ren, the fortress city. The rock of the north. Set between the mountains and the great lake: Bren was built only for war. The mountains flanked the west and south, the lake to the north. The only clear approach to the city was from the eastern plains. And never was there a more carefully constructed sight than Bren's eastern wall. It was designed with one basic function: to promote fear in the eyes of all who approached. Its granite towers pierced the clouds, issuing an unspoken challenge to God in his heavens. The mountains, from their position behind the city, seemed to back up this challenge like a sentinel.
The outer wall was as smooth as a blade; the individual stones almost undetectable. The mason's art had reached its highest pinnacle in Bren. The walls gleamed with arrogance. They mocked all who approached, saying scale me if you dare. Cleverly designed recess' caught shadow in the morning sun. A sharp eye could detect their presence, but a keen mind only guess at their uses.
Probably for pouring hot oil and the like, thought Nabber. Or to conceal a well placed archer. He whistled in appreciation. They had no such fancy stuff in Rorn.
The boy joined the throng of people lining up to enter the city. He took off his cloak, reversed it so that the scarlet lining was on the inside once more, and put it back on. He had need of some coinage, and at such times it was best not to be too conspicuous.
He did a quick scan of the people waiting to walk through the gate. Not much prospecting here, that's for sure. A distinctly mottled and poor looking lot; farmers and beggars and worse. Not a plump and well-fed merchant amongst them. Just his luck, he'd picked the wrong gate.
"Here you," he cried to the tall, lanky guard who was on his side of the gate. "Yes you, string-o-beans."
"What d'you think you're doing addressing the duke's guard in that manner?"
"Sorry, my friend. I meant no offense. Where I come from calling a man string-o-beans is considered a compliment." Nabber beamed brightly at the guard, and waited for the inevitable question.
"Where d'you come from then?"
"Rorn. The finest city in the east. A place where men who are as unusually tall and lanky as yourself are in great demand with the women."
The guard's face registered interest and disbelief in equal measure. He sighed heavily. "What d'you want?"
"Information, my good friend."
"Not a spy, are you?"
"Of course I am. Been sent by the Archbishop of Rorn himself."
"All right, all right. None of that lip, or I won't let you pass."
Nabber smiled his winning smile. "Where do all the merchants enter the city?"
"What's that to you?"
"I lost my gaffer, that's what." Nabber was never caught short of a quick story. "Fur merchant he is. I wondered where the best place to look for him is."
"The northeast gate is where all the merchants pass. Two courtyards south is the trader's market. You might find him there."
"I'm in your debt, my friend," said Nabber. "Though I wonder if I might impose upon your extensive knowledge of the city for a moment longer?"
The guard fell for the flattery. "Go on."
"Well, situated as you are, in a most important post, you must see a lot of the people who enter the city?"
"That I do."
"Well, there's an acquaintance of mine, whom I have good reason to believe may have come this way. I wonder if you might have seen him."
The guard's face hardened. "I'm not supposed to give out information like that to foreigners. Who passes these gates is Bren's business, not yours."
"Suppose I was to tell you that this man has robbed a great deal of money from my gaffer. We both know that there ain't anyone more wealthy or generous than a fur merchant." Nabber resisted the urge to speak further and allowed the guard to come to his own conclusions. Which he did.
"Reward, is there?"
"Ssh, my friend. Speak that word any louder and half the city will be after it."
"How big is this reward?"
"I don't like to mention exact figures, if you know what I mean." Nabber waited until the guard nodded. "But suffice to say, there'd be enough to set you up real nice for your retirement. Even go to Rorn, you could. A man as handsome as yourself is wasted in this city."
"How do I know you're speaking the truth?"
"Do I look clever enough to fool you?"
The only answer the guard could possibly give was, "No."
"Right," said Nabber. "This man I'm looking for is taller than you, but not as lanky. Broad he is and well muscled. Blond hair, blue eyes, handsome if you like that kind of thing. Wearing a cloak like myself, he would be."
"What would he be doing wearing a cloak like yours?" The guard was suspicious.
"He stole it from my gaffer of course. My gaffer always likes to dress me like himself, says it makes for better business recognition." Nabber sent a silent prayer of thanks to the fictional fur merchant who was turning out to be so useful.
The guard took a step back, scratched his chin, looked at Nabber, looked at the floor, looked toward the east. Finally he spoke. "There was a man fitting your description. Entered the city on horseback about five days ago. Tall and blond he was. Right mean looking too." He thought a moment longer. "And come to think of it, he did have a cloak like yours. I remember the bright red lining."
