yet recorded in my memory
At last Tunstall returned to wave us into the open. Once we were outside, Farmer faced the tunnel. He had opened his roll of ribbon to expose two inches of it. His lips moved, shaping silent words.
Lady Nomalla reached out as if to stop him, but Sabine grabbed her by the sleeve. Nobody dared make a sound. Something pressed on me. I shoved Daeggan and Gareth back toward the others but stayed where I was, afraid that Farmer might overdo again.
The feeling moved away. The vines and their heavy wooden trunk were mashed against the stone until trunk and leaves alike flattened. Then, in the light of Farmer’s magic, I saw the rock’s edges and crevices run together. When the liquid stone had erased all sign of the door to the tunnel, it went still and took on the look of old rock.
A tiny line of smoke rose from the embroidered face of the ribbon. I advanced to look at it. A charred line ran through the face of the embroidery, marking where one color had burned. He looked at the others and shrugged. “Ma always said to close the door behind me,” he explained.
We were in the woods, but I saw open ground thirty yards away. Leaving the boys to gawp at Farmer, I advanced into the clearing and beyond, crossing a wide swathe of grass. I reached the edge of the cliff.
The moon was gone, but starlight and the castle torches below were enough to see by. I did not risk my stone lamp. Halleburn lay to my right atop its rock finger. We were on the cliff northwest of the lake and the castle. I wasn’t close enough to see the guards’ faces as they walked the walls, but I was close enough to see them. To my left there was a path about two yards wide, made of tamped, bare earth. It followed the cliff’s edge.
The castle was quiet, the guards bunched up to gossip on the walls. The prisoners in the other cells would have gotten free by now. Farmer’s battle with Elyot had been a noisy one, sure to draw attention. Someone would have entered the great hall to see the warring mages. Others would have found the guards that drank the drugged ale, or Elyot, or the children who had feared to join us. A servant or guard would have checked Sabine and Tunstall’s chambers. Missing them, they might have thought to call Nomalla. The alarm should be out.
Yet the guards returned to their pacing. I heard no sound of the drawbridge as it was lowered to allow pursuers to ride out, and Farmer had said nothing of meddling with the chains this time. It was all wrong.
The traitor among us must have left signs of our escape.
I would know who the traitor was only when the trap was sprung, I realized. By then all we had done and all we’d endured, all Their Majesties had endured, would be wasted.
Up there, the night breezes pushing at my face, I knew that in the end, I could only really trust Gareth, mayhap Daeggan, Pounce, and Achoo. If needful, I would leave everyone, even Farmer, to get the prince away free. It was the only way to be certain I did not have a traitor at my back.
My mind set, I ran back to my companions. They were there, pasting mud and leaves on one another. The boys even helped Nomalla to cover her armor as Sabine pinned the other mot’s bright hair in place and coated it. The lady had worn no helm.
“Do we know where we’re going?” Farmer asked.
I pulled a close cap from my pack and drew it over my head, tucking my braid into it until my hair was hidden. Then I smeared all of myself that I could reach. Farmer did the back of my neck. I did his. No one noticed if we took a few extra seconds in touching.
As we worked, Sabine told us, “Mattes and I figured out a plan with Nomalla’s help.”
Daeggan spat on the ground.
Nomalla glared down her thin nose at him. “I don’t normally explain myself to slaves, but you cannot know my father if you believe he will accept me back into his house after this.”
“Enough,” Tunstall ordered. “We’re dead deer if we’re caught. Now listen—Nomalla says there’s a village a couple miles off. We can steal horses there.”
Sabine picked up the tale. “We want to try for King’s Reach—their loyalty is unquestioned. We’ll steal horses all the way if we must.”
Inside, I winced. King’s Reach was across the Great Road North at the headwaters of the Halseander. We’d have to steal a lot of horses to get there, unless we found good ones, but what other choices did we have? And all this depended as well on our pursuit. We had to move.
We were nearly ready when we heard something crashing in the woods. Tunstall, Sabine, and I grabbed our weapons, putting ourselves between the lads, Farmer, and Nomalla.
