Princeling: a petty ruler.
He kept us waiting, of course.
It was a damp, chill-filled night, with frost crackling underfoot. The air was colder than an icicle except where the hissing fire tried to scare away the winter. Selig had placed me next to the fire, both as a way to emphasize my honor – what little honor I had left – and as a way to keep me from dying of a chill. He had made it more than clear during the past three years that he considered me a frail creature, incapable of enduring the hardened life of a soldier. But, then, his opinion was shared by all in the Tascanian Army.
Our own King was late as well, but for a different reason: he stayed until the last moment in the forest south of the truce ground, giving Eimund his instructions. The rest of us, princes and aldermen alike, stamped our numb feet and blew on our hands, huddling in one unranked mass like apprentices seeking each other's warmth on a cold night.
"Cold I can stand," commented Marlin, "and darkness I can tolerate. But a night like this, cold as death and darker than dried blood . . . Why, you can't see so much as a tree outside the firelight."
"I remember a night like this, oh, about forty years ago," said Janarius, a tall, deep-voiced alderman who had reached the age where he was given to reliving battles in his mind. "Cameron had us attack the Fossenvites' winter camp by starlight alone, and we nearly slaughtered their army then. If Cameron had only managed to reach their King . . . Still, we're close to the final victory now. We'll win this year."
"You say that every year." Selig kept his comment under his breath; I suspected I was the only one who heard him, for he and I were standing shoulder to shoulder. His arms vibrated as he rubbed them energetically against the icy breath of the wind.
"No starlight tonight to guide us," said Obert, always determined to get the facts right. "Which is just as well; that means the Fossenvites can't attack either. How much longer do you think they'll keep us waiting?"
"Until their King has amused himself by seeing us turn blue," said Marlin grimly. "He's watching us, you can count on that – and probably listening as well, so be careful of what you say."
"This cursed darkness," complained Obert. "If only we could see them!"
I felt the darkness pressing all around me like cold earth flung into a grave. Almost, I could imagine I was atop Wolf Hill, standing in the night-black stillness, hearing the growls around me. . . . I shivered.
In the next moment, Selig reached over and pulled my cloak tighter closed. I restrained myself from pulling away; instead, I concentrated my thoughts on the sable valley around us. Faintly came the sound of rhythmic pounding. I felt my stomach draw inwards before I realized that the noise was arriving from the wrong direction.
"Our King's here," I said, cutting short an argument between Janarius and Selig as to how many petty villages we Tascanians had to raid before we could claim the coming year's victory.
Cloaks rustled against each other as everyone turned to face the horses galloping toward us. Marlin called out a greeting, and then the horsemen were upon us, their mounts snorting in protest as they were pulled up abruptly. Smoke filled the air from the torches that had lit our King's way. The King gave a laugh as he thudded to the ground beside his horse, making some small jest about it being too warm near the fire. Then he fell silent as, one by one, the princes came forward to give their homage.
I waited until the others were finished; then, ignoring Selig's hand against my back, I came forward and knelt in front of the King, taking up his hand to kiss his ring. By now, I had this performance so well practiced that I could do it in one smooth move.
"Corbin." We had last seen each other only that afternoon, but Varick's voice, as usual, was a mixture of affection and anxiety as he spoke to me. He lifted me to my feet, saying, "Gentlemen, give us leave, if you will."
There was a murmur like the rattle of wind-touched leaves as the others vacated the coveted spot next to the fire. Varick drew me toward the flames. I quickly pulled my cloak against my body, lest the cloth catch on fire.
"Corbin, you can still change your mind," he said in an undertone as he leaned close to me. His voice rasped slightly in the unique manner that marked him off from other men. "You and Selig may go back to the camp if you wish."
Faintly, I heard the mutter of the nobles. The midwinter wind blew to my ears a word or two of what they were saying. Deliberately raising my voice so that the nearby men could hear me, I said, "Sire, I would appreciate it if you would allow me to stay. There remains a small chance that I might have information which would be of service to you at this meeting."
Varick was slow in replying. When he finally spoke, it was in a voice as loud as my own had been and in words carefully chosen. "I have no doubt you will be able to contribute much to this meeting, Corbin. I am grateful you are willing to take part in this talk."
I nodded but said nothing, for my stomach was beginning to churn again. A moment later I heard the sound I had been anticipating: hooves pounding against the hard winter ground as horses raced round the side of Wolf Hill to reach us.
"Torchlight, sire!" called Obert, having sighted them before hearing them. "It's York and his men."
