The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas, by Merciel, Liane
- ISBN: 9781439169223 | 1439169225
- Copyright: 3/9/2010
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Brys Tarnell was not a pious man. It saved his life that day.
The attack came at highsun, when Sir Galefrid of Bulls’ March and most of his men were in the tiny chapel of a tiny hamlet observing their daily prayers. Ever since Galefrid had married his pious young wife out of Seawatch, he’d become much more religious; all through their journey, she’d insisted that they stop at the nearest chapel for noon prayers, and he had obliged. By now their custom was well known, and the village solaros usually had the chapel ready for them before they arrived.
Brys, alone among the knights in Galefrid’s retinue, was not anointed to the sun, and so was permitted—even expected—to avoid that daily bit of nonsense. He had just stepped out of the village inn to answer nature’s call when he heard the thrum of bowstrings and saw the first flight of fire-arrows, trailing dark smoke against the bright sky, arch in through the chapel’s open windows.
There were a dozen men waiting outside the chapel doors. Hard-faced men, armored in oiled leather and chain, who carried swords better than any bandit could afford. They stood to either side of the doors, hidden from the view of those inside but plain to any other eyes. Yet none of the villagers had called a warning.
It shouldn’t have surprised him. They’d been fools to venture across the border, chasing a half-real hope of peace into Langmyr. But, then, Sir Galefrid had never been the wisest of men. Brave, but not wise. He’d walked right into their trap, and he’d brought his wife and infant son with him.
The men outside the chapel wore no colors, but Brys was a veteran of a thousand fights on field and in alley, and he needed no herald’s signs to tell him that he was looking at castle-trained soldiers. These were not cowherds driven to desperation. These were killers, and the killing started when Galefrid’s men staggered from the chapel, coughing and red-eyed from smoke.
Young Caedric Alsarring was the first one out. Doubled over, wiping at his streaming eyes, he never had a chance to see his death before it took him. The men at the door said nothing. No threats, no questions, no demands for ransom. One swung his sword in a hissing arc, and Caedric stumbled, clutching his throat, as his life spilled red between his fingers. The man behind him tripped over the fallen youth and into the assassins’ reach. A sword swept his knees and another chopped the back of his neck. He fell and did not get up. Cries of confusion, and then of fear, rose through the smoke behind them.
Brys had seen enough. He eased away from the inn’s rough plaster, sliding a hand to the hilt of his sword as he edged toward the back of the building. There was nothing he could do to stop the slaughter, or at least nothing he was inclined to try. He was one man, with one sword; there were a dozen by the doors, and he had not yet spotted the archers. Neither Sir Galefrid nor his men were armed, for custom forbade bringing steel into Celestia’s holy sanctuaries except during vigils. Whoever had planned this assassination had done it well. Lambs had a better chance of escaping the butcher’s block.
The stables looked clear. He lingered in the inn’s shadow a moment longer, scanning roofs and alleys for signs of danger, then hurried across the open yard until he reached the safety of the stables. Inside, the horses were nervous, stamping at the scent of smoke and blood in the air, but not yet in a panic. Brys took his saddlebags down from their peg and quietly unlatched his bay gelding’s stall.
“Steady now,” he murmured, stroking the horse’s nose. The gelding looked at him with dark, liquid eyes. It was a good horse. It had been with him a long time. He had never bothered to name it, and briefly regretted that; it would have been nice to have a name to whisper as he led the animal from its stall.
He took Caedric’s gray mare as well. That one had a name: Ellyria, after a legendary dancer in the Ardasi Empire of old. The boy liked to say that his gray had such a graceful step that she deserved a dancer’s name.
Caedric was dead, now, and Brys could use a horse with a quick step.
He left the other animals in their stalls. Two horses might help him make better time on the road, but more than that would be difficult to manage, and too conspicuous besides. And though Brys would have bitten off his tongue before admitting it aloud, he was reluctant to steal from companions who might yet survive. True, there was only the thinnest thread of hope that anyone might escape the ambush in the chapel, but he wasn’t eager to snap it off himself. Not when he already had the two horses he needed.
Tightening his grip on the reins, Brys eased open the stable doors. Smoke shrouded the chapel in a gray veil and rose from several other buildings nearby. None were burning in earnest, but the fires were spreading.
