10 - WARDWICK
Death is a wretched business, and rain only made it worse.
Several weeks into my quest, my search for glory seemed fruitless. We looked for Vorsagian raiders as we neared the southern reaches of Oranstone, but only came upon a few more groups of ragged bandits and the burnt-over villages where the Vorsag had been. It rained all the time - except when it hailed or sleeted. Oreg's gelding and one of the packhorses had developed hoof rot, despite the oil we used. Everyone's temper was short from being constantly cold and damp.
Tosten, as always, was the worst, seldom speaking except in answer to direct questions. The cold damp caused an old wound in Penrod's shoulder to act up, making practice visibly painful, but he didn't allow me to release him. When Axiel forced him to stop, he and Penrod almost came to blows - would have, except for Bastilla's intervention. Axiel, son of the king of dwarves, watched me like a sheepdog watching his shepherd but said little. Even Oreg was subdued.
We stopped at a village one midafternoon for provisions. It wasn't much, but I sent Penrod to find the headman and talk to him. Oreg took the opportunity to wander off, exploring.
"They say they haven't seen any raiders, nor heard of any," said Penrod when he returned. "They also say that they've no grain for sale, nor any other foodstuff."
We'd heard that often enough. If it hadn't been for Luavellet's provisions and our own woodcraft, we'd have been starving. Oranstonians had a long memory.
"Did you tell them that the village east of here was burned to the ground when we passed it?" asked Tosten.
"I did," said Penrod. "I'm fairly sure they think we're the ones who did it. Where's Oreg?"
"He went to look at Meron's temple," I said. "I think he went to ask her to stop the rain."
"It'll just sleet, then," said Axiel sourly.
This village was larger than the last we'd been in, but that was all to be said of it. There had been people going about their business when we came. Upon seeing us, they'd sought shelter in the small stone and thatch huts that were set in circles off of the path that served as the main road.
The temple of Meron the Healer, goddess of growing things, was a little larger than the other buildings, and some time ago someone had painted it; there were still flecks of blue and white on the orange stone. It had no door, just a bit of ragged oilcloth hung from the doorframe.
"He went to look at the artifacts. Meron's temples are filled with them," explained Bastilla. "I don't feel much magic from the temple, though."
We had gone from being mercenary warriors here to save Oranstone from the evil Vorsag to being unwanted tourists. I rolled my eyes at the thought.
"There isn't very much magic in Meron's temples," I told her. "Not really. Most of the nobles worship Vekke, the god of war. Meron's priests might demand magic as tribute, but that usually means homemade charms from some hedgewitch. Peasants can't afford real magic."
"Silverfells is not far from here," said Axiel, "I recognize that rock formation." He pointed toward an outcropping on a hill. "I think we passed just west of here last time we came. If you're looking for interesting magical items, Silverfells has a stone they claim was once a dragon."
Penrod snorted. "The Hurogmeten said it was as much a dragon as he was a horse when we stopped by there."
Axiel shook his head. "I don't know. It was steeped in magic, I could tell that much." I hadn't known he could detect magic.
Oreg ducked under the cloth door of the temple and sloshed his way to his horse. "Where do we go next?"
"Silverfells," I said. Let's go be tourists, I thought bitterly.
"To see the dragon?" asked Oreg. "Splendid."
Pansy's big hooves splashed water from the puddles high enough to splatter my already soaked boots. It was hard to say if there was a creek running through the path or a path running through the creek.
At least Pansy was happy. I rode in the lead where he liked to be rather than with the rest of them. The last time I tried to cheer Tosten up, he made a few nasty comments, and I thought I'd better stay by myself until I was able to control my tongue.
The rain didn't bother the stallion, as it did some of the other horses. Pansy ignored it as if he were too arrogant to be troubled by such a little thing as weather.
I wondered if I should send everyone else home. Penrod needed to be back in the dryer climate of Shavig, where his shoulder wouldn't bother him. Ciarra was too young for this, and Tosten was too soft: not in body, but in spirit. He felt the death of every body we burned, whether it was a bandit we'd killed or a villager killed by raiders. Even Bastilla would be better off elsewhere. She had claimed to be a poor wizard. I was no judge of such things, but although she was certainly not as good as Oreg, she was far better than Licleng, Father's mage. She lit a fire every night with wet tinder and wetter wood while Oreg dried our bedding. She could make a living in any noble's house, especially in a wet climate. She didn't need me.
