased with herself.

“Like brats pulling wings off flies,” I said, meeting her eyes.

She gave that sparkling, musical laugh again. “You’re very brave, aren’t you, Dog?” Silkweb asked when she stopped laughing. “You think you and your friends have a chance? Lady Sabine will be lucky to live, since she’s so entrenched on the king’s side. You Dogs? Trash. Farmer? I can dance rings around your Dogs’ mage, and I’m not the only one here who can. Tell me, brave Dog—

If she said Dog that way again, charm spell or no, I was going to do my best to bite her like that horse she’d mentioned.

She did not hear my thoughts, so instead she finished what she was saying. “Does Farmer’s master still give him gifts of power?”

My skin crept. “What are you talking about?”

“Everyone knows,” she said and giggled like a gixie telling secrets with her friends. “It’s said Cassine tucked power all around him. He can draw magic out of things, at least he’s not inept there. That’s why it was so important to burn his packs, so he couldn’t use his emergency stores.”

“How could you know about that if you were with the cart?” I asked, thinking, No, no, no. I won’t believe her.

She rolled her eyes. “That was the plan. Farmer is the biggest threat, so we sent a man in to set the fire. I know because I was in touch with the others through my scrying crystal. Without his little bag of tricks, he’s nothing.” She glanced back at him. “I had the boys take that shoulder pack and his belt, boots, and necklaces off as soon as we dropped the four of you.”

All those dead. Linnet on the garbage barrel, the bandits, the poor mumpers forced to travel with the Viper, the sleepers at the inn. “Is it worth it, what you’ve done?” I asked her. “Do you know how many you’ve killed just to ‘drop’ us four?”

“Is it worth it?” She acted as if she hadn’t heard the second question. “You silly thing, don’t you know? Your precious king has put taxes on mage work. He’s taxing items we need badly if we’re to create anything of real meaning. Now he’s demanding that we be licensed—licensed!—and in exchange for this precious license, we have to guarantee so many days a year in work for the Crown.” There was a blush of rage on her cheeks. “We are mages, not piddling jewelers or sellers of greens! We won’t submit! We must be free to work as we please!”

“Why don’t you go to some other realm?” I asked. Had I seen a bit of cream-colored fur off in the trees?

“Because all the best places in all the realms that matter are held, or there are fifty competitors for them at least. Because this is my home.” Her hands trembled as she arranged them prettily on her reins. “Because if Randy Roger gets away with this, the other kings will do the same. Because no one tells a great mage what to do. Not ever.”

I heard the jingle of reins behind our group and twisted to see who was coming out of the group at the rear of the train. When he passed Farmer, I recognized him. Farmer gave no sign that he even saw the man, though he rode right before Farmer’s eyes.

It was Master Elyot, dressed in a cream-colored tunic and brown breeches and looking too poxy cheerful. The fire opal on his chest blazed as it caught the sun. “Dolsa, my dear, I don’t believe you’ve stopped talking to this poor captive since she came around. Whatever do you have to say to her?”

Dolsa treated him to her simper for a change as he brought his horse up on my opposite side. What a delightful trio are we, I thought, sick with what Dolsa had said about Farmer and her reasons for rebellion. All this because the mages didn’t care for work?

“We’ve been talking of every manner of things,” Dolsa told Elyot. “I don’t think she knew Cassine used to feed Farmer extra magic.”

Elyot frowned at Dolsa. “I didn’t see that in him.”

Dolsa laughed. “You didn’t look at his packs, silly. They half blinded me! Where else could it have come from if not Cassine? Certainly not from him.

“I don’t know,” Elyot said. “He struck me as well enough. Not on our level, but how many mages are?” He looked at me. “I’m glad to have the chance to take a closer look at you, Gershom’s pet. I’ve met Lady Teodorie a few times at court. I’m surprised she actually let you live in her house.” He chuckled. “I’m surprised she let you live. She never struck me as the sort to let her man keep his child mistress under her roof.”

I spat on him. Sadly, it stopped partway to him, halted by his scummer magic, and dropped to the road.

He slapped me hard, rocking my head back on my neck. I growled and threw myself at him, forgetting I was tied in the saddle. One of the guards seized the bridle and Dolsa the back of my tunic as an invisible mask slid over my face, cutting off my air. I fought it as long as I could. Finally, as my sight went black, the mask vanished.