The sound of approaching steps snapped his attention back to the street. He readied his sword for a killing blow and crouched behind the half-open door.
It was neither an archer nor a swordsman who shuffled through the smoky pall, however, but a woman carrying a lump of blankets in her arms. Her face was white and drawn tight with pain; red showed on her lip where she’d bitten it through. The shaft of an arrow jutted up from her back, just over the hip, and blood darkened the skirts of her plain servant’s dress in a wide wet stripe spilling down from the wound.
As she came to the doors Brys took her elbow and yanked her inside, out of sight. She didn’t resist, didn’t make a sound. There wasn’t a shout left in her.
He knew her, vaguely. She was one of the maidservants who had bustled around Sir Galefrid’s wife and their newborn son throughout the journey from Bulls’ March. Brys, who preferred to avoid domestic concerns whenever possible, had never spoken to the woman. He could not recall her name.
She, apparently, suffered from no such difficulty.
“Brys Tarnell?” she whispered, and managed the wan shadow of a smile at his nod. It did not reach her eyes. Nothing but pain reached her eyes.
She thrust the knotted blankets at him, stumbling under the strain of the motion. Instinctively Brys stepped forward and caught the bundle before it fell. Then he glimpsed what lay inside, and nearly dropped it himself.
There was a baby in the blankets. A baby with a tear-swollen face red and round as a midsummer plum. A baby he knew, even without the lacquered medallion tucked into the swaddling—a medallion far too heavy, on a chain far too cold, for an infant who had not yet seen a year.
“Wistan?” he asked, stupidly.
The woman nodded. Her chin sagged toward her chest; each nod seemed a little heavier than the last. “I carried him out. He was crying in the chapel … I took him out to hush him, poor impious thing, and it saved him. There’s no one else. No one.” She wiped tears from her chin; the effort left her leaning against the wall for support. Blood smeared onto the rough wood where her hip rested against it. “I was hoping for a horse, but I haven’t the strength to ride. He’ll be safe in Bulls’ March. Only there. Please. Keep him safe.”
“I will.” The words were out before Brys realized he’d opened his mouth. He paused, but saw no need to take them back. He shifted the bundle of blankets and looked down at the baby, whose hiccuping sobs were quiet but constant. A great danger, but a great opportunity. The heir to Bulls’ March—his dead liege lord’s son—had just fallen into his arms.
Yes, he would keep the child.
Brys walked toward the horses. As he reached them he stopped, realizing something, and turned back to face the woman again. He could read the unasked question, and the hope, on her face.
He shook his head, as gently as he could. “I can’t. That’s a bad wound. Looks like a gut shot. I can’t tend to a child and an invalid both, and you need more healing than I can offer. There’s nothing I can do.”
She said nothing. After a moment her eyes closed and she slumped to the manure-specked ground, still breathing but too weak to stand. Brys checked the courtyard—still empty—and set the baby on a pile of clean straw for a moment. He grabbed the half-dead servant by the shoulders and pulled her into an empty stall, where she’d be out of view if anyone should glance into the stable.
“Sorry,” he muttered as he left her.
The next question was how to carry the baby. He didn’t have an arm to spare for Wistan, and he didn’t have a carrier to hold the child on his back. A coarse hemp feed bag, hanging among the tack on the wall, caught his gaze. Brys took it down, let the straps out as far as they would go and stuffed Wistan inside. The straps wouldn’t fit over his shoulders, so he knotted both ends of a quirt to the feed bag and used that as a strap instead. He fitted the makeshift carrier across his body, settling the baby against his chest, and fastened his cloak over the whole thing to hide the child and secure him more firmly.
Shouts, muffled and dim, still came from the chapel. Brys was grimly relieved to hear them. As long as there was killing to be done, the killers would be distracted.
He led the horses toward the village’s western gate and the forest that stretched beyond. A dead man, dressed in a farmer’s undyed wool, lay in the road. A goose-feathered arrow pinned him facedown to the earth. The shaft was well made, the fletchings unpainted; it was as deadly, and anonymous, as the killers by the chapel.
Across the way he saw another pair of arrow-struck corpses, these smaller. Children, a boy and a girl, both with the flaxen hair of the very young. They might have been the innkeeper’s get. The boy had been carrying a basket of grain when he died. Bright kernels spilled around his body like a shattered halo.
