.. | the gypsy of rhiddeia | chapter 3
"Get up, Azurati."
I opened my eyes, thick with sleep. Above me stood the Galilani, his hands on his hips, a little more modestly dressed than before in a loosely laced linen shirt and simple breeches, but his feet were bare. He would not go into battle today, nor the next. The realm that was my home had fallen in a day, overrun by an army nearly half the size of the population within Azurai borders. How could it have happened so?
Errai tossed me a pile of clothes that smelled like leather and oil. "Cover yourself. Lord Ayer wants you to see to breakfast."
As if bidden by the mention of his name, the man lifted the flap of his tent and entered. Here in the morning light he looked alert but worn; I could tell instantly he had not slept enough, nor had for some time. His wet hair was loose around his face and he hastily brushed it back with his fingers. Evidently the Menserjan lords did not wear plaits such as my King and his court had. I would learn by watching that indeed, they preferred to wear their hair down, the better to show off their breeding. They, their aristocracy at least, seemed a preening society, bent more on physical perfection than wealth even. Somehow, however, Ayer failed to give me the impression of that kind of vanity. This morning he was casually dressed in breeches and a leather jerkin laced snugly over a black linen shirt with shorn-off sleeves, hair mussed, and he was at least a day's wanting for a shave.
Errai gave his general half a bow and left, shoving the tent flap aside as if he held that it stood in his way purely out of spite. I remained where I was, clothes in my lap, hands still bound, staring after him.
Lord Ayer knelt before me and cut my bonds with a small knife he'd had tucked in the slits of his thick leather belt. "Battle makes him rather violent, even after it's over," he said. "I'll warn you again, Azurati, not to cross him."
I began to pull on my clothes- a simple peasant's shirt and calve-length short-breeches, no shoes- as he crossed the tent to fiddle around with his desk papers.
"How would I cross him, master?" I dared ask. Normally I would not even have risked speaking, not after my lack of restraint last night, but if my life was in danger to the whim of one horseman whose rank I wasn't even clear on, it would seem that lord Ayer could at least afford me something of a defense. I had decided to call him ‘master' instead of addressing him as ‘my lord', something that sounded barbaric to me, but likely stroked his ego enough.
For now, however, he seemed not to notice. He had lifted one of his leather bound tomes and had furrowed his brow in the concentration of reading it. "Eye contact, speaking out of turn to him, that sort of thing," he said off-handedly. The book slammed onto the desk where he dropped it carelessly. "And don't touch him, gods' sake. Galilani are very particular about that."
I wondered at these Galilani people and their ways, or was it just this one?
Ayer gestured to the opposite side of the tent that had been revealed by the drawing back of a thick tapestry hanging on a line. The top of the tent was open to the morning sky, and grey smoke wafted up to escape through it from a small fire in the center. An iron grill-stand stood over it, flat on the top for cooking pots and meat.
"Well?" Lord Ayer stared at me expectantly. I shrank a little more under his gaze; the man was at least a head taller than I.
"I don't understand, master," I said.
He sighed exasperatedly, which spelled danger for me. "My own steward is lost to me, Azurati. You'll pick up his duties or there's no use for you at all. I've seventeen pits of prisoners I could throw you into at Tengah, but you'd rather stay here, would you not?" At the violent nodding of my head he continued. "You're to cook, clean, help me dress and armor up if need be. Clean my boots, pack my gear, carry messages. If you don't know how to do something, I suggest you learn quickly, I'll not be bothered with questions or I might as well do it myself. Do you understand?"
The implication was clear. If he did it himself there was no need for me. And the key to my survival was to provide some service, even if it wasn't what I'd been trained for. I nodded astutely at him.
"Good." He gestured at a cart of pots and pans and baskets of stores in the corner. "Get started. I want roast burnette in the mornings always."
He disappeared for an hour or more after that, giving me ample time to figure out the contraption of sieve, tub and vessel that was to prepare his morning brew that was made, I suspected, from the dry leaves within a bag marked "Burnette, CS South Field". In the bags and barrels of food stores I found bread and cheese, and eggs most likely confiscated from a farm during their march here.
