“For the love of the Goddess,” roared a young woman’s voice, “don’t just stand there like a nincompoop, get in here and help me!”
Jolene blinked. It was loud in the city, with only an hour remaining until moonrise and the arrival of the Equinox put an end to the festivities marking the conclusion of the current internecine squabble. Mercenaries in their drink were an exuberant lot, and between the good-natured brawls spilling out into the street and the constant drone of war pipes being turned to a more peaceful (if not more sonorous) occupation, Jolene had preferred to take a side route back to camp.
She just hadn’t expected that side route to contain an attempted assassination.
The moment of surprise lasted only a second, however; Jolene had long since lost any ability to be shocked, as it got in one’s way on the battlefield. She assessed the situation rapidly – merchant’s brat with a jewelled sword she probably didn’t know how to use, two assassins readying to pounce – then drew her own sword and waded in, giving the assassins a challenging glare.
The first assassin glared right back at her, but the second looked slightly worried. “Uh, chief,” she started to say, eyeing Jolene warily.
Jolene could have told her that her chief wasn’t listening to her. He was too busy dividing his attention between returning Jolene’s glare and eyeing his mark covetously. The mark did appear to be a prime target – thus Jolene’s intervention, as the life debt would be high – but that was no excuse for being careless. Anyone who took a good look at Jolene would have realised that engaging with her was a bad idea. (Verging on reckless.)
Before she could finish that thought, however, the lead assassin charged, his assistant a reluctant hairsbreadth behind him. Jolene shrugged and set to with a will. Next to her, the merchant’s brat brandished her own sword, turning out to know what to do with it after all. Careless assassins indeed.
The fight wasn’t a long one. Jolene felt a moment’s twinge as she gave the second assassin the mercy stroke; the woman had been clearer-eyed than her chief, and her death was a waste. Still, choosing a competent chief was the most important decision in one’s career, and serving alongside an assassin with a rash streak had never been a choice that was going to end well for her. Jolene was no assassin (her trade ran more to overt, rather than covert, violence), but she rather thought that “don’t openly attack marks with swords, however tasty they look, and withdraw if a cool-eyed mercenary makes it an even fight” should have been assassin common sense.
“Pigs,” the merchant’s brat said, sounding triumphant. “I hate sneak thieves.”
Ah yes, the mark. Jolene turned to her, feeling oddly defensive of the two sprawled assassins at their feet. “To avoid sneak thieves, dress more wisely. But these were no sneak thieves.”
The girl, for she was little older, bristled. “What’s wrong with the way I’m dressed, pray?”
Taking a closer look at her in the dim light of the alley, Jolene revised her earlier assessment. Not a merchant’s brat. A noble’s brat, more like, with that accent and that haughty cock of the head. Well, well, well. No surprise the assassins had been after her, then – noble houses were notoriously unfilial, after all, and then there were the blood-feuds, and what Jolene’s second-in-command Tanith called ‘applied politics’. An aristocratic bed might be comfortable, but its owner’s sleep was rarely serene.
But the girl was still challenging her with that demanding look. Jolene sheathed her sword. “Your clothes are drab enough, but the fabric’s too fine. It would’ve cost a labourer three months salary, with the embargo this year. And the neckline’s all wrong.”
The girl looked reflexively down at her shirt, affront at the criticism temporarily being superseded by curiousity. “How?”
“Ordinary working clothes would never have that low a neckline. Conserving heat’s important in winter, and no woman puts her wares on display for work, unless her wares are her work. But if that were the case you’d have much prettier clothes.”
Privately, Jolene added that a dipped neckline also added a useful handhold for an opponent. Being jerked forward by your neck while someone’s sword was headed for your vitals wasn’t an experience you wanted to have. But then this girl was no fighter, despite her pretty sword. She might have been trained by a household arms mistress, perhaps even sent to bivouac in the field for a week or two, depending on her position in her family and what she was being trained for. None of that would help her in a no-holds barred fight. If Jolene hadn’t come along, she’d have died – with the most beautiful of swordplay, no doubt.
The girl considered Jolene’s advice on necklines for a moment, her head tilted to one side. Then, surprisingly, she smiled. “Yes, I can see the sense in that. But I hadn’t the time to be choosy. Where could I find more suitable clothes?”
Without any questions asked, Jolene thought, hearing the silent clause. She shrugged. “The shops’ll be shut for the Equinox, and besides, you’re looking for second-hand. One of my band might have something that would do, for the right price.”
The girl’s nostrils flared at the mention of money, but oddly it seemed to calm her. Perhaps she felt on more solid ground when talking about money instead of swords. Many of the nobility did. It was part of the reason Jolene’s mercenary band did such brisk business. “Of course. And I owe you a life-price.”
Jolene nodded. “We can talk back at my camp. You’ll want to get out of this part of town anyway. Once you have one pair of assassins after you, there are bound to be others.”
For the first time, the girl looked ill at ease. Even when facing two assassins in the jet-black garb of the Benighted One, her demand for help had sounded more irritated than anything else. Now, however, she glanced around her, as if she’d misplaced something.
It could be fear of more assassins, but Jolene rather thought not. “Have you lost something?”
The girl shook her head, and then reconsidered. “Not exactly. My… companion was to meet me here.”
Jolene arched an eyebrow to indicate the assassins at their feet. “Perhaps your companion met with a delay.” But even as she raised the possibility, she heard feet padding cautiously from around the corner. Her sword in her hand again, she asked, “Who’s there?”
The feet stopped.
The girl’s face had lit up. “Don’t be silly,” she said, impatiently, before calling out, “It’s all right! She’s a friend.”
Jolene was few people’s friend, and certainly not one to a noble brat being chased by assassins through a recently besieged city. But she supposed “someone to whom I owe a life debt which I must repay or be haunted by Horned Ones throughout the hereafter” was a bit of a mouthful.
