Indiçae Ar Beynday 3585
The rain fell light and cold, each droplet a little sliver of ice. Laiathal shrugged his shoulders and shivered. He’d left his overcoat at home and worn his best linen, all golds and yellows and fiery reds. As the cloth soaked up the rain, the brilliant colors faded. He’d wanted to shine as sunrise. Instead, he was a soggy ruin. He stamped his feet in an attempt to shake off some of the chill. His coat was all thin linen and delicate lace finery; it provided no protection at all. The rain soaked into his braid and dripped down his back. Only his eyes were dry.
Praise Welan, there wasn’t any mud. The ground was still hard from the night’s frost and the rain washed over the frozen ground as if it were stone. The water swept across the surface in great sheets, the rain breaking its surface into endless rings of overlapping ripples. In just a few weeks the New Year would arrive and green grass would spread under blue skies. But for now, ArDur held tight to winter and a slate gray sky covered the world.
Past Morning Bright, but still dark enough that he could only just make out the cluster of people around the open grave at the bottom of the hill. The rain reduced them to sexless shapes, silhouettes in black wool coats and wide brimmed hats. Two men and two women: the Prelate’s aging Doyen, Laithal’s own mother, Harin and Anielle. The smaller was Anielle. He knew her shape, but with the others he couldn’t make out which was which. One of them stretched an arm out over the grave. The arm withdrew and he caught a quick glint of metal. That would be his mother, dropping her rings into the grave. The shape next to her put its arm around her shoulders. Harin. The last, the Doyen, lifted an arm and swept it back and forth in a wide arc, a signal to the gravedigger.
The funeral, such as it was, was over.
He watched them go. The shape that was his mother stopped and turned back. Her head tilted up and he knew she was looking for him. She raised one hand, touched it once to her chest, once to her face and then stretched it out to him. He repeated the gesture. He couldn’t see her face and he hoped she couldn’t see his. He started down only after they had faded into the grey haze of mist and rain.
He reached the bottom, a slick mess of trampled dirt and old sod, in time with the gravedigger. He stepped to the grave’s edge and looked down at the bundled body that lay curled in the mud. Denied the expense of a pine box, the cheap woolen rags in which they’d wrapped his father’s body soaked up the rainwater like a sponge. Laiathal watched until the water pooled high enough to cover his mother’s rings. He shook his head and turned back to the gravedigger. He found a worn old haunch in the pocket of his ruined coat and handed it over.
He turned his shoulders into the wind as he left and didn’t bother looking back. It was a short walk back to the Toppled Cart, Anielle, a fire, and warmed wine, but he had other stops to make first.
Hours later and cold to his core, he reached the inn. His hand jittered and stuck in the air, for just a moment, as he reached for the door. He pushed it open slowly, as quietly as he could and stepped into the warmth and light. He and Harin had whitewashed the elare walls and scrubbed the red tile floor just last Beyana and after the haze and wet of the rain, he felt as though he had just stepped out of a bad dream. A bad and very wet dream. Harin would laugh at that joke; his mother would purse her lips, but that would be mostly to hide her smile.
They were there, of course, alone by the hearth. He met his mother’s stare and his stomach rolled. There would be no wan jokes tonight, even if he could get them out. She was twisting her penance beads with her jaw set tight and her lips drawn thin. If there was a hidden smile there, she’d buried it deep. He passed rows of rough hewn tables and collapsed as near the fire as he could get, keeping a table between himself and his mother. He was grateful for whatever warmth and comfort he could have tonight and so stayed silent. Besides, there was too much to say and he just didn’t have the words.
His mother, however, was rarely at such a loss.
“Fallen Gods! You’re wetter than I had feared. Take off those clothes now,” she dropped her long beaded string on the table and was at him in a heartbeat, pulling at his wet clothes.
Laiathal fought her hands as she pulled at his coat, but not too vigorously.
“It’s no use, son.” Harin cradled a cup of mulled wine in his hands, elbows perched on the table as he held the steaming cup close to his face. “She saw you go out this morning. She’s ready with a change of clothes.” Harin inclined his head at a set of dry, warm linens piled on the next table over.
Laiathal’s teeth chattered as he continued his protest, but rather even more feebly. The new clothes did look dry.
“I c-c-can’t change in he-he-hmmmph!” His shirt stuck over his head, the wet cloth covering his mouth.
“Don’t be silly.” His mother said, pulling the shirt free. “The room is empty.” She tugged at his breeches.
Harin chuckled. “You’re not putting up much of fight there, Lay. Go ahead and give in and get warm. You were a fool to go out like that in the first… ah… excuse me, Delia, my love?” He nodded to Anielle coming in from the kitchen with a tray of cured meats and olives.
Laiathal bent to cover himself, but his breeches were already halfway down his legs and he banged hard against the bench and fell face first to the floor. The wet linen twisted around his ankles and he wriggled like a fish in a net on the floor. Anielle bobbled the tray and barely managed to set it down on the nearest table before she gave in to the giggles and ran.
“Mother!” Laiathal wrenched himself up into a sitting position, pulling frantically at the sodden cloth.
His mother arched her eyebrows and pursed her lips, but she didn’t say anything as she grabbed the pile of dry clothes and handed them to her son. “Now change!”
Laiathal took the clothes warily, his eye on the kitchen door. Anielle was out of sight, but he could still hear her giggling. He looked back at his mother. “Could you turn around?”
“I’m your mother. Don’t be so proud. There’s nothing there I haven’t seen before.”
Laiathal looked form his mother to Harin and opened his mouth to protest but Harin held his hand up, palm outward and shrugged his shoulders. Laiathal resigned himself and changed as quickly as he could manage and when he had done buttoning his shirt he sat down across from Harin.
Harin grabbed the tray Anielle had abandoned and began slicing the meat.
“Have something to eat while you dry off, Lay. Wine too.”
Laiathal snatched a slice of the çecholhym belem and popped it into his mouth.
As his mother spread Laiathal’s wet clothes out on a nearby table to dry, she called out to the kitchen.
“Anielle, would you bring out another pitcher of wine? We’re all fully dressed now.”
His mother finished with the wet clothes and sat down next to her son as Anielle reappeared carrying a pitcher and two wooden goblets. Anielle smiled as she sat at the table, next to Harin and across from Laiathal. She poured from the pitcher and handed a goblet to Laiathal. The warm wine ran down his throat and he could feel the chill begin to fade. He grabbed at another piece of the hard, white sausage and popped it in his mouth.
Anielle took a sip from her cup. “Are you warm Lay?” she asked. “I knew it was cold, but I didn’t just how cold it must be until I saw you on the floor.”
She grinned and Harin laughed.
Laiathal blushed and scowled into his wine. He took a long drink and inhaled half of his swallow. Sputtering and coughing, he dropped his goblet and spilled wine across the table. Anielle shrieked in delight and the coughing turned to laughter. Anielle rose but Laiathal waved her away and mopped up the spill with the remnants of his soggy shirt. The linen was such a mess; the wine would make little difference now.
“Laughter is good after a funeral,” Harin said.
Anielle frowned and asked, “Why did you go out without a hat or coat? Surely you saw the clouds?”
“I d-didn’t.” Laiathal shook his head gently and looked at his mother. “I I wanted it t-to b-b-be like it was b-b-b-buh buh…” He stopped himself and took a deep breath.
He continued, “Before everything. He was so full of c-c-color and light.”
His mother sighed. “That was a long time ago.”
“I didn’t know him then,” Anielle said. “He wasn’t….” She shrugged. “The way you talked, he sounded mean.”
“He was,” Harin agreed. “He was a mean prick at the end. But debt can do that to a man. He wasn’t always that way.
“Hmph. You were a child then. You both were. And now look at you! Lay was a scrawny, knock-kneed boy with snot on his lip and his sleeve. And Anielle, my girl, you were just a baby; all big cheeks and fat legs. Now look at you.”
Laiathal didn’t need to look, but he did. He’d met her eleven years ago. She’d been two and he’d been eight. She’d been so tiny, so round. She’d been so beautiful. She still was.
Her forehead was high and her eyes were deep and brown. Her long hair was black as night and when she wore it down it reached to her waist. Now she had it tightly braided and coiled at the back of her neck and the curve of her shoulder, right there, just where it joined her neck, was bare. Her skin was the color of roasted almonds and her nose was wide and flat and regal. Her lips were full and rich and when she smiled, her eyes narrowed and glimmered as though there was fire inside her. She was smiling now, looking at him. Laiathal looked down into his cup and took a long sip of wine.
“I remember when we first came here,” his mother said. He’d lost the villa and had just sold the barge to Gavin. We were only here a Beyana when they arrested him.”
“Eleven years ago. It’s such a long time,” Anielle said.
His mother smiled. She reached across the table and put her hand in Harin’s. “Enough time to build a new life and bury an old one.”
Laiathal had been asleep in their rented room on the second floor when they’d come for his father. The shouting woke him and he’d crept out of the room to the landing at the top of the stairs. He got there in time to watch his father try to make a bargain of his wife.
“Take her, use her and leave me be!”
At the time, he hadn’t understood what his father meant, but he’d seen the look on his mother’s face. The captain had frowned hard and hit his father with his mailed fist. Delia had knelt beside her husband as he collapsed and Laiathal had watched her clean and dry her husband’s face even as he spewed obscenities and begged them to take her instead of him. He had watched as his father fought, crying and sputtering, as they dragged him out the door. He’d stood there, silent, still and shaking until Harin, wiping the blood from the floor had looked up. He’d meant to run, but he hadn’t. He hadn’t meant to stand there and pee himself, but he had. He’d meant to run, but his legs wouldn’t move and he just stood there, shaking in his piss until Harin reached the top step and took him in his arms. Harin had said nothing; just wrapped Laiathal in his arms and held him.
His father’s debt had been staggering. In the weeks after the arrest, angry creditors, betrayed business partners and provincial tax collectors came, one after the other, in an endless parade. They scrabbled with each other like vultures over a carcass. At the trial, Laiathal’s mother met her husband’s two other wives. His father had begged and pleaded for forgiveness with each of them in turn. He’d come to Delia last.
After the trial, after everything they owned had been seized, after they’d run out of coin and food and hope, Harin had asked them to stay. He was a widower with a tavern and a baby girl. He needed help and they needed a home. So they’d moved out of the inn, guest rooms were for paying customers, and into the loft above the stables. Delia helped care for Anielle and Laiathal stabled horses and served ale. So it had gone for four years. Until Laiathal had been old enough to apprentice and Harin had made a deal with the Veneret monks in the abbey at the edge of town. The monks sold Harin casks of their heavy brown and special bitter at a discount and Laiathal went to live with them.
He couldn’t really remember his father. Flashes were all he had. His father laughing in the garden. His father showering him with pretty coins in a warehouse. His father dancing at market on Midnday. His father shackled and bleeding and beaten. For eleven years, his father had been no more real to him than a villain in a story. For eleven years, his father had been no more than a brief pause in casual conversation. For eleven years, his father had been no more important to his life than any of the thousands of petty criminals and debtors in the world.
The afternoon Midnday rush had subsided and they’d all been laughing with the Donnegan brothers when a young man wearing the official red and white sash of the Sanidel Maudasad came in and stood awkwardly in the doorway stamping his feet.
“Hey there!” Berryl Donnegan had called out. “Close the door you Hiding fool. It’s cold out there!”
The young man shut the door. “My blindness,” he muttered.
“Welcome,” Harin said rising. “Don’t mind Berryl, he’s too drunk to feel the cold and too stupid to keep quiet. Come in, come in.”
“I am not drunk.” Berryl hiccupped. “It’s Perwyn that’s drunk.”
Harin touched his fingers to his heart and nodded at the visitor. “Welcome to the Toppled Cart. If you’re in for the market, I’m afraid everything is pretty well shut up for the night.”
The young man touched his fingers to his own chest and shook his head. “No. I’m… well, I got…” he turned and pointed out the door. “Outside, in the cart… it’s…. Well, that is, I got a package.”
Harin raised his eyebrows. “From your Lord?”
“My Lord?” The young man asked looking blankly at Harin. Then realization dawned on his face. He fingered his sash. “This? No, no.” He laughed. “No, not the Maudasad.” He lowered his voice and bent in close to Harin. “I’m just a driver. I’m come from the Sanidel gaol, they gave me this and told me to wear it. Official, they said.”
“Mmm. Who’s the package for?” Harin asked.