With the leaves boiling quietly over the fire, I was in the process of toasting a slab of bread on the bottom of a pan when suddenly a hand jerked me back by the wrist. As I flew back my leg kicked the side of the grill and everything went flying except, thankfully, for the boiling water, which happily turned on its side and almost doused the fire below.
"Fool!" Errai growled, using a wadded cloth to take the boiling sieve and tub of brewing burnette from the recovering flames. "You can't set the leaves on the bottom, they need to be on top in this tub, like this. Else you'll set the whole thing on fire."
I scrambled to my feet, rubbing my wrist where his iron grip had wrenched me back. "Sorry, my lord," I said, kneeling to set the contraption right and clean up the mess.
Before I saw him move he'd cuffed me on the head for my efforts. I didn't waste time to nurse my ringing ear, but instead hastily crawled around his feet for the pieces of bread that had gone flying.
Errai crossed his long arms. "I'm no lord, don't call me that," he spat. "I told him you were only good for one thing, and that he doesn't need. Imagine trying to make you into a steward when even the worst ones have still been trained for it."
Silently I stayed where I was, on my knees in the dirt with my head lowered. The ruined bread burned my fingers.
He leaned down and peered into my face. "You're not fit to muck out my stalls, Azurati, much less serve a Summoned but in the only way you know how. It's sick decadence, this life you've lived, but you'll have none of that here."
"I will try harder," I mumbled, outwardly subdued but with new anger boiling in the pit of my belly. Had I asked for this lot in life? Did he not think that I, too, had had qualms of sharing myself in such a way? Even though I'd stifled them near the beginning, it wasn't a role I'd decided to play on my own, and to be the brunt of his scorn because of it was almost more than I could stomach. Sick decadence indeed. And who was he to judge? Parading around half nude like a Vermish whore each time I saw him.
But when I looked up into his face my anger died away once more, like a flame quenched in the dust. Once again there was no call here for defiance on my part, it was no place of mine to defend myself. It would not be a backhand or another cuff on the ear that I'd receive from him if I lost my tongue, but a swift run through the gut.
The Galilani stared at me for moments longer. Then, quick as a bird, turned his head to the outer flap at the sudden sound of barking dogs. He appeared to calm himself. "You'll do your duty, whatever he asks," he said in quiet command, "but beyond that, stay out of his way." He disappeared outside.
After he'd gone I had just enough time to gather my wits again and begin anew, rebuilding my fire, brewing the putrid-smelling tea right this time, and setting out toasted bread, cheese and eggs. As I worked I was pondering the Galilani's words, finding them strange. For someone who loathed human contact, he appeared severely protective of my new master. Perhaps they had fought many battles together. Perhaps my master was simply a great leader, which would command the undying devotion of those under him.
Or perhaps they were lovers. The possibility didn't seem to me so out of place, but then again, I was rooted in Azurati sexuality. Affairs as such had been the norm at the palace, but for all I knew Menserjan ways were different. The high society of my palace enjoyed a romping decadent life but it was always in good taste and never subject for conversation. Beings such as prostitutes and Alari were looked down up for their excess, as was the adulterous man or woman who failed to keep such affairs decently private. It was the double-edged knife I'd trodden: the high-born never bore blame or stigma, but only I as their object of pursuit for allowing myself to be used in such a way, never mind my lack of choice. Therefore I was the one looked down upon, no matter what my skill level, not the King who bedded me.
From Errai's words I had to begin to wonder if Menserjan ways were even stricter than what I had grown up with. Or was it simply the Galilani's own prejudiced view that had him hating me?
Lord Ayer wandered back into his tent, trailed by six or seven other men, his captains I assumed, each wearing his own colors and looking sour for their job. Compared to him their uniforms looked ridiculously uncomfortable: heavy shoulder and thigh armor, canvas tunics, thick leather boots, and their mane-ridged helmets tucked beneath their arms. I could not imagine going about the day in such garb, especially in the Azurati sun and humid air of the season. A few of them dabbed their foreheads and shifted their heavy helmets in discomfort, though I was suspicious that they were doing their best to hide most of it in front of their commander.
