Work Header

Chapter Text


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

This is the first day that I have been well enough to write, and just sitting up causes me pain enough, but I have so much of importance to write about that I can't keep myself away from this journal any longer. I find myself smiling as I read the end of my previous entry, for nearly everything I hoped there failed to come true: I am not in Emor, I am not free from the patrol, and I have been badly injured. And yet my greatest hope has come true at the same time.

It was my curiosity that caused all this to happen – my curiosity on not one but three occasions, and the disastrous consequences of not following my common sense. But I need to go back to the start of the story. It was dusk three days ago, I was lying in the cave and trying to sleep in the cold, and I was listening with half an ear to the sound of whistles in the distance.

There had been whistles earlier in the afternoon when another border-crosser was sighted, but the hunt ended almost immediately, so I surmised that either the border-crosser had legitimate business in Emor – or Koretia, if he was going the other way – or else he was a far wiser breacher than me and had surrendered immediately. After that, there was quiet except for the periodic sound of the sublieutenant sending out a certain whistle that was routinely acknowledged by the other guards. I decided that this must be the way for the sublieutenant to tell that his men were still safely patrolling, and as I ate the last of my food, I found myself listening for the sublieutenant's signal when I expected it to come.

So it was the patrol's silence that drew me out of the cave, and it was the muffled sound of laughter that drew me cautiously around the mountain, toward the pass.

The laughter was coming from the other side of the pass, but the noise was so faint that I could not pinpoint its location. A half-moon was up now, and I stared at the mountains opposite: they were blacker than the night, reaching up to touch the vault of the sky. Aside from the muffled voices, I could hear nothing in the mountains but the sound of an occasional mountain bird. No slight rattle of rocks indicated that the guards were still patrolling.

Then, like a death spirit walking through walls, a guard emerged from the side of the mountain opposite. I was positioned in shadow, and I flattened myself against the rock I was leaning back against. The guard took no notice of me. A moment later, a second guard emerged, and then, in short order, three more guards. After that, there was quite a long delay, and I began to think that I should retreat to my cave before I was discovered, out in the open. But finally a sixth guard walked out of the mountain. I could not see his face, but I recognized his whistle as he signalled another guard: it was the lieutenant.

This was obviously the moment at which to retreat. The lieutenant was on his night-prowl, and anyway, I had learned as much as I needed to know. The mountain patrol had a secret hideout where the full patrol gathered at dusk; presumably, this would happen again at dawn, and during that valuable interval of time I could be well on my way to Emor. The best thing to do was to return to the cave and get a full night's sleep.

I waited until I was sure the lieutenant must be far away on his patrol. Then I walked forward to find the entrance to the hideout.

I justified it in my mind, of course; I told myself that I wanted to eavesdrop on the day patrol to learn what their plans were for the following day. But the truth was more complex. I had become intrigued by the patrol, and especially by its lieutenant and sublieutenant. I wanted to know what these men were like who spent their days hunting border-breachers in the mountains. And I wondered whether any of the guards might say something while off-duty that would tell me more about the Chara's law.

Even though I had seen the men emerge from the mountain, it took me a while to locate the entrance. This consisted of one rock wall overlapping another; though I am slender, I could barely squeeze my way through the entrance. The tunnel behind was wider but dark; I couldn't see any light at the other end. I began walking forward, first steadily, then more and more slowly as something about the echo of my footsteps made me uneasy.

At a certain point, the rock path beneath my feet began to tilt downward. Feeling my feet slip slightly, I stepped back and got down on my stomach to feel the ground ahead.

It was very clever; if I had been less cautious, I would have fallen straight into the trap. The tilting slab of stone which had been set in place was so slippery with algae that any attempt to back up would cause the visitor to slide forward instead, straight into the pit that had been dug for such intruders. I threw a pebble into the pit and ascertained from the sound of its fall that the pit was deep enough to trap a man, but not deep enough to kill him. Being captured, though, was a fate that had become as fearful to me as death, so I spent several nervous minutes ascertaining how far I would have to jump in order to reach the other side of the pit.

I managed the jump, but just barely; it was hard to be sure at what point I should leap into the air. Clawing at the wall of the tunnel to keep myself from falling backwards, my hand discovered a wooden plank. This, I supposed, was used when the guards brought visitors to their hideout.