The frost on the ground crackled once more as the nobles around me hastened to reach their positions of appointed honor. Though I had not moved, Varick said to me in a low voice, "Stay where you are." Then he stepped a bare half-pace forward, leaving me close to his side, like a shadow that mirrors its original.
Selig, panting from haste and excitement, appeared at my left side, a mere alderman promoted to a position of higher honor purely for my sake. He reached over to my cloak again, but I had already remembered to sweep it back across my shoulders to show that I was unarmed but for the dagger no fighting man would ever strip himself of.
The horses arrived at the fireside at a war-gallop. A horse emitted one great squeal of protest; then its forefeet fell to the ground with a thump. York's great, bellowing laugh, like the rumble of dangerous thunder, filled the still night. Without thinking, I let my hand creep onto my dagger hilt; then I remembered where I was and quickly let go of the dagger, though I could be sure no one cared whether I was touching a weapon or not. Least of all York.
"You chose a cold night for this meeting, Varick," shouted York across the fire. He was still on his horse; his voice travelled above our heads like a dark cloud. "I can't say that I think much of your men's fire-making skills. Shall we see whether we can combine our efforts to make a better fire by throwing our torches into the flames?"
Below the renewed murmur of our nobles, Varick said, "A trick?"
I opened my mouth to reply, but realized in the next moment that he was not turning to me for advice.
"You may be sure of it." I could just hear Marlin's low voice on the right side of Varick. "But what the trick is, I don't know."
"There's only one way to find out." Varick raised his voice as he said, "If you find this soldiers' fire too tame for your comfort, York, we would certainly not want you and your men to suffer. Locke, Davin – add the torches to the fire."
There was a moment's pause as the torchbearers, who had been standing several paces back from Varick, made their way to the fire, trailing warmth and smoke as they went. York's sharp orders to his own torchbearers were followed by the thud of boots as the Fossenvite soldiers dismounted. Twenty men, York had been told to bring to this truce meeting; I heard Selig count in a whisper, then stop short of twenty, satisfied.
"King and Commander of Tascania," York said with firm formality as he came toward the fire, "I greet you in the name of my people, noble and petty alike, and I swear to you that, as long as we stand within the light of this truce fire, neither I nor my men shall touch our blades. I present unto you, as witnesses to my oath, Granville, Prince and Duke of the Long Fields; Ridley, Prince and Duke of the Grey Mountains; and Houghton, Prince and Duke of the Black Forest—"
"You were told to bring your sons." Varick's voice had just the right edge of coolness to it. He had learned since becoming King that York was only amused if his enemies stormed against his conniving.
"—and my younger son, Firmin, Prince and heir to my heir," York finished smoothly. "Lenwood is unfortunately unable to come tonight, as he is still recovering from an unexpected arm wound he received in last month's battle."
York did not even bother to emphasize the word "unexpected"; the implication was clear. The silence that followed was so deep that I could hear Marlin's quick, heavy breathing.
"As I informed you last month, York, Prince Marlin inflicted that wound by accident." Varick's voice was slow and deliberate. "But even if he had not, your son – either of your sons – deserves far worse than that. A debt remains to be paid."
"Certainly," York replied cheerfully. "We owe a member of the Tascanian royal family one arm wound – I think you will find that we have not inflicted such a wound on you or your brother this year – and you owe me or my sons . . . Well, let us just say that a large debt remains to be paid. That is, if you ever get near enough us to repay it. But you have not yet given me your oath, Varick, and this makes me exceedingly nervous."
He sounded anything but nervous. The wind was blowing from the north again, sending billowing clouds of smoke into my face and running icy fingers down my bare chest. I tried to pretend this was the only reason I was shivering, but I pulled my hands back to where York could not see that they were closed in fists. In the quiet voice he used when he was close to losing his temper, Varick repeated the time-honored words of the truce oath before adding, "I present unto you, as witnesses to my oath, Marlin, Prince and Duke of the Narrow Pass; Obert, Prince and Duke of the Lakelands; and Meaghar, Prince and Duke of the High Reaches. You already know my brother, Prince Corbin."
At his final words, Varick's voice turned colder than the wind. As for York, there was no mistaking the smile in his voice as he said, "Indeed, yes, we are well acquainted. And may I tell the Prince how good it is to see him looking so well these days."
"You may not," Varick said as sharply as a blade. "Kindly refrain from addressing my brother, York. You have said enough to him in the past."
"Certainly, Varick," replied York mildly. "You are the King and Commander of Tascania. I ought not to have addressed one of your subjects at such a meeting."
