2-Blood and Ashes

A small crowd of figures in dark hoods almost blocked the form of a flailing woman being pinned to the ground. Fury burst through my veins and carried me forward. Quill reached the crowd first and hurled one man into another before hammering his fist into the temple of a man holding a knife. The man fell, driven to the cobbles with all the momentum of Quill’s charge. Angry cries rose from the crowd—which faltered when I hit their flank and dropped two more with my knives before they could think. There had to be fifteen or twenty people in this mob. Almost two dozen people who not only knew about the murders but helped. I ducked a punch from a big man and sliced Azzad across his chest without remorse. Their matching cloaks and—were those candles? —certainly confirmed our ritual theory. I spun and clubbed the next person on the head, “Eliah!” I shouted. I hoped she was already on her way.

I barely saw the jug before a cloud of ash hit me full in the face—it was enough to seal my nostrils and spare my lungs, but my eyes stung. I recoiled, softening the blow that immediately followed the jug. Someone else swung at me from behind but I dodged and, eyes closed, spun a knife into their midsection. The startled grunt was gratifying. Knife fighting blind was not ideal and relied hard on instinct and speed. So, I didn’t think—I daren’t think—I just moved. I heard the moans of the wounded, the slap of boots on cobblestones, the heavy breath and whoosh of air of someone furious swinging for me. I heard the sobbing of the woman—why hadn’t she fled yet? I heard shouts as Eliah and my brother, Ayglos, joined the brawl. And I moved. I moved, striking hard and fast, ducking and spinning and striking again, until I felt space clear around me.

I stood for several heartbeats, Shiharr and Azzad ready, waiting for something else to come at me.

There was nothing but moans and the last sounds of a scuffle some distance away.

“Zare, you alright?” Eliah’s voice.

Straightening, I shifted my knives to one hand and used the other to wipe at my face.

“Stop, stop!” Eliah’s voice was closer, and in a breath, she’d caught my wrist and pulled my hand from my face. I heard fabric tearing and then flinched as she—none too gently—began to wipe the ash off my face. “Your hand is bloody, you’ll just make a bigger mess if you try to clean yourself,” she said.

“Butcher,” I managed, with the last air from my lungs. I kept my nostrils sealed as Eliah worked, despite the fact that it severely limited my ability to complain.

“I’ve had hounds that wiggle less than you,” Eliah sounded quite cheerful. “Smells like someone cleaned their kitchen hearth for this murder.”

She stepped away and I inhaled at last. “Lovely: Greasy murder ash.” I lifted my eyelids, blinking away the sting.

Eliah was standing directly in front of me, her own harlot dress slipping off her shoulder, her face scrunched up critically. “You look awful,” she pronounced, then started using the rag to clean her own savage knife.

“Thanks,” I replied. My hands and knives were slick with blood, and I tried to wipe them clean on my dress—which was also filthy—while I looked around. Sad light from poorly maintained streetlamps illuminated a tableau of bodies—some of them dead, most of them wounded and moaning. My brother was prowling the carnage, dressed like workman but carrying a naked sword and looking terrifying as he pommel-clubbed anyone who tried to get up and run.

Quill was crouched over the prone woman.

“Find us some rope, Eliah. We’re going to need a lot more than we thought.” I crossed the battleground as Eliah snorted. When I reached Quill and the woman, I knelt at her shoulder, “Are you alright?” She didn’t have any enormous wounds I could see, at least.

She blinked up at me, her lips were trembling and she made no attempt to speak. Bruises mottled her pale skin. I felt an urge to stab more people.

“I think she might’ve been kicked in the head. Or she might be drugged. Or both,” said Quill, his glance turned into a frown as he took in my new ghoul-of-ash look, “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” I assured him. “They brought a bucket of ash their murder.”

Quill’s gaze sharpened. We were both remembering the grisly mess we’d found in the Queen’s chambers in Dalyn years ago.

“What about you?” I asked.

He lifted his hands to show me the blood on his knuckles—it was just dark splotches in this light, but I knew what it was.

“Aren’t you carrying knives?” I asked.

“I am. But I wanted to use my fists,” he let coldness into his voice, and it made me love him even more. Quilleran Rhydderick was not a vengeful man, but he was a just one. His righteous fury was something to behold. It probably shouldn’t make my heart beat faster. Perhaps I’d been a mercenary too long.

Turning my focus back to the woman, I tried to look gentle and unthreatening. “I’m going to touch your head to see if you’re bleeding, alright?” I waited for her to acknowledge, and I was pretty sure she nodded. I put my hands on either side of her temple and carefully turned her head to examine the side and back. The darkness made it difficult to tell if the shadows in her hair was blood or grime, and I didn’t dare check with my grubby fingers lest I make her wounds worse. I gave up on her head and did a quick check for broken bones or big gashes on the rest of her. Rope hung loose around her wrists, someone—Quill, most likely—had already cut her free. “Can you sit up?” I asked.

Woodenly, she accepted my help to sit up. It was like moving an oversize doll and made me uneasy. Once upright, she looked around the street at the carnage of her attackers. Drawing up her knees, she hunched over herself, and started to cry. Relieved to see movement and emotion, I sat down on the cobbles next to her and looked over at Quill, “I’ll stay with her.”

He nodded and got to his feet. “I’ll finish this.”

By the time Eliah returned with rope and a few men from the Guard, Ayglos had brought over one of the dark cloaks to wrap around the woman’s shoulders and she’d also accepted my arm around her. While they were shackling the living, a cart arrived for the dead. The Guard were understandably taken aback by the situation. No one had expected a mob. But the cloaks, the ash, the wicked looking dagger Quill held up to the streetlight to inspect…it was enough to make anyone’s skin crawl.

Eventually, I persuaded the woman to her feet and steered her through the cobble streets of the Stone Quarter until I reached Valeria’s shop. It was close to dawn, and the few people who were about were either drunk, or on their way to work. Only one or two looked closely enough to even wonder at the state of two ill-dressed women spattered with blood. I was both irritated and relieved by the time I banged on Valeria’s door.

Valeria had dark, wrinkled, skin and hair that was white with age. Her eyes were sharp, though; she saw the blood immediately and was unsurprised. “Did you get the bastard?”

“Bastards,” I corrected. “Yes. Send for your doctor, though. We think she hit her head, or was drugged, or both.”

“Set her in the kitchen,” ordered Valeria, before disappearing to roust her assistants.