The girl’s companion came bounding around the corner with more energy than sense. “How did you meet a…” he started, before seeing the bodies at their feet. “Goddess protect us…” he breathed.
“Yes, yes, we knew assassins would come after us,” the girl said, airily, though she smiled at him before turning to Jolene. “To your camp, I think. Whoever hired these will be getting restless soon.”
Jolene nodded absently, although most of her attention was on the newcomer. With that brow, that jaw, that accent… This night was becoming more interesting by the minute. (‘Interesting’, in mercenary language, meant as always ‘presenting a distinct possibility of being lucrative’.)
She made a decision. “Not immediately,” she told them. “First we tip the bodies into the closest cesspit.”
The boy’s brow furrowed; disgust at the thought of a cesspit or pique at being ordered around by a commoner, she wasn’t sure. But it was the girl Jolene watched, and after a moment she nodded in comprehension. “When the assassins fail to report, their employers will come looking, and if there aren’t any bodies they may think they’ve just followed our trail. It might delay pursuit.”
“And my swordwork is obviously professional,” Jolene added. “If they know who you are and what your background is, they’d never mistake the cuts for those of a palace-trained girl.”
“How dare you,” the boy started, before obviously remembering that he should have said, “What palace-trained girl?”
The girl ignored him. She’d coloured at the remark, but she seemed to be putting that aside for the moment in favour of getting down to business. “Tell us what to do.”
Luckily the nearest cesspit wasn’t far. The girl was stronger than Jolene would have expected, but the boy kept shuddering as if the presence of death unnerved him. He was certainly no commoner, if he’d been sheltered from it. It was a luxury few could boast. Jolene cared little about the matter, except that the boy’s shudders were nearly causing him to drop the end of the body he carried.
Still, her sixth sense that told her when danger or money were on the horizon was tingling. She could put up with more than a cosseted boy and a headstrong girl for a few hours, if it meant money for the band. “Come on, put your backs into it!” she called back, impatiently, adjusting the weight of the smaller assassin she carried. “We only have until moonrise!”
Moonrise had passed by the time Jolene folded herself down on her hearthrug at last.
Outside, there were no more shouts of mercenaries, cheerful in their cups, seizing their final hours of merriment before the moonrise put an end to their carousing. They’d passed the last stragglers on their way back to the camp, a woman’s voice rising in a soldier’s song and somewhere a bit farther away the telltale groans and whoops of a competitive game of zabbon.
Now, back inside her own command tent, the lamplight seemed to dance before Jolene’s tired eyes. Even before she’d run into an assassination attempt in a dark alley, it had been a long evening and an even longer day; the Equinox’s looming deadline had meant only that a solution had to be reached, not that the squabbling parties had to like it. Jolene had been within a hairsbreadth of smashing the burghers’ heads together and declaring that she’d take control of the contested silver mine herself. At least on a battlefield she knew where she stood – in the city hall, surrounded by at least seven warring merchant factions, all that had been certain was that nothing would be easy. She’d leaned against an overly ornamented pillar with her hand on her sword, glowering in all directions. Her part in the day’s wrangling had only been to look fiercely bloodthirsty and remind the six other factions that her mercenary band was widely regarded as one of the most effective in the Eastern Reaches, and if they couldn’t come to an agreement before the Towers called out the dusk warning, she for one had no problem with taking matters into her own hands. She’d been glad not to have to take a more active part in the haggling.
(Her ornamental daggers – ornamental only in that they were beautiful as well as deadly – may have helped convey her message as thoroughly as her scowls.)
The agreement that had finally been reached was unlikely to last until springfall, but then few such agreements lasted longer than a handful of seasons. The internecine nature of the Reaches was the reason Jolene’s chosen profession paid as well as it did, after all.
Doña Miranna had been satisfied, at least. Five years at the head of her own mercenary band, and three before as second-in-command to Olateju, had taught Jolene that trying to satisfy your employer was generally (if not always) a good idea. Oh, there were always employers who tried to cheat you out of more than the usual percentage of your wages, and employers who thought a little well-placed poison in their mercenaries’ food might save them the wages entirely, but on the whole a satisfied employer was better than an unsatisfied one. Beyond the possibility of repeat trade in the chaotic quarrels of the Reaches, word of mouth was a powerful friend; more than once Jolene’s band had been saved from facing a lean winter by the strength of their reputation in a buyer’s market.
Miranna had handed her the second half of the hire-price outside the doors of the hall. She was not a woman to waste time, even if the Equinox had not been looming; indeed, she had little of it to waste at the moment, between heading her House’s claim to the silver mine and being great with child. The bag had clinked as she handed it over, and both women had counted the coins together politely before bowing, hands touching their shoulders in the ritual gesture of debt-quittance.
That had been that, and now Jolene was sitting in the lamplight, listening to the sounds of a mercenary camp settling down into a drunken sleep, waiting for Tanith to return with her pair of out-of-place young nobles.
She sighed. She’d been hoping, even as she’d known it was unlikely, that Miranna’s quarrel would be over in time for the band to strike camp and journey back to Tiol before the Equinox stopped travel. At home by your own hearthside, a week of quiet sober contemplation of the universe was just bearable (although Jolene privately thought it difficult even then). Penned up in a mercenary camp, at the foot of a city that smelled too strongly of myrrh, with alcohol off-limits by the same traditional strictures which held that fornication during the Equinox would cause one’s bits to grow pox and fall off – well. It was going to be a long week.
A noise at her tent flap brought Jolene’s head smoothly up. She rose from her rug, her legs stiff from being folded under her, wincing inwardly at the reminder that she was no longer young. This time of year had a habit of bringing things like that to mind. Eight-and-twenty she was now, nearly thirty, and mercenaries rarely grew old.
