yet recorded in my memory
When I woke in the morning with the sun near ten of the clock, I was surrounded by sleepers. Farmer lay at my side, snoring lightly. Nomalla and Sabine had taken blankets from three more of our stolen horses and slept on them nearby, Sabine with one arm wrapped around Gareth. Pounce and Achoo slept with them.
The horses were picketed nearby. Next to Drummer, who would have announced it if anyone came near who was not Sabine, was Tunstall. He looked gray and old in his bonds. Someone had put wooden splints on both of his legs. I suspected Farmer. Kora always says that mages are selfish at bottom, which made Farmer the exception who proves the rule.
Slowly, clutching the tree near me, I got to my feet. Every move was an ache. Keeping as silent as I could, I hobbled out into the long grass between forest and trail. The dew was still on it, the cool ground a blessing to my poor feet. I was used to running barefoot, not fighting. At the trail, I passed through something like a gauzy curtain. I’d wager that Farmer had found sommat in Dolsa’s bags to hide us.
When I turned, the forest looked normal as could be. There was no sign of seven horses or their riders, and no sound of some riders’ snores.
I thought I heard thunder, but after a Hunt plagued by rain, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Slowly I walked to the cliff’s edge. By the time I reached it, I realized the boom was too regular to be thunder. It was the steady heartbeat of battle drums.
As I gazed into the valley, I heard someone patter across the trail. I glanced back. Gareth was awake. “Did you tell Lady Sabine where you were going?” I asked. My voice was gravelly, as if I had a cold coming on.
“She said something and went back to sleep,” Gareth replied. “I believe she wished me to stay nearby.” He tucked his hand into one of mine. “Where must we run to next?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Mayhap things have changed.”
We looked down at armies as they circled Halleburn. They were too far distant for me to see their banners.
“Are they for us or against us?” asked the little old man.
“My work is to assume that they are against us until your parents or Lord Gershom order me otherwise,” I told him. “We’d best wake the others.”
Gareth clung to my hand for a moment. “You will stay with me?”
I knelt and hugged him like I’d hugged my little brothers when they were his size. “Until I give you to your mother like I promised her, I will stay with you,” I told him.
By the time I had brought the others to see what was happening in the valley, mages were attacking the walls of Halleburn. Some of their fires only scorched the walls, unless they chanced to hit a window. Then the colored blaze disappeared inside. Some blew chunks from the stone.
Nomalla stood on the cliff, her hands planted on her hips. “I think it’s safe to say they aren’t on Father’s side,” she said coldly, as if she did not care about the outcome. She’d taken off her armor last night. Now she looked to be a weary lady of Sabine’s years, dressed in a sweat-stained quilted pink tunic and gray breeches. “There’s a trail near the tunnel we used. It goes down the cliffside. I could get closer that way, see who’s out there.”
“I have a better idea.” Farmer had stopped to pick up a saddlebag with the letter D prettily sewn on it in pearls. He’d opened it up while the rest of us stared wearily at the battlefield. Now he waved a mirror the size of both of my hands, framed in gold. “Dolsa has given us her scrying mirror.”
That made me ask, “What did you do with her?”
The two older mots also looked at him. “That’s a good question,” Sabine murmured. She looked as if the gods had ground her to meal since she’d learned the truth about Tunstall. Her eyes were red from silent weeping.
“I left her in that pasture with the others,” Farmer replied, inspecting the mirror back and front.
“Locked up in ice like you did Elyot?” Nomalla asked warily.
“No, no. I improvised with those three,” Farmer said. Standing in the sunlight with no tunic on, his chest and back covered with bruises and lash marks, his face cut and swollen in spots, he still looked wonderful to me. “I left them sunk into the pasture up to their chins,” Farmer continued between puffs of air as he covered the mirror with steam from his own mouth. “I drained off their power. Orielle seemed concerned that the cows might step on them. I noticed an anthill nearby, but honestly, what can any man do about ants?” He sat cross-legged on the ground and passed his open palm over the mirror. “At least now they can wait to be taken in charge, before enough magic returns to them that they can do more damage.”
“Korpita, Lisbethan, and Hannalof,” Nomalla said, identifying their devices. “They have to have come on at fast march, but how did they know?”
“I reached Cassine while they were taking us to Halleburn,” Farmer said quietly. “I used a hole in the power that was supposed to keep me captive.” He looked up at me and smiled. “I don’t really need a scrying tool to communicate a single word, and that one plainly got through.”
