The twenty-seventh day of November in the 941st year a.g.l.
Carle and I have been in Blackpass for the past three weeks, in a certain inn I won't name, in case these entries are confiscated from me at a later date. In any case, the inn-keeper knows only the names we gave him when we asked for a room: Calder and his blood brother Adrian.
We've spent the past week trying to fulfill our assignment, which is to determine what the Jackal is doing and whether he poses any threat to Emor. To fulfill the first part of the assignment, all that we've had to do is sit in the hall of the inn and listen to the rumors whistle endlessly through the room like mountain wind. We haven't even needed to check the rumors, for they all agree: the Jackal is playing tricks.
"This is absurd!" stormed Carle when we were alone in our room tonight. "Listen to this report: The man who calls himself the Jackal appeared in the hall of the Baron of Blackpass. All of the reports agree on this; there were multiple witnesses. The baron ordered him arrested immediately, without listening to what the masked invader had to say. The Jackal somehow managed to elude arrest – just how, the reports can't agree upon. But then the next night, the Jackal sneaked into the baron's bedroom while he was sleeping and put mud in his boots." Carle looked up at me from the report that he had written for Captain Wystan. "Put mud in his boots? He could have slit the baron's throat! What kind of childish prankster are we dealing with here?"
I bit my lip; it was not the moment for laughter, but I was still remembering the account by Blackwood's free-servant of how the baron had awoken the next morning and sleepily slipped his feet into his boots, then howled with such outrage that his entire household had awoken. "The trickster god," I murmured.
"What?" Carle looked at me blankly.
I glanced through the cracks in our shuttered window, which looked out upon the courtyard of the inn, empty except for the horses stabled there, under an overhang. Behind us, there was no sound. Carle had carefully chosen an inn which backed straight up against a rocky boulder – one of the boulders flung by the Jackal at his enemies, the old tales said. The inn corridor ends at the room next to ours, which we have also hired, under the excuse that Carle, being a nobleman, requires a separate room from his blood brother. In actual fact, Carle and I have been using that room as a buffer between us and any eavesdroppers; all of our sleep and conversations take place in my room.
Even so, our conversations have been in Daxion, which Carle has been spending the last few weeks teaching me, since that language is less likely to raise suspicion than if we conversed in Emorian – there are many Daxion bankers living in this town – and is less likely to be understood by the King's spies than if we conversed in Border Koretian or Common Koretian.
"If my accent is a bit off," Carle had said when we first arrived, "you can blame Fenton. He might have saved me the trouble by tutoring you in Daxion as well."
Now, three weeks later, I switched over to Border Koretian. "The Jackal is the trickster god. That's what the old tales call him. He played tricks on his enemies."
"What sort of tricks?" Carle had just come in from a day eavesdropping upon gossip in the marketplace; he laid his sword aside, frowning.
I thought a moment, then switched back to the Daxion tongue. "The first King of Koretia wanted to take power away from the Jackal, who was High Priest in those days. The King wanted to listen to the confessions of all his subjects, so that he, rather than the priests, could know what secret crimes his subjects had committed. The Jackal did not even bother to argue the matter with the King. Instead, he began appearing in many different guises before the King. On one occasion, he was a boy who had come to confess that he had skinned his little sister's knee. On another occasion, he was a housewife who had burnt her husband's meal. On yet another occasion, he was a soldier who had forgotten to whet his blade. . . . Soon the King had no time left in which to do anything except take confessions on such trivial matters. At last he realized that all these subjects must be the Jackal in disguise, and he understood the message that the Jackal was giving him. And so the King gave back to the Jackal the power to hear confessions and make judgments, so that the King could devote his time to defending his subjects in other ways." I looked over at Carle, who was still frowning, and I smiled. "Yes, I know. It wasn't the best decision the Jackal ever made; if the King had become High Judge, as the Chara is, perhaps Koretia would have developed a true law system rather than the gods' law."
Carle waved his hand, as though swatting at one of the blood-flies that was darting around the room. "It doesn't matter. It's only a tale. But this Jackal-man – you're saying he's imitating the Jackal of the old tales in order to try to prove that he's a god?"
"Or to send a message," I suggested. "'Mud-booted soldier' – that's a Koretian phrase for a soldier who acts without thinking; he puts on his boots without checking whether any of his fellow soldiers have smeared mud in them, as a prank. There's an old tale about the Jackal—"
"All right, I understand. So he's made himself into a trickster. Where does that bring us in understanding his goals? The Jackal in the tales tricked the King; will this new Jackal try to trick the Chara?"