A cruel hand gripped the hair at the back of my head and Dolsa said in my ear, “Mind your manners or we’ll drag you the rest of the way to Halleburn. And I have to warn you, Lord Thanen is not as good about keeping his roads as he should be.”

I took some deep breaths, then nodded. She pulled me straight in the saddle with one arm, gave my hair an extra twist with the other hand just for meanness, and released me. Too bad she hadn’t grabbed me by the braid, but like as not she’d seen the spikes sticking from the strands.

I took inventory of my condition. My scalp ached. I ignored it. My left cheek was swelling, including the side of the eye. A slap from a gem-decorated glove is no joke. I’d wrenched my arms fiercely, trying to yank free of the rope bindings. One of my wrists ached in a dull way I did not like.

To take my mind off the pain, I kept my head down and looked at Elyot under my lashes. “When did you get here?” I demanded. “We left ahead of you.”

This time he grabbed my ear and twisted it hard. Again, I bit the inside of my cheek till it bled rather than cry out for this nuncle’s tarse. “I don’t care who you were in Gershom’s house, any more than I care that you’re a Provost’s Guard,” the mage said, breathing garlic into my face. “Gershom is dead when we succeed. And I wouldn’t give a cracked kernel for the lives of you and your Hunting party, do you hear? So mind your manners, or I’ll kill you in such fashion as they never find your bones.” He let go of my ear. “We were only a day behind you, stupid bitch, riding hard. We passed you by night and took the other route to Halleburn. How did your creature track the boy?”

“Elyot, why are you abusing my poor Beka so?” Sabine called from her place in our train of riders. “She’s wonderful with hounds and she knows the rules of the Guard, but she doesn’t have two thoughts to rub together. Come and tell me why you’re mauling her about. This is the forest road to Halleburn, isn’t it?” To hear her, we were just on a tour of the estate.

Elyot looked at her, then at me. He glanced at Farmer and raised an eyebrow at Dolsa, who shrugged. Then he spat on me and rode up to Sabine.

His spit landed. There was naught I could do but watch it soak into my tunic.

“Elyot’s furious because none of the traps he planned for you worked and mine did. He feels it reflects badly on him. I think you’re going to die in very unpleasant ways.” Dolsa shrugged. “Maybe if you promise to give me your blood freely, I can talk him into letting me kill you. I’ll do it nicely.”

I stared at her. “You truly think I would do that?” I asked, not sure that I’d heard her right.

Dolsa rested a gentle hand on my shoulder. Her glove was scented with some kind of perfume. “If you knew the ways Elyot kills people, you would,” she assured me. “Oh, look, there’s a rabbit!” She pointed gleefully at the animal, which ran for its life, dashing to and fro as if it knew it was hunted. Something gray and glittery darted from her pointing finger to chase the rabbit, missing just as it made the shelter of the woods.

“See, that’s the difference between Elyot and me,” Dolsa explained. “I know sometimes you lose. And if you study your losses enough, you get a big, fat, victory.” She kicked her pretty mare into a trot, turning to ride with the group in the back.

I looked at Farmer. Never more had I wanted him awake and aware. I could face anything if Farmer rode beside me, talking away. If I hadn’t known what was happening to my feelings about him before then, that was the point at which I realized it whole. To keep from thinking about the bad things ahead, I tried to work it out in my mind, how he was different from other men I’d known.

He liked me to help him when he did things. He explained what I didn’t know, warned me when to stand aside, never told me to get out of his way because he could do it faster, and thanked me for helping. There were moments when he needed me to rescue him, and he never blamed me for it, or got angry about it.

He took nothing seriously, not even—particularly—himself. He was kind to animals. He kept his temper, for the most part. So do I, for the most part. He is not afraid to admit to what he cannot do. He is not afraid to admit when he is weak, even though he hates it.

I wish he would not pinch so at Tunstall, but Tunstall pinches first and back. They’re like my brothers in that way. I sometimes think a good fistfight would solve things between Tunstall and Farmer. I wish they would get it over with.