There was a long table with benches in the kitchen, and I helped the woman sit down. She lay her torso on the table and lay her head on her arms. Satisfied she wouldn’t fall off her seat, I turned to deal with the fire. Valeria entered the kitchen and watched, her arms crossed over her dressing gown. Fire building wasn’t my best skill, but I prevailed and coaxed a respectable blaze to life.

“I’ll put the kettle on,” said Valeria, walking forward. “I don’t want you touching it with those hands.”

*

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17-Change of Plans

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.”

Everyone nodded.

“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.”

“Oh?”

“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.”

*

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9-Handmaiden

The great hall of Wuhnravinwel had a vaulted ceiling and was filled with sunlight from tall slender windows that were flanked by heavy drapes. It filled the entire top level of the keep, and long trestle tables ran the circumference. Braziers marked out a path from the huge double doors. It was petition day, and a line of people waited outside the hall for their turn to walk the path to the Countess on the dais. There were some knights, lesser lords and handful of the household also in the room. Either there to watch or working quietly. Six leanyodi and a handful of men, including the Chief Advisor, Pontikel, who took the time to glare at me when we arrived, were close to hand.  We handmaidens all wore matching blue silk and thick kohl on our eyes with a streak of white painted across our cheekbones just beneath our eyes. The Countess’s white streak enveloped her eyes to symbolize the blindness of justice. Her face was not powered to oblivion today, but her lips were again painted dark and her gown was so dark it looked black until the sunlight hit it.

Though the Countess would rule Wuhnravinwel after the marriage, the schedule was packed as if her people never expected to see her again. This wasn’t true, as Ilya Terr of Linden lived only a few day’s ride away, and technically each retained rulership of their own holdings after the marriage. But half the people who entered the hall didn’t have a question or dispute for the Countess to settle, they just came to look at her and offer a gift. They brought whatever they had, and the gifts ranged from flowers or grain, to bolts of cloth or beads, to chickens or even cattle. Some of the people were solemn and funereal, others practically danced with happiness. The end to a blood feud was, I supposed, emotionally very complicated. The Wuhn were largely olive skinned, with black or brown hair, but I noted with some surprise that there were a few who had slightly darker skin and pointed ears that hinted at the blood of the Terrim elves. Had every Wuhn half-elf come to see the Countess off for her wedding?

Galo and I stood behind the Countess as she accepted her gifts and settled the occasional dispute. The other leanyodi inventoried and sent each gift off to appropriate parts of the fortress.  Very occasionally the Countess would speak to us or ask our opinion. But mostly, we watched. Pontikel sat beside the Countess, surprising me with his silence throughout most of the proceedings. When he did speak, he was predictably curt, but usually he had an insightful question. Druskin spent most of the morning standing to Galo’s right, taking breaks to prowl around the room and speak to the knights or others of the household.

Lunch was a surprisingly informal affair. Petitioners were shown out for a time, the doors to the hall were closed, and the household gathered at the long tables to eat. The Countess gestured for me to sit across from her, the other leanyodi settled like flocking birds all around us.

“What do you think of all this, Zephra?” asked the Countess, accepting a goblet from a servant.

“I think that your people are very fond of you, Grofnu. And some are frightened by this treaty,” I replied.

The Countess nodded gravely. “They are. We have been spilling blood over the springs for generations. No one knows what it will mean to share them.”

“I didn’t expect to see so many half-elven here.”

Servants settled platters of meat and steaming root vegetables and cabbage on the table. I breathed in the delicious aroma.

Before answering me, the Countess lifted her hands and prayed, “The blessing of Eloi and his servant Tirien, our protector, rest on the food from this land.”

We began to eat. After a moment the Countess said, “There aren’t many. I believe all of them have visited Wuhnravinwel since news of the treaty.”

I supposed it made sense. Elves didn’t live underwater, so they had much more opportunity to mingle with mankind. Most nymphs didn’t live entirely underwater, either, but they didn’t have large kingdoms on land. When I was a child, every one of the cities around Daiesen Bay had nymphs and half-nymphs among its subjects. Elsewhere on land, nymphs had mostly small holdings, hidden enclaves, hard to get-to places…the kingdom Under Daiesen was the largest I knew of, and…well…it was under Daiesen Bay. I studied the Countess, once I might have been in her place. I was surprised at how foreign the idea felt now. Even my sister, who had once been engaged to a prince, before our lives were upended, had married for love in the years since. I ate for a moment, trying to decide how impertinent I could be on my first day.

“I can see the question, Zephra,” said the Countess. “Ask.”

I glanced up at her sharply. It wasn’t that she knew I had questions, she was looking at me, and I felt seen. My own gift of seeing was so small as to be inconsequential most of the time, but the Countess had a stronger gift. Nymphs knew water, elves knew trees, and mankind knew things they should not. I set down my fork. “What is your opinion of the treaty and the marriage?”

“I believe it is a good thing,” replied the Countess without hesitation. “I am tired of shedding blood over water and agree with my King that peace will come through shared blood and shared water.”

“Have you met the Lord of Linden?”

She smiled, her teeth bright white against her dark lips. “I met Lord Ilya Terr during the treaty negotiations.”

One of the leanyodi, Brell, broke in with a grudging tone, “The Lord of Linden is well to look upon, at least.”

Several of the others smiled, but Galo shot Brell a silencing look.

“He carried himself well,” said the Countess, “I think he is good.”

I glanced at the other leanyodi. “I want you to know that I appreciate the honor it is to serve you in this manner, even for a short time.”

“This peace is of the utmost importance,” replied the Countess. She looked at Galo, “To that end, I have asked Galo to show you the letters that were waiting for me when I returned to Wuhnravinwel after the treaty was signed. You will go after the audiences for the day.”

“Very well,” I bowed my head. “I also needed to speak with you about a good time and place, both here and at Gar Morwen where I can meet with Quilleran every day without arousing suspicion. I thought, perhaps, I could be sent to the library every evening?”

“The library?” laughed the Countess, “Every day? I’ll be planning a wedding, not a war.”

“But,” put in Galo, “She doesn’t need to be doing research for you, my lady. She will want to meet as openly as possible with Quilleran to make them less interesting to everyone. Could she be teaching him a language, perhaps?”

“Maybe…” I frowned. “I am not fluent in Terrim.” Since he obviously did not need lessons in Angari.

“Teach him about our customs and genealogies, then,” said the Countess, “Or pretend to,” she added when she saw skepticism in my eyes.

“That would work,” agreed Galo. “The library has histories for each tribe, you will not run out.”

“Then it’s settled,” the Countess lifted her glass, and just like that the conversation was over.