It was Tanith, smiling a slash of gap-toothed white in the lamplight and reaching to hold the tent flap back for the looming shadows. “All’s well, chief. Here they are.”
“Come and sit down, then,” Jolene said, as the pair came blinking into the light. Tanith lifted her hand in farewell, and the flap dropped down against the dark.
They were an odd pair, these two sinking down on the rugs across from her. The girl was tall, her shoulders straight and her carriage smooth. Even in the properly shabby clothes Tanith had found her, the nobility shone out for anyone with eyes to see. Her curves were too generous for a commoner, in a land with little extra; her face was too unlined, except for the laugh lines at the corners of her mouth and eyes.
Brown eyes, Jolene realised with a shiver, and suppressed the urge to touch her fingers to her lips, a superstitious gesture she’d learned since coming to the Reaches. Brown eyes might be a marker of magic, but they weren’t a guarantee, and she didn’t think noble families encouraged it in their children. Magic was a chancy thing, and while weather-mages were prized and war-mages called upon when necessary, having one inside your own keep would be far too much like keeping the crown jewels near a pet dragon. It might never break its training, but it was too risky to chance it.
Next to the girl, the boy looked almost in shadow. Oh, he was pretty enough; the easy good looks of the sh’awd sat well on him, for all his gangliness. Twenty years, Jolene judged. If he’d been a commoner he’d be full-grown by now, fending for himself and eking out an existence. Probably with a squalling child or two on his knee, unless he’d chosen the mercenary way. As it was, he still looked boyish, his eyes roving over Jolene’s tent with quicksilver curiousity, his face cleanshaven and his muscles yet unformed.
“Shall we drink to the coming of the Equinox?” she asked, as they settled themselves on the rugs.
“We don’t have time for any of that,” the girl said, impatiently, but she accepted the cup Jolene held out to her.
Jolene reached for the wine pitcher. “Surely we have plenty of time,” she observed. “Your enemies won’t have followed us here, and none of us can travel until the Equinox is over. We may as well settle ourselves in for the week.”
The girl took only the requisite sip for politeness before setting it down. “You don’t understand,” she said, something about the urgency in her eyes robbing the words of their rude sting. “I’ve been thinking. I want to hire you.”
Jolene’s eyebrows shot up, and she leant back.
“Tanith told us you were from the Isles,” the girl said. “That some call you Jolene Firehair, after the Isles hair you have. And I know that the Isles don’t believe in the Equinox. That’s why I want to hire you.”
Jolene sipped her own wine, taking a moment to watch the girl over the brim of her cup. (There was passion here, yes, and need. It would drive the asking-price up quite nicely. If she took the hire. Which was unlikely.) “I observe the Equinox while I am in the Reaches, my lady.” Openly disregarding local cultural practices might be the stock-in-trade of a mercenary in cases touching violence and plunder, but setting every warring faction simultaneously on edge with you for your shocking paganism was an experience best avoided.
“I’m not asking you to riot in the streets,” the girl said, pursing her lips.
The youth suppressed a smile. Jolene hadn’t forgotten her instinctual suspicions of his identity, but he wasn’t a threat. She turned away from him back to the girl, who very well might be. “What are you asking?”
The girl’s iron posture did not relax, but something in her face unbent slightly, as if she’d half expected to be refused out of hand. “A simple protection hire. I need to get to Lindarne by the last night of the Equinox. The roads are easy enough at this time of year, and there won’t be any legitimate travellers during the festival to clog the way.” She hesitated, her nostrils flaring with her indrawn breath. “The only tricky part will be getting inside the castle without being caught, but I don’t think that will be a problem.”
Jolene raised an eyebrow. She’d never been to the Castle of Lindarne herself; the Linnese Princess was a singularly skilled diplomat, and the principality had enjoyed at least ten years of peace as a result of her efforts. But the Castle’s legendary impregnability had also played no small part in keeping mercenaries the likes of Jolene from Lindarne’s shores. If this girl thought getting inside the castle wouldn’t be a problem…
“I grew up there,” the girl said, flushing in the face of Jolene’s disbelief, the sharp colour mantling gently to her high cheekbones. “I know the secret ways.”
Jolene left this for the moment. If there were indeed secret ways into the Castle, which she supposed there must be – every such keep had escape passages warrened into the rock for use in emergencies - that knowledge alone could be worth a fortune. She’d be a fool to turn it down. There were other things which had to be established, however.
“Why,” she asked mildly, “do you need to get to Lindarne in such a hurry?”
The girl frowned. “That’s none of your concern.” She reached into her girdle and pulled out a glittering handful. “This in advance. Double it when I reach Lindarne in safety.”
Jolene looked down at the baubles, just long enough to verify that they were valuable. She returned her eyes to the girl’s face. “And why shouldn’t I kill both you and your companion where we stand and take your jewels without the trouble of the journey?”
The youth’s hand went to his dagger, but the girl didn’t flinch. “I’d like to see you try,” she said.
Jolene wondered. It was two to one, but she could have three fighters at her hand if she bothered to raise her voice to call, and even if she fought them alone she doubted the youth would be much trouble. The girl, perhaps, but she had the genteel training of a noble scion, not the rough-and-tumble of battle. Noble scions rarely survived long in a dirty fight.
“Besides,” the girl added, and for the first time she smiled, darkly amused, “our blood would stain your lovely rugs.”
Jolene laughed, a short bark of sound. “Indeed,” she said, setting down her wine cup.
She studied the pair of them for a minute more. The youth, hand slipping slowly from his dagger, had turned his worried face to the girl. He wasn’t sure about this plan, she could tell, but he was following his lady. And she was a lady to follow. Jolene knew next to nothing about her - beyond that she was a wealthy noble of Lindarne who was desperate enough to give up her jewels and travel during the Equinox in the rough company of mercenaries, and that her smile was the kind of quicksilver magic that drove people to poetry, and that the way she had said assassins almost surely meant that someone powerful out there had no reason to like her - but everything Jolene did know pointed to the fact that this was an uncommon girl.