Oreg belonged at Hurog where he and Hurog were safe. It was almost painful to be around him; he was my daily reminder that Hurog was not mine nor, I'd come to believe, would it ever be.
That left only Axiel, my father's man, the dwarven king's son. Of us all, he was most suited to doing something other than wandering aimlessly through this godsforsaken swamp: Any noble would hire him as arms master. But, according to Aethervon, Axiel was here to save his people because his father had had a dream. Axiel had been with my father for at least sixteen years, maybe longer, but he thought I was the reason he'd been sent to Hurog.
Pansy snorted suddenly and collected himself: a warhorse ready to do battle. The change pulled me abruptly from my absorption. Heart thrumming, I searched the woods for signs of watchers.
With a nudge of my knee and shift of my weight I spun Pansy in a tight circle, but I didn't see anything except that the rest of my party was some distance back, with Axiel in the lead and Oreg hindmost. Tosten and Bastilla were engaged in animated discussion. Penrod was rubbing his shoulder under Ciarra's concerned gaze. Axiel was watching me, his hand on his sword.
I held up my hand flat, signaling him to wait. When he nodded, I set Pansy ahead on the narrow track, which wound through high mountain marshes. Pansy minced forward, twitching his ears this way and that. I was just ready to turn back when the path wove through some willows and into the remains of a village.
Thank the fates I had kept the others from following me, was all I could think. I didn't want Ciarra or Tosten to see this. This didn't look like any of the raided villages we'd come to before.
The Vorsag had demolished the village houses and piled the wood and thatch along the road. The bodies of the villagers were laid out very carefully on top. Someone had tried to start a pyre to burn the dead, but the rain had gutted it before any of the bodies had been more than scorched. It was the smell of wet char and blood that must have alerted Pansy.
I dismounted and led the stallion behind me.
Though we'd seen the results of Vorsagian attacks before, I hadn't seen anything like this. At the other villages, there were survivors who'd run at the first sound of trouble. If the Vorsag hadn't killed every living soul in the village, they'd certainly tried. The Vorsag, like Shavigmen, buried their dead, but they hadn't been, up to this point, concerned enough with the possibility of the Oranstonians' unquiet spirits haunting their village to burn the dead. I didn't think that they had suddenly started now.
My father said he learned the most about the enemy when they broke away from their usual actions. What was different about Silverfells?
They had a temple with a stone dragon.
I backed away from the pyre and looked for the temple - or for where it had been. The Vorsag had ravaged the village for the wood in their pyre, and there weren't many buildings standing. In the end it could have been any of four sites, but I couldn't tell for certain. But there was nothing that could have been Axiel's stone dragon unless it was smaller than my fist.
Who was calling the shots for Vorsag? Kariarn was only a few years older than me. Normally, that would mean that he was either ruled by or at least was guided by his advisors. But I'd met Kariarn. If someone else was pulling the strings, then they were more devious than I was. Possible, but not likely.
When Kariarn had been in Estian, he'd had his people scour the countryside for artifacts purported to be magical. What if that was what he was doing now? What if they raided the villages with temples dedicated to Meron, took the artifacts, and then burned the villages to disguise what they had done?
Most of the temples had only junk, but that was not always true. Oranstone, like the other kingdoms, was an old land. There were ruins that yielded unexpected treasures. Some of the temples held powerful magic. I searched the ground carefully, but there was nothing to indicate that a large object had been moved: no wagon tracks, no deep hoofprints. But the Vorsag had been here, more than fifty of them, perhaps even a hundred. The falling rain obscured the tracks.
It had been a long time since Axiel and Penrod had been here with my father. It was possible that since that time the stone had been moved, but I was convinced it was Kariarn who took it.
Just how much power could Kariarn gather that way? I'd been taught that the days of great magic were past with the passing of the great Empire. The theory was that there was only so much magic in the world, and gradually it had been used up. My father had claimed that there never was an age of great magic, just great storytellers.
But what if the magic was stored in thousands of artifacts? What if one person collected all of them and found a way to get the magic out? I had to find Oreg.
I started back, but stopped when I neared the stacked bodies. If the Vorsag had tried to burn them, it was not out of respect for their enemies; it was to hide something the villagers' bodies might tell.
There were seventy-two men, women, and children laid out singly on the wood pile. Most of them were naked, facedown, and blindfolded with strips of rags (probably from their own clothing), and bound hand and foot. Those that weren't bound looked as though they'd died in the fighting when the Vorsag had first attacked. There were no flies - the one blessing the rain brought.