I flicked away a blood-fly that had been trying to drink my blood. "The old tales never tell of the Jackal bothering the Emorians. The tales never speak of the Emorians at all."
Carle sighed as he wiped sweat from his forehead. To me, it was a cool autumn day, but Carle still suffers from the heat. "You put a lot of faith in these old tales. What if the new Jackal decides that, being a god, he can do whatever he wants?"
"But what does he want?" I took up again the pen I had been using to write my own report. "Carle, there must be some pattern to what the Jackal is doing. He wouldn't just be acting at random. Why didn't he attack the priests when he had the chance? And why did he try to speak to the baron, the most powerful of the old nobles? Why didn't he kill Blackwood when the baron was asleep? It's as though the Jackal is trying to draw allies to some great battle – but who is the battle against?"
"You know," said Carle, cocking his head at me, "you've forgotten the most likely theory of all."
"The Jackal could be a madman." Carle's voice was flat. He frowned down at his report, adding, "We're getting nowhere here. It's time I went looking to the source of all this."
"You mean 'we,'" I suggested.
"No, 'I.' You're staying here." His voice was flat again – the voice of a lieutenant issuing orders to his sublieutenant.
"Yes, sir," I said meekly, and Carle laughed.
"I'm taking a visit to Borderknoll," he explained.
"Ah!" Enlightened, I smiled at him in relief. "Thank you. I'd rather not come that close to Mountside."
And so Carle will set off tomorrow to spy in the village where the Jackal first made his appearance. I'm a bit doubtful, myself, that he will learn anything; villagers tend to be close-mouthed around strangers. But if anyone could pull secrets out of them, it is Carle.
The twenty-ninth day of November in the 941st year a.g.l.
I've had a message from Carle, sent by way of Hylas, who knew from my reports to Wystan where Carle was, and went to Borderknoll out of his own curiosity to learn how Carle was doing.
Alas, Carle has learned no more than we learned many months ago from Malise, so he has sent word that he will be returning to the inn tomorrow. Hylas, disappointed that he would not be one of the first to learn of the Jackal's secrets, has continued south, promising to deliver our reports when he returns north, as well as any additional reports we may have prepared in the meantime. After this first time, he will no longer make contact with us in person; we will leave our reports in a pre-arranged spot that he will check each time he passes through this town.
And so Carle and I are now truly alone, for we dare not contact the other spies that the Chara has working in this land. Until Hylas returns from the south in a month's time, no one will know of our fate on this mission.
In the pre-dawn hour when Carle prepared to leave the inn, I sat in front of the fire in our hearth, which Carle had prepared for my sake, since the evening felt cool to me. He glanced at me as he was packing his bag. "What are you thinking?" he asked.
"About whether the Jackal knows that you're going alone to Borderknoll," I replied.
Carle raised his eyebrows. "You think his thieves are that good?" "Thieves" is the word that people are now using for the Jackal's followers, since the Jackal is the thief god, and since some of the tricks played by the Jackal and his followers have involved thefts.
I hesitated, but Carle was still watching me, his eyes dark in the dark room. Finally I said, "Fenton had certain talents . . . I'm not saying he was a god. But he knew sometimes what was going to happen to him, before it happened. I've been thinking about that letter he wrote to my cousin Emlyn – it was like a farewell letter, as though he expected to meet Emlyn in the Land Beyond. He couldn't have possibly guessed that the hunter would kill him, a priest, yet somehow Fenton sensed that some great change would take place in his life." I looked at Carle again, hoping I would not have to explain further.
"Mm." Carle carefully checked his thigh-dagger before strapping the thigh-pocket back on. "So you think that the Jackal might have . . . special powers? And that this is why he thinks he's a god?" Though he strove to hide it, I could hear the skepticism in Carle's voice.
"A god-man," I corrected quickly. "All of the reports agree about that: he calls himself a god-man. That's a way of admitting his powers are limited, isn't it? If he were claiming limitless powers, he'd simply call himself a god."
Carle leaned against the wall, gazing upwards, as though staring up at the Chara's throne. "Adrian, you may have something there. If this man has some sort of special talent – a sort of extra-sharp intuition – then he may have convinced himself that he's the embodiment of a god." Carle broke his gaze from the ceiling and shook his head as he turned to close his bag. "That would make him all the more dangerous, to my mind. A deceiver is easier to deal with than a religious fanatic."
I thought back to the Jackal creeping into the baron's bedchamber, quiet, undetected. "Oh, he's dangerous," I said. "There's no doubt of that."