She sighed. “How about,” she said, “you start from the beginning?”
It took a while to persuade the Linnese girl to tell her story. The youth was against it, though he confined his disapproval to speaking looks and beseeching glances. Jolene wasn’t sure why he didn’t speak; perhaps he was mute, or perhaps Linnese society frowned on men speaking in the presence of women. The fact that Lindarne had been at peace for at least ten years meant that her knowledge of its culture was somewhat out-of-date. Mercenaries didn’t need accurate information about a peaceful society, when there were so many warlike and dissenting ones to plunder.
The girl herself seemed to hold back half out of innate caution, half out of prickliness. Third-watch had come by the time Jolene finally lost her patience.
“Look,” she said, leaning forward. “You asked me. I don’t know whether you thought that one look at your jewels would stoke the gold-lust in me and turn me into your bannerwoman. But if I’d wanted to be a bannerwoman I would have stayed on the Isles and taken colours with a local keep.” Or perhaps not, she added to herself silently, but her girlhood and her reasons for leaving the Isles were of no concern to anyone but herself. “I don’t walk into a situation blind, and I certainly don’t take a hire without knowing what the dangers are. Who are your enemies? Why do you have to travel during the Equinox, when all good people stay at home? What dangers would we face on the way? A commander does not plan without a map, my lady.”
It was the second time she had called the girl ‘my lady’, and this time Jolene saw it hit. The girl’s eyes flashed – and then she breathed out, and Jolene knew she’d won.
“My name is Merilyn,” the girl said, as if it was the answer to all of Jolene’s questions at once. “My mother, may the Goddess rest her soul, was Princess of Lindarne.”
It was not a wholly surprising announcement. Jolene knew first-hand that not every royal looked the part – she had pulled her share of bedraggled princelings out of alehouse trenches and known more than one harmless wizened crone who ruled entire dominions with an iron fist – but if she had been asked to imagine one, this Merilyn would have fit the picture nicely. “Was?” she asked.
Merilyn bit her lip. A recent loss, then. “I was sent here to Roselle by my mother a week ago. With the Equinox approaching and the conflict still raging, my mother thought that I might be able to broker a ceasefire.”
It was the first Jolene had heard of it, but a week ago she had been in the worst of the fighting, a long grim stretch of days in the hastily dug trenches. Not only had it been muddy, stinking, and bloody, but two of the other three factions facing each other in that section of the battlefield had employed a minor mage. It wasn’t a big enough conflict to call for a proper mage, with their sky-high prices, but minor mages could be irritating as all hells. Persuading legions of fleas and cockroaches that the opposing trenches were what they had been searching for all their benighted lives… Jolene hated mages.
But whether she had been too fleabitten to hear the rumours of a Linnese negotiator, or whether some misfortune or intrigue had prevented the negotiator from ever beginning her negotiations, Jolene wasn’t quite sure. Perhaps Merilyn would be willing to explain.
She looked willing enough now, despite the uneasiness of the youth at her right hand. “The night we arrived, I was going in search of a glass of water, and I overheard Nisa and Malik talking.”
Jolene would have laid good money that Merilyn’s reasons for being out of bed late at night did not involve a sudden thirst. They might have involved the youth at her side – he was good-looking enough to tempt even a Princess of Lindarne, and silence was not necessarily a bad thing in bed – but Jolene discarded that theory after a moment. (He would have been blushing, if she knew the type.) She nodded in acceptance of the polite fiction of the water glass, and motioned for Merilyn to continue.
“Nisa is the chief assistant to my mother’s prime minister, and she was second to me in our mission. Malik,” and she made a dismissive gesture, “is one of my bodyguard. Usually I would have walked on by, thinking only that they were intending to bed each other, but they looked so furtive that I lingered.”
“There was a plot?” Jolene said. Skip to the end, that was her motto. In spite of Merilyn’s need for haste, she suspected the younger woman was rather enjoying the storytelling.
Merilyn nodded. “Yes. I and … Jack,” she said, “were to be killed. The story was to be that we had snuck out to an inn together away from servants’ eyes, and that some drunk soldier had killed us.”
Jack was not the youth’s name. Not only had there been a slight but noticeable pause before Merilyn produced his alias, but he’d looked faintly surprised, and Jack was a name of the Northern Waste, not of the sh’awd. But this polite fiction could be accepted as easily as the water glass, unless it became of importance later.
“You didn’t wake your people and announce what you had heard?”
“No,” Merilyn said, slowly. “I wasn’t sure how far the conspiracy extended. To declare my knowledge would have been to risk my assassins laughing at me and then killing us all the same.” She looked down at the cup in her hand. “I thought our best plan was to hide in the town until the fighting was over, then pay someone to take word to Mother.”
Jolene’s first instinct was to scoff at the idea of appealing for rescue, but she pushed it down. Up close, Merilyn was older than she had first looked, but she still couldn’t be more than two-and-twenty. And gently reared, despite the headstrong flash of her eyes. In a strange city, with only what they’d been able to grab in a nighttime flight, responsible for not only her own safety but that of an untrained youth, with assassins no doubt prowling the streets for them… perhaps a call for rescue would have been the prudent choice after all.
(Would have been, that was, because it had obviously not happened.)
Merilyn was still staring into the depths of her hardly-tasted wine. “The next morning Mother died.”
Jolene’s eyebrows shot together. “How did you hear of it?”
“I am a daughter of Lindarne,” Merilyn said, as if that explained it. Perhaps it did. Damn it all, there were simply too many quarrelling kingdoms, principalities, city states, and tribal groups in this section of the Reaches. Jolene did try to keep up to date on them all, because knowing where the fault lines were meant knowing who was most likely to need a mercenary band to help them fight their neighbours (and, more importantly, who would have the ability to pay a mercenary band), but it was an ongoing struggle. It didn’t help that many of them seemed to change rulers every second year.