You worry overmuch, Pounce told us. I knew everyone could hear it, because the lady knight and the lads turned to stare at the cat. In the darkness of the brush, he was only a pair of gleaming purple eyes. This time, anyway. I told her to make noise so you’d have warning.
Farmer was explaining Pounce to the boys when my poor Achoo, her curls tangled, leaves and twigs in her fur, leaped from the undergrowth into my arms. Tunstall grabbed my long dagger before she speared herself on it. I laughed as my hound washed off all the dirt I’d put so carefully on my face. Then I dropped to my knees with her. While she wiggled and whined, I dumped the meat I’d stolen from the kitchens onto the cloth I’d used to carry it. Achoo ate in several big gulps while Sabine, Tunstall, and Farmer petted her and told her what a wonderful creature she was.
I kept her in my mind, Pounce explained, winkling a bit of pork from the pile before Achoo could devour it. She had her work to do to keep away from the normal hunting parties, but she did it.
“Is that your dog?” asked Gareth.
I turned to look at him. He and Daeggan had inched back to stand with Nomalla, the outsiders at our family welcome. “She is a hound,” I explained. Nomalla snorted. I ignored her. “Achoo—that’s her name—is a scent hound. She’s one of the finest—”
With the smell of pork out of her nose, Achoo looked around. She saw the other three members of the group, but most important of all, she smelled one of them, the one that she had tracked for so many miles. She threw herself at the prince, whimpering and wagging her tail as she knocked the boy over and licked his face clean. Nomalla drew her blade in a flash, I think to protect Gareth, but “It’s all right,” Sabine told her. “Achoo’s just enthusiastic.”
Gareth, met with real affection for the first time in weeks, wrapped his arms around my hound’s neck and wept.
Gareth looked at me, still hanging on to Achoo. “They killed them. The bad men.” There was a hardness in his face that belonged to a man, not a little fellow like him. “I want to kill them.”
Tunstall knelt so he was on the same level as Gareth. “That’s what we’re going to do,” he said gravely. “Capture them that hurt your friends and take them for judgment.”
Gareth nodded. “Then let us go,” he said, a little old man in a child’s slave clothes.
Achoo would not leave him. She nuzzled him all over, as if to see if anything was broken, and licked the mud off of one of his arms. Daeggan covered Gareth with more dirt. Achoo smelled Gareth on the older lad and licked him as well, ignoring Daeggan’s complaints.
At last Farmer picked up Gareth. We formed a column, Sabine and Nomalla in front, Tunstall behind them, Farmer, Achoo, and the lads next, and me last. At first I thought Tunstall and I would quarrel over that final spot, but he gave over when Sabine hissed, “Mattes! Let’s go!”
He followed her. I felt much better about being in that last spot. I was still inclined to trust Farmer of all the other adults because my gut said he was true. Of course, my gut had been wrong before. Still, not everyone of these folk could be false. If I kept worrying, I would fail to listen to the dark, so I turned my attention to listening.
Up to the cliff’s edge and northwest we followed the path as quietly as possible, even the lads. That was how we came to startle a doe and her fawns as they grazed by the path. We halted briefly for the rustle and thump of a large creature built low to the ground. I sent up a prayer to the gods that it be a bear and that it stumble across anyone hunting us. I was certain that our scent had frightened it, unless the big thing was simply clumsy. I’d never been with such a quiet group.
The trail turned away from the cliff, down through a ripple in the ground and into the trees. Now we had cover for an enemy ambush on both sides. When we stopped at a spring for Achoo and the others to drink, Tunstall insisted on taking Gareth to give Farmer a rest. It was all done by hand signs. I moved up next to Farmer while Tunstall settled Gareth on his hip—like Farmer, Sabine, and me, Tunstall had a shoulder pack—and took my man’s hand.
With everyone’s thirst quenched and the dirt replaced on those whose faces had gotten wet, we pressed on. An hour or so later Daeggan began to fall behind. It was amazing he’d kept up until then, kitchen work not preparing him for long marches. He whispered that we should leave him, but no one accepted the offer. Nomalla and Sabine cut two saplings to equal length. Farmer sacrificed his tunic and did a small bit of magic that bound the ends of the side slits together. Once the poles were slid through the armholes and slits, both lads could ride the litter if they lay sideways. Nomalla and Sabine took the first turn carrying it and Tunstall went to the head of our line.