Carle saw me shiver; out of kindness, he disguised the cause. "For love of the Chara, Adrian, put your cloak on if you're cold. We managed to keep you alive through a mountain snowstorm; I don't want you dying of chill-fever in the Koretian heat." He slung his sling over his back. "I'll be back at week's end. Try not to get yourself killed before then." His voice was light.
"And you." I raised my head. "It's not just the King and Blackwood we have to worry about now, you know. The Jackal may be our enemy as well."
"If he is," said Carle, with his quirk of a smile, "he'll soon regret ever having tangled with the Chara's spies."
For a long time after Carle left, I stared into the fire, watching it eat the black logs. Finally I whispered to the fire, "Jackal, if you have come to this world in order to play your tricks on my people, be warned: I won't let you past the border. I won't let you destroy my new homeland, the way you and the other gods have destroyed my native land."
With the words spoken, I felt better. I went back to bed then and slept until mid-morning, in a sleep untroubled by dreams of my murderous kin.
The thirtieth day of November in the 941st year a.g.l.
I am leaving this note for you so that you will know, in case I do not come back. Carle has been placed under arrest. I have gone to try to secure his release.
I have time in which to relate what happened, though I am beginning to shake now from the thought of what I did.
After a day spent following rumors in the square next to the prison, I arrived back at the Blackpass inn while the guests there were still talking of the arrest of a red-haired man who had engaged in suspicious behavior, so that the innkeeper had hailed down some passing soldiers. The soldiers had questioned the man, had not been satisfied with his answers, and had taken him to the army headquarters for further questioning.
I lingered only long enough to ascertain that the man arrested was indeed Carle. Then I wrote a note to Hylas, placed it in our message spot, and hurried to find the army headquarters.
Of course I wondered whether I was doing the right thing. But it was not only my bond to Carle that caused me to run down the street; it was the thought of what Wystan had said about the dangers if we were captured. Carle knew far too much information about the members of the Division of Disclosure. If he broke under questioning, the lives of every spy in Koretia would be at risk.
I found the army headquarters easily, by questioning a passing soldier. It was located in a part of town I vaguely remembered from early childhood visits, and it consisted of a cluster of buildings. Some soldiers were milling around in the courtyard when I arrived, but the guards at the main gate let me through without trouble, once I had stated my business.
Once I had entered the courtyard, however, I had a great deal of difficulty gaining access to the captain in charge of the Blackpass divisions. I could not remember his name, and my entry to him was blocked by a very loyal orderly who seemed to feel that his captain's time was far too precious to spend with a man petitioning for the release of his blood brother. Finally, grudgingly, the orderly entered a chamber nearby and returned with the news that his captain would see me. He ushered me into the chamber.
My first thought was that the room I was entering looked, not like a chamber devoted to army business, but like my family's home. It was a raftered hall, with a dais at the end of the chamber, similar to the dais where the baron and anyone he chose might stand to speak when issuing commands. This being Koretia, the dais was quite small in comparison to the remainder of the hall, where the lesser free-man would stand and discuss amongst themselves whether the baron's commands had any merit to them.
Against the wooden wall behind the dais hung the ancient banner of the old kings of Koretia, showing the masks of the seven gods and goddesses surrounding a gold scepter. Underneath this was a banner woven with the family seal of the Baron of Blackpass, which was not much different from the ancient royal seal. I looked around the hall for some sign that this place was used for army purposes, but could find nothing beyond some swords on the wall that looked as though they dated back to the early centuries of Koretia. A few table-tops and their trestles lay against the wall, as well as a wine-table that the orderly now stood beside. At the end of the hall nearest me, under a high window from which light streamed, sat the captain, wearing the black-and-forest-green uniform of the Blackpass army, and carefully scribing a letter upon a writing table.
The whole scene looked familiar, much too familiar. I was still trying to figure out where I had seen this hall before when the captain looked up at me, and I felt my heart plummet.
The captain was Blackwood, Baron of Blackpass.
In the silence that followed, I had time to curse myself for forgetting the customs of my native land. Of course Blackwood was captain of Blackpass's army, just as the King was Commander of his own army. Quentin had spoken a few weeks before of "the Koretian army," but no such entity existed, except during periods of truce, when the new nobility and the old nobility condescended to ally with one another. At times of feuding, there were two armies, and only a portion of their duty lay in preventing innocents from falling victim to crimes and preventing invasions from foreigners. Their main duty was to serve as murderers in blood feuds between Blackwood and the King. As Knox had said, these soldiers had been busy since the present feud began, and no doubt Blackwood had bloodied his own sword on a number of occasions against the King's noble kin.