Watching from the corner of my eye, I remained crouched where I was lest I attract unwanted attention. Lord Ayer absently ate what I'd laid out for him with hardly a glance in my direction. As he instructed his captains of their plans around hasty mouthfuls, he seemed to have no opinion one way or the other of the food he ate, and I regarded that as a blessing. No reaction was a good reaction, I supposed.
For half an hour or more they all stood around maps and talked amongst themselves in low voices, while lord Ayer's finger traced a route whose purpose I didn't catch. I told myself I no longer cared. Curiosity killed the cat, as they said.
"Azurati," he said suddenly in the common tongue. The rest of his men all turned and I felt myself once again the object of scrutiny and judgment. Ayer had his long finger pressed down on a portion of his map which appeared to be plans of my palace. No wonder it'd been so easy for his troops to wind their way in so quickly.
"What do you know of the palace walls here?" As I moved closer to see, his finger traced the northeastern barracks, a hutch of billets that had guarded the opening of a causeway that ran nearly a league all the way to the coast. The palace's private port. I'd never been there myself.
"Nothing, master," I said, surely looking innocent enough.
His Menserjan captains were less convinced. "He's lying," they said in their tongue. "It's the only possible route." "He's just trying to protect them." "Filthy little beggar."
I kept my face schooled more on the confused side than anything, which was hardly difficult. What interest had they in those billets? Trying to protect whom? Was it possible that someone had escaped? Lord Ayer's intelligent gaze rested on me and he, too, looked unconvinced. Behind him his captains chattered on, curiously, now that they'd had a good look at me. I held my master's eyes until he finished his stare with a reprimanding look and went back to his maps. I retreated to the back of the tent and sat down, hoping this was allowed, and wondered if I would be able to nibble at something to settle the growling of my stomach.
Ayer talked with his captains for another hour or more, going over the details of their campaign, using words I did not recognize but for their military bearing and discussing matters of property and law concerning his troops and the capitol village below. By the time he'd dismissed them the sun was high in the sky, and the rumbling of my stomach loud to my ears.
I watched him cross the tent, deep in thought over whatever they'd been discussing. His lion's mane of hair had dried and he absently brushed it out of his eyes, a gesture I would come to know as very characteristic of him when he was considering something of importance. For now I vaguely wondered if it ever became bothersome, if someday he might wish for me to braid it.
"Azurati," he said again, snapping me out of my thoughts. He was standing near the grill and fire. "If you're hungry, you'd better eat now. There'll be no time later."
"Thank you, Master," I sidled up to the remains of the meal and hastily began stuffing my face without any of the grace I'd promised to keep for myself. Ayer watched me once again, a parchment in hand ready to be read. I instantly became aware of myself, swallowed, and watched him back in case he should have orders. He didn't.
Instead, he sat down at his desk and began to write. It was something I couldn't fathom, this business of taking over; so much must have gone into the campaign- coordination, communication, supplies, money, and surely the toll on his substantial reserve. What did it take to lead an army that size and make their attack with hardly a warning? What kind of man would have that kind of strength? And after it was done, now he was condemned to his ever-present records and parchments; he had to keep track of his own movements. Did he not have a scribe for such tedious work?
"Errai tells me you nearly burned my tent to the ground this morning," he said suddenly, not looking up from his writing.
Was I supposed to answer? Doubtlessly the Galilani would have told him the most extreme of versions of what had transpired over breakfast. It appeared to do me no good to go against his word.
"Nearly, master," I said.
But either he didn't hear me or my answer was sufficient enough, for he didn't speak to me again after that. Hours passed it seemed while the camp bustled loudly outside the little world of his tent. I sat cross-legged in the corner, leaning back against the cot he'd slept in, attentive at first to his movements should he want something from me, but my alertness began to falter with the passing time. I went in and out of a doze, listening to the scratch of his pen, getting used to his quiet presence and how odd it was that we could sit so comfortably in silence.