Merilyn must have seen her quizzical look, because she explained. “The ruling daughters of Lindarne are born into the magic of our House. I am no skilled mage, but we are taught minor craft from childhood.”
She should have guessed. Those magnetic eyes… they did say that brown eyes were likely to mark a mage, although Jolene’s first arms-trainer had had brown eyes, and the only magic she’d had was at the zabbon table.
Jolene resisted the urge to scratch her fleabites. Mages. “And you got a message this way?”
Merilyn shook her head. “No. If I could message with Lindarne I should be well home by now! Although my mother might have had words with me about my choice of foul language.” The twist of her mouth was rueful; even in her current extremity she could laugh at herself, and it made Jolene like her for it. The world could be all types of hells, and if you couldn’t laugh at it and yourself, it wouldn’t be bearable.
But the smile had slipped off the Linnese girl’s face in another moment. “I just… knew,” she said, and the youth’s – Jack’s – fingers surreptitiously felt for hers on the rug between them. “She is my mother, for all that she is the Princess as well, and I just… knew.”
Jolene chewed this over for a minute, politely averting her eyes from the entwined fingers on the rug. It was no business of hers if they took comfort in each other. She didn’t think Lindarne was one of the principalities that cared about such things, anyway, but even if it was, she dared anyone to deny Merilyn something she wanted. “So,” she said at last, “you and Jack were hiding in the city, waiting for the fighting to end so that you could send for rescue. But before that happened, you knew that your mother was dead. I assume you’re sure?” It would be wry humour indeed if they successfully eluded assassins and infiltrated Castle Lindarne, only to find the Princess hale and hearty.
“I’m sure,” Merilyn said, quietly, and Jolene saw that she was.
“I’m also assuming that all this means that there’s a coup underway back home, so you can’t risk asking for rescue from someone who might send assassins to finish the job.” Jolene still held to her own mother’s philosophy – no use crying over dead chickens. If the fox got in the coop and destroyed a cherished flock, you cleaned up the mess and got on with things. Crying over a pet hen, even if you were all of six and still called Jojo, was a waste of tears; it didn’t bring them back and it distracted you from the task at hand, namely, setting a trap for the fox.
It worked on Merilyn. The pensive sadness vanished from her face, and when she looked up she was the insistent young patrician again. “Yes. Nisa wanted us dead, and when we escaped my mother died in our place? This is almost surely Vachyr’s work.”
Finally, Jolene was starting to feel like the puzzle pieces were falling into place. “So you need to return in haste to Lindarne, avoid assassins along the way, sneak into the Castle by the secret ways, connect with trusted bannerlings, and bring this Vachyr to justice?” She frowned. “The Equinox is only a week. Surely we could wait…”
But Merilyn was already shaking her head. “When a Princess of Lindarne dies, on the final night of the next Equinox the women of her house come to the throne room. There they take it in turn to lay their hands on the sceptre. It reads their magic, and it chooses the next Princess from their number.”
“And you need to be there or you won’t have the chance,” Jolene said, slowly.
Merilyn’s eyes flashed. “I am the rightful Heiress. The ceremony is a formality – it is almost always clear in advance who the sceptre will pick. My family has known for years that I will take the throne in my turn. It is why I was sent here to Roselle – my mother had no thought of dying for many years to come, but this was part of my training. Her skill has kept us in peace for years, and I will continue that tradition.”
“But if you’re not there, the sceptre doesn’t have the option to pick you, even if it wanted to,” Jolene guessed.
“I do not know who it would pick,” Merilyn said, simply. “But if Vachyr has gone this far, he must have a good idea, and it must be someone he thinks he can control. I cannot let that happen to my people.”
“Is Vachyr that bad?”
Merilyn bit her lip. “I have never liked him, but I thought him largely harmless. But Nisa is his creature, and if he will kill to take power, then he is very bad indeed.”
“So we sneak you into the ceremony and you burst forth in the middle to lay your hand on the sceptre and are proclaimed Princess,” Jolene summed up. “And then you have Vachyr drawn and quartered.”
Merilyn looked up, quicksilver. “Is this a plan then, Jolene Firehair? Will you and a chosen handful take us to Lindarne?”
“It’s just Jolene,” Jolene said, blowing a strand of the flame-red hair out of her eyes. “And yes. I will take you to Lindarne.”
It was a small party that set out from the west gate of Roselle in the dim morning light.
There were no guards to bar their way. They were all in their homes; it was nearly time for the first Equinox prayer, and no law-abiding citizen of the Reaches would be abroad at this hour. Even most of the criminals had gone straight for the week – it was one thing to risk the penalties of the law, and quite another to risk eternal torment by the servants of the Benighted One. Jewel thefts and confidence games would still be there in a week, when the Equinox had passed. Only unbelievers – and the truly desperate – would venture abroad in the coming days.
Two unbelievers, two desperate, and four horses slipped out the postern door as the bells tolled out the hour. They were dressed for travel, and carried little beyond the necessities. Jolene had asked only Tanith to accompany them; she would not have asked a believer to come, and a small party would pass less conspicuously. There were still bandits on this road, for all that they doomed their souls, and it was yet to be seen how desperate the Linnese conspirators were. Would they trust to chance to delay their rogue Princess until after the ceremony? Or would they find assassins willing to set forth even during the Equinox?
In the dawnlight, Jolene was less sure about this plan. It was too late to turn back now, with Merilyn’s life-price paid out to the mercenary band to keep them through the Equinox, and the first half of their hire tucked securely into Jolene’s breastband. By rights the journey should be easy enough, even with the potential assassin complication, but the castle at its end loomed large in Jolene’s mind. She shook her head. They would have to hope that Merilyn was as skilled, or as crafty, as she believed.