I was born and bred to prevent things like this. Being Hurogmeten was more than owning land - it was taking care of the people who lived there. Responsibility was bred in my bones, and the high king's failure to protect these people enraged me.
If this land had a lord to oversee it properly, no Vorsagian troop as large as this one would have come here and had the time to do this. But the rightful lord of this land had died in the Rebellion, and King Jakoven had not seen fit to replace him, leaving Silverfells unprotected.
I turned over the body of a young girl. Her face was smudged with the dirt of childhood broken with clean trails of tears that the rain began to wash away. Her body was cool to the touch. The only wound I could find was a slit as wide as two of my fingers in her throat. There were runes drawn on her torso. Some of them were done with paint and started to run as soon as the rain touched them, but others had been cut into her skin. Seventy-two Oranstonians, I thought, glancing at the rest of the bodies. This must have taken a very long time.
I inspected the skin under the bindings at her wrists and ankles to see what they had to tell me. Her wrists were raw, but the bindings on her ankles had cut almost to the bone. That and the lack of pooling blood where she'd been lying told me she had been hung by her feet so the blood would drain from her neck more completely, just like a hog at slaughtering time.
It was the analogy that tore the cap off my rage. Deep within me, my anger fanned a fire that had smoldered since Aethervon had awakened it at Menogue. It poured through my chest, down my arms, and out my hands. I couldn't see the magic I felt thundering in my veins, but the wet wood and thatch lit when I touched them. Pansy snorted and backed as far from the burning, smoking mess as he could without pulling on the reins, as the fire traveled rapidly through the wet fuel, releasing the spirits of the dead for their journey beyond.
Son of my father, I'd never sworn fealty to a god nor taken much interest in religion. I knew little of Meron and less of the war god, Vekke. And, after what Aethervon had done to Ciarra, I would not give these people to him. They needed justice. A prayer my nurse had sung to me when I was a child came naturally to my tongue. A Shavig prayer was out of place in these wetlands, but I closed my eyes and sang to Siphern, god of justice and balance, as the flames roared higher.
And he came. I didn't see him, even when I opened my eyes, but I felt him: felt his anger at the village's death, felt him gather their frightened spirits to his bosom, felt his touch on my forehead as he left.
When I finished my song, I felt peaceful, even empty. And in that emptiness came clarity and honesty. The reason for my foul mood the past few days wasn't the rain; it was the growing knowledge that Hurog was lost to me. Even if I won glory defending Oranstone (which was unlikely, even under better circumstances), the king cared nothing for this kingdom. Witness how he failed to protect these villagers. My uncle would care for Hurog better than my father ever had, and his sons after him.
But for the first time, I had an attainable goal. I would help these people who had no one else to help them.
"Lord Wardwick?" Axiel's voice sounded breathless, and when I turned to look at him, he was on his knees with his head bowed.
His posture alarmed me, so I reached down and tugged him to his feet. "I thought I ordered you all to wait."
Hope and wonder lit his face when he looked at me. "We waited for a quarter mark, but we heard nothing. Since I can take care of myself a bit better than Penrod and the youngsters, I came ahead while the others still argued about what to do. I imagine they'll be along soon." He drew a breath. "When I came through the trees, my lord, I smelled evil as I haven't known for centuries - blood magic. Then I heard you sing Siphern all the way from the Northlands for these people. He cleaned this vale of evil for you, my lord. My father told me that our hope was in Hurog. I did not know until now he dreamed true."
I squirmed under his regard. Truthfully, I didn't know what I'd done to invoke it. Lighting the pyre was something Bastilla or Oreg could have done with half the effort. And...had he said centuries?
"Centuries?" I squawked.
He grinned sheepishly and rocked back on his heels. The awe was gone from his expression, but it had left his face altered in its wake. The watchful caution that was the usual aspect of his countenance had given way to a silly grin that was out of place in the presence of so much death.
"Yes, well," he said. "My father's people tend to live a bit longer than humankind. I was sent to Hurog half a century ago to find hope for my people, the salvation of dwarvenkind."
Salvation of dwarvenkind? I wanted to ask. Instead, I said, "You don't look like a dwarf."
"I take after my mother. My father is so tall - " He raised a hand to his shoulder. " - and twice my weight."
