The fighting was over when we walked into camp, but they were still quelling the fire. Quill and Eliah entered the orange light with the horses and their unconscious captive. I slipped into camp from the other direction. The leanyodi knew I wasn’t one of them, but the guards and servants might not. Should not, if at all possible. My claim to the horses would just have to go unmade.
I went straight to the leanyodi tent, which was empty, and stripped off my bloodstained and stream-soaked clothes. As soon as I found a fresh pair of breeches and a shirt I went back out, leaving Shiharr and Azzad, my best knives, on my bed hidden under my soiled clothes. Outside, a tight cluster of servants and leanyodi stood between the tents and the campfires. Guards were moving the dead to the edge of the camp, and I saw a few people tending wounded by one of the fires. Druskin and Quill were standing over three bound and kneeling prisoners.
Druskin had found a shirt for his chest, but his sword was still naked and in his hand. He thrummed the rage. Quill stood beside him; arms crossed, feet apart, a rock in a stormy sea.
I slipped up the edge of the group, still barefoot because my boots and socks were on the stream bank. Mercifully, almost everyone in the crowd was half-dressed or clutching a robe. I didn’t stand out.
As I got closer, I could hear Druskin snarling, “You traitorous, sniveling worms. How dare you raise a hand against your liege lady!”
“She’s whoring—” the man didn’t get to finish the sentence. Druskin backhanded him so hard he fell to the ground.
“I would be within my right to kill you right here.” It was the Countess’s voice.
The men flinched as Druskin raised his sword. I flinched, too. Everyone turned to stare at the Countess, who had donned long black robe over her nightgown. Her long black hair was hanging loose down her back and her face was pale in the firelight, but every trace of her earlier trauma was gone. Galo was at her elbow, looking imperious and unimpressed.
The prisoners shifted, I could just a sliver of fear niggling into the hate and disgust on their faces.
“Who sent you?” asked the Countess.
“No one sent us,” said the man in the middle, “We are Wuhn. We are defending the honor of our clan.”
“She is the honor of your clan,” barked Druskin, sword still high.
“You whore us to our enemies!”
“You disgrace Angareth with your treachery,” replied the Countess coolly.
“It was his idea,” one of the men jerked his chin at the man in the middle.
The man’s lip curled. “Coward.”
The Countess lifted her eyes to Druskin and tilted her head just a breath.
Druskin’s sword fell and some of the women screamed. The Countess didn’t flinch as the man in the middle tumbled face first into the ground, unconscious.
The Countess’s voice rang out in clear order, “Bind them and tie them to the remaining carriages.” She turned on her heel and strode back into her tent as her men leapt to obey.
In the churning activity that followed, I tried to slip away to grab my boots from the stream but Druskin saw me and stopped me just on the edge of the firelight, “I want you to stay in the Countess’s tent tonight.”
I blinked at him. “I told you, I’m not a bodyguard.”
“No, but you’re a good person. You killed for her. She needs protection. I’ll have men at the four corners of her tent, but…” he looked away. “I would feel better if you were inside.”
I wanted to say no, mostly because I wanted to sleep and was irritated that he couldn’t just put a guard inside the tent. “How do you know I’m a good person?”
“Maybe I’m wrong about your motives.” He dragged his eyes to mine, “I don’t know how you got to her so quickly, or why, but I know she is still alive because of you.” He knew how close a thing it’d been, and it terrified him. It was none of his doing that the Countess was still alive. He had failed.
I crossed my arms. “Yes, where were you? And what were you doing without a shirt on? With Galo right on your heels with her clothes all askew.” Druskin turned red, as I’d expected, but I wasn’t done. “Are you sleeping with Galo?”
If possible, Druskin got redder, staring down at me with his eyes wide and his mouth open.
“Oh,” I said, surprised, “You are sleeping with Galo.” I’d wondered, given their looks and whispers, but it had been a leap. A leap I’d made mostly just to get under Druskin’s skin.