For the first hours they rode in silence. It was only a four-day journey to Lindarne, if they found no assassins or other delays along the way, and Jolene had little to say to her charges. Merilyn rode beside her, the proud angle of her jaw undaunted, and the boy came behind with Tanith. She would look after him and see that he didn’t fall off his horse or straggle behind. She was good with young recruits, even if most of those came from farm or forest and needed less coddling than this palace-raised youngling.
Merilyn broke the silence at last. “Why did you come to the Eastern Reaches?” She smiled, the practiced warm smile of a diplomat who had learned to talk with any and all who crossed her path. “It can’t have for been our religion.”
Jolene let the silence lengthen until it slid over into uncomfortableness, then said, “I came because I wished to.”
She wondered where the baker’s girl was now. Married to a village bumpkin, no doubt, with three squalling children hanging on her skirts. She had been so pretty, that sunlit summer, and her kisses had been warm like summer wine...
“I wish I could go where I wished to,” Merilyn said, and her tone had slid into wistfulness.
Jolene shrugged. “Freedom has its price. A nasty end, usually.”
That was, of course, when the assassins fell on them.
Jolene loved fighting.
Most people thought she was called Firehair for the redgold of her hair, the signet-mark of her exotic origin. But those who had seen her in battle knew it was for the halo of flame that curled around her head in battle, her hair unleashed in its fullness as surely as her sword. Redgold it was, but only in battle did it reach its full potential.
There were only four assassins. They must have had difficulty finding even assassins who would take a job during the Equinox. Between Tanith and her, with Merilyn staunchly at their sides, the fighting was over more quickly than a set of Equinox prayers.
It wasn’t that Jolene was the greatest warrior in the world. She was a decent hand with a blade, or perhaps a bit more than decent, but Tanith outmastered her easily. Assassins, however, were skilled in stealth and killing in the dark, not equal combat; their employers must have been desperate indeed, to send them against a pair of mercenaries in open daylight. They hadn’t had a chance, with their little daggers against Jolene and Tanith’s broadswords.
“Help!” Merilyn cried, her voice full of panic.
Jolene looked up from the assassin she was searching – in vain, as even half-decent assassins didn’t carry incriminating papers – in time to see Jack sway and crumple to the ground.
Even little daggers could do damage, if they were poisoned.
As Tanith saw to Jack, Jolene and Merilyn made camp. They still had most of the journey to go, and now a poisoned aristocrat on their hands. This ‘simple’ protection hire was, as Jolene had suspected, anything but.
“He’ll live,” Tanith said, coming up to them wiping her hands. “I don’t like his colour, though. Can you carry him into the tent?”
“He has to be all right,” Merilyn said. She was obviously controlling her voice with an effort. “He has to be all right.”
Jolene headed in Jack’s direction, but leaned down to whisper in Tanith’s ear on the way. “Calm her down, will you? That’s all we need, hysterics on top of everything else.”
“Jolene?” Jack murmured, as she picked him up , her muscles twining at her. He wasn’t that heavy, certainly not as heavy as the time she’d carried Shandi back from that skirmish on the river, but it was an awkward lift and he was flopping. “Jolene?”
His voice was feverish already. Damn. She tucked the blankets around him and went to look for water.
Behind her, she could hear Tanith talking to Merilyn. “We’ll pull through,” she was saying. “He’s young and strong.”
Jolene only wished she was as confident as that.
When the sun began to dip, they moved on. Jack wasn’t better, but staying too long in one place was risky. If there was another set of assassins coming to clean up after the last, they’d have difficulty defending the camp with an injured man to protect. It was the easiest thing in the world to slit the throat of a delirious man.
They tied him to his horse and forged on.
Merilyn rode quietly by Jolene’s side, and when Jolene looked over she could see her lips moving. At first she thought she was praying, but gradually she realised that she was practicing her spellcasting. A girl after her own heart, she thought approvingly, refusing to give in, but then she redirected the sentiment quickly. There might be only five years difference between them, but she was an old soul and this girl still had the buoyancy and belief of youth.
Jack was worse when they made camp again at last, the road become too dark to travel safely. She carried him to the tent again, and he clutched at her neck like a sweetheart being carried over the marriage threshold. “Jolene,” he murmured fretfully.
Tanith came in to see what she could do, and when Jolene went out to unpack the saddlebags – no fire, because it would be a beacon to any who wished them ill – she found Merilyn staring at her.
“What?” she asked, shortly, in no mood for long conversations.
“Nothing,” Merilyn said, and turned away.
The next day they soldiered on, because there was nothing else to do. Turning back would be worse than useless. Staying in one place was to wait for the inevitable. Going forward was to at least keep hope alive.
Jolene wondered what would happen to her and Tanith if they let a prince of the sh’awd die on their hands. Merilyn would speak for them, she thought, but if the prince had thought the trip a great adventure and gone with Merilyn without telling anyone, she and Tanith might even be suspected of abducting him. He might perhaps only be a noble, but she thought not. That skin, those eyes, that manner... and the way Merilyn kept looking at him, her eyes stricken ....
“Is it punishment for breaking the Equinox?” Merilyn asked, abruptly, riding alongside Jolene again.
“Do you think so?” Jolene countered. She had little time for soothing a princess’s religious fears. But letting the girl talk couldn’t hurt things. The last thing they needed was her suppressing everything and then suddenly breaking out in hysterics.
Merilyn looked white and calm, however. “I was always told that in time of great need, the Goddess understood. My grandmother broke the Equinox to get medicine for my aunt, and my aunt lived.”
“Then you have your answer,” Jolene said, and spurred forward.