White, steamy smoke and the smell of burning flesh billowed off the wet tinder. The smell reminded me of the mystery of what had happened here at Silverfells. I grasped onto it hard, a task to fill the emptiness Hurog's loss had left me with.
I asked, "Do you remember how big the stone dragon was?"
"A bit larger than Pansy," he said after a moment. "It didn't look like the dragon in the Hurog coat of arms, but it didn't look like much of anything else, either. It was more like a piece of stone a good mason had started working into shape, but there weren't any chisel marks."
"It's not here," I said. "Or at least I couldn't find it. I also couldn't find any sign of it being moved."
Axiel coughed and moved away from the fire. "That's odd. I suppose someone could have moved it since we were here."
"I don't know a lot about magic," I said focusing on the burning bodies. "What if I told you that most of the villagers were bled dry like slaughtered sheep, and I couldn't find any great dark places in the dirt where so much blood had flowed?"
Axiel frowned. "I'd say that it was blood magic I smelled earlier, and it would take a powerful one to consume this much blood. The king's best mage is no more powerful than Bastilla. Of all the human wizards I've seen lately, only Oreg could work the kind of magic that would require so much blood."
Axiel thought Bastilla as powerful as the high king's mages? I knew she was better than she claimed, but I couldn't recall seeing her do anything spectacular. I opened my mouth to ask, but Pansy tossed his head and called out a greeting as the rest of our party emerged from the trees.
Oreg stopped his horse near me but didn't dismount. "Impressive," he said looking at the fire. "You build this yourself?"
"No," I said. "The Vorsag. Oreg, Bastilla," I said, as the others crowded around. "The dragon stone is gone. Axiel says it was as big as Pansy, but I could find no sign of anyone dragging it off. The villagers were hung and bled out, their bodies covered with arcane runes." I should have waited to light the pyre, but I had been feeling more than thinking.
Oreg tilted his head, staring at the pyre with dreamy eyes as an odd half smile tugged the corners of his mouth. "I smell dragons," he said.
"Axiel said he thought there was blood magic involved."
"There is a taint to blood magic," replied Bastilla. "And I don't feel it here."
I didn't feel up to explaining about Siphern. Weariness from working magic and from the knowledge that the hole in my spirit where Hurog belonged was permanent made me want to keep it as simple as I could. "Could a mage or a group of mages drain an object of magic and use it for themselves?"
"Yes," said Oreg at the same moment Bastilla said, "No."
I raised my eyebrows at them, and Bastilla finally shrugged. "I suppose it's possible. Theoretically. But the stone would still exist - just not magic."
"Not this stone," disagreed Oreg, still in that strange, dreamy state. "I smell dragon."
"Could they have transformed the stone?" asked Penrod.
"That stone felt like dragon magic," said Axiel. "Could something have transformed a dragon into the stone, and the Vorsag released it?"
A cold chill ran down the back of my neck just before the steady drizzle of rain turned to a torrential downpour.
"Kariarn has a dragon?" asked Tosten.
"Someone has a dragon," said Oreg peacefully.
Part of me was chanting euphorically, I knew there were still dragons, I knew it, I knew it, while the rest of me tried to figure out what Kariarn would do if he controlled a dragon.
"Where do we go from here?" asked Bastilla.
Good question. I put the thought of the dragon aside for the moment. That done, the question was fairly simple to ask. I only needed one more bit of information to test out my theory about the Vorsagian attacks, and I knew where to get it.
"Axiel," I asked, "Do you know how to get to Callis from here?"
"Callis? Yes, I think so. Why Callis?"
"Because I need information. And if anyone has information on what's been going on here, it's that old fox Haverness. Last I heard, he rules at Callis still." Haverness's people would know if the other villages the Vorsag hit had held better artifacts than the ones that had been passed by. They would know where other likely targets would be. My father had said that Haverness knew more about what the king's troops had been doing than the king had for all the old fox tramped about court looking as though butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.
The pouring rain eased a bit after an hour or more. For lack of a better place, we set up camp in a relatively sheltered spot under some trees. The fire smoked and sputtered, but it was good enough to cook over. It was my turn to do the cooking.
Oreg had gone hunting and produced a pair of rabbits. I had them spitted and turning over the fire when Ciarra came to sit beside me and took one of the spits, more because she wanted decent food to eat than out of any desire to help me.
"So you're not avoiding me anymore, eh?"
She grinned at me and tapped my face.
"Me? Grumpy?" When she raised her eyebrows, I said, "It rains all the time here, and we've been running around not accomplishing much for the better part of the summer."
