Actions

Work Header

Chapter Text

CHAPTER THREE

The twenty-third day of November in the 940th year a.g.l.

Carle and I had a short patrol this morning. The cause was a man we sighted riding on horseback through the pass, headed toward Koretia.

Carle saw him first. He caught hold of me and pointed, saying in a low voice, "What do you make of that?"

I looked down the mountain at the man, who was wearing the uniform of an Emorian subcaptain. His face was clear in the morning light: he had pale skin and looked to be about thirty years of age. He was accompanied by a man of about Carle's age who was dressed in the uniform of a bottom-ranked Emorian soldier.

"Well," I said, remembering my lessons, "the fact that they're wearing uniforms doesn't mean anything – they could be spies in disguise. And we have the duty to stop even high army officials unless we've been informed ahead of time of their journey."

I looked over at Carle. He was smiling as he looked down at the two men. "What sort of signal do we give?" he asked.

"If we recognize them as genuine soldiers or if they appear to be such, we give a regular signal of sighting. But if we think that the men may be spies, we give a Probable Danger signal, because spies are presumed to be dangerous. . . . Do you recognize them?"

"The older one," said Carle, "and I would say that he is quite dangerous indeed. In fact, he has his own signal." He communicated the whistle to me in practice fashion.

I felt my heart beat harder in anticipation. Only the most notorious border-breachers are assigned whistle-names; this would be my first encounter with grave danger. I asked, "Are you going to send the signal?"

Carle, still smiling, turned his head my way. "I'll leave it to you. Let's see how well you remember your whistles."

Flattered that he would assign me this task in such an important hunt, I sent out for the first time the pulsing rhythm of the Probable Danger whistle. As I did so, the man dressed as a subcaptain jerked his head up – a confirmation, if any were needed, that this man was not what he appeared to be, for regular army officials are not entrusted with knowledge of the patrol's whistles.

Quentin's response came immediately, faint in the winds around us. Doing my best to send the whistles low and quickly, since we were hunting a spy who might know what we were saying, I sent out the hunted's location and name. For a moment, there was no reply from the lieutenant, and I began to worry that I had whistled too softly. Then confirmation came of the night patrol's response and of Quentin's takeover of the patrol mastership from Carle.

I looked over toward Carle, but he was already running lightly down the side of the mountain, out of sight of the two men below. I paused long enough to check whether I would need to send rocks down to halt the horses, but the spy was apparently clever enough to know better than to flee on horseback. He and his companion were already dismounting, and the younger man was taking hold of the reins as the spy raised his head to scan the mountains with his eyes.

I ducked out of sight the moment before his gaze reached me, then followed the path that Carle had just taken. As I ran down the mountain, all of my thoughts were concentrated on the hope that, if a killing was forced to take place, I would not be the one duty-bound to carry out the death. I know – and the other patrol guards have told me this as well, since the incident occurred while the full patrol was closing the circle – that I had no choice but to kill the border-breacher who tried to murder me last week, but he still haunts my thoughts like a death-shadow. I have accustomed myself to the thought that I might die in service to the Chara; I had forgotten that I might have to kill in his service.

Carle, moving with the speed of a jackal, had already reached his position by the time I arrived at the foot of the mountain, as had the rest of the day patrol, but I caught up in time to join my whistle with those of the night patrol guards who had reached their spots. I was behind the spy and his companion, and so I didn't have to hide, as most of the other patrol guards needed to at this stage in the hunt. I could see the breachers clearly. The spy was apparently reserving his resistance for our arrival, for he hadn't moved; nor had he unsheathed his sword. His companion was stiff with fright and was clutching the horses' reins as though he expected a rescue to come from that quarter.

I heard the lieutenant's low signal; then I ran forward, helping Carle with the dangerous rear attack, the place where the spy was most likely to flee. The spy indeed whirled around to look our way, but after one glimpse of Carle coming forward with his sword raised, he turned back just in time to see Quentin emerge from behind a rock and come forward for the disarming.

Quentin slowed as he reached the circle of men surrounding the two imposters. Carle had hand-signalled me over to one side, so I could see that the spy's gaze was fixed on Quentin; there was a faint smile of challenge on the man's face. Then Quentin darted forward, his sword pointed toward the man's dagger hand at first. When it became clear that the spy was wise enough not to draw his blade, Quentin shifted the aim of his sword so that its point ended up touching the spy's throat. I could see the faint indentation it made on the skin, a pressure that was aimed to discourage the spy from changing his mind about fighting.

