Albinkirk—Ser John Crayford
The Captain of Albinkirk forced himself to stop staring out his narrow, glazed window and do some work.
He was jealous. Jealous of a boy a third of his age, commanding a pretty company of lances. Riding about. While he sat in a town so safe it was dull, growing old.
Don’t be a fool, he told himself. All those deeds of arms make wonderful stories, but the doing is cold, wet and terrifying. Remember?
He sighed. His hands remembered everything—the blows, the nights on the ground, the freezing cold, the gauntlets that didn’t quite fit. His hands pained him all the time, awake or asleep.
The Captain of Albinkirk, Ser John Crayford, had not started his life as a gentleman. It was a rank he’d achieved through pure talent.
And as a reward, he sat in this rich town with a garrison a third the size that it was supposed to be on paper. A garrison of hirelings who bossed the weak, abused the women, and took money from the tradesmen. A garrison that had too much cash, because the posting came with the right to invest in fur caravans from the north. Albinkirk furs were the marvel of ten countries. All you had to do to get them was ride north or west into the Wild. And then come back alive.
The captain had a window that looked north-west.
He tore his eyes away from it. Again.
And put pen to paper. Carefully, laboriously, he wrote:
A Company of Adventure—well ordered, and bearing a pass signed by the constable—passed the bridge yesterday morning; near to forty lances, each lance composed of a knight, a squire, a valet and an archer. They were very well armed and armoured in the latest Eastern manner—steel everywhere. Their captain was polite but reserved; very young, refused to give his name; styled himself The Red Knight. His banner displayed three lacs d’amour in gold on a field sable. He declared that they were, for the most part, your Grace’s subjects, lately come from the wars in Galle. As his pass was good, I saw no reason to keep him.
Ser John snorted, remembering the scene. No one had thought to warn him that a small army was coming his way from the east. He’d been summoned to the gate early in the morning. Dressed in a stained cote of fustian and old hose, he’d tried to face down the cocky young pup in his glorious scarlet and gold, mounted on a war horse the size of a barn. He hadn’t enough real soldiers to arrest any of them. The damned boy had Great Noble written all over him, and the Captain of Albinkirk thanked God that the whelp had paid the toll with good grace and had good paper, as any incident between them would have gone badly. For him.
He realised he was looking at the mountains. He tore his eyes away. Again.
He also had a letter from the Abbess at Lissen Carak. She had sent to me last autumn for fifty good men, and I had to refuse her—your Grace knows I am short enough of men as it is. I suppose she has offered her contract to sell-swords in the absence of local men.
I am, as your Grace is aware, almost one hundred men under strength; I have but four proper men-at-arms, and many of my archers are not all they should be. I respectfully request that your Grace either replace me, or provide the necessary funds to increase the garrison to its proper place.
I am your Grace’s humblest and most respectful servant, John Crayford
The Master of the Guild of Furriers had invited him to dinner. Ser John leaned back and decided to call it a day, leaving the letter lying on his desk.
Lissen Carak—The Red Knight
“Sweet Jesu,” Michael called from the other side of the wall. It was as high as a man’s shoulder, created by generations of peasants hauling stones out of fields. Built against the wall was a two-storey stone house with outbuild- ings—a rich manor farm. Michael stood in the yard, peering through the house’s shattered main door. “Sweet Jesu,” the squire said again. “They’re all dead, Captain.”
His war horse gave the captain the height to see over the wall to where his men were rolling the bodies over, stripping them of valuables as they sought for survivors. Their new employer would not approve, but the captain thought the looting might help her understand what she was choos- ing to employ. In his experience, it was usually best that the prospective employer understand what he—or she—was buying. From the first.
The captain’s squire vaulted over the stone wall that separated the walled garden from the road and took a rag from Toby, the captain’s page. Sticky mud, from the endless spring rain, covered his thigh-high buckled boots. He produced a rag from his purse to cover his agitation and began to clean his boots. Michael was fussy and dressed for fashion. His scarlet company surcoat was embroidered with gold stars; the heavy wool worth more than an archer’s armour. He was well born and could afford it, so it was his business.
It was the captain’s business that the lad’s hands were shaking.
“When you feel ready to present yourself,” the captain said lightly, but Michael froze at his words, then made himself finish his task with the rag before tossing it back to Toby.
“Apologies, m’lord,” he said with a quick glance over his shoulder. “It was something out of the Wild, lord. Stake my soul on it.”
“Not much of a stake,” the captain said, holding Michael’s eye. He winked, as much to amuse the onlookers of his household as to steady his squire, who was pale enough to write on. Then he looked around.
The rain was light—just enough to weigh down the captain’s heavy scar- let cloak without soaking it through. Beyond the walled steading stretched fields of dark, newly planted earth, as shining and black in the rain as the captain’s horse. The upper fields toward the hills were rich with new greenery and dotted with sheep. Good earth and fertile soil promised rich crops, as far as the eye could see on both sides of the river. This land was tamed, covered in a neat geometric pattern of hedgerows and high stone walls separating tilled plots, or neatly scattered sheep and cattle, with the river to ship them down to the cities in the south. Crops and animals whose riches had paid for the fortress nunnery—Lissen Carak—that capped the high ridge to the south, visible from here as a crenelated line of pale stone. Grey, grey, grey from the sky to the ground. Pale grey, dark grey, black.
Beyond the sheep, to the north, rose the Adnacrags—two hundred leagues of dense mountains that lowered over the fields, their tops lost in the clouds.
The captain laughed at his own thoughts.
The dozen soldiers nearest him looked; every head turned, each wearing matching expressions of fear.
The captain rubbed the pointed beard at his chin, shaking off the water. “Jacques?” he asked his valet.
The older man sat quietly on a war horse. He was better armed than most of the valets; wearing his scarlet surcote with long, hanging sleeves over an Eastern breastplate, and with a fine sword four feet long to the tip. He, too, combed the water out of his pointed beard while he thought.
“M’lord?” he asked.
“How did the Wild make it here?” The captain asked. Even with a gloved hand keeping the water from his eyes, he couldn’t see the edge of the Wild—there wasn’t a stand of trees large enough to hide a deer within a mile. Two miles. Far off to the north, many leagues beyond the rainy horizon and the mountains, was the Wall. Past the Wall was the Wild. True, the Wall was breached in many places and the Wild ran right down into the country. The Adnacrags had never been cleared. But here—
Here, wealth and power held the Wild at bay. Should have held the Wild at bay.
“The usual way,” Jacques said quietly. “Some fool must have invited them in.”
The captain chuckled. “Well,” he said, giving his valet a crooked smile, “I don’t suppose they’d call us if they didn’t have a problem. And we need the work.”
“It ripped them apart,” Michael said.
He was new to the trade and well-born, but the captain appreciated how quickly he had recovered his poise. At the same time, Michael needed to learn.
“Apart,” Michael repeated, licking his lips. His eyes were elsewhere. “It ate her. Them.”
Mostly recovered, the captain thought to himself. He nodded to his squire and gave his destrier, Grendel, a little rein so he backed a few steps and turned. The big horse could smell blood and something else he didn’t like. He didn’t like most things, even at the best of times, but this was spooking him and the captain could feel his mount’s tension. Given that Grendel wore a chamfron over his face with a spike a foot long, the horse’s annoyance could quickly translate into mayhem.
He motioned to Toby, who was now sitting well to the side and away from the isolated steading-house and eating, which is what Toby tended to do whenever left to himself. The captain turned to face his standard bearer and his two marshals where they sat their own fidgeting horses in the rain, waiting for his commands.
“I’ll leave Sauce and Bad Tom. They’ll stay on their guard until we send them a relief,” he said. The discovery of the killings in the steading had interrupted their muddy trek to the fortress. They’d been riding since the second hour after midnight, after a cold camp and equally cold supper. No one looked happy.
“Go and get me the master of the hunt,” he added, turning back to his squire. When he was answered only with silence, he looked around. “Michael?” he asked quietly.
“M’lord?” The young man was looking at the door to the steading. It was oak, bound in iron, and it had been broken in two places, the iron hinges inside the door had bent where they’d been forced off their pins. Trios of parallel grooves had ripped along the grain of the wood—in one spot, the talons had ripped through a decorative iron whorl, a clean cut.
“Do you need a minute, lad?” the captain asked. Jacques had seen to his own mount and was now standing at Grendel’s big head, eyeing the spike warily.
“No—no, m’lord.” His squire was still stunned, staring at the door and what lay beyond it.
“Then don’t stand on ceremony, I beg.” The captain dismounted, think- ing that he had used the term lad quite naturally. Despite the fact that he and Michael were less than five years apart.
“M’lord?” Michael asked, unclear what he’d just been told to do.
“Move your arse, boy. Get me the huntsman. Now.” The captain handed his horse to the valet. Jacques was not really a valet. He was really the captain’s man and, as such, he had his own servant—Toby. A recent addition. A scrawny thing with large eyes and quick hands, completely enveloped in his red wool cote, which was many sizes too big.