 

*

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3-Notorious

It had not been easy to hack to head from the monster, but we managed. Only broke two knives in the process. It took long enough that our shirts dried and our nymph stripes, which bloomed blue across our bodies when in water, had faded enough for us to return without giving away our mixed heritage. I’d taken a few teeth from the beast, rinsed them off, and tucked them in a pocket as a memento.

We’d looped rope through the jaws and carried the head between us the long walk back to the main barns. It dripped and was disgusting. But the way the foreman recoiled and gaped was rewarding in its own way. He paid us what he promised and sent some of his hands to go fetch the rest of the carcass while we collected our horses and set off again.

Once we were a few miles down the road, Ayglos grinned at me and patted his saddlebag, “See, Zare? Easy money.”

I snorted. “You’re kidding, right? I nearly died of boredom out there.”

My brother laughed, the sun glinting in his short pale hair. It had been brown, once upon a time, but he bleached the color away. I preferred the brown, myself, but couldn’t deny that the white hair and tan skin were striking. Sometimes people asked him if he was Iltaran—his coloring now so like the nomads who lived where the snows never melted.

“I offered to have Rabanki sit with you.” On cue, the large black bird swooped down from trees lining the road and alighted on Ayglos’ shoulder.

I shook my head, leaning forward to stroke Hook’s neck. “No, thank you.”

Rabanki cocked a bright eye at me critically. Ravens were exceptional birds, so intelligent that they could learn languages, and some could speak with the tongues of men. They tended to be very loyal to their friends, and they loved—loved—anything that glittered. Rabanki had chosen Ayglos as a friend. He’d also taken particular interest in anything of mine that glittered.

My fingers strayed to the fine gold chain around my neck, confirming that the gold pendant hidden under my shirt was, in fact, still there. I continued, “If Rabanki sat with me I would have been robbed blind before that monster showed up.”

The raven tossed his head back and cawed a brassy laugh. The little hoarder.

“Then I would have had to fight the monster with just my bare hands—and that wouldn’t have been fair to the poor monster.”

“Point.” Ayglos laughed again, scratching Rabanki under his chin. After a moment Ayglos said, “I think we’ve earned a night in a proper inn, don’t you?”

“I think so,” my lips tipped up in a smile. A real bed sounded delightful. “Do you think we could find one with plumbing?”

It was Ayglos’ turn to snort. “Don’t get too carried away. This is Wimshell. They barely bother with buildings.”

It was only a slight exaggeration. Wimshell was just a few centuries removed from being nomadic. There weren’t many towns, and only the wealthiest had yet built anything as complex as indoor plumbing.  The sun was riding low in the sky as we rode through the wood stockade of Tanglewood Springs and lost ourselves in the dusty streets that wound between the three and four story wood buildings. There were plenty of people out at the end of the day, horse or oxen drawn wagons, women in long skirts carrying baskets, men in hats carrying bundles.

“Can we go to the inn the outfitter told you about?”

Ayglos groaned. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you about the Lake House. That’s probably the most expensive inn here.”

“So? It’s not like we stay in inns very often.” I tossed him grin.

“You want to spend everything all at once?”

“Yes, definitely.”

My brother rolled his eyes. “Insatiable taste for luxury.”

“It can be sated. With a big dinner and a big bath, a big bed,” I lifted my hands and ticked items on my fingers, reins dangling, “And a nice room with a big fireplace—”

Ayglos threw up his hands, Rood snorted. “How about we get all those things at the second-best inn?”

“I’ll take it.”

“And then tomorrow we need to find some new knives.”

“You have excellent ideas.”

*

When hiding nymph heritage, bathing in privacy was a high priority. As it turned out, there were only two inns with suitable bathing rooms in Tanglewood Springs, the Lake House and Prosperous Hall. They were the two finest and most expensive inns the little city had to offer. Far more expensive than they should have been, in my opinion. Yet, we were determined, so we booked at the slightly less expensive Prosperous Hall, under the name Fatty Bowbender. Ayglos had winked at the girl at the counter, his smile dazzling, “Boys in the company have a sense of humor. My real name is Heroic.” She’d blushed, laughed, and taken our money without asking which mercenary company we belonged to. Our suite had four rooms and two private baths—one of which was scandalously enormous. Servants had hand pumped the water from a mechanism in the room. It was definitely more convenient than hauling buckets, though rather less impressive than the plumbing in our grandfather’s palace under Daiesen Bay. But dinner had been excellent, and I couldn’t even begin to express how wonderful it was to have a lazy hot bath and be clean and in clean clothes. I had pulled out my one silk shirt and a clean set of supple breeches before sending an entire saddlebag of dirty laundry with the servants for cleaning. I even took some time to preen in front of the mirror while my stripes faded.

We spent the evening in the large parlor on the main floor. Ayglos played cards with a group of fancy merchants from the south while I sat by the fire with a book hiding most of my face while my knives glinted brazenly in the firelight. Ayglos plied the men with stories—most of them true—about our exploits. Even without knowing my true name, a female mercenary was rare and exciting. Especially if she were pretty, which I was. The other patrons were distracted enough by my presence that Ayglos won more hands than he should have, and we retired to our suite a hundred silver richer.

When we unlocked the door to our suite, a worn, folded piece of paper lay on the floor just inside. I bent and picked it up, flicking it open as I walked into the sitting area. The paper bore a sketch of a girl with dark eyes, a medium nose, lips that curved slightly up, and mane of dark curls. My face. Though, I was a few years older now. Beneath the sketch, printed in big, ugly letters, were the words: “WANTED; Dead or Alive, for Treason against the Empire, 5,000g.” I whistled, “That reward is madly huge. You could build a villa with that kind of money.” It was a much larger number than the first time I’d seen one of these three years ago. Instincts finally alarming, my head snapped up and I scanned the room. I didn’t see anyone or feel any eyes on me, but I loosened a dagger anyway.

Ayglos took the paper from my fingers and grunted critically before handing it back to me. “Still the same picture,” he said. I tossed him a sharp glance as he headed toward his bedchamber, waving a lazy hand at the notice in my hand. “So dramatic. I saw Curry’s Catch last time I was in town, it’s down by the lake shore. Though, I had thought he was on the far side of the world or some such.”

“What are you…” I cut myself off and looked at the notice again. Beneath the print, in handwriting I knew almost as well as my own, it read: “You look good notorious. Breakfast tomorrow, Curry’s Catch, eight.”