Carle had moved forward to prevent the spy from backing up, but he retreated again as Quentin signalled me to take his place. The younger man had already been trapped by Payne and Gamaliel and made no resistance as Gamaliel removed the younger man's sword and took the horse reins from his hands.

The spy, though, apparently merited more careful treatment. "Please do not move, sir, until I say that you may," said Quentin softly, taking a step forward and pressing the point of his sword harder against the spy's throat. "I would hate to have to slice off your arm because I misunderstood your intentions." He waited a moment to allow the spy to absorb this message. I could no longer see the spy's face, but he appeared from the back to be rock-steady despite what Quentin was doing to him. He must be a dangerous man indeed to remain calm in so desperate a circumstance. I could see that Carle, though he should have been helping guard the younger man, was watching the spy carefully, as though he knew that the hunt was not yet over – and indeed, Quentin had not yet sent out that signal.

"When I am finished speaking, you will do the following," said Quentin, his voice growing softer. "You will place your hand halfway down your sword sheath and unhook the sheath before dropping it to the ground. You will not allow your hand to come near the hilt at any time. If I see even a lone finger touch that hilt, I will cut your throat open. Now do as I say."

The spy, without hesitation, followed Quentin's instructions. When he was through, Teague began to come forward to take the sword from the ground, but Quentin whistled him away. Without removing his gaze from the spy's face, Quentin whistled me into position. I dashed forward, pulled the spy's arms behind him, into a painful and immobile position, and pulled him back so that his head was pointed mainly toward the sky.

"Sublieutenant," said Quentin, "your blade, please."

I could feel the man's arms muscle-tight under my trap-grip, ready to move the moment that he had his chance, but he would have no chance now. In the next moment, Carle's sword was pressed edgewise against the spy's throat – extra insurance that this very dangerous man would not try to escape.

"Now," said Quentin, turning his attention to the younger man, "let us see what manner of assistant you have."

Payne, without requiring the signal, pulled the younger man into the same position that the spy was in. The young man gave a yelp of protest, but was silent after that until Gamaliel's hands, searching his body, ran over his crotch. Then he tried to pull away, saying, "This is ridiculous. Don't you realize that the subcaptain is—"

The rest of his words were lost in a grunt as Payne drove his knee into the small of the young man's back. Quentin waited until the young man had his breath back before saying, "Nor will you speak until I give you permission. Mark my words – the next time it will be a blade that reminds you of what I have said."

"He is naked," reported Gamaliel, having finished his search.

"Unlike his master." Quentin turned his attention back to the spy. He paused a moment to take in the scene before him: the man trapped in my grip, with his head pointed upwards and his throat guarded with a blade. Then the lieutenant sheathed his sword, hurried forward, pulled up the spy's tunic, swiftly untied the cords of the thigh-pocket hidden there, and stepped back out of reach before the spy could have a chance to react.

For a moment more, Quentin looked at the spy, me, and Carle; then he whistled softly, and Carle stood back. I remained where I was, holding the spy.

"Adrian," said Quentin, "are you sure that your hold is secure?"

"Yes, sir," I said, puzzled that he would ask me such a question in front of a prisoner.

Quentin's gaze travelled over to the man standing unresisting in my grip. "Sir," he said, "you have shown great restraint until now, and I thank you, but I would appreciate it if you would demonstrate to my junior-most guard the error of his statement."

I had no time in which to ascertain the meaning of Quentin's words. At the next moment, the spy's boot swung back and struck me hard in the shin. For the barest of seconds, my grip slackened on the spy; then I felt myself shoved backwards, and in the darkness of the pain that followed, I was aware only of Quentin's whistle signalling the other guards to stay back.

When my vision cleared again, I found myself standing in the same trap-grip I had been practicing a moment before. The spy was holding my wrists with one hand; the other hand was holding my own sword, which was pressed edgewise against my side. I could see nothing except the sky and mountains above me.

A face appeared above me, smiling. It belonged to Quentin.

"Is that lesson clear, Adrian?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," I managed to gasp. "I should have kept my legs further back."

"Or else tilted my body more," said my captor, and he released me in the same moment, slipping my sword into my hand. Near me, Quentin was whistling the end of the hunt and the release of the remaining prisoner. By the time I straightened my back to its normal position, my captor was already busy strapping his thigh-pocket back on.

"I hope that you were not in a hurry to reach Koretia, sir," said Quentin solicitously.