The driver looked past Harin to the rest of the room and lowered his voice. “It’s for a woman,” he said. “I was told to bring it to Delia that was married to the debtor, Daljem.”
He hadn’t lowered his voice enough.
Berryl stood up and bowed, slightly askew and wobbly. “Thank you madam for the ale and your company. Perwyn ‘n me will be upstairs now. It’s late and we’ve to be up early.”
His brother frowned, “No we don’t, Berryl. Them goats will keep just…”
Berryl smacked his brother on the side of the head and pulled him up off the bench. “Our blindness, missus. We’ll be gone.” He gave his brother a baleful look and pushed him toward the stairs.
“Get off me, Berryl, I can walk on my… ow. I’m going. I’m going.” He turned to Laiathal’s mother and bowed slightly as they passed Harin and turned up the stairs. “Best wishes, missus. Harin.”
Laiathal’s mother rose. “Sleep well Berryl, thank you Perwyn.”
She approached the young man. Laiathal and Anielle followed.
“I am Delia. What do you have for me from Daljem?”
The driver shuffled his feet and looked around the tavern. “It’s not so much from him….” He coughed and tugged at his sash.
Delia crossed her arms. “Come now, son. Out with it. Whatever it is, tell me. With luck, you’ve brought me the bastard’s bo….” Her eyes went wide and her hand rose to her mouth as the delivery boy’s face turned scarlet red.
“Oh, you have, haven’t you? You’ve brought me his body.”
She’d sent Anielle for coin and they’d given the boy six pieces of chaff. Then he, Harin and Laiathal had unloaded the body.
“Lay?” His mother waved her hand in front of his eyes. “Are you there?”
“I w-w-was think-k-k-king.”
“Thinking about Daljem?” Harin asked quietly.
Laiathal nodded. “T-t-trial. L-l- last time I s-s-suh… s-suh….” Laiathal stopped and took a sip of wine. After a moment he said, “saw him ali-ive.”
His mother took his face in her hands and kissed him on the forehead. “He was a bastard,” she said, looking him in the eyes. “He left us alone. What we did this morning, we should have done years ago.”
He nodded and pulled free from his mother. He finished the rest of his wine and reached for more. Harin took the bottle and poured for him.
“Your mother is right, you know. Your father died a long time ago.”
He shook his head and drained the cup in a swallow. He stood up from the bench and grabbed an andiron. He squatted in front of the hearth and poked at the fire.
Behind him they were quiet. He knew he was being rude, but he couldn’t help it. Standing on the hill in the rain, something inside of him had changed.
Anielle spoke first. “I’ll get more wine.” He could hear her skirts slide against each other as she stood. She walked by him, trailing her hand along his head as she walked by.
“Lock the door while you’re up, will you?” Harin asked. “We don’t need a surprise tonight.”
“You remember the trial?” His mother asked. “That’s when he died.”
Laiathal shook his head and tossed the andiron aside. He gazed back at the kitchen.
“Not so interested in brewing anymore?” Harin asked.
Laiathal shook his head.
Harin shrugged. “Tell her, then”
“Tell me what?” Delia asked.
Anielle returned with a full pitcher of spiced wine and Harin shook his head gently. “Not you. You need to tell Anielle, Lay.”
“Need to tell me what?” Anielle asked as she set the pitcher down.
The fire crackled and in the hearth. Everyone looked at him. He looked at the fire.
“I’ve g-g-got to g-g-g-go.”
He shrugged. No one said anything; they were all waiting on him to tell them why, to explain this thing, to tell them why he couldn’t stay, why he had to leave, but he couldn’t. How could he explain that he had to go because he wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t good enough? How could he explain that he’d looked into that muddy pit and seen his own sin reflected back at him?
“He l-left, so l-long ag-g-g-go. I was j-just a b-b-buh buh.” He stopped and took a deep breath, “little bo-o-oy. Now I’m a m-m-man.” He turned back to face them and took another deep breath. “Am I a b-b-brewer? A t-t-tavern k-kee-eep-per? Am-m-m I a-a f-f-f-fu-u-ucking m-monk-k?”
He looked at Anielle, and saw the tears in her eyes.
“I d-d-d-don’t w-w-want t-to h-h-hurt you. I l-l-l-l-luh luh luh” his face stretched tight with tension as he fought against his throat, “luh luh luh…”
Delia put her hand on his shoulder and he shrugged her off violently. The tendons in his neck stretched tight and spittle flew from his lips. He convulsed along with the stutter now, each stunted syllable wracking his body back and then forward. He fought with it, wrestled against it and closed his eyes. “Luh luh luh…” he balled his hands into fists and smashed the table, nearly spilling the pitcher of wine. “luh luh luh…” his voice rasped and his mouth tightened as he fought to get the word out. “Luh luh luh…” he was half choking now, the word literally dying in his throat each time he tried to force it out.
Anielle walked around the table and knelt next to him, taking his head in her hands. “Shh. Shh….” she brought his head close to hers and whispered to him, “I love you too.”
Laiathal wrapped his arms around her. He pressed her close and kissed her softly on the forehead. He felt his soul tighten into a knot as he watched her eyes fill with water. He touched his hand to her face and she pressed her cheek into his hand. He touched three fingers to his heart and then to his mouth and then to her mouth. She repeated the gesture, touching her fingers to heart and her lips and then to his lips and nodded. Her tears ran freely now and she threw herself into him, pressing herself into his chest and folding herself up into his long arms.
Laiathal stroked her hair and looked up. His mother was crying too. Harin filled his cup with more wine.
His mother shook her head, “No. You don’t go anywhere. You don’t leave.”
“Delia, he’s grown,” Harin said.
Laiathal opened his mouth to speak, but Harin held his hand up, palm outward to stop him. “Let me try, son,” he said.
Harin continued, “For eleven years, he’s had no home. No, Delia, he hasn’t. I love him as my own flesh, and I know that he loves me, but this isn’t his home, and neither is the abbey. He needs to build his own home.” To Laiathal, he said, “You’re leaving with Amerin tomorrow?”
Laiathal’s surprise showed and Harin smiled. “He was here before you. He told me you came to him this morning and asked to go. He guessed that you’d make your farewells there at the abbey and rode here ahead of you.”
Delia hung her head, “You knew about this Harin? And you said nothing?
Harin shrugged. “What could I do? What can I do? Amerin came to warn me, but it’s Laiathal’s choice; he’s of age. Your son is grown, Delia.”
“Don’t tell me about my son. You should have told me.” She turned on Laiathal. “You do not leave. You do not go.” Her voice cracked.
Anielle raised her head and Laiathal helped her stand.
“You do not leave. You do not go.” His mother said.
Laiathal stood and put his arms around his mother.
“You do not leave me too. You do not go,” she said. And her body shuddered with her sobs.
Laiathal held her until the shuddering stopped.
Indiçae Myr Merrihynday 3585
He shifted his pack from his left to shoulder to the right. Slogged a few more feet through the mud then shifted it back again. He pulled the rim of his pobremo down farther to shield his eyes from Welan’s glare and brushed idly at his leggings. His breathing was heavy and labored. He shifted his pack again. He hadn’t taken much, but it wasn’t the load of his pack that weighed him down. A knot had been twisted around his heart and he found it hard to breathe.
He needed to see Quorin. He didn’t want to go like this. What was it that Quorin had said?
“Say your piece and make your penance. The road is long and hard. You’ll feel the weight of your sorrow and your sin in every step.”
The old monk had spoken true. His steps were leaden with sin and sorrow and he trudged slowly up the road, each step an act of will. He needed absolution. He shifted his pack again. Welan burned hot and bright in the clear sky but the road was still muddy from yesterday’s rain. The hill was steep. By the time he reached the abbey, sweat covered his brow, his shoulders ached and the knot had closed tight.
The whole of the abbey was surrounded by a high elare wall, but the wooden gates were open, as they always were. The Veneret never shut their gates. Or their eyes. “We give peace to those we can and judgment to the rest,” Amerin told him on his first day. “The ale makes it easier.”
For the last five years, Laiathal had spent most of his late afternoons in this courtyard, sitting on the bentwood benches in the shade of the gnarled pines that grew along the East wall. He’d sit and read, or watch the monks practice their forms, or tend the wildflowers in the planting boxes that dotted the courtyard. The flowers had just begun to bloom this last Beyana and the light reds and pale yellows shone against the dusty browns and tawny ambers of the elare clay. But the vibrancy of the courtyard, usually a respite from the dark of the temple or the must of the brewery, was lost this morning; he had wrapped himself in misery and pulled the dark in close. He crossed the yard to the abbey proper, dropping his pack against the high stone monument at the center of the court.
The abbey smelled, as it usually did, of incense and dirt. Dark and quiet, the monastery swallowed change. In these halls, time moved in soft shoes and shuffled steps. Laiathal did too. He found Quorin where he always would; in the temple dusting the altar. Laiathal stopped at the door. He flipped his pobremo back and ran his hands over his head to flatten out his hair. He stood still and watched the dust float in the beams of light that fell from the high narrow windows. He stroked the hard polished bentwood of the rearmost pew, cleared his throat and sat heavily. Quorin grunted and shook his head. The old man adjusted his long white sash and made his way up the narrow aisle to Laiathal’s pew.
He offered Laiathal a little bag filled with roasted pine nuts spiced with chili pepper. From somewhere deep in the crimson of his robes, he produced a small bentwood bowl and they sat in silence for a few minutes, eating the spiced nuts.
Laiathal liked the temple. The dirt floor and the rough bare clay of the unfinished elare gave it a quiet calm. Quorin had long forbidden torches or candles in the temple and the only light came from the narrow windows set high in the vaulted ceiling that rose over the altar. The light filtered down through the thick crossbeams that ran across the width of the ceiling and spilled onto the rows of dark pews, scattered by the curves, bends and whorls of the bentwood.
When the bowl was full with empty husks, Quorin grunted and set it aside. He adjusted his shawl and fixed Laiathal with a stare.
Anielle hadn’t come down. He’d called up and she hadn’t answered. He’d called three times. He’d run up the stairs and pounded on her door and still she hadn’t answered. So he’d kissed his mother, clasped hands with Harin, and left.
The knot appeared when the door shut and it had tightened with every step. Every breath was a struggle. He had known it was going to be hard but he hadn’t counted on it being this hard.
The night had been good. Harin had snuffed the welcome light and barred the door. Anielle fed the fire and Laiathal fetched more wine. They’d stayed by the hearth, just the four of them, drinking wine and talking and crying and finally, late and after too much wine, laughing.
“Hedimehym he ola du,” Harin had said, rising. He’d taken his wife’s hand and she’d smiled.
“Zemhazaenym lethym,” she’d said, shaking her head. “We have been blessed; laughter is a good end. And it has been a dismal day.”
She’d cuffed Laiathal on his ear and gone with her husband. He and Anielle had wrapped themselves in blankets by the hearth and watched the fire die. As the last of the embers faded and the room fell into darkness, she’d rolled in his arms, put her hands to the sides of his face and kissed him. Long, slow and lingering. She’d looked into his eyes and then run from the room. He hadn’t seen her again.
“She k-k-kissed me.” He made a cutting gesture with his hand to indicate that nothing more had happened.
“That’s some small relief. From the weight of your shoulders I had feared worse. But still,” he thumped Laiathal in the chest with his knuckle. “The sin is here, in your heart.”
Laiathal nodded and closed his eyes. “I w-w-w-wanted h-her.”
“A sin of the heart, but not of the flesh. There is some small measure of redemption in that.”
Laiathal looked up into the old man’s eyes and saw that he meant his kindness, but Laiathal shook his head.
“S-she m-m-my s-s-s-suh….” He gave up and let the sibilant die.
“She is Harin’s daughter, not your father’s. But yes, you are of the same home. She is not your blood but she is your sister. You have betrayed Welan and sinned against the lowym ashorazem.“
Laiathal felt his heart contract. His chest felt tight and he forced in a deep, ragged breath.
“Leave today. Purge your sin with penance. Your lust, your intemperate desire and your father’s taint; these betrayals lie heavy in your soul. Go with Amerin. He will take you to the Maidenfaire. Make your penance and turn your face to the Sun. In time you will grow strong and forget these foul temptations.”