Beside me, Varick began to shake with anger. Though by this time I was feeling so ill that I was sure I must be green in the face, I quickly and unobtrusively reached out to touch Varick's back. I felt him tense himself into control once more.
He said flatly, "Corbin is not my subject, as you well know, York. That is a topic we will discuss at another time. For now, I wish to learn why you have recently kidnapped men from the Petty Partition. This is one of the first times in eighty years that either Fossenvite soldiers or Tascanian soldiers have abducted petties from that place, and so I desire to know whether you are unilaterally rewriting the Rules of War."
"Discard the Rules my own grandfather wrote?" York's voice remained light. "Those Rules will always be followed while I'm alive. I merely sent a few men in to bring home certain criminals who had fled to the Partition."
"That is the whole point of the Partition." Varick's voice remained neutral, without any of the sarcasm that would have accompanied this statement if it had been spoken by York. "It allows the petty people a place of refuge. No noble may enter the Partition—"
"The men I sent were not nobles."
"—nor may anyone drag a petty out of the Partition in order to hand him over to a noble," Varick concluded steadily. "You know the Rules as well as I do, York, since, as you say, your grandfather composed the Rules my great-grandfather agreed to. I repeat, why have you broken the Nineteenth Rule of War?"
York gave a chuckle, a deep chuckle that was louder than the sound of the flames crackling between the Fossenvites and the Tascanians. I felt the sickness force itself up my throat. To distract myself from thoughts of York, I concentrated my attention on the men around him. Underneath the fire's roar came the crackle of frost as the Fossenvites shifted slowly in their places. They were edging themselves closer to the border line that the truce fire marked; they were now within a few steps of our land.
I did not move my head, which had been turned in York's direction all this time, but my hand moved quickly out. Varick's hands, as I had expected, were crossed behind his back, in the stance that the King adopts when talking formally to other men. I tapped his wrist once, hard, in the signal that Janarius had taught both of us many years before.
Varick caught my hand as it began to slide away; he squeezed it once to show me he had understood my warning. York was saying, in a gentle voice which alone would have alerted me to the danger, "Perhaps I just wanted an excuse for us to get together and chat. It has been three years now since we last talked, has it not? And then, of course, you were not King, and so we were limited in what we could say to each other. Are you enjoying your reign, Varick? I confess that I don't see the same fire in you that existed in the previous King – but of course it is always hard to outperform the dead. I remember your predecessor telling me that his father had foretold he would be the one to end the war by leading the final victory charge—"
"York." Varick's voice could barely be heard above the snapping and popping of burning wood. I knew that he had only delayed this long in interrupting because he had been trying to determine the source of the danger. "Your men are coming too close to the border; I would appreciate it if you would halt their advance. Moreover, I see that you have not pulled back your cloak. Would you kindly do this so that we may be sure you are not sword-armed?"
"Certainly, Varick." York's light reply held so much amusement in it that I felt myself grow stiff with fear. Recalling my wits, I reached out to tap Varick's hand again . . . but in the same moment, Varick stepped forward. My hand met nothing but empty air.
Across the fire, York was saying in the delicate tone he used when making a rehearsed and deadly speech, "I promise you, Varick, I am concealing no forbidden weapons. See, I will take off my cloak altogether to assure you—"
I drew breath to speak, sensing there was little time left in which to attract Varick's attention, but at that moment my cheek was stung by the edge of York's cloak catching my skin. The cloak whooshed through the air as it passed me, and then there was silence, undisturbed even by the crackling of the fire.
Of all the unexpected things which happened that night, the most unexpected was this: I was the first man to guess what was about to happen. Perhaps this was because the others were recovering from the shock of being suddenly plunged into darkness. I, on the other hand, was still concentrating on the sounds around me, and in the next moment I heard the sound that all of us had feared would come: the hiss of metal.
"Be at guard!" My voice flung itself upward from the truce ground and began to bounce off the sides of the surrounding hills; the truce ground had this trick of magnifying words spoken in its midst. I had shouted as loud as I could. Then, having conveniently revealed my location in the dark to all the Fossenvites, I did the only thing I could under the circumstances: I dropped flat on the ground.
As I fell, my cheek was grazed once more, this time by a blade – not aimed at me, I guessed from its angle, but at Selig, who was still standing protectively next to me, and who would have caught hold of me and placed me in greater danger if the blade had not met its target. Selig's wail mingled with the cries of the other Tascanians who had not been able to dodge the assault in time. I heard Varick's voice rise above the confusion in one desperate shout: "Corbin, run!"