Toby took the horse and gazed at his captain with hero-worship, a big winter apple forgotten in his hand.
The captain liked a little hero-worship. “He’s spooked. Don’t give him any free rein or there’ll be trouble,” the captain said gruffly. He paused. “You might give him your apple core though,” he said, and the boy smiled.
The captain went into the steading by the splintered door. Closer up, he could see that the darker brown was not a finish. It was blood.
Behind him, his destrier gave a snort that sounded remarkably like human derision—though whether it was for the page or his master was impossible to tell.
The woman just inside the threshold had been a nun before she was ripped open from neck to cervix. Her long, dark hair, unbound from the confines of her wimple, framed the horror of her missing face. She lay in a broad pool of her own blood that ran down into the gaps between the boards. There were tooth marks on her skull—the skin just forward of one ear had been shredded, as if something had gnawed at her face for some time, flensing it from the bone. One arm had been ripped clear of her body, the skin and muscle neatly eaten away so that only shreds remained, bones and tendons still hanging together…and then it had been replaced by the corpse. The white hand with the silver IHS ring and the cross was untouched.
The captain looked at her for a long time.
Just beyond the red ruin of the nun was a single clear footprint in the blood and ordure, which was already brown and sticky in the moist, cool air. Some of the blood had begun to leech into the pine floor boards, smooth from years of bare feet walking them. The leeched blood blurred the edge of the print, but the outline was clear—it was the size of a war horse’s hoof or bigger, with three toes.
The captain heard his huntsman come up and dismount outside. He didn’t turn, absorbed in the parallel exercises of withholding the need to vomit and committing the scene to memory. There was a second, smudged print further into the room, where the creature had pivoted its weight to pass under the low arch to the main room beyond. It had dug a furrow in the pine with its talons. And a matching furrow in the base board that ran up into the wattle and plaster. A dew claw.
“Why’d this one die here when the rest died in the garden?” he asked.
Gelfred stepped carefully past the body. Like most gentlemen, he carried a short staff—really just a stick shod in silver, like a mountebank’s wand. Or a wizard’s. He used it first to point and then to pry something shiny out of the floorboards.
“Very good,” said the captain.
“She died for them,” Gelfred said. A silver cross set with pearls dangled from his stick. “She tried to stop it. She gave the others time to escape.”
“If only it had worked,” said the captain. He pointed at the prints.
Gelfred crouched by the nearer print, laid his stick along it, and made a clucking sound with his tongue.
“Well, well,” he said. His nonchalance was a little too studied. And his face was pale.
The captain couldn’t blame the man. In a brief lifetime replete with dead bodies, the captain had seldom seen one so horrible. Part of his conscious mind wandered off a little, wondering if her femininity, the beauty of her hair, contributed to the utter horror of her destruction. Was it like desecration? A deliberate sacrilege?
And another, harder part of his mind walked a different path. The monster had placed that arm just so. The tooth marks that framed the bloody sockets that had been her eyes. He could imagine, far too well.
It had been done to leave terror. It was almost artistic.
He tasted salt in his mouth and turned away. “Don’t act tough on my account, Gelfred,” he said. He spat on the floor, trying to get rid of the taste before he made a spectacle of himself.
“Never seen worse, and that’s a fact,” Gelfred said. He took a long, slow breath. “God shouldn’t allow this!” he said bitterly.
“Gelfred,” the captain said, with a bitter smile. “God doesn’t give a fuck.”
Their eyes met. Gelfred looked away. “I will know what there is to know,” he said, looking grim. He didn’t like the captain’s blasphemy—his face said as much. Especially not when he was about to work with God’s power.
Gelfred touched his stick to the middle of the print, and there was a moment of change, as if their eyes had adjusted to a new light source, or stronger sunlight.
“Pater noster qui es in caelus,” Gelfred intoned in plainchant.
The captain left him to it.
In the garden, Ser Thomas’s squire and half a dozen archers had stripped the bodies of valuables—and collected all the body parts strewn across the enclosure, reassembled as far as possible, and laid them out, wrapped in cloaks. The two men were almost green, and the smell of vomit almost covered the smell of blood and ordure. A third archer was wiping his hands on a linen shirt.
Ser Thomas—Bad Tom to every man in the company—was six foot six inches of dark hair, heavy brow and bad attitude. He had a temper and was always the wrong man to cross. He was watching his men attentively, an amulet out and in his hand. He turned at the rattle of the captain’s hardened steel sabatons on the stone path and gave him a sketchy salute. “Reckon the young ’uns earned their pay today, Captain.”
Since they weren’t paid unless they had a contract, it wasn’t saying much. The captain merely grunted. There were six corpses in the garden.
Bad Tom raised an eyebrow and passed something to him.
The captain looked at it, and pursed his lips. Tucked the chain into the purse at his waist, and slapped Bad Tom on his paulder-clad shoulder. “Stay here and stay awake,” he said. “You can have Sauce and Gelding, too.”
Bad Tom shrugged. He licked his lips. “Me an’ Sauce don’t always see eye to eye.”
The captain smiled inwardly to see this giant of a man—feared through- out the company—admit that he and a woman didn’t “see eye to eye.”
She came over the wall to join them.
Sauce had won her name as a whore, giving too much lip to customers. She was tall, and in the rain her red hair was toned to dark brown. Freckles gave her an innocence that was a lie. She had made herself a name. That said all that needed to be said.
“Tom fucked it up already?” she asked.
The captain took a breath. “Play nicely, children. I need my best on guard here, frosty and awake.”
“It won’t come back,” she said.
The captain shook his head. “Stay awake anyway. Just for me.”
Bad Tom smiled and blew a kiss at Sauce. “Just for you,” he said.
Her hand went to her riding sword and with a flick it was in her hand. The captain cleared his throat.
“He treats me like a whore. I am not.” She held the sword steady at his face, and Bad Tom didn’t move.
“Say you are sorry, Tom.” The captain sounded as if it was all a jest.
“Didn’t say one bad thing. Not one! Just a tease!” Tom said. Spittle flew from his lips.
“You meant to cause harm. She took it as harm. You know the rules, Tom.” The captain’s voice had changed, now. He spoke so softly that Tom had to lean forward to hear him.
“Sorry,” Tom muttered like a schoolboy. “Bitch.”
Sauce smiled. The tip of her riding sword pressed into the man’s thick forehead just over an eye.
“Fuck you!” Tom growled.
The captain leaned forward. “Neither one of you wants this. It’s clear you are both posturing. Climb down or take the consequences. Tom, Sauce wants to be treated as your peer. Sauce, Tom is top beast and you put his back up at every opportunity. If you want to be part of this company then you have to accept your place in it.”
He raised his gloved hand. “On the count of three, you will both back away, Sauce will sheathe her weapon, Tom will bow to her and apologise, and Sauce will return his apology. Or you can both collect your kit, walk away and kill each other. But not as my people. Understand? Three. Two. One.”
Sauce stepped back, saluted with her blade and sheathed it. Without looking or fumbling.
Tom let a moment go by. Pure insolence. But then something happened in his face, and he bowed—a good bow, so that his right knee touched the mud. “Humbly crave your pardon,” he said in a loud, clear voice.
Sauce smiled. It wasn’t a pretty smile, but it did transform her face, despite the missing teeth in the middle. “And I yours, ser knight,” she replied. “I regret my . . . attitude.”
She obviously shocked Tom. In the big man’s world of dominance and submission, she was beyond him. The captain could read him like a book. And he thought Sauce deserves something for that. She’s a good man.
Gelfred appeared at his elbow. Had probably been waiting for the drama to end.
The captain felt the wrongness of it before he saw what his huntsman carried. Like a housewife returning from pilgrimage and smelling something dead under her floor—it was like that, only stronger and wronger.
“I rolled her over. This was in her back,” Gelfred said. He had the thing wrapped in his rosary.
The captain swallowed bile, again. I love this job, he reminded himself.
To the eye, it looked like a stick—two fingers thick at the butt, sharp- ened to a needlepoint now clotted with blood and dark. Thorns sprouted from the whole haft, but it was fletched. An arrow. Or rather, an obscene parody of an arrow, whittled from…
“Witch Bane,” Gelfred said.
The captain made himself take it without flinching. There were some secrets he would pay the price to preserve. He flashed on the last Witch- Bane arrow he’d seen—and pushed past it.
He held it a moment. “So?” he said, with epic unconcern.
“She was shot in the back—with the Witch Bane—while she was alive.” Gelfred’s eyes narrowed. “And then the monster ripped her face off.”
The captain nodded and handed his huntsman the shaft. The moment it left his hand he felt lighter, and the places where the thorns had pricked his chamois gloves felt like rashes of poison ivy on his thumb and fingers—if poison ivy caused an itchy numbness, a leaden pollution.