She shook her head at me and pointed to the sky, then to my face.
"I know it's still raining," I said. "But now I know what we need to do." It was true. Kariarn had a dragon and possibly more magic than the world had seen in an age, an entire village had been slaughtered, Hurog was lost, but I felt better because I knew what I was going to do. "You're turning the rabbit too fast."
She leaned against my shoulder but didn't noticeably slow the spit. Her rabbit was perfect; mine was too pink in the middle. Not that it mattered, as hungry as we were.
We all went gathering wood after dinner except for Ciarra who, armed with a hunting horn to call us, stayed with the horses. Usually we all traveled separately, but this time Oreg came trotting by my side. He was quiet for a bit, but I could tell from the bounce in his step that he was just biding his time.
"So you decided to be a hero, again," he said finally. I couldn't decide if there was sarcasm in his voice or not.
"Oranstone needs a hero," I said, kicking a stone out of the path with a little more force than necessary.
"Are you going to free the dragon?"
"Oreg. Gods, there are seven of us! What do you think we can do?" And there, I thought, was the problem with my scheme to help the Oranstonian villagers. I wasn't a legendary warrior like my father; I wasn't Seleg; I had no army. It was like the story about the fly who declared war on the horse who took no notice.
"He can't be allowed to keep her," he said with sudden heat "There were no flame marks where the dragon fought. They must have it under a spell."
A spell? My mind boggled at the thought of how much power it would take to control a dragon. "Could you break a spell strong enough to hold a dragon?" I asked.
His silence answered me. At last he said, "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to Callis. From there, I'll send a message to the king, my uncle, and Haverness, so something is done to stop Kariarn - if anything can stop him now."
"They'll try to kill it, Ward." Oreg said in a low tone. He meant the dragon. "They can't afford to let him use a dragon."
"And just tell me what else they can do." I said, knowing he was right.
We walked a few more paces, Oreg's face turned away from me.
"Seleg didn't need an army to kill a dragon."
I came to a full stop. "What do you mean?"
"If one Hurogmeten killed a dragon, why shouldn't you?"
I scarcely noticed the sarcasm as a cold knot settled in my stomach. "Seleg chained the dragon?" My hero killed the dragon in the cave?
Protect those weaker than yourself, he'd written. Be kind when the opportunity is given. Ideas that no one else in my father's home would have said aloud for fear of being laughed at. Seleg set forth the ideals I'd tried to follow. But it was impossible to disbelieve Oreg's truth.
"And killed her so he'd have the power to defeat the invading fleet. He was scared. Frightened he'd lose Hurog." There was something wrong with Oreg's voice, but I didn't pay attention to it.
It hurt to breathe. If Seleg'd killed the dragon, he'd also had Oreg beaten for protesting it. I'd seen the beating myself in the great hall the day Garranon had come to Hurog. How could I feel betrayed by a man dead for centuries?
"Oreg..." I stopped when I saw his eyes, glowing with an uncanny lavender light. Despite the ring I wore and the disparity in our sizes, I backed away.
"Did killing the dragon make your life easier?" he whispered to me. "Do you hear her scream every night like I do?"
"Oreg, I haven't killed any dragons." Chills crept up my back, and I stepped another pace away.
He laughed like the autumn wind in a field of corn. "I warned you what would happen. Your children's children's children will pay the price for what you have done."
Oreg's episodes weren't insanity. Warrior's dreams, Stala called them, battle visions. Sudden visions of past battles so strong that they overwhelmed the present, terrifying when they hit an armed man but doubly so when that man was also a wizard. A wizard of Oreg's power made the dream real enough to bleed.
"Oreg," I said. "It wasn't me."
A soldier in his lifetime could amass a lot of horror and shame; how much more numerous were the memories Oreg had. He'd told me once that he tried not to remember things.
Oreg stared at me, breathing heavily as he fought the vision off.
"It's done with, Oreg," I said. "The dragon died a long time ago."
"Yes." The terror in his eyes hurt me. Was he afraid of his memories? Or was he afraid of me? I turned away and began walking. "We need to hunt for wood."
After a moment, I heard his footsteps following me.
"Sorry," he said. "You look like him, you know. He was a big man, too. And filled with magic - like you've been since Menogue."
We gathered wood for a bit. There wasn't much to be had that hadn't rotted in the damp. The woods looked as if they'd been gleaned already. We were too near Silverfells.