As to Farmer’s magic all being given to him by Cassine? Mayhap Dolsa thought that. That claim above all told me she did not know Farmer, but one of the faces that Farmer liked to put on.

My thinking served to keep my mind off our future as we rode along a series of hills, each taller than the last. At the top of the third, I nearly gave myself away when I spotted the black cat standing on a boulder near the crest. I forced myself to remain still and to pretend I saw nothing unusual. He flicked his tail at me and vanished. I sighed with gratitude. Pounce was still with us. I knew he would be, but it was one thing to know, and another to see.

Over the crest, I almost gasped at the view. The road down switched back and forth to allow traffic to climb without overworking the humans or animals that used it. The hill was part of a long ridge of solid rock. Forming the valley’s northwestern edge, the ridge overlooked all that lay between it and the lake.

About a quarter mile along the cliff to our left sat Halleburn Castle. Built on a spur of rock that thrust out of the cliff, it looked a spear pointed at the lake. The inner curtain wall stood higher than the outer one, while towers crowned the spur’s peak. I’d heard that Halleburn had never been taken. Now I could see why.

The road went over a great causeway up the far side of the spur of rock on which the castle sat. On the ridge behind the castle, the ground had been cleared of trees for a mile. At no point were we ever out of view of the towers.

I still was calculating. The rock face on which the place rested was rugged enough for a good climber. A good climber with a four-year-old on her back, or his back? We might have to learn. Then it was a mile, nearly two, to the lake. As a path of escape, the lake gave me no confidence. It was thinner than it was long, with the far shore always in view of anyone on the near shore, from what I could see. Had it been bigger, it might have been possible to lose pursuit, but they could give chase on both sides easy, and have us trapped unless we had Farmer with us.

There was also the small problem of getting out of Halleburn. As we rode through the gates, I saw the thickness of the walls and felt the weight of its age. Far too many men and women-at-arms stood about idle, sharpening weapons and watching us go by. Those who weren’t armed were slaves, marked by their plain clothes and an occasional shoulder brand.

“Unfriendly place, isn’t it?” a familiar male voice asked. They’d let Farmer draw up beside me. Seemingly, they’d also let the spell on him drop. I tried to keep from grinning at him like a looby who’d just been offered sweets. “I’ll bet they hardly get any visitors for the Midwinter holidays. You see that point in the outer curtain wall? Fifteen Halleburns have jumped to their deaths from there.” He tried to count them all on his fingers, but like mine, his hands were hobbled at the wrists and bound to his waist.

A guard smacked him on the back with the butt of his crossbow. “None o’ yer magickin’, you!” he snapped.

I kept myself from reaching for Farmer. I couldn’t let these creatures know how I felt about him. They’d use it against me, like they’d have used Pounce or Achoo if they could have caught them.

“If you’d listened to your masters, you would have heard they are keeping me under a magical lock,” Farmer told the cove patiently. “I’ve got no more Gift than you do. Less, if you have one. And wouldn’t your poor old mother be ashamed at your lack of courtesy to a guest?”

The guard spat. Without looking at him, I asked Farmer, “Will you please not needle them? They’re nasty enough as it is.”

“Most likely they’re worried about getting paid. I would be. Thanen of Halleburn is as tightfisted as a clam.” He saw the guard look at him suspiciously and said, all innocence, “It’s true. He’d as soon kill someone as pay him. Sooner.”

Elyot came riding down the line. “Farmer, what are you up to?” To the soldier he barked, “Get them down. My lord wants to see them right away.” He grinned at us both. “You’re in for a treat. Lord Thanen doesn’t like folk who give him as much trouble as you four have.”

“We’d have given him no trouble at all if he hadn’t kid—” Elyot went to slap me again, but this time I was ready. I kicked my horse forward, straight into his own mount. Off-balance with his slap, he struggled to stay in the saddle until I hooked my leg, stirrup and all, around his, and shoved myself toward him with all of my strength. He was a bad rider. His horse, scared by sommat—I have my suspicions about who scared him—shook his head and reared a little. Onto the ground went Elyot. As he slid, I spat on him. I’d often had the chance to observe that when mages were confused, they did not always think to employ their Gifts.