I walked forward, the tunnel curved, and soon I could see light ahead and hear voices. Stepping soundlessly through the tunnel, which now flickered with golden-red light, I cautiously edged myself up to the exit of the tunnel. Then I stood a moment in the shadows, looking out at the scene.

There before me, like a cupped hand raised toward the sky, was a green hollow in the mountains. On all sides, the naked mountains rose in steep walls; down below, unlike any other part of the mountains I had seen, the ground was covered with grass and autumn flowers. A stream, splashing down in a waterfall from the mountainside, cut across the far end of the hollow before disappearing into the earth. Near it, a small and windowless stone cottage stood, barely more than a hut. Its door was open, but its interior was black with night.

I could see all of this, not only because of the moon's glow, but because a large balefire blazed to the side of the hut. Sitting around it in pairs were the six guards of the day patrol, drinking from flasks and idly tossing wood chips into the fire. One of the guards was saying something, but he was being interrupted by periodic interjections and laughter from the other guards.

It was very cold by now, and I found myself shivering; I hadn't possessed money enough to buy a cloak before starting on my journey north. The wind whistling into the hollow pushed toward me the sweet scent of smoke and the warmth of the fire, as though it were breathing upon me. I strained to hear what the guards were saying, but all I could catch were tantalizing phrases tossed my way by the wind. I stepped out of the entrance.

No one noticed me; the guards were absorbed in their conversation. Looking around, I saw that the hollow was ringed by a garland of thorny bushes like the one I had hidden behind on the previous afternoon. There were gaps between the bushes; through one of these I stepped. Then I began my silent crawl toward the guards.

I did not have to worry here about my body making any reverberating sound on the rocky ground; the grassy carpet went up to the edge of the mountain wall beside me. I concentrated on making as little sound as possible, and did not allow myself to pay attention to what the guards were saying until I had come within a short distance of the fire. Then I peered through the bare branches of the bush as though I were staring through the bars of a prison.

Directly opposite to me was the sublieutenant and his partner; the others I recognized from their one attempt to close the circle on me. I knew their whistles, and since I had heard the sublieutenant describe their hunt for me, I also knew their names. The guard to the right of Fowler was just finishing what sounded to me like a mysterious incantation, while the others applauded and cheered. The guard turned red as I watched, in the manner that light-skinned men do.

"By the spirits of the dead Charas, Iain, you are a true lover of the law," said the sublieutenant, leaning forward to warm his flask over the fire. "I pity you, Fowler, trying to better that performance. What is your pleasure, Iain?"

"The Law of Interpretation," Iain replied promptly. He was sitting cross-legged, balancing his flask on one knee, and pulling his cloak closer as he shivered in the wind.

"The Law of what?" yelped Fowler; whereupon he endured the laughter of the other guards.

"It is the interpreters' law," said the sublieutenant, grinning as he sipped from his fire-warmed flask. "You know that one; I taught it to you last summer."

"You taught me six dozen cursed laws last summer," muttered Fowler.

"Watch your language," said the sublieutenant. "We have a child in our midst." He ducked in a mock manner, as though to avoid the wrath of the guard sitting on his other side, the one my age who had been unable to stop me from escaping from the day patrol's closing circle.

Iain had already begun saying, "'And being as it is more grave that a man talented in tongues should reveal secrets which are given to him under the shield of interpretation—'" He stopped and looked expectantly at Fowler.

There was a pause, and the guard named Jephthah suggested, "Turn the chain, Fowler."

"No, I remember this one," Fowler replied, stretching out his legs toward the fire. "'—the sentence for such a crime shall be mercy or branding or death.'"

"Death! Is that right?" said the guard named Hoel. Iain nodded, and Hoel asked, "Why death?"

"Listen to the Justification," said the sublieutenant. "Jephthah, if you flick one more piece of wood in my face, I swear that the next time you call for help, I'll leave you to your doom."