“Interesting,” the captain said.
Sauce was watching him.
Damn women and their superior powers of observation, he thought.
Her smile forced him to smile in return. The squires and valets in the garden began to breathe again and the captain was sure they’d stay awake, now. Given that there was a murderer on the loose who had monster-allies in the Wild.
He got back to his horse. Jehannes, his marshal, came up on his bridle hand side and cleared his throat. “That woman’s trouble,” he said.
“Tom’s trouble too,” the captain replied.
“No other company would have had her.” Jehannes spat.
The captain looked at his marshal. “Now Jehannes,” he said. “Be serious. Who would have Tom? He’s killed more of his own comrades than Judas Iscariot.”
Jehannes looked away. “I don’t trust her,” he said.
The captain nodded. “I know. Let’s get moving.” He considered vaulting into the saddle and decided that he was too tired and the show would be wasted on Jehannes, anyway. “You dislike her because she’s a woman,” he said, and put his left foot into the stirrup.
Grendel was tall enough that he had to bend his left knee as far as the articulation in his leg harness would allow. The horse snorted again. Toby held onto the reins.
He leaped up, his right leg powering him into the saddle, pushing his six feet of height and fifty pounds of mail and plate. Got his knee over the high ridge of the war-saddle and was in his seat.
“Yes,” Jehannes said, and backed his horse into his place in the column.
The captain saw Michael watching Jehannes go. The younger man turned and raised an eyebrow at the captain.
“Something to say, young Michael?” the captain asked.
“What was the stick? M’lord?” Michael was different from the rest—well born. Almost an apprentice, instead of a hireling. As the captain’s squire, he had special privileges. He could ask questions, and all the rest of the company would sit very still and listen to the answer.
The captain looked at him for a moment. Considering. He shrugged—no mean feat in plate armour.
“Witch Bane,” he said. “A Witch-Bane arrow. The nun had power.” He made a face. “Until someone shot the Witch Bane into her back.”
“A nun?” Michael asked. “A nun who could work power?” He paused. “Who shot her? By Jesu, m’lord, you mean the Wild has allies?”
“All in a day’s work, lad. It’s all in a day’s work.” His visual memory, too well trained, ran through the items like the rooms in his memory palace—the splintered door, the faceless corpse, the arm, the Witch-Bane arrow. He examined the path from the garden door to the front door.
“Wait on me,” he said.
He walked Grendel around the farmyard, following the stone wall to the garden. He stood in his stirrups to peer over the wall, and aligned the open garden door with the splintered front door. He looked over his shoulder several times.
“Wilful!” he called.
His archer appeared. “What now?” he muttered.
The captain pointed at the two doors. “How far away could you stand and still put an arrow into someone at the front door.”
“What, shooting through the house?” asked Wilful Murder.
The captain nodded.
Wilful shook his head. “Not that far,” he admitted. “Any loft at all and the shaft strikes the door jamb.” He caught a louse on his collar and killed it between his nails. His eyes met the captain’s. “He’d have to be close.”
The captain nodded. “Gelfred?” he called.
The huntsman was outside the front door, casting with his wand over a large reptilian print in the road. “M’lord?”
“See if you and Wilful can find any tracks out the back. Wilful will show you where a bowman might have stood.”
“It’s always fucking me—get Long Paw to do it,” Wilful muttered.
The captain’s mild glance rested for a moment on his archer and the man cringed.
The captain turned his horse and sighed. “Catch us up as soon as you have the tracks,” he said. He waved at Jehannes. “Let’s go to the fortress and meet the lady Abbess.” He touched his spurs ever so lightly to Grendel’s sides, and the stallion snorted and deigned to move forward into the rain.
The rest of the ride along the banks of the Cohocton was uneventful, and the company halted by the fortified bridge overshadowed by the rock-girt ridge and the grey walls of the fortress convent atop it, high above them. Linen tents rose like dirty white flowers from the muddy field, and the officer’s pavilions came off the wagons. Teams of archers dug cook pits and latrines, and valets and the many camp followers—craftsmen and sutlers, runaway serfs, prostitutes, servants, and free men and women desperate to gain a place—assembled the heavy wooden hoardings that served the camp as temporary walls and towers. The drovers, an essential part of any company, filled the gaps with the heavy wagons. Horse lines were staked out. Guards were set.
The Abbess’s door ward had pointedly refused to allow the mercenaries through her gate. The mercenaries had expected nothing else, and even now hardened professionals were gauging the height of the walls and the likeli- hood of climbing them. Two veteran archers—Kanny, the barracks room lawyer of the company, and Scrant, who never stopped eating—stood by the camp’s newly-constructed wooden gate and speculated on the likelihood of getting some in the nun’s dormitory.
It made the captain smile as he rode by, collecting their salutes, on the steep gravel road that led up the ridge from the fortified town at the base, up along the switchbacks and finally up through the fortress gate-house into the courtyard beyond. Behind him, his banner bearer, marshals and six of his best lances dismounted to a quiet command and stood by their horses. His squire held his high-crested bassinet, and his valet bore his sword of war. It was an impressive show and it made good advertising—ideal, as he could see heads at every window and door that opened into the courtyard.
A tall nun in a slate-grey habit—the captain suppressed his reflexive flash on the corpse in the doorway of the steading—reached to take the reins of his horse. A second nun beckoned with her hand. Neither spoke.
The captain was pleased to see Michael dismount elegantly despite the rain, and take Grendel’s head, without physically pushing the nun out of the way.
He smiled at the nuns and followed them across the courtyard towards the most ornate door, heavy with scroll-worked iron hinges and elaborate wooden panels. To the north, a dormitory building rose beyond a trio of low sheds that probably served as workshops—smithy, dye house and carding house, or so his nose told him. To the south stood a chapel—far too fragile and beautiful for this martial setting—and next to it, by cosmic irony, a long, low, slate-roofed stable.
Between the chapel’s carved oak doors stood a man. He had a black habit with a silk rope around the waist, was tall and thin to the point of caricature, and his hands were covered in old scars.
The captain didn’t like his eyes, which were blue and flat. The man was nervous, and wouldn’t meet his eye—and he was clearly angry.
Flicking his eyes away from the priest, the captain reviewed the riches of the abbey with the eye of a money-lender sizing up a potential client. The abbey’s income was shown in the cobbled courtyard, the neat flint and granite of the stables with a decorative stripe of glazed brick, the copper on the roof and the lead gutters gushing water into a cistern. The courtyard was thirty paces across—as big as that of any castle he’d lived in as a boy. The walls rose sheer—the outer curtain at his back, the central monastery before him, with towers at each corner, all wet stone and wet lead, rain slicked cobbles; the priest’s faded black cassock, and the nun’s undyed surcoat.
All shades of grey, he thought to himself, and smiled as he climbed the steps to the massive monastery door, which was opened by another silent nun. She led him down the hall—a great hall lit by stained glass windows high in the walls. The Abbess was enthroned like a queen in a great chair on a dais at the north end of the hall, in a gown whose grey had just enough colour to appear a pale, pale lavender in the multi-faceted light. She had the look of a woman who had once been very beautiful indeed—even in middle age her beauty was right there, resting in more than her face. Her wimple and the high collar of her gown revealed little enough of her. But her bearing was more than noble, or haughty. Her bearing was command- ing, confident in a way that only the great of the land were confident. The captain noted that her nuns obeyed her with an eagerness born of either fear or the pleasure of service.
The captain wondered which it was.
“You took long enough to reach us,” she said, by way of greeting. Then she snapped her fingers and beckoned at a pair of servants to bring a tray. “We are servants of God here—don’t you think you might have managed to strip your armour before you came to my hall?” the Abbess asked. She glanced around, caught a novice’s eye, raised an eyebrow. “Fetch the captain a stool,” she said. “Not a covered one. A solid one.”
“I wear armour every day,” the captain said. “It comes with my pro- fession.” The great hall was as big as the courtyard outside, with high windows of stained glass set near the roof, and massive wooden beams so old that age and soot had turned them black. The walls were whitewashed over fine plaster, and held niches containing images of saints and two rich books—clearly on display to overawe visitors. Their voices echoed in the room, which was colder than the wet courtyard outside. There was no fire in the central hearth.
The Abbess’s people brought her wine, and she sipped it as they placed a small table at the captain’s elbow. He was three feet beneath her. “Perhaps your armour is unnecessary in a nunnery?” she asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “I see a fortress,” he said. “It happens that there are nuns in it.”
She nodded. “If I chose to order you taken by my men, would your armour save you?” she asked.
The novice who brought his stool was pretty and she was careful of him, moving with the deliberation of a swordsman or a dancer. He turned his head to catch her eye and felt the tug of her power, saw that she was not merely pretty. She set the heavy stool down against the back of his knees. Quite deliberately, the captain touched her arm gently and caused her to turn to him. He turned to face her, putting his back to the Abbess.