The guards, frozen still until that moment, hurried forward. They cut me free of my ropes and yanked me from my mount. Once I stumbled to the ground, I dropped and curled myself up, tucking my head and wrapping my hands around the back of my neck. It was the best I could do before the guards began to beat me. So much fuss over one dumped mage!

“Stop,” Dolsa called. “I don’t care if she hurt Master Elyot’s feelings, my lord wants to see these four meddlers as soon as may be. All four.”

The blows stopped and I went to straighten, knowing I was going to pay for tweaking the bull’s tail. There was a razor’s pain in my right side that meant a broken rib. The rest was bad, but bruises at most. The guards might be dressed as rough woodsmen, but they were well-trained professionals.

I looked at Master Elyot. He was shaking off the hands of those who would help him as he stood. The glare he gave me promised nothing that would make me smile. I wondered when he’d last been handled so rudely and was glad I’d chosen to do so, even knowing I’d take a beating. He certainly acted like he’d never had to take a good punch in his life, let alone a deliberate shove from his mount.

A hand wrapped around my shoulder. Almost immediately I felt warmth spill into my body. Muscles and bone eased along with their pain. I breathed a little better, though Farmer couldn’t do a true healing in full view of the enemy.

“I’ll take charge of these captives, Dolsa.” The new speaker was a mot all in brightly polished armor. She was five feet and ten inches, with long, slanting brown eyes and blond hair coiled and pinned at the back of her head. The armor did not hide her generous figure. For all the armor shone as if she never wore it, the sword at her waist had a plain leather grip and sheath, both of which were well battered. So too were her sheathed dagger and the boots on her feet. She might be wearing dress armor, but she was a fighter. “My father wants them before him now.”

“I will take them, Nomalla, since I captured them,” Dolsa replied pertly.

The knight looked down her long, straight nose at the mage. “It’s your method of keeping things in order that makes me question whether all of them will reach my father alive, Dolsa,” she said dryly. “Come with me, then, if you’re so anxious to receive all the credit. And don’t chatter at me.” She walked toward Sabine and Tunstall, giving Sabine a nod. “Sabine. As usual, you are in low company.”

Sabine looked Nomalla in the eyes. “This time it’s you who are in low company, Nomalla of Halleburn. Your father is a traitor. All of you who serve him are conspirators. I’d rather break bread with pickpockets.”

“And have,” Lady Nomalla replied, but her cheeks were red. “My father knows what the realm needs.”

“A traitor,” Sabine replied agreeably.

Nomalla rested her hand on the hilt of her sword. “Get moving, you and your lover both.”

“Dolsa did not capture them on her own!” Elyot snapped breathlessly from behind us. “She will not cheat me of the credit for taking them!” He stalked past us, in a hurry to catch up with them. I would have thought all of them had forgotten Farmer and me, except both Elyot and Dolsa shoved a veil of Gift back our way. It turned into a muddy-colored sparkling scarf that wrapped around Farmer, making my skin tingle where his arm lay on my shoulders. He moved his arm away. I wanted to seize it and pull it back into place, but that would give the enemy more information than they needed. They already knew, I supposed, that he’d healed the worst of my beating. Let them think he’d tried and failed to fool them as to what he was doing by putting his arm around me.

I heard Farmer whisper, “From what I’ve heard of Lady Nomalla, this is not the sort of thing she would do.” His lips hadn’t moved.

“Can’t they hear you?” I replied in a good Dog’s whisper, my mouth almost unmoving.

Inside the sparkles he smiled. “Perhaps this spell is without flaw when just one mage works it, but with two mages it is full of holes,” he explained. “Neither of them wants the other mage to get a grip on their power and use it. I can use a baby spell called threading the needle to sneak my voice through one of those holes. Beka, I’m so sorry. I should have been looking for more varieties of illusion. She’s too cursed good at them.”

“Better than you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied frankly as we were ushered into the keep. “There are ways to trip her up, but my mind was on other things and she jumped me like I was a novice.”

We went through one set of doors, then another. Tunstall and Farmer were taken into a chamber on the left by Elyot, ten guards, and a couple of other coves who wore mage-like robes. Lady Nomalla, Dolsa, and two of the female guards went into a similar room on the right with Sabine and me. The room was stone with no hearth or braziers. Standing screens were placed along the rear wall, blurry metal mirrors hung here and there, and the room was furnished with a scattering of chairs and hassocks. It seemed to be a chamber where folk could wait and check their looks before they entered the presence of the lord of Halleburn. My cheeks burned at the impudence of this nobleman, no matter how old his bloodlines, holding court like the king.