It took all of Nabber's considerable powers of self control to stop himself from heaving a massive sigh of relief. The memory of Swift's voice echoed in his ear: "Nonchalance, boy, never show interest. Let them think you're a fool, rather than know you're a rogue."
Nabber shrugged. "Could be our man. Do you happen to know which part of the city he headed for?"
The guard looked a little disappointed at the Nabber's casualness. "There's no way of knowing that, boy. In a city the size of Bren a man might go unseen for a lifetime."
"Five days ago, you say? Is there anywhere in the city where a man with a strong arm and a skill for using weapons might head?"
"In my experience, men like that blond no-hope end up in one of two places: the brothel or the fight-pit."
"Where might I find either of those establishments?"
"On any street corner in the west of the city."
Nabber was itching to be on his way. "So, my friend, give me your name so I can let my gaffer know who it was who gave me the tip-off."
"My, my. I see you have a name as handsome as your figure. Well, Longtoad, I'll be sure to pass on the good word." Nabber sketched a hasty bow and was about to retreat, when the guard laid a hand upon his shoulder, gripping his flesh through the cloak.
"Not so fast, you little devil. I want to know the name of your gaffer the fur merchant - and your name as well for that matter."
"Steady on the fabric, Longtoad. This cloak cost a fortune." The guard relaxed his hold. "Now then, my gaffer's name is Master Beaverpelt, and me I''m known as Woolyhair. Just ask any fur trader, the name Beaverpelt is a byword for quality throughout the Known Lands."
The guard released his grip on the boy. "Beaverpelt. Ain't never heard a name like that before. You mark my words, boy, if I find you've been oiling my rag, I'll hunt you down then string you up. Now move along sharpish."
Nabber saluted the guard and then slipped into the crowd. He crossed the threshold of the east gate and entered the city of Bren. The first thing he did was sniff air. Nothing. Where was the smell? Rorn reeked of filth and sea, where was Bren's smell? He took another deep breath; drawing the air into his nostrils like a connoisseur. There was no smell. How could Bren call itself a city and yet have no odor of its own? Nabber had been to Toolay, Ness and Rainhill: they all had their own unique smells. He was disappointed. The stench of a city was its signature; a way to tell the nature of the place and its people. To Nabber's mind there was something decidedly furtive about a city that had no smell.
A man jostled against him, muttering curses and warnings. He was tall and dark, his tunic stretching tautly across a finely muscled chest. Nabber couldn't help himself. With one fast and fluid motion he reached inside the man's tunic. His hands closed around a bundle. He snatched his arm back and then turned into the crowd. He didn't look back. Swift had warned him many times about the dangers of looking back. He didn't speed his pace either, once again heeding Swift's advice: "Be a professional at all times, boy . The moment you break into a run is the moment you admit your guilt."
Nabber went with the crowd as far as it suited him and then slipped into a timely alleyway. Bren might have no smell, but at least it boasted some decently dark and fiendish passages. Nabber began to feel more at his ease as he walked through the gaps between buildings: this was familiar territory.
He trod paths that had been trodden many times before by people more desperate than himself, and fell under shadows that had cloaked those with more need for concealment than a simple pocket from Rorn. Nabber was right at home. He came across other people lurking in the alleyways and either tipped them a nod if they looked friendly, or averted his eyes if they looked dangerous.
Finally he came upon a suitably isolated recess. Crouching down he reached in his sack and pulled out the bundle. This was best part. Right before the unraveling, when anticipation met need. With practiced hands he undressed the package. The cold glint of silver met his eye. He was disappointed; better the warm glow of gold. Still, coinage was coinage. Pity about the mark, though, for he had the look of one who held gold somewhere on his person. Probably strapped to his thigh, close to his vitals. Few pockets were ever desperate enough to venture there.
Nabber sighed with the regret, and rummaged through the contents of the sack. A lot could be learned about a man from the bundle he carried. This one would have eaten a cold - and Nabber discovered rather tasteless - game pie for dinner. However, the man was use to good things for the bundle was lined with silk. He'd also been hoping to get lucky, for there was a sheep's bladder beneath the pie, oiled and ready to use. The man either had an aversion for fatherhood or a fear of the ghones.
Nabber pulled absently on the bladder, deciding its worth. There was no resale value, but he was loathe to throw anything away, so he tucked it into his pack. Perhaps he could give it to Tawl when he found him. A handsome man like his friend always had women a'queing. Unfortunately the women who were the most willing were usually the most catching. A man had need of a sheath with girls like that.