*

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1-Monsters in the Water

I had spent three days perched in a gnarly oak tree watching for monsters, and I was bored. My branch extended over a little river, commanding clear view of the river and the fields on either side—not that there was anything to see. Cattle lazed peacefully in tall green grass to my left. Plowed earth filled the world to my right. Behind me, if I looked, I would see the distant blue ridge of the Phas Mountains. A pretty view. The river in front of me was wide and lazy and had many places where the banks dipped low, and many other places you could swim in deep, clear pools.

Quiet.

Good fishing.

And no monsters in sight.

I chewed on a stalk of grass, absently watching the tip toss. The thing about hunting was that you couldn’t bring a book.

Spring was bleeding into summer and the days were warm enough that I’d ditched my leather jerkin on the first day out here. The breeze obligingly licked through the linen shirt I wore under my harness of knives, soothing the burn of the late afternoon sun.

A three-note whistle came from upriver. My brother, Ayglos, checking in on his younger sister. I removed the grass long enough to repeat the three-note whistle back.

My brother had gotten us this monster hunting job. We were fresh off a job tracking down a bounty—a murderer we’d caught up with just a few days ride from here. Ayglos had gone into Tanglewood Springs for supplies while I took a nap in a puddle of sunshine. Of the two of us, he was less notable, so he did most of the errands when we were riding together.

At the outfitter, he’d struck up a conversation with a Master Hadrake’s foreman. Turns out, Master Hadrake’s cattle were disappearing, and his herdsmen swore up and down that a scaled beast with hideous claws had risen from the river to claim the cows. It had gotten so bad most of the herdsmen refused to come anywhere near the river and the foreman was hitting up all the taverns and outfitters in Wimshell looking for new herdsmen. Ayglos had offered a different service. “Can’t pass up an ‘easy job,’” I muttered, biting down on the grass. Any chance to earn good money. It’s not like we had anywhere else to be for a few months. It was only a small comfort that Ayglos was sitting in a tree at another major watering spot. Just as bored as I was.

If I hadn’t seen massive clawed, webbed, tracks, in the soft river bank I would have assumed Master Hadrake was being robbed. I’d never heard of a river monster this far north. Though, despite being half-nymph, we’d spent rather less time hunting water monsters than one might suppose.

After three days of sitting in a tree by the herd’s favorite watering spot with nothing but insects and my thoughts for company, I was returning to the cattle rustler theory. We had tried to question the river itself when we first arrived, but it had been vague and uncooperative. Maybe the river thought we were crazy.

My stalk of grass snapped, and I nearly fell off the branch as I lunged to snatch it before it fell out of reach.

An uncertain moo sounded below. I looked down to see a cow craning her head to look at me, her large brown eyes set in a wide piebald face, ears flicking attentively. The whole herd was behind her, having picked their way over to the river while I’d been engrossed in my thoughts.

“It’s alright,” I told the cow, “I’m not the monster.” I waved vaguely at the river.

Her ears flicked. Unconvinced.

“I’m not. Go drink, I’m sure you’re thirsty.”

Cows were such skeptical creatures. I supposed they had a right, having lost several of their compatriots to the river in the past few weeks.

I swung my legs over the side of the branch and bowed at the waist, “Word of honor, my good cow, I, Zare Caspian of Galhara, am not the one killing your sistren.”

Eloi help me. Three days alone in a tree, and I, Zare Caspian of Galhara, Daughter of Zam the Great, Ghost of Nelia, Curse of the Empire, was losing my mind.

The cow blinked at me, as if agreeing with my thoughts. Then, with a shake of her head she turned and strolled to the water. Three others followed her down the slope to the water’s edge, and two waded in to drink half submerged. More from the herd started to amble over. I watched them, grass dangling from my fingers as my mind wandered far away to another river, swift and deep, that ran beside a breathtaking stone palace.

One of the cows vanished under the water with a bovine shriek. I cursed. Water churned, the black hooves of the cow breaking the surface in a desperate kick before a scaled ridge arched over them and both disappeared in a cloud of silt…and then blood…bellowing filled the air as the other cows fled. Leaping to my feet I drew a long knife and barely remembered to whistle for Ayglos before diving into the river.

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Share Zare with your friends and we will be a merry company.

100 – The Road Ahead

At dusk, we laid the King of Dalyn to rest in an over grown walled garden beside the ruined house. The knights had slowly gathered stone rubble on their patrols throughout the day, and now we all helped raise a cairn over Tarr Kegan’s body. We had nothing to bury with him to indicate rank or honor besides the thin circlet he’d worn in the ballroom. We had no flowers. No tapestries. Not even a sword we could spare. Just broken stone. Hess watched us work from nearby, Tarryn in her arms and Naran clutching her skirt. The other four children clustered around her, watching solemnly as the cairn rose higher. I wondered if any of them had met the man assumed their sire. The man whose generosity and craftiness had backfired on them and torn them from their mothers. Would they hate him if they did understand?

Rock after misshapen rock passed from one calloused hand to another until Tarr’s form was entirely protected by the shattered pieces of Rhydderhall. Nothing but starlight and the glow from the rising moon illuminated Trinh as he climbed up our little mound and set a white piece of marble at the pinnacle. The marble was part of a carved frieze, but all that remained was a ship with three masts riding a wave. Trinh stepped back down and stood facing the cairn, his hands hanging at his sides. For a moment, I could almost see his thoughts: They swirled around him, condemning ghosts crushing him with the enormity of his defeat. It was as if he finally believed, for the first time, that his family had died six years ago and his beloved had not been seen or heard from since. He finally believed, and it would tear him apart.

Hesperide approached the cairn and sank to her knees, putting one hand on the stones. Naran, still at her side, did the same, bowing his little head. Her presence calmed the chaos radiating from Trinh with a leaden blanket of sorrow.

No one said anything.

After several long moments, Trinh put his hand on Hess’s shoulder. She looked up at him, then accepted his help up. Time to mourn was another thing we didn’t have to give Tarr.

We had miles to go tonight, to get as far as we could in different directions and fade into trade routes from different cities. Eventually, we’d all flee west. West, to bright Magadar. To lick our wounds, and to hide Tarr’s heirs. And for my brothers and me, to find our court.

Trinh led Hess back into the ruin where our carefully portioned packs and supplies waited. The rest followed one by one; knights, children, and my brothers each laying a hand on the cairn in farewell before filing back into the desolate villa. I heard one knight mutter, “May the immortal Breath bear you swiftly to Eloi in paradise.” Traditional words.

When it was only Quill and I left in the walled garden. I approached the cairn, stopping at the base and staring at it while I fingered my gold pendant with the sailing ships. How could this cold white pile of rocks contain the red tipped hair and burning blue eyes of that mad, brave, king?