Forget Anielle. Forget her black braided hair, forget her skin, forget her bright, wide eyes and her smile. Forget her lips and the way she pressed into him. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He had to. He nodded but could not bring himself to look Quorin in the eye. His shame spilled in great unyielding waves that spread and caught like wildfire. He felt it burn. His father had died of petty debt. How could he hope to own a sin this great? He rubbed the back of his hands against his eyes.
Quorin put his hand on Laiathal’s head and muttered softly. “Edachym lewaza lopyquata Le”
Quorin smiled and took Laiathal’s hands. “We are all filled with shame, my boy. Penance will come, it just takes time.” He stood and adjusted his shawl. “Now, I am sure Amerin is waiting.”
Laiathal sat for a moment, his head bowed. Redemption didn’t feel as good as he had hoped it would. He knew he should stand and go to Amerin. But he couldn’t make himself do it. Standing would be the first step of his penance, the first action he would take to forget his life and his family, to put his childhood and his sins behind him. He sat in the pew for a moment, thinking of his mother, of Harin, and of course, of Anielle. Too many steps, too many doors, too many beginnings for the last day of the only life he’d ever known.
From the altar, Quorin seemed to hear his thoughts. “Amerin is waiting.”
He forced himself to stand. He cast one look back at the hard old man in white busy dusting his altar in the dark before he turned his back and left, taking up the load of his sin and his sorrow.
Amerin was waiting in the courtyard, astride his great dappled gray charger, Winter. Laiathal stroked the horse behind the ear and smiled.
“That your pack?”
“Then pick it up. You’re a child, leaving it in the middle of the yard like that.”
Laiathal nodded again and retrieved his pack from the base of the old memorial. He looked up at Amerin and arched his eyes, pointing at Winter.
“Aye. Perryn is fetching you a horse. Now be about your business.”
Laiathal grabbed his pack and squatted in the shade of the stone disc that rose from the pedestal. He undid the leather cord that held his bag closed and pulled out his chepacha saddle blanket.
“Delia weave that?”
Laiathal shook his head.
“Anielle did? She’ll be Delia’s equal soon.”
The blanket was one of Anielle’s best, a field of deep ochre emblazoned with Welan’s mark in deep gold and edged with leather and woven straw. Soft hemp and a tight weave made it functional as well as beautiful.
He folded the blanket and rummaged through the rest of the pack. His mother had packed too much. He wouldn’t need more than two shirts and a pair of breeches. He’d give the spares to Perryn. He smiled when he saw the little bundle of çeneras wrapped in corn husks. Harin must have snuck those in. He’d share them with Amerin on the road. He was shifting the rest of the contents to spread the weight when his fingers found a thin metal chain.
It was a necklace, a small silver pendant on a brass chain. A silver cast of Dancing Man. Anielle’s, a gift from her mother. A little thing, no more than a girl’s fancy, but Laiathal had never seen Anielle without it. She would finger it through her shift when she laughed, and play with it idly as she day dreamed by the hearth. He closed his eyes and ran his thumb over the figure, tracing the contours of Dancing Man’s bent back, flowing hair and tiny flute. The Dancing Man was luck, laughter, chance, joy and mischief.
The clop of horse hooves from the other side of the courtyard brought him out of his reverie and he opened his eyes. A token, a pendant, a sign… a test. He bent his head and pulled the chain over his head, lifting his long braid up and fitting the pendant under the chin strap of his pobremo and down his shirt.
Amerin was watching him. He waited for the admonishment. Amerin wasn’t the devout that Quorin was, but he was still Veneret. Amerin looked Laiathal in the eyes for a long moment but he said nothing.
“Master Amerin! High horse, high horse.” Perryn gave Laiathal a big toothless grin, dropped a brown leather saddle at Laiathal’s feet and shuffled his feet.
“Hey Lay! Hey Lay! Hey Lay!” He smiled.
“Thank you, Perryn, you can go,” Amerin said. “I think Brother Arredyl needs you in the kitchen.”
“Master Amerin! Merry Master!” The page grinned and handed the reigns over to Laiathal.
Laiathal gathered his extra shirts in a bundle and touched the boy on the shoulder, “W-wait. Here, for y-y-you.”
Perryn’s eyes went wide and he broke into a big, toothy grin.
“For me! For me! For me!” Perryn laughed and bowed his head low. “For me, hey Lay! For me, hey Lay!”
“Perryn, Master Arrewyn is waiting,” Amerin said.
Perryn knocked his chest with his hand and then brought it to his mouth. Laiathal repeated the gesture and Perryn scampered off. Laiathal watched him go and then looked at the horse. The horse hadn’t registered at first, but now Laiathal recognized her: Zia.
His surprise must have been evident because Amerin laughed as he said, “A gift from the Dret-A-Katerr, Lay. He wanted you to have her.”
She was a beautiful sorrel courser with both a hard, fast gallop and a relaxed, gentle amble: a rare and valuable combination, good for both short bursts and long rides. She was his favorite: smart, quick, and calm. He stroked her crest and scratched her forelock. Zia whinnied and nudged him gently. It would be good to have a friend on the road.
Laiathal threw his blanket over Zia’s back and grabbed the saddle that Perryn had left on the ground. After he’d attached his pack to the saddle and adjusted the spread of weight, he swung up into the saddle, fitted his hat onto his head and nodded to Amerin.
They walked the horses out the side gate, nodding to the few monks who were working in the west gardens and turned the horses down the road, away from town. They rode down the gentle west slope, away from the abbey and into the red rock canyon that would take them south to the twisting river. Just as the slope grew steeper, the four bells of Gonwyn’s rise rang out from the abbey behind them. Amerin raised his head and stopped his gray. The sun was high and bright and his face was hidden in the shadow made by the brim of his hat. Laiathal stopped beside him.
“I almost forgot.” Amerin reached back to one of two long staves bound to his saddle bags. He pulled on the end of a rope hitch and in one smooth motion, as the knot slipped and the staff rolled free; he snatched it up and tossed it to Laiathal. Laiathal caught the staff and began to tie it down to his own saddle bags.
“D-d-do you th-th-th-th-thu…” Laiathal paused. It was always worse in the heat. Quorin had once said that Welan could see his betrayals and that guilt made his stutter worse. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. He let it out slowly and said, “b-b-bandits?”
“No more than normal. I don’t think we’ll have any trouble. We won’t have much worth stealing until after we join with the Moon in Sanidel. But there’s no sense finding out we need them and you not having yours. We might as well keep up your training too; don’t tie it off.”
“We’ll run some drills while we’re fresh.” Amerin looked down the road and raised his hand. “Take that pear off the cactus without breaking the leaf.”
The plant was about 200 yards down and well off the road to the right. Laiathal nodded once and spurred Zia into a light trot. Halfway there, he took her into a canter and hooked the staff under his right arm, holding it like he would a lance. With fifty yards to go he lowered his body down to Zia’s crest, brought her into a full gallop and dipped the point of his staff low. He rode close to the cactus and at the last second turned Zia hard to the left. He let the pole slide back through his hand, gripping it tight only just before it ran out of his hand. He snapped the forward end of the pole up under his shoulder as he twisted his body in the saddle and brought the rear end of the staff around hard and fast in an outward, sweeping arc that ran down Zia’s right rear flank, continued out into space and finished over the horse’s head. The speed of the horse combined with the twist and force of his torso blow made the staff hum like a hive of bees as it cut through air. The purple fruit exploded on the impact and covered the tip of the staff in blood red pulp. He slowed Zia to a trot and turned her around. The broad green leaf of the cactus was intact. He looked up at Amerin grinning with pleasure.
“Good work, but you lowered your staff too soon. You prepped for the swing too early. If that had been a man, you’d have done better just telling him what you planned. Do it again… that one down there. And this time, hold your joust until the last possible second.”
Laiathal turned and ran the drill again. This time he brought Zia to a gallop sooner and turned her later. His horse technique was better but his staff missed the fruit completely. He came around for another pass and caught both the fruit and the broad flat leaf of the cactus with his staff, tearing the entire plant from the ground.
“That’s enough for now. We’ve a long way to go, no need working Zia into a lather so soon.”
Laiathal nodded and they spent the next few hours of the ride working through various saddle forms in slow motion. Laiathal moved the staff slowly in his hands, practicing exchanges, sweeps, parries, cuts, slashes and thrusts. He fell into a rhythm with Zia’s gentle gait and his concentration narrowed.
They descended into Sanidel canyon and left the high desert behind, exchanging strawberry bentwood and scattered cacti for gnarled juniper, green cottonwood and sacred pine. The brown sandy ground gave way to pale grasses and the red clay of the canyon walls rose around them as the juniper and pine were themselves replaced with yellow poplar, young maple and mountain willow. The narrow road met and followed the Sanidel River and the air filled with the songs of sparrows and the babble of the creek as it ran over the red rock. Eventually, they stopped in the shade by the river and ate the green chile and roasted corn çeneras that Harin had packed. Amerin shared a skin of abbey brown and they refreshed themselves as the horses drank from the river and fed from a feedbag.
They had barely more than a day’s ride into Sanidel and they weren’t in enough of a hurry to bother with traveling at night. Hot springs dotted Sanidel canyon and fed the river along most of its winding course. About halfway down the canyon, a large wall of yellow brimstone rose from the floor of the valley and slowed the path of the river. Although the river had cut a course under the dam, the pool that sat behind the dam was large and wide and warm. The Veneret monks had built several simple thatch bathing huts on the banks of the pool and for those who could stand the acrid smell of brimstone, it was a good place to rest for the night.
They tied their horses to the standing post and removed the saddles and bags. Laiathal hauled his own and one of Merryn’s and was trying not to drop the bags as he kicked open the door of the nearest hut. The cry of the man on the bench shattered his concentration and his bag slid to the floor, spilling his shirts and tinderbox over the floor.
Laiathal scrambled after his things. “S-s-s-so-o-or-ry.”
The old man on the bench was naked to his small clothes and must have been sleeping. He dropped off the bench and crouched in a corner of the hut, brandishing a small dirk. His hair was matted and wet and his beard was spotty and untrimmed. His chest and arms were covered in small red scabs. He waved his dagger in front him, stabbing at the air between him and Laiathal.
“Stay back! Shit eater! I’ll cut your cock you bleeding, rotting sack of shit!”
Laiathal fell back on his seat at the barrage of obscenities and scrambled out of the doorway. Before he could stand, Amerin was at the door, staff in hand.
“What’s that? You there. Who are you?”
“Eat shit, monk. I’ll cut you, bleeder. Your mother was a rancid whore, shit eater! I’ll cut you!”
Amerin stepped back as the man hurled himself into attack, slashing and stumbling as he charged through the door. Amerin took a single step to the side and in one quick motion, brought the lower end of his staff across the wild man’s legs.
He went to ground like wet linen.
Amerin held his staff out level with his waist and raised his voice.
“Put down the dagger and lie on your back!”
The man writhed on the ground and worked himself up into a crouch. A horrid string of obscenities poured from the man as he waved his dagger at Amerin. Words that Laiathal had never heard used in the same sentence and some that he had never heard at all ran in a stream of venom as foam flew from the man’s lips.
“No, I don’t think it’s possible to do that with a chicken,” Amerin replied.
The man swung his dagger hard. Amerin parried the blow across his body, using his staff to catch the man’s arm and force it low. He brought the back end of his staff up and around in a wide sweep, down hard on the man’s back.
Laiathal heard ribs crack and saw the end of the wooden staff catch and tear against an open sore as it ripped a channel of red through skin. Twisted and broken, the man collapsed to his knees. He thrust his dagger feebly at the space in front of Amerin.
“Monk whore, I’ll shove my gold up your ass!”
“I’d rather you just hand it to me. Put down the knife.”
The man’s mouth worked up and down and his eyes rolled back into his head as spit dribbled down his chin. He raised the dagger up over his head and a sharp keening came from the back of his throat.
“Welan watch me,” he whispered.
He braced the staff against his forearm and stepped forward, putting the whole of his body into a sweeping strike that ended against the man’s temple. The crack of the hardwood against the man’s skull was sharp and final; he crumpled to the ground, his eyes open but unseeing.
Laiathal asked, “Is he d-d-d-duh…?”
“With any luck. I don’t want to have to hit him again.”
Amerin prodded the dead man with the toe of his boot. “Don’t touch him. Look at those sores….”
His hair was matted and wet and his beard ragged, but the man was clearly young. Not much older than a boy. His dark skin was marked with puckered red scabs and sores that dotted his arms and chest. His round face was sallow and shaded with a dull blotchy rash that mottled his skin and made him appear much older than he was. His legs were bare and strong, but his feet were lacerated with cuts and wounds. Laiathal didn’t need to search the hut to know that this man had no shoes.