Nabber was just about to discard the bundle when something blue and shiny caught his eye. Closer inspection revealed a tiny miniature tucked away in the corner. He freed it from its hiding place and brought it into the light. He whistled in appreciation. The girl in the painting was quite a beauty; golden hair, blue eyes, lips as soft as freshly hung tripe. The dark man with the muscles had a fine taste in ladies, if not food. Flipping the miniature over revealed writing on the other side. Nabber was no scholar so the text remained unread, but he could recognize crosses that marked kisses as quick as the next man. With a shrug, he pocketed the portrait and turned his eyes to the pie.
Nabber finished it off and wondered what his next move should be. He had need of more money as his contingency had been sadly depleted due to his stay in Rainhill. Dicing had ever been his downfall, that, together with his tendency to order extravagant meals at even more extravagant inns had rendered him penniless. He'd even had to sell his pony. Though granted that wasn't a great sacrifice. Never had there been a more mutually agreeable parting than the one between Nabber and his horse.
So, he needed coinage. And a few well worn silvers just weren't enough for a boy with expensive tastes like himself. He also needed to find the knight.
Tawl was somewhere in the city, he was almost certain of it. The guard at the gate had merely confirmed his suspicions. Nabber had followed the knight's trail for over three weeks now; visiting villages that Tawl had passed through, following paths that Tawl had rode on. Nabber had talked to countless strangers about the knight, and if they'd seen him pass they remembered a man with with golden hair and dangerously blank eyes.
Tawl needed him. It wasn't in the boy's nature to ask too many questions, so he didn't dwell on the reason why. He just knew that the knight was in trouble and required rescuing. Nabber was the one who would step in and do the job.
He knew that Tawl had been on some heroic quest, the sort that knights were always on, and he feared that his friend may have given up his duty. Nabber considered it his responsibility to put the knight back on track. It was different for him: once a low life, always a low life. He had no desire to be anything other than a pocket, unless of course it was to be a rich pocket. But Tawl, well he was noble and honorable, and it just wasn't right that he should go astray. Who could tell? By helping his friend, he might be helping himself. Quests were notorious money spinners.
He looked up past the darkened buildings to the sky above. It was already past midday, time to get a move on. In his experience it was at about this time that merchants, with a full morning of trading behind them and before they'd had chance to spend their profits in the taverns, had the fullest pockets. Nabber struck a path towards the northeast gate, where, if memory served him, the trader's market was held. Opportunity beckoned and he was never one to ignore the call.
"I'm just going out for a minute. I need to stretch my legs." Jack knew Melli would protest.
"But the blizzard's still raging. You'll catch your death," she said. "Can't you wait and see if it clears up a little first?"
She was worried about him, he could tell from the set of her mouth: soft lips drawn to a hard line. Well she would just have to worry. He needed some air. Four days holed up in a chicken coop had taken their toll. He had to be outside, to see the expanse of the land rather than the enclosure of the walls. He needed to be by himself.
He didn't want to hurt Melli by telling her that, so he said, "Nature calls."
A flush came to her cheek, but even her embarrassment at the mention of such an indelicate subject was not enough to forestall a warning. "Don't venture far."
Jack couldn't help but smile - a man could love a woman like that. "Don't worry," he said, "I won't be gone long." Their eyes met and, as if something in her gaze compelled him, he stretched out his hand. It hung in the air between them until her hand stretched out to meet it. Her fingers were cool and her touch light, but it was enough for Jack, who knew little of such things. He resisted the urge to squeeze and enfold her hand: he didn't want to risk rejection. So he withdrew quickly, and he knew awkwardly, from her touch.
They had been together many months now and although shared danger had brought them closer, there would always be a distance between them. She was a noblewoman and he was a baker's boy and they could travel hand-in-hand for a lifetime and still end up a world apart.
Night after night they had spent huddled close with only a stretch of blanket between them. Jack knew how she smelled in the morning, he'd seen her laugh and shout, but never cry. He knew just enough about her to realize that she would never be for him. There would be no future in a relationship between them; love, there might be, but that wouldn't be enough for either of them. He needed a girl who he could hug and kiss and fight with. A girl with spirit, like Melli, but one who didn't make him feel as if he were a clumsy country boy.
Jack turned to the door and began to force it back against the wind. A flurry of snow gusted forth into the chicken coop. Jack looked back at Melli before stepping out into the blizzard. She didn't smile. She stood rigid with the gale blowing at her dark hair. Too beautiful by far for him.