I felt Quill stop beside me. The few hours we’d both been up had been busy dividing the supplies and the money from Tarr’s gifts between the four traveling groups. We’d talked just enough for me to learn that he had barely a scratch after last night’s battles, and that he and the doctor’s son were going with Hess and her children tonight. The children were divided among Trinh’s knights. The Galhirim would be entirely on our own for the first time in our lives. Strange to think we’d made it this far without experiencing that.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you we were staying to face the Huntsmen,” I said, eyes on the cairn, “I wanted to thank you for coming back for us.”

Quill nodded, “It’s what we do, come back for each other.”

I looked at him, then. The moon touched the angles of his face, and I found myself wanting to do the same as he gave me a small smile. I didn’t, but my answering smile felt like a promise. Even as I said, “You still owe me.”

He scoffed, “I don’t think the doctoring counts as many times as you think it does.” He plucked my sleeve right above my stiches. “And stop using your arm to block blades.”

My lips quirked. “I learned from the best.” I tugged his sleeve where he’d taken a sword in Gillenwater, so long ago.

His eyes sparked. Then he asked, “Which of you killed Khattmali?”

I drew a breath and let it out, “I did.”

A pause as satisfaction painted itself across every line of his face.

I continued, “She said she was the foremost of the Queen’s Huntsmen. That she had been rewarded the position in Dalyn to woo Tarr.”

“Huntsmen,” repeated Quill. “Ayglos mentioned them. Said they hunt without hounds.”

I thought of the golden woman who’d helped both Ayglos and I; who had undoubtedly been the one to keep Ayglos from being hit squarely in the spine when the Huntsmen first caught up with us. “I think they hunt,” I hesitated, “…by magic. And I don’t think we killed them all.”

Quill looked thoughtful. “I will find out more about them. Once Hess is safe.” He looked over his shoulder at the villa.

“You’re coming back?” I asked. No one had discussed coming back yet, and I feared he would say no. That he’d stay with Hess, wherever she holed up, and leave this fight for good. For me, the only road away from Dalyn curved right back to it.

Our eyes locked, the moon brightening his gaze with white fire. He was angry. I realized with some surprise that I’d never seen his anger before. Not like this. Quilleran Rhydderick was angry. Not at me, but at Narya Magnifique. Perhaps at himself, too. His voice was low, “We still have to be the ones to write the history.” To tell the real story of Tarr Kegan.

Something in me unfurled, like someone breathed on kindling at just the right moment to give life to fire, and I nodded. Then, crouching, I placed my hand on the stones. My fingers curling around a jagged edge as if I were holding Tarr’s hand. “We’re not done here,” I said half to Quill, half to the silent cairn and the man underneath. “We will be the ghosts who haunt the Nether Queen. The ones she could not catch. Could not kill. The light she could not smother.”

*

This is the end of The River Rebellion. Zare Caspian will return.

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98-Rhydderhall

By the time we arrived at the ruins of Rhydderhall I had forgotten we had a destination at all. The tunnels let out north of the city, and near the Bandui. We’d crossed the river in the same little boat Trinh and his knights had used when they first returned in secret to Dalyn. The children were in cold stupors, and Quill was all but carrying Hesperide when we stumbled down the remote lane to Rhydderhall. Namal and Baldric were waiting for us in the desolate little garden outside the kitchen, presumably alerted to our approach by sentries. Their eyes went wide as we dragged ourselves in, the sky graying to dawn behind us.

Baldric took one look at Hesperide’s pinched face and darted forward to scoop her into his arms. She sagged against his hulking body as he turned and rushed her into the ruined house. We followed slowly, unable to muster any enthusiasm to cover that last few steps with anything resembling speed. Quill lifted Naran from my arms and I was too tired to protest that I could carry him.

Namal swept his gaze over us, taking in the extra tiny beings bundled in miscellaneous fabric and the blood frozen to our clothes. I could see him putting all the pieces together. We were alive, walking, and he knew exactly why we had so many children with us. He turned and gestured us to follow, “Come, there is water and a little food.”

“Did you have any trouble?” asked Trinh, his voice gravelly with exhaustion.

“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” replied Namal. “We set the horses loose well away from here and made good time over bare ground. The men are covering your trail from the main road. We should be able to rest the day, at least. If the cold masks our scent.”

As we entered the narrow stairwell down to the old wine cellar a woman’s groan floated up to greet us. Fantasies of curling up someplace warm to sleep for a few hours vanished like little puffs of breath on a cold wind. I should not have been surprised.

Trinh finished the stairs in two leaps—impressive with the pack on his back and the child in his arms. Namal and Rakov were right behind him, but Quill didn’t bother to rush. He knew already, of course. He’d been her walking stick for the last few hours. My feet were dragging as I closed the cellar door behind us and descended last.

“She’s in labor,” Baldric was standing in gap in the furniture wall that split the room, holding a steadying hand out to Trinh. The rightful king looked very much like he should be holding a giant sword in his fists instead of a heavily bundled child. He stared blankly at Baldric a moment before all the action drained out of him, leaving him with a dazed expression.

I had never been anywhere near a woman in labor—and though the cooks at Galhara were very educational human beings. I looked around the cellar. A few lit candles showed that it was as we’d left it. It was, while not warm exactly, warmer than it was outside. A couple of Trinh’s knights were standing on one side of the room, rumpled blankets on the floor behind them as if they’d been trying to rest before we arrived.

“I don’t think it will be long, now,” continued Baldric.

“Her labor started when running in the tunnels,” said Quill very quietly.

She hadn’t said a word or made a sound. Tears stung my eyes.

“We have to risk a fire,” I said, “We’ll need hot water.” Babies needed cleaning, if nothing else. We needed heat, too, and there were plenty of wounds which also needed attention if we were to survive long enough to escape.

Two of the knights sprang to action, darting past me and up the cellar stairs into the dawn.

I slung my pack off my shoulder, dropping it with a heavy thunk next to the lone table before opening it to fish out Boitumelo’s satchel. Satchel in hand, I headed behind the make shift wall. Hess was hunched over, back propped against the cold stone wall, her head in her hands. Her underthings were already in a pile next to her and her dress was hiked over her knees. A knight was crouched beside her, stroking her hair. I blinked in surprise when I realized the knight was a woman. She was dressed in warm clothes reinforced with leather armor. Her hair was restrained in a long dark braid. She turned to look at me when I entered, her chin dipped, “Your Highness.” She was a few years older than me. Her face was not delicate, but she had a fearsome sort of beauty with thin lips and large dark eyes.