A short, stout man came in some time later, winded in the heat, but bursting with energy, as if he'd come off a run that wasn't quite long enough. Ayer had just stood up to stretch a little and shift his papers, and was so much taller than the other that he had to pointedly look down to see his face. The absolute difference between the man and my lean, calm-eyed master was almost farcical.
"The scouts are back," the stranger said.
My master sat back down and stacked his papers. "And?"
"Only a handful, but they're there, just as we thought."
"Good, Fergan. I want them confined by nightfall without fail. I can't afford to have brigands stinging my operations all the way back to Tengah."
After the short man had left the tent and left me in well-hidden confusion, my master stood up from his writing desk and spared a moment to stretch his back again. With a curt "stay here" command, he left the tent for another hour or more.
I dozed. It would become second nature to me, this waiting on him. Perfecting my patience, entertaining myself in my own head, since getting up to look about was out of the question. I stayed in my little corner. For until he began to trust me enough to confide any kind of information to me, even conversationally, I was kept mostly in the dark about practically everything that concerned him. Where he went, what he did, whom he saw, what preparations he'd put underway. I saw none of it until it was time to move. At first it would drive me mad, this not knowing of where he, or myself for that matter, would be in the next hour, but one gets used to the spontaneity, if that makes sense.
Mostly I slept. When I woke it was because Ayer was towering above me, nudging me with his boot.
"Get up, Azurati," he said. "Help me with this." He held out his leather wrist guards. Behind him I saw other various pieces of hard leather armor set out on his cot.
I'd never before seen such mobile armor like this before, though it still was nothing as sparse as the Galilani had been wearing the previous night. Ayer's was made of fine black leather with glinting silver metal grommets and buckles, and it covered only his most vulnerable areas- heavily reinforced guards for his wrists and forearms, a thick leather jerkin about his torso, and of course guards for his calves up over his knees and down over heavy boots. He did much, if not all, of his fighting from horseback.
He stood patiently while I cinched the black guards about his forearms, buckling them securely, and dropping to my knees to do the same with his calves. I was a little at a loss of what to do with the rest, and was afraid to ask. But despite his words to me before about learning my way around things, Ayer helped me to fasten things correctly and learn to tie laces and clasps securely. It was something I would have to do many times in the future, help him armor up like this, and I wouldn't always have the luxury of time.
He flexed his wrists and I heard the creaking of the leather. "Good," he said.
People were beginning to come and go out of the tent, taking bits and pieces of it with them. The camp was breaking, his personal items were being packed and hauled away. The desk broke down and was gone, the rugs rolled up, the trunks heaved away. Eventually the cots would be folded up, and the flaps themselves would come down.
Ayer paid them no attention. "Come along, Azurati," he said, taking long strides out of the tent. I followed his quickened pace into the hot afternoon sun to get my first view of the camp in daylight. All the sounds I'd been hearing since I awoke suddenly had sources and reasons. The camp was alive with such movement and noise- soldiers moving here and there, horses being led through and snorting their displeasure, scraggly hounds trotting about looking for scraps, and always the smoke billowing from cook fires and smith grates. The scent of meat, leather and molten steel filled my nostrils. My master seemed not to notice the activity at all as he led us down the path from his tent, set a little apart from the others, along the tree line that bounded the encampment. He spoke to no one, though plenty that we passed acknowledged him with a salute of some kind, and saved a curious glance for me.
The horses were tethered on the outskirts of the camp near a large open tent that smelled of shoe-fire and iron workings- the smithy. There were several mounts, perhaps twenty, saddled and waiting patiently for their riders.