“Everything on the floor,” Dolsa ordered, stripping off her gloves. “Packs, belts, weapons, boots, clothes, underthings. Take those spikes from your hair, Cooper, and you too if you have them, Sabine.”

“I am not disrobing before the likes of you, mage,” Sabine replied. “Nor these traitors.”

“Sabine, we have never fought one another,” Nomalla said, her eyes steady as she spoke. “And we will not here. I will have this mage and these guards drag you down and strip you. Or you can go behind that screen and disrobe with dignity. So may—Cooper, is it?—Cooper, here.”

Sabine stared at the lady knight, her brown eyes burning. At last she said, “I never would have imagined you as a traitor, Nomalla. Not here and not in any of the realms.”

“I am no traitor,” the other knight said calmly. Her cheeks were as crimson as mine felt. “Family comes before all, as does a child’s duty to her father. Strip here or use the screen, my lady.”

Sabine clenched her hands. Then she turned to me and nodded. We left our packs, boots, leather, and what armor remained to us there with them. She jerked her head toward the carved screens when we were down to our clothes. I found the linked wooden panels were set up to make small alcoves, giving us a little privacy. As I took off my garments and set them down, I heard the women pick apart the contents of our packs. Dolsa found every magicked thing we had, and made certain to tell Nomalla what it was and how pathetic she found it. I wanted so badly to kick her bum straight up between her ears.

Finally, as I stood there naked and a woman soldier inspected my garments, Nomalla sent Dolsa to inform Lord Halleburn that we were nearly ready for questioning. Then she dismissed the guards and told Sabine and me we could dress. I guessed that someone must have inspected Sabine’s clothes at the same time that a mot did mine.

When we came out from behind the screens, both of us red-faced and looking for a fight, only Nomalla remained in the room. Sabine strode up to her and slapped her across the face. Nomalla let her do it, to my shock.

“We are caught up in things that are bigger than we are,” she told Sabine. “Fate turns. We ride with her or are left behind.”

“And what of honor?” demanded Sabine hotly, keeping her voice low. “What of the vows made to king and country? You are a lady knight, not some back alley Corus strumpet!” She glanced at me. “Apologies, Beka.” She knew lots of my friends went by those names.

I shrugged. “I’ve seen plenty of great house strumpets,” I replied.

“I am my father’s daughter and a knight of generations of Halleburn knights,” Nomalla replied steadily. “If your family took more of an interest in the realm’s politics instead of raising horses, my lady of Macayhill, you would know what I mean.”

“If this is what that interest means, I’d as soon be an honest horse breeder,” Sabine told her.

The door opened and a man said from outside, “He bids you bring the prisoners, my lady.”

Nomalla beckoned for us to leave the room. “I wish you hadn’t crossed my father’s path, Sabine. I really wish you hadn’t.”

Following behind her, I told Sabine, “To me, that noble honor is a wonderful thing. I see folk put it on and take it off all the time, and no one ever notices how wrinkled it gets.”

Nomalla clenched her hands into fists. Sabine only smiled down at me. “It might seem so to you, Beka.” Her mouth curled down bitterly. “In your boots, it would to me as well. But for some of us, it is a garment that is the same as our own skin, impossible to take off and live.”

We joined the men as they stood before a fresh pair of closed doors. Tunstall was down to his uniform like me, no belt, no boots. Apparently the folk that had searched us knew of our habit of wearing buckle knives, using the leather of our belts as stranglers’ nooses, and of tucking knives or spikes in our boots. The castle flagstones were cold under our feet. Sabine and Farmer were in the same case as we were, bootless and beltless. It was enough to make me think these Halleburn folk didn’t trust us.