The path continued to lead down. It got steeper, slowing us. It was so hard to see under the trees that I passed my stone lamp up to Tunstall. He used it low to the ground, keeping his hands in a shield over it to limit how much light would show. We followed the path to a stream, then up and down into a second deep cut. We stopped by a spring near the crest of the second cut to rest again and drink. I prayed the water was clear, because we had no other.
“What’s that way?” Tunstall asked, pointing northeast.
“The cliffs go all around this side of the valley,” Sabine replied. “Another trail leads out of the village where we’re bound. Keep on the cliff trail and you reach Prachet town. We want the southwest road out of there.”
Farmer crouched by the boys, who had crawled out of the litter. He held each by the hand as they stared at him. Nomalla lay flat on her back, catching her breath and staring at the sky. Such a hike in armor was new to her, I guessed, but she was tough. She’d kept up without complaint.
Sabine went to the hilltop and wriggled through the grass to survey the land beyond. The village should be there. Achoo lay on her belly beside the stream, watching me. I could not see Pounce, but it was very dark. After drinking his fill, Tunstall followed Sabine.
Soon, I thought. The traitor would have to move soon.
It was midnight by the stars when Sabine and Tunstall waved us onward. Pounce and Achoo led this time, trotting down the grassy slope toward the small village below. The lads would have run behind them, suddenly full of renewed strength, but we kept them back, Farmer and me. The warriors went next, then the rest. I kept glancing back, but there was no one on the hilltop.
The village dogs, the four-legged sort, did not make a sound, though they came to sniff Achoo and Pounce. The other animals, the cows, goats, sheep, and geese, were also quiet. I couldn’t know if this came from Farmer or Pounce, but I was grateful for it. Geese are much harder to silence than dogs.
We were partway through the village when soldiers ran out of several houses into the street, swords bared. Farmer grabbed Daeggan; I, Gareth. We raced into a thin opening between dwellings and out past their gardens. There were no other houses behind these—it was a very small village—only fallow fields where Dolsa, Ironwood, and Orielle stood in a bubble of light. They cast some manner of glittering veil over Farmer.
He blew it apart without appearing to do anything. “Go!” he ordered me as he put Daeggan on the ground. “Tunstall, take the boy!” he cried. He shrugged off his pack and used it to block whatever nastiness Ironwood threw at him then. I’d had no idea the shoulder pack was magical.
I froze, staring at Farmer as he opened up his entire roll of ribbon. It fell to the ground in tumbled loops, gleaming in a multitude of colors.
“Do you think you’ll fight us with embroidery?” Ironwood cried.
“I think I’ll beat you with your own power,” Farmer shouted back. Blue fire lashed out from his side, tangling itself around the claw that was flying at Daeggan.
Tunstall popped out of the thin gap we had used. He grabbed Daeggan and pushed Gareth and me toward the barns that lay to our right. “The girls will hold the soldiers—they’ve backed into a house they can defend,” he said, his voice rasping as we raced for the buildings. “Farmer has the mages. Our duty is the prince.”
I said nothing. Tunstall was a good Dog, even a great one, but I had always thought that, forced to a choice between Sabine and duty, he would choose Sabine. He had confused me.
He must have guessed what I was thinking, because he glanced at me and laughed. “She said if I didn’t go with the prince, she’d never see me again!”
He ran past a couple of sheds and into a horse barn with Daeggan under his arm. I spared a look at Farmer. The length of ribbon that he held blazed in five different colors as thin wisps of smoke wrapped around his face. Ironwood was shrieking spells as Dolsa and Orielle shaped magic with their hands. “Gods, take care of Farmer,” I whispered, and ducked into the barn behind Tunstall.
He’d found the place where the mages and soldiers had stashed their mounts while they waited for us. When I lit one of the lanterns, I saw that every mount was saddled and bridled, waiting for its master. I looked among them, trying to spot any who wouldn’t mind two complete strangers as riders. I’d learned through bitter experience that not all horses welcome folk they don’t know.
“Cooper!” Tunstall called. He’d kept my stone lamp and was waving it to show me his location. He and Daeggan already had two horses by the reins. They submitted to him as if they were those he’d ridden this far on the Hunt.