I was the King's noble kin, and I had just walked into the hall of a baron who had taken a blood vow to kill me and my relatives.
I knew now why the hall looked familiar. I had been here before, at age seven, during one of the periods of truce between King Rawdon and Blackwood. During such truce times, my father owed loyalty, not only to the King, but also to Blackwood, the highest-ranked noble in the borderland. It was in this hall that Blackwood had announced certain changes that the King had commanded to the gods' law, while taking the opportunity to present his fierce opposition to the King's policy. It was here also that King Rawdon's grandfather had killed the last king of the old royal line and claimed the throne of Koretia. I did not need a genealogical tree in front of me to know that the only man alive whose blood permitted him to challenge Rawdon's claim to the throne was Blackwood himself.
Little wonder that the old nobility had turned this blood feud into a civil war. They must be hoping that Blackwood would claim the throne that had belonged to his great-grandfather. All that stood between Blackwood and such victory was the King and his noble kin. If he killed them all . . .
Still sitting in his chair, Blackwood said, "You wished to speak to me about your blood brother. You say your name is Adrian. Of what lineage?"
I took a deep breath. Evidently Blackwood did not recognize me; that wasn't surprising, on reflection. I had been young when we last met, and I wasn't my father's heir at that time. "Sir, I have no bloodline," I said truthfully. "My father has disowned me, and I do not take part in the present feud." It seemed important to emphasize this fact. "However, I am related, through his mother, to Emlyn son of Maddock, blood brother of Griffith, Baron of Cold Run."
Since this was perfectly true, it seemed the safest story to tell. Emlyn had lived in the south for so long now that it was unlikely that Blackwood had ever met him or that Griffith would have mentioned him to Blackwood. But my appearance would convince Blackwood that I was telling the truth. As I had informed Fowler, I had my mother's looks, and this meant that I looked much more like Emlyn and members of his bloodline than I did like my father. No doubt Blackwood had met some of my distant kin and would have noticed the resemblance in any case.
Any reply that Blackwood might have made was interrupted at that moment by a rap on the door behind me. I moved out of the way as the orderly went to answer the door. Presently he opened it wide to admit a subcaptain.
I had a small, jagged moment of fear that the newcomer would prove to be the subcaptain in charge of the Koretian border guards, but this was a man I had never met before. Without a word to me, Blackwood beckoned the subcaptain and orderly over to his desk while I backed away to give them privacy. The baron murmured something to the orderly. The orderly nodded, and then came over to stand by me. He did not draw his blade – no man draws his blade during a feud unless he intends to use it – but he watched my blade-hand in so pointed a manner that I felt my heart sink. For whatever reason, the baron had not accepted my story; I was still under suspicion.
I turned my attention back to Blackwood. He was talking softly with the subcaptain, so softly that I should not have been able to hear what he was saying – but I had been in the border mountain patrol, and Carle and I had communicated during our patrols in whispers that were softer than this. Between that and the training I had received as a spy in reading men's lips, I could follow the conversation as clearly as though it had been shouted.
Blackwood spent a moment scanning a piece of paper that the subcaptain had handed him, and then pointed to something written on it. "Him."
The subcaptain leaned over to look. He raised his eyebrows. "He's noted for his bladesmanship."
"That's for me to worry about. Your concern is to ensure that none of the men in his village with whom he has blood ties are left alive to avenge his death." Blackwood scribbled on the paper for a moment, and then handed the page to the subcaptain. "See that men are assigned to each of them."
The subcaptain glanced at the page before pointing at the list himself and saying, "This one is blood brother to a member of the next village. If we kill him, the feud will spread to that village."
Blackwood sighed heavily as he leaned back in his chair. "And what are my alternatives? Every village in the land of Koretia has men with blood ties to other villages. How do you think it is that the feud has spread this far?"
"It never used to be that way in the old days. Feuds were confined to the two villages involved, unless higher-ranked nobles chose to involve themselves."
"These aren't the old days." Blackwood waved a hand, dismissing him. "Bring me the soldiers tonight, and I'll exchange blood oaths with them."
I expected the subcaptain to salute and leave. I forgot that this was Koretia. He stood in his place, unmoved, until Blackwood said, "You have a better notion?"