Elyot was gone, as was Dolsa. Guards in Halleburn tunics of hideous orange and pink thrust the door open and Nomalla led us into the great hall beyond. We had a way to go. They had left a nice, large space for us to cross before we reached a stopping spot in front of an overblown dais. There, in the seat of honor, sat Prince Baird. I supposed he had overcome his qualms about betraying his family. On his right sat an older man of sixty-two with Nomalla’s long nose. Unlike her, he had bright blue eyes, deep-set, a mouth with lips so thin they seemed well-nigh invisible, and well-groomed white hair around the sides and back of his bald pate. Unlike His Highness, who fidgeted uneasily in the higher chair, Thanen of Halleburn sat upright and comfortable. Nothing seemed to miss his gaze, unless it was the black cat that had chosen to sit in the shadows between his chair and that of the prince.

My companions tensed around me. Then they forced themselves to relax, just as I did. They had to be asking themselves, as I did, what Pounce could be allowed to do to help us. They would remember that Pounce had said the gods had done nothing when he intervened before because Achoo was an animal, not a human being. My companions might even know, as I did, that minor gods and immortal creatures like dragons had been brought low before by mages, and gods had been hurt by them.

We did not face only two mages, Elyot and Dolsa, who both stood at the shoulders of the prince. Count Dewin of Queensgrace sat on the dais, with his personal mage in attendance. At Thanen’s shoulder stood another cove in one of those stupid robes so many of them seemed to think made them look magical. At Prince Baird’s side I saw two familiar faces. Master Ironwood and Mistress Orielle, Their Majesties’ personal mages and supposed defenders, had come to join the fun.

Tunstall lunged for them. “You!” he cried as some purplish magic froze him in place. “What are you doing here? Were you traitors all along?”

“Where was I to go when Mistress Cassine cast me out of the Summer Palace?” whined Master Ironwood. He had lost weight even in the two weeks since I’d last seen him. “Where could I go with the suspicion of treason on me?”

“Stop complaining!” Orielle snapped. “Embrace your future, you fool—you’ve been a part of this for too long to back out now!” She was greatly changed from her soft, fluttering ways in the Summer Palace. “Why couldn’t you beggars have died when you were supposed to?”

“Dreadful sorry, mistress,” Farmer said at his most foolish. “Ma always said I was too silly to die.”

“Quiet!” Lord Thanen barked. Though Count Dewin and Prince Baird were of higher rank, he clearly was in charge. “There’s no reason to bandy words with these underlings!”

“Forgive me, my lord,” Orielle said with a pretty half curtsy. “But they eluded every trap set for them. They were nearly on your doorstep when your people gathered them up. Surely it would be interesting to learn why?”

“My lord Gershom knows the route we took,” Tunstall said. “Other Provost’s Guards are on their way to meet us now. There may yet be time to save your families and lands, though not your own lives.”

“You mean those five poor Dogs out of Frasrlund?” Elyot asked. “Dead in the road. And any other help out of the kennels between here and the border will not even leave the towns.”

I looked at the floor and asked that glorious, multicolored creature I had once called the Black God to care for my fellow Dogs. I also asked the God if he, she, might find it in his heart to step on these leeches when they came into the Peaceful Realms, even though that was not his usual policy. The God did not reply, but this time I didn’t mind so much. I had seen him once and that was more than enough answer to any prayer.

“Sabine,” Lord Thanen said. Everyone on that dais went still. Looking at them all, I knew this was the noble core of the rebellion. Elyot’s brother Graeme of Aspen Vale was there. Other lords in armor or silk held the chairs on either side of the prince and Thanen, waiting to hear what he would say. A couple of them leered at Sabine, but changed their minds when Tunstall glared at them.

Sabine had not moved when Lord Thanen called her by name. She waited, legs slightly spread for balance, hands clasped lightly in front of her. She’d made it plain she was prepared to fight, with or without weapons.

Then I saw the boy struggling to fill Thanen’s wine cup from a heavy jar. It was stupid. He was little, four by my estimate. He was dark-skinned and dark-haired.…

He spilled. Of course he spilled. He was a little boy surrounded by great lords, and he was only four years old. Lord Thanen gave him the back of his hand, knocking the child into the shadows behind the chairs. The wine jug fell to the floor. “Nomalla, tell one of the squires to get out here and serve,” he snapped. “See that the slave gets five strokes. And have someone clean this mess up.”