“What word?” I asked, curious.
“Halleburn. She was waiting for news of where I was and if I needed help,” Farmer explained. “That I sent only one word, when she forever accuses me of chattering, told her I was in trouble.”
The image in the mirror shifted to troops on the lake’s southwest side. “Those are King’s Reach colors on the biggest contingent,” Sabine murmured. “Gerry, Fenrigh, Susha. Quicker for some of them, perhaps, because they could use the rivers. Goddess bless us, it’s as if the realm has declared war on Halleburn.”
Farmer looked up at her. “Halleburn started it. Look at this. It’s the King’s Reach banner.”
The mirror blurred, then cleared. A handsome young squire in gold and purple rode beside an ominous-looking cove all in armor. The squire carried a banner pole with two flags on it. The lower one was that of the Reach, double towers framing an upright sword, both in gold, on a purple field. The upper banner was the silver sword and crown of Tortall on a bright blue field—the flag of the kings of the realm. These warriors had come at the king’s request.
“I want a look at Queensgrace and Aspen Vale,” Farmer replied quietly. Nomalla went silent.
An image came into the mirror, a castle in flames, surrounded by the men in the maroon and ivory of the realm’s army. “So much for Aspen Vale,” Sabine murmured.
“How can you say that?” Nomalla demanded hotly. “They’re of our rank, they—”
“Traitors,” Sabine told her in a voice like ice. “Or will you sanction child murder now?”
Nomalla looked down and away from Sabine and straight into Gareth’s eyes. “I was the one they tried to murder,” he told her. “And the wicked man killed Daeggan.”
I picked him up and balanced him on my hip, in case Nomalla was actually having second thoughts. I wasn’t sure. “They didn’t even have the sack to kill this lad clean,” I reminded her. “They were killing him day by day, holding off feeding him, then beating him.”
Tears overflowed Nomalla’s eyes. “I didn’t know,” she said, and knelt before the prince. “I pledge my blood and service to you in repayment, Your Highness. Whatever you command of me, if you demand my life, I will give it to repay any small measure of the hurt my family has done to you.”
“I am a slave,” Gareth said, looking at her. “You shoved me once because I was in your way.”
“Anyone want a look at Queensgrace?” Farmer asked cheerfully. He broke the ugly tension between my lad and Nomalla. She turned, still on her knees, for a look at the mirror.
He looked me straight in the eyes. “That will be hard.”
“The harder the goal, the more important it is,” I said, just as I’d told my little brothers that if they wanted to ride the horses, they were going to have to muck out the stables first. “You’re a clever lad, aren’t you?”
“My tutors say I unnerve them,” he replied. “What is Farmer looking at?”
I bent over Farmer’s shoulder with Gareth still in my arms. The army, with siege engines, encircled Queensgrace Castle. “Do you remember this place?” I asked Gareth. I was remembering the Butterfly Puppies, the cooks Iris and Fay, the lady-in-waiting Lewyth, and even sour-faced Cattran. What would become of them?
“Linnet,” Gareth whispered. “And the others. Are they going to die?”
“If the castle surrenders now, the slaves will be taken and sold, I think,” I told him quietly. “The servants will work for the new lord, if they wish. Most of the ladies and squires will return to their families, if they had no part in taking you. My lord and lady go to prison, and any who helped them.”
“What if the castle doesn’t surrender?” Gareth asked.
“Then the army attacks,” Nomalla said. “And they attack until the castle does surrender.”
“Let’s hope the castle surrenders,” I told the lad. I hugged him close, ignoring my aches, as the mirror blurred again. When it cleared, it showed us the army on the causeway below, armed with a catapult.
“You asked to see the gate,” Farmer told Nomalla.
“He’s destroyed our house,” Nomalla whispered. “Father and his ambition.”
We heard a roar below and went to see what had happened. Catapults had struck the wall together, driving gaps near the top, while the one on the road to the castle had been loosed. Whatever the stone was made of, it had smashed through the gate, leaving plenty of room for the knights and soldiers to attack. Sabine put her arm around Nomalla’s shoulders as the other lady knight wept.