"Not at all," replied the subcaptain, looking up in order to take his sword back from Devin's hand. "As a matter of fact, I was hoping that you would halt us. I wanted to see how you appeared in action these days. —Rolf, stop looking so sour-faced. If you are fool enough to resist the border mountain patrol, that is the sort of treatment you should expect." He flashed a grin at his orderly, who was rubbing the small of his back and looking at the soldiers around him with an aggrieved expression.

"Carle, you keep your edge nicely honed." The subcaptain reached up to touch his neck, which had a thin line of blood on it. "I had visions of meeting my end in the mountains after all."

"It is the only way to keep hold of a dangerous breacher like you," said Carle with an expression of mock seriousness.

"Iain, Gamaliel, Sewell." The subcaptain nodded his greeting to them. "The rest of your men are new to me, Quentin."

"It has been two years, sir," replied the lieutenant.

"Has that much time passed? That makes it – let me see – nine years in the patrol for you. You're pressing the odds, Quentin. I trust that you will be retiring next year."

"Next year is a long time away," said the lieutenant. "If all of us live until our winter leave, that will be achievement enough. Do you have time to stop and chat?"

"About old times?" The subcaptain's smile deepened. "I'm sure that we can find a more interesting topic than that. Yes, I'd like to spend the morning with you; I'm in no hurry. Carle, congratulations on your elevation. Quentin, here's a motive for you to retire: to allow Carle his chance at the lieutenancy, as I allowed you yours. By the Sword, my back hurts. Are any of your men good at back massages?"

The night patrol headed back to the hut after that, all except Gamaliel and Payne, who volunteered to patrol in place of Carle and me so that Carle could join in the conversation. Quentin introduced those of us who were new; the subcaptain's gaze lingered longer on me than on the others, but he greeted me with civility.

During the first part of the journey to the hut, the subcaptain regaled us all with humorous tales of Quentin's early days in the patrol, but as I began to slip back in the crowd, eager to ask Carle more questions, I found that the subcaptain had fallen back as well and was walking alongside me.

"Malise, Subcaptain," he said by way of introduction. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm well," I lied. "Sir, do you think you could show me how you escaped my trap?"

"Again? Heart of Mercy, you must be a lover of pain. I am growing soft with old age; being trapped once is enough for me. I have no desire to have you and Carle demonstrate your fine techniques on me again – at least, not for the next hour or so." He smiled at us.

"What takes you to Koretia, subcaptain?" asked Carle.

"The Chara wanted someone with a good knowledge of Common Koretian to serve as his ambassador to the King – and he chose me because he wanted someone with something close to a spy's training, who could tell him more about what the Jackal is doing."

Carle and I exchanged mystified looks. Malise added, "You have not heard, then? Well, I suppose it is not common knowledge yet, though there is no secret about it. There is a man travelling around Koretia, stirring up trouble. He claims to be the Jackal."

o—o—o

"This man appeared about six weeks ago," said Malise a few minutes later, as we all sat round the fire. "He walked into the sanctuary of the priests' house near the Koretian capital, while the priests were in the middle of a service – they were performing the Jackal's rite, apparently, and had just invoked the god. He claimed that he was the god taken human form. He was wearing the mask of the Jackal on his face, and he refused to remove it while he spoke."

"How did the priests react to this announcement?" Iain asked with a laugh.

"I suppose they would have thought it ridiculous, except that the priests had some sort of prophecy a few years ago that the Jackal God would come to Koretia soon and take over the High Priesthood. Some of the priests were impressed by the man; they said that he spoke like a god and had the presence of one. The others said that the man was simply an imposter who had heard of the prophecy and was taking advantage of it. They challenged the man to show his powers as a god, and he said that he could not use them in the presence of disbelievers."

"A convenient answer," commented Carle, chewing on a cool twig he had retrieved from the balefire. "I suppose he had an equally convincing explanation as to why he could not take off his mask."

"He claimed that he could not appear naked-faced to any man who refused to serve him, and that even among his servants, few would ever see his human face. Well, that convinced even more of the priests that this was nothing other than a pretender to the godhood. They threatened to place him under the gods' curse unless he abandoned his story."

"But he did not," said Devin, who was sitting with his chin on his knee, listening to the story with a serious expression on his face. I have discovered that the only men in the patrol who don't joke about the gods are the borderlanders. Even Quentin, though very Emorian in every other way, refuses to praise Carle's skeptical remarks about the Koretian religion.