Nomalla bowed, but from the way she clenched the hand on the side opposite her father, she did not appreciate being ordered about like a housekeeper. No one else had moved. How many of them knew the identity of the little slave? I was shaking from head to toe. I had gotten my first look at my quarry and, like Achoo, I was ready to launch myself across any ground between me and him. The bruise around his left eye, the long red scrape on his right leg, visible where the thin tunic he wore ended, those only made my need to sweep the lad up and run with him worse. I had often wondered if years of chasing Achoo had made us sommat alike. Now I knew it was true.

The squire was there almost instantly with a jar of wine and fresh cups. He must have been waiting outside the door. He was graceful and quick, coming around behind the chairs, but he could have been as clumsy as a bullock and no one would have noticed. They were all waiting for the lord of Halleburn. How could he keep so many in thrall?

Thanen himself had not taken his eyes off Sabine. When the squire had refilled Prince Baird’s cup and given Thanen a new, full one, the old man waved a long white hand at Sabine. “Give the lady knight a cup.”

Sabine’s deep, rich voice rang out through the hall. “I would not drink it if you held my nose and dumped it down my throat.”

“Sabine, Sabine,” Thanen said, trying to look sorrowful. “Is this the way to speak to family?”

“I do not feel like family just now, my lord,” Sabine told him. “I feel like a traveler who has been caught by robbers and dragged to their hideaway.”

Tunstall cleared his throat. “Beg pardon, lady knight, but that is what happened.”

“Were you not Sabine’s … special friend, I’d serve you well for your impudence,” Thanen snapped. All of his speech seemed to come from one side of his mouth, as if he were forever sneering. “As it is, count yourself fortunate and hold your tongue. Many here will tell you I am not a patient man.”

Everywhere I saw heads bow, as if folk wanted to agree but were afraid to do so even when they had permission. He had to be a very nasty bit of work, if these wellborn folk were so skittish around him.

“Sabine, we may be here initially as enemies, but that need not be so,” Thanen said in that cozening way. “We could mend our differences. Did you know your grandfather Masbolle has revised his will? He is very old. Should you not die before him, you will be very rich.”

Sabine’s head jerked back. “I did not know of the change to his will, nor do I care. I also did not know that it is suddenly legal for anyone not a member of the family to read a will.”

The old barnacle stared into his wine cup. “Accommodations can be reached between friends with mutual interests,” he said idly. “Just as they can be reached between great heiresses and kings.”

“The king is married,” Sabine replied.

Thanen looked up at her, his eyes blue ice. “Don’t be a fool, girl. Your grandfather is ailing. Your marriage would bring with it connections to this house, Masbolle, Cavall, Mandash, Queensgrace, and Niede’s Jewel. You would be King Baird’s queen instead of a vagabond.”

I ducked my head. He didn’t know Sabine very well, to say that such things would interest her.

She paused for a long moment before she said, “If you think you’re just going to wave pretty promises before me, you are wasting your time. I admit, I’ve considered a change. A woman gets older.”

“Sabine!” Tunstall said, horrified.

“Not you, pet.” She actually patted his cheek.

I was going cold all over. I’ve had nightmares, but none like this. I prayed all the gods that this was sheer trickery from Sabine. If only she weren’t so convincing!

“I want something more solid to deal on,” she told Thanen. She looked at Baird. “And I keep Mattes. I know you. You’ll never give up your amusements after we wed. Well, I demand the same.”

Prince Baird slowly grinned at her. “Done.”

“Hah!” Thanen actually rubbed his hands together. “Then let’s retire to someplace more private for proper negotiations.” He looked at Farmer and me. “As for these two, ensure he is useless, then toss both of them into the dungeon until I’ve decided what to do with them.” He pointed at us. “You’ve cost me time and money. I will have some satisfaction before I’m done with you.”

I fought, of course, but the mages laid a stillness on us both until guards could come. They took Farmer one way and me another. Down through back stairs in the keep we went, the air getting colder and colder. At last we passed down a long stone corridor marked with doors that held barred windows at face height. The hall ended in a watch room where two guards played at dice on the floor. They took charge of me and walked me back to one of the cells. There they unlocked the door and shoved me in.