He passed more of the dead on his way to the gate. Probably some living, too, though they had the sense to stay hidden without knowing whether he was friend or foe. Of the archers there was no sign, though their handiwork littered the streets, and that troubled Brys in a way he could not quite grasp.
If the villagers had helped in the ambush, why had the archers killed them? If they meant to slaughter the village, why had they left the job half-done? There weren’t nearly enough bodies to account for all the people here. The answer tickled at his memory, but refused to come.
As he reached the end of the village road, he saw a knot of armed men by the gate. One wore a cuirass and sat astride a magnificent red stallion. His armor was as plain as the others’, and a full helm masked his face, but something about the cant of his head and the way that he sat his horse was familiar. The other men were on foot, and though no helms covered their faces, he did not know them.
Several had bows. Brys swore inwardly on seeing them, irritated but not surprised. Archers made it impossible for him to charge at them or flee past them. They’d have him quilled like a hedgehog before he closed half the distance. His own bow was cased for traveling and would have been useless even if it wasn’t. He was a swordsman, not an archer, and trying to outshoot four or five trained bowmen at once was a fool’s dream.
He crouched behind the cover of a low-roofed house, keeping the horses as quiet as he could. Wistan was making little noise, and for that Brys was grateful; the last thing he needed was the distraction of a baby crying under his chin.
The men hadn’t seen him yet, or didn’t seem to care if they had. That perplexed him. They didn’t appear to be watching the streets for stragglers at all. Instead their eyes were trained upward, toward the roofs of the village, as if they expected some sign to come down from the sky.
Brys risked a glance backwards and up. The smoke above the village had thickened enough to sting his eyes and dim the sun. Flickers of sooty-edged flame licked up from the thatched roofs nearest the chapel. Two ravens circled through the haze, signaling a bounty to come for their kind. He could see nothing to warrant the archers’ interest.
Then a scream shivered through the smoky stillness behind him. It was a high, unearthly sound, one that hardly seemed to come from any human throat. The men at the gate stirred and sighed, as if something long dreaded had finally come to pass; the red stallion danced uneasily beneath its rider. The archers fitted arrows to their bows, but kept them down.
More screams pierced the air. The raw terror in them made Brys bite his tongue to keep still. He suddenly wondered if he was being very stupid by remaining where he was instead of braving a hail of arrows. But he could see no danger behind him, and certain death ahead, and so he kept a tight grip on the reins and stayed huddled by the wall.
The village solaros burst out of a crooked street to his left and ran down the hill toward the gate, moving with a speed that Brys would never have guessed the old man could manage. The priest’s yellow robes were sodden with blood and clung to his side, though no wound seemed to slow him. He raised his skinny arms in supplication and fell to his knees as he came to the rider, who looked down on the solaros through the bars of his helm.
Whether the priest begged as a father of the faith or a conspirator to the massacre, Brys could not say; he caught only the anguished words “—you promised!” carried back on the wind.
Whatever the rider had promised, he answered with cold steel. He swung his morningstar smoothly, brutally down. Its spiked ball caught the priest full in the face, smashing him backwards on his knees and leaving him a twitching corpse with a mask of blood and shattered bone.
Brys felt a glint of hard satisfaction at the traitor’s death—but it barely had time to register before more villagers came streaming past him and down the side streets, their eyes wide and unseeing with panic. A little girl ran into Ellyria from behind. The nervous gray kicked back, striking a glancing blow on the girl’s shoulder and knocking her hard to the dirt. Before Brys could reach out a hand in comfort, the child scrabbled back to her feet and ran on.
He heard the twang of a bowstring. Then another. A scream, a body falling, the whistling of arrows through air. He looked the other way, less concerned about the falling arrows than what had driven the villagers into that deadly rain.
Behind the wave of fleeing humanity, the smoke had taken on a reddish tint. No—it wasn’t the smoke that was red. A crimson mist was rising over the burning roofs. Tendrils of red fog crept through the streets, stretching through doors and windows and gaps in poorly caulked walls. The scent of warm copper drifted before it.
Brys’ throat closed with fear.
He understood now why the archers had not lingered to look for survivors, why they had shot down just enough to keep the others frightened in their homes. There was no need for them to do their killing by arrow or sword.
There was a Thorn in the village.