While everyone watched the fighting in the lands of the three traitorous households, there would be no one to see me weep if I checked on Tunstall. Nobody would call me weak-hearted if I found him something to eat among the packs stolen by Sabine, Farmer, and Nomalla. I should have killed him or let him kill himself the night before. It would have been easy then, when my blood was up and I could only think of the many dead, Rats and innocents, he’d left in our trail. Today I was remembering all that he’d taught me and the way he scratched his head when he was thinking. I was remembering all the good meals we’d had together, and all the Rats we’d hobbled. The thought of taking him to execution was tearing at me.
Farmer had removed the seeming of invisibility from our hiding place. I stepped among the trees and took a deep breath, then sucked up my courage to approach the tree where the horses guarded him. Drummer stepped aside when he saw me. I thought he’d remembered Sabine’s instructions at the wayhouse stables, but then I saw Pounce come to put his nose up for Drummer to sniff. It was probably just that I had the constellation along.
In the tree shadows Tunstall looked to be asleep. “Tunstall?” I called softly. “Wake up.” He did not stir. “Tunstall?” I walked around the back of the tree to make certain his bonds were still tight, then hunkered down at his side. When I touched him, his head did not move. I tried to lift his arm—his wrists were bound in front of him—but I could not. I could not stir his legs, either. He was fully locked in death.
I heard the flapping of wings. The wood pigeon settled on Tunstall’s bound arms. I scrabbled in my pouch, but had naught in the way of pigeon food. In the end Pounce brought me a piece of bread from somewhere.
“You don’t have to feed her, you know,” Tunstall’s voice said from the air. “She will stay until I say what I must.”
“Feeding them makes me feel better,” I replied, looking down to break up the bread into pigeon-size bites. They can’t manage big pieces. “Say what you must, then, will you?”
“I only wanted to be worthy of her,” he told me. “By the time I got to understanding that meant betraying you, I was in too deep.”
“Me?” I asked bitterly. “What of Lord Gershom? What about Goodwin?”
“One day, lass, you’ll be faced with such a choice,” he told me. “It won’t seem so easy then.”
“Who are you lying to now?” I asked him. “Me, or yourself?”
For a moment I thought he’d gone while the bird hopped over to peck at the crumbs. Then he said, “Me. I lie to me.”
“When did it happen?” I demanded. “When did they buy you?”
“Cooper, I told you. I told all of you. They took me aside the night of the banquet at Queensgrace,” he explained. “Seeing where we sat in that dining hall while she was up above us, knowing they wanted her to marry the prince, all that made me agree when they gave me their offer. I was tired of forever being placed apart from her.”
“And you settled the bill, or started me along the path to settling it, Cooper. The chill of the night and the weakness from my hurts, that finished it, but you put me on the path to your god.” He sighed. “Tell her I love her and beg her forgiveness, Cooper. And I love you and Goodwin. The pair of you have always been my true sisters.”
He was gone for good this time. It helped to know he’d died of the chill and shock, not any direct blow from me. I’d meant to write it up as battle shock and the cold. There’s no good to be had from anything else. It was better than a traitor’s execution.
It was Farmer and Achoo who came to find me sommat later. Farmer held me as I gave the others the news. Sabine went to see for herself and spent a bit of time there. She had done some thinking when she returned to us.
“The plot is not ended,” she announced grimly as we all watched the battle below. “We may be safer, our enemies may be in disarray, but there are still miles between us and the Summer Palace, and there will be soldiers to pass. Lad, you must pretend to be a commoner for now. We’ll call you Gary, is that well enough?”
The lad nodded shyly. “As long as I stay with all of you,” he said. “Not strangers.”
I was kneeling beside him. At this I slung my arm about his shoulder. “We won’t leave you until you are safe with your parents,” I told him. “Our word on it.”
“I’ll accompany you,” Nomalla said, turning away from the noise and sights below. “You need at least one other warrior between here and there. And I can’t watch this.” We all knew that she meant the assault on her home.
“But we need to get out of here. I want to ensure that these horses do not belong to the villagers,” Sabine explained. “If they do, I’ll get some from the army, but I’d as soon not call their attention to us.”
Farmer looked at me. “I think it’s a good idea,” I said, my mind on the body in the woods. Farmer nodded to Sabine.
She and I went into the woods to fetch the horses we’d taken from the village. I made a string of them while Sabine knelt by Tunstall’s body. She soon came to saddle Steady. As we worked, Nomalla joined her and me, saddling another horse for herself. Once she was mounted, Sabine took the string of borrowed horses in hand. She and Nomalla rode off to the village.