“Thank you,” he said, looking her in the eye with a calculated smile. She was tall and young and graceful, with wide-set almond-shaped eyes and a long nose. Not pretty; she was arresting.
She blushed. The flush travelled like fire down her neck and into her heavy wool gown.
He turned back to the Abbess, his goal accomplished. Wondering why the Abbess had placed such a deserable novice within his reach, unless she meant to. “If I chose to storm your abbey, would your piety save you?” he asked.
She blazed with anger. “How dare you turn your back on me?” she asked. “And leave the room, Amicia. The captain has bitten you with his eyes.”
He was smiling. He thought her anger feigned.
She met his eyes and narrowed her own—and then folded her hands together, almost as if she intended to pray.
“Honestly, Captain, I have prayed and prayed over what to do here. Bringing you to fight the Wild is like buying a wolf to shepherd sheep.” She looked him in the eye. “I know what you are,” she said.
“Do you really?” he asked. “All the better, lady Abbess. Shall we to business, then? Now the pleasantries are done?”
“But what shall I call you?” she asked. “You are a well-born man, for all your snide airs. My chamberlain—”
“Didn’t have a nice name for me, did he, my lady Abbess?” He nodded. “You may call me Captain. It is all the name I need.” He nodded graciously. “I do not like the name your chamberlain used. Bourc. I call myself the Red Knight.”
“Many men are called bourc,” she said. “To be born out of wedlock is—”
“To be cursed by God before you are born. Eh, lady Abbess?” He tried to stop the anger that rose on his cheeks like a blush. “So very fair. So just.” She scowled at him for a moment, annoyed with him the way older people are often annoyed with the young, when the young posture toomuch.
He understood her in a glance.
“Too dark? Should I add a touch of heroism?” he asked with a certain air.
She eyed him. “If you wrap yourself in darkness,” she said, “you risk merely appearing dull. But you have the wit to know it. There’s hope for you, boy, if you know that. Now to business. I’m not rich—”
“I have never met anyone who would admit being rich,” he agreed. “Or to getting enough sleep.”
“More wine for the captain,” snapped the Abbess to the sister who had guarded the door. “But I can pay you. We are afflicted by something from the Wild. It has destroyed two of my farms this year, and one last year. At first—at first, we all hoped that they were isolated incidents.” She met his eye squarely. “It is not possible to believe that any more.”
“Three farms this year,” said the captain. He fished in his purse, hesitated over the chain with the leaf amulet, then fetched forth a cross inlaid with pearls instead.
“Oh, by the wounds of Christ!” swore the Abbess. “Oh, Blessed Virgin protect and cherish her. Sister Hawisia! Is she—”
“She is dead,” the captain said. “And six more corpses in the garden. Your good sister died trying to protect them.”
“Her faith was very strong,” the Abbess said. She was dry eyed, but her voice trembled. “You needn’t mock her.”
The captain frowned. “I never mock courage, lady Abbess. To face such a thing without weapons—”
“Her faith was a weapon against evil, Captain.” The Abbess leaned forward.
“Strong enough to stop a creature from the Wild? No, it was not,” said the captain quietly. “I won’t comment on evil.”
The Abbess stood sharply. “You are some sort of atheist, are you, Captain?”
The captain frowned again. “There is nothing productive for us in theological debate, my lady Abbess. Your lands have attracted a malignant entity—an enemy of Man. They seldom hunt alone, especially not this far from the Wild. You wish me to rid you of them. I can. And I will. In exchange, you will pay me. That is all that matters between us.”
The Abbess sat again, her movements violent, angry. The captain sensed that she was off balance—that the death of the nun had struck her person- ally. She was, after all, the commander of a company of nuns.
“I am not convinced that engaging you is the right decision,” she said.
The captain nodded. “It may not be, lady Abbess. But you sent for me, and I am here.” Without intending to, he had lowered his voice, and spoke softly.
“Is that a threat?” she asked.
Instead of answering, the captain reached into his purse again and withdrew the broken chain holding a small leaf made of green enamel on bronze.
The Abbess recoiled as if from a snake.
“My men found this,” he said.
The Abbess turned her head away.
“You have a traitor,” he said. And rose. “Sister Hawisia had an arrow in her back. While she faced something terrible, something very, very terrible.” He nodded. “I will go to walk the walls. You need time to think if you want us. Or not.”
“You will poison us,” she said. “You and your kind do not bring peace.”
He nodded. “We bring you no peace, but a company of swords, my lady.” He grinned at his own misquote of scripture. “We don’t make the violence. We merely deal with it as it comes to us.”
“The devil can quote scripture,” she said.
“No doubt he had his hand in writing it,” the captain shot back.
She bit back a counter—he watched her face change as she decided not to rise to his provocation. And he felt a vague twinge of remorse for goading her, an ache like the pain in his wrist from making too many practice cuts the day before. And, like the pain in his wrist, he was unaccustomed to remorse.
“I could say it is a little late to think of peace now.” He sneered briefly and then put his sneer away. “My men are here, and they haven’t had a good meal or a paid job in some weeks. I offer this, not as a threat, but as a useful piece of data as you reason through the puzzle. I also think that the creature you have to deal with is far worse than you have imagined. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s far worse than I had imagined. It is big, powerful, and angry, and very intelligent. And more likely two than one.”
“Allow me a few minutes to think,” she said.
He nodded, bowed, set his riding sword at his waist, and walked back into the courtyard.
His men stood like statues, their scarlet surcoats livid against their grey surroundings. The horses fretted—but only a little—and the men less.
“Be easy,” he said.
They all took breath together. Stretched arms tired from bearing armour, or hips bruised from mail and cuirass.
Michael was the boldest. “Are we in?” he asked.
The captain didn’t meet his eye because he’d noticed an open window across the courtyard, and seen the face framed in it. “Not yet, my honey. We are not in yet.” He blew a kiss at the window.
The face vanished.
Ser Milus, his primus pilus and standard bearer, grunted. “Bad for busi- ness,” he said. And then, as an afterthought, “m’lord.”
The captain flicked him a glance and looked back to the dormitory windows.
“There’s more virgins watching us right now,” Michael opined, “Then have parted their legs for me in all my life.”
Jehannes, the senior marshal, nodded seriously. “Does that mean one, young Michael? Or two?”
Guillaume Longsword, the junior marshal, barked his odd laugh, like the seals of the northern bays. “The second one said she was a virgin,” he mock-whined. “At least, that’s what she told me!”
Coming through the visor of his helmet, his voice took on an ethereal quality that hung in the air for a moment. Men do not look on horror and forget it. They merely put it away. Memories of the steading were still too close to the surface, and the junior marshal’s voice had summoned them, somehow.
No one laughed. Or rather, most of them laughed, and all of it was forced.
The captain shrugged. “I have chosen to give our prospective employer some time to consider her situation,” he said.
Milus barked a laugh. “Stewing in her juice to raise the price, is that it?” he asked. He nodded at the door of the chapel. “Yon has no liking for us.”
The priest continued to stand in his doorway.
“Think he’s a dimwit? Or is he the pimp?” Ser Milus asked. And stared at the priest. “Be my guest, cully. Stare all ye like.”
The soldiers chuckled, and the priest went into the chapel.
Michael flinched at the cruelty in the standard bearer’s tone, then stepped forward. “What is your will, m’lord?”
“Oh,” the captain said, “I’m off hunting.” He stepped away quickly, with a wry smile, walked a few steps toward the smithy, concentrated…and vanished.
Michael looked confused. “Where is he?” he asked.
Milus shrugged, shifting the weight of his hauberk. “How does he do that?” he asked Jehannes.
Twenty paces away, the captain walked into the dormitory wing as if it was his right to do so. Michael leaned as if to call out but Jehannes put his gauntleted hand over Michael’s mouth.
“There goes our contract,” Hugo said. His dark eyes crossed with the standard bearer’s, and he shrugged, despite the weight of the maille on his shoulders. “I told you he was too young.”
Jehannes eased his hand off the squire’s face. “He has his little ways, the Bourc.” He gave the other men a minute shake of his head. “Let him be. If he lands us this contract—”
Hugo snorted, and looked up at the window.
The captain reached into the palace in his head.
A vaulted room, twelve sided, with high, arched, stained glass windows, each one bearing a different image set at even intervals between columns of aged marble that supported a groined roof. Under each window was a sign of the zodiac, painted in brilliant blue on gold leaf, and then a band of beaten bronze as wide as a man’s arm, and finally, at eye level, a series of niches between the columns, each holding a statue; eleven statues of white marble, and one iron-bound door under the sign of Ares.
In the exact centre of the room stood a twelfth statue—Prudentia, his child- hood tutor. Despite her solid white marble skin, she smiled warmly as he approached her.
“Clementia, Pisces, Eustachios,” he said in the palace of his memory, and his tutor’s veined white hands moved to point at one sign and then another.