It was desperation, yet it was a command as well. For a moment, I lay where I was, uncertain of how I could escape alive from the murderous melee that was now taking place. Then I felt nausea push at me like a storm wind. I could smell him; he was close to me, and he was seeking me. With no further thought than panic, I rose to my hands and knees and scrambled under the flying blades until I had reached where I could stand up and run.
I was just in time. Behind me, York shouted an order; fire crackled as it was kindled. Having done as much as they could in the dark, the Fossenvites were as eager for light now as the Tascanians. By this time, though, I was beyond reach of the light. My face turned toward the starless dark of the hillside as I raced blindly away from the truce ground.
Though I could not see where I was going, old instincts kept me headed in the right direction: south, toward the hillside forest that lay between Truce Valley and the Tascanian Army's winter camp. I stumbled only twice. I had run this route many times as a young boy, on nights as dark as this, for Varick and I had received the hardest training any Tascanian soldier receives. The only sound in my flight was the crackling of frost under my feet and the harsh sobbing in my throat. Behind me, the shouting and the clash of blades continued.
I was clambering uphill by now, my feet sliding backwards on the wet surface; yet even so, I nearly crashed into the first tree. I held onto the trunk for a moment, the moss fuzzy against my face as I struggled to regain my breath. Then I began to grope my way through the trees, praying that I had not somehow blundered onto Wolf Hill and was even now wandering over the border. I did not have long for such worries, though. Before I had gone far, two pairs of hands grabbed me and held me captive.
One hand travelled swiftly up to cover my face and smother the scream that had begun to escape my lips. A voice hissed in my ear, "It's Eimund." The hands released me, but for one which gripped my arm tightly, as though in fear that I would run away. Behind me, I could no longer hear metal meeting metal, though the shouts continued.
"What's happening, my liege?" Eimund was always the coolest of aldermen; even now, he remembered to use the title that Varick had invented for me. "We heard your shout, and Gib and I came ahead to investigate. The others are waiting further back."
"It's trickery, just as we expected." As I spoke, I wiped away the sweat from my face with one frustrated jerk, as though I could also wipe away the bitterness of my report. "The Fossenvites drew their blades."
"They broke the truce?" I recognized the voice as belonging to Gib, one of Eimund's petty soldiers. He sounded eager, and with good reason: the penalties for a broken truce were so severe that we might be able to win this year's victory on that basis alone.
Eimund said more calmly, "That doesn't sound like York."
"It's not. I said it was trickery. He gave the usual vow about not drawing his blade within the light of the truce fire – and then he smothered the fire with his cloak. He's not forsworn, and the Fossenvites were able to attack their chosen targets in the dark."
Eimund gave a melancholy whistle. Gib said in a high, excited voice, "What are we waiting for? The King knew this would happen; that's why we're here. Let's get the others and attack."
Eimund did not move from his place. His hand continued to grip me as though I were his battle-prisoner. "My liege, we're under orders to stay here until commanded otherwise. I don't have the authority to move my men."
I cursed inwardly; it was just like Varick to make plans for rescue that depended on his not being among those who must be rescued. It was not that my brother was too arrogant to believe that he might enter into danger; rather, his thoughts were fully absorbed in caring for others. It was the sort of honorable shortcoming that York would always be ready to exploit.
I told Eimund, "You'll have to be commanded by me. I'm the only one who escaped."
There ensued a pause so slight that it probably only consisted of the time it took Eimund to draw in his next breath, but it was long enough for me to wonder what I would do if he refused to accept me as his temporary liege lord. Then Eimund was saying in a matter-of-fact manner, "Yes, my liege. What are your orders?"
I let out a long breath that shuddered too much for my liking before saying crisply, "Gib, get back to the others and bring them up to the edge of the forest. Have them await Eimund's return here."
Gib said hesitantly, "I'm not sure I can find my way back in the dark."
"King's balls, man, you heard the Prince!" For the first time, Eimund lost his temper. "Just go straight round the hill. An apprentice in diapers couldn't miss our post."
Gib mumbled something properly abject and slunk off into the heart of the forest. I turned and began groping my way back toward the edge of the woods, while Eimund continued to clutch my arm as though he were the one in the lead. As we hurried forward, he said in a low voice, "We may be too late. York will have had time to take his hostage over the border."
"No. I'm not there."
In the pause that followed, I was able to ascertain that the shouting was continuing down in the valley. Silent raids were never York's strength. Then Eimund said quietly, "He wants you?"