My steps slowed as I approached. “I don’t remember you,” I said. Too tired, apparently, for manners.

She gave me a small smile, as if I’d revealed her greatest secret. “I am Athrynel Hasreda, the King’s Marksman.”

Pausing, I looked at her again, remembering the hail of arrows which held the Nether Queen’s soldiers back while Quill and I leapt into the river. I met her eyes, “You probably saved our lives.”

Her smiled broadened a little. “You’re welcome.”

I opened the satchel, surveying the contents as if I had any idea what I was looking for. Athrynel stood and came to look over my shoulder. “Do you know how to use this?” she asked, eyeing the kit.

“For wounds,” I replied, helplessly. “I grew up during a war.”

Hess moaned again and my eyes flew to her. She still had her head in her hands.

“Well, I wouldn’t expect you’d learn midwifery in peacetime either,” Athrynel clucked and crouched to sift through the satchel.

She pulled a couple bottles out, then pushed the rest of the satchel back to me. “Most of the men have one scratch or another, do what you can. I’ll stay with Hestria. You find me some blankets or something and hurry them up on that fire.”

“Do you know anything about midwifery?” I asked, picking up the satchel and gladly moving away.

“No,” Athrynel turned back to Hess. “But I helped a cow once, long ago. And someone will fetch Gyreon off patrol. He picked up some of his father’s physician trade before deciding war was easier.”

I didn’t know who Gyreon was and wasn’t sure how much help he’d be if he’d left doctoring because he preferred fighting. Perhaps still more helpful than me. I returned to rest of the cellar to find that Trinh had recovered somewhat from his shock. He and his knights were busy unwinding children from their individual bundles, chafing cold little hands back to warmth, and rearranging the clothes and blankets into a den where they could tuck all the children together for maximum warmth. I stole one of the blankets, and as an afterthought pulled the servant’s warm clothes out of my pack, carrying it all back to Athrynel and Hess. As I left them, a knight came barreling down the cellar stairs and straight past me to Hess. Gyreon, I guessed.

Ayglos was sitting at the table, his wounded arm hanging limp. I started pulling things out of the satchel. “Namal, help him take the uniform off.”

Namal joined us in the puddle of candlelight and helped Ayglos unfasten the buttons of the uniform and shrug it off his good shoulder. Ayglos leaned forward and just gritted his teeth as Namal peeled the blood stiff jacket off the wounded shoulder and down the arm. Domjoa would not be pleased we’d destroyed his expensive fake uniform. The shirt underneath was thoroughly dried to Ayglos’s skin, and after prying at it we decided to wait for water.

While we worked, the door opened again, and another knight came down the stairs. I was surprised to see another woman, this one with short, dirty blonde hair, wearing the same sort of clothes and armor as Athrynel. She carried a bundle of wood in her arms. She scanned the room till she found Trinh, and said, “We’ve got a little fire going, and I found a pot for boiling water. I think we should consider building a fire down here so the babes don’t catch their death.”

The knights had wrapped themselves in their cloaks and alighted around the bed of children like migratory birds. Hew was burrowed in the center of them, his nose and his tail just visible amongst the folds and mounds.

“There’s no chimney,” protested one of the knights.

“We could use the stairwell,” countered another.

“And leave poor Jasem and Rae’d stranded on patrol all day?” teased a third.

Trinh jumped in, “Jasem could jump over the fire—and Rae’d is very lucky, I’m sure he’d be fine.”

Gruff laughter rumbled through the flock of knights.

Laughter.

I dragged my eyes to Trinh, surprised to see a smile teasing at his mouth.

“The bigger problem is we’ll have to jump to get out,” someone said.

“Better rest up, then.” The blonde smiled and dumped her armload of wood right next to the stairs.

Quill emerged from the huddle to help the blonde set up a make shift hearth just a foot away from the stairs, and to prop the door at the top of the stairs so it stayed open wide enough to lure the smoke out.

While we waited, I laid out astringent, salve, and the few bandages we still had. Namal hunted down the pitcher and basin we’d used last time we were here. Then we sat shredding a sheet from the villa into long strips. Who knew cloth would become so precious to us?

And while we waited, Hess’s moans became cries.

Quill had just coaxed the flame to life when the blonde left again and returned carrying a steaming pot. She edged around the fledgling fire and brought the pot to the table, filling the pitcher and basin I’d set out. She took the pitcher and headed behind the furniture wall.

Then, like the bells of the Cathedral calling worshippers to prayer, the squalling of a baby filled the cellar, reverberating off the stone walls. We all stopped to listen. Relief blossomed so tangibly from the cluster in the blankets that I turned to look at them. Soft voices slowly soothed the crying behind the wall. Quill left the fire and went to stand hesitantly in the opening. Tarr should be here. Trinh was staring, obviously feeling responsible, but also uncertain what his role should be. Quill was family by blood. After a moment, Quill disappeared into the back.

I turned away and soaked a rag in the basin—the water was warm, but I doubted it had been boiled. I added a splash of astringent and set to work on Ayglos’s shoulder, wetting the shirt enough to peel it away, then off entirely. The throwing knife had left behind a fairly small slit, but it was deep. I cleaned the wound as gently as I could before pasting it with salve and awkwardly wrapping bandages around his entire shoulder and across his chest to get them to stay. Ayglos had a few other nicks and slashes, and I treated them all. He bore the sting with a few hisses, and Namal helped him re-dress with clothes Quill and I had brought from the apartment.

I did my best to clean out the cloth and Namal took away the basin to dump the water and refill it with clean water.

“Who’s next?” I asked the room.

97-Stone

A figure loomed above me, black against the lamplight. I stiffened, then I recognized Ayglos and bleated in relief. I went limp as he grasped Khattmali’s shoulders with bloodied hands and pulled her off me. He crouched by my side, “Are you alright?”

“I don’t know,” I groaned. Since I wasn’t dead, I decided to try pushing my arms under me and sitting up. My right arm protested, and my chest seized a little…but I sat up.

His hands went to my arm, gleaming with blood, and then he gingerly touched the gash in my breastplate and whistled. “That blow would have felled a boar.”

Craning my head down, I could see the ravaged leather. And beneath…shining silver links caught the lamplight. The links were damaged, but not sundered. I touched the gash. I’d gotten used to the weight of my chain link armor and had forgotten about it. I drew a deep breath. Dear Heaven, breathing hurt. But it wasn’t the same sort of pain as the pain from my broken ribs. It was more radiating than stabbing. I turned to him. “What about you?”