“Not so loud!” hissed Druskin, glancing around to see if anyone had been close enough to hear. There was a smoldering carriage, prisoners, and wounded men moaning as they were treated. No one in the camp was paying attention to us.
No wonder he’d told Galo immediately about being in my room. And no wonder she’d been so touchy about it. I grinned at him. “Can the leanyodi marry?”
“Yes, they can, but they take a yearlong sabbatical to do so,” he stopped, irritation filling his face, “That’s not important—” Druskin’s jaw clenched as he looked away again. When he spoke again, his voice was pained, “Please stay with the Countess. She is strong, but she has had a terrible fright, and I know your presence would comfort her.”
“Alright. Fine,” I said, “I’ll stay in the Countess’s tent. But I think that you should make it a priority to find and train female guards for your female nobles in the future.”
“It’s been awhile since the Wuhn had need for elite female guards.” Druskin looked relieved, “I didn’t have any who were skilled enough and…” he hadn’t thought he needed them.
I sighed. “I’ll get my knives.”
In the morning, the Countess summoned Druskin, Pontikel and the mercenaries before she had even finished dressing. Brell and Hadella were bustling around the tent packing and Galo had just finished brushing out the Countess’s hair when they all arrived. I was, of course, already there, having spent the night dozing on the ground between the Countess’s cushions and the tent entrance. By the sandy look to everyone’s eyes, no one had really slept the rest of the night, least of all the Countess, who had startled awake frequently.
Druskin looked about as sunny as usual when he walked in, his eyes skipping over the room to inspect the Countess and Galo. The gray bearded Pontikel was so grave he didn’t bother giving me a disapproving look. I’d only just finished dressing in the clothes Galo had brought me from the leanyodi’s tent, and was sitting on a cushion drinking tea. I still didn’t have my boots. Quill and Eliah arrived looking better rested than anyone else. It was not their world which had been upended by violence.
The Countess began, “I will not bring prisoners to Gar Morwen in my wedding train.”
“I will not,” she continued, “waste their execution on an empty moor. Nor will I mark my wedding week with blood. It is to be a time of celebration, and executions in the square will not help with tensions. Druskin, you will send as many men as you must to safely transport them back to Wuhnravinwel. Send a messenger ahead for relief forces, so your men can return to the retinue as soon as possible.”
“But, my lady, this will leave us ill equipped to protect you from another attack,” said Druskin.
Eliah spoke up, “I kept close to the prisoners all night, they spoke of other…dissidents…who might harass the caravan.”
“These are mobs, not assassins,” said Eliah, “They are angry and unpredictable, and if we had time, we could look for the rabble-rousers and contain them.”
“And without time?”
“An overwhelming show of force might be the only way to dissuade night attacks,” said Quill, quietly.
“It’s a little late for that,” snorted Pontikel, “They have already attacked our caravan fully outfitted.”
“And lost soundly,” put in Druskin.
“True, but we don’t want to fight our way to Gar Morwen if we can avoid it.”
“Do you have a specific suggestion, Quilleran?” asked the Countess.
“I propose that we split up the caravan and travel separately. Everyone leaves their ceremonial clothes packed and wears the least distinctive things they can, to look like simple travelers heading to Gar Morwen for the festivities. The caravan can reconvene on the outskirts of Gar Morwen to make a grand entrance, but not before then. This has the added benefit of confusing any real assassins who might seek to murder the Countess on the road.”
A moment of silence met Quill’s proposal. By their faces, everyone hated the idea. But no one offered a better one.
“One of the carriages is badly burnt,” said Druskin. “It will take some time to get it cleaned out.”
“We’ll have to cover crests on the carriages anyway,” added Pontikel.
“It is decided,” declared the Countess, “Focus efforts on one carriage at time. Carriages may leave as they are ready.”
Special thank you to my Patrons, I am so grateful for your support! Thanks for coming on this journey with me.
Share Zare with your friends and we will be a merry company.