Excerpt from Crown of Stars Vol. 4, Child of Flame
By Kate Elliott
North of the Alfar Mountains the ground fell precipitously into a jumble of foothills and river valleys. At this time of year, that place where late summer slumbered into early autumn, the roads were as good as they'd ever be, and the weather remained pleasant except for the occasional drenching thunder-shower. They kept up a brisk pace, traveling as many as six leagues in a day. There were just enough day laborers on the road looking for the last bits of harvest work that their little group didn't seem too conspicuous, as long as they didn't draw attention to themselves.
It was a silent journey for the most part.
When they passed folk coming from the north, Sanglant asked questions, but the local folk, when he could understand their accent, claimed to have no knowledge of the movements of the king. Nor was there any reason they should have. But he heard one day from a trio of passing fraters that the king and his entourage had been expected in Wertburg, so at the crossroads just past the ferry crossing over the eastern arm of the Vierwald Lake, they took the northeast fork that led through the lush fields of upper Wayland toward the Malnin river valley. In such rich countryside, more people were to be found on the roads, going about their business.
Still, it was with some surprise that, about twelve days after the conflagration at Verna and less than seven days' travel past the lake crossing, they met outriders at midday where forest gave way to a well-tended orchard.
A zealous young fellow seated on a sway-backed mare rode forward to block the road. He held a spear in one hand as he looked them over. No doubt they appeared a strange sight: a tall, broad-shouldered man outfitted like a common man at arms and carrying a swaddled baby on his back but riding a noble gelding whose lines and tackle were fit for a prince, and a woman whose exotic features might make any soldier pause. The pony and the goat, at least, were unremarkable. Luckily, the young man couldn't see Jerna, who had darted away to conceal herself in the boughs of an apple tree.
He stared for a bit, mostly at the woman, then found his voice. "Have you wanderers come to petition the king?"
"So we have," said Sanglant, keeping his voice calm although his heart hammered alarmingly. "Is the king near by?"
"The court's in residence at Angenheim, but it's a long wait for petitioners. Many have come--"
"Here, now, Matto, what are these two?" The sergeant in charge rode up. His shield bore the sigil of Wendar at its center, Lion, Eagle, and Dragon, marking him as a member of the king's personal retinue. He had the look of a terrier about him: ready to worry any stray rat to pieces.
"They come up the road like any others," protested Matto.
"So might the devil. They might be the Enemy's cousins, by the look of their faces. As foreign as you please, I'll thank you to notice, lad. I'd like to know how they come by that fine nobleman's horse. We're looking for bandits, Matto. You've got to stay alert."
"Trouble, Sergeant?" asked another soldier, riding over.
There were half a dozen men-at-arms in sight, scattered along the road. None were soldiers Sanglant recognized. New recruits, maybe, given sentry duty. They looked bored.
Boredom always spelled trouble, and it wasn't only these men-at-arms who were bored. Sanglant glanced at his mother. Even after twelve days in her company, he still found her disconcerting. She gazed at young Matto with the look of a panther considering its next meal, and she even licked her lips thoughtfully, as though the air brought her a taste of his sweet flesh.
Sanglant knew how to make quick decisions. If he didn't recognize these men, then it was likely they'd come to court after he and Liath had left so precipitously over a year ago and so wouldn't recognize him in their turn. He turned to the sergeant. "Take me to Captain Fulk, and I promise you'll be well rewarded."
"Huh!" grunted the sergeant, taken aback. "How'd you know Captain Fulk returned to the king's progress just a fortnight ago?"
"We were separated." Sanglant leaned sideways so that the man could see Blessing's sweet little face peeping from the swaddling bound to his back.
"Ah." The sergeant's gaze was drawn to Sanglant's mother, but he looked away as quickly, as though something in her expression unsettled him. As well it might. "This is your wife, then?"
Sanglant laughed sharply, not without anger. "Nay. This woman is--" He could not bring himself to speak a title she had not earned. "This woman is a relative to me, a companion on the road. She's a foreigner, as you see. My father is Wendish."
"What happened to your wife, then?"
Grief still chafed him as bitterly as any chains. "My wife -- is gone."
The sergeant softened, looking back at the infant. "May the Lord and Lady watch over you, friend. Need you an escort? There's another sentry-post some ways up the road, nearer to the palace, and then the palace fortifications to talk your way through. I'll send a soldier to vouch for you."
"I'll take one with thanks. If you'll give me your name, I'll see that it's brought to the king's attention."