Later, Jolene wouldn’t be able to fully remember that hellish journey. If the assassins had attacked nearer to Lindarne, she might have been able to separate out the stages, but as it was the entire journey blurred in memory into one long, nightmare ride. They travelled as quickly as Jack could stand it, stopping only when they had to or when one of them was about to fall in exhaustion.
By the end, Jolene was expecting to see assassins over every hillock. That would have been the perfect strategy, subject them to this nightmare and then take them unawares and shattered.
Luckily for them, they came into sight of the Castle of Lindarne with Jack still alive and without encountering assassins. Tanith went to scout the perimeter, and Merilyn and Jolene stayed with Jack.
Tanith had been gone ten minutes when Merilyn turned to Jolene. “I understand.”
“You understand?” Jolene said blankly. She’d been looking up at the hillside – more of a minor mountain – and hoping Merilyn’s secret entrance involved a tunnel. Climbing a hill carrying Jack was going to be nigh impossible, and to leave him stashed somewhere at the base risked his discovery by patrolling soldiers, opportunistic sneak thieves, belated assassins, hungry farmers, or any number of other people who might take their fortune into their own hands and send him out of this world.
“I’ve seen the way he looks at you,” Merilyn said, holding herself very erect. “And the way he calls your name. I understand.”
It took Jolene a moment, but then she had to resist every urge in her body to roll her eyes. “Merilyn,” she said, forcing her voice to stay even. “He’s delirious.”
As if he’d heard them, the boy at their feet moaned and thrashed. “Jolene.”
“I know,” Merilyn said. “But listen to him. He’s out of his mind, but something in him knows he wants you. He hasn’t called my name once.”
Jolene had no time for this. But Tanith wasn’t back yet, and Merilyn wasn’t a recruit to be slapped into shape. “He’s calling my name because I’m the one who’s been carrying him. He’s probably latched on to me as a replacement mother.” She added, under her breath, “Which Goddess knows is the last thing I need.”
“I understand,” Merilyn said, her voice still bleak. “He’s a catch for anyone. Save his life, and I won’t stand in your way.”
Merilyn needed to be focusing on casting the spell to open the secret ways. Jolene needed to be focusing on averting all the booby traps that would doubtless be strung along the path. Neither of them needed this ridiculous conversation, but Merilyn was after all very young, and half in love with the boy, she judged.
“Merilyn,” she said, stressing the girl’s name. “I am not a man-lover.” Or a boy-lover, she thought. A sheltered prince of twenty was full years younger than a member of her band, even if they had the same age. “I promise, I don’t want your prince. If we come through this, you can have him, and welcome.”
For some reason, Merilyn’s brow didn’t quite unfurrow. But she looked a little calmer. “We were going to unite our kingdoms and try to bring peace to the region. He’s a dear friend. But if he loves you...”
“I guarantee he doesn’t,” Jolene said, and was so relieved to see Tanith approaching, she could have kissed her. “Regional peace may be difficult, but good luck to you. Let’s get through today.”
Jolene was the leader of a mercenary band, and not a sellsword, for a reason. Sellswords didn’t have to be good at organisation, or plan ahead for bleak years, or provide for the injured and orphaned; their lives were simple and bloody, easy to understand and easy to lose. This was a job for a sellsword, Jolene thought darkly, flinging another gibbering skeleton away from her in the darkness with one peeved swipe of her sword. Skeletons? Really? Whoever protected these passages must have thought they’d be invaded by panicky old men, if some shrieking skeletons were supposed to drive them out into the light again.
If they got out of here with their skins intact, Jolene was never taking a protection hire again. She’d been led astray by a pair of pretty eyes and a stubborn chin, a sob story and a tempting price. Never again. Give her a straightforward battlefield any day, with Tanith at her side and Nim at her back, and the rest ranged around her. Not a delirious prince on a makeshift sledge and a half-trained princess mage beside her keeping terror at bay through sheer force of will.
Sometimes she even thought of retirement. Had it only been five days ago that she’d winced as she rose in her tent, her old bones protesting? It seemed a lifetime. Eight-and-twenty she was, with enough stashed away to buy a farm in the lake country. If she went now, she’d have escaped the mercenary life with all her limbs and only an impressive collection of scars. She could settle down and become an almost respectable woman. Raise ducks, perhaps. Maybe even raise a child, if she wanted one, a gift from some passer-through. Or not.
There would be no skeletons at her farm. No dark-garbed assassins lurking in the alleys, nor over-indulged aristocrats waltzing into her life and bewitching her with one flutter of their eyelashes and flash of spirit. Only her and her sword, and perhaps an old mercenary comrade or two, if they cared to come.
“Protect my back,” Merilyn said, her lips white. Someone, perhaps one of the skeletons, had slashed her across the cheek, and her hair was unbound and wild. “I have to open this.”
Jolene nodded, and stood guard over the woman’s body as she slipped out of it, chanting incantations under her breath, the door before them lighting up with hidden symbols.
“Holy Goddess,” Tanith swore, coming up behind them wiping her sword.
“Jolene,” Jack moaned.
Definitely a farm. Jolene sighed and destroyed another skeleton.
“Thank you,” the new Princess of Lindarne said, regally.
Jolene had once talked to a burgher’s wife about her life. “It must be so exciting,” the burgher’s wife had said, her voice strained but polite. Jolene hadn’t known what to say – what did exciting mean, exactly? That you were likely to die at any moment? That you never had a chance to sleep soundly? That every day made your pulse beat the quicker – that air always smelled sweet – that no one in the world could tell you what to do, except you yourself, and no one could run you out of town for loving someone. “Yes,” she had settled for at last. “Yes, it’s exciting.”
That had been the last time she saw her sister, six years ago.
She thought of that now, standing before a crowned Merilyn. The last week seemed a bustle, a dream, a confused whirl of memories before her eyes. A moment before, it seemed, she had been in her tent listening to the Equinox bells. Then setting out, the assassins, carrying Jack, his delirious ravings, skeletons, a furious swordfight in the throne room, Merilyn fighting her way to the sceptre to lay her hands on it and be proclaimed the new Princess.