"He abandoned the priests' house instead," Malise replied. "The Chara heard this story not long afterwards from one of the royal messengers who brought him news from the Koretian capital. Then, about three weeks ago, the man claiming to be a god turned up again, this time in the Koretian borderland. He was sighted late one night in the Village of Borderknoll – I am not sure where that is."

"Adrian?" Quentin, who had been standing silently apart from the rest of us, came over to crouch near me.

"It's in the borderland of Koretia, about a day's ride from Blackpass." It was also close to Mountside, but I didn't say this.

Malise, warming his hands over the fire, continued, "After that, he began to be spotted all over the borderland, but only a handful of people claim to have spoken to him. In every case, the Koretians say that this masked man calling himself the Jackal asked them to enter into his service, but the Jackal refused to tell them why until they had pledged their loyalty. I suppose that gods expect blind loyalty from their servants. Naturally, these Koretians were wise enough to refuse, but there is no knowing how many other Koretians have been tricked into serving this man. The Chara received a report on the Jackal's activities two days ago from one of his spies, and he is highly alarmed. There is already some sort of civil unrest occurring in Koretia, and if this Jackal-man adds fire to the situation through lawless activity, it could mean war, and that could affect our border."

Quentin was staring reflectively into the flames; I could see that his eyebrows were drawn low. Sewell, Teague, Devin, Carle, and the orderly were sitting close by Malise and were attentive to him; I was the only one who saw the look of concern on Quentin's face. He raised his eyes finally, saw me watching him, and said, "What can you tell us about this, Adrian?"

"I know about the prophecy," I said. "That happened when Fenton was at the priests' house. The prophecy didn't say anything about the god taking human form, though. It just said that he would come to Koretia and become the land's High Priest, and that he would destroy the Koretians' enemies."

Carle grunted and cast his half-chewed twig back into the fire. "Ominous news for Emor, if we should go to war with Koretia."

"What would it mean if the Jackal became High Priest?" Quentin asked.

"Well, the High Priest makes the final decision over matters such as the gods' law. At the moment, since there's no High Priest, the King has been making those decisions. I suppose you could say that the King has been Koretia's High Priest for the past seven years."

"So this man is a rebel," concluded Malise. "He wants to take the King's power away from him."

"Some of his power, at least," I replied uneasily, and looked over at Quentin. He had his chin on his knuckles and I could guess that, like me, he was worried about more than whether war would come to Koretia.

"You are Koretian."

I pulled myself away from my thoughts to reply to Malise, "Yes, sir. I joined the patrol five weeks ago."

"He is Emorian now, subcaptain," inserted Carle.

Malise gave a rueful smile and stood up to stretch his back. "Time was when I would scarcely talk to any man who had Koretian blood in him. When your lieutenant joined the patrol, my first thought was, 'Here's a brown-skinned dog sullying the fine tradition of the patrol with his slurring speech and superstitious ways.' I was sublieutenant then, and I was determined to drive Quentin out of the patrol by dirty means. I used every trick I could to get him transferred or even killed: I sent him against the worst border-breachers, I gave him orders that would endanger him if he obeyed me . . . He always obeyed me. Then one day – it was shortly after I had risen to the lieutenancy and had chosen a lesser man as my sublieutenant – I looked at Quentin and thought, 'When this man reaches his full power, he'll be a better soldier than I can ever be.' I nearly fell on my sword. Then I came to my senses and set about teaching Quentin to take over my job. I hope with all my spirit, lieutenant, that you never have to undergo such a disheartening experience."

"I think it unlikely that the lieutenant will ever meet anyone who might exceed him in skill," said Carle with a laugh, then turned the conversation to Quentin's acts of bravery.

I was closest to Quentin, so I was the only one who heard him say softly, "Don't be so sure." I looked over at him, and then my breath caught in my throat, for he was looking straight at me.

For a heartbeat, he held my gaze; then he stood up and went over to the other side of the balefire to examine the cut on Malise's throat. I was left alone on my side of the fire, wondering about the meaning of Quentin's look.

I've been wondering ever since then, and the conclusion I've reached is that it doesn't make any difference to my work whether Quentin thinks I'll be a good soldier or not, because I would work just as hard, no matter what level of skill or rank I was likely to achieve. Even so, I would like to believe that Quentin thinks well of me. I don't know why this is so important to me – it should be enough that I do my duty – but I suppose it does matter to me that he like me, since I admire him so much. I suppose it's all foolishness on my part.

I've spent so much time writing this entry that I have no time for further speculations, but of course one other thought remains in my mind as I go to bed: Has the Jackal God really become a man?