The cell wasn’t so bad, as cells go. There was torchlight through the window in the door, giving me a decent view. I paced it at ten feet by fifteen feet. Back home it would be considered a four-man place, but we liked our Rats good and annoyed with each other while they were caged.

There were narrow stone benches or beds built into two walls facing each other. There was no window to the outside. Straw and rushes lay on the floor and two sets of shackles were bolted to the rear wall, in case they wanted to keep a prisoner standing. A piss bucket, empty, thanks to the gods, sat in a corner. The stink was bad, but not as bad as it was at Outwalls Prison, say, or even the cells at Jane Street kennel. Thanen must not get many visitors to house down here.

Judging from the narrow cracks in the walls, I knew there’d be rats and mice. I had naught to ward the rats off. I rather like mice, but rats will fight. The cell was cold, too. That might account for there being so little stink. There were fleas and lice, but they left me alone. I hoped that was Farmer’s spell at work, but who knew how long it might last? I might be the only corpse uneaten by worms sent to the god by these Rats, at least until Farmer and mayhap the others joined me. I had no faith in Thanen of Halleburn’s bargain with Sabine and Tunstall, however much she might have believed it. Having cooled off in more ways than one, I was finding it harder and harder to think that she or Tunstall could have turned into the folk I saw in that great hall. On the other hand, I had little trouble at all imagining that they’d done it to gain time to work a way to get themselves and mayhap the prince, Farmer, and me out of this trap.

My inspection of my new home done, I lay on one of the stone benches, hugged my arms around me, and concentrated on the palace in my memory. I would not think of Farmer’s fate, or Pounce’s, Achoo’s, Tunstall’s, Sabine’s, or my own. If I did, I would shake myself to pieces. It was better to do something, even if it was only in my head. I began work on my journal for the time since the fire at the Wayhouse, making sure each event of our arrival there and all that happened thereafter was set exactly where I might find it if I lived. I included what had been said by my companions to have the fullest report I could put together. It seemed unbelievable that I would survive this halt in our travels, but that was no reason to be sloppy in my record keeping.

I dozed off, I believe, as I was trying to fix the god’s ever-changing self into a shrine separate from all else, where I might see him again. There was comfort in remembering the beautiful melting colors of his robe and the power of his voice. I knew I was sleeping when I half woke to find a long, thin black body stretched out on mine, giving off warmth like a fire. I hadn’t known until then that I’d been shivering.

“What?” I asked.

Hush, Pounce replied. The guards won’t see me, so don’t talk aloud to me in front of them. Unless you want them to think you mad, of course.

“What of Achoo?” I asked fearfully. “Is she dead?”

You underestimate her, Pounce said. She played at it once she woke from that mage-trap. Once no humans were about, she went into the trees and tracked your captors until I made her stop, before she went on the causeway. She is well and in a better position than you.

I was too worn out from the scant rest I’d had in the last few days on the road to give him a pert answer. I muttered my thanks for the knowledge and went back to sleep. When I woke again, it was because the guards were rattling the cell door, opening it.

They took me out of there twice. They did not tell me what day it was or how much time had passed, any more than they told me the fate of my Hunting pack. The only things they said when they took me to that other dungeon room were questions and orders. I will not tell of that, not in this journal, not in the official report. I started silent like any tough Rat and ended in such a mixed pottage of whatever lies would please my questioners that I cannot remember what I said. They gave me the Drink, far worse than my training experience of it, but mostly they used their fists. Even I could tell they weren’t that interested, or they would have used instruments on me. They showed them to me to frighten me more, as cell Dogs would, but it was only for show. They used none of them, drawing none of my nails, breaking none of my fingers, not even strapping me to the rack. After the second time, they didn’t return to my cell.

Pounce told me they were bringing the brown, sloppy stew and the jug of water once a day. He would purr me to sleep and make a pretense of washing my hair that miraculously left it clean and properly braided. It was all he could do for me with the eyes of the Great Gods now fixed on this place and this time. It’s funny how much it comforted me, though, to feel my hair clean and neat when the rest of me got filthier by the day. He also told me tales of the Great Gods and heroes of the past to entertain me. I did what exercises I could. That helped, too. Planning my testimony before the Lord High Magistrate, so I would not stammer as I might if I gave it cold, helped as well.

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