And the room moved.
The windows rotated silently above the signs of the zodiac, and the statues below the band of bronze rotated in the opposite direction until his three chosen signs were aligned opposite to the iron-bound door. And he smiled at Prudentia, walked across the tiles of the twelve-sided room and unlatched the door.
He opened it on a verdant garden of rich summer green—the dream memory of the perfect summer day. It was not always thus, on the far side of the door. A rich breeze blew in. It was not always this strong, his green power, and he deflected some with the power of his will, batting it into a ball and shoving it like a handful of summer leaves into a hempen bag he imagined into being and hung from Prudentia’s outstretched arm. Against a rainy day. The insistent green breeze stirred through his hair and then reached the aligned signs on the opposite wall and—
He moved away from the horses without urgency, secure in the knowl- edge that Michael would be distracted as he moved—and so would the watcher in the window.
The captain’s favourite phantasms depended on misdirection more than aethereal force. He preferred to add to their efficacy with physical efficiency—he walked quietly, and didn’t allow his cloak to flap.
At the door to the dormitory he reached into his memory palace and
leaned into the vaulted room. “Same again, Pru,” he said.
Again the sigils moved as the marble statue pointed to the signs, already aligned above the door. He opened it again, allowed the green breeze to power his working, and let the door close.
He walked into the dormitory building. There were a dozen nuns, all big, capable women, sitting in the good light of the clerestory windows, and most of them were sewing.
He walked past them without a swirl of his scarlet cloak, his whole will focused on his belief that his presence there was perfectly normal and started up the stairs. No heads turned, but one older nun stopped peering at her embroidery and glanced at the stairwell, raised an eyebrow, and then went back to her work. He heard a murmur from behind him.
Not entirely fooled then, he thought. Who are these women?
His sabatons made too much noise and he had to walk carefully, because power—at least, the sort of power he liked to wield—was of limited use. The stairs wound their way up and up, turning as tightly as they would in any other fortress, to foul his sword arm if he was an attacker.
Which I am, of a sort, he thought. The gallery was immediately above the hall. Even on a day this grey, it was full of light. Three grey-clad novices leaned on the casemates of the windows, watching the men in the yard. Giggling.
At the edge of his power, he was surprised to find traces of their power.
He stepped into the gallery, and his sabaton made a distinct metallic scratch against the wooden floor—a clarion sound in a world of barefoot women. He didn’t try to strain credulity by willing himself to seem normal, here.
The three heads snapped around. Two of the girls turned and ran. The third novice hesitated for a fatal moment—looking. Wondering.
He had her hand. “Amicia?” he said into her eyes, and then put his mouth over hers. Put an armoured leg inside her thighs and trapped her—turned her over his thigh as easily as throwing a child in a wrestling match, and she was in his arms. He rested his back plate against the ledge of the cloister and held her. Gently. Firmly.
She wriggled, catching her falling sleeve against the flange that protected his elbow. But her eyes were locked on his—and huge. She opened her lips. More there than simple fear or refusal. He licked her teeth. Ran a finger under her chin.
Her mouth opened under his—delicious.
He kissed her, or perhaps she kissed him. It was not brief. She relaxed into him—itself a pleasing warmth, even through the hardened steel of his arm harness and breastplate.
“Don’t take the vows,” he said. “You do not belong here.” He meant to sound teasing, but even in his own head his voice dripped with unintended mockery.
He stood straight and set her on the ground, to show that he was no rapist. She blushed red from her chin to her forehead, again. Even the backs of her hands were red. She cast her eyes down, and then shifted her weight—he watched such things. She leaned forward—
And slammed a hand into his right ear. Taking him completely by surprise. He reeled, his back hit the wall with a metallic thud, and he caught himself—
—and turned to chase her down.
But she wasn’t running. She stood her ground. “How dare you judge me?” she said.
He rubbed his ear. “You mistake me,” he said. “I meant no hard judg- ment. You wanted to be kissed. It is in your eyes.”
As a line, it had certainly worked before. In this case, he felt it to be true. Despite the sharp pain in his ear.
She pursed her lips—full, very lovely lips. “We are all of us sinners, messire. I struggle with my body every day. That gives you no right to it.”
There was a secret smile to the corner of her mouth—really, no smile at all, but something—
She turned and walked away down the gallery, leaving him alone.
He descended the stairs, rubbing his ear, wondering how much of the exchange had been witnessed by his men. Reputations can take months to build and be lost in a few heartbeats and his was too new to weather a loss of respect. But he calculated that the grey sky and the angle of the gallery windows should have protected him.
“That was quick,” said Michael, admiringly, as he emerged. The captain was careful not to do anything as gross as tuck his braes into his hose. Because, had he taken her right there against the cloister wall, he would still have re-dressed meticulously before emerging.
Why didn’t I? He asked himself. She was willing enough.
She liked me.
She hit me very hard.
He smiled at Michael. “It took as long as it took,” he said. As he spoke, the heavy iron-bound door opened and a mature nun beckoned to the captain.
“The devil himself watches over you,” Hugo muttered.
The captain shook his head. “The devil doesn’t give a fuck, either,” he said, and went to deal with the Abbess.
He knew as soon he crossed the threshold that she’d elected to take them on. If she’d decided not to take them on, she wouldn’t have seen him again. Murder in the courtyard might have been closer to the mark.
Except that all the soldiers she had couldn’t kill the eight of them in the courtyard. And she knew it. If she had eight good men, she’d never have sent for him to begin with.
It was like Euclidean geometry. And the captain could never understand why other people couldn’t see all the angles.
He rubbed at the stinging in his ear, bowed deeply to the Abbess, and mustered up a smile.
She nodded. “I have to take you as you are,” she said. “So I will use a long spoon. Tell me your rates?”
He nodded. “May I sit?” he asked. When she extended a reasonably gracious hand, he picked up the horn wine cup that had obviously been placed for him. “I drink to your eyes, ma belle.”
She held his gaze with her own and smiled. “Flatterer.”
“Yes,” he said, taking a sip of wine and continuing to meet her stare over the rim like a proper courtier. “Yes, but no.”
“My beauty is long gone, with the years,” she said.
“Your body remembers your beauty so well that I can still see it,” he said. She nodded. “That was a beautiful compliment,” she admitted. Then she laughed. “Who boxed your ear?” she asked.
He stiffened. “It is an old—”
“Nonsense! I educate children. I know a boxed ear when I see one.” She narrowed her eyes. “A nun.”
“I do not kiss and tell,” he said.
“You are not as bad as you would have me believe, messire,” she replied.
They gazed at each other for a few breaths.
“Sixteen double leopards a month for every lance. I have thirty-one lances today—you may muster them and count them yourself. Each lance consists of at least a knight, his squire, and a valet; usually a pair of archers. All mounted, all with horses to feed. Double pay for my corporals. Forty pounds a month for my officers—there are three—and a hundred pounds for me. Each month.” He smiled lazily. “My men are very well disciplined. And worth every farthing.”
“And if you kill my monster tonight?” she asked.
“Then you have a bargain, lady Abbess—only one month’s pay.” He sipped his wine.
“How do you tally these months?” she asked.
“Ah! There’s none sharper than you, even in the streets of Harndon, lady. Full months by the lunar calendar.” He smiled. “So the next one starts in just two weeks. The Merry month of May.”
“Jesu, Lord of the Heavens and Saviour of Man. You are not cheap.” She shook her head.
“My people are very, very good at this. We have worked on the Conti- nent for many years, and now we are back in Alba. Where you need us. You needed us a year ago. I may be a hard man, lady, but let us agree that no more Sister Hawisias need die? Yes?” He leaned forward to seal the deal, the wine cup between his hands, and suddenly the weight of his armour made him tired and his back hurt.
“I’m sure Satan is charming if you get to know him,” she said quietly. “And I’m sure that if you aren’t paid, your interest in the Sister Hawisia’s of this world will vanish like snow in strong sunshine.” She gave him a thin-lipped smile. “Unless you can kiss them—and even then, I doubt you stay with them long. Or they with you.”
“For every steading damaged by your men, I will deduct the price of a lance,” she said. “For every man of mine injured in a brawl, for every woman who complains to me of your men, the price of a corporal. If a single one of my sisters is injured—or violated—by your Satan’s spawn, even so much as a lewd hand laid to her or an unseemly comment made, I will deduct your fee. Do you agree? Since,” she said with icy contempt, “Your men are so well disciplined?”
She really does like me, he thought. Despite all. He was more used to people who disliked him. And he wondered if she would give him Amicia. She’d certainly put the beautiful novice where he could see her. How calculating was the old witch? She seemed the type who would try to lure him with more than coin—but he’d already pricked her with his comment about Sister Hawisia.
“What’s the traitor worth?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I do not believe in your traitor,” she said, pointing on the enamel leaf on a wooden platter by her side. “You carry this foul thing with you to trick fools. And I am not a fool.”