The sergeant chuckled while his men looked at each other in disbelief. "You're as sure of yourself as the rooster that crows at dawn, eh? Well, then, when you take supper with the king, tell him that Sergeant Cobbo of Longbrook did you a favor." He slapped his thigh, amused at his joke. "Go on, then. Matto, be sure you escort them all the way to Captain Fulk, and give him over to none other. The captain will know what to do with them if they've lied to us."
Matto was a talkative soul. Sanglant found it easy to draw him out. They rode on through the orchard and passed into another tangle of forest, where Jerna took advantage of the dappled light to drop down from the trees and coil around Blessing's swaddling bands. He could sense her cool touch on his neck and even see the pale shimmer of her movement out of the corner of his eye, but Matto, like most of humankind, seemed oblivious to her. He chattered on as Sanglant fed him questions. His mother was a steward at a royal estate. His father had died in the wars many years ago, and his mother had married another man. Matto seemed young because he was young. He and his step-father hadn't gotten along, and he'd left for the king's service as soon as he turned fifteen.
"I've been with the king's court for fully six months now," he confided. "They put me to work as a stable-hand at first, but even Sergeant Cobbo says I've got a knack for weapons, so I was promoted to sentry duty three months ago." He glanced back toward Sanglant's mother, perhaps hoping she'd be impressed by his quick rise, but nothing about humankind interested her, as Sanglant had discovered.
"You've got a hankering to see battle, haven't you, lad?" Sanglant felt immeasurably ancient riding alongside this enthusiastic youth, although in truth he wasn't even old enough to be the lad's father.
Matto sized him up. "You've seen battle, haven't you?"
"So I have."
"I guess you were part of the group that went south to Aosta with Princess Theophanu. It was a miracle that Captain Fulk kept as much of his company together as he did, wasn't it? What a disaster!"
"Truly." Sanglant changed the subject before Matto discovered that he hadn't the least idea what disaster had befallen Theophanu's expedition in Aosta. "Why so wide a sentry net?"
Matto puffed up considerably, proud to know something his companion did not. "The court attracts petitioners, and petitioners attract bandits."
"Aren't these Duke Conrad's lands? I'd have thought he'd have put a stop to banditry."
"So he might, if he were here. He hasn't even come to the king's feast and celebration! The Eagle sent to his fortress at Bederbor said he wasn't in residence. No one knows where he's gone!"
What was Conrad up to? No doubt the duke was capable of almost anything. But he could hardly ask this lad that kind of question. They came to a stream and slowed for their mounts to pick their way across. Where a beech tree swept low over pooling water, he let Resuelto drink while he waited for his mother. Although she had the pony for a mount, she refused to ride. Still, she caught up quickly enough; she was the strongest walker he'd ever met. The goat balked at the water's edge, and his mother dragged it across the rocky shallows impatiently. She had formidable arms, tightly muscled. With the sleeves of Liath's tunic rolled up, the tattooed red snake that ran from the back of her hands up her arms seemed to stretch and shudder as she hauled the goat up the far bank. Matto stared at her. Sanglant couldn't tell if the boy had been afflicted with the infatuation that strikes youth as suddenly as lightning, or if he had suddenly realized how truly strange she was.
"What's your name?" Matto blurted suddenly.
She looked up at him, and he blanched and stammered an apology, although it wasn't clear what he was apologizing for. Her reply was cool and clear. "You will call me 'Alia.'"
Sanglant laughed curtly before reining Resuelto around and starting down the road again. 'Alia' meant 'other' in Dariyan.
Alia walked up beside him. The goat had decided to cooperate and now followed meekly behind the pony, with Matto bringing up the rear. "Why are you not telling those soldiers who you are," she asked in a low voice, her accent heavy and her words a little halting, "and demanding a full escort and the honor you deserve?"
"Since they don't know me, they would never believe I am a prince of the realm. In truth, without a retinue, I'm not really a nobleman at all, am I? Just a landless and kinless wanderer, come to petition the king." He hadn't realized how bitter he was, nor did he know who he was angriest at: fate, his father, or the woman walking beside him who had abandoned him years ago. Blessing stirred on his back and cooed, babbling meaningless syllables, attuned to his tone. "Hush, sweetheart," he murmured. Resuelto snorted.
"Look!" cried Matto. The road was wide enough that he trotted past them easily. He had a hand at his belt, where hung a knife, a leather pouch, and a small polished ram's horn.
Up ahead where the ground dipped into a shrubby hollow, the stream looped back and crossed the road again. In the middle of the ford stood a hag, bent over a staff. Strips of shredded cloth concealed her head and shoulders. The ragged ends of her thread-bare robe floated in the current, wrapping around her calves.
"A coin or crust of bread for an old woman whose husband and son fight in the east with Her Royal Highness Princess Sapientia?" she croaked.