At the sight of them I moved closer to Ayer than was necessary out of a sudden ingrained fear. He elbowed me away, but I was distracted staring at a large black one he was bringing us closer to with every step. Dozing in the heat, its head was nearly as long as my arm alone, and the hooves almost as big around as dinner plates. How could such a brute be useful in battle, where I imagined speed and agility were of the utmost importance? I didn't know then that this was one of the famous Dryan steeds, bred down generational lines and grown on the sweet blue salt grass of Menserja's southern prairies. They were hardy and thick, ornery and tricky things that only the most experienced hands could handle, given their sheer size alone, and only the most noble of lords and royalty could ride. None other could have afforded them.
Ayer patted its neck with the ease of someone known to horses all his life. The thing barely lifted its head to acknowledge him.
"Where are you going, Master?" I asked suddenly, softly. Truth be told, I wasn't sure what I would do without him, and with the camp breaking?
"To root out a rat's nest."
I took my wary eyes off the horse just long enough to look around. "What shall I do while you're gone?"
Ayer turned to look at me as if I were an imbecile. "You're going with me," he said, a little haughtily. "There's no telling if these brutes speak any language I'd understand, and Errai's too damned stubborn to speak anything else."
From behind the smithy tent a long, familiar figure appeared, decked in the sparse, mobile armor he'd worn the night before. Errai moved with the grace of a cat, and those milling about gave the Galilani a wide girth of space when they passed. So he was well known- how could he not be? His shamelessly revealed copper skin shone in the heat, and his hair was so black it looked almost blue. Here in the sunlight, he was quite magnificent in a dark, wicked way. That same tattooing was present, not faded black as I had thought the night before, but rather a reddish color just darker than his flesh, in intricate patterns one would have to get intimately close to in order to study. On the small of his back just above his hips there was the largest one, as well as the more delicate swirls that crept out from beneath his forearm guards.
He went towards a grey mount that stood further down the line; smaller, more compact than the rest. He bridled it up quickly and mounted up, bareback no less, without so much as a glance in our direction. The horse came alive under him, dancing about impatiently, snorting through its nose. Errai sat it smoothly, waiting, his eyes now on my master. Ayer was busy, however, checking his girths and ties.
I leaned back against the canvas side of the farrier's tent and watched as other men were beginning to come and collect their horses from the tetherline. They were all dressed in their own battle armor, thicker than my master's or Errai's. Of course; they were the ones who would be doing the real fighting. If there hadn't been just a handful of them I would have thought them prepared to make a second siege on the palace.
My head whipped around and I saw my master, mounted as well now on his giant horse, with a hand down to me. I stared at it dumbly. Indeed, when he'd said I was to go along, I hadn't really given a thought as to how. But this? The last horse I'd sat was with the messenger Kraz. And this one seemed so much bigger-
"Come on," he snapped, dangerous impatience tingeing his voice.
That was a tone I'd been habituated to respond to. My hand shot out to grab his without another thought and he hauled me up behind him. I felt his horse's hindquarters tense at the new balance of weight and my arms clamped unbidden with an iron grip around my master's waist. He didn't seem to notice or care, as we were off at full gallop before I'd had a chance to settle myself. Blinded by fear of falling, not to mention his heavy hair that whipped back against my face, I couldn't rightly tell what direction we were going or how fast, but I suppose it didn't matter. Over the sound of pounding hooves, I could have sworn I heard a low laugh from the man in front of me.
By the time the palace came into sight I'd raised my head enough to look about. I longed to enter the gates of the city, to see what had become of my home, but that didn't appear to be Ayer's intentions. We skirted the gate and the outland walls, fending off to the east towards the coast. It was a two or more leagues from the palace, and we went the whole way at a slow lope.
I could hear and feel the crashing of the waves before I could see them, uncannily, like an extra beat of my heart, easily discernable from the movement of the horse beneath me. Had I ever noticed that before? Before us the land slowly sloped downward from our direction into rocky cliffs, eaten away at by the waves like rats at a woodpile. Further north I could see the long winding road that came from the aft end of the palace and her walls. It stretched on a downward grade on a smoother easement of terrain that allowed for a small beach to stretch out and harbor a wharf of some use. The private port of the Azurati capitol. There were no ships docked; the place seemed to be deserted.