Jephthah, smiling, tossed another wood chip in the sublieutenant's direction as Fowler said, "For those who have been entrusted with the work of interpretation, and who have therefore been allowed to hear secrets which they could not otherwise lawfully hear, have a greater duty than most men to remain silent, even when threatened with pain or death. For the interpreter is an intermediary between men of different lands, enabling the Chara and his people to spread knowledge of the Law to others in the Three Lands and beyond. And should the interpreter fail to keep to his duty, the Law will— It will—' Oh, may you die a Slave's Death, Iain. Complete the link."

It took a while for Iain to be heard over the laughter. Finally he said, "'And should the interpreter fail to keep to his duty, the Law will die in the end, for the Lawmaker ordained that the Law should be given to all people. This is Emor's gift to the other lands, and so the interpreter, because he stands between two lands, is granted a role almost as great as that of the Chara, since he alone has the ability to show Emor to other lands, and other lands to Emor.'"

"Did he get that right?" Fowler turned for confirmation to the sublieutenant, and then sighed heavily and dramatically as the sublieutenant nodded. Fowler dragged his body back until it was outside the tight circle of guards surrounding the fire.

The sublieutenant said, "One link missing, but you relinked the chain nicely, Iain. It is Jephthah's turn again."

"Not again!" protested Jephthah, who was sitting beside Iain. "I swear, sublieutenant, you arrange it this way every time: the chain always turns when it reaches you, and you win the game purely because it is never your turn."

"It makes no difference if the sublieutenant does play," said Hoel. "He never breaks a link."

The sublieutenant gave a faint smile. His smile still intrigued me: one half of his face turned upward while the other remained serious. "I have broken more than enough links in my time," he said. "Just ask the lieutenant. But I will be glad to take the next turn if you insist. Iain?"

"Hold your attack," said Iain. "I still cannot think of a linking law."

"The Law of Ambassadors," suggested Hoel, turning his flask upside down to confirm that it was empty. "That is another law about intermediaries."

"The Law of Peace Settlements," offered Fowler from outside the circle. "Ambassadors are mentioned in that one."

"Only in the Definition, not in the Justification," said the sublieutenant. "What about the Law of the Border Mountain Patrol, Iain? I am sure that I cannot remember that one."

His suggestion was hooted down amidst the laughter. Iain said, "No, I know which one to use; there is a mention of interpreters toward the end. I have been saving this one for you, sublieutenant – you will never complete the link. 'And being as it is gravest of all that anyone should disobey the Great Chara—'"

"It is bound to fail, Iain," said Jephthah. "He knows all of the Great Three by heart."

"Not entirely," said the sublieutenant, "and I still have to memorize most of the Law of Grave Iniquity. But I know the subsection that you are going to cite."

"You only think that you know it," said Iain. "Subsection Thirty-Four, 'On Obedience of Witness.'"

The sublieutenant smiled and tossed a twig into the flames. Through the fire I could see his eyes, bright green like the grass around him. There was an odd intensity about his gaze as it rested upon Iain – odd because his voice was light as he said, "'—the sentence for such a crime shall be mercy or enslavement or the high doom of death by the sword. Subsection Thirty-Four. It is also important that at all times the Emorian people give true witness to the Chara, not only in his court, but even when he speaks with them outside of the court. And this remains true if a man should meet with the Chara in private—'"

Iain's howl cut short the sublieutenant's recital. Hoel said, "I have no memory of that sentence."

"The Chara revised the subsection last year," said the sublieutenant, patting Iain on the back with a show of commiseration as the guard buried his face in his hands. "He changed it so that it would conform with the proclamation he issued in connection with the charge brought against the court summoners' clerk who lied to him. It was the first time that the Chara had been obliged to interpret whether this subsection should be applied to private conversations."

"Is that the clerk whom Neville replaced?" asked Jephthah.

"Neville told me about the revision," Iain said, tossing his head up. "He said that the revision hadn't been published yet, and he swore that he hadn't told you about it. May the high doom fall upon you, sublieutenant – how did you know about the change?"

The sublieutenant replied calmly, "Because unlike the rest of you, I spend my winters studying the law rather than dissipating my time in wine, women, and song. I do not waste my evenings in taverns filled with crooning bards singing sickly sentimental songs about murder and suicide – unlike a certain guard I could mention." His gaze turned toward Jephthah, who silently toasted him amidst the laughter. "Nor do I spend my time hand-in-hand and lip-to-lip with loose women, as does our junior-most guard, judging from the volume of letters he receives—"

"We are betrothed!" the youngest guard said indignantly.