The subcaptain shrugged. "Well, sir, we just don't seem to be progressing anywhere in this feud. The King wipes out a bloodline; you wipe one out in return. At the rate we're going, soon no Koretians will be left alive, other than the women and children and others who take no part in the feud."
Blackwood raised his eyebrows. "You know I've indicated to the King my willingness to exchange a peace oath with him. You know he has refused. What is your point?"
"Just that this may be the time to change tactics. Have you thought of the possibility of hostages?"
Blackwood was silent for a long moment as I felt coldness enter my belly. Then he smiled. "Thank you," he said, so softly that I knew the words only from the movement of his lips. "Yes, hostages may indeed be the way to victory. Not this one, though." He gestured dismissively toward the paper. "The King wouldn't exert himself to save that baron. We need someone who is closer to his heart."
"Perhaps that young noble who has caused all this trouble," suggested the subcaptain.
Blackwood gave a short laugh. "That would be an unconventional hostage. It can hardly be said that his family values his life."
"They value his death, though. If you told them that you held him in your custody . . ."
The snowbound cave had felt warmer than this. I crossed my arms across my chest in an attempt to keep from shivering. The orderly watched me with narrowed eyes, suspicious of what this apparent show of defiance meant.
Blackwood leaned back in his chair, appearing to consider this suggestion. "Mountside's heir . . ." he said. "I'd gladly burn him myself for the trouble he has caused to this land. Unfortunately, he's nowhere to be found. Perhaps this man who claims to be the Jackal is hiding him." The twist of his mouth told, more eloquently than words, what he thought of the claims of that man. "No, I think it's time we took this feud south."
The subcaptain shook his head. "Sir, the King has anticipated that possibility. The capital is well-guarded by his army."
"I know that. I had in mind Valouse."
The subcaptain shook his head again. "With the King's brother dead, the Baron of Valouse is now heir apparent, sir. The King will no doubt be keeping guard over the baron as well. He won't want to risk having you murder another of his heirs."
"The Baron of Valouse is well guarded," Blackwood said. "His heir is not."
The silence that followed lasted so long that the orderly flicked a glance over at Blackwood, before returning his attention to me. The subcaptain seemed incapable of speech. Finally he said, "He's only eleven."
"All the more reason that the baron will not think to guard his son."
"Sir, Tristan is a child," the subcaptain said, as though he thought Blackwood hadn't heard his words before. "The gods' law forbids the murder of children."
"Yes, I recall the King reminding us of this when he spoke in the name of the absent High Priest at the beginning of this year." Blackwood continued to lean back in the chair, his hands relaxed on the arms. "How many weeks was that, do you recall, before he killed Cole?"
The orderly, hearing the name, looked again at the baron. This time his look lingered, as though he thought his services might be needed. The subcaptain made no reply. Blackwood leaned forward in his chair. In a voice gone taut, like a bard's harp-string that has suddenly been tightened, he said, "My son was not much older than Tristan when he was abducted this spring. You know what the King's soldiers did to him before they killed him. Can you give me any reason why I should follow a law put forth by a man who orders such things? Or why I should show more mercy to the son of the King's heir than the King showed to my heir?"
The subcaptain let out his breath slowly. "No, sir. But I will have to discuss this with my men. I can't say whether they'll follow your order."
To this quintessentially Koretian statement – which would have resulted in a mass trial in the subcommander's court if such words had been spoken in the Emorian army – the Baron of Blackpass simply nodded. "Let me know what they decide. And tell them I have no intention of harming young Tristan if the King agrees to my proposed truce for peace negotiations. If he does not . . ." Blackwood shrugged. "The King, not I, will answer to the gods for my shedding of the boy's blood." He waved his hand, and this time the subcaptain took the hint, saluting Blackwood with his sword before leaving the chamber.
Blackwood was still a while, his eyes travelling over the banners showing his noble lineage. Then he seemed to recollect I was there; he beckoned to me. I went forward, while the orderly busied himself with some papers near the entrance.
"Now," said Blackwood, "tell me about your blood brother."
I went as quickly as I could through the tale of Carle's arrest. I was eager to be gone from this place before Blackwood looked too closely at my face and noticed my resemblance to certain feud enemies of his. When I was finished, the baron said, "Your blood brother Calder was arrested for suspicious behavior. He refused to give way to another man when they were both passing through the same doorway, even though the other man was burdened with heavy objects. The only excuse that your blood brother offered was that he was of higher rank than the other man."
I could have groaned then. Of course Carle would refuse to give way to a man who was of lower rank than Carle was supposed to be. To have given way in Emor would have been a suspicious act in itself, alerting everyone to the fact that Carle was not actually a noble.