Quickly I doused my lantern and ran to Daeggan and Tunstall, Gareth right behind me. I mounted the closest horse and let my partner hand up the prince, settling the lad in front of me on the saddle. It might be a little more awkward than having him on my back, but this way I could grip him with my arms if need be. He was too small to ride alone. I wished I had something to wrap around him to bind him against me.
Tunstall mounted the other horse and swung Daeggan up behind. As the lad tossed my stone lamp back to me, Tunstall clucked to the horse and rode to the rear of the barn, where the back doors stood open.
Before we left the building, Tunstall said, “As fast as we can, Cooper, onto the trail leading to Prachet and along the cliffs. Southward takes us right in front of those mages.” He glanced at Pounce, who stood in the open doorway. “We may be leaving you behind, old friend.”
Tunstall leaned forward in the saddle and lashed his mount with the ends of his reins. Off he galloped, Daeggan clinging to his back. I nudged my mount, who was all too happy to follow the galloping horse.
In the darkness Tunstall was sound more than sight, though the fires cast by the mages gave us rippling, flashing lights of many colors. Tunstall had a good lead, but my own horse was smaller and faster. We were also a lighter load, Gareth and I. We passed Daeggan and my partner a couple of yards before we reached a streamlet that ran across the road. My mount splashed through it eagerly, but behind us I heard a dreadful sound like a horse’s fall.
“Go!” Tunstall shouted as I looked back. He was struggling to get the horse on its feet. I saw no sign of Daeggan. “The animal is fine—we’ll catch up!”
I obeyed. I had promised the heartbroken young mother back at the Summer Palace that I would bring her son home.
I glanced at the village. Lamps were being lit in a couple of brave souls’ houses. Farmer wove the colors of his enemies’ magics as the other mages launched their spells at him. The weaving lit the sky where he battled. We had to get out of view before anyone saw us. Achoo had already trotted several yards ahead and was waiting for us.
Then I heard a scream from the south—not a human scream, but a scream I knew well. I’d heard it on the road, when the warhorse Drummer and his partner Steady protected Sabine. I looked down for Pounce but he was nowhere to be seen in the dark.
No, I did not interfere, he replied from wherever he was. Those horses killed everyone who tried to stop them and took off. They knew their lady was in danger. Those mages down below helped when they left the castle gate open. That Macayhill horse magic is stronger than even Farmer knows.
Feeling my heart weigh several pounds less, I urged my mount up the next steep part of the trail. When I glanced at the valley again, I saw Drummer and Steady gallop down the southeastern trail past Farmer and into the village. If Sabine was still alive, her horses might turn the fight for her. My man stood in the field before his enemies, a rim of sparkling blue fire around his big body. He held up what looked to be a hoop of stars. It was his embroidered ribbon, pulled tight between his hands.
My horse stumbled. I concentrated on my ride and the ground, pulling the animal upright with an apology. I’d let it drift into the rockier earth at trailside. That was stupid. By the time we reached the height of the cliff’s edge, the poor creature had slowed from a gallop to a limping walk. I guided the horse into the grass and dismounted. She—it was a mare—had picked up a stone in her right forehoof. Achoo sniffed the mare’s nose as I searched for the hoof pick in a pack on her saddle. She seemed calmer when I started working on the hoof by the light of my lamp, perhaps because Achoo distracted her. The stone came out easily, but we would not be galloping for a long time.
Pounce joined us then. Together we three walked and Gareth rode as we moved on slowly, up along the cliff. I’d found a couple of apples in the horse’s pack. I gave her one for being so good about my demands and another to Gareth.
“Are we going to escape?” he asked softly, looking at the apple.
I have never been good at lying to children. “I don’t know,” I told him. “We have a long road ahead.”
“Do you help slaves escape all the time?” he inquired, taking the apple.
“No. I hunt criminals.” I shone my light ahead briefly. The trees grew close to the trail here, which was worrisome. I was on my own if there were any bandits fool enough to think they might find someone worth robbing on this stretch. No, not entirely alone. I had Pounce and Achoo.