Farmer and I watched them ride away. “I’m going to find Daeggan,” Farmer told me. “I’ll bring him back here. We’ll need to find a way to dig graves. We can’t take them with us.”
As he strode away, Pounce leaned against my leg. Leave the graves to Achoo and me, he said, whacking me with his tail. You need to rest those bruises and cracked bones.
“What can you do?” I demanded, following him and Achoo into the tree cover. “Graves must be deep. It’s not like Drummer can help, you know.… ” I stopped talking. Raccoons, pine martens, foxes, wolves, and beavers were busily digging in a clearing near where we’d kept the horses and Tunstall.
Friends, Pounce informed me.
By the time Farmer returned with Daeggan’s poor corpse, the animals had finished a grave that would fit the boy and were halfway down a larger one for Tunstall. Before Sabine and Nomalla returned with several more horses than they’d left with, Farmer and I had placed our dead in their graves.
The mots had also brought shovels. After I’d said words over Tunstall and Daeggan, they filled in the graves. Then they thanked the creatures who’d dug them. The animals had waited until the burial was over before leaving. Pounce told us they hadn’t been sure that shovels could do a proper job in filling the holes.
Then we prepared to ride out. “I don’t understand,” Farmer said as he saddled his horse. “They’re not too well off in that village, I remember it from last night. I don’t understand why they would give you permission to take valuable horses. The owners were criminals—they’ll be allowed to keep them.”
Nomalla smiled thinly. “They kept more than they gave us, that’s why. And before we got there, our enemies hurt some of their people. They thought a few horses was the least they could do.”
The villagers wanted no more part of the events of the night before, be it housing the enemy’s mounts or keeping custody of the mages trapped in one of their meadows. When we rode back down the path, they stopped us long enough to give us supplies and to ask when we were going to take their enemies away.
I could not believe what I saw in that meadow.
“Get me out of here! There are insects on me!” screeched Orielle, who had once pretended such care and concern for the queen. None of the traitor mages could even move their heads.
Sabine rode over to the fence and looked at her. “I can change that, but you won’t like what I change your situation to,” she said gently. Orielle went white under the dirt and cow dung that blotched her face. “I thought not,” Sabine remarked. “You may wait here until the Earl of King’s Reach sends mages to take charge of you. I asked one of the villagers to carry a letter to him. Of course, it will be all day for the messenger to find the earl, since he’s busy assaulting Halleburn just now. I hope you don’t mind a touch of sunburn.” She turned her mount and rode on.
“Don’t look at me,” Farmer said to them as we passed the mages by. “Sabine’s in charge now.”
Dolsa screamed, “What did you do with our power, you lowborn cur?!”
Farmer gave her his sweetest smile. “I took it. Every last drop. I’ll put it to far better use than you did.” He looked at Ironwood. “Have you any blessings to give, before we turn you over to the Crown magistrate?”
Ironwood gave us a brief shake of the head. He was well and truly broken.
Farmer looked at Gareth, who rode on the saddle in front of me. “Lad, have you anything to say to these traitors? You are the one they harmed most.” Gareth too shook his head. “You’re probably right,” said Farmer. “They really aren’t worth talking to, are they?” Gareth smiled and shook his head a second time. “Even a four-year-old can see it,” Farmer told the air. On we went, leaving Dolsa and Orielle to screech behind us.
The village had seemed tranquil enough, but on the path between it and the Great Road, we were stopped five times by the army’s outposts. They delayed us so much that we had to make camp on the northern side of the Black Griffin Bridge. We had a few comforts, thanks to the guards on that side. They showed us to a clearing used often by other travelers. There was a small shed with a good supply of dry wood and kindling. We even had a stream where we could get water and bathe. The guards shared their ale with Farmer, Sabine, and Nomalla. I feared I would weep if I had spirits, so the lad and I drank water.
Two days later, Farmer shared the news from his evening’s scrying. Thanen had surrendered Halleburn Castle. Stripped of his greatest mages, under bombardment by royal mages as well as an army, and knowing his allies had already fallen, he leaped from the tallest height in the castle. The coward left his family and remaining allies to face the royal courts.
In the morning, traveling the gauntlet of outposts along the road to the fallen Queensgrace, I let Prince Gary ride with my companions. With room on my saddle once again, I began the long task of writing out my reports.