12 - CALLIS: BECKRAM
Commanders are used to losing people on the field of battle, but usually there's a body.
The only thing Beckram could work up enthusiasm for were the daily practices with Stala. There he could focus on the fight and the aching grief and guilt faded, leaving only the empty hole where his brother had been. Stala no longer let him fight with the other men.
She forced him to pay attention to his defense by hitting him with the flat of her blade. "Do that in battle, and you'll be missing an arm," she snapped.
He responded with a swift thrust and a series of moves that kept her too busy to talk for a few minutes. Only after she disarmed him did he realize that he'd followed no pattern, and if any of his swings had connected, he'd have killed her. Which was, of course, why she'd quit letting him fight with anyone else.
He made no move to pick up his sword, just swayed a little on his feet and concentrated on not falling down "Sorry."
"Let's try it again." He noticed that she wasn't even breathing hard.
Slowly, he picked up the sword again and faced her.
"I am not going to take the news to your father that he's lost another son, Beckram." Her voice was not unkind. "If it takes a few bruises, then that's your choice not mine."
When she was through with him, he staggered to his tent and collapsed on his bedroll. Sometimes when he was this tired, he didn't dream. If no one disturbed him, he might sleep as long as an hour. He closed his eyes, but it wasn't sleep that came to him, but thoughts of his cousin.
All in all, he thought, Ward's sudden recovery of his wits made him even more unlikable. Instead of a fool, he was a manipulator. All those incidental remarks in public that caused Beckram to squirm had been deliberate. Not that he'd been the only one to suffer.
Despite himself, Beckram grinned, remembering Lord Ibrim's widow's face after she'd made the mistake of propositioning Ward in a public place a few years ago. Even then, Ward had been as large as a man full grown. Beckram'd felt a great deal of satisfaction at her embarrassment, as she had gone out of her way to torment Erdrick the night before. Tittering with her gaggle of friends over the hick who'd worn a shirt with a stain on it to a formal dinner, she'd reduced Erdrick, sixteen, to public tears.
Beckram's smile died as he realized that Ward had witnessed that little incident, too. Had Ward been defending Erdrick? He remembered the look on Ward's face when he'd told him about Erdrick's death. Shocked sorrow had been followed by cold rage that chilled Ward's eyes until they didn't look like a cow's at all.
If he'd met Ward just this week, he might have liked him. Yesterday over dinner, Ward told the story of how he'd escaped Hurog and reduced the whole table to tears of mirth - even Alizon. Lying now in the dimness of the tent, Beckram doubted any of it had been funny at the time. The whole lot of Ward's band looked worse for wear, their clothes not much more than well-mended rags.
"Beckram!" called a familiar voice outside his tent.
"Kirkovenal?" The Direwolf's second son was one of Beckram's few real friends, so he sat up instead of sending him away as he would have anyone else. "Come in."
Kirkovenal stepped into the tent and tied the flap closed behind him. His red hair had been recently shorn in the traditional Oranstonian manner, leaving a pale strip of skin above both ears.
"Someone told me your cousin was here," he said abruptly.
"That's right." Beckram crossed his legs and gestured for Kirkovenal to sit beside him. "And it appears my uncle's death left Ward strangely recovered from his mental affliction."
"What's he doing with Ciernack's Bastilla?"
Beckram snapped his fingers. "That's where I'd seen her before. I don't think I ever knew her name."
"So what's she doing with Ward?"
Beckram frowned at his friend's obvious agitation. "You knew Ward lost Hurog because he tried to stop Garranon from taking back one of Ciernack's slaves."
"Bastilla was that slave?" Kirkovenal sounded dumbfounded, as if it had never occurred to him.
"It's not as if Ciernack has more than ten or twelve," Beckram said. "What's wrong?"
The Oranstonian rubbed his hands over his face. "Did you ever pay attention to what went on in Ciernack's tavern? Did you notice how many of the patrons were Oranstonian?"
Beckram shook his head. "But now that I think on it..."
"I didn't notice either," confessed Kirkovenal. "Not until Garranon cornered me a couple of years ago. He told me that since I was determined to drink myself to death, I might as well make myself useful while I did it. It was he who pulled together what Ciernack's game was."
"Ciernack's working with the Oranstonian rebels?" guessed Beckram.
"No." Kirkovenal's voice was low. "He's working for Vorsag."
"What?" Beckram shook his head to see if that helped connect a wild bunch of useless Oranstonian lordlings with Vorsag.
"Who do the Oranstonian lords hate more than Vorsag?" asked Kirkovenal.