"I doubt that he'd receive the same enjoyment from Varick as he would from me. Watch out; the slope becomes slippery after this."
"My liege . . ." I heard Eimund swallow, uncertain how to phrase his question. "Are you sure that you wouldn't rather wait here for the others and—?"
I cut him off. "Can you make it down to the valley in the dark? Do you know a place to hide that's close enough to see what's happening?"
"No, my liege." Eimund's voice was subdued.
"I was posted in Marlin's princedom for six years; I could walk through this valley in my sleep. Keep to whispers after this. We're within earshot of the truce ground."
We made our way down the slope more slowly than I had arrived. I was trying to locate, through feel of my feet, the dip in the ground that led to the stream. I found it finally, and discovered, to my relief, that the stream was so solidly iced over that it did not crack when we stood upon it. I slid along, towing Eimund in my wake. Then he pulled hard at my arm, nearly unbalancing me. He hissed in my ear, "We're within sight now – they'll see us."
"Can you see us?" I whispered back.
A pause, then: "No. It's too dark."
"Then they can't see us. There's an outgrowth of rock directly between us and the truce ground – that's where we're headed."
"All right—" Eimund began to pull me forward, but I jerked him back.
"Alderman," I said sternly, "if we cut over the ground like that, York will hear our footsteps on the frost. We stay on the ice – and keep behind me."
"My liege lord, I follow you." Eimund's apology was neither abject nor defensive, and I felt myself warm even more toward the man. Probably, I reflected, he was the only alderman in the kingdom who would have allowed me to take command over him. Yet one alderman was enough: Eimund's whisper made me feel as though the past three years had been stripped away from me, and I was for a brief while what I had once been. I was almost grateful, at that moment, that York had given me this opportunity to renew my honor.
Then all my thoughts were on reaching the rock before York should hear us. I need not have worried on that score, though; a great deal of shouting was still taking place, mainly from Varick. Knowing that this was not Varick's usual style, I could guess he was attempting to cover any sounds I was making if I was still trying to escape from the valley. It would not have occurred to him that I would be so foolhardy as to return.
York was shouting too, taunting Varick. He liked his victories to be loud, and he did not need to worry that he would be heard in our camp, over three miles away. As Eimund and I reached the rock and flattened ourselves against the side of it that faced away from the truce ground, York's taunts turned to orders. I heard the sound of horses being mounted and torches being lit.
Eimund was beside me, his body straining as he peered round the edge of the rock. He said, quite unnecessarily, "He's sending out a hunting party for you."
"Be careful they don't see you, then. What's happening at the truce ground?"
Varick said something sharp to York that I didn't catch. This was followed by a cry that withered into a moan, then trailed off into nothing, like raid-smoke dissipating in the air. Eimund said, "He's killing the wounded— No, just our wounded. Somebody is bandaging up the wounded Fossenvites."
"Good; that means they can't leave here quickly. How many of our nobles are dead?"
"About ten, I think. Janarius is alive, and Idwell—" He named a few more aldermen; Selig was not on the list. I was sitting on the cold ground, trying to ignore the icy moisture creeping through my cloak from the grass, when I felt hooves pounding closer. I grabbed Eimund's arm, and he fell silent. His sword whispered as he pulled it from its sheath. For a moment, we both were still as the horses thundered past us; then Eimund sheathed his sword as he gave a drawn-out sigh and whispered, "That was too close for comfort. Their light nearly reached us."
"Well, they won't be back this way again. What about our princes? Are they all safe?"
"Yes, they're all captured. Did you think they wouldn't be?"
"I was worried for Marlin. York could have had him killed in the dark and claimed it as an accident."
"Oh, yes." Eimund said no more. He knew as well as anyone else the long dispute that had taken place between us and the Fossenvites before York had accepted Varick's compensation for Marlin's wounding of Lenwood. York had made it clear that he considered the money a poor compensation, and that he would have preferred receiving Marlin's head.
"Trussed like a petty to a tree – I suppose that's York's idea of a joke? He need hardly worry about our King escaping under the circumstances."
"Which tree? Is it the oak tree to the west, at the foot of Wolf Hill, or the maple tree to the northwest?"
"Swords and daggers, my liege, you do know this valley well." Eimund's voice was filled with quiet admiration as he twisted away to look around the edge of the rock. "He's in the shadows; I can barely see him. . . . It's the oak tree, but it's across the border."