“W-w-what sh-sh-should we do-o?”
“Burn him, probably.”
Amerin saw the look on Laiathal’s face.
“No, not really. Although… yes, maybe we should.”
Amerin prodded the body with the end of his staff.
“Start gathering the wood, we’ll make the pyre there in that hut. I don’t want anyone else sleeping on that bedding. We’ll burn the whole thing.”
Laiathal collected the saddle bags and deposited them in the second and third of the four bathing huts, carefully checking each for signs of diseased maniacs before entering. He and Amerin worked outward in a ragged semicircle from the shore of the pond looking for dry wood. They had to climb some way up the slope of the canyon wall to find enough to make a suitable pyre. By the time they brought down the last, they were forced to build their own campfire by the pool just to give them enough light to see by.
They spread the kindling in the shack and stacked the wood high around the bedding. They cleared the area around the hut of plants and leaves and collected water from the pool in their skins to muddy the surrounding ground.
Laiathal knocked holes in the walls as Amerin spread a blanket from the hut out on the ground and rolled the dead man onto it, prodding him and levering him with the end of his staff. Together they wrapped the man in the blanket and hauled the bundle to the hut. As Amerin lit the kindling with his tinderbox, Laiathal untied the horses from the hitching post and walked them to other side of the pond, across from the pyre. Amerin tossed his bloodied staff onto the fire and then joined Laiathal on the other side of the pond.
“Welan watch over this man and set him a place in the sky. He was born of your bride and will guard her with your son if you choose. May the flame cure his disease and leave him pure for your taking. Welan forgive the sins of your child.”
Laiathal watched the fire lick the walls of the hut and peek through the holes he had made with his hatchet.
“W-why did he-e-e c-c-curse so m-much?”
“I don’t know, but he was raving; more mad dog than man. We will Call for him and trust that he finds peace in the night.”
He looked down at his shirts and leggings and then at Laiathal.
“We should bathe and burn these clothes.”
They stripped and tossed their clothes onto the growing fire. As Laiathal Warrynd into the water, Amerin shook his head.
“No, I know it will be bad, but we should bathe in the lower waters, on the other side of the dam.”
Laiathal grimaced, but nodded. They climbed down the side of the dam and into the hot green water that pooled up from the rivulets that ran through the yellow brimstone rock. The water was hard and stank with brimstone and bad gas. Laiathal held his nose as he Warrynd into the pool.
Amerin watched Laiathal’s face and laughed. “All the way in, boy,” he said. “Your head too.”
Laiathal lowered his eyes and glowered at Amerin and dunked his head into the water. He’d need to rebraid his plait tonight… but the thought of those sores was enough for him to keep his head under the foul water for as long as he could hold his breath.
When he finally came up for air, Amerin was beside him. They submerged three more times before Amerin finally let them out. They both raced back up the slope of the brimstone in a rush for the relatively clean water of the larger pool. The pyre was blazing now and the two men watched it burn as they rinsed the stink of the hard water off.
The fire burned through the evening and late into the night. Laiathal slept fitfully, troubled by recurring images of the dead man’s sores and waking to each burst of popping wood or collapsing timber in the raging fire.
In the morning, when the hut had finally burned down to embers, they scattered the remaining ashes, collected and buried the larger pieces of bone that remained, and then doused the area with water from the pool.
Indiçae Myr Vernday 3585
The sun was high when they finally mounted their horses and resumed the journey. The two men had spoken little in the night and less in the morning. Collecting the charred ends of bone for burial had been particularly unsettling and neither man had made any effort to eat. When they reached the farms that lay on the outskirts of Sanidel, Laiathal’s stomach rumbled loud enough to be heard over the steady clop of Zia’s hooves. By the time they reached the Veneret lodge in Sanidel the Sun had fallen.
The six rings of the Rest Bell sounded as they gave their horses to the stable boy and made their way into the inn at the front. Laiathal ate as Amerin and an aging monk spoke in hushed tones.
“He was at the salt dam, crazed and covered in festering sores.”
“You burned him?”
“And the hut he had been using.”
“I thought so at first, but… in the bane dementia follows lesions. And these sores were fresh. Some were festering and others dry and scabrous. But yes, probably whore’s bane… a bad case.”
The men fell silent and stared at Laiathal.
The older man asked, “You know what whore’s bane is?”
Laiathal nodded and rolled his eyes.
“Good. That’s why you stay away from them.”
He had no idea what whore’s bane was and he didn’t want to find out. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the blackened half of a jawbone that he’d fished out of the sodden ashes of the pyre. He shuddered.
“It gives me the shivers too. Thank you Novarra, the meat was excellent.”
He stood and clasped hands with the older man.
“It is good to see you again; I wish I had more energy to talk.”
“Jalen, the captain from the Moon Guard will be here by First Bell. He’s not a cheerful man. If I were you, I’d consider not sleeping at all. You won’t want to keep him waiting.”
“Oh yes. He’s not a fan of the Veneret. I think the Veneret offend him. Or maybe he just can’t stand that we pay no taxes. Either way, he won’t be pleased to have you along.”
Amerin snorted. “Well, he’ll learn to live with disappointment. I’m carrying letters from the Dret-a-Katerr for Lord Schell.”
Novarra cackled gleefully. “Oh, you be sure to tell him that! Ask him what he thinks of Lord Schell! That’ll be fun.”
The old monk turned to Laiathal and stopped his laughing. “Boy, I’m also afraid that Captain Jalen has a healthy distaste of the Saluo people. You can’t hide your face, but you might think twice about keeping your plait.”
Laiathal looked from the old man to Amerin, who simply shrugged.
“You’re grown,” Amerin said. “It’s your choice. He can’t make you take it out. And you’re technically an adept and under my care. But if he’s the ass that he sounds, it might go easier for you if you did.”
Laiathal shook his head as he stood.
“Well then, tomorrow should be fun. Laiathal, I will meet you in our room in a moment.”
Laiathal took the dismissal without comment or protest; he was weary and ready for rest. He bowed his head to the two men and then made his way around the empty tables to the narrow door that led off to the boarding rooms beyond. As he passed through the archway, he heard Amerin’s voice.
“I do not know who the man was, nor where he came from, but it couldn’t have been far if he knew of the salt dam and the hot springs. Someone is bound to miss him, somewhere… and we should do what we can to find the whore too.”
The voices faded as Laiathal made his way to his room. He sat down heavily on one of the two narrow cots that lined the walls. This was as far as he’d ever been from home and tomorrow he’d be going farther. First to the Maidenfaire and then the gods only knew where. He closed his eyes and felt Anielle’s lips on his own. Tears came to his eyes as he took off his boots and cursed his own weakness. It was going to be another sleepless night, but at least it wouldn’t be a long one.
Indiçae BaAr Gonwynday 3585
Amerin swore as he left the mill.
“The blighted fool will ruin this town.”
The lone Moon Guard who had stayed with the horses raised his head and laughed. Amerin snarled and thrust his finger in the guard’s face.
“Yes I call him a fool. And for serving under him, I call you a coward and a whore.”
He spat on the guard’s shoe and Laiathal stepped quickly between the two men.
The Moon Guard, a tow-headed young man with dull eyes and much too full lips, grinned.
“Walk away old man. Let your big idiot lead the way. What? W-w-w-what are you l-l-looking at you lazy, Saluo shit?”
Laiathal saw the look in Amerin’s eye and pushed him hard away from the Moon Guard. He shook his head and kept his hand on Amerin’s shoulder.
Amerin spat again at the guard, higher this time and the boy had to duck aside to avoid being hit.
“Not fucking worth it,” Amerin said.
“Not fucking able, is more like it. Old man and a half-wit. We need a bleeding wet nurse to keep you two.”
Laiathal followed Amerin to their mounts, Amerin shaking his head in disgust.
“Three plates! From this shitty little mill. That will be close to what’s left of his yearly take. The spiteful fool.”
They’d been riding with the Moon Guard for five days. Relations had started out poorly and deteriorated from there. The Captain could barely stand to look at Laiathal and liked Amerin even less. Amerin was used to command and his attempts to direct Jalen’s men had not gone well. Add to that the fact that the Moon Guard were, in truth, babysitting an old man and a stuttering boy across the length of Alameda, and conflict was inevitable.
Laiathal had formed but one opinion of Jalen and his guard: they were right bastards.
The Moon were the guard of Aen, charged with securing both the Empire’s body and blood. They were personal guard to the Empress and the Heir Designate, kept the Imperial Palace and patrolled the streets of the capital. They protected the body of the Empire: both Collar and Chain. They also collected the Empire’s blood: taxes.
Under the terms of the Second Compact, the Empire collected taxes only from the Sovereign Peers who in turn collected taxes from the people. As such Jalen should have had little authority over the peasants he ground under his boot heel. But, as he never tired of pointing out, he didn’t collect taxes, he collected fees. He was merely the instrument of an Imperial audit.
If he decided the provincial assessment had been lenient, he collected the difference. So they’d stopped as Jalen’s whim dictated: at whatever house, hut, or structure he thought had a chance of holding coin. Jalen would talk to the man of the house while his men, swords drawn, “protected” the women and children. Jalen would inventory the goods and assess the amount in arrears. In some cases, the amounts were merely crippling. In most others, they were devastating.
Amerin had repeatedly tried to intervene, but he held no authority; he was Sun, not Moon. And Veneret besides. Still, Laiathal was sure that their presence had saved a few of the women from being forced to make payment in kind. It was impossible to mistake the meaning behind the ashen faces and wide eyes of the families they met; Jalen’s reputation preceded him.
“The poor bloody fool opened his purse,” Amerin said. “He had four plates so Jalen took three.”
Jalen and four Moon Guard emerged from the miller’s home. The tow-headed guard fell in with them as they made their way back to the horses. Laiathal swung into his saddle and ignored their grating laughter.
Amerin scowled. When the captain was close enough, he spoke.
“You’ve killed that man.”
Jalen shook his head. He mounted his horse and motioned for his men to do the same. He spurred his horse to a slow trot and the party moved forward down the road, Laiathal at the rear.
Amerin rode his horse up to Jalen’s side and repeated, “You’ve killed that man and you’ve killed this town.”
“Nonsense,” Jalen said, “I’ve done nothing of the sort. I took his coin, not his life. Coin that, might I remind you, was due…”
“That coin was his life,” Amerin interrupted. “The man runs a mill, he purchases grain from the farmers and he sells the milled barley to the brewers who in turn sell…”
“Brewers?” Jalen asked, “Where might I find these brewers? Perhaps the brewers are in need of an audit.”
“Aye, they could pay in pints.” The oldest of Jalen’s guard, a fat man who rode heavy in his saddle, mopped his brow with his tunic. “This heat makes for thirsty work.”
Amerin continued undeterred. “The money you’ve taken from the miller’s hands means that the farmers won’t sell their crops and there will be no beer come the fall for your men to steal. You’ve killed this town.”
The fat man laughed. “Then we had best get the ale now! Tell us master Veneret, where might we find the brewery?”
Jalen frowned and furrowed his brow in a parody of concentration as he spoke.
“These taxes are due. These taxes keep the Empire and pay for these people’s protection.”
“No,” he held up his hand to forestall Amerin’s outburst, “let me finish.”
“Part of that protection goes to the Moon, but part goes to the Prow and the Wind, which ensures that these pathetic farmers and brewers may trade their goods here, downriver and abroad. These taxes keep these people alive.”
“The taxes they have already paid go to that protection; this theft simply lines your pockets.”
“And yours, Veneret.” Jalen snapped. “I am under quota and despite your pretty wishes; I conduct this audit under orders. None of the money I collect here goes to pay my men, but much of it does go to keeping you and your brothers warm and moist. Do you decry the taxes that keep your precious monastery clean, or the taxes that purchase the grain that you use to make your precious sweet brew? You are a hypocrite and a fool, Veneret.”
Amerin shook his head. “Taxes due are taxes due, but your audit is a disgrace to your uniform and the oath you swore.”
Jalen cackled. “You lecture me about oaths? What of the oath you took to the Sun? Exchanged and renounced for a sinecure on a farm where you could bugger the local boys. You were a soldier once. Don’t you miss it?
“No, you don’t. You prefer dragging stuttering Saluo halfwits around the countryside. Leave me in peace or be on your way, old man.”