"The more fool you for getting yourself betrothed when you could be spending your leisure time practicing swordplay and the law."

"We all practice swordplay during the winters, sublieutenant," volunteered Fowler from the half-light where he sat.

"I assume so, or you would all be dead," replied the sublieutenant. "But if Chatwin does not spend more time learning the law and less time sighing over his betrothed's picture, he is likely to take another misstep into lawbreaking one of these days. I swear, Chatwin, you know as little law as a god-loving Koretian."

Chatwin's partner, Hoel, looked angry, but Fowler interjected his voice first. "Be gentle on him, sublieutenant. He has only been with us for three months. Anyway, you still need to finish your link."

"Do not bother," said Iain, pulling himself out of the circle. "He knows the rest of the subsection; I have heard him recite it. What is your next link, sublieutenant? The Law of False Witness is an obvious choice."

"I am not sure I know that one," said Chatwin in a subdued voice.

He was staring at the ground, and the sublieutenant looked his way, then smiled again suddenly. "This one you know," he said. "'And being as it is more grave that a soldier should be disobedient to his official—'"

"'—the sentence for such a crime shall be mercy or reprimand or beating,'" Chatwin replied promptly. "'For however small an order it may be that the soldier refuses to obey, his obedience is necessary in all things . . .'"

I was beginning to feel very cramped, crouched as I was behind the bush. Part of me knew that I should leave while the guards were still absorbed in their conversation; it was clear by now that they would not be discussing their patrolling plans. But nothing could have driven me from where I was. Here at last I had found what I was seeking: information about the law. And though I didn't understand most of what was being said, I knew two things: that the mountain patrol was learned in the law, and that the patrol's sublieutenant was more learned in such matters than anyone else here.

At that moment, the sublieutenant, still listening to Chatwin's recital, leaned forward to throw a few final drops of his flask-liquid onto the fire. As the flames sizzled and steamed, his eyes rose, and for a brief moment I thought that he could see me, but his gaze continued to rise until he was staring straight up at the stars above, leaning back on his hands.

There was a pause in the conversation. Chatwin had finished his recital; now he said, "Did I get that right?"

"Quite right," said the sublieutenant, still staring up at the stars wheeling above. "Except that you said 'obedience toward the Chara' rather than 'to the Chara.' That makes a great difference in the law, you know."

"How so?" asked Fowler.

The sublieutenant finally looked down again to stare at his empty flask. He made no reply to his partner's question, but said, "I am out of wine, and so is Hoel. Will you fill our flasks, Fowler?"

"Let Hoel go," responded Fowler. "I want to hear what the difference is."

Again, the sublieutenant did not reply, but he hummed a short phrase of music that sounded vaguely familiar. The other guards' heads swivelled in the sublieutenant's direction, and after a moment, Fowler grinned and said, "Oh, very well, I will take on the duty. Where did Devin put the new cask?"

"At the south end of the storeroom, in the direction of the door. If you are going to open a cask, though, you had better clean that blood-dirtied blade of yours."

Fowler obediently came up to the fire and held his blade over the fire to cleanse it, then sheathed it once more as Iain said between yawns, "Good hunting in finding that cask, Fowler. The way Devin hides our goods, you will be at it all night."

"Five minutes at most," said Fowler, looking toward the hut. "I place a day's wages on it."

"Wager accepted," said Iain as Fowler walked away. "All right, sublieutenant, I surrender. What is the difference between 'to' and 'toward'?"

The sublieutenant tossed his empty flask to one side. "As a term of the law, 'to' indicates a difference of rank: we are obedient to the Chara because we are all subject to him. But if you were obedient toward the Chara, that would imply that you were of the same rank as he was, and that your obedience to him was voluntary. That is why, in the Law of Vengeance—"

All of the guards present groaned, and Jephthah said, "Not the Law of Vengeance again. I thought we would be able to spend one evening without hearing you mention that law."