"I know." I fell silent a minute, listening to the wind whistle over the border from Fossenvita. It covered the small sounds of a winter night, such as the hoot of a snow owl, though above the sigh of the murmuring trees I could hear a wolf howl faintly. As though in imitation, York laughed at that moment before directing another barbed comment toward Varick. Varick had stopped shouting; presumably he assumed that I had reached safety by now. The horsemen continued to circle the valley, but their pace had lessened. Soon they would be returning, and soon after that, I knew, York would begin to contemplate moving his hostage.
I pulled my dagger from its sheath and tested its edge. As I might have expected, Selig had given me what must have been the dullest blade in the entire Tascanian Army; it would not cut my skin even when I pressed my finger against it. I tossed it aside and said, "Give me your dagger, Eimund."
"My liege—" Eimund's whisper turned high with apprehension. Then he remembered his place and quickly handed me his extra blade.
I sheathed it without checking its edge. I could guess how well honed Eimund would keep his blades. "Don't worry," I said calmly. "I'm not going to fight them; I know better than that. I'm going to try to release the King – as long as he remains captive, we're placing him in danger if we attack. York owes an arm wound. Now listen: Go back to the woods and bring your men down to this point, as quietly as you can. Wait for me here. If something goes wrong – if I'm captured, or if York begins to move his hostage before I can release Varick – I give you the authority to act as you think best. Understand?"
"Yes, my liege. But about the attack . . . The King told us he would have us attack from the west if it became necessary. He said that the trees there are closer to the truce ground than this ridge."
"The King doesn't remember what Wolf Hill is like; if you bring men into the woods at this time of night, you'll attract the wolves. You attack from here."
I held my breath in the moments after I spoke. A prince had the right to overrule the King's previous orders if the King were taken hostage. Eimund could not fail to know this, considering the events of three years before. Yet we both knew that, if the attack failed, Eimund rather than I would bear the punishment for changing the attack plan. I was asking a great deal from this young, competent alderman.
The pause this time was understandably longer; then Eimund said submissively, "I follow you, my liege. But are you sure that you want to be the one to take this risk? I could try to release the King."
"And be killed if York caught you. I'm not in danger that way, and I know this valley better. Fetch your petties." And with this final order – the last I expected ever to give, even if I were not captured – I stood up and began walking steadily around the curve of the ridge that would bring me to the place which remained vivid in my nightmares: Wolf Hill.
There was nothing in outward appearance to distinguish Wolf Hill from any of the other hills that formed the border between Fossenvite and Tascania. It was covered in hemlock needles even in the winter, and the hemlock trees were so tightly packed that a person could hardly move more than a few yards without being scratched from leg to face by the branches. I remembered one visit I had paid to the valley, over four years before: it had been a spring morning, when the light lay golden upon the hillside, and the mournful call of the wolves had seemed no more unpleasant than the gurgle of the stream that curled around the perimeter of the truce ground.
That, of course, had been a sunny morning when I was seventeen; this night was a lifetime later. I was making my way through the trees by touch, my only guide being the icy stream I could feel under my feet. My nape prickled as I heard the hunting howl of the wolves who claimed this hill as their home. They were high up on the slope, but anything – the smell of blood rising from the truce ground, perhaps – could lure them further down to where I groped my way through the darkness. And if that happened, I might end up fulfilling York's original wishes concerning my destiny.
I found that I was listening with intense concentration to all the sounds around me: the shuffle of my feet along the ice, the rattle of the branches as I brushed past them, the slowing beat of hooves as the horsemen finished their search, the murmuring of York's aldermen as they cleared corpses out of their King's way, York's pleasant recital of what wounds he owed the Tascanian princes and how he planned to pay all of his debt with Marlin's assistance, and the continued cry of the wolves. They were closer now.
My thoughts were so much on the wolves that I nearly stumbled over the border. It consisted of a log, one of a series of logs I had dragged into position one backbreaking morning when I was eleven, so that Varick and I would not chance crossing the border during our routine nighttime patrols. Janarius, whom Marlin had placed in charge of us, had cursed me for not asking his permission beforehand, then had praised me to my father for my initiative. The logs trailed down the hillside like the hump of a long mole-tunnel, following the weeded-over track of Refuge Road and finally ending close to the truce ground. A few yards northeast of the final log was the tree that now held Varick captive.
The most dangerous part of my journey lay ahead: not only did I chance being seen in the dusky light at the edge of the truce ground, but I might also be heard as I crossed the frost. Sinking to my hands and knees, I began to wriggle forward, following the border-logs. I was now to the north of them, in Fossenvite land. After a few feet of this, I stopped, cursed silently, and discarded the cloak that was hampering my crawl.