"After I killed that boy on the Oranstone border, I pretended to be my father," I said abruptly. "He was good at killing." I needed to talk to someone. Bastilla was a better listener, but Oreg had known my father.
"Not like your father," Oreg said, as if convincing himself. "You've never been like him."
I thought about the swift easing of my knife into the boy's neck, the way I couldn't lend words of comfort to my brother when he mourned the loss of his innocence; and I knew Oreg was wrong.
"When my father died, do you know why I really didn't want to drop my role as an idiot?" I asked.
"No." His reply was too easy. He'd increased the distance between us, oh so casually, reacting to my body language, I thought, and I tried to loosen up.
"At the time, I thought it was mostly embarrassment. But that wasn't it entirely. You see, I'd played an idiot so long, there wasn't anyone else to be. When I left Hurog, I tried being that mercenary, but it wasn't right. So I picked Seleg."
He was quiet for a long time. I didn't look back for him, just paced forward, away from camp. We'd been talking too much to find any game, but given any luck, Tosten or Axiel would bring something back.
"You do Seleg very well for a man who didn't know him." His voice was tentative. "He wasn't all bad - not until he grew old and frightened." The gap between us closed. "He wasn't as smart as you are, nor as kind. Just be yourself, Ward." We marched through the muck side by side now.
There isn't any me, Oreg, I thought. Just bits of my father, a stupid mercenary who charmed everyone he met except my aunt, and an ancestor who left too many journals for me to read.
Oreg grinned at me suddenly, shaking off the gloomy mood. "I know you. You talk slow and fight hard. You're smart and kind to small children, abused horses, and slaves. You're the Hurogmeten. That's more than most people know about themselves."
I smiled at him, a grateful smile, as I'm sure Seleg would have had. The idiot talked slow; my father fought hard. Seleg was smart, arrogant, and kind - and Hurog wasn't mine. I was so good at playing roles, I'd even fooled Oreg. I would just have to make sure I didn't start fooling myself.
I'd intended to share the watch with Oreg, but after our talk in the woods, I changed my mind. I'd said too much, and it had left me raw. I gave him first watch with Penrod, which left me with Penrod's usual partner, Bastilla, for second watch.
A rise in the ground not far from camp allowed a fair view of the trail from both east and west. After Oreg and Penrod retired to their bedrolls next to Ciarra and Tosten, Bastilla and I settled on a boulder large enough for the both of us.
"You came back from the village as if it gave you new direction." She shifted uncomfortably on the hard surface.
"Knowing your enemy and understanding your allies is the best way to win a war, according to my aunt." I gave her a wry look. "Not that we have any chance of winning a war against Vorsag, mind you, but I've an idea of what they may be after."
She laughed and took a bit of bread and cheese out of a small pack she'd brought and handed to me. "Eat this. Axiel gave it to me for you. He said if it didn't get eaten tonight, no one could eat it, and you've been eating less as the supplies get lower. You've started to lose weight again."
I nibbled the stale bread with all the enthusiasm it deserved. How could something be dry and moldy at the same time?
"So you think the Vorsag are after artifacts?" She laughed at my expression. "You asked me if a mage could harvest magic from artifacts."
I put down the food without much regret. "I hope Haverness's people will be able to tell me for certain."
"It will be good to do something else besides slogging through marshes," she said wryly. "I prefer fighting."
I laughed softly. "Me, too." That was my father in me.
She touched the corner of my lips with a finger. She hadn't been flirting, so I was unprepared for her touch.
"I keep expecting you to be stupid, do you know?" She traced a line from my mouth to the corner of my eye. My breathing grew ragged despite the effort I expended to steady it.
"It's the eyes. Hard to look smart with cow eyes. And I talk too slowly," I said.
The feather-light touch of her fingers on my face caused my belly to tighten. It wasn't the first time she'd indicated she would be willing to sleep with me. It was one of the reasons I'd always paired myself with Ciarra or one of the men. Penrod and Axiel might be able to couple without commitment, but I'd never gotten the knack of it.
"I would have thought listening to you would make me impatient," she breathed, "but your voice is like a velvet drum. I always feel so safe with you." She held my head with both of her hands while she came up to her knees to kiss me.
She desired me for my body. Women had liked it even when they had thought it belonged to an idiot. Maybe especially when they thought it belonged to an idiot. But she liked me, too. That would make it more than sex, a gift between friends.
Or at least she liked the man she thought I was: strong, competent, honorable, smart.