Long before wooden decks stretched out over the water a small string of barracks lined the thoroughfare, looking empty and long-unused for that matter. Ayer made a motion with his arm and his soldiers spread themselves out to come at it from all sides. He held his own mount back up on the hill; there wasn't much fighting he could do with me up behind him. Still gripping his waist, I peeked around to see what I could but he'd withdrawn too far.
"We'll stay a safe distance, don't worry," he said suddenly. I watched his profile as he peered down the hillside, absorbing the side dancing of his impatient mount without noticing. Surely he couldn't be concerned for my welfare, could he? A seasoned warrior like himself, missing the action?
"I promised Errai I'd let him run this one," he commented a little later, as if in explanation. "Nothing gives him more pleasure than a good fight."
Until then I had been distracted in watching his lips move as he spoke over his shoulder, wondering again at the shadowy presence of the Want I'd pushed to the back of my mind, but at his words my mind snapped back to reality. I dropped my head, my heart turning in my chest. Fighting my people. Killing them. I could just imagine the Galilani storming in on horseback, sword drawn, hair flying, mouth open to flash brilliantly white, sharp teeth. Cutting down whomever had managed to take refuge there. Women, children? Unarmed men? Defenseless escaped slaves and servants? Even last night, I remember that my master's clothing had been unsoiled. Had he allowed the Galilani to run the siege on my palace as well? Nausea rose in my throat to be so near him, a man so bereft of honor. In my own foolishness, though, who was I to judge?
Blind to that bit of reason for the moment, however, I steeled my courage. I slid down the rump of his horse and backed away from it, giving the mount such a start he snorted crossly and started forward. Ayer sat it gracefully as he turned and gave me a quizzical stare, genuinely bewildered. "Azurati?"
I sat sprawled on the ground where I'd fallen, frozen, with time refusing to move but at the pace of winter. The salty sea air ruffled my hair into my eyes at that moment, that one moment of clarity, my heartbeat, doubled with that of the waves pounded in my ears. Above us gulls called down and the hum of the water's movements vibrated over the cliffs to us. I had to get away. My own life be damned, I couldn't play servant to a man like this, who could pass off the reins of command to someone else just to appease him and his thirst for battle. And though I didn't want to claim the people as my own, this was still home. I didn't know anything else. And this man, he'd destroyed even that. What had I left now?
I scrambled away on the grass, holding my arms up as if blocking him from my sight would make him simply not there anymore. I wondered how far I could run before he overtook me, crushed me beneath the hooves of his great horse.
"Foolish-! Get back here," Ayer said, his voice now irritated that I wouldn't answer him. A sudden wind had begun to whip his hair about like the snapping ropes of a rigging and I unconsciously welcomed it, it fed my anguish. My friend, fueling up a fury for me.
From down the plain I could hear sounds of a sudden battle brought by that very wind; men shouting, horses neighing and pounding their hooves into the ground, swords clanging. An instant later my master heard it too and ventured a look in that direction. I took my chance to get a head start.
There had never been occasion for me to have to run too fast for too long, but fear and hatred can at times give one colossal strength. Behind me I heard Ayer utter a curse and spur his great black mount to follow. I sped downhill with hardly a thought as to the straining of my breath and the heart in my chest, knowing full well that I was no match for a horse. I only hoped that a crushing death would be swift, so swift it was painless. At least I knew that I would die trying to escape my fate, when all my life I'd simply accepted it like a coward.
But the crushing hooves never came. He stayed behind me at a cool lope but came no closer while I ran with all my might. It didn't make sense, but it felt good, so good to run, even as the tears stung my eyes. Away from the high priest, away from Balatin's greedy gaze. Away from groping hands on a once untouched body, and a silent, benevolent imprisonment that I couldn't even bring myself to hate. That had to be the worst, the most shameful aspect of all.