With that Jalen spurred his horse and rode away. The rest of his unit followed suit and shortly both Amerin and Laiathal were riding alone, some distance behind the pack.
Laiathal could see the anger in Amerin’s face.
“C-c-can we st-st-st-stop him?”
“No,” Amerin snarled and spat at the ground, “he’s within his power. Unless Berryhyn protests at court, and he won’t, the Moon can audit local tax receipts. But this… this extortion of farmers and millers… this is foul.”
They rode in silence, Amerin and Laiathal keeping pace with the pack of guards, but keeping their distance as well.
They passed a squat stone farmhouse nearer the road than most and the lead group stopped. Jalen conferred with his men.
Four of the men, led by the old fat guard, rode off into the field away from the farmhouse.
“I don’t know where they’re going, but I’d better follow. Stay with Jalen and the other.”
Amerin kicked Winter hard in the flanks and tore off after the guard. Laiathal kept Zia to an amble and reached Jalen just as the Captain and the other guard, the tow-headed mouth breather, dismounted from their horses.
“Oh gods, be silent.” Jalen snapped. “If you open that festering hole again, the last thing you will live to hear is the sound of your own infantile stutter.”
Towhead licked his lips and laughed.
Jalen handed his horse’s reigns to the guard.
“Tie up the horse, Gorman. I’m going to see what refreshment these good people might have to offer a weary servant of their Empire.”
Gorman tied up the horse as Laiathal dismounted. He followed the guard to the nearest sapling and tied Zia alongside the other two. Jalen emerged from the farmhouse.
“Empty,” Jalen said. “They must be at court.”
“They’ve left some pasty black bread and,” he held up a heavy clay jug, “some fine farmhouse brandy.”
Gorman rubbed his hands together and the two disappeared into the house.
Laiathal grabbed a brush from his bag and rubbed Zia down lightly. He fed her a couple of carrots and scratched her behind the ears. He had no desire to follow the men and become a party to their petty theft. He lingered by the horses for a good while and when he ran out of carrots he wandered around back of the farmhouse.
Rows of red field-stone walls ran away from the house and separated the land into three narrow strips. The farthest, bare and dry would be reserved for an autumn planting. The middle strip lay fallow and covered in short cut grass. The nearest patch of land was broken and fresh tilled with straight furrows that ran the length of only about half of the field. Near a spare, square shed, a simple mouldboard plough with a straight harness and a single wheel lay toppled on its side. Laiathal poked around the shed and found the remnants of a broken horseshoe sitting with a long-handled hoe by the open door to the shed.
The family’s horse, more pony from the size of the lost shoe, must have lost it as they ploughed. They were likely in town to see the smith. Good for them; they’d have brought their coin.
Laiathal tried closing the shed door, no sense in making it easier on the rats and field mice, but the door stuck on a small pile of rags. He fished out the bundle and shut the door. Smiling, he turned the bundle over in his hands.
Inexpertly sewn, the rags were strips of clean white cloth bundled together into the shape of a baby. Anielle had two or three of these little poppets, some even with weaves of horse hair that she could comb and braid. When she was younger, she would spend hours dressing and undressing the little ragdolls.
Loathe to leave the doll outside, he opened the shed. Scythes and sickles hung on pegs, while smaller axes and hand tools were arranged neatly on a wide shelf that ran the length of the far wall. A row of carved, softwood figurines lined the back of the shelf. Small sparrows and rough hewn foxes sat beside unfinished axe handles and sharp steel knives.
To the right of the door, a short table and matching three-legged stool nestled together in a corner of the shed. The table was spread with scraps of bright cloth, tiny carved pitchers and small, round platters. Near the table, another poppet, this one crowned with a wiry tangle of brown hair, lay face down and end up in a straw bassinet, its skirts spilling over its head.
Laiathal set the doll to rights and lay the rag poppet carefully beside it. He stood for moment in the shed and imagined the father, quietly working on his carvings as his daughter sat in the corner and played with her dolls. He tiptoed out of the shed and slid the door carefully closed, unconsciously careful not to disturb the image in his head.
A girl screamed.
Laiathal stood still for a moment and the scream came again. From the house. He grabbed the hoe that rested against the side of the shed and was through the rear door in four steps.
The girl cowed on the floor, her checkered blouse ripped and her skirts jumbled at her waist. Her black hair was braided in a long straight plait that ran to her waist and her dark brown eyes were wide with fright.
“Stupid Saluo cunt,” Jalen said. “You’ll learn to hide those teeth soon enough.”
She was younger than Anielle.
Her hands covered her mouth and blood seeped through her fingers. Jalen stood over the girl, one hand undoing his trousers and the other rubbing his chin. Gorman tittered and giggled by the hearth, the jug of brandy in his hand.
Laiathal tried to shout but, “St-st-stuh…” was all he got out. His throat seized. His mouth worked up and down and his face twisted with effort, but no sound came.
“Welan’s eyes,” Jalen said without turning his head. “How much shit do you have to eat to get a stutter that fucking bad?”
Laiathal stretched his mouth wide but managed only a faint, gurgled whimper.
Gorman smacked his lips and giggled louder.
Jalen put his boot on the girl’s chest and pinned her hard against the floor. She scrabbled at his shoe as she cried. Blood poured from her lips.
“This little bitch needs to learn some respect and I am fucking tired of living under the watch of a stuttering half-wit. I’ll deal with the girl. Gorman, you kill the boy. Let’s be done with this farce.”
“With pleasure, Captain.”
Gorman dropped the jug, letting the brandy spill across the floor and unsheathed his sword. He licked his lips as he stepped forward.
“Oh look captain, the half-wit brought a hoe to sword fight,” he giggled. “I’m going to cut your throat open and see if I can find that stunted tongue.”
Laiathal swung the blade end of the hoe out to his right side and brought it around in a long, high, sweeping arc. Gorman parried casually, but as he did, Laiathal dropped the angle and lowered Gorman’s sword. He stepped in close and snapped the back end of the shaft straight up into Gorman’s face.
The crunch of bone was audible and Gorman staggered. Laiathal raised the hoe level with his shoulder and braced his right elbow against the shaft. He twisted hard at the waist as he pressed forward, putting the whole of his weight into the strike. The force of the blow drove the edge of the tool through the side of Gorman’s skull, just in front and above of the man’s ear.
Jalen’s trousers were already at his knees and he fumbled awkwardly for his sword.
“Stop!” Jalen shouted, “In the name…”
Laiathal wrenched the hoe free, splitting Gorman’s head like a melon.
He feinted a high thrust and when Jalen tried a parry, brought the tail of the shaft up in a smooth arc. The wood made a hard, wet, slapping sound as it struck between Jalen’s legs.
Laiathal stepped back and swung the hoe’s blade down hard on Jalen’s right knee, shattering the bone. The captain fell hard. Laiathal stepped on the guard’s sword hand and hit him in the chest with the butt end of the hoe until he dropped the blade.
Laiathal kicked the sword away and stepped back, swinging the head of the hoe high over his head. He stood still for a breath, the hoe poised like an axe ready to split wood. He watched Jalen’s eyes; it would be a shame if the man had already passed out.
Jalen’s eyelids fluttered once and then opened.
The haft of the hoe whistled and Jalen’s shinbone shattered like kindling.
Laiathal dropped the hoe and squatted on his haunches, pulling Jalen’s face within inches of his own. The captain gurgled, insensible with pain. Laiathal trusted the man still had enough wit to hear even if he could no longer speak.
“I have let you live, you wretched piece of filth,” Laiathal whispered, “but my mercy comes with a price. If you speak a word, cry, beg, or so much as whimper softly in your shame, if you make even the smallest, barest, most feeble of sounds, I will rip your throat open and split your skull like an egg.”
Laiathal spat in Jalen’s face, let the man’s body slip back against the floor and stood up. He turned to the girl.
She had crawled to a corner of the room and was quivering in fear, huddled into herself, her face buried in her skirts as she wept.
Laiathal picked her up without resistance and carried her outside into the sun. He walked with her to the horses and held her gently on his hip as he found his water skin. He used the water and an extra shirt to wipe the blood from the girl’s face.
Jalen had hit her hard, but it wasn’t as bad as he had feared. She was young enough that some of the teeth Jalen had knocked out, she might well have lost anyway. The girl’s eyes were wide and oval, her skin dark and smooth like Anielle’s. Laiathal stroked her hair and shushed her as best he could.
“It w-w-wil-l be all r-r-right.”
She had just settled in against his shoulder and her sobs seemed to be finally subsiding when he saw horse appear over the hill in the field across from the farm. The guard were back from wherever they had gone, Amerin trailing behind. Laiathal turned and walked around the back of the farmhouse to the little shed. He pried the girl’s head from his shoulder and whispered in her ear.
“M-m-more b-bad men men coming. St-st-st-stay q-q-q-quiet.”
The girl shook her head but Laiathal pried her from him and nodded. He stroked her cheek and smiled.
He shut the door and made it to the front of the house just as the rest of the guard were dismounting. Laiathal’s shirt front was flecked with red and his boots were covered in blood.
The fat guard scowled at him and shouted, “Captain!”
Laiathal pointed at the farmhouse and jogged to his horse.
The Fat man handed his reigns to another guard and swore, “Your bloody, cripple grandfather doesn’t know when to shut his fucking mouth. You know that?”
He hitched at his trousers and strode heavily to the farmhouse.
“Captain, Aye! It’s Jewl. We come back.”
The other three were tying off the horse to a tree about fifteen yards down the road. Amerin rode up just as Laiathal slipped his staff from its saddle loops.
“They found the damned brewery but it was empty and had no visible stock. I didn’t tell them that it was probably cooling under the floorboards. Is that blood?”
Laiathal nodded and held up his staff. Amerin looked up at the farmhouse just as Jewl opened the door and cried out. Amerin frowned deeply and cursed under his breath as he slipped his staff free and turned his horse.
Laiathal walked toward the house.
The other three had stopped their chatter, but they didn’t register the trouble quickly enough.
Jewl came huffing out of the house with his sword drawn. He pointed the sword at Laiathal. “Take him, take him! He done…”
Laiathal reached the fat man and knocked the sword out of his outstretched hand with a casual flick of his staff. Another step and the end of the wood struck the apple in Jewl’s throat and the fat man’s voice choked and died. Laiathal brought his staff around and against the side of Jewl’s temple, dropping him instantly.
The other three drew their swords as Amerin rode down on them. The big palfrey knocked one to the ground and Amerin’s staff dropped another. The last guard managed to swing himself into his saddle and spurred the horse into a quick charge.
Laiathal sprinted across the spare lawn at the guard on horseback, slowing his stride just as the charging rider seemed about to run him down. He dropped to the side, spun and thrust his staff through the horse’s legs.
This one was good. He tucked his head and rolled out of the saddle onto the grass as the horse crashed head first into the lawn, its legs broken and bloody.
As the guard scrambled to his feet, Laiathal grabbed a shard of his splintered staff and leaped across the body of the thrashing horse.
He thrust hard, but missed as the guard got his sword arm up fast enough to parry the strike. Laiathal stepped back and the guard settled his feet. The sword flashed out to Laiathal’s left, just a hair off target, and Laiathal very nearly fell for the feint. He blocked the following slash from the right.
With a full staff he might have been able to hold his own, but a broken stick was no match for hardened steel. If he stood his ground and tried to parry every thrust he’d fall eventually.
So might as well fall now.
He jerked his head back as he shifted his weight forward and when the guard stepped into attack, Laiathal let himself fall backward, just under the thrust.
He kicked out as he hit the ground, scissoring his legs around the guards knees and twisting hard to his side. As the guard fell, Laiathal pushed his back up off the ground and thrust his shard forward. The broken staff punctured the guard’s chest just below the ribcage and the point thrust neatly through the skin on his back. Laiathal ducked his head in close to the man’s body to avoid the falling blade as the guard’s arm went slack and the sword tumbled from his hand. Laiathal rolled the dead man over and snatched the sword from the ground, whirling around as he brought himself up into a low crouch.
The last guard lay face down, in the road. Amerin had dismounted and was pulling rope from his saddle bags. Without turning his head he called out, “There had better be a good explanation for this.”
Laiathal stood, dropped the blade and said, “Jalen tried to rape a young girl. I stopped him. Gorman is dead. Jalen is crippled. They’re both inside. The girl is out back in a shed.”