He grimaced. “That fight was a long time coming. I’m fine.”

I looked him over; in the lamplight, I could see the blood slicking his shoulder, and over his armor. It didn’t appear to all be his—couldn’t all be his. “You look terrifying.”

“Thanks.”

I looked over at Khattmali, tumbled where Ayglos had left her. “Is she dead?”

Ayglos crawled forward and put his fingers to her neck. After a moment he said, “Yes,” and crawled back to me. The Ambassador who’d killed and imprisoned the nymphs of the Bandui was dead. The irrational, slinking, terror that had filled the passages was gone, leaving nothing but quiet in its wake.

We scooted to lean our backs against the wall, the space so narrow Ayglos’s knees bent to fit, and his feet propped against the opposite wall.

“I don’t like Huntsmen,” I said after a moment.

Ayglos coughed a laugh. “I’m sure they don’t like you either.”

In silence we took inventory of our bruises. It was a small victory. But it was a victory. I waited for pain, or joy, or perhaps sorrow…now that the deed was done, and the lightning had ebbed from my body. Instead of emotion, I became acutely aware that we were still in the palace and needed to get out. Now.

I grunted, “We should go,” and shifted to crawl across the passage and pick up Shiharr and Azzad from where they’d fallen. I wiped them clean before sheathing them on my back.

Ayglos was also moving carefully as he gathered his feet under him and walked to retrieve the lamp. When he reached the lamp, he froze, head cocked and one hand raised to signal a halt.

I was on my knees still but obeyed, holding my breath to listen. There were footsteps running toward us…from the direction our friends had gone. Ayglos doused the lamp and I bit back a curse as total darkness enveloped us. The footsteps slowed to a cautious pace and got very, very quiet.

Aching, I got to my feet. There was no light at all in these tunnels. I drew a knife from my thigh and edged along the wall, wincing when I came to the Huntsman’s corpse, his sword still wedged in the wall right at head height. I ducked under the sword, right at the crossroads, with Ayglos only steps away.

“Zare?”  The voice was right beside me.

I jumped straight up, and narrowly stopped my hand mid-strike. “Quill!”

“You’re alive!” his voice had the gasp of relief.

“You gave me a heart attack,” I replied, sheathing the knife. “Why are you back here?”

He snorted. “Needful heroism aside, Namal would kill me if I left you two behind. Even if you did try to get left behind.” The last few words had a bite that made me blink.

“Are you…angry with me?” I asked.

“Even if you were obvious about trying to sneak off, you should have said something.”

“Wouldn’t you have just tried to stop us?”

A match fizzed to life as Ayglos re-lit the lamp.

Golden light again illuminated our pale faces, Quill looking straight at me, eyes burning with fury. He’d certainly processed his relief quickly. “Holy heaven, no! I know what needed to be done. But you don’t leave without saying something. Even if–especially if–you think you’ll die.”

“You would have let us go?” I asked again, sharply. “You wouldn’t have argued or tried to go in my place?”

The fire in his eyes flickered, but he growled. “You don’t leave your unit ignorant they’ve lost their rear guard, you don’t leave your friends wondering what happened to you.”

Ayglos broke in, “You’re right, we’re sorry.” He looked between us, his expression firm. “I’m glad you came to get us.”

Then I noticed that Quill’s clothes were spattered with blood, and he was holding a long talon shaped knife that was dripping red.  “What happened?” I demanded, cold fear shooting through me.

“Met some soldiers on my way back to get you.”

Ayglos whistled. “That could have been more exciting than I would have liked. Again, thank you.”

Quill had the good grace to tip his head in acknowledgement before looking us over critically. He noted the jagged hole in my breastplate, and then looked at the corpses past us. “Is that…a woman?” he asked.

I glanced back, “Khattmali.”

Quill paused, obviously collecting all the questions he wanted to ask and putting them somewhere safe to bring out later. “We should go.” He turned to leave, offering his free hand to me. “You can douse the lamp again, I know the way and I would rather not broadcast our presence.”

I took Quill’s hand and offered my other to Ayglos. My brother again killed the light, finding my hand in the darkness as we already started to move. I could still feel Quill’s anger simmering off him as we moved through the tunnels. I wanted to talk to him, to explain, to justify, to argue. Then I thought of the blood covering all of us, and instead squeezed his hand in silent apology. His fingers tightened in response.

Quill led us quickly, and silently, stopping only once or twice to listen. The only noise we made was when we tripped over the bodies of the men he’d killed. I had no notion of where we were in the palace, and thought ruefully that Ayglos and I would never have found our way if Quill hadn’t come back for us. Eventually, Quill stopped and let go of my hand. I heard a clank and the sound of a heavy door swinging. Quill’s fingers closed around mine again and we stepped through the door, he turned back to close the door and I heard the grind of a lock. This passage was colder than the other and felt damp. Our breaths bounced off the walls and echoed back at us. Here, everything was stone. The floor dropped in a smooth, steep descent, that had us shuffling our feet for fear of slipping before it leveled off. I heard water dripping somewhere. The sounds bouncing around us changed, and I guessed that the passage had widened into a proper cavern. I couldn’t sense the walls close beside us any longer, and Quill moved more slowly.

Pausing, Quill crouched and tapped his knife on the rocks, the same little knocking pattern that opened the King’s secret door. I fully expected the rumble of moving rock, but instead there was an answering tap from somewhere ahead and to the left. Quill adjusted his course and I stumbled as my foot caught on the uneven floor. The tap sounded again, much closer this time. The walls were getting close, not because the cavern was shrinking but because we were heading into a small corner of it.

“Stop!” a voice hissed from the darkness ahead.

I froze, sensing Ayglos go rigid behind me, and Quill said, “Lord Rakov?”

“Quilleran, you return. Were you successful?”

“I have them.”

“Good, come ahead—careful, it’s narrow.”

Quill led us forward. He grunted in pain, “You aren’t kidding.”

“Sorry,” Rakov’s voice floated ahead of us, “The door is very heavy, we didn’t open it far.”

“Watch your feet,” muttered Quill. I felt him swivel ahead of me and I copied his movement best I could. I sensed stone at my back and leaned into it, shuffling gingerly until my boots bumped the threshold and I could step up and wiggle through the narrow opening. I would have been more graceful if my hands weren’t monopolized holding onto Quill and Ayglos. Once Ayglos cleared the door I heard Rakov say, “Watch yourselves.” Then a slow grind rumbled behind us and the distinct sound of a lock thunking into place. This space was significantly smaller than the cavern on the other side of the door. The air was colder and more fresh.