“When I am—when I am big,” the little boy said, still avoiding the words that meant he was a prince who would be king, “I am going to help escaped slaves. And when you take me to my papa, I will ask him to do so.”
“Very good, Gareth,” I said. They would tell him that he did not understand how the world spun, that slavery had always been with us. How would the work get done without slaves? they would ask, and, he did not want to make the great nobles angry, did he? He would reach manhood believing those things, like all the rich. Let him have his dream of changing the world for now. I wasn’t going to be the one to shatter it.
“You don’t believe me, but I will do it,” he told me. “You’ll see.”
“I will, I hope,” I replied. That was certainly the truth.
We had walked for a short time longer when I heard a lone horse on the trail. Quickly I drew our mare into the trees, Achoo and Pounce following me. I tied the horse far enough from the open that she would not walk out into it by accident. “Stay here, Gareth,” I whispered as I helped him down. “Don’t come out, no matter what happens. Achoo, jaga,” I ordered. She would keep him in their hiding place.
Then I stepped out of the tree cover. From there I recognized the shape of the rider against the starlit sky.
I gave the double click Tunstall and I used as a signal. When he drew up, he looked around, not seeing me in the shadows by the trees. I unveiled my stone lamp a little so we could look at one another. Daeggan was not behind him on the saddle.
“Where’s the boy?” I demanded, coming a step or two closer. Everything about this meeting felt bad to me. Mayhap it was the dark. I couldn’t see Tunstall’s face well with all the mud on it. His hands were washed clean, visible even with their tan. “Where’s Daeggan?”
Tunstall dismounted. “Cooper, I’m sorry. We fell at that stream—”
“I heard you fall,” I said.
“The boy.” There was sorrow in Tunstall’s deep voice as he approached. “He struck his head on a rock. I couldn’t bring him around, and then I found the break in his skull. We must get out of here. Where is the prince?”
He knew as well as I that we weren’t using the word throughout the Hunt. We did it to keep Gareth’s title from slipping out at the wrong moment. “We’re a long way from being able to call him that,” I reminded my partner. Sometimes he could be careless, but that was usually at the start of a Hunt.
Tunstall scratched his head. “You’re right. I fumbled it. Are you surprised, with the night we’re having? Look, girl, where is he? We must ride on, before the enemy knows he’s not in the village.”
“I’ve got him,” I said, rubbing the leather grip of my baton in my nervousness. “My horse went lame.”
He swore in Hurdik and slammed his fist into his palm, but it didn’t seem right. It sounded and looked playacted. Or mayhap by then there was little he could do that would make me easy in my mind. I was seeing traitors everywhere. “Give him to me. I’ll get him to safety. I’ll take him to Prachet and work something out from there.”
Then I saw the spreading bruise on the web of skin between his right thumb and finger, the mark of a hard stabbing, and I knew. Mayhap I should have seen it back at the barn. I had looked around the first horses we’d met when we entered it, trying to tell which was safe and which was not. Tunstall had gone straight to the back, straight to those two mounts. It was the only slip he’d made apart from that fresh bruise. Even his tries to keep Daeggan from coming with us just looked like he wished to spare the lad a dangerous trip. And I had said to let him come. I had signed Daeggan’s death warrant.
“There’s a war party between us and King’s Reach now,” he said rightfully. “Give the boy to me, Cooper. We’re wasting time.”
“I have a better idea,” I said. “Give me your horse. I ride lighter. You can help Sabine. Gareth and I will meet you at King’s Reach.”
Always before in our Hunts Tunstall had agreed to do what made the most sense. Not this time. “You’ll never make it!” he snapped. “Have you forgotten you’re but a leather-badge Dog? And Sabine will be fi—” He stopped, staring at me, while I nodded.
“She’ll be fine because those guards have orders to keep her safe,” I said as I took out my baton. “Nomalla, too? Or did her father wash his hands of her?”
“You’ve gone mad,” he said flatly. “You finally cracked.” His hands rested on his belt easily. He’d left his horse to crop grass, its reins hanging so it would not move.