Laiathal left Amerin staring and ran around the house. He put his hand on the door and thought of all the knives and tools in the shed. He knocked quietly and put his head to the door.
“It-t-t’s s-s-s-safe to c-c-c-come out-t.”
He stepped back and waited. He didn’t think that the girl would, but after just a moment, she opened the door gingerly. Laiathal gently pulled the door open wide. She stood in the shed, a carving knife in her hand, her eyes wet. Laiathal extended his hand, palm up out to her and she dropped the knife into it.
He put the knife on the shelf and picked the girl up in his arms.
When he reached the front of the house, Amerin was standing over the fat man, feeling his neck. He’d pulled the unconscious guard out of the road and propped him up against a tree, his hands and feet bound with rope. One of his brothers lay next to him, his neck bent at an unnatural angle.
Amerin stood and shook his head in response to Laiathal’s arched eyebrows. He looked back at the door and then at the girl. Laiathal nodded.
Amerin went to the house while Laiathal carried the child to the field across the road and away from the carnage at the farm.
He set the girl down and then sat beside her. She had stopped crying, but the fear hadn’t yet left and her eyes flicked constantly down the road to the town. He tapped his chest and said “Lay.”
She looked at him but didn’t say anything. He nodded and smiled as he pulled up three stems of tall grass. He pinched off the ends of the grass and then wove them together to make a simple braided band. He tied the ends off and slipped it on the girl’s wrist. He tapped his chest again and said, “Lay.”
She opened her mouth and whispered so soft that he couldn’t hear. He bent his ear to her mouth.
“Erithreal,” he said. “Th-th-that’s a b-b-b-beautiful name.”
She smiled ever so slightly but ducked her head down as Amerin came walking up to them.
“That’s quite a mess in there.” Amerin said as he plopped heavily on the ground. He pressed his hand to his chest, then to his mouth and extended it out to the girl.
She turned away and pressed her herself close to Laiathal, resting her head on his shoulder and hiding her face.
“Erithreal,” Laiathal said.
“That’s a very pretty name for a very pretty little girl. Do you know where your parents are?”
The girl didn’t raise her head.
“T-t-town. Smith.” Laiathal answered for her. “Sh-shoe their p-p-p-p-p….” He let the word die. Amerin knew what he meant.
Amerin sighed. “We’ll wait for them. We’ll need their help to bury the bodies.”
“J-Jalen?” Laiathal asked.
“Well take him with us. The other one too. He’ll have to stand trial and you’ll need to testify. It won’t be good, but it will harder if we don’t bring him in.”
Amerin pulled a few stems of tall grass.
“That’s a pretty bracelet. Would you like another?” He dipped his head close to the girl and whispered, “I can make them prettier than he can. I know because I taught him how.”
Indiçae BaAr Perrynday 3585
Eleven days out from Sanidel and the red rock and ragged pastures of the Shomae mountain foothills had given way to the sweeping grasses of the wide Alameda plain. Far behind them, the white tipped peaks of the mountains rose to meet wisping clouds and the azure sky of a new spring. In front, between them and the city of Luow Muoweç, the tents of the Maidenfaire sprung up like mushrooms. To their right the plain stretched out to the horizon, the smooth green broken only by soft tawny patches of furrowed fields.
To their left the river Hand ran lazily along a rough stone embankment. The river was choked with wide flat barges and ramshackle ferry rafts crowded with families and peddlers. Laiathal smiled and returned the wave of a group of excited, laughing children on the nearest raft. Behind him, strapped to a board and bound across the back of his horse, Jalen moaned.
“Quiet you,” Merryn chided.
Jalen’s clothes were slick and wet with his sweat and his eyes rolled haphazardly in his head. The man was parched and hurting and probably suffering from infection. From ankle to knee, Jalen’s left leg had swollen to thrice its normal width and was rapidly turning to purplish black. Merryn had done his best to set the leg in a rough splint, but the bones had been shattered into doughy pulp and setting it straight proved impossible. The right leg was better, although Jalen was unlikely to ever bend that knee again. Laiathal waved at the children again. The memory of Erithreal’s bloody mouth dampened whatever small compassion he might have felt for the crippled man beside him.
Traffic on the road congested in a muddle of Midnday merchants as they approached the faire and it took them the better part of the morning to breach the faire’s North gate. The Maidenfaire circled Luow Muoweç, extending outward from the walls several hundred yards, a kind of skirt around the heart of the old city. A wide, packed dirt road ran around the edge of the tents marking the faire’s boundary, its outer edge fenced with rope slung over hastily driven posts. Merryn led them down to a large, stone building at the river’s edge. A row of hitching posts overlooked a vast, low pier on the river’s banks and as Laiathal tied the horses he watched scores of boats and rafts unload their human cargo with dangerous haste. The boards of the docks creaked under the weight of so many people and Laiathal marveled at the men and women that clustered on the dock and jostled up the narrow stairs to the faire. Most of the traffic today, the faire didn’t officially begin until tomorrow, was made of merchants but many had brought their families along for the trip. The Maidenfaire at Luow Muoweç was the largest faire on the River Hand and it drew trade and custom from as far away as Korachal. The men and women crowded on the dock could have been in costume, members of an extravagant travelling menagerie for all Laiathal could tell. Their dress was a riot of clashing color and style. The deep red of hardened Wynn leather next to the burnished yellows and sandy browns from Northern Charam; the homespun, undyed wool and plain Cormorthean linen alongside the deep, redolent local velvets from Alameda; the peaked, pointed caps of wealthy Korachallians poking up like little pink thorns; a handful of Saluo pobremos floating over the crowd like the leaves of so many little lilies; even a few Dyvaadi Luoweç in their billowing white robes sprinkled like salt grains throughout the throng.
Amerin unwound the bands that held Jalen’s board and they each took an end of the litter and carried him, still moaning, around to the front of the stone building. A wide canvas awning had been stretched from the building’s entrance to the nearest tent and a group of Moon Guard lounged in the shade. Amerin pulled the rope out from under Jalen’s cloak and showed the Marzaenian circlet to the guards who parted and waved them on into a wide, spare entry hall that ran the length of the building. Empty paddocks lined each side of the room and in the center, a fat, bored man in pale blue livery sat behind a table, whittling at a length of pale birch with his knife. The guard whistled while he worked and white slips of wood littered the floor at his feet. He stopped whistling as Laiathal and Merryn approached his table and set the litter on the floor.
“This man is Jalen, one of your Captains,” Amerin said.
The fat guard stopped whittling and leaned over the table to get a better look at Jalen.
“His leg looks bad.”
“It is,” Amerin said. “We need to speak to your commander and give witness for the trial.”
The fat guard looked at Amerin.
“Veneret?” He asked. And then, without waiting for a reply, “I take it you did that?”
Amerin didn’t answer and the fat guard just nodded to himself.
“Blighted Veneret,” he said without expression or emotion. “I’ll get the commander, you wait here.”
He picked up a heavy bell on the desk and rang it loudly. After a moment a young boy stuck his head through a door in the back of the hall past the paddocks.
Without turning the fat guard called out, “Get the commander and fetch a doctor.”
The head disappeared and the four of them waited in silence. The fat guard resumed his whistling and Jalen resumed his groaning.
“Can’t you do something to shut him up?” The fat guard asked.
Laiathal figured the question was probably rhetorical and said nothing. Amerin did the same.
Eventually, the door past the paddocks opened again and a tall balding man in a deep blue tunic emblazoned with a silver Marzaenian crescent stepped through and into the hall. He strode to the table and took in the tableau before him. He looked down at Jalen, passed over Laiathal and lingered on Amerin.
“I’ve told you not to do that in here,” he said, not taking his eyes off Amerin.
The guard continued whittling.
The bald man stared hard at Amerin.
Amerin nodded and gestured to Jalen.
“My adept and I were traveling to the faire under the protection of your captain. He tried to rape a young girl and we… subdued him. I am here to give formal witness.”
The Commander looked down at Jalen and ran his hand over his head, splaying his fingers through hair that wasn’t there. He seemed to catch himself as he did and dropped his hand awkwardly. He shook his head and frowned.
“You Veneret are a pain in the ass,” he said. “Bring him back here.”
He motioned for Laiathal and Amerin to follow him to the rear of the hall, which they did, picking up Jalen and carrying his litter between them. They set him down by the rear wall.
“My name is Ragan Doer, Çadeça of the Moon in Alameda.” He pointed at the litter. “That is Jalen Ganan. Who are you?”
“I am Amerin of the Cueva Veneret, this is my adept Laiathal.”
“You did this?” Ragan asked.
Amerin hesitated before he spoke. “We’ve brought your man to you for your keeping. When he recovers, I imagine he will make certain accusations. As a prelate, I invoke Sovereign Immunity for myself and my adept. We will bear full witness, but only before an ecclesiastical court.”
Ragan Doer shook his head.
“You’re at the Maidenfaire. Provincial courts, both ecclesial and Cherád, are suspended. The Sovereign takes jurisdiction over the faire, the emissary of the Warden presiding.”
Amerin opened his mouth to protest and then snapped it shut.
“Gods blood,” he swore. “I’d forgotten.”
He eyed Ragan Doer for a moment.
“Çadeça of the Moon… you’re the Warden of the Maidenfaire aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he said, “that would be me.”
The page scurried through the rear door, followed by an old man wearing a blue skull cap tied snug around his head and carrying a heavy leather bag. The doctor hurried over to the litter and knelt beside Jalen. He prodded and stroked Jalen’s leg and felt his brow, humming to himself the whole time. He opened and rummaged in the big bag as he spoke to the page.
“Get me a pitcher of hot water and several cups.”
The boy dashed off again.
Ragan Doer watched the page go and then turned back to Amerin. “This will take some time, will you join me?”
Amerin and Laiathal followed Ragan through the door and down a narrow hall. The hall ended in a wide seating area with two doors. Thick planks of light wood lined the floor and chairs ran the length of each wall. There was one small window set deep in the wide stone next to the outer door. A metal rod, jammed between a metal joint in the floor and the door’s thick oaken battens, barred the door closed. The interior door stood slightly ajar.
Ragan Doer motioned to the straight-backed chairs that lined the room and gestured for the men to sit. Laiathal turned to a chair and was about to sit when Amerin put a hand on his arm. Ragan Doer looked out the window for a moment as they all stood in silence. Eventually, he sighed and turned back to the room. He ran his hand up and over his bald head.
“I’ll hear from you now.”
“I left Sanidel eight days ago,” Amerin began, “carrying a packet for Lord Schell from the Cueva Abbey. With me I took an adept of the abbey bound for the Maidenfaire. Laiathal here intends on entering his name for selection in the trials. My Dret-a-Katerr requested protection for his packet from the Moon and we joined with Jalen and his guard in Sanidel. While on the way, Jalen conducted an audit of provincial tax receipts.”
Ragan grunted. “The Çadeça in Charam is new and has been giving his Captains too free a hand. I’ve heard that this was happening.”
“Five days ago,” Amerin continued, “we stopped at a farmhouse by the road. Three of the guard rode off to search a local brewery while Jalen and another stayed behind. I rode with the three to the brewery and my adept stayed behind with Jalen and one other. Jalen entered the farmhouse and attempted to rape a young girl. My adept stopped it. When I and the other three returned the quarrel spilled outside and we were forced to subdue all five of your guard. We killed three. We bound Jalen and one other and continued on our way to the faire. The other guard died two days ago. We buried him by the banks of the Hand.”
Amerin reached into his vest, pulled four iron discs still hanging from their hempen rope and handed them to Ragan.
“These are the men’s badges.”
“Where are the other three buried?” Ragan asked.
“At the farm, back of the fields under an oak.”
Amerin didn’t tell Ragan that the farmer said it was the same place he’d buried a mad dog two years earlier.
“Veneret trained?” Ragan asked Laiathal.
“Five tax collectors against two Veneret. Those men never had a chance.” Ragan shook his head and frowned.
“What happened in the farmhouse?”
Amerin said nothing and Laiathal realized it was his turn to speak. Laiathal took a deep breath and told the story. By the time he finished, his brow was slick with sweat and both his mouth and neck hurt. He gave the commander credit; Ragan hadn’t flinched or looked away once. He felt Amerin’s hand press reassuringly on his back.
“Jalen gave the order to kill?”