He shrugged. “My lady, you are allowing your dislike for my kind to cloud your judgment. Consider: what could make me to lie to you about such a thing? How many people should have been at that steading?” he asked.
She met his eye—she had no trouble with that, which pleased him. “There should have been seven confreres to work the fields,” she allowed.
“We found your good sister and six other corpses,” the captain countered.
“It is all straightforward enough, lady Abbess.” He sipped more wine. “One is missing when none could have escaped. None.” He paused. “Some of your sheep have grown teeth. And no longer wish to be part of your flock.” He had a sudden thought. “What was Sister Hawisia doing there? She was a nun of the convent, not a labourer?”
She took a sharp breath. “Very well. If you can prove there is a traitor— or traitors—there will be reward. You must trust that I will be fair.”
“Then you must understand: my men will behave badly—it is months since they were paid, and longer since they’ve been anywhere they might spend what they don’t have. The writ of my discipline does not run to stopping tavern brawls or lewd remarks.” He tried to look serious, though his heart was all but singing with the joy of work and gold to pay the company. “You must trust that I will do my best to keep them to order.”
“Perhaps you’ll have to lead by example?” she said. “Or get the task done quickly and move on to greener pastures?” she asked sweetly. “I understand the whores are quite comely south of the river. In the Albin.”
He thought of the value of this contract—she hadn’t quibbled at his inflated prices.
“I’ll decide which seems more attractive when I’ve seen the colour of your money,” he said.
“Money?” she asked
“Payment due a month in advance, lady Abbess. We never fight for free.”
Lorica—A Golden Bear
The bear was huge. All of the people in the market said so.
The bear sat in its chains, legs fully extended like an exhausted dancer, head down. It had leg manacles, one on each leg, and the chains had been wrought cunningly so that the manacles were connected by running links that limited the beast’s movement.
Both of its hind paws were matted with blood—the manacles were also lined in small spikes.
“See the bear! See the bear!”
The bear keeper was a big man, fat as a lord, with legs like tree trunks and arms like hams. His two boys were small and fast and looked as if they might have a second profession in crime.
“A golden bear of the Wild! Today only!” he bellowed, and his boys roamed through the market, shouting “Come and see the bear! The golden bear!”
The market was full, as market can only be at the first breath of spring when every farmer and petty-merchant has been cooped up in a croft or a town house all winter. Every goodwife had new-made baskets to sell. Careful farmers had sound winter apples and carefully hoarded grain on offer. There were new linens—shirts and caps. A knife grinder did a brisk trade, and a dozen other tradesmen and women shouted their wares—fresh oysters from the coast, lambs for sale, tanned leather.
There were close on five hundred people in the market, and more coming in every hour.
A taproom boy from the inn rolled two small casks up, one at a time, placed a pair of boards across them and started serving cider and ale. He set up under the old oak that marked the centre of the market field, a stone’s throw from the bear master.
Men began to drink.
A wagoner brought his little daughter to see the bear. It was female, with two cubs. They were beautiful, with their gold-tipped blond fur, but their mother smelled of rot and dung. Her eyes were wild, and when his daughter touched one of the cubs the fearsome thing opened its jaws, and his daughter started at the wicked profusion of teeth. The growing crowd froze and then people shrank back.
The bear raised a paw, stretching the chains—
She stood her ground. “Poor bear!” she said to her father.
The bear’s paw was well short of touching the girl. And the pain of moving against the spiked manacles overcame the bear’s anger. It fell back on all fours, and then sat again, looking almost human in its despair.
“Shh!” he said. “Hush, child. It’s a creature of the Wild. A servant of the enemy.” Truth to tell, his voice lacked conviction.
“The cubs are wonderful.” The daughter got down on her haunches.
They had ropes on them, but no more.
A priest—a very worldly priest in expensive blue wool, wearing a magnificent and heavy dagger—leaned down. He put his fist before one of the cubs’ muzzles and the little bear bit him. He didn’t snatch his hand back. He turned to the girl. “The Wild is often beautiful, daughter. But that beauty is Satan’s snare for the unwary. Look at him. Look at him!”
The little cub was straining at his rope to bite the priest again. As he rose smoothly to his feet and kicked the cub, he turned to the bear master.
“It is very like heresy, keeping a creature of the Wild for money,” he said.
“For which I have a licence from the Bishop of Lorica!” sputtered the bear master.
“The bishop of Lorica would sell a licence to Satan to keep a brothel,” said the priest with a hand on the dagger in his belt.
The wagoner took hold of his daughter but she wriggled free. “Pater, the bear is in pain,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. He was a thoughtful man. But his eyes were on the priest.
And the priest’s eyes were on him.
“Is it right for us to hurt any creature?” his daughter asked. “Didn’t God make the Wild, just as he made us?”
The priest smiled and it was as terrible as the bear’s teeth. “Your daughter has some very interesting notions,” he said. “I wonder where she gets them?”
“I don’t want any trouble,” the wagoner said. “She’s just a child.”
The priest stepped closer, but just then the bear master, eager to get a show, began to shout. He had quite a crowd—at least a hundred people, and there were more wandering up every minute. There were half a dozen of the earl’s soldiers as well, their jupons open in the early heat, flirting with the farmers’ daughters. They pushed in eagerly, hoping to see blood.
The wagoner pulled his daughter back, and let the soldiers pass between him and the priest.
The bear master kicked the bear and pulled on the chain. One of his boys began to play a quick, staccato tune on a tin whistle.
The crowd began to chant, “Dance! Dance! Dance, bear, dance!”
The bear just sat. When the bear master’s tugging on the chains caused her pain, she raised her head and roared her defiance.
The crowd shuffled back, muttering in disappointment, except for the priest.
One of the soldiers shook his head. “This is crap,” he said. “Let’s put some dogs on it.”
The idea was instantly popular with his mates, but not at all with the bear master. “That’s my bear,” he insisted.
“Let me see your pass for the fair,” said the sergeant. “Give it here.”
The man looked at the ground, silenced, for all his size. “Which I ain’t got one.”
“Then I can take your bear, mate. I can take your bear and your boys.” The sergeant smiled. “I ain’t a cruel man,” he said, his tone indicating that this statement was untrue. “We’ll put some dogs on your bear, fair as fair. You’ll collect the silver. We’ll have some betting.”
“This is a gold bear,” said the bear master. He was going pale under his red, wine-fed nose. “A gold bear!”
“You mean you spent some silver on putting a bit of gilt on her fur,” said another soldier. “Pretty for the crowd.”
The bear master shrugged. “Bring your dogs,” he said.
It turned out that many of the men in the crowd had dogs they fancied against a bear.
The wagoner slipped back another step, but the priest grabbed his arm. “You stay right here,” he said. “And your little witch of a daughter.”
The man’s grip was like steel, and the light in his eyes was fanatical. The wagoner allowed himself, reluctantly, to be pulled back into the circle around the bear.
Dogs were being brought. There were mastiffs—great dogs the size of small ponies—and big hounds, and some mongrels that had replaced size with sheer ferocity. Some of the dogs sat quietly while others growled relentlessly at the bear.
The bear raised its head and growled too—once.
All the dogs backed away a step.
Men began to place bets.
The bear master and his boys worked the crowd. If he was hesitant to see his bear in a fight, he wasn’t hesitant about accepting the sheer quantity of silver suddenly crossing his palm. Even the smallest farmer would wager on a bear baiting. And when the bear was a creature of the Wild—
Well it was almost a religious duty to bet against it.
The odds against the bear went up and up.
So did the number of dogs, and they were becoming unmaneageable as the pack grew. Thirty angry dogs can hate each other as thoroughly as they hate a bear.
The priest stepped out of the ring. “Look at this creature of Evil!” he said. “The very embodiment of the enemy. Look at its fangs and teeth, designed by the Unmaker to kill men. And look at these dogs men have bred—animals reduced to lawful obedience by patient generations of men. No one dog can bring down this monster alone, but does anyone doubt that many of them can? And is this lesson lost on any man here? The bear—look at it—is mighty. But man is more puissant by far.”
The bear didn’t raise its head.
The priest kicked it.
It stared at the ground.
“It won’t even fight!” said one of the guards.
“I want my money back!” shouted a wheelwright.
The priest smiled his terrible smile. He grabbed the rope around one of the little cubs, hauled the creature into the air by the scruff of the neck, and tossed it in among the dogs.
The bear leaped to its feet.
The priest laughed. “Now it will fight,” it said.
The bear strained against its manacles as the mastiffs ripped the screaming cub to shreds. It sounded like a human child, terrified and afraid, and then it was gone—savaged and eaten by a dozen mongrels. Eaten alive.
The wagoner had his hands over his daughter’s eyes.
The priest whirled on him, eyes afire. “Show her!” he shrieked. “Show her what happens when evil is defeated!” He took a step towards the wagoner—
And the bear moved. She moved faster than a man would have thought possible.