Matto had already begun to dismount, fumbling at the pouch he wore at his belt. Perhaps he was a kind-hearted lad, or perhaps he was only eager to impress Alia.
But despite its high-pitched tone, the hag's voice was certainly not that of a woman. This was one thing in which Sanglant considered himself an expert. He reined in. A moment later, from the dense thicket that grew up from the opposite bank, he heard rustling.
The arrow hit Sanglant in the shoulder, rocking him back. The point embedded in his chain mail just as a second arrow followed the first from a shadowed thicket. He jerked sideways as Jerna uncoiled and with her aery being blew the arrow off course. It fluttered harmlessly into the branches of a tree.
Alia already had her bow free and an arrow notched. She hissed, then shot, and there came a yelp of pain from the thicket.
The hag hooked Matto's leg and dumped the youth backwards into the water. The quick motion revealed the burly shoulders of a man hidden beneath the rags. With a loud cry, the robber brought the staff down on Matto's unprotected head and pummeled him. The boy could only cower with arms raised to fend off blows.
More arrows flew. Jerna became wind, and two arrows stopped dead in mid-air before Resuelto's neck even as Sanglant spurred the gelding forward. The horse went eagerly into battle. He knew what to expect and, like his master, had been trained for this life. Leaping the brook, Sanglant struck to his left, severing the hand of the first bandit before the man could let another blow fall on Matto. Alia's second arrow took the ‘hag' in the back as he turned to run.
Men screamed the alert from their hiding place, but Sanglant had already plunged forward into the thicket, crashing through the foliage into a clear hollow where a knot of men, armed variously with staves, knives, an axe, and a single bow, stood ready. Easily his sword cleaved through branch, haft, and flesh. The bow-man drew for a final shot as Sanglant closed on him.
Jerna leaped forward as on a gust. The arrow rocked sideways just as the bow-man let it fly. The bow, too, spun from the bandit's grasp, and he grabbed for it frantically, caught the arrow-point on his foot, and stumbled backward into a thick growth of sedge and fern.
Was that a voice, thin and weak, crying for mercy? Surely it was only the whine of a gnat. Sanglant brought his sword down, and the man fell, his skull split like a melon.
From the road he heard another shriek of pain, followed by a frantic rustling, growing ever more distant, that told of one -- nay, two -- survivors who would be running for some time.
A horn blatted weakly, near by, and after a pause sounded again with more strength.
Blessing whimpered. Her voice brought him crashing back to himself. Amazed, he stared at the corpses: six men as ragged as paupers and as poorly armed as common laborers in want of a hire. He hadn't realized there were so many. He hadn't thought at all, just killed. One man still thrashed and moaned, but his wound was deep, having been cut through shoulder and lung, and blood bubbled up on his lips. After dismounting, Sanglant mercifully cut his throat.
Matto hobbled through the gap in the thicket made by Resuelto's passage and staggered to a stop, staring. "By our Lord!" he swore. The horn dangled from its strap around one wrist.
"Your arm is broken," said Sanglant. He left the corpses and led Resuelto out to the road. The pony stood with legs splayed to resist the tugging of the tethered goat, who was trying to get to water. Alia had vanished. He heard her whistling tunelessly and saw the flash of her movement on the other side of the road, where another group of the bandits had been hiding behind a shield of slender beech trees. Her shadowed figure bent over a sprawled body. She tugged and with a grunt hopped backward with arrow in hand. To her left, another archer had been hiding right up against the trunk of a tree. His body was actually pinned to the tree by an arrow embedded in his throat. Blood had spilled down the trunk. That was the uncanniest sight of all: The obsidian point of the arrow was sticking out from the back of the man's neck, while the fletchings were embedded in the tree itself, as if a hole had opened in the tree to allow the arrow to pass through and then closed back up around the shaft at the instant the point found its mark.
Matto stumbled back to the path, still cradling his broken arm in his other hand. He was trying valiantly not to sob out loud.
"Let me see that," said Sanglant.
The youth came as trusting as a lamb. He sat down where Sanglant indicated, braced against a log, while the prince undid the boy's belt and gathered the other things he'd need: moss, a pair of stout sticks. He crouched beside the boy and fingered around the red lump swelling halfway along the forearm while Matto hissed hard through his teeth and tears started up in his eyes. It seemed to be a clean fracture, nothing shattered or snapped. The arm lay straight, and no bone had broken through the skin.
"No shame in crying, lad. You'll get worse if you stay with Henry's army."
"I want to stay with you, if you'll let me serve you," whispered the lad with that awful glow of admiration in his eyes, augmented by the glistening tears. "I want to learn to fight the way you do."