Blackwood continued, "Some soldiers who were passing tried to reason with him. When he answered them gruffly, they took hold of him to try to pull him out of the way, since he was still blocking the doorway. At that point, he began to lecture them on the importance of showing respect toward their betters."
Blackwood raised his eyebrows, and I struggled with the odd impulse to laugh. I could envision the scene: Carle delivering his finest lecture on Emorian notions of rank, and the soldiers exchanging looks, wondering what in the names of all the gods this had to do with the civility of giving way to a burdened man.
"It all seemed very strange to the soldiers, so they brought him back here for questioning," Blackwood concluded. "Since his arrival, your blood brother has refused to answer any questions put to him, which of course has raised our curiosity as to the reason for his resistance."
The implication was delicately phrased. I took a deep breath. Thanks to his ignorance of Koretian life, Carle had steered us into a marsh as deep as any in southwest Daxis, but I had always known that something like this might happen, and I had a story prepared. "Sir, my blood brother is . . . Well, he had a hard childhood, sir, and so he sometimes acts a bit strangely."
I told the story then of Carle's imaginary background, which was the background of the real noble-boy I had once known. I finished by saying, "So you see, sir, though Calder is still a noble, he has lost the barony he might have held, and because of this, he is somewhat sensitive on matters of rank. And being arrested and imprisoned . . . well, that would merely make him too frightened to respond to questions. He's a bit simple, you see." I breathed up a silent apology for the slander I was placing upon my wine-friend's keen intelligence.
"Mm." Blackwood's eye was on the banners once more. "I seem to remember the story you tell. Borderhollow, was it?"
"No, sir, the village he came from was Borderknoll. Just a few miles east of Cold Run."
"Ah, yes. Hard to forget, that village. Well, your story is a plausible one. Are you prepared to swear an oath to its truthfulness?"
I hesitated. I knew what form a truth-swearing before a baron took, and that was not the sort of oath I wanted to take.
"Come, come," said Blackwood impatiently. "Either you are telling the truth, or you are lying. If you are lying—"
"I'm telling the truth, sir." Quickly I pulled my belt-dagger from its sheath, holding my left palm up in the peace position to show that I meant Blackwood no harm. He made no move to stop me, and so I carefully drew a line of blood across my left palm as I said, "I, Adrian, do swear unto my god and the god of the Baron of Blackpass that I will answer truthfully any questions the baron shall ask me concerning the matter I have brought before him. I bind myself with this vow until the questioning shall be completed today."
The traditional oath of truth-telling to a noble is carefully worded to prevent nobles from misusing their powers to ferret out secrets they have no right to, but even so, a clever baron could use the vow to learn about matters unrelated to the petition being presented.
I had no doubt that this was a clever baron.
Blackwood put out his hand, and I gave him the dagger so that he could inspect it and my palm. Some forswearers are clever enough that they never actually cut their palms. As he checked that the blood on my palm matched the blood on the blade, he asked, "Is your blood brother a spy?"
"Sir?" I tried to sound startled. It was the worst question imaginable, the one I had feared most.
"Is your blood brother a spy for the King or his kin?" Blackwood persisted.
I nearly exploded with a sigh of relief. "No, sir."
"Is he involved in the present feud?"
"Is he in any way my enemy?"
"No, sir." The answer was true enough. The Chara was not at war with Koretia; he merely was seeking information in the traditional manner by which rulers sought information in foreign lands, namely through their spies.
Blackwood nodded, and for a moment I thought he would give back my dagger. Then he asked, "And who are you?"
My breath stopped at the back of my throat. Blackwood's gaze rose from the palm to meet mine, straight and dark. "You are clever," he said, "but you have the misfortune to have woven your tale around the wrong lineage. Griffith, Baron of Cold Run, is my second cousin once removed, so I know that his blood brother's lineage was wiped out during a feud between Cold Run and the neighboring village. Emlyn son of Maddock has no remaining kin . . . except those who are kin to my enemy. Now tell me the name of your father."
I hesitated. I was not thinking of the gods; I would gladly be forsworn to the gods. And Wystan had made clear his orders in this matter. But I had vowed my blood, and Carle had considered the mixing of our blood to be as high a matter as our wine-friendship. What would he think if he knew I had forsworn yet another blood vow?
"Be careful," warned Blackwood. "If you lie – and I think I shall know if you lie – then I will know that the rest of what you said to me was a lie as well. Your blood brother's life hangs in balance."