A raven, tempted down too early by its greed, swooped into the bloodmist’s reach. Wisps of fog reached toward the bird, coiling around its prey as if a living mind guided its grasp. At once the raven shrieked and fought to escape the crimson mist, but it was too late. Each frantic beat of its wings flung drops of blood from its feathers, spattering the walls on both sides. Blood rose from its smaller feathers as well, hissing off its body in curls of red steam and evaporating into the scarlet fog that had seized it.
The raven managed three flaps of its wings before the mist sucked the last of the blood from its body. Then it fell, strangely slow through the fog, and hit the ground as a limp, wet-feathered rag.
Brys shuddered. No one survived bloodmist. No one survived the Thorns.
Behind him was the creeping red fog. Ahead, the bowstrings sang. And that was no choice. No choice at all.
He climbed onto his nameless horse, sliding low to the left like a Jenje trick-rider and pulling Ellyria’s reins so that the gray stayed close on that side. He tried to keep from crushing Wistan between himself and the horse, but that wasn’t easy and he had other concerns. Brys listened for the bowstrings, straining his ears, and when he heard three of them snap in quick succession, he kicked his bay gelding to go.
The horses came down the slope with all the speed they could muster, dodging or trampling the wounded and dead. An arrow sheared along Brys’ jaw, sketching a line of hot pain and stinging his ear with its fletchings. He felt Ellyria stumble as another arrow buried itself in the gray, and dropped the reins lest the mare pull down his own horse if she fell.
At the gate the archers scattered. They had no pikes to stop him, and they had already seen that Brys was willing to trample men to make good his escape. The rider with the morningstar drew back to meet him, but Brys had no intention of getting dragged into a fight here. The gate was low, made to corral wandering sheep, not keep armed men out—or in. He thought he could clear it. Hoped he could, anyway. He shifted his weight back to center, flattened himself against the bay gelding’s back, and sent a silent prayer to Celestia to guard his unworthy soul.
Then his horse bunched its muscles and leaped, and there was no more time to pray.
The landing rattled the teeth in his skull. He had to use both arms to keep himself from slamming into the saddle and crushing Wistan; the baby wailed in panic. Brys tasted blood and realized he must have bitten his cheek. He heard a thundering crack of bone or wood behind him and the scream of an injured horse, but he kept his eyes on the road ahead.
Another arrow punched into the saddle an inch from Brys’ thigh. And then he was to the tree line, and then he was screened by the forest, and then he was safe.
Panting for breath, Brys unsheathed his sword and listened for signs of pursuit. Only when minutes had passed, and he was satisfied that no one was chasing, did he climb down from the gelding’s saddle to assess the damage. The horse was breathing hard but unwounded save for a long, shallow scratch on its left shoulder.
“At this rate, I might have to name you,” he said to the horse.
The gelding flicked its ears, eyeing him.
Brys snorted, patted the horse’s neck with rough affection, and then checked over his saddlebags. He had a half-full waterskin and enough food for a fortnight. Autumn was a good season for foraging, so he should be able to stretch that out longer. A few knives, a dicing cup, a traveling solaros’ prayerbook—all things that he could use to get money, or sell if he had to. Spare clothes, and a cloak if the weather turned cold. And, most importantly, his weapons.
Not bad. He’d survived worse with less.
A small voice in the back of his mind asked if that was altogether true. His liege lord was dead, a Thornlord was likely responsible for the killing, and he was caught without friends in enemy territory. Not much cause for cheer in any of that.
Brys pushed his doubts away. He had survived worse with less, and he would survive this too. But he had to believe it to make it true.
He unfastened his cloak and shrugged off Wistan’s carrier. The child wasn’t hurt, as best he could tell, and had quieted down considerably. Brys had expected more crying, but Wistan was only making the little hiccuping sobs that he’d heard in the stables.
Good. Another small blessing. He strapped the carrier back on again and started down the road, leading his gelding by the reins.
A long while later, as the sun cast red shadows across the west sky, Brys permitted himself—for a short time, until dusk fell—the small bitter luxury of guilt. And grief. He’d had friends back there, as much as he’d ever had friends, and he’d done nothing to save them. There’d been nothing he could do, but that truth never went down easy no matter how many times he had to swallow it.
Night descended. Brys kept walking. There was a long road ahead.
© 2010 Jennifer Andress
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