"The Tallven," answered Beckram instantly. "Siphern guard me - Do you mean that we have Oranstonians helping the Vorsag?"
Kirkovenal shook his head. "Not as you mean it, anyway. Think about the men at Ciernack's. They're all like me - orphans of the Rebellion with no power, not even over our own estates. They don't have the ability to help the Vorsag. But some of them might not mind giving information."
"But you were talking about Bastilla."
To Beckram's surprise, Kirkovenal gave him a sick smile. "Yes, I was. Because I was working for Garranon, I paid attention to what went on at Ciernack's. And I noticed a few things. Bastilla is a mage."
Beckram nodded. "That's what Ward says, too."
"Didn't you ever wonder how a mage got to be a slave? I did. And I noticed that Ciernack never gave her an order, never crossed her in any way."
"All right," said Beckram. "I didn't notice her much one way or the other. I'll accept your word that Bastilla was an unusual slave, but I don't see what has you so upset about her being with Ward."
"Do you like your cousin?" he asked.
Beckram laughed shortly. "I was just wondering that myself, but I think the answer might be yes."
"Do you remember Paulon?"
"The lad who was killed by robbers in Shadetown last year? Of course I do."
"About a month before he died, he approached me at my apartments. He was three sheets to the wind, and it was only midmorning. I cleaned him up and found a spare bed for him, but before he passed out, he told me that Bastilla had raped and tortured him." Kirkovenal shut his mouth abruptly and looked away. "I didn't believe him - he was drunk. Who's ever heard of a man being raped by a woman?"
Beckram was so sensitized to guilt that he could read it in someone else at fifty paces. "You think he was killed deliberately? Because he told you that Bastilla had hurt him?"
Kirkovenal smiled tightly, released it, and drew a shaky breath. "I think someone, maybe Paulon himself, told her that he'd talked to me. The last time I went to Ciernack's - "
Abruptly, he surged to his feet, hands clenched at his side. "I haven't told anyone this. I don't know if..." He began pacing back and forth. "Did I ever tell you that your cousin did me a good turn once? I was in Shadetown and ran into a few thugs looking for easy money. One of them knocked me to my knees, and the next thing I know, the whole alley is full of motionless lumps. Your cousin patted me on my head and asked if I'm dead."
Kirkovenal stopped, his back toward Beckram. "I went to Ciernack's shortly after Paulon died. I didn't think there was any connection because I still didn't believe Paulon's story. The next thing I knew...I, she..." Kirkovenal stumbled to a halt. He grabbed the bottom of his shirt and pulled it up, turning so his back was to Beckram.
"Gods," swore Beckram. Even the dimness of the tent couldn't disguise the severity of the scars on Kirkovenal's back.
He jerked his shirt back in place. "It wasn't the worst part of what she did to me. I thought I was a dead man."
"Why didn't she kill you, too?" Beckram asked.
"She had me there for two days. I convinced her Paulon never said anything to me. That I thought I'd paid her to...hurt me while I was drunk, as if I'd paid women to do that to me before. I said she had to keep it quiet, that my brother would cut me off if he found out I'd been paying to have women beat me. It seems to have worked. I'm alive." He turned back to Beckram. "I haven't had so much as a drop of wine since."
Beckram stood up. "Thank you. Ward needs to know this. Do you know who I should ask to find out where Ward is? He rode out this morning - with Bastilla - and I can't for the life of me remember where he told me he was going."
Kirkovenal nodded. "I'll find out. Then I'll take you there myself."
Tisala nursed her left arm as she listened to her sublieutenant list the men who had died and the ones who were wounded. She knew every man in her command down to his favorite color, and losing them was hard. Fourteen of her fifty were dead today. Another dozen were seriously wounded, and the rest were all sporting cuts and bruises.
She directed the sublieutenant to see to the gathering of enough wood to build a pyre for the dead. She would see to mounting a guard herself. No sense being caught unprepared if the Vorsag decided to return unexpectedly. Then she sifted out ten of her men who were still whole to mount a patrol. She'd just finished with her orders when the priest came shuffling up to whine at her.
"The goddess's artifacts need an escort to Callis," he said.
"We'll all be going back to bring this news to my father," she said. "You and the people of the village are welcome to come with us when we leave tomorrow morning."
"There are not enough riding animals in the village - "
She interrupted him impatiently. "We'll mount who we can, but the rest will have to walk. Tell them to pack lightly because they'll have to carry what they take."