Jack would make it. Many of Merilyn’s kin had some magic, and one of her great-aunts had taken charge of him immediately. He was weak, but he would be ready to make the trip back to his kingdom in a month or so. (And not a moment too soon, given the remonstrances of the sh’awd ambassador, who had nearly fainted dead away at the sight of their heir brought so low.)
Was this the kind of excitement her sister had meant? Mixing with royalty, meddling in succession disputes? Killing a Prime Minister on the throne room steps, in return for his murder of Merilyn’s mother, her sword slipping past his guard, a life for a life?
“You’re welcome,” she said. The words seemed inadequate, but then she was a woman of few words. Those would have to suffice.
The slash across Merilyn’s face would scar. She would wear her history for anyone to see; Jolene thought she would never again be the girl who had yelled so imperiously for Jolene to come to her aid in the alley. She had been blooded fighting for her kingdom, in a way no attempted assassination could ever touch. Two-and-twenty she might be, and still short on experience, but she had earned the crown she wore lightly in her hair, and the love of her people at the same time.
She would be easy to love, Jolene thought. Not for her beauty, though she had it, nor for her spirit, though she had that too, but for her character, her determination, her refusal to see anything but what must be done, and her inability to turn away without doing it.
“Name your reward,” Merilyn said, still standing overmuch on ceremony, although Jolene could still see the edge of nervousness tucked away at the corner of her eyes. They were standing in the throne room under the eyes of the entirety of the court, after all. Nearly all of the women lining the walls would have watched Merilyn grow up, from baby to child to girl, and now suddenly to young monarch. She saw approval in their faces, and her heart lightened.
Name her reward.
She hadn’t had time to think since they set off from Roselle. The nightmare procession, barely pausing for breath, a confused jumble of memories ending in skeletons and magic skittering along her bones and swords and Jack mumbling “Jolene”... Merilyn riding alongside her, trying to make conversation, her eyes unreadable. Tanith, watching them both.
What would this throne room think, if she said simply, “You”?
It was a ridiculous thought. She had loved a baker’s daughter once, all softness and laughter and summer wine, and been run out of her family, her town, her land for it. She had dallied with various women in the years since, a seamstress here and a soldier there. Never one of her own mercenary band, never someone that would compromise her independence or tie her down.
But she was old now, for all that there was only five years between her and the young monarch before her, and in her old age it seemed her heart longed for different things.
It was a foolish thought. She wasn’t in love with this woman. They were as far apart as any two women could be, for all that they had shared a week of danger, pushed their bedrolls close together, fought back to back. It was a fancy, and you couldn’t build a life on a fancy.
She opened her mouth to ask for a princely sum.
“If you want it,” Merilyn said, softly, “you will always have a home in Lindarne.”
Jolene looked up, and met Merilyn’s eyes.
"A farm," she said, clearly. "For my reward, I would like a farm."
“A farm,” Tanith said, her eyebrows raised dubiously. “You’re giving me the band and going soft on a farm.”
Tanith was young. Her bones didn’t creak when she moved. She didn’t sicken of the blood sometimes, for all that she was good at her job. She didn’t get tired of travelling, and long for the smell of freshly baked bread and the soft lowing of a cow.
“Yes,” Jolene said, simply. “You’ll take care of our people. I trust you.”
They’d come and see her, some of them. They’d always have a home with her if they wanted it, and a few of them had adopted her as a surrogate sister, or even a mother. She’d buried some of them, over the long years, but others survived; it would be good to know them in the long days of peace.
“A Linnese farm,” Tanith said, her eyes sharp.
Jolene shrugged. “Lindarne is one of the only peaceful principalities in the Reaches. If I want to stay out of trouble, it’s as good a place as any.”
“Merilyn?” Tanith asked, crossing her arms.
They’d worked together for years now. Tanith knew her too well. “I met her last week, Tan.”
And now Merilyn had given her a farm, just for the asking. With the first half of the hire-price still nestled in Jolene’s breastband, she could buy the farm animals she needed, and the seeds for a vegetable garden. She’d have her weapons, and the favour of the Crown. In a week, her life had changed – but then, a week was a long time in the mercenary trade. She had fought wars in less.
“Think about it,” Tanith said, reaching out to rest her hand on Jolene’s arm. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you, even when all she wanted to be thinking about was her kingdom. You don’t have to rush into anything. Just...think about it.”
“You’re pushy,” Jolene said, laughing despite herself.
Tanith grinned. “And you love me for it.”
They drank champagne together in the moonlight, before Tanith collected her things. Jolene scratched out a note for Tanith to take to the band, explaining herself and wishing them well, telling them of the open offer to come to the farm. She sealed it with her ring and held it out; Tanith would tell them in her own way, but the note would back her up. She’d have no trouble.
Tanith took it, but hesitated. “Jojo,” she said.
Jolene ran over the checklist in her head. She hadn’t forgotten anything, had she?
“You have people that love you,” Tanith said. “Don’t be afraid to let yourself love again.”
Jolene tried to remember the baker’s daughter’s face, and found that she couldn’t. A different pair of shining eyes pushed themselves to the front of her memory, and she smiled.
“Go on with you,” she said, a lump in her throat. “Safe travels.”
She watched Tanith go from the window, her old life walking away on sure mercenary feet.
Jolene was mopping the floor when she heard the door open behind her.
If it had been an enemy, she’d have been waiting with her sword out. She had a pair of barking dogs, a squeaky gate, and a perfect view of the surrounding countryside from her kitchen window.
As it was, she kept mopping. “There’s fresh bread on the table, if you want it.”
“Thank you,” Merilyn said, and stepped inside.
It wasn’t an ending.
It was, perhaps, a beginning.