As I started forward again, the horsemen halted back at the truce ground. Their leader had no need to make a report. York said, "You checked the valley entrance as well?"
"Yes, sire." The leader was Granville, York's right-hand prince; he had a breathless way of talking that made him sound as though he were always in a hurry. "But he could be anywhere in these hills. It's too dark to see."
"Well, he can't be headed back to the winter camp; that's too far. He must be hiding somewhere." York's voice was quiet with reflection. In the stillness that followed, I could hear plainly the crackle of my progress over the ice-covered needles, as well as the thud of my heart. I had ceased to worry about the howling danger behind me; I was aware now only of the peril to which I was compliantly returning. My head hung low as I crawled, and I could hear my noble-chain tinkle as it swung to and fro from my neck. My thoughts were filled with curses once more, but I dared not stop to take the chain off. Any change in the sounds I was making might catch the attention of York or his soldiers.
"You know where he is, don't you, Varick?" York said affably as I reached the end of the logs and began changing my path accordingly to head toward the tree. "I can see it in your face. You told your brother where to flee if something went wrong tonight. You know where he's hiding."
"He's no place where you can reach him, York," my brother said evenly. "You have your hostage; you needn't waste your energy trying to obtain another one."
York gave off one of his loud guffaws that sounded like a beast's roar; I used this cover to shuffle forward as quickly as possible. I was nearly at the tree, and I might be seen at any moment. My hand, now as numb as a dead man's limb, touched something I was barely able to identify as a root: a long root, curving like a snake. I knew where I was now, and I hastily scrambled over to the side of the broad trunk, pressing myself against the dark back of the tree to which Varick was tied.
"Oh, I think I'll be the judge of whether Corbin's beyond my reach," said York, still in a pleasant voice. "Tell me where he is, Varick."
In the silence that ensued, I paused in the midst of unsheathing Eimund's blade. The one noise any soldier can recognize in his sleep is that of whispering metal, and York stood on the other side of the tree to which I now clung like moss. It seemed a miracle to me that he had not sighted me already. The tree was no larger than a man's body, and some part of me, I knew, must be sticking out into dim view. But York was always single-minded in his torments, unable to pay attention to anything besides his pleasure. I had counted on this in deciding upon my reckless plan.
Now came the sound I had been expecting: that of flesh meeting flesh in a clap like thunder. Varick was silent for a moment – I well knew how long it took to recover from one of York's slaps – and then he began steadily and quietly reciting for York a description of the petty Rule-breaker who must have been York's true father.
His recital was cut short by something between a grunt and a gasp; I could guess that York had used his knee this time. Taking advantage of the moment when Varick would be most stunned and would therefore be unable to show surprise at my sudden touch, I slid my hand up the trunk until I found Varick's hands, attached to each other by a line of rope. His hands were clenched in fists.
After a minute in which there was no sound but for Varick's heavy breathing, his left hand opened to my touch, like a flower blooming. In the meantime, I had been using my blade-hand to search the trunk below and above his hands; I found to my relief that York had not bothered to tie Varick's arms and legs. Bringing my dagger down to where my left hand still touched my brother, I slid the blade between the rope and the trunk and began sawing.
York was saying softly, "If your brother were here, Varick, he would explain to you that I have a wide variety of methods for causing pain without causing severe internal injury. I do not have the time to show you my full repertoire tonight, but I would be glad to give you a small sampling if you persist in being obstinate."
Varick made a gurgling sound that was meant to imply he was still recovering from York's latest gift, but as the rope gave way, I felt his hands begin to slide away with swiftness and assurance. Quickly I grabbed his wrists and placed the dagger hilt in his right hand; then I tapped his right wrist twice, the signal for him to wait.
His left hand squeezed mine briefly. Then he began saying something in a slow, loud voice. I paid no attention to his words; I knew that they were simply meant to cover the sound of my retreat. Having delivered Varick from his greatest danger, my thoughts had returned to myself, and I was suddenly aware that I was cloakless on the coldest night of the year. I was shuddering like a mare in labor, and my bare arms and chest felt as though they were being pricked by a dozen tiny dagger-points. I might as well have been wearing no breeches, for my legs were soaked with frost from my long crawl. Turning, I resolutely put my bare hands to the ground. They blazed as though they were touching cold fire. I began to scramble forward.