He looked disappointed. Did he want to leave half the village behind?
Exasperated, Tisala turned on her heel and strode to the pyre to see how far they'd come in laying it. Before she made it there, the slender, dark-haired wizard who traveled with Ward of Hurog caught her arm.
"Have you seen my lord?" he said urgently. "Penrod's horse was caught running loose, and I can't find him, nor is there any sign of the Hurogmeten."
She frowned. Some battlefields seem to swallow the dead, but this one wasn't that big. "Just before the retreat, I saw Ward chase off into some trees. I think some of your people were following."
Tisala looked at the strain on his face and compared it to the work she still needed to do. "I'll show you. Let me get my horse."
One of Ward's men lay in the shelter of the woods, killed by a clean sword thrust from behind, and Oreg almost fell off his mount in his scramble to examine the fallen man. "Penrod?" He checked pulse points, but she could see that the man had shed too much blood to live. While the wizard fiddled with the body, she paced out the clearing. Here that big beast Ward rode had stood for a short while - impossible to mistake the size of hoofprints. The ground was too soft with rain and dense with grass to hold many indications other than the most obvious. She couldn't distinguish the human footprints from the general muck.
"The horses went off this way..." She let her voice trail off when she got a good look at the wizard.
She took half a dozen quick steps and thrust a shoulder under his arm before he fell. "Are you wounded?"
With an eerie keening sound, he became a dead weight.
The bushes behind them shook. Tisala dropped the wizard and drew her sword, but it was only another of Ward's people, Axiel. She only remembered his name because her father had said it was dwarven, and the dwarves used to trade at Callis.
Axiel took a quick look at the dead man before he knelt beside the wailing boy. "Oreg?"
"Does he do this often?" She had to raise her voice to be heard.
"Never seen him do this." Axiel took the younger man's face in his hands. "Oreg, what's wrong? What happened to Penrod?"
The mage jerked away and curled into a fetal position, but he quit wailing. "He's gone. My fault, he's gone."
"Ward, I think," answered Tisala when Oreg didn't reply. "We came out looking for him and found Penrod here. Ward's stallion has been here as well as a couple of other horses, but I can't tell much more."
Without a word, Axiel began to pace the little clearing as she had. After a moment, he returned and nodded. "If we'd had a foot or two less rain in the past few months, I could do better. Someone took three horses off in that general direction and set another free - probably Penrod's. All three of the horses were big, which means that they belonged to our group rather than yours. Oreg's here. Penrod's dead. Ciarra is helping with the wounded. That leaves Ward, Tosten, and Bastilla."
"They left together?"
He shrugged. "Their horses did, anyway. Maybe they took off after the man who killed Penrod."
"And they'll be back when they're finished."
Axiel grunted as men do, and Tisala decided to take it as an affirmative. "Right. Then we'll take Oreg and bed him down with the rest of our sick men. I'll send someone back for Penrod." She'd seen enough men in battle to know that battle fever and its aftermath took people strangely sometimes. As long as Oreg wasn't wailing and sobbing tomorrow, he'd be no worse off than any other soldier she knew.
"I'll come back and get Penrod after I'm through with Oreg. Penrod and I've been comrades for too long to leave him to other hands." Axiel picked up the young mage without visible effort, though Tisala doubted there was a stone of weight between them.
"I'll find Ciarra and let her know what's going on." She held Axiel's gelding while he dealt with the difficulty of getting Oreg on his tall horse. She bit her lip and didn't say anything disparaging about the Northern horses. Some people you could tease, and others you didn't. Despite her father's comments, she did actually know which were which, and sometimes she even cared.
Axiel covered Oreg with the blankets from both of their bedrolls, but it didn't stop the shaking.
"I've got to go get Penrod's body."
Oreg didn't appear to hear him. After a moment, Axiel stepped into his saddle. His horse let out an almost human sigh, but made no other protests.
"That's it Foxy Lad," he told his horse. "I don't know why the aftermath of battles are always more a trial of endurance than the battles themselves, but that's how it is."
Axiel was tired, too. There was some basis for human rumors of dwarven endurance, but he was half human, and his arms told him that he'd been in a fight. A dull ache in his ribs let him know that he hadn't come out unscathed, but it would have to wait until after Penrod was taken care of.
You'd think after all these years, Penrod would have learned to watch his back. Axiel stopped himself. Much easier to just accept death rather than rail at it, and he should have learned that by now.
Penrod's body lay undisturbed. The growing shadow gave the glen an unsettling feel, though it might just be that he was here alone. Axiel bent down to pick him up.