And that, of course, decided the matter. I stared over the baron's shoulder at the banners: generation after generation of men who had fought and killed my kin. I closed my eyes and then opened them again and looked squarely at Blackwood. "I am Adrian son of Berenger," I said, "and I am – I was – heir of Mountside."
A long pause followed. The orderly, who had been trying all this while to pretend that his only interest lay in the papers he was sorting, was now staring open-mouthed at me. The baron stood very still; my blood glistened on the blade he held.
"Tabb," he said, without moving his eyes from me.
"Yes, sir?" The orderly stiffened.
"See to his blood brother's release. And Tabb . . . not a word of what you've heard to anyone."
"Certainly not, sir." The orderly sounded aggrieved that the baron should even consider that possibility.
Blackwood waited until he was gone before saying, "I know you, of course. You're the reason for this cursed feud."
"Yes, sir." I kept my voice quiet. I was wondering whether he planned to kill me himself, or whether I would be of more use to him as a hostage, to be returned to my father. Either way, my hands were bound. Until Carle was released, I could do nothing that might threaten Carle's freedom, and by the time I was sure of Carle's release, no doubt the baron would have me securely bound or dead. I only wondered that he had sent off the orderly.
Unexpectedly, the baron turned away, as though I was no threat to him. "Well," he said, "I suppose that, by this point in the feud, some of us understand a little of why you acted as you did. Your blood brother knows that you broke your blood vow?"
I hesitated, but the baron did not turn back toward me, and it was unclear which answer would be safest. So I told the truth. "Yes, sir. He hates blood feuds, so he has been protecting me from harm."
The baron nodded as he turned back. "And that explains why he refused to speak to my soldiers. He feared that he might give away information that would endanger you."
Since this must certainly be part of the truth, I nodded. My eye was still on the blade in Blackwood's hand, its tip slick with blood.
He followed my gaze. "You overheard the plans I made earlier for you?"
I swallowed. "Yes, sir."
His eyes rose slowly. "No doubt you have a poor opinion of me now."
After a minute in which I struggled for an appropriate response, I finally settled for a conventional reply: "It is not for me to judge, sir. Your god will judge your actions."
He nodded and contemplated the blade. "I think," he said quietly, "that such a thought has not been enough in my mind of late." With one swift motion, he thrust forward the dagger.
I took the proffered dagger from him slowly, wiped the blood off, and sheathed my blade. My heart was drumming in a way that it had not done when I had thought I was about to die. The baron, turning away again, went over to his table. Bending over, he began to scribble on a piece of paper.
The door opened; the orderly stood there. "Sir, did you want the prisoner brought up here?"
"Yes, of course. Why have you not done so?" The baron, turning to a second piece of paper, remained absorbed in his writing.
The orderly glanced at me uneasily, then back at the baron. "Well, sir, he can't walk."
I was not even aware that my vision had begun to swim until I felt the baron's hand hard on my arm, cutting through the sickness with its sharpness. "Steady," he said. "Stay here."
I did as he ordered, watching numbly as he walked over to the orderly and exchanged low words with him. At the end of the conversation, Blackwood returned to my side.
"It's not as bad as it sounds," he said. "I'll have a priest tend to him. Where are you staying?"
I told him in an automatic manner, and he nodded. "I'll see that he's escorted to your inn in . . . an hour?" He looked at the orderly, who shook his head. "Three hours," the baron amended. "Don't worry; nothing was done to him that won't mend in time. I will give him my apologies. To you—" He handed me the papers he had been writing. "I give these. A poor gift in compensation for the injury I have done your blood brother, but these will allow both of you free passage in my town. Should you encounter any future trouble with my soldiers, you need only show them my letters of passage."
I managed to mumble some sort of thanks, and Blackwood gestured to his orderly, who opened the door wide for me. The baron himself escorted me to the door. "As for what happened in your village's feud," he said, "the gods will judge you as well. No doubt they have keener insight into the rights and wrongs of all this than I do. I do my best, and I'm always glad to meet a man who shows me when I have been about to take the wrong path. May the gods go with you."
He gave me the free-man's greeting, and I returned it, which saved me from having to make any spoken reply. Released from his care, I hurried across the courtyard to the gate leading out to the town.
Then something made me pause. I looked back at the doorway, where the Baron of Blackpass was still in conversation with his orderly.
". . . passed the word on to his men yet?" Blackwood asked, his lips as clear to my understanding as before.
"I don't believe so, sir. He said something about discussing the matter with them after supper."