She had his head in one paw and his dagger in the other before his body, pumping blood across the crowd, hit the dirt. Then she whirled—suddenly nothing but teeth and claws—and sank the heavy steel dagger into the groundthrough the links of her chain.
The links popped.
A woman screamed. She killed as many of them as she could catch, until her claws were glutted with blood, and her limbs ached. They screamed, and hampered each other, and her paws struck them hard like rams in a siege, and every man and woman she touched, she killed.
If she could have she would have killed every human in the world. Her cub was dead. Her cub was dead.
She killed and killed, but they ran in all directions.
When she couldn’t catch any more, she went back and tore at their corpses—found a few still alive and made sure they died in fear.
Her cub was dead.
She had no time to mourn. Before they could bring their powerful bows and their deadly, steel-clad soldiers, she picked up her remaining cub, ignored the pain and the fatigue and all the fear and panic she felt to be so deep in the tame horror of human lands, and fled. Behind her, in the town, alarm bells rang.
Lorica—Ser Mark Wishart
Only one knight came, and his squire. They rode up to the gates at a gallop, summoned from their Commandery, to find the gates closed, the towers manned, and men with crossbows on the walls.
“A creature of the Wild!” shouted the panicked men on the wall before they refused to open the gates for him—even though they’d summoned him. Even though he was the Prior of the Order of Saint Thomas. A paladin, no less.
The knight rode slowly around the town until he came to the market field.
He dismounted. His squire watched the fields as if a horde of boglins might appear at any moment.
The knight opened his visor, and walked slowly across the field. There were a few corpses at the edge, by the dry ditch that marked the legal edge of the field. The bodies lay thicker as he grew closer to the Market Oak. Thicker and thicker. He could hear the flies. Smell the opened bowels, warm in the sun.
It smelled like a battlefield.
He knelt for a moment, and prayed. He was, after all, a priest, as well as a knight. Then he rose slowly and walked back to his squire, spurs catching awkwardly on the clothes of the dead.
“What—what was it?” asked his squire. The boy was green.
“I don’t know,” said the knight. He took off his helmet and handed it to his squire.
Then he walked back into the field of death.
He made a quick count. Breathed as shallowly as he could.
The dogs were mostly in one place. He drew his sword, four feet of mirror-polished steel, and used it as a pry-bar to roll the corpse of a man with legs like tree trunks and arms like hams off the pile of dogs.
He knelt and took off a gauntlet, and picked up what looked like a scrap of wool.
Let out a breath.
He held out his sword, and called on God for aid, and gathered the divine golden power, and then made a small working.
“Fools,” he said aloud.
His working showed him where the priest had died, too. He found the man’s head, but left it where it lay. Found his dagger, and placed a phantasm on it.
“You arrogant idiot,” he said to the head.
He pulled the wagoner’s body off the mangled corpse of his daughter. Turned aside and threw up, and then knelt and prayed. And wept.
And finally, stumbled to his feet and walked back to where his squire waited, the worry plain on his face.
“It was a golden bear,” he said.
“Good Christ!” said the squire. “Here? Three hundred leagues from the wall?”
“Don’t blaspheme, lad. They brought it here captive. They baited it with dogs. It had cubs, and they threw one to the dogs.” He shrugged.
His squire crossed himself.
“I need you to ride to Harndon and report to the king,” the knight said. “I’ll track the bear.”
The squire nodded. “I can be in the city by nightfall, my lord.”
“I know. Go now. It’s one bear, and men brought it here. I’ll stem these fools’ panic—although I ought to leave them to wallow in it. Tell the king that the Bishop of Jarsay is short a vicar. His headless corpse is over there. Knowing the man, I have to assume this was his fault, and the kindest thing I can say is that he got what he deserved.”
His squire paled. “Surely, my lord, now it is you who blaspheme.”
Ser Mark spat. He could still taste his own vomit. He took a flask of wine from the leather bag behind his saddle and drank off a third of it.
“How long have you been my squire?” he asked.
The young man smiled. “Two years, my lord.”
“How often have we faced the Wild together?” he asked.
The young man raised his eyebrows. “A dozen times.”
“How many times has the Wild attacked men out of pure evil?” the knight asked. “If a man prods a hornet’s nest with a pitchfork and gets stung, does that make the hornets evil?”
His squire sighed. “It’s not what they teach in the schools,” he said.
The knight took another pull at his flask of wine. The shaking in his hands was stopping. “It’s a mother, and she still has a cub. There’s the track. I’ll follow her.”
“A golden bear?” the squire asked. “Alone?”
“I didn’t say I’d fight her in the lists, lad. I’ll follow her. You tell the king.” The man leaped into his saddle with an acrobatic skill which was one of the many things that made his squire look at him with hero-worship. “I’ll send a phantasm to the Commandery if I’ve time and power. Now go.”
“Yes, my lord.” The squire turned his horse and was off, straight to a gallop as he’d been taught by the Order.
Ser Mark leaned down from his tall horse and looked at the tracks, and then laid a hand on his war horse’s neck. “No need to hurry, Bess,” he said.
He followed the track easily. The golden bear had made for the nearest woods, as any creature of the Wild would. He didn’t bother to follow the spoor exactly, but merely trotted along, checking the ground from time to time. He was too warm in full harness, but the alarm had caught him in the tiltyard, fully armed.
The wine sang in his veins. He wanted to drain the rest of it.
The dead child—
The scraps of the dead cub—
His own knight—when he was learning his catechism and serving his caravans as a squire—had always said War kills the innocent first.
Where the stubble of last year’s wheat ran up into a tangle of weeds, he saw the hole the bear had made in the hedge. He pulled up.
He didn’t have a lance, and a lance was the best way to face a bear.
He drew his war sword, but he didn’t push Bess though the gap in the hedge.
He rode along the lane, entered the field carefully through the gate, and rode back along the hedge at a canter.
But no bear.
He felt a little foolish to have drawn his sword, but he didn’t feel any inclination to put it away. The fresh tracks were less than an hour old, and the bear’s paw print was the size of a pewter plate from the Commandery’s kitchens.
Suddenly, there was crashing in the woods to his left.
He tightened the reins, and turned his horse. She was beautifully trained, pivoting on her front feet to keep her head pointed at the threat.
Then he backed her, step by step.
He saw a flash of movement, turned his head and saw a jay leap into the air, flicked his eyes back—
“Blessed Virgin, stand with me,” he said aloud. Then he rose an inch in his war saddle and just touched his spurs to Bess’s sides, and she walked forward.
He turned her head and started to ride around the wood. It couldn’t be that big.
It was right there.
He gave the horse more spur, and they accelerated to a canter. The great horse made the earth shake.
Near Lorica—A Golden Bear
She was being hunted. She could smell the horse, hear its shod hooves moving on the spring earth, and she could feel its pride and its faith in the killer on its back.
After months of degradation and slavery, torture and humiliation she would happily have turned and fought the steel-clad war man. Glory for her if she defeated him, and a better death than she had imagined in a long time. But her cub mewed at her. The cub—it was all for the cub. She had been captured because they could not run and she would not leave them, and she had endured for them.
She only had one left.
She was the smaller of the two, and the gold of her fur was brighter, and she was on the edge of exhaustion, suffering from dehydration and panic. She had lost the power of speech and could only mew like a dumb animal. Her mother feared she might have lost it for life.
But she had to try. The very blood in her veins cried out that she had to try to save her young.
She picked the cub up in her teeth the way a cat carried a kitten, and ran again, ignoring the pain in her paws.
Lorica—Ser Mark Wishart
The knight cantered around the western edge of the woods and saw the river stretching away in a broad curve. He saw the shambing golden creature in the late sunlight, gleaming like a heraldic beast on a city shield. The bear was running flat out. And so very beautiful, Wild. Feral.
“Oh, Bess,” he said. For a moment he considered just letting the bear go. But that was not what he had vowed.
His charger’s ears pricked forward. He raised his sword, Bess rumbled into a gallop and he slammed his visor closed.
Bess was faster than the bear. Not much faster, but the great female was hampered by her cub and he could see that her rear paws were mangled and bloody.
He began to run her down as the ground started to slope down towards the broad river. It was wide here, near the sea, and it smelled of brine at the turn of the tide. He set himself in his saddle and raised his sword—
Suddenly, the bear released her cub to tumble deep into some low bushes, and turned like a great cat pouncing—going from prey to predator in the beat of a human heart.
She rose on her haunches as he struck at her—and she was faster than any creature he’d ever faced. She swung with all her weight in one great claw-raking blow, striking at his horse, even as his blow cut through the meat of her right forepaw and into her chest—cut deep.
Bess was already dead beneath him.
He went backwards over his high crupper, as he’d been taught to. He hit hard, rolled, and came to his feet. He’d lost his sword—and lost sight of the bear. He found the dagger at his waist and drew it even as he whirled. Too slow.