I shook my head. “You killed Daeggan because he was in your way. You couldn’t get Farmer’s bags stolen on the road—Drummer and Steady saw to that—so you settled it with your new masters to have the wayhouse and Farmer’s extras burned, while you and Sabine got out just in time. Why? You owe me that much.” I drew my long knife with my left hand. I also thanked the gods that Tunstall’s pretending to be one of us had meant he’d had to bring our weapons when Sabine or Nomalla recovered them. I would have been drowning in scummer without my belt, its weight of weapons, and my arm guards.
“I don’t want to kill you, Beka. You’re like my daughter,” he said quietly. “But don’t you see? These people will win. I want to be on the winning side.”
“What will you tell Sabine when you—win?” I demanded, waiting for an opening.
“I’m doing this for Sabine!” he roared suddenly and charged, his baton almost magically in his grip. I dodged and struck sidelong, aiming for his left elbow. I had to go for his joints. He was vulnerable in his joints, where all the years, all his fights, and all the broken bones had added up.
I missed and his left kick took me dead in the right hip, knocking me down. I rolled, my knife held out so I wouldn’t cut myself. He lunged in to stomp me with that kicking, booted foot, but I was already lurching to my feet. I’d made it onto the trail.
“What will you say when you come back without me or Gareth?” I demanded, moving sideways, my eyes on the center of his body. I’d see the first twitch of movement there. He had not taught me that, but he’d taught me never to forget it. “Them’s your orders, right? Kill me and the lad? The lad dies, his parents die, and the lords’ hands are clean?”
“I’m not making you do scummer!” I cried. “It’s greed, because it can’t be cowardice—”
I knew he’d move if he thought he had me talking. He did, coming at me on the right, his baton in his left hand. He liked to fight left these days, with his right shoulder aching more and more. I blocked his baton with mine, lunged in, and got his knee in my belly. We went hilt to hilt on our knife hands. I collapsed against him with my shoulder up in his armpit and dug in with my bare feet, fighting to keep his knife hand occupied. Inside his right arm as I was, he could do naught with his baton but hammer at me weakly with the butt.
I rammed my baton into the upper half of his belly. Then I jumped back. I wasn’t fast enough. His knife came down and cut me from ribs to hip, a long, thin, nasty slice that slashed my clothes, though not my belt.
We backed off, trying to get some air. I cut a strip from my tunic, watching him try to catch his breath. I’d driven my baton as far up into his lungs as I could go. He was wheezing from it, though he still kept knife and baton pointed my way. Clumsily I tied the strip around the upper end of my cut, my shoulder and collarbone. I tried to calculate how long it would be until I’d bled so much I couldn’t stand.
“You do this for Sabine? She’ll gut you as soon as she finds out!” I snapped.
“She won’t know!” Tunstall wheezed. “No one will tell, lest I give out they were in a conspiracy to murder royal blood. Soon enough Baird will be king, I Lord Provost.” He took up a small flask at his hip and drank, his eyes watching me steadily. It was mead, to numb his pain. He sounded better when he said, “They’ll say they were impressed by my work on the Hunt. I’ll tell her I saved money from old bribes and invested it in trade. I’ll be almost good enough for her. We can marry.”
“She doesn’t want to marry,” I reminded him. I reached for a handful of dirt, but he stepped closer with his baton. I had to back up. I needed to think of something, but what? I didn’t want to kill him. I couldn’t. But he had betrayed the law we served. He had betrayed that little boy, who had done naught to deserve his last days of hunger, cold, and whippings.
“She says she don’t want to wed,” Tunstall replied. “She says it to spare my feelings. But she would do it if I had a place at court. If I had money.” He came straight at me this time. He gave me the high stroke we’d practiced so often in the yards and I countered it. Middle stroke, low stroke. His knife was out to the side, ready to block mine. He struck with all his strength even while he used practice blows. He toyed with me, and I knew it. He knew my ribs were hurting, that I was losing blood. Every time he smacked that baton down on mine, the shoulder ached more. Worse, the contempt of what he did lashed me like the torturers’ whips. This was Tunstall!
I took a tiny step closer. He had to close his elbow up a little to make his next stroke. “You’re getting weak,” he told me. “I’ll do it quick—”
He was older and tough. I was young and desperate. I rammed him in the sack with my foot, jamming my blade into his knife arm and the top of my head into his chin. He dropped his knife, but he used his leg to sweep my feet from under me while he grabbed my braid. He yelped and let go when the spikes bit into his palm.