"Good. Tell the subcaptain that I am rescinding my order concerning Valouse's heir. Just because the King and most of his kin have turned their faces from the gods does not mean that we need follow their example. We'll fight a clean feud, and set an example for our heirs . . . or whatever heirs are left by the time this is all over."
At that moment, the soldiers behind the gate took notice of me and opened the entrance. I turned away from Blackwood. That was the last I saw of my kinsmen's greatest enemy.
So now I wait, and I would pray if I had any gods to pray to. Four hours have passed, and Carle is still not returned.
Carle arrived a short time ago; he walked into the room on his own two feet.
"It made me feel more kindly toward my father, I can tell you that," he said in answer to my question about what they had done to him. "I decided that his beatings weren't as bad as I'd always thought."
"God of Mercy, Carle . . ." We were being careful to speak Border Koretian, in keeping with what I had told Blackwood, though I had checked to be sure that Carle hadn't been followed. Carle had refused to let me examine his wounds, saying that the army priest had done as much for them as needed to be done, but he had collapsed almost immediately onto his bed, stomach-down.
Now he waved away the rest of my remark. "Actually, the fear was the worst part of it, the fear of what would happen next – especially as they were so courteous as to describe what they would do to me if I didn't talk."
"But you didn't," I said flatly.
"No, I recited to myself the Law of Vengeance, just as I'd planned – though I was beginning to wish that I'd memorized the whole thirty pages of the Justification."
I was sitting next to him on the bed, and I moved slightly to take a closer look at the back of his tunic. Despite the fact that his back had been bandaged by the priest, the tunic was soaked with blood. As I moved, he let out a gasp, then bit his lip shut.
"How many lashes did they give you?" I asked miserably.
"Enough," he replied. "I was glad that you rescued me."
That was all he would tell me about what happened, so I gave him drugged wine, and now he's sleeping, though he keeps moaning every few minutes. My mind is divided now between thoughts of Carle and thoughts of what Wystan will say when I tell him that I disobeyed his command.
The fifteenth day of December in the 941st year a.g.l.
We arrived back at the headquarters today, having stayed in Blackpass for two weeks, both to dull the interest of any spies that Blackwood might conceivably have set on us and to give Carle a chance to heal before the long walk back. Fortunately, the mountain pass is not yet snowbound.
I told Carle that I thought we ought to make our reports separately, and he made no protest at this. At first I thought he had guessed how it was that I was able to obtain his release – I had given him only a vague explanation – but then I realized that he must be feeling just as guilty over having been captured as I was at having disobeyed orders. So the first thing I told Wystan after I entered his tent was that I thought Carle should receive a silver honor brooch for refusing to speak under torture.
Wystan said that tortured soldiers are generally honored in some manner and that he planned to speak to the subcommander about Carle's action; then he listened as I told him what I had done. When I was through, he said, reassuringly, "A vow is a serious matter, whether taken on a blade or in blood. From what you say, you did not place Emor in any danger by revealing your identity under oath; in fact, I will feel even more secure about sending you and Carle back to Blackpass, since you have evidently won Blackwood's confidence."
I said uncertainly, "But I shouldn't have disobeyed your order."
Wystan leaned against the tent pole. As usual, he was standing in my presence. "It is a difficult choice to balance, as I remember from my days as a low-ranked soldier. My belief is that the only way to decide such matters is to determine what would be of the greatest benefit to Emor. You made the decision that the danger of having Carle break under torture was of greater importance than your own life, and I think you made the right choice. If I had been there in Koretia with you, I would certainly have advised you to come to me and ask me what to do, but the Chara's spies sometimes have to make important decisions on the spot, and on rare occasions that may require them to disobey orders." He smiled and added, "The important thing, you know, is to serve the Chara, not me, and you and Carle certainly served the Chara by what you did."
He then asked me to give Carle a more thorough explanation of the behavior appropriate to a Koretian nobleman, after which he sent me back to my tent. And I was left to muse on the complicated subject of obedience.
The twentieth day of December in the 941st year a.g.l.
Carle and I were summoned to Wystan's tent late last night. Wystan pinned Carle's neck-flap closed with a silver honor brooch. Then he did the same to me.
"I told Wystan that you deserved a silver brooch for risking your life for me by revealing your identity," Carle explained afterwards.
"How did you know about that?" I asked.
"Blackwood told me before he released me. He said I ought to know that I have a very brave and loyal blood brother. I told him I knew that already." Grinning, Carle reached over to take my brooch from me so that he could give both brooches to Sewell in the morning.