I ran all the way down the hill until my bare feet slapped painfully on the deeply packed earth of the marina road. Ahead of me I saw clouds of dust raised by the skirmish; I was headed straight for the line of barracks. But the confrontation there was over, and in an instant, so was mine.
I skidded to my knees in the dirt, coughing, chest heaving, body aching with the heat of my run. In the middle of the road a few paces ahead of me stood Ayer's men in a semi-circle, swords drawn on nine men and one woman who crouched in a tight group in the center. They looked past their captors at me, surely wondering what on earth had brought a skinny youth racing for his life down the hill with a horse on his tail but getting no closer. I didn't care to look at them; they were no more friends than those who stood with swords drawn on them. Instead I put my forehead to the ground and coughed at the dust, feeling like I'd never get enough air into my lungs.
Behind me, Ayer had dismounted and paced to the captured group. I was forgotten for the moment.
"Who is in charge here?" he demanded in the common tongue. There was no answer. From off to the right Errai emerged from one of the bunkhouses, saw us, and sheathed his sword.
"They won't speak," he told my master in Menserjan, then gave me a pointed look. Errai knew my language, there would be nothing I could hide in conversation here, not like they thought they could hide in their own from me.
"Azurati, find out who their leader is," my master said. His voice was deceptively calm. Somehow I knew his anger would come; later, when he could give me his full, heated attention.
When I didn't move from where I'd collapsed, Errai took the few steps to reach me and roughly lifted me up by the back of my tunic. He thrust me to the ground again before the captured and nudged me with his boot. I coughed at the dust again.
"Speak!" he spat.
My master didn't react, even with a look, and I had to wonder if I hadn't run from him if his reaction would have been different. For now he stood like a statue, face drawn into all seriousness, staring expectantly at me. I'd lost his trust, but then again, he'd lost mine. He was supposed to have killed me.
I raised my eyes to the men and the one woman. They were villagers by their dress, but something was wrong about it. I couldn't place it but that the men were burly and hardened, but not sun-darkened by a life in the fields. In fact, they were almost paler than I. Before them lay their weapons, a pile of arms no villagers would have access to surely. Thick-blade swords and arbalests lay in the pile, and even a three-weighted bolas.
"He wants to know who is in charge," I said to them doggedly.
"Who are you?" one of the captured said suspiciously.
"I used to live in the palace," I mumbled, anything to get an answer out of them. "I was a slave. Please, tell me who leads you."
"I do," another said in the common tongue, standing up from the group. "My name is Lomme." He was a tall man, thick, built like a bear. Escaping the loose wrap about his forehead, his icy hair was tinted to strawberry, and shaggy over glassy blue eyes, but it was the strong, curved nose and the grim line of his mouth that hinted at his northern heritage. Then there was the vague, light blue tattooing visible just above the collar of his shirt as he turned his head to look at my master. He was a Merk, a small society of men and women who lived in the northern mountain hills of my country, known for their solitude and rejection of many of the luxuries enjoyed by city-dwellers. They lived off the land and often moved around their territory quite a bit, preferring to follow the herds they hunted, but always staying in the clouds. I had never seen one in person, but there was always talk around the palace of anything that wasn't understood. What was he doing here?
I looked from one to the other. My master's gaze had fallen on the man and I saw how he sized up Lomme's rather solid build. The judgment, however, remained unknown. He motioned to his men.
"Bind them up and head back. The woman can ride behind one of you, the rest can walk. We'll pick up a cart from camp."
His men launched into action. Lomme didn't resist, though he could easily have thrown off the man reaching to fetter his hands behind his back. His eyes were on me, glaring so grimly that my skin prickled and I forgot all else for a moment. I tore my eyes away back to my master, but he did not notice me. Ayer was too busy speaking to Errai, who was rooting through the pile of weapons for something of use. He took only the bolas, a weapon that seemed to instantly suit him as he wound it up and hung it from his thick leather belt.