The echoes of my earlier conversation with Oreg kept me from falling into her spell. As I drank in the smooth-wine flavor of her mouth, I fought for the strength to pretend for a few hours more. One of the things the game with my father had taught me was that half of the success of the disguise was in the mind of others. My father thought I was stupid, so he ignored signs that I might be something else. Bastilla thought me a hero; the role should have been easy, but it wasn't. I pulled away reluctantly.
Breathing hard, I rested my forehead on hers, trying to find a reason for my restraint that wouldn't hurt her or me. It was easier knowing I was more recreation for her than serious prey. The Avinhellish were freer about such things than we Shavigmen.
"We can't do this, Bastilla. We're on watch. If we get any further, I won't care if a hundred Vorsagian raiders come galloping down that road." It helped that the excuse was true.
She snickered and allowed me to break the mood. "A hundred, eh?"
I nibbled down her neck once, regretfully. Then I bounced to my feet and took several steps back. "Maybe a thousand. I'm going to run the perimeter." I pointed at her. "You stay here."
She was still smiling when I left, but I knew that I had just put off a problem I'd need to deal with later.
Callis looked as different from Hurog as possible, given that they were both fortified keeps. Hurog was square, where Callis was round. Callis was perhaps three times as large and built out of native stone. The gray green lichen covering the walls turned the orange stone to a muddy brown.
The gates were closed and barred. Persuading the young warrior in charge of the gate to let me inside proved to be significantly more difficult than finding Callis had been.
His lord wasn't there, which I knew.
We looked like mildewed bandits, which I also knew.
Far worse, we looked like Shavig bandits. We'd grow old and rot before he'd let us in, he informed us with a few pithy adjectives. Judging by the grins from his fellows (who'd gathered around as soon as they noticed something interesting was happening at the gate), they'd be pleased to help us along.
Well, he wouldn't be left on guard for more than half the day. I'd wait and see how the man who replaced him on wall was before I tried any more desperate measures.
We'd picked a few apples from an orchard not far down the road, and Axiel handed me one. It was green and sour but better than stale bread and moldy cheese.
"Where'd that apple come from?" called the guardian of the gate suspiciously.
"Bought it from a man down the road." I took another bite and smiled around the sourness.
"No Oranstonian would sell our good apples to a Northlander."
"Well," I stared at the apple a bit. "I'd not call it good, but he said it was the best Oranstone had."
The snappy retort lost a little because of the distance the wall put between us, but I saw from his grin he was ready to give as good as he got. The guard was bored, and so was I. Neither he nor I really wanted a confrontation, just a few minutes of stupid Northerner/Southerner, all done in good cheer. Unfortunately, one of his fellows, a young newcomer to the conversation, didn't understand the game.
"That apple's too good for Shavig scum like you!" The hothead had a crossbow, and he nocked it.
My aunt always said you had to watch out for the young ones as they are generally too stupid to understand what's really going on. It had always amused me when she told me that.
I caught a glimpse of the gate guard's horrified face and knew that he'd be almost as unhappy if the young man shot me as I would. The walls at Callis weren't as high as Hurog, maybe only twenty-five feet. Luckily, I was faster with my apple than the guard was with his crossbow. He mustn't have had a good grip, or the apple would just have spoiled his aim rather than knock the bow out of his hand. His weapon fell only a few feet from me.
The gate guard, as senior on the wall, turned on the rash and bowless guard. I couldn't hear what he said, but the boy wilted.
"What's going on here?" The voice rang clear as a bell, though I couldn't see the man who spoke. Judging by the sudden attention of everyone on the wall, it was someone very senior.
I picked up the bow, disarmed it, and tossed it up and over the edge of the wall. I was hoping it would land at their feet just when the senior man approached them. Maximum embarrassment for them, possible entrance for me, as I had stopped the boy without hurting anyone and returned their weapon.
After a few moments, a new face appeared at the wall. His head was shaved from the top of his ears to the nape of his neck in Oranstonian traditional style, but he'd allowed his beard to grow out white and full like a Shavigman. It was a distinctive style and made him easy to recognize.
Haverness's right-hand man, I thought in surprise. I didn't know his name; I don't think I'd ever heard him say more than four words together. He was always at Haverness's side, and so should have been at Estian. Haverness was only allowed at Callis for a fortnight at planting and a fortnight at harvest, which was still a month or more away this far south.