Ragan Doer fingered the badges in his hands for a moment. “Four men died. One will never walk again. Those men had wives and children. Their families have lost those men forever, their bodies buried far from home. You killed four soldiers, crippled another and then brought the cripple and the dead men’s service badges to me for trial. Why didn’t you just burn Jalen and be done with it?”
A short bark of laughter sounded beyond the open interior door and a deep voice said, “Because they are Veneret!”
The door opened and the speaker and stepped into the room. Tall and gaunt with sharp, pointed features and thick black hair that had just begun to gray, the man looked every inch a Peer; even if he hadn’t been wearing a long black velvet cape trimmed with silver filigree, Laiathal would have known him as a Lord.
Amerin bowed his head. “Lord Schell.”
“And the Veneret,” Schell said advancing slowly on Amerin, “are a pain in the ass.”
“We are just simple, honest old men,” Amerin replied. “Not conniving cowards who hide behind stolen secrets.”
“Sun, Moon and Stars all together in this dirty little room,” Ragan said dryly. “How far the heavens have fallen.”
Lord Schell extended his arms and he and Amerin embraced fiercely.
“It has been too many years, Amerin.” Schell said when they parted. “And you come to me with this mess. Quorin will be sorely disappointed.”
“It is my own blindness, my Lord,” Amerin said. “I had not wished this. I had rather…”
The door at the far end of the hall slammed open and cut Amerin’s words off. The skull-capped doctor shuffled amiably into the room, humming to himself. He nodded to Schell and spoke to Ragan.
“The captain is sensible. He was parched for lack of water, and is probably suffering from infection. I will have to take at least one, probably both, of his legs. If you need his testimony, I suggest you get it now.”
“My Lord,” Ragan said, “if you will pardon me…”
“Yes, go,” Schell said. “I’ll keep watch on these two and make sure they don’t run.”
Amerin waited until both Ragan and the Doctor had gone before speaking.
“I have a packet, for you my Lord,” he said. “I have it on me, but…”
“Yes. I’ll take it now.” Schell said.
Amerin took the sheaf of papers from his coat and handed it Lord Schell.
“Do you know the contents?” Schell asked.
“I do not, my Lord. Whatever information Quorin wanted to communicate, he did not choose to share it with me.”
Schell nodded his head absentmindedly as he unwound the string that held the packet of papers together. He flipped through them, scanning each page before flipping to the next, occasionally stopping to read a page in detail. When he’d gone through all of them he tied the bundle back up with string and put the packet in his pocket.
“You did not read them?” He asked Amerin.
“No, my Lord.”
Schell looked closely at Amerin, locking eyes with him for a moment. If he was searching for hint of a lie, Laiathal knew he was wasting his time. Schell seemed to come to the same conclusion.
“Veneret,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “What kind of man never lies? How can you trust a man who never lies? You’re a disgrace to everything I stand for.”
Amerin smiled but didn’t answer.
To Laiathal, Schell asked, “You plan on entering your name in the trials?”
“Y-yes s-s-sir,” Laiathal inclined his head as he answered.
“Then you had best get some rest before tomorrow.” To Amerin he said, “You should take the boy around the faire.” Schell pulled a heavy leather purse off his belt and rummaged through it, picking out several coins. He pocketed the coins tand then tossed the purse to Amerin just as the door at the end of the hall banged open and Ragan came striding back into the room.
“See some of the shows and get a decent room at the Maidenhead. I’d suggest you take a maidenhead or two… but,” he waved his hands dismissively. “you are Veneret.”
Ragan ran a hand over his bald head and regarded the men in silence.
“Much to my surprise, his story differs from yours,” he said.
“He does not deny the audit, but he claims that you set upon him and his guard at night, killing his men while they slept. I take it you brought no witnesses?”
Amerin shook his head. “The only witness was the child and she had suffered enough. I saw no reason to bring her so far from her home.”
“Perhaps we should fetch the family,” Ragan said. “Could you direct my guard to the farmhouse?”
Lord Schell held out his hand to keep Ragan from continuing. “If this were a full trial, each side would present witness and testimony and you would sit with a panel of judicants to determine the truth. But it is not a trial, we are at the Maidenfaire and by Sovereign Pachrathym you have plenary power in all matters of law during the course of the faire. If you seek a character witness, I will myself attest to the fact that Jalen Ganan is a louse of man, a disgrace to the Moon, and a complete waste of humanity. I have no doubt that he pressed himself forcefully upon the child and that he fouls his soul and shames the sun with every lie that drips from his mouth.”
“Is that your testimony as a Sovereign Peer?” Ragan asked.
“That is my testimony as a Peer and the official witness of the Order of the Stars. If you wish, I will have a warrant demanding the arrest of Jalen Ganan drafted, sealed and presented to you by the end of the day.”
Ragan turned to Amerin and Laiathal. “There you have it, then. You are free to go.”
Indiçae BaAr Perrynday 3585
The coin Lord Schell had given them proved more than enough to secure room and board at the Maidenhead for the duration of the faire. Amerin picked several plates out of the purse and gave them to Laiathal. The rest of the coin, a small fortune by anyone’s measure, they dropped one by one into the bowl outside the Prelature’s temple tent, watching them spiral down to the collection box. From there, the two men strolled down the faire’s central mall toward the trial ground.
The crowd on the mall was thin with revelers as only a few stalls and fewer shows had opened early. Most of the faire’s attractions were still being constructed and the bulk of the men and women on the mall were working. Merchants and tradesmen set boards and hung garish signs that advertised their wares with audacious claims. Laiathal counted no less than four stalls claiming to sell the finest brandywine in Aen and no less than six that sold the sweetest ale. There were a few tonics to restore health and a few more tonics to restore virility; there were many more that claimed to do both. There was a booth selling little waxy brown pills that would soften your stool and a booth selling little waxy brown pills that would flavor your stew. The pills looked the same. There were barbers to remove your hair and ointments to help you grow it back again. Two young boys carrying a long roll of bright red cloth balanced on their shoulders hurried past him down a side street toward a wide, tented stall offering Dyvaadi massages. Two women wrapped in gauzy silk skirts and bare above the waist, adjusted tent poles. Laiathal’s step slowed, the women looked as if they could use his help, but Amerin growled and pushed him forward. A man no taller than an infant babe, wearing crisp linen pants and a soft velvet coat stood on the back of a hand cart carefully painting signs on the side of a long wood wall.
“Sights Amazing and Wondrous to Behold! No Children!”
The tiny man smiled at Laiathal as they passed, a little grin filled with shining silver teeth. Beside him, holding brushes and cups of paint on a tray stood a woman with fine blonde hair bound in braids that coiled around her neck and waist and spilled into a little pile at her feet.
On his left: The savory smell of roasted meat and stewed vegetables. On his right: The comfort of fresh baked bread and sweet honey. On his left: Three misshapen horses with flat mouths, humps on their backs and bored, disinterested eyes. On his right: Dozens of brilliantly colored parrots squawking and chattering as they fluttered around their huge wicker cage. On his left: A man more than twenty hands high with a waist as thin as Anielle’s. On his right: A shirtless woman with enormous bare breasts and a thick, black beard.
They stopped for a glass of brandywine and Amerin frowned when Laiathal swallowed his glass in a gulp. They ate delicate pastries filled with cream and laughed at a pair of clowns practicing pratfalls.
Near the trial ground the thin crowd grew spare and the thick clusters of makeshift stalls and canvas tents gave way to massive stages and crews of carpenters building fences and paddocks to corral the fairgoers into orderly queues. Laiathal followed Amerin through the warren of rope and post to the entrance of the trials.
“This is where the public will enter,” Amerin said. “You’ll come in tomorrow morning from the other side.” He pointed across the open area.
“But this,” he lifted the rope and motioned Laiathal through into the ground itself, “is where you’ll be tested.”
The trial ground was a wide, flat expanse of hard packed ground set in the center of the Maidenfaire. Surrounded on all sides by risers and wooden bleachers it looked to Laiathal like what it was: a big, empty arena. After the color and music of the mall, he wasn’t much impressed.
Amerin grunted. “It’ll mean more tomorrow. Trust me.”
Laiathal looked around again and nodded dutifully.
The voice came from a large, recessed viewing box a few dozen yards from the entrance. It was Lord Schell with Ragan Doer and another man. Schell waved and called again.
“I say! Ho there, Veneret!”
“‘Ho there?'” Amerin muttered under his breath. “Who says, ‘Ho there?'”
He returned the wave and they walked over. When they’d reached the edge of the box, Schell held up his hand to stop them and spoke quietly to Doer. Doer nodded and both he and the other man disappeared behind the curtains at the back of the viewing box. Schell leaned against the railing and smiled down.
“How do you like our little faire? Something else isn’t it? See it tomorrow with the crowds. It’s mesmerizing. No, don’t move, I’ll come down.”
Schell turned and after a moment a panel in the wall beneath the viewing box popped out and Schell joined them.
“You’ve reserved your rooms then? Good. Come with me, I’ll buy you two a drink… no, don’t give me that look. I know you’re Veneret. You might not fuck, but you sure as hell drink and tonight you’re drinking with me.”
Schell walked them out of the trial ground the way they came but instead of taking them down the central mall, he steered them off a side street and past a series of nondescript stalls with muted signage.
“Moneylenders,” Amerin said in response to Laiathal’s obvious curiosity. “They don’t tend to advertise much. If you don’t know them, you don’t need them.”
They turned another corner and came to the edge of the faire and the high, white outer wall of Luow Muoweç. Schell rapped on a door in the wall and pushed past the surprised guard when it opened.
They followed him through the door and found themselves in what must have been a small storehouse for the city guard. Simple arms lined the wall and rows of truncheons, freshly cut by the looks of it were stacked in neat piles by the door.
“This way,” Schell led them past another surprised guard and out into the city. After the bustle of the faire, the city seemed quiet. The road was cobbled in gray stone and followed the arc of the wall for as far as Laiathal could see in either direction. Schell turned them off the road and down a narrow unpaved alleyway to the back of a large, nondescript warehouse. Again he knocked hard on the door and again he brushed past a guard and again Amerin and Laiathal followed dutifully.
This was no warehouse.
They stood in an anteroom lined with mirrored wall torches of finely wrought silver. Beneath the torches, along each of the wall stood three heavily armed guard. At a desk by the inner door in the far wall sat a small man in gray robes with thin wispy white hair and a pinched, tight smile.
“Lord Schell.” The man said.
“A private room, Rodal. Drinks only. Wine, feoerr, and brandy please. Doer will join us shortly.”
“Very good my Lord. Would you prefer the feoerr sweetened or spiced?”
“Both,” Schell said, waving his hand impatiently.
“Yes, my Lord. You will find your usual room appointed to your tastes.”
The inner door opened and a very pretty young woman stepped through into the anteroom. She was completely naked.
She bowed her head and motioned for the men to follow. She led them down halls and past tapestries and paintings. Laiathal thought he might have seen one or two other people. Or a dog. Maybe a dragon or two. Or something; he hadn’t paid much attention to anything outside the sway of the girl’s hips. He hadn’t even noticed Amerin whacking him on the side of the head. The girl left them when they reached their room.
Schell chuckled softly and motioned for them both to sit. “It can be distracting, but the feoerr here really is sublime. Please, sit.”
Laiathal sat and looked around him. After the opulence of the halls, the room seemed bare. Like the girl. He shook his head to clear his mind. The walls were bare stone and light came from oil lamps on stands. Six simple, straight-back chairs surrounded a plain butcher’s block table in the middle of the room. A small table stood by the door. There were no windows, no rugs, no adornments of any kind. The chair was comfortable and the room was quiet. He looked carefully at Schell. Amerin had said that Schell was a Lord of the Stars. The armies of the Sun were the Sovereign’s sinews, the Empire’s muscle. The Moon guard were its protectors, guardians of the Empire’s law. The Order of the Stars collected the Empire’s secrets. Its agents worked quietly in the darkness and were too numerous to count. They were…
The girl came back in.
She set a silver tray filled with bottles and crystal glasses on the table in front of the men, bowed and left.
Laiathal thought the room seemed rather hot and small.
“Here boy, have some of the spiced feoerr. It’ll take your mind off the girl.”
Schell poured from one of the bottles and handed the glass to Laiathal.
The liquid was smooth and delicately spiced. A hint of bitter and a touch of cinnamon. He rolled the flavor in his mouth and smiled. He coughed lightly as he swallowed, surprised by the burning heat that ran down his throat and suffused his body. He’d need to be careful with that. Much, much stronger than the beer and watered brandywine he was used to.