With a sword point in his back to get him moving, Lomme's eerie gaze remained openly on me as they passed. I could read nothing of what he thought of me, though it was surely as a traitor. I had never heard of a slave fighting to avenge those who'd enslaved him, but Azurati blood still ran in my veins, and he knew that. I was chilled by his gaze; that of a man who'd left home and family to fight some unseen battle, only to be undone by a mere youth. Did he think I'd given them up?
When the last of the prisoners had been bound and set on the long march back to camp, with Errai in the lead, my master turned and looked at me.
"Got that out of your system, have you?" Lord Ayer said, taking the few steps between us to where I still crouched in the dirt. "I suppose you see this as an opportunity now, to have some allies in the camp."
"No?" He pulled me up by the back of my shirt, spun me around and took a painful hold of my chin. "Whatever beating gave you those scars on your back is nothing compared to what I can do to you. Do not cross me, Azurati."
I wasn't aware that he'd noticed what was left from my worst punishment at the order of my king. Ashamed, and forced to look him in the eye, I clenched down on the whimper that threatened to escape my throat, and any courage I might have once had, even that which had made me run in the first place, died. I was no fighter, I was not brave, but might I have been in a different life? There was no way of knowing, not when faced with that man at that moment. That day I learned that I had done the one thing he hated most- to betray his trust. How could I have known what that meant? And why did his gaze make me feel lower than dirt because of it? Why did my chest ache with the desire to tell him that I hadn't really meant to escape, that I had only needed to run. Just, run, because I'd never had the chance to before.
Regardless, even if I'd had courage to say so, my master was not interested. He shoved me away and mounted up. When he turned his massive, spirited horse about and held his hand out to me, I took it without hesitation.
It had taken well into the evening for us to complete our mission and march the captives back. The camp had been preparing all day to move, and now stood eerily devoid of bustle. Everything had been packed away but for a few tents and tetherlines, and sat piled neatly into carts and wagons for the journey home at dawn tomorrow. Half of the contingent had already marched, as I understood, made up of mostly foot soldiers of lower regiments. The rest would move tomorrow. The absence of people was marked; sparse campfires dotted the dark evening plain now and a low murmur of voices could be heard, along with the occasional snort of a horse or bark of a dog.
Ayer had not spoken to me the entire journey, which was painstakingly long because of those on foot. A few of them had taken a beating in the skirmish and limped slowly along, leaning on their companions, asking for no more help than that. The woman, dressed darkest of the group, and silent this whole time, rode behind one of Ayer's men. Lomme walked beside that horse, his eyes only on the road ahead. My master rode ahead of everyone, silent as well, as if he were all by himself in the cool evening. I wonder if even my hands that gripped his waist were enough to remind him that I was there.
Back in his tent, I helped him out of his armor as was expected and carefully put it back on the chest he kept for it, one of the last ones to remain now that then tent had been stripped to essentials. I took longer at latching its securing straps than necessary, only because I couldn't bring myself to turn around and face him. What would I say, if I should speak at all?
He was sitting on his cot, boots off already, the rest of his discarded clothing on the floor but for his breeches. He was just pulling a loose tunic down over his head. "Come sit here." He motioned to the floor at his feet.
I obeyed, wondering at the change in his tone. His anger was gone now, quite clearly from his face. It should have been maddening how he ran hot and cold, black and white.
"Surely you can't be dim-witted enough to think you could outrun a horse. Tell me why you ran today."
My head dropped. "I don't know, Master."
"You do know."
"I was angry," I said. "But I couldn't say why."
Ayer laid back on his cot and threw an arm over his eyes. He gestured with the other that I should extinguish the rest of the torches. He did not bind my hands this night; in that I read that he still had some trust in me, even after the episode today. The thought was heartening in a strange sort of way.
"Are you hungry, Master?"
"No," he sighed. There a was a long silence, in which I expected him to have fallen asleep, but quietly, he said, "I have no patience for children's tantrums." The tent was dark and I had nestled myself as best I could on the floor with my horse blanket. "Unless you wish to find yourself in irons with our captives, do not run from me again."
"I won't, Master."
part 4 | back to main