She hit him. The blow caught him in the side, and threw him off his feet, but his breastplate held the blow and the claws didn’t rake him. By luck he rolled over his sword, and got to his feet with it in his fist. Something in his right leg was badly injured—maybe broken.
The bear was bleeding.
The cub mewed.
The mother looked at the cub. Looked at him. Then she ran, picked the cub up in her mouth and ran for the river. He watched until she was gone—she jumped into the icy water and swam rapidly away.
He stood with his shoulders slumped, until his breathing began to steady. Then he walked to his dead horse, found his unbroken flask, and drank all the rest of the contents.
He said a prayer for a horse he had loved.
And he waited to be found.
West of Lissen Carak—Thorn
A two hundred leagues north-west, Thorn sat under a great holm-oak that had endured a millennium. The tree rose, both high and round, and its progeny filled the gap between the hills closing down from the north and the ever deeper Cohocton River to the south.
Thorn sat cross-legged on the ground. He no longer resembled the man he had once been; he was almost as tall as a barn, when he stood up to his full height, and his skin, where it showed through layers of moss and leather, seemed to be of smooth grey stone. A staff—the product of a single, straight ash tree riven by lightning in its twentieth year—lay across his lap. His gnarled fingers, as long as the tines of a hay fork, made eldritch sigils of pale green fire as he reached out into the Wild for his coven of spies.
He found the youngest and most aggressive of the Qwethnethogs; the strong people of the deep Wild that men called daemons. Tunxis. Young, angry, and easy to manipulate.
He exerted his will, and Tunxis came. He was careful about the manner of his summons; Tunxis had more powerful relatives who would resent Thorn using the younger daemon for his own ends.
Tunxis emerged from the oaks to the east at a run, his long, heavily muscled legs beautiful at the fullness of his stride, his body leaning far forward, balanced by the heavy armoured tail that characterized his kind. His chest looked deceptively human, if an unlikely shade of blue-green, and his arms and shoulders were also very man-like. His face had an angelic beauty—large, deep eyes slanted slightly, open and innocent, with a ridge of bone between them that rose into the elegant helmet crest that dif- ferentiated the male and female among them. His beak was polished to a mirror-brightness and inlaid with lapis lazuli and gold to mark his social rank, and he wore a sword that few mere human men could even lift.
He was angry—but Tunxis was at the age when young males are always angry.
“Why do you summon me?” he shrieked.
Thorn nodded. “Because I need you,” he answered.
Tunxis clacked his beak in contempt. “Perhaps I do not need you. Or your games.”
“It was my games that allowed you to kill the witch.” Thorn didn’t smile. He had lost the ability to, but he smiled inwardly, because Tunxis was so young.
The beak clacked again. “She was nothing.” Clacked again, in deep satisfaction. “You wanted her dead. And she was too young. You offered me a banquet and gave me a scrap. A nothing.”
Thorn handled his staff. “She is certainly nothing now.” His friend had asked for the death. Layers of treason. Layers of favours asked, and owed. The Wild. His attention threatened to slip away from the daemon. It had probably been a mistake to let Tunxis kill in the valley.
“My cousin says there are armed men riding in the valley. In our valley.” Tunxis slurred the words, as all his people did when moved by great emo- tion.
Thorn leaned forward, suddenly very interested. “Mogan saw them?” he asked.
“Smelled them. Watched them. Counted their horses.” Tunxis moved his eyebrows the way daemons did. It was like a smile, but it caused the beak to close—something like the satisfaction of a good meal.
Thorn had had many years in which to study the daemons. They were his closest allies, his not-trusted lieutenants. “How many?” Thorn asked patiently.
“Many,” Tunxis said, already bored. “I will find them and kill them.”
“You will not.” Thorn leaned forward and slowly, carefully, rose to his feet, his heavy head brushing against the middling branches of the ancient oak. “Where has she found soldiers?” he asked out loud. One of the hazards of living alone in the Wild was that you voiced things aloud. He was grow- ing used to talking to himself aloud. It didn’t trouble him as it had at first.
“They came from the east,” Tunxis said. “I will hunt them and kill them.”
Thorn sighed. “No. You will find them and watch them. You will watch them from afar. We will learn their strengths and weaknesses. Chances are they will pass away south over the bridge, or join the lady as a garrison. It is no concern of ours.”
“No concern of yours, Turncoat. Our land. Our valley. Our hills. Our fortress. Our power. Because you are weak—” Tunxis’s beak made three distinct clacks.
Thorn rolled his hand over, long thin fingers flashing, and the daemon fell flat on the ground as if all his sinews had been cut.
Thorn’s voice became the hiss of a serpent.
“I am weak? The soldiers are many? They came from the east? You are a fool and a child, Tunxis. I could rip your soul from your body and eat it, and you couldn’t lift a claw to stop me. Even now you cannot move, cannot summon power. You are like a hatchling in the rushing water as the salmon comes to take him. Yes? And you tell me ‘many’ like a lord throwing crumbs to peasants. Many?” he leaned down over the prone daemon and thrust his heavy staff into the creature’s stomach. “How many exactly, you little fool?”
“I don’t know,” Tunxis managed.
“From the east, the south-east? From Harndon and the king? From over the mountains? Do you know?” he hissed.
“No,” Tunxis said, cringing.
“Tunxis, I like to be polite. To act like—” He sought for a concept that could link him to the alien intelligence. “To act like we are allies. Who share common goals.”
“You treat us like servants! We serve no master!” spat the daemon. “We are not like your men, who lie and lie and say these pretty things. We are Qwethnethogs!”
Thorn pushed his staff deeper into the young daemon’s gut. “Sometimes I tire of the Wild and the endless struggle. I am trying to help you and your people reclaim your valley. Your goal is my goal. So I am not going to eat you. However tempting that might be just now.” He withdrew the staff.
“My cousin says I should never trust you. That whatever body you wear, you are just another man.” Tunxis sat up, rolled to his feet with a pure and fluid grace.
“Whatever I am, without me you have no chance against the forces of the Rock. You will never reclaim your place.”
“Men are weak,” Tunxis spat.
“Men have defeated your kind again and again. They burn the woods. They cut the trees. They build farms and bridges and they raise armies and your kindlose.” He realised that he was trying to negotiate with a child. “Tunxis,” he said, laying hold of the young creature’s essence. “Do my bidding. Go, and watch the men, and come back and tell me.”
But Tunxis had a power of his own, and Thorn watched much of his compulsion roll off the creature. And when he let go his hold, the daemon turned and sprinted for the trees.
And only then did Thorn recall that he’d summoned the boy for another reason entirely, and that made him feel tired and old. But he exerted himself again, summoning one of the Abnethog this time, that men called wyverns.
The Abnethog were more biddable. Less fractious. Just as aggressive. But lacking a direct ability to manipulate the power, they tended to avoid open conflict with the magi.
Sidhi landed neatly in the clearing in front of the holm oak, although the aerial gymnastics required taxed his skills.
“I come,” he said.
Thorn nodded. “I thank you. I need you to look in the lower valley to the east,” he said. “There are men there, now. Armed men. Possibly very dangerous.”
“What man is dangerous to me?” asked the wyvern. Indeed, Sidhi stood eye to eye with Thorn, and when he unfolded his wings their span was extraordinary. Even Thorn felt a twinge of real fear when the Abnethog were angry.
Thorn nodded. “They have bows. And other weapons that could hurt you badly.”
Sidhi made a noise in his throat. “Then why should I do this thing?” he asked.
“I made the eyes of your brood clear when they clouded over in the winter. I gave you the rock-that-warms for your mate’s nest.” Thorn made a motion intended to convey that he would continue to heal sick wyverns.
Sidhi unfolded his wings. “I was going to hunt,” he said. “I am hungry. And being summoned by you is like being called a dog.” The wings spread farther and farther. “But it may be that I will choose to hunt to the east, and it may be that I will see your enemies.”
“Your enemies as well,” Thorn said wearily. Why are they all so childish?
The wyvern threw back its head, and screamed, and the wings beat—a moment of chaos, and it was in the air, the trees all around it shedding leaves in the storm of air. A night of hard rain wouldn’t have ripped so many leaves from the trees.
And then Thorn reached out with his power—gently, hesitantly, a little like a man rising from bed on a dark night to find his way down unfamiliar stairs. He reached out to the east—farther, and a little farther, until he found what he always found.
Her. The lady on the Rock.
He probed the walls like a man running his tongue over a bad tooth. She was there, enshrined in her power. And with her was something else entirely. He couldn’t read it—the fortress carried its own power, its own ancient sigils which worked against him.
He sighed. It was raining. He sat in the rain, and tried to enjoy the rise of spring around him.
Tunxis killed the nun, and now the lady has more soldiers. He had set something in motion, and he wasn’t sure why.
And he wondered if he had made a mistake.