“Better than your tepid monk’s ale, no?” Schell asked.
Laiathal nodded and Schell made to refill the glass.
“Why don’t you give the lad a minute to catch his breath?” Amerin asked, cupping his hand over Laiathal’s glass.
Schell shrugged and filled the other three glasses.
“Doer will be joining us shortly.”
“Tell me about Doer.” Amerin said. “He spoke very freely about the Çadeça Charam. He clearly knows who you are. Can he be trusted?”
“He’s a good man.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
Amerin glanced at Laiathal.
“Lay, I think we need bread to take the edge of the feoerr. Perhaps some cheese. Would you fetch the girl?”
Blood rushed to Laiathal’s face and he ducked his head to keep the other men from seeing, but he heard Schell chuckle softly anyway.
Laiathal nodded and stood slowly.
“The girl will do more than fetch bread and cheese, boy. Take your time. Take your time.” Schell said, his smile broad.
“The food will be quite enough, Lay.”
Laiathal stepped into the hall and closed the door behind him. He looked up and down the hall. Aside for the opulence of the tapestries and gold lamplight, the hall was featureless, each end disappearing around matching corners. There were a number of doors, but he was loathe to just push one open at random… he remembered coming in from his right so he turned to his left. He nearly stumbled over the girl as she came around the corner.
She smiled and bowed her head, “Yes, my master?”
Laiathal knew before he tried that it would be futile; he opened his mouth and no sound came out.
“Yes, of course.”
She took his hand in hers and led him farther down the hall. Laiathal kept his eyes fixed straight ahead and after only two more turns in matching intersections he knew he was utterly lost. The girl stopped and opened a non-descript door revealing a room that held only a narrow bed covered in red velvet. She tugged at his hand and pulled him across the threshold.
Laiathal shook his head and opened his mouth. Again, no sound came out. He pulled his hand from the girl’s and looked up at the ceiling. He was sweating.
Laiathal closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
He stopped and took a deep breath.
He heard the door close behind him and he pressed his eyes closed tight, trying for all the world to think about anything other than the slim, naked girl in the room with him.
He opened his eyes as he felt hands tugging at his breeches. The girl was on her knees looking up at him as she pulled at his pants. He backed up and ran into the closed door.
“N-n-n-n-nnnnmmm,” his jaw clenched shut and his neck strained.
The girl stopped trying to undress him.
His mouth popped open and spittle flew from his lips. His eyes were wet and his face was purple from the strain. His chest heaved as he sucked for air. The girl scrambled backwards as Laiathal pushed himself away from the wall and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. He could see the worry on her face and that just made it all worse. He held up a hand to keep the girl at bay and closed his eyes.
He wiped his face on sleeve and tried to slow his breathing as he kept his eyes closed. He focused on his breath, the way Quorin had taught him. He felt the air fill his lungs and he attended to the smell; scented candlesmoke atop layers of stale sweat and spilled beer. He released his breath though his nose, slowly and surely. Just before he expelled the last of his wind, he spoke.
“Bread and cheese. That’s all. P-p-please.”
He opened his eyes.
The girl tilted her head slightly to the side and looked at him for a moment. Her mouth tilted at the edges in what might have been a slight smile, or a laugh suppressed, and then she nodded her head and left the room. He took another deep breath. Really, the smell was awful; he’d wait in the hall.
The girl returned in a few moments, faster that he’d thought she would, carrying a large tray filled with thick rolls of sourdough and heavy wedges of soft cheese. When he saw her, he smiled in spite of himself. She returned the smile and held up the tray.
“Bread and cheese?”
He shook his head and blushed. She giggled.
Laiathal followed her back to the first room. He tried to not watch the way her hips swayed as she walked, but he didn’t try very hard.
Amerin, Schell and Doer were waiting for them in the hall.
“Change of plans, my dear,” Schell said. “We won’t be needing the room after all. Ragan, grab some of that bread. Our friend may be hungry.”
Ragan nodded and grabbed a roll of bread from the tray as Schell turned and led the group back to the entrance. Laiathal only glanced back once or twice, no more than five or six times, to see if the girl might follow. She didn’t.
Schell led them through the warren of halls to yet another featureless door and down a flight of stone steps. At the base of the stairs, they met a pair of armed guards flanking a heavy bronze door. Schell took a torch from a sconce in the wall and the guards let them pass through the door and into the center of the simple stone dungeon. The prison held four cells, evenly spaced along both sides of the stone archway that led from the door. Ragan handed Laiathal the roll of bread, pulled a ring of heavy keys from his belt and opened the door on the far left. Schell gestured and the Laiathal followed Amerin into the cell.
The unconscious prisoner was bound to a low table in the center of the cell, his arms and legs splayed and roped to the table’s corners. He was a small man, hairless, naked and blue. A strip of silver metal ran from the man’s right ear down and around his shoulders and into his navel. His body was covered in the same festering, bloody sores that Laiathal had seen on the man in Sanidel canyon.
Indiçae BaAr Perrynday 3585
“He’s Noruunan.” Amerin stepped closer to the man on the table. “Is that…?”
“Raeden? We think so,” Ragan said.
“He arrived four days ago, ahead of the crowd for the Faire, thank Welan, or we might not have spotted him.”
Amerin looked up at Schell and nodded. “It looks the same,” he said.
“Like Whore’s bane. Except, here see…” He indicated with his finger, careful not to touch as he pointed.
“Here there are old sores, scabbed and dry. And here are fresh, suppurating and… oh good gods.”
Amerin stepped back as a large pocket of pus erupted from a sore on the man’s chest; the stench was overwhelming.
“Is he sensible?”
Schell shook his head and Ragan said, “Maybe.”
“It’s hard to tell,” Schell said. “He rambles. At times he seems as though he might be making a kind of sense, but we don’t understand him. It’s all Noruunan.”
Ragan smiled. “I catch some of the curses, but that’s about it.”
“Curses?” Amerin asked. “The man we encountered at the cabins was surprisingly foul in his ravings.”
“Wake him,” Schell said.
Ragan took a pitcher from the corner of the room and splashed liquid across the man’s face. The blue man stirred but didn’t open his eyes.
“Hand me that packet there, son,” Ragan said to Laiathal. “He may need more of the ethour ád’aoue before he’s able to speak. They wither without it, you know.”
Laiathal picked up the pouch and handed it to Ragan, who emptied its contents, a bright green powder, into the pitcher of water. He dipped a finger into the mix and stirred.
Ragan tipped the pitcher to the prisoner’s lips and carefully poured out some of the slurry. The man swallowed, coughed and convulsed and opened his eyes.
His voice was ragged and hoarse.
Ragan tilted the pitcher and the man gulped at the slurry as Ragan poured it out.
“Oblaed’aedo sacso polso.”
“That last bit was ‘pig fucker,'” Ragan said. “I have a Noruunan Aeger; he’s been teaching me.”
“He also said ‘thank you.'” Amerin murmured.
He bent over the Noruunan and spoke softly, “Sono fethal daousas shenede wosai?”
The man moaned and blinked his eyes rapidly. Amerin repeated the question.
“Sono fethal daousas shenede wosai?”
The man’s eyes fluttered once and then focused on Amerin.
“Daousas shenede naen Salwad’vedao,” he said.
“What did he say?” Schell asked.
“He said he is Salwad’vedao. Servant of the gods. A sorcerer.”
“So that is Raeden, then?” Schell asked.
Schell stepped close to the table and reached his hand out, stopping himself just before he touched the man on the table.
“Look at it, the way it flows.” His voice was a whisper. “It’s beautiful.”
The blue man’s lips turned to a sneer as he spoke.
“Wosai, daed’ad’aal, shenedes pele o Raeden? An o fod’o wosai womcheda semd’lel. Tomsourcha wosai semd’lel o Daousas womcheda.”
“My lord, please step back.” Amerin put his hand on Schell’s shoulder, but Schell shrugged him off.
“The man is bound to the table. He’s diseased and dying of the Whore’s Bane. Sorcerer? Maybe once, but no more. His time is come. The Raeden will be put to better use.”
Amerin looked from Schell to Ragan and shook his head.
“No. Only the Prelature may work with Raeden, only Gonwyn’s aide herself… you must bring him to Miselle and the Empress immediately. The law is clear, the Compact…”
“Miselle is a hundred miles from here and the compact applies to the Signet,” Schell’s words were clipped and curt.
“This man bears no Signet; he is outside the scope of the compact. He is no Çerád. He is barely human.”
“Sonadol da nalde, o Daousas nalos chal chosedo naen. Iou chal dachaedos o Daousas assaimsaee an naou nalo, ploped’aeendes’aalo saou enol an fod’o. Iou ous salwa’daousas. Daousas shenede naen Balazar Rhiall b’rey Ba’Wren. Wosai salo seble nalde.”
“My Lord,” Ragan said, “I believe he just compared you to goat shit.”
“Goat shit?” Schell laughed.
He bent over the blue man and whispered, “No, you stinking cave dweller, I am not goat shit. To you, I might as well be a fucking Daous. Yes, I know some of your filthy tongue. Your Daousas are old and weak. I am the only god you need… “
The table erupted in flame.
Laiathal raised his arm and shielded his face. He thought the air itself might have caught fire the sudden rush of heat was so violent. Schell staggered backward, his hair blazing. Both Ragan and Amerin dropped to the ground and rolled, trying to douse the flames that covered their clothes. Schell screamed. The blue man stood in a pile of white ash where the table had been, flames flickering from his hands, his mouth curling in a wicked smile.
He grabbed Schell by his coat and pulled him to his knees.
“Daousas somsounael saou pasedo.” He gripped Schell’s head in his hands, the flesh burning and melting away from the bone, dripping like wax on the stone floor. Schell’s skull glowed ash white and then melted in the blue man’s fingers.
Laiathal bent double and scrambled backward to get away from the heat, but with his arms over his head he was blind and with his first step he stumbled over Ragan, who lay convulsing and bleeding on the floor.
Laiathal tore desperately at the pendant around his neck. The metal was searing hot against his skin and the tips of his fingers sizzled as he pulled at the chain. Dark shapes rushed through the door and disappeared in the white hot fire.
“Waschael wosai o essaemel da o demendes’ae honan? O bon daous, o demendes’ae honan. Wael, slaeemendes’ae.”
The blue demon’s voice seemed to carry heat and the words themselves burned in Laiathal’s ears. He struggled with the chain but his fingers slipped and his knees buckled as his shirt caught fire.
Somewhere in the heat and the smoke someone screamed, a wail that guttered in pain.
His hair caught fire and he fell hard on his back, smothering his flaming plait with his already scarred hands.
Then, the moaning stopped.
The fire died.
The heat dissipated.
Laiathal lay on the cold stone floor his body racked with pain and covered in sweat. He opened his eyes slowly.
The blue man stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by charred corpses: Ragan, Schell and Amerin, and a charred heap that must have been the guards from the hall. He stared at Laiathal and chanted as he ran his hands up and down his body, his fingers dancing over the river of metal that wound across his chest.
“Ferel saou womcheda echlewésda naou nalos. Tono A’ou ous aenpoulo a chal foae faaecho saou salwo, palnaechael saou salwo pele semd’lel!”
He sang as he stripped the metal from his body, pooling it like thread in his hands.
He stood over Laiathal as he sang, in a lilting sing-song chant, “Pad’el naou pasedo a pad’el naou solpo. O demendes’ae honan dawa waewo raed’aedo. Pad’el naou pasedo a pad’el naou solpo.”
Laiathal struggled to stand, but his legs scrabbled futilely on the stone floor and his hands, too raw to find purchase slapped weakly at the stone.
The blue man bent over him, the molten Raeden in his hands, a thin, white hot thread still connected to his navel like a slippery, molten umbilicus. The sores on his body bled and suppurated freely, pus mingling with blood where it pooled on the floor.
He looked down at Laiathal and smiled. When he spoke, his voice was calm and without affect.
“Ischa é o nacher da o daousas. Wosai womcheda sal raenaecha pele saou womcheda.”
The last thread of metal slipped from his navel and the blue man rocked on his heels, his face twisting in sudden agony. His hands tipped and the molten metal poured out of his hands and onto Laiathal’s chest.
The universe exploded in a pure, cleansing, white heat.
 A hard, heavily spiced and peppered white salami.
 Laughter is a good end.
 We have been blessed
 Heavenly family
 Gods watch my child.