"Sleep well, old friend," murmured Axiel. He hefted the body as carefully as if Penrod had been wounded.
Ciarra cried silently as the flames consumed Penrod. Axiel rested his hands on her shoulders, but his eyes were dry. Penrod was neither the first nor the last comrade he'd fed to the fire. He watched the bodies of the fallen blacken, dwarven eyesight letting him see what the flames concealed from the humans around him. When Ciarra turned away and buried her face in his chest, he wrapped his arms around the child.
"Come, lass," he said. "Let's get cleaned up and set up the tent. If we don't hurry, we'll be doing it in the dark. Your brothers will be back soon and ready for sleep."
It was nearing darkfall when Beckram and Kirkovenal came upon the camp. The dying embers of the funeral pyre told them that there had been a battle long before they arrived, so Beckram was careful to hail the camp before riding in. No one he asked knew where Ward was. But a delicate hand caught his sleeve while he was talking to yet another Oranstonian.
"Ciarra?" he said. Then, when he got a closer look at her, "What's wrong? Did something happen to Ward?"
She started to shake her head, then shrugged instead. Tightening her grip on his arm, she dragged him behind her. Kirkovenal dismounted, too, and followed them.
Ciarra took them to the center of the camp, where Beckram saw Axiel at the cooking pot.
"Beckram," Axiel said. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for my cousin. Do you know where Ward is?"
Axiel handed off his ladle with a "Mind you keep stirring, or it'll burn on the bottom."
"We're not sure where Ward's gotten himself off to," said Axiel. "As far as we could determine, he, Tosten, and Bastilla went off chasing Vorsag. We had a minor skirmish with the Vorsag earlier today. Afterward, we found Penrod dead in a small clearing on the far side of the battlefield. From the tracks, the three of them took off south. What do you want him for?"
Beckram had the whole ride from Callis to put Kirkovenal's information together with Ward's storytelling and had come up with a few theories.
"Ciernack in Estian has been selling information to King Kariarn and probably his father," he began. "At first, it was military information, but the new king of Vorsag wanted more; he wanted magic. So the people working at the tavern bought artifacts and probably stole a few, too. A couple of years ago, about the time Kariarn's father became ill, Ciernack got several new workers, including a slave girl, Bastilla. Except she wasn't really a slave at all; she was working for Kariarn."
"Bastilla was working for Kariarn?" asked Axiel.
"It's the only reason we could come up with for her to run to Hurog," explained Beckram. "Bastilla was no slave running for her freedom. Kirkovenal knows of at least one man she had killed and another she tortured. Ciernack didn't give her orders, she gave them to him. We think that Bastilla heard the stories about Hurog's treasure and went to check them out for herself - with her lover, Landislaw, in pursuit to make sure she made it back."
Axiel shook his head. "I saw her feet after she ran to Hurog. I saw the scars on her back."
Kirkovenal spoke. "I have seen her slice the skin off a man's back for the sheer pleasure she took in it. I've seen Black Ciernack, who the king himself is careful with, flinch from her anger. And I've seen her pretend to be an innocent maid or a whore, as it suits her."
Beckram broke the silence that followed. "Before Bastilla 'escaped' to Hurog, Landislaw cornered me and asked me about the treasure of gold and magic the dwarves are said to have left at the old keep. It's nonsense, and I told him so - but Bastilla could have been sent to check it out. The only thing I don't know is why she stayed with Ward." Even as he spoke, a possible answer came to him. "Unless she found something. Something that she couldn't get right away. Ward rescues her and tells her he's headed to Oranstone, and she decides it might be the easiest way to get her information back to Kariarn."
"Haverness thinks that the Vorsag have an enclave in Oranstone," said Kirkovenal abruptly. "You said Ward, his brother, and Bastilla left here headed south. Buril isn't too far from here."
"Garranon's keep?" asked Beckram.
Kirkovenal nodded. "Where Landislaw has been holding court. Bastilla's lover, Landislaw."
"Who hates the king much more than he hates Vorsag," said Beckram.
"You're speculating," said Axiel. "What proof do you have?"
"When did Ward leave?" asked Beckram.
"Right after the battle was over," Axiel replied.
"I ask you, would any commander trained by Stala desert his men after a battle to go chasing after a few enemy soldiers?" asked Beckram. When Axiel made no answer, Beckram said. "No. He wouldn't. I think Bastilla believes there's some treasure at Hurog, but she can't get to it without Ward, and she intends to use Tosten to make Ward help her get it."