"It is relevant." The sublieutenant glared at Jephthah. "In the law's Justification, in the passage on the burdens of the Chara, it is stated that the Chara has no equals, but it also says that the Chara is obedient to the law of which he is the embodiment. That shows that not even the Chara is as high as the law, and that even he must be obedient to its consequences. Thus the Chara's only master is the law, just as our greatest masters are the Chara and his law . . ."

We were reaching here closer and closer to the center of all my questions: what the law was, who decided what it said, why it existed. Yet something continued to tap at the back of my mind, and in a single instant I recognized the two thoughts that were trying to break through to my consciousness. One was the realization that Fowler had not taken any flasks with him when he walked away from the fire. The other was the realization that I knew what tune the sublieutenant had been humming: it was a whistle-code, and it meant, 'The hunted is sighted.'"

I stood and whirled, but it was too late; Fowler was standing beside me, blocking my path to the tunnel. His sword was out, and in the dim shadows where we stood, I could see that he was smiling.

"So you are back from the dead," he said in strongly accented Common Koretian. "Well, you will have no further opportunity to trick us, Koretian."

I had only a moment to think. Behind us, the sublieutenant had stopped talking; I knew that he and the other guards were poised to leap forward. I couldn't climb the sheer wall next to me; if I went toward the fire, the guards would capture me; if I ran toward the back of the hollow, there would be no place for me to hide. My only hope was to reach the tunnel, and Fowler was between me and the tunnel.

I had only a moment to think. Then I was past him, and in my hand was my dagger, now wet with blood.

I did not pause until I reached the point where I would break out of the bushes and reach the tunnel. I could hear that the guards were just starting to run forward in response to Fowler's grunt; now I looked back to see how far ahead of them I was.

I barely noticed the guards near the fire, for what I saw was closer than them: the sublieutenant, leaning over Fowler, his hand drenched with blood as he tried to staunch the wound in the side of his motionless partner. He looked up. For a moment I thought that he would pursue me and that he would succeed in catching me, since he was so far ahead of the others. Instead, from his shadow-dark lips there emitted a sound unlike any I had ever heard a human make. It was a whistle, but it was as high and blazing as a shooting star in the sky. It pierced the still night air with such force that I thought the mountains would crack, yet it was higher in tone than any bird's call.

Fenton hadn't taught me this whistle, but I could guess its meaning. I turned, and began my escape from death.

By the time I reached the other end of the tunnel, a deluge of whistles was pouring through the mountain air, all overlapping each other so that I could barely tell where they were coming from. Above them all, I could hear the whistle of the lieutenant, close to where I stood. I turned, and ran in the opposite direction, toward Koretia.

It didn't take me long to realize my folly. I might save my life in this way, by returning to Koretia, but of what use was my life if I spent it in a land where I would never learn about the law? Stubbornly, I turned and began racing east into the mountains. The whistles around me were closer; my only chance was to do as Fenton had done and leave the safe territory of the mountain passes.

The guards around me were racing toward me much faster than they had throughout the day. No attempt was being made to safely encircle me; no caution was being shown toward me any more. Every guard, I could guess, now had his blade drawn, and every one of them was prepared to use it on me the moment I was captured. I had drawn deep blood; I was as much in danger now as I had been when I hunted in Cold Run.

I ran, I swerved, I dodged, and at a certain point I found myself in a narrow cleft, with three mountain walls around me. I turned, and found the lieutenant at the entrance to the cleft.

The moon had risen high, and though the shadows draped darkly upon us, I could see the moon's glitter upon the lieutenant's eyes and his sword. He had paused, but the angle of his sword told me that he was on the point of attacking. The pause was longer than it had been when I faced Fowler, and this time I felt pain well up inside me, and the feel of the trap's jaws close upon me. I must kill him, or be killed. I had no choice, no choice at all.

I had only a moment to think. Then I flung the dagger from my hand, and with a sob escaping from my throat, I turned and tried to climb the mountain wall.

I was no more than an arm's length up the wall when I felt my collar seized, and I was flung onto the ground, back-first. My head hit the rock, and for a moment I lay stunned. Only one whistle-code echoed through the air now, one that sounded familiar. With my head still sick with dizziness, I tried to rise, but something sharp against my chest held me back. I opened my eyes and saw the lieutenant, calmly pressing his sword against my heart.

The hunt was ended; the hunted was captured alive.