The back of my head was on fire. I fell on top of him as he got his baton arm under my chin and yanked my head up. He meant to choke me or break my neck, but he’d forgotten my arm guards. Rather than take time to pull at the arm around my throat, I let one of my hands fall. With it I drew a long, flat knife from my arm guard and shoved the blade clean through the heavy muscle of his left forearm. Gritting my teeth, I wrenched it all the way around.
He grunted and let me go to yank the knives from his flesh. I scrambled halfway up, but again he grabbed my braid, at the end this time. I lifted myself as high as I could go, raising my arms as I gripped my baton two-handed. With all my strength I slammed my lead-cored baton down on Tunstall’s oft-broken knees.
He bellowed in agony and released me, trying to sit up with legs that would not work. To be certain, weeping now, I struck his knees a second time.
I did not dare nap tap him. The healers in Corus had been very clear. Another good blow on his head would kill Tunstall. I fumbled in the pouch on my belt that was supposed to hold hobbles, but found none. I glanced at him and saw that he’d started to roll toward the cliff.
Limping—he had kicked me at some point right on some torturer’s lump—I caught him by the back of the tunic and dragged him away from the trail. He fought to reach me over his head until I dropped him and stood on the arm that bled the most. He lay back, tears rolling into his hair and ears, as I stripped off his belt. I winkled his buckle knife out of its hidden sheath and tossed it over the cliff. The strangling cord followed it. I could not trust him not to hang himself. I used my own knife to cut up his tunic, first to tie his hands in front of him, then to bandage the knife wounds in his arms.
I could only stare at him. “I’m not a killer, Tunstall. I’m a Dog—remember? You taught me how to be a Dog. We don’t kill. We hobble and we let the magistrates decide.”
“You know what they’ll do,” he said, trying to reach the cliff. It must have been agonizing with the pain in his knees, but he would not stop.
“Mattes.” The voice was Sabine’s, raw and broken. “Is it true?”
He started to roll cliffward, not daring to face her. How could I hate him and pity him at the same time? Feeling dizzy, I went after him and seized the back of his tunic. My right hand lost the grip.
“Here.” Nomalla had come out of the shadows on the trail leading a horse. A cut on her forehead had bled on her face and dried, giving her a dark half mask. She took a rope from her saddlebag and looped it around Tunstall’s chest, slipping it under his hands and arms, ignoring his face. Fixing it in a knot at his back, she then looped it around her mount’s saddle horn and dragged Tunstall to a tree on the far side of the trail. There she tied him, wrapping the rope around him and the tree several times before she secured it with hands that shook.
Then she spat on him.
She looked at me. “We heard most of it. We were afraid to interrupt and risk your getting hurt.”
My dizziness was worse. The bandage I had put around my shoulder was soaked with blood. “Just you two?” I asked.
Sabine and Farmer rode forward. Sabine’s muddy face showed tear tracks. Farmer’s hair was all on end. His tunic was gone. He passed his horse’s reins to Sabine and dismounted with a wince, then limped over to me. “She’s bleeding,” he called to Sabine. “That horse you’re riding—it was Dolsa’s. There should be medicines in the saddle pack.”
“The prince?” Nomalla asked. I glared at her as I leaned on Farmer. I did not trust her any more now than before. Perhaps even less.
Sabine came over with a small pack in one hand, the riding horses, Drummer, and Steady trailing her. “You should have seen Nomalla fight,” she told me. “Her father’s men cursed her with every swing. You could have learned a word or two. And I too would like to be certain of the boy’s well-being.”
Farmer picked me up, wincing. “We’ll all go together,” he said firmly.
This way, Pounce said, a black spot in the grass. Would you hurry, Farmer? Achoo and I are really quite concerned. It’s only because she was ordered to stay with Gareth that Achoo didn’t come out to fight herself.
“Good girl,” I whispered. My shoulder hurt. I faded in and out. I remember that Nomalla surrendered a saddle blanket for me to lie on. Sabine gave me a drink of some liquid that set my insides on fire. I slept.