The door closed with the cut of the wind the moment he let it go. Biting, terrible cold assaulted him, rife and sparring snow blinded him. He'd only walked a few steps when his foot kicked something hard. He crouched down and felt what it was. The body of the man he'd killed four days ago. It had to be moved. For Melli. He wouldn't let the first thing she saw once the storm passed be a dead man.
Hands already graying with cold sought out the collar of the dead man's tunic. The body was embedded deep within the snow and took all of Jack's strength to free it. With grim determination, he began to drag the body along the ground. The snow was nearly two foot deep and the corpse cleaved through it like a plough.
Another man dead. How many more would he kill? At least this had been a clean death. No taint of sorcery had marked this man's end. He'd killed with a blade and there was more dignity in the death because of it. Or was he fooling himself? Did it make any difference to the Halcus soldier? Sorcery or blade, he was still dead. The mourning would be the same.
Jack's arms began to ache. His back felt like it would break. His hands had passed through gray to blue, and he knew enough about the cold to realize that frostbite would soon follow. Dragging the man's body through the snow was his penance. Master Frallit had told him many times that a man should pay for his mistakes. If he cut too much butter into the dough and it baked closer to a cake than a loaf, the master baker would allow him nothing to eat for a week except the ruined bread. Jack had resented Frallit's hard ways at the time, but now he grasped on to the idea of atonement with an eagerness born of self-reproach.
He was a baker's boy, not a murderer. Everything was so different from what he was used to. It was as if his life was no longer under his control. Ever since the morning when he'd burned the loaves, he found himself doing things out of character. He had killed someone for shelter. What gave him the right to put his needs above someone else's? There was Melli of course: he would have killed a hundred men to give her safe haven. But if he were honest it was more than just Melli. Four days back when he'd forced the door of the chicken coop and found two men poised with knives drawn, he'd discovered something very hard and unemotional inside of himself. The will to survive.
It was what had drove him through the freezing plains of Halcus, and what would make him continue on no matter what he was faced with. Perhaps the incident with the loaves hadn't changed him in any way, merely brought something out in him that was already there. His mother was strong. Even toward the end when her body failed, her strength of will was breathtaking. She refused the help of the physicians and would not take anything to dull the pain that might dull her wits as well.
Only in her case it seemed as if she didn't want to survive. Jack's fingers were frozen to the dead man's collar, but it was not the cold that chilled to the bone. A fragment of memory, more tenuous than a wisp of snow, filtered down through the accumulated recollections of eight years passed. A snatch of conversation, not meant for his ears: " She's a tough one, that's for sure."
"Aye, but if she won't let them slice her, she'll be a gonna just the same."
"Not a chance of that, friend. She won't even take a poultice to stay the growth, let alone take a knife to cut it out."
He hadn't even understood it at the time, and the years had conspired to make him forget, but today, dragging a body to a place fit for the dead, he realized what it meant: his mother had wanted to die. Her will, so much more than a match for his own, had been directed towards death not survival.
The wind keened sharp and relentless. The dead man pulled at his back. He was so weary; there was too much he didn't understand. If he looked for answers he found heartache instead. Why had she wanted to die? Was her life in the castle so bad? Or was he just a worthless son? He missed her so much. She was the only person who was truly his, only now it seemed she'd forsaken him. Just as his father had done.
It would be so easy to give everything up, to lie down in the snow beside the dead man and keep him company in the world beyond. Jack stopped for a moment, watching the cool cheek of the horizon, as he tried to swallow the lump in his throat. There was no question really, he had to continue. Fate was at his heels and it guided his feet forward to the dance.
On Jack walked, the dead man in his wake, back doubled up with the burden.
The wind was with him, bearing him along from the coop. It blustered and howled, hamming up its part in the drama, and the snow formed a backdrop with its silent display. Jack looked back. He was now a fair distance from the little wooden shack. It wasn't far enough. He couldn't leave the body within sight of the coop. He owed it to the dead man.
Finally he came upon a copse of trees that were camouflaging a slight depression in the land. He drew close, breath short and ragged from the strain of dragging the body, and saw that a frozen pond formed the center of the dip. This was where he would leave his burden.
He slid down the slope and the dead man followed. The ice was as hard as stone. Jack pushed the body toward the middle of the surface, and folded the dead man's arms across his chest. He stood above him and watched as snow gathered once more upon the cold flesh. The body began to take on the look of a stone carving. The snow shone upon the flesh like silver filings, adorning, ennobling. Satisfied that he had managