The villagers lodged us that night in an empty bachelor's cottage. Even Firmin had enough tact not to ask what had happened to the previous occupant.
With Firmin as my lodge-mate, I was not able to muster enough nerve to stumble my way round the cottage, getting to know my surroundings by touch, so my impression of the small house was confined to what I encountered on my way in: the flaking daub wall, the weather-splintered door-frame, the central hearth-fire built generously high, and the blanket-covered reed pallet against the wall opposite the door, an improvement over my previous sleeping accommodations.
I could hear Firmin sitting on his own floor-pallet nearby, coughing away the last of his illness while softly cursing the quality of the razor he was using. I had not grown a beard for the purpose of disguise – I had simply been unwilling to attempt the face-shaving that Selig had undertaken for me during the past three years – but Firmin had treated my action as a valuable hint. He had bought from the villagers a hat that covered his telltale hair and was now in the process of shaving off the beard in which he had made most of his public appearances.
I was hunched over my boots, trying to rub them clean of mud – soldiers' habits die hard – when Firmin suddenly said, "You're as quiet as a thieving petty, Princeling. What are you thinking?"
What I was actually thinking about was Eimund, and I was feeling grief and guilt flay me open like a royal thrust as I thought of what I ought to have said to him at our last meeting. But this was not a matter of which I could speak to my mocking companion, so I returned to an earlier thought. "I was thinking about that boy, Petty. I was wondering whether I have any sons out there who have been waiting for me to acknowledge them."
Pottery chinked as Firmin reached forward to draw more grease out of a bowl. "Did you spend your childhood waiting for your father to come?" he asked.
"No." I laid my boots to one side and began untying the knots in my shirt. After a while, feeling the silence stretch, I said, "I never expected to meet him. I was born in the Partition."
"Ah." Firmin paused in the soft scraping of his grease-laden face. "So you're returning to your birth-kingdom – that's amusing. How did your mother end up there? Is that where Reynard sent his lemans after he grew bored with them?"
I shook my head as I reached inside my shirt to ascertain that my arm bandage was still in place before I removed my clothes. The wound had scabbed over a few days before, but I continued to wear the bandage for occasions such as this. "My mother wasn't the King's leman," I said. "She was a raid-woman."
The bowl clinked again, this time as Firmin tossed the razor into it, and then water chimed in another bowl as Firmin began to wash his face free of the grease and cut hair. "So your mother was Fossenvite – this grows more and more interesting. What made her move to the Partition, raid-child?"
I pulled the shirt back from my shoulders and down my arms. Some of the skin on my left forearm was smooth and free of hair – a gift from York during our first battle together. It was the worst flaying I had ever received in my life, and one that taught me a serviceable lesson. The other battle-scars on my body were much smaller, and I had never again been forced to retreat in battle because of a wounding.
I said, "My mother wasn't yet married when my father took her, and she thought that it would be difficult for her to find a husband in a Fossenvite village where everyone knew that she was carrying the child of the King of Tascania. So she moved to the Partition to start a new life. She didn't find a husband there, for she was shy and never got to know her neighbors well, but she found work and kept the two of us alive that way."
"So how did you meet your father?" Firmin asked, reaching over and tossing me the wet rag I was groping for. "Did Reynard make secret visits to the Partition?"
"My mother died from the poison when I was six," I said, wiping my back clean of sweat. "She didn't know anyone well enough to ask them to take me in, so she gave a trader the last of her money so that he would take me to my father."
"That was bold of her. Did she really expect the King of Tascania to acknowledge a raid-child?"
"No, I think the most she hoped for was that he would give me over to one of his lemans. It was an act of desperation, really – I would have starved to death otherwise. But as it chanced, the King was seeking an heir at that time. He had just about decided to take Varick, whose mother was his favorite leman, but he liked the look of me, so he acknowledged both of us. I was the elder boy by a year, so I became the heir."
I laid the rag to one side and pulled off my breeches. There, on the inside of my right thigh, was the scar from the deepest wound I had ever received, one which had nearly taken my life. It had come from a married Fossenvite alderman who was so excited to be at home to defend his village when it was raided that he had attacked me before he had time to notice that the leader of the raiding party was not a fellow alderman but the King of Tascania. He had wisely taken his own life after he discovered his mistake, and though York had offered his entire village to me – the Fossenvite King was always generous in his compensations when one of his subjects broke the Rules of War – I had contented myself with having the alderman's petty son blinded. My mercy had surprised my fellow nobles.
"A touching story, Princeling," said Firmin, moving over toward the fire. "Raid-child Partitioner becomes the King and Commander of Tascania – and then becomes a Partitioner again. Tell me, do you remember much about the Petty Partition? I freely confess that I was not schooled in knowledge of the hooded petties' customs."
I stretched out my legs, feeling the fire-warmth burn against my skin as the flames roared like a northern wind. "I only remember a little, mainly from what surprised me about the outer world when I left the Partition. I remember how odd it was to meet people who would tell me their real names, and how long it took me to get used to looking at the naked faces of adults. The only adults I'd ever seen unhooded before then were my mother and the traders."
"Children aren't hooded?"
"Not till they're apprentice-age. My mother had planned to hood me on my seventh birthday, and I was looking forward to learning what my hood-name would be – but then she sickened, so I never learned what it was going to be."
My back, facing the wattle-and-daub wall, was beginning to grow cold. I pulled a blanket out from under me and threw it over my shoulders, saying, "I remember how frightened I was when I met the King. Partition-born as I was, I'd heard stories all my life about how evil and cruel the nobles were. It was a relief when I met my father and discovered that he was really a kind and gentle man."
Firmin said nothing. He had stopped poking the fire, and I could not hear where he was over the sound of the air-gulping flames. I pulled the blanket closer to shield the front of my body and said, "Firmin. . . . Did York order that petty to kill my father?"
"If he had, do you think I'd tell you?" Firmin's reply was as quick and cutting as a whip. He had returned to his pallet, and I heard him unsheathe his dagger as though in response to a danger signal. I pulled my legs up against my chest and draped the blanket over my knees, resting my chin upon them. After a while, Firmin asked abruptly, "Do you remember your mother?"
"Not very well. I don't know how it is in Fossenvita, but the first thing they tell you when you become an apprentice in Tascania is to forget your petty kin. I wanted to forget her anyway, since she was dead. . . . You were nine when you were acknowledged – I suppose you remember your mother?"
"Oh, yes." Firmin's voice was light, twisted with irony. "I remember both my parents."
I raised my head and turned it in his direction, trying to read his expression from his voice. "You mean that you remember your mother's husband?"
"I meant what I said, Princeling." The air shivered with the sound of bright metal as Firmin began to sharpen his dagger with a whetstone. The cottage air was beginning to thicken with smoke; the smoke-hole above was unable to cope with the broad fire that had been lit. Sweat started to trickle down my back again, so I pulled the blanket open to the cool air.
"I was a proper leman's child," Firmin said in a detached voice as he ran the stone along his blade. "York took my mother one summer when he was bored with his raiding successes against your father. He kept her for about a month. She was already married, but she didn't dare refuse York – York told me this himself. He likes to boast about it. My parents never told me that I was York's son. The entire village must have known, what with my coloring, but they all pretended that I was my parents' child.
"Then one day York passed through our village. My mother tried to hide me in our house, but I sneaked out. I was always a troublemaker. Of course, she was being overprotective; York already had two heirs. At any rate, when York saw me, he guessed that I was his, and he made a trifling joke about naming me his heir's heir's heir.
"It took me a while to understand what he was talking about, and even then I wouldn't have believed him if I hadn't seen the look on my parents' faces. I was so horrified that I yelled at York that I'd never be his son, whether or not he acknowledged me. Even then, the joke might have ended there, but my mother was fool enough to burst into tears, and my father began pleading with York.
"Well, it was too much for York to resist. The next thing I knew, he'd swept me up onto his horse and was riding away with me. He took me to his residence, and I ran away the first chance I got. It was a long journey home. When I finally arrived home, my parents told me to go back to York."
He paused. The fire was dwindling, and cold air began to stroke me like a newly-whetted blade, but I remained motionless. "York had already compensated them?"
"Oh, it wasn't that. They'd have rather had me than the money. It was just that they knew what York would do to them if they tried to keep me. They explained it all to me, and so I returned to the royal residence. York hadn't even bothered to send out a hunting party for me. He knew I'd come back."
Up to this point, Firmin's voice had been dry and unrevealing; now it burst open into bitterness like an over-ripe fruit being discarded by a foraging party. After a while, I said, "I wondered why you never call York your father."
"Now you know."
From the other side of the room came the whisper of a blade being sheathed. The fire blazed up once more as Firmin stepped forward and poked it. I felt its warmth fall upon me like a protective cloak as I said, "I knew a journeyman who planned to go see his petty family when he came of age. Did you ever do that?"
Firmin replied with a dark laugh, and thrust his iron so vigorously into the fire that a spark fell on the front of my hand. As I quickly covered the fire eating at my palm, I remembered Eimund's return from the trip, and the young woman he had brought back from his home village. That had been my only meeting with Eimund's wife. Soon afterwards, my father had died, and I had had no time left in which to concern myself with trivial love matters. I wondered suddenly whether anyone in the army would bother to inform Eimund's family of what had happened at the battle.
Beside me, Firmin said, "I decided on the journey back that if I was going to be the King's son, then I'd become the best soldier in Fossenvita. And I am." A log crumbled as Firmin pounded it. He added, "Now you're supposed to say, 'Really?' in a disbelieving voice."
"How can I? I've never seen you fight before today—"
"Heard, then. For all I know, you might be right."
Firmin let the iron drop to the ground with a thud and stepped back toward his pallet. "Oh, I'm a poor dueller. Everyone knows that. I've been taught to fight in three different ways – petty-style, alderman-style, and royal-style – and so I get confused over which moves to make, and that keeps me from fighting well. But there's more to being a good soldier than winning duels, Princeling."
I folded my arms on my knees and rested my head on it, turning it in Firmin's direction. "Such as?"
"Such as raiding. Do you remember York's raids last summer?"
"They're hard to forget. Tascania lost last year's victory because of them alone."
"I planned them."
I raised my head, feeling the blood thrum through my body suddenly. I had to remind myself forcefully that I no longer cared about raiding victories. "I'm surprised. I thought they had York's mark on them."
"Of course they did. York trained me. I plan about half of Fossenvita's raids these days, and I'm as good at them as York is. Better, in certain ways – York's sense of humor interferes with his war skills sometimes. Of course, he can't acknowledge my work publicly since I'm not a duke."
The fire was beginning to die down again. Rather than wait for the cold to arrive, I began slipping down under the pallet blankets, propping myself up on one elbow so that I would still be facing Firmin.
Firmin said in a hard voice, "You don't believe me, do you?"
"Actually, I do."
"But I've no proof for what I say."
"That doesn't matter. I trust you."
Firmin gave a sharp laugh like a wild dog's bark. "Fool that you are. You'd trust the Wolf's son?"
"I thought that you didn't regard yourself as his son."
"Well, I lied. You can't be trained by York for nine years without becoming like him. I hate him, and he despises me, but we're still useful to each other. I give him good raiding plans, and he gives me . . ."
"Gives you what?" I asked when the silence had extended long enough.
"Power," Firmin replied in a whisper. "Power of a sort you'll never understand, Princeling. You wouldn't even have understood when you were King and Commander. Power consists of making men fear you. York is the most feared man in the world – my brother Lenwood can't even come close to what York's like. But I can. Some day, whether or not I'm King, people will fear me like they fear York, and then I'll have more power than anyone else in world. Oh, I'm my father's son, all right. You'd best not forget that, Princeling."
I trailed my finger in the dirt beside the pallet, scraping the earth up under one nail. "And what will you do with this power?"
"Keep myself safe," Firmin said in a matter-of-fact tone. "What else is power good for? You should know that, former royal noble. I can't be killed, I can't be severely wounded, but that's not enough. Nobody can hurt York, not only because of his royal privilege, not only because he's too strong for anyone to fight, but also because everyone's afraid of him. He can do anything he wants, and no one dares to touch him. He's the most powerful man in the world and he's the safest man in the world. He has everything – everything. I want that, Princeling. I don't care whether I inherit York's title, but I want to see the world the way the most powerful man does."
His voice was as eager as young Petty's had been when the boy spoke of his noble ambitions. I tilted my head so that it was bowed toward the earth. "It's too dark."
"It's too dark in York's world. He appears to like it – I suppose he has been that way all his life – but you'd know the difference. You wouldn't like it once you'd trapped yourself in his darkness."
For a moment, the only sound was wood crumbling in the fire; then Firmin hooted with laughter. Blankets rustled as he drew himself into his bed. "A blind man lectures me on what it's like to be in the dark," he said when he had collected his breath again. "Dear me, you know all about what it's like to go from light to darkness, don't you? I suppose it gives you satisfaction to think that York and I lead darker lives than your own. You could even offer me your services as a guide, couldn't you? A blind guide – that's a desperate attempt at ambition by a man who has lost his title, thrown away his honor, and will die young even if he reaches the Partition. By the way, Princeling, how long does it take to die of the mountain poison? You have six years' head start over any other refuge-walker arriving at the Partition gates."
I tried to re-gather my words to throw them back into battle, but I could hear the horn of retreat sounding in my head, and I knew that, like Varick, I would face too great a punishment if I tried to fight without a blade in hand. Besides, what Firmin had said was true. I was a blind man, blind not only in the flesh but in the spirit, and I had spent my life lost in darkness. How could I offer myself as a guide to Firmin? The least petty knew more than I did about the light.
With that thought in mind, I curled myself into a ball and waited for the darkness of sleep to come.
The fire had died down by the time I came to myself again, lying on a petty sleeping pallet with sweat running down my back. The fire had been a pathetic pyre to begin with, since my skills did not run to fire-making. I was used to having petties do that for me. But I had not needed the flames in any case: I was hot enough as it was, from the blankets and my blazing blood and the woman underneath me, warm and eager.
I had barely regained my breath and was still moaning lightly into the hollow of her shoulder when she said, "Again."
I raised my head, laughing, and looked down at her. She had been golden when I first saw her under the torches, golden like the autumn leaves at her feet, but now in the moonlight her hair looked bone-white. She was twice my age, but her skin was as smooth as the flat of a blade. She smiled up at me with that entrancing curl of the lip which had caught me from the moment I had seen her and had broken my two-year resolve against taking such women.
"Who do you think I am, the Wolf?" I said. "My potency isn't so great that I can begin again when I've barely finished."
"I think you're the King of Tascania," she said, curling her arms around my back as though holding me prisoner, "and I think that Kings are not like ordinary men."
"Too true," I said, suddenly sobered. "Kings have duties, and my first duty tonight is to get my men safely home before your King's defense soldiers detect our presence. It was foolish of me to let you lure me here again."
"But you're not here again," she replied, trailing her finger down my earlobe. "You're not in my village tonight; you're in a country house."
"It's close enough to your village," I replied, trying gently to break her grasp on me so that I could reach for my clothes. "Defense-trained though I am, even I know how mad it is to raid the same area two nights in a row. My men were not at all happy about stopping here on the way back from tonight's raid. The least I can do for them is make our stay short."
She wrapped her legs around my back once more and held me in her double binding. "Ah, King, would you break my heart? You've already broken my greatest desire, that you should take me back over the border with you."
"Glydia, I can't!" I momentarily stopped my struggle to release myself in order to place my hand on her cheek and smile at her. "You know I'd take you with me in an instant if I could, but it's against the Rules of War for me to steal a raid-woman. Wait two months – no, three; then the summer raiding will be over. Come see me at my winter camp, and I promise, I'll make you my leman. It's not a long journey, and I'll leave you travel money."
"To be the King's leman!" Glydia sighed and looked beyond me to the door, as though eager to leave at this moment. "It's hard to believe."
"Trust me, my love; I'm telling the truth." I kissed the hollow in her neck and began to raise myself. "Now I must go. I'll be thinking of you until then."
She halted me with her hands, drawing me back down to her. "Will you not give me a farewell kiss so that I can remember you till then?"
Her hands were exploring my body again, tracing their way up the curve of an old wound. Despite myself, I felt my blood throb and my desire quicken. Drawing a long breath, as though I were about to dive into deep water, I lowered myself onto her mouth and pressed my body against hers.
Because of this, I am not sure how long the noise had been occurring before I noticed. My head jerked back from hers, and without need for thought I rolled myself to one side, only to find myself still trapped in her arms.
The sword clashes were close, the shouting more so. "I must go," I said curtly, trying to reach toward where I had abandoned my clothes and weapons.
Glydia smiled at me, her eyes fastened on my face, and drew her arms tighter around me. "Don't be silly. We have all night to enjoy each other."
"Blades of wood, Glydia—" I tried to push her arms gently apart once more, but she had a grip on me as tight as a liege alderman capturing a noble. Her smile was fixed on her lips, and her skeleton-white hair was tangled in my swinging noble-chain.
There was a sudden hammering on the door, which Glydia had bolted when we first arrived. "Quickly, sire!" said a voice. "You must come! It's—" He stopped suddenly, and there was a pregnant silence.
I heard another voice, low and courteous, make a dark request. The new voice was too quiet for me to identify it immediately, but a shadow of knowledge fell upon me, and my back puckered cold. I heard the answer from the first voice: a firm "No." Then there was a series of clashes – it took no more than three – and then silence once more.
I whispered to Glydia, "Hide in the corner. He probably won't see you, and if he does, I'll tell him I forced you—"
But Glydia had already slipped from my arms, risen to her feet, and scooped up my sword and dagger with as much ease as though she were a journeyman. Holding the hilts of both blades in one hand, she ran lightly across the room, threw back the door-bolt, and opened the door wide.
The Wolf of Fossenvita stood at the threshold, with a smile on his face, blood on his sword, and my liege alderman dead at his feet.
The smile, in its initial moments, was not directed at me, but at the naked woman holding my weapons up for his inspection. He murmured, "Thank you, my dear," pushed her outside with casual intimacy to where a petty soldier stood with a cloak already open for her, and then looked over at me. His smile deepened.
I was still lying where Glydia had left me, naked of clothes and arms, listening to the cries as the last of my petty soldiers were killed by York's men. I willed myself to move into a position more worthy of the King and Commander of Tascania, but my honor felt shredded by those cries. Perhaps York guessed this; at any rate, he chose that moment to turn to another of his petty soldiers and take from him the bundle in his arms. "Get up," he said to me, as abruptly as a noble giving orders to a petty. "Put these on." He flung the bundle into my face.
I had just enough time to identify the brown bundle before my vision drowned in blackness, and my breath was stifled by the cloth. Gasping as I freed myself, I clawed my way out of the cloth but still could see nothing. York had shut the door, the moon had gone under a cloud, and the clashes and cries of battle continued outside the cottage.
"What?" I said, trying to break out of the paralysis that held me in place.
A voice, unlike York's yet reminding me of it somehow, said, "Get up. Put your clothes on. We're leaving."
The cloth was rough under my hands; the blade clashes were diminishing in force; from elsewhere in the room came the sound of flickering flames and rustling cloth. Gradually, I realized that I had woken from my dream of the past.
"What is it?" I asked, fumbling with my clothes as I drew myself out of bed. "Is it a foraging party gone astray?"
"No, a raid," Firmin replied, his noble-chain making muffled clinks under his shirt as he hurried around the room, gathering together the supplies we had bought during the previous day. "Trust you to pick a village that's about to be raided."
"Well, they're your soldiers," I said, tying my breeches hastily closed with one hand as I reached for my boots with another. "What are they doing, raiding at this time of year?"
"What are your soldiers doing?" Firmin countered, pulling me to my feet while my shirt and boots were still in hand. "We're only five miles from your winter camp. They ought to be here by now, defending us."
I had no time to appreciate the irony of this statement, for as Firmin pulled me stumbling across the cottage floor toward the supply bags, the door flew open with a bang. A man said, "All right, petties – you can stop skulking inside here. Line up with the others."
It was the voice of a noble, accustomed to being obeyed. Firmin had been pulling me along with his right hand; now his hand dropped, and for a moment it hovered next to his dagger hilt. Then it moved quickly back to me. Dressed as he was in petty clothes, if Firmin drew his blade now, he would be cut down in an instant.
His breath was rapid. I wondered for a moment whether he would pull out his noble-chain and declare our identities. If he did, I would be in Tascanian territory and therefore immune from being taken hostage – or would I? I no longer wore my noble-chain, and petties had no place of refuge outside the Partition.
All that happened, though, was that Firmin's grip tightened on my arm, and he began to draw me forward once more, this time toward where the captured village men were lined up, awaiting their punishment.
The blade clashes had ended, but I could hear the wailing of women and children as the Fossenvite soldiers escorted them past us. All around me were familiar sounds: easy-going shouts from the soldiers exchanging information with each other, the clang of metal as the pack-horse was unloaded, the soft whinny elsewhere of a noble's horse. Only the village men were utterly silent as the noble shoved us onto the end of their line – but that too was familiar. The only unfamiliarity for me was being amidst the brown-clothed petties rather than being the noble who was standing nearby, taking reports.
"No sign of the Tascanians, my lord alderman," a soldier was saying to the noble. "It looks as though this is a clean raid."
"It's too soon to decide that," said the alderman. "Keep lookouts posted on all sides of the village. Tavis! How are matters at your end?"
"We've got all the women, my lord," said another soldier, somewhat breathlessly; subduing women was as energetic an activity as subduing the men, since the women could not be wounded. "I don't think any escaped us. One woman is wearing a noble's wrist-chain – we've separated her from the rest."
"An alderman's leman?" the alderman said hopefully.
"No, a prince's. The chain is silver."
"Ah," said the alderman. "I'll leave her for the next prince who raids this village, then. I suppose that we ought to find out which house is hers so that we don't torch it by mistake."
"I've already checked, my lord. It's the large house; we've put her in there with the children."
"Good petty. Any problems with the children?"
"None, my lord. They all came quietly except the children who were too young to know better. Will you be taking a woman tonight?"
"I don't think so, Tavis. We're too close to the Tascanian camp; I want to keep on the alert. You can go ahead and draw the lots."
"How many women are we taking on this raid, my lord?"
"Hold a minute and I'll be able to tell you. Zeeman! Do you have that equipment unloaded yet?"
"Nearly, my lord!" shouted a soldier from the direction of the clanging metal. "Shall we start the fire?"
"Check the houses; someone's sure to have a hearth-fire going on a night like this. —Swords and daggers, but it's cold! Now I know why we usually stop raiding during the winter." The alderman made these last remarks in an undertone, apparently to Tavis, for the bootfalls and chattering suggested that all the other soldiers were darting to and fro, going about their business in an efficient manner. I was standing stiffly with Firmin on one side of me and a sapling on the other; I could not tell which of the village men were present, because they were all as silent as corpses. I strained my ears, but could hear no sign that a Tascanian defense unit was on its way to rescue us. The loudest sound was of the women weeping at the other end of the village.
"Weston! Where are you, boy?" called out the alderman suddenly.
"Here, my lord!" The half-broken voice of a journeyman vibrated as he ran forward to join the alderman. "I was just checking to see which houses we might want to burn. There's one over there that has supplies and a whole purse of gold in it we could take."
Firmin had until this time been relaxed next to me – secure, no doubt, in the knowledge that he could reveal our identities at any time. Now he grew as stiff as the sapling at my other side.
"More likely you were checking out the women," said Tavis, and the nearby soldiers laughed somewhat uneasily, evidently uncertain whether the alderman would think well of such a joke.
The alderman said impatiently, "Don't undertake duties I haven't assigned you, Weston. Do you have the tablets?"
"Yes, my lord. Which one do you want?"
During the pause that followed, I distracted myself from the knowledge of what was to come by wondering how long Tavis was likely to live. A petty soldier who cannot resist teasing a half-trained noble is likely to find his tongue slipping toward his liege lord one day. And what followed could be easily imagined.
The journeyman's bag rustled as he drew the wax tablets out. Beside me, the line of men remained silent. Not far behind me, a soldier loosened his sword in its sheath in case we offered any last-minute resistance.
The alderman said, "Lytle. How much trouble did we have with the capture?"
"Hardly any, my lord," said the soldier behind me. "Most of the men surrendered quickly."
"That was wise. Very well, we'll reward them by making their punishment small. We'll use the short list, Weston."
"We used that during last night's raid, my lord."
"The next shortest list, then. What does it say?"
The wood-edged tablets scraped against each other as the journeyman shuffled through them. Then he said, "Two houses burned; one well demolished . . ."
"We'll leave the property for later. How many killings?"
For the first time, I thought I heard the edge of a sound from the village men; a collective intake of breath. Then all was still again.
"Only three killings," the journeyman replied.
"We already killed four during the capture, my lord," contributed Lytle.
"Good, good; then we won't have to kill anyone else. Make a note, Weston. The Tascanians owe us one killing. Now for the payment of punishments— No, hold; Tavis has been waiting quite patiently here. How many women?"
"Five," the journeyman replied with a promptness which suggested that this was the first piece of information he had sought.
"Only five?" the alderman said.
"That's what it says. Shall I use one of the longer lists, my lord?"
Amidst the alderman's pondering silence, I could hear the sound of flames as a fire was started nearby. The clang of metal had finished; no doubt the equipment was ready now. Still no sound of rescue came from the surrounding countryside.
"No, we'll stay with this list," the alderman said finally. "Five women, Tavis – and make sure that the lucky men keep on the alert. If a defense unit arrives here, I don't want them to be captured with their breeches off, Corbin-wise."
Again the soldiers around us laughed, this time heartily, and I heard something suggestive of a snicker from Firmin. Then he quickly rejoined the terrible silence of the village men.
"Punishments," said the alderman briefly.
"One blinding," said the journeyman. "One hamstringing. One removal of the— I can't read the handwriting. It could be hands or it could be forearms."
"Let me see." The alderman perused the tablet for a moment, then said, "Our lord prince's writing gets worse every year. Well, since I'm not sure either, let's say that it's hands. Did you hear that, Zeeman?" He raised his voice to be heard over the renewed sound of metal clanging.
"Yes, my lord!" the tormenter shouted back. "We'll have all the equipment ready in two flicks of your horse's tail."
"Now I make my usual useless speech," said the alderman in so low a tone that it must have been directed purely at the journeyman standing next to him. He took several steps forward and said, "Tascanian petties! We are here to exact payment for a raid that was undertaken on a village in the Princedom of the Black Forest last autumn, and also to renew our debt to your King – but since you have been submissive to us, we will make that debt small. We begin with the payment first. You have heard what the punishments will be. Does any man here wish to volunteer his body in order that one of his fellow petties may be saved from punishment?"
The silence this time was tangible, like a cloak thrown over a fire to smother it. Firmin brushed against me, sighing restlessly, and I noticed that the alderman had not taken his blade from him. This was an old trick, to leave the village men armed and see which ones lost control of themselves at this point. Then the punishment could be administered to such deserving petties.
None of the villagers here were such fools. After a moment, the alderman added with irritation creeping into his throat, "Come, petties. Does none of you wish to sacrifice yourself for the others? Is it indeed true that there is no honor in petties?"
Silence again. The alderman stepped back to the journeyman's side and said, in a voice he did not bother to lower this time, "I don't know why I even bother to ask. All right, Lytle – are there any men here who are deserving of punishment?"
"That one over there gave us considerable trouble, my lord," Lytle replied promptly. "He nearly killed Tavis; I'd be happy to see his hands cut off so he won't attack the next raiders."
"Let's do this in order," the alderman said stolidly. "Blinding first – he still won't be able to use a blade after this. Bring him out."
I heard then a very small sound, one which was not quite a protest, not quite a whimper, but simply a human sound breaking past the binding of silence in which the villagers had placed themselves. I did not know who the sound came from, nor even whether it came from the condemned man or from one of his kin, but that single, small sound served to pull me out of the paralysis I had been fighting for several minutes. With the stiffness of a soldier striding forth into battle, I stepped forward.
"Ah, Tavis, you're back," the alderman was saying. "You're just in time to help me. Did any of the women give you trouble when you were subduing them? If they did, we'll find out who their husbands are and— What is it, boy? Oh, a volunteer." The alderman's voice grew bright, like the flash from a newly polished blade. "Well, this is something new. Hold a minute, Zeeman! We have a volunteer! You are volunteering in place of the other petty, I take it?"
The last remark was addressed in my direction. I opened my mouth to reply and found myself bound once more by the silence and stillness that had been holding me before. And then, for the first time, I understood from whence that silence arose. It was not from fear, though fear was running frantically through my body like the pain from a deep wound. It was from an unwillingness to help the noble in any way with his sickening task.
The journeyman, distressed that his liege lord should be so unobservant, forgot his formality and whispered loudly, "Father, he's already blind."
"Oh! So he is. Which would you prefer, then, the hand removal or the hamstringing? Volunteers get their choice. . . . Speak up, petty! You're lucky to have any choice at all."
The voice belonged to Firmin, but for a moment I did not recognize it, so successful was he in duplicating the obsequious, pleading voice of a helpless petty. His arm brushed mine as he stepped forward and said, "Alderman, I have a question. May I ask it?"
I felt my wrists drip blood and my leg muscles snap apart in the moment that it took the alderman to reply curtly, "Ask."
"When my cousin here was blinded last spring, the raiders who did it told us that our village wouldn't be raided again for at least two years. Did we misunderstand them? Is this something we should ask our prince about?"
There was another silence. The wailing of the women had ended now that the raid-women had been chosen. Nearby, several children were still crying. No sound came from the village men, nor from the area of the tormenting where the condemned petty stood, awaiting his blinding.
"Weston, check our raiding list again," said the alderman. "What directions were we following tonight?"
The journeyman shuffled through the tablets and said, "'Southwest of Wolf Hill, the first village past the border.' Do you suppose that we could have missed another village on our way in?"
"It's a trick," Lytle said confidently. "This man is trying to fool us. He'd be a good candidate for the hamstringing."
"But it's true, Alderman!" This time it was Nial who spoke; he too had adopted an obsequious tone. "And I remember that when we told our lord prince about the raid on his next visit, he told us to be sure to inform him if we were raided before the end of our two years of grace, so that King Varick could demand compensation for us."
This statement had a ring of truth to it; I knew that Marlin kept his petties well informed of their rights under the Rules of War. Tavis said rapidly, "My lord, if King York has to pay compensation for a twice-raided village, it will be a high one, and he won't be at all pleased with us."
I heard metal slide against metal, and for a moment I feared that the alderman would deal with the matter in the simplest manner possible, by killing Nial, Firmin, and me. That, of course, would not solve the problem, but angry nobles could not always be counted on to act in a rational manner.
It appeared, though, that the alderman was simply using his unsheathing as a convenient way to assert his authority and warn his men to remain silent, for after a minute's reflection, he sheathed his sword and said, "Well, it's not worth taking the chance. We have time enough to raid the next village on our list before dawn. Tavis, go back and extract tonight's lovers from their beds. Zeeman, you can let that petty go and pack up your equipment. Weston, hand me my purse."
Metal clinked as the alderman said, "Four men dead and— How many women taken?"
"Five," said the journeyman.
"Four men and five women. . . . That comes to— Well, near enough to one gold coin as makes no difference. Who's the head petty here?"
It was a question no villager would have been mad enough to answer. The nobles had long since made it clear that they would not tolerate any leaders arising in the petty community, since the last leaders had led a rebellion. The alderman sighed and said, "You take charge of the money, then. This is our compensation for the damage done, and you may offer your prince our apologies for our mistake the next time you see him. If he has any questions, I am Alderman Maitland, serving under Prince Houghton."
He took my hand and peeled the fingers open to reveal my palm, which was bleeding from where my fingernails had driven through. He closed my hand over the coin, shouted orders to half a dozen soldiers, and turned away, leaving me sweat-wet and shaking, like an ice-laden leaf being plucked free from its branch by a winter wind.
"Brilliant!" said Firmin a while later, as we made our hasty way to the border by a lesser-used track. "I don't mind saying that, Princeling – I always admired your war skills when you were King. It's nice to see them put to use one last time, though you were certainly placing unwonted trust in me that I would follow up on your hint."
"I need to sit down," I said.
"Wait till we reach the road. Leaving aside the danger of our encountering those soldiers, I can just envision those villagers rushing down this track to thank us again. That was a disgusting display of gratitude they gave us just now, but I suppose they had to hide from themselves the knowledge of their own cowardice. Well, you saved our money and supplies, and that's all that matters—"
"I need to sit down right now," I said, and managed to catch hold of a tree trunk to keep myself from pitching forward onto my face.
I dropped my bag and slid down into the mud as the ground rolled under my feet. Hanging my head between my knees , I swallowed back the sickness in my mouth.
Above me, Firmin crowed with laughter.
"I can't believe it," he said. "You were really going to do it, weren't you? You were going to let those soldiers punish you. I should have known that you weren't being brilliant, but quite the opposite. What made you do such an idiotic thing?"
Between gulps of air, I said, "It was the only thing I could do for the villagers. I'm sworn to defend them."
"You're taking your royal oath awfully seriously, aren't you?" Firmin said, pulling me roughly to my feet and shoving my bag into my hand. "Have you forgotten that you're a petty now? Petties have no honor – we saw that tonight."
"Don't they?" I said, feeling the cold mud cling against me as I stumbled down the track behind Firmin.
"Of course they don't. Which villager tried to help us? One of your soldiers, who has been around nobles long enough to have some idea of what honor is. Everyone else there was going to let you, a refuge-walking blind man, be punished in their place. You should have seen their faces when you stepped forward – they thought you were mad. Petties will never know what it means to be protectors. You may as well become used to living amongst men with no honor."
My head was beginning to clear. The cold stillness of the winter night ran through me like new wine. "Wearing a noble-chain is no guarantee of honor."
Firmin grabbed my arm and held me tight, as though I were a condemned man on the point of being tormented. In a low voice like the growl of a wolf, he said, "Are you referring to me, Princeling? Are you seriously suggesting that I should have raised my blade in defense of a group of enemy petties?"
"I don't know. I hadn't thought about it. I was referring to York, actually."
I had gone too far, I knew, and I expected in the next moment to feel Firmin's dagger against my heart. I had forgotten, though, that the young prince's most dangerous weapon was not his blade. He released me, and in a voice so sweet and courteous that it might have come from the Wolf himself, he said, "York has battle scars all over his body. He has defended his subjects all his life, and will do so until the day he dies. You, on the other hand, have chosen to run away from your army, to deprive your brother of what small help you might have given him, and to go hide in the Partition, all because you feel sorry for yourself and don't want anyone to know that you were once the King and Commander of Tascania. Whatever you might have been trying to prove to yourself tonight, Princeling, you were an honorless petty long before you threw your chain in the stream."
The silence which followed was so familiar that I realized that its origins lay further back than I had thought. The stillness of the village men when faced with their punishments . . . that was not where I had first learned this silence. I had learned it while bound in an isolated cell, where my only weapon of defense had been my refusal to speak.
Firmin was right: I already knew more about being a petty than I had thought, and though he could not have understood this, I felt joy go through me at the realization. Already I had taken one step back on my journey to my childhood home.
I let Firmin push me forward again, and the noble and the petty walked in silence until we reached the dusty track of Refuge Road, where we turned our faces west toward the Partition of death.