He frowned at me. "Who are you, son, and what do you want?" He asked it in Tallvenish, so I replied in the same language.
"Ward of Hurog. I have some news about the Vorsag."
"Wait here." He scattered the guards back to their posts and then left.
Oreg handed me another apple. "So, are we in?"
I took a bite. "I think so."
If the old fox's shadow had been here alone, he'd have had the authority to open the gate at once or send us on our way. That he'd left the wall implied he was going to speak to his superior, Haverness.
Haverness had always been kind to me. Of course he might not feel the same way when he found out I wasn't an idiot. I wondered what he was doing here; had King Jakoven finally decided the raiders were a threat?
The gate rattled and began rising slowly.
"Mount up," I called, following my own advice.
We rode through the narrow passage into the bailey proper. Most of the expanse between the walls and the inner keep was cobbled; I suppose they'd have to because of the rain. Spring at Hurog left our bailey half a foot deep in muck. Here it would have been year-round.
Straw had been piled along the edges of the bailey, and tents were set up all along the walls. A quick glance led me to estimate that Callis held at least two hundred more men than she'd been built to. Had the king allowed Haverness to come home and defend his land? I couldn't believe that the old fox would break his word and return without the king's permission. We were met halfway to the keep by Haverness himself and a few servants.
"Ward," he said. "What are you doing here, boy?"
I started to give him my stupid cow look out of habit but restrained myself. It would be a deadly mistake to let Haverness think I was stupid now. His dislike of lies and broken promises was the stuff of legends.
"The same as you, I imagine," I said. "Fighting the Vorsag."
The warm smile left his face at my crisp reply. I dismounted, loosened Pansy's girth, and continued talking to give him time to think. "I think the Vorsag are raiding rather than conquering right now, though. Kariarn has always lusted after magic. I've just come from Silverfells, and the raiders had left there not a half day before us, killing everyone in the village. My men tell me that the last time they were there - fifteen years ago - Meron's temple at Silverfells claimed a large stone dragon, which is not there anymore."
"Oranstone seems to have had a beneficial effect on your intellect," he said.
I gave him a slow grin. "We'll have to recommend it." I could see from his face it wasn't enough, so I continued more soberly. "My father killed his father to get Hurog, and he half killed me. I was afraid he'd finish the job."
Shock came and went quickly on his face. Slowly, he nodded his head; he knew my father. "Survive how you can," he said. "Would you introduce me? I see several Hurog faces, but I can't place them."
"Haverness," I said formally. Oranstonians dislike titles, so I gave him none. "These are my men, Axiel and Penrod, who fought under my father's banner and now follow me." Normally, one wouldn't introduce one's troop to a man of Haverness's standing, but he'd all but ordered me to do so. "And my sister Ciarra." She gave him a gamine smile in return for his courtly bow. "You're supposed to curtsy, you mannerless ruffian." She rolled her eyes at me, then bobbed quickly up and down like a serving maid, and Haverness chuckled.
"My brother Tosten."
Haverness's gazed sharpened on my brother. "I thought he was dead."
"Who said that? I asked. I hadn't heard that bit of gossip.
"Your father, I believe."
"Pleased to meet you, sir," said Tosten, bowing. "My father was mistaken."
"Bastilla of Avinhelle," I continued the introductions. "Mage and warrior."
Bastilla smiled and sank into a graceful curtsy that managed to look ladylike despite her moldering fighting leathers.
"And our second mage, Oreg, my cousin or some such, who tells me it is possible that Kariarn plans on draining the magic from his artifacts to perform great magic. Also that Kariarn's mages have managed to transform whatever was in the stone dragon into something real. He thinks it was a dragon."
"Ward?" The voice was familiar, but it was so out of place I couldn't attribute it until I saw one of my cousins hurrying over to us. I could usually tell them apart, but in some strange way, this man looked like neither of them. He'd lost weight, and he looked as if he hadn't slept in weeks - nor smiled in all that time. "As I live and breathe," he said, sounding as astounded as I felt. (What was my cousin, whichever one it was, doing here?) "It is you. Where did you come from?"
There were no bright scarves tied in odd places, but it was the neatness of his appearance that finally made me guess. "Beckram? What are you doing here?"
He clapped me on the shoulder and ignored my question. "Father will be glad to know..." His jaw dropped. "Tosten?"
"Good to see you again, Beckram," he answered.
"I'll leave you to your greetings." Haverness nodded at us. "Beckram, see that they are settled in."