Perhaps he tightened his hand too hard on the injured arm. Matto cried out, reeling. Alia appeared suddenly and gripped the lad's shoulders to keep him still as Sanglant cradled the lump with moss and used the belt to bind the sticks along the forearm and hand. When he finished, he got the boy to drink, then rose and walked to the middle of the road where he threw back his head, listening. The bandits were all dead, or fled. A jay shrieked. The first carrion crow settled on a branch a stone's throw away. In the distance, he heard the ring of harness as horsemen approached.
Alia came up beside him. "Who's that coming? Do we leave the boy?"
"Nay, it'll be his company, the ones we just passed. The horn alerted them. We'll wait." He undid the sling that bound his daughter to his back, and swung her around to hold to his chest, careful that her cheeks took no harm from the mail. Jerna played in the breeze above the baby's head, carefree now that danger was past. Blessing babbled sweetly, smiling as soon as she saw her father's face.
"Da da," she said. "Da da."
Ai, God, she was growing so swiftly. No more than five months of age, she looked as big as a yearling and just yesterday at the fireside she had taken a few tottering steps on her own.
"How did that arrow go through the tree?" he asked casually as he smiled into his daughter's blue-fire eyes.
His mother shrugged. "Trees are not solid, Son. Nothing is. We are all lattices made up of the elements of air and fire and wind and water as well as earth. I blew a spell down the wind with the arrow, to part the lattices within the tree, so that the arrow might strike where least expected."
She walked over to the tree and leaned against it. She seemed to whisper to it, as to a lover. His vision got a little hazy then, like looking through water. With a jerk, Alia pulled the arrow free of the wood. The body sagged to the ground. Blood gushed and pooled on fern. The crow cawed jubilantly, and two more flapped down beside it on the branch.
Sergeant Cobbo arrived with his men. They exclaimed over the carnage and congratulated Sanglant heartily as Matto stammered out an incoherent account of the skirmish.
"I can see Captain Fulk was sorry to have left you behind," said the sergeant with a great deal more respect than he'd shown before.
But Sanglant could only regard the dead men with distaste and pity. In truth, he despised berserkers, the ones who let the beast of blood-fury consume them in battle. He prided himself on his calm and steadiness. He had always kept his wits about him, instead of throwing them to the winds. It was one of the reasons his soldiers respected, admired, and followed him: Even in the worst situations, and there had been many, he had never lost control of himself in battle.
But Bloodheart and Gent had left their mark on him. He thought he had freed himself of Bloodheart's chains, but the ghost of them lingered, a second self that had settled down inside him and twisted into another form. He was so angry sometimes that he felt the beast gnawing down there, but whether it was anger that woke and troubled the beast, or the beast that fed his anger, he didn't know. Fate had betrayed him: his own mother had used and discarded him, his father had cherished him but only as long as it served his purpose. He had sworn enemies he'd never heard tell of, who hated him because of his blood and who would have watched his beloved daughter starve to death without lifting a finger to help. Liath had been torn from him, and despite Alia's explanation that the creatures who had kidnaped her had been daimones, fire elementals, he didn't actually know what had happened to her or whether she was alive or dead.
Still cradling Blessing, he watched as Sergeant Cobbo's men stripped the bandits of their belongings and clothes, such as they were, and dug a shallow grave. They came to the bow-man finally, and he heard their exclamations over the power of the blow that had smashed the dead man's head in. They glanced his way at intervals with a kind of sunstruck awe, although thank the Lord they had not been stricken with the babbling reverence with which Matto now regarded him.
They hadn't heard the bow-man begging for mercy as he had scrambled away. He hadn't heard it either, not really. He hadn't been listening because he'd simply been furious enough to kill anything that stood in his path or threatened Blessing. It was only afterward that he realized what he'd heard. And now it was too late.
Maybe the pity he felt wasn't truly for these poor, dead wretches. They would have killed him, after all. The Lord and Lady alone knew what they would have done to Blessing, had she fallen into their hands. Maybe the pity he felt was for that weak, unheeded voice in his own soul, the one that, before, might have listened and might have heard. The one that might have stayed his hand and let mercy, not rage, rule him.
With a grunt of displeasure, he acknowledged the men's fawning comments as they came back to the road. Alia was ready to leave. The sergeant helped Matto onto his mare while Sanglant kissed Blessing and settled her on his back again.
"I think that'll have taken care of the bandits," said Sergeant Cobbo with a smirk. He had taken the severed hand of the ring-leader, the one who'd dressed as a hag, to bring as proof of the victory. "Don't you want anything? You have first choice of the booty."
"No." Perhaps it was his expression, or his tone, but in any case although they all fell in as escort around him, not one, not even Matto, addressed a single question to him as they rode on. The silence suited him very well.