Rakov moved around us, I felt him brush against my shoulder in the cramped space. “The others are this way, a little closer to the cave mouth.”

Ten more steps, then we stopped again, and I noticed new smells: dirt, straw, and possibly animal scat.

“They’re back,” said Rakov.

Movement, shifting clothes and the faint clink of armor. Trinh’s voice came from the left, and low, “Good. We should get moving. Only a few hours before dawn.”

94-Shadow

“Eloi,” muttered Trinh.

I just stared back at the children who were staring mutely at us. Dark cloaked strangers carrying weapons filled the doorway and they did not move or cry out. Naran was the eldest at six years, the others were clearly younger, two were only just toddlers. I wondered if they could see the blood staining our gear or knew the violence that had swept through the palace. Poor things.

Hess peeled back from Quill, and wiped her eyes, “What are you doing here?” Then, noticing his blood-spattered clothes and weapons, “How did you get in?”

“We’re here to rescue you,” replied Quill.

“Did Tarr send you? They told me he…” she trailed off. Quill said nothing, but his face must have conveyed the truth. Hess bowed her head, her grip tightening on Quill’s biceps till her knuckles turned white.

Quill squeezed her shoulders, “He was brave.”

“He died thinking of you and Naran,” I offered quietly from the doorway.

Hess’s eyes flicked to the door, noticing Trinh and me for the first time. “You’re alive, too,” she managed a weak smile, her eyes bright with tears. “He would be glad.”

“Did they hurt you?” asked Quill.

Hess shook her head. “No,” her lips gave a bitter twist and she laid a hand on her belly, “Too valuable. But these poor babies would be here alone if it weren’t for this child.”

Trinh took a step forward, “We have to go now.”

One of the children on the bed whimpered. Hess looked over and quickly went to them, reaching assuring hands to caress each, “It’s alright, little ones, these are friends.”

“I want momma,” sniffled one child, a little girl with wispy blonde hair.

“No, baby, I’m sorry.” Hess reached out and pulled the little girl close. “I can’t bring you to momma.”  She raised her eyes to Trinh, “I can’t leave them to her.”

Trinh hesitated, then he walked to the bed and sat on the edge. He opened his arms invitingly, addressing the little girl with a tenderness I found surprising from the taciturn prince, “You’re alright, I’ll keep you safe.”

The child looked into his eyes, and then, ignoring the blood on his clothing, reached for him. Trinh picked her up and snuggled her close. He looked at Hess, “There are five of us: We’ll carry them all out.”

One of the other children crawled toward Trinh, reaching to be picked up too. I turned to the closet as Trinh shifted the girl to one arm and scooped up the other child. These babies were not dressed for the cold outside, and if we got out of the palace they were in for a long night and a long cold day. After that, if we were still alive, who knew how far we’d go before sleeping indoors. The closet was about the size of Bel’s, and about as well stocked. Probably belonged to one of Khattmali’s entourage. I managed to find one fur lined cloak and three fine winter weight dresses. When I emerged, Rakov had joined the group in the bedroom. Hesperide had wrapped two of the children in the blanket from the bed, and these were in Rakov’s arms. There had been another blanket on the couch, and this was now wrapped around the children Trinh carried.

“Where is the nearest entrance to the servant’s passages?” asked Trinh as Hess finished tucking the blanket around his charges.

“The Ambassador’s rooms,” replied Hess, “But the next is in an alcove down the hall.”

I extended the fur cloak to Hess, who caught my hand and squeezed it before taking the cloak. I met her eye only briefly, not knowing what to say on this terrible night of terrible things.

“We’ll go there, then,” said Trinh. “Get out of sight as quickly as we can.”

Turning away, I moved where Quill was crouched by Naran. The little boy had one arm around Hew and was listening seriously to whatever Quill was telling him. Naran smiled when he saw me, “Miss Meredithe,” his voice was watery from crying.

“Call me Zare,” I replied, kneeling to wrap the dresses around him. I used their sleeves to tie them around his waist and crisscrossing his chest. Hopefully they would keep him reasonably warm.

“Zare,” Naran tried the name on his tongue. “That’s a funny name.”

I smiled. “No funnier than yours.”

“My name isn’t funny.”

“Exactly,” I patted the bulky knots. It would do.

“Ready, Naran?” asked Quill.

The boy nodded, and Quill picked him up. I collected Hew’s leash and got to my feet. With a glance at the others I led the way out of the room. The door to the hallway was cracked open, letting a thin beam of light slice the room. I could see Ayglos’s shadow shift as we approached, and the door pushed open slowly.

“Are you ready?” asked my brother, without turning to look at us.

“We are,” I replied, pulling the door open just a little further.

“Come quickly, then.”

“Turn right,” said Hess from behind me.

I strode out with Hew, my fingertips brushing the knives on my thigh for comfort. The others followed, Trinh, Hess, Rakov and then Quill. I could imagine the double take as my brother noticed the number of children. Other than Hew’s panting and the occasional sniffle, we were surprisingly quiet. It felt as though we were all holding our breath, and we certainly weren’t moving as quickly as on our trip in. We passed the hallway we’d taken to get here, continuing straight for an excruciating time before Hess whispered, “See those alcoves ahead? Just before that junction? We want alcove on the right.”

I nodded and angled for it. My steps slowed as we got closer to the junction, my skin starting to crawl. It took a second to place the feeling, but it was the same I had felt in the Queen’s rooms when Quill and I had found the remnants of that evil rite. Lightning crackled through me. I scanned the halls, looking for any sign, expecting to see ash, blood, and black feathers. There was nothing. I couldn’t hear anything over Hew’s breathing and my own heartbeat. Gingerly, I approached the alcove and peered inside. It was empty. A couple chairs and a table framed a tapestry. Hess touched my elbow and I jumped, “Behind the tapestry,” she offered, kindly not commenting on my spook.

I stepped into the alcove, every breath expecting something to jump out. I drew a knife before approaching the tapestry and lifting it aside. The passageway was dark. I hooked the tapestry over a knob in the wall and stepped in enough to look for a lamp. There was one, just inside, hanging on a hook just within my reach. Lifting it down, I lit it with a match stored in the base.

The lamp cast yellow light on the wooden walls of the passage, showing it was empty and devoid of dark rituals. Comforted, I handed the lamp to Hess. “Do you know the way?” I asked.

“Yes,” she looked at Trinh, he nodded. Hess took the lead, the men filing in behind her, each heavy laden with wide eyed and silent children.

*

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