At that moment, I heard a voice which until now had remained silent, but which I sometimes heard in my dreams, along with York's. It was raised high in excitement and triumph as it said, "Sire! I see something moving behind the tree!"
A rapid sequence of noises took place: York shouting orders to his princes. York quickly revising those orders as Varick swung free of the trunk and blocked the princes' progress with Eimund's dagger. And then the sound that ran warm through my blood like mulled wine: cries rising from the south as Eimund's petties made their attack.
I heard no more than this; I had sprung to my feet and was charging blindly through the trees in front of me, feeling the hemlock needles sting my cheeks like sleet. My sole duty now was to get as far as possible from the scene of the battle so that I would not be in anyone's way. The battle, I knew, was being fought as much for my sake as for Varick's.
I was not so blind as to run up Wolf Hill. I turned south and began running around the curve of the hill, toward the narrow southwestern pass that led out of the valley and to our winter camp. I chose this direction simply because it would take me away from the border: I did not want to chance ending up on Fossenvite land and becoming easy prey for any Fossenvite soldier who wished to take me hostage. Here in Tascania, it was unlikely any Fossenvite would have the temerity to capture the King's brother.
Except for one man, of course.
The foot of Wolf Hill, like the rest of Truce Valley, had been cleared of trees generations ago, in order to allow the easy passage of armies. The pass itself had been so long trampled by the feet of soldiers travelling in or out of Tascania that its green-life had been worn down to nothing more than a few bits of scrubby grass that pressed themselves against the edge of the pass, like petty villagers seeking hopelessly to escape the punishment of raiders. On this night, the dirt path was as hard as stone, and my boots beat the road like hammers on a drum, showing clearly to anyone following where I was headed. I stopped, considered the dilemma, and with yet another inward curse stooped and pulled off my boots. Inside the boots, for double warmth on this cold night, I was wearing soft leather shoes such as petty villagers wear. The shoes had been a present from Selig, who, in his usual, well-meaning manner, had been trying to adjust me to my new role in life. Well, now they would serve me as such shoes had no doubt served many petties: to allow me to flee from soldiers from whom I could not defend myself.
It took a minute for me to tug off the boots, and in that minute I had a chance to adjust my breathing and take in the sounds in the darkness around me: the clash and shouts of the renewed fight at the truce ground – muffled, for I had journeyed around to the southern side of Wolf Hill, beyond view of the valley – the moan of the wind travelling over the crown of the hill, the wail of wolves on a lower slope, and, softly but distinctly, the sound of boots tapping the ground as their owner made his way steadily toward me.
I placed my own boots aside and took two steps to the side of the pass. The pass was barely large enough to accommodate a fourfold column of soldiers: a man spreading his arms wide might almost be able to touch the steep slopes of the pass on either side. Pressing myself against the sheer cliff where I found myself standing, I waited, feeling my noble-chain hang cold and heavy against my chest.
The steps were closer now. It was a weighty man who approached: the footsteps told me that much. A weighty man who walked with a soldier's steadiness, and who did not pause to see whether someone higher in honor was following him. Not a petty, then; probably not an alderman either. I clung to the hope that it was a prince.
The footsteps slowed, and a blade hissed as it was unsheathed. I dared not press myself any flatter against the rock, lest the rattle of some small pebble betray my presence. I willed my heart to soften its thumping. The footsteps continued their way: they were about to pass me, and there was no sign that they would halt.
Then I smelled him.
My brother and I, to pass the time on patrol when we were boys, had taken to hunting down small animals such as hares and stoats whenever we thought that we could do so without Janarius noticing. One useful fact we had learned was that if you come close to an animal, no matter how well hidden it may be, it will bolt. There seems to be some instinct in creatures that will not allow them to come within an arm's length of any human, even if their flight will reveal their location and lead to their death.
So it was with me when I smelled my hunter. I knew, even as I turned to run, that I was taking the worst possible action. By staying still, I had some hope of evading capture; by running, I had none, even though the dark blinded us both. He was too quick and too strong for me to be able to escape him.
And so it was that I experienced no surprise, but simply a feeling of sickening doom, when, but three paces into my flight, my arm was grabbed and I was thrust back against the cliff with a jar that sent bolts of white lightning through my head. As my inner vision cleared and my breath returned, I discovered a body pressed against mine and a dagger stroking my throat in a light but meticulous manner. A hand went up to my face to confirm who I was, and then a low chuckle rumbled through the air.
"Come, Princeling," said York, "you wouldn't want to run from me when I've taken such pains to arrange our reunion."