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CHAPTER FIVE

The second day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

The peace was broken today, in a fashion that I can hardly bear to think about. Cold Run sent its hunter; I saw him myself.

Father had sent me into the woods to look for trees to cut for the new hall. As I returned to the edge of the village, I saw the hunter standing next to a tree, leaning against it and holding his side as though he had been running. I could just see the edge of his face, and it was flushed red with warmth. I thought at first that he must be my youngest uncle, who is about my age, and that he was playing Jackal and Prey. So I called out softly, so that his playing partner would not hear, "Which are you, the hunter or the hunted?"

He turned swiftly, and for a moment all that I noticed was that he looked very ill. Then I saw the fear in his eyes, and I recognized him. It was Griffith's brother, Siward.

I felt a wave of relief flow over me. All I had to do was capture Siward, and the feud would be over. I had no dagger, but my father had taught me ways to fight if I were disarmed during a duel. I took a step forward.

Oddly, Siward did not move, not even to draw his dagger. Perhaps it was this peculiarity which made me turn and look back at the village. There were no bodies to be seen; everyone was going about their regular business. But there was a long, thin trail of smoke arising from one building.

I doubt that I looked back at Siward again. I was racing back into the village, ignoring the startled faces that swivelled my way, ignoring a call that sounded like my father's. I only stopped when I reached the sanctuary door and swung it open.

Immediately I began to curse myself. What had I been thinking? I had let the Cold Run hunter go and chased after a fire that turned out to be nothing more than Fenton's daily fire for the god. It was blazing on the altar as usual, the goat's meat already half-burned from the bones, while the sacrificial smoke wound its leisurely way up to the smoke-hole. It went straight as an arrow to its target, which Fenton had once told me was a sign that the gods were pleased with the sacrifice.

I was just about to turn away and run back to the woods to find Siward again when I noticed two things. One was that there were a great many bones on the altar. The other was that Fenton was not standing as usual next to the sacrifice.

I think I screamed. I know that I stood frozen at the doorway, unable to move. It was only a few seconds before I began to fling myself forward, but in those few seconds other men had reached the sanctuary, and I found myself struggling against a pair of strong hands pulling me back. They belonged to my father, saving me from flinging myself into the god's fire.

The other men, though too cautious to actually throw themselves at the flames, were pulling down tapestries and smothering the fire in that way. I had already seen, though, that it was too late, so I turned my face against my father's chest and wept the tears I had not shed when my brother died.

I do not think he blamed me. When I looked up at him again, many minutes later, he was staring bleakly at the altar, where the flames were dying down. "Such barbarity," he murmured. "Never, in all the feuds I've taken part in . . . Not even an Emorian would curse himself in such a way." He turned suddenly away from me to Lange. My brother-in-marriage had stepped away from the altar to comfort Drew, who was sobbing in the doorway. "Find a trader to send word to Cold Run," my father said sharply. "Tell Griffith that one of his hunters has burned an unarmed priest. If Felix doesn't confirm the curse and hand the murderer over to us for punishment, then we'll know that entire village lies under the gods' curse. . . . What are you looking at?" His voice softened.

I stared up at him blankly. I could scarcely take in what he was saying; my spirit had begun to grow numb. My hand trembled as it tightened on the paper it held. With my fingers still cradling Fenton's neat handwriting, I said, "A letter. Fenton was writing to Emlyn."

My father was still a moment. Then, with one swift move, he snatched the letter and threw it into the dying flames.

I gasped and tried to move forward, but my father held me back. "Emlyn is your enemy," he said in a hard voice. "He is kin to the man who killed your blood brother. Would you honor Fenton's murdered spirit by showing kindness to his enemy?" His grip tightened on me. "How will you honor him?"

After that, I could do nothing but close my eyes and cry for a long time, while my father held me tenderly.

o—o—o

The third day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

I slept last night with Fenton's sheathed dagger, which Lange found next to the altar. I knew, of course, that I was placing myself in danger by holding even a priest's blade all night, but it was the closest I could come to Fenton's spirit. Since he was murdered, he is in the Land Beyond already, being welcomed by the kind gods he loved so much. I tell myself that in hopes that my pain will decrease.

I wish that Fenton was here to advise me. Already I have made one serious mistake: I told my father who Fenton's murderer was. That gave my father more arrows for his bow, though I suppose his attack on me would have occurred in any case.

I feel ashamed of myself for having written the above. I know that it does not do justice to the grief my father feels for the death of his former blood brother. "I was wrong to abjure my vow to Fenton," he told me today. "I see that now; I should have stayed by his side and guided him to see how he had turned his face from the gods, rather than allow the gods to punish him this way."

"The gods didn't murder him!" I shouted. "It was Siward!"

"Siward was the instrument of the gods' will, though that makes him no less guilty of his blasphemy," my father said steadily; his face was pale. "Siward will receive his just punishment for breaking the gods' law. The only question is whose hand shall execute his sentence."

I had a hard time steadying my breathing, though I had known what would come. "If Felix places him under the gods' curse—"

"He won't. Griffith has already sent word that Fenton was killed in error – an unarmed priest killed in error – and that he will not surrender the murderer. Nor will Felix acknowledge that the murderer is already under the gods' curse. Of course we know why, thanks to you. Griffith has so little loyalty to the gods that he will not surrender his heir and younger brother, law-breaker though he is. Well, Griffith has already shown what sort of baron he is; the gods will punish him in time. Siward, though, requires justice now. Fenton's spirit will not be able to rest peacefully in the Land Beyond until he is avenged. By his blood brother."

The words were finally out. I tried to turn away from my father, but his hand held me fast. "I cannot avenge Fenton's death," my father said in carefully spaced words. "The abjuration of my vow will not allow that. You are his nearest kin; it is to you that this duty falls."

"But Fenton wouldn't want me to kill Siward," I said miserably.

My father sighed and released me. We were standing in the sanctuary, now stripped of all of its holy objects, since it had been profaned by the murder of a priest. Only Fenton's dagger, which I had carried with me all day, remained in the sanctuary, and even that, I had discovered upon inspecting it, was covered with blackened blood. Fenton must have been so preoccupied by his worry over the feud that he had sheathed his blade after his daily sacrifice, before wiping it clean. I had cleaned the blade and the sheath, this being the best I felt I could do for Fenton's spirit. Now, though, I was being asked to do more.

"Fenton held peculiar notions about the blood feuds," said my father. "He told me honestly about those notions when he came to serve us, so I am yet more to blame for his death. I ought to have assisted him in recognizing his impiety, especially since he told me that he had been reprimanded for his views by the other priests at the priests' house. One matter, though, Fenton and I always agreed upon, and that was that a murderer should receive his just punishment. Fenton disapproved of the blood feuds because he did not believe that a law-breaker's kin should suffer from his crime, but he never once suggested that the law-breaker himself should escape justice." My father reached out and held me again, gently this time. "You know who Fenton's murderer is," he said quietly. "There is no chance that the innocent will die under your blade. All that is needed is that you execute the man who broke the gods' law twice over – by killing an unarmed man, and by killing a priest. Even Fenton would have approved of such an execution; he was not as soft as you present him."

In my mind, I saw again Fenton cutting his skin unflinching, then handing the bloody blade to me. I closed my eyes against the image, saying with tightness in my throat, "It just doesn't seem right for me to do this."

After a while, the stillness grew so long that I opened my eyes. My father had taken his hand from me; in his face was a coldness more chill than the black border mountains in winter.

"If that is your feeling, then that is a sign of what you are," he said in a slow, deliberate voice. "And if that is what you are, then you are no son of mine."

I stared at him, feeling the weight of what he had said descend upon me. First Hamar, then Fenton, and now— My spirit could not survive another loss. I had no choice, no choice at all.

I burst into tears once more, and my father, sensing my answer, wrapped his arms around me. "Just Siward," he said softly. "That is all I will ask of you. I won't require you to take part in the feud beyond that."

And so tomorrow I go to Cold Run, a hunter in search of his prey.

I hope I am caught.

o—o—o

The sixth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

One thing I can tell my father when I return. I am not the greatest coward in Koretia; Siward is.

I have never seen anyone so heavily protected. He cannot so much as go outside to empty a chamber pot without attracting half a dozen escorts. Nor does he seem at all bothered at being treated like an unmarried woman whose chastity must be protected. I am finding it hard to control my growing contempt for him.

Despite what I wrote in my last entry, I know that I would not honor Fenton's spirit by allowing myself to be captured and killed, so I have been cautious, approaching the edges of the village only in the evening hours, when I cannot be seen in the shadows. Through the leafy bushes surrounding the village, I have glimpsed men I know: Griffith and Siward and my mother's uncles, and others I know less well. Once I thought I saw Emlyn, but it turned out to be a young boy I had never known, and I remembered then that Emlyn is a grown man now. Even if he had returned to the borderland after all these years, it is unlikely that I would recognize him.

I hope he is still in the south; I would not want my skilled cousin to be among those who might capture me. The danger is great, for everyone in Cold Run knows who the prey is this time, and everyone will be on the lookout for Mountside's hunter, lest he kill their baron's heir.

In the daytime I have been visiting neighboring villages and buying food. My father supplied me with a generous amount of money, since we both guessed it would take me at least a week to lure my prey into the open. Now I am beginning to think it will take me a month. Why could my prey not be an honorable man who was willing to fight his hunter, rather than a terrified titmouse hiding in its nest?

o—o—o

The seventh day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

Before I left, I took my blood vow to my father and to the Jackal to participate in this feud. The mark has finally healed; its itch no longer annoys me.

Siward annoys me a great deal, though, and the more I watch him, the more my anger grows. At night I see Fenton in my dreams, screaming in the fire – or more likely, since he was a man of great courage and honor, remaining silent throughout his agony, so as not to weaken the courage of the rest of us. After that, I am sure, his fire was over; I know that the Jackal would not burn him further when Fenton reached the Land Beyond, just as I know, without even having to think it through, that Fenton was loved by the gods. My father was wrong about that; the gods would never punish Fenton, even if he spoke in error.

My father was not wrong about Siward; I can see that now. Griffith's brother has all the marks of a god-cursed man. He shows no concern for the crime he committed and has so little shame that he will allow other men to endanger themselves in order to protect him against the consequences of the evil he has done.

I understand now why my father, after I had made my oath, spent a full hour talking to me of the sacred duty I was about to undertake. It was a speech such as I would not have expected to hear from him – a speech, indeed, that sounded as though it might have come from Fenton.

My father began by reminding me of how, in the old days, priests were responsible for the punishment of all of the god-cursed. Gradually, over the years, the priests graciously allowed other men to assist with this holy task. First the priests permitted the people of each village or town the privilege of helping to execute men and women who were demon-possessed; then the god-cursed who were sentenced to a Living Death were handed over to the care of the nobles; and finally, when evil men sought to escape from the justice of the gods, the priests began to send men out in the names of the gods, to kill the criminals. Thus began the blood feuds.

By the time my father was through speaking, I could see why he believes that he has a duty to the gods to avenge Hamar's murder. I still think that something must have gone wrong with the blood feuds over the centuries, as Fenton suggested. Surely the priests who invented the blood feuds never intended for innocent men to be killed in the place of guilty men. Yet there can be nothing wrong in killing a man who has burned a priest alive; indeed, if Fenton were here, I am sure that he would want such a man to be executed, lest he spread his curse among his people.

Already, I can see, that is what is happening. I cannot feel the anger that my father does toward Griffith and the other people of Cold Run; rather, I pity them for allowing themselves to be lured by a god-cursed man into protecting him.

I am surprised, actually, that Siward has managed to do this. He is the same age as me, and I would not have thought he was clever enough to beguile a man like Griffith. I suppose Griffith loves him greatly, though, and his love blinds him to the evil in Siward.

And perhaps Siward has allowed a demon to enter him, and the demon itself is directing Siward's actions. If that is the case, then the sooner Siward is dead, the better for Cold Run's people. Siward should be grateful that I will save him from a stoning.

o—o—o

The eighth day of October in the 940th year a.g.l.

May the Jackal eat his dead – will Siward ever emerge from the arms of his protectors? Does the man have no honor left in him at all?

I suppose that it is time for me to stop hoping for chance to send Siward my way; it is time for me to begin creating a trap. To do that, I must remember what Siward's weaknesses are, and that is hard for me to do. Our feud with Cold Run began nine years ago, the year after Fenton and Emlyn left for the south, and I have not conversed with Siward since that time. Surely, though, he would not be much different now than he was when he was seven?

I remember that he was ravenous with curiosity, exploring everything odd and interesting in our village, but that he was not terribly clever. He was like Hamar that way, though he was much better-humored than my brother. These days, he seems sulky; I suppose that is the effect of the demon, if my guess about him is correct. In the old days he was quite pious, often visiting our sanctuary and even leaving offerings to the gods on our village's ash-tombs, which impressed Fenton greatly. I am inclined to wonder now whether the demon was already working in Siward then, teaching him how to lure Fenton into unwariness, but perhaps I should not speculate that far. Siward's piety may have been genuine in the old days, before he gave himself over to evil. Perhaps there is even a part of him now that continues to turn its face toward the gods . . . though when watching Siward yawn with indifference throughout the day, I find that hard to believe.

Now that I think of it, the yawning is strange. As a boy, when Siward wanted to show that he was indifferent to something, he tossed his head backwards; he never yawned. Could it be that Siward is yawning because he is truly tired? And if so, why—?

Ah. I have it now; the gods have sent me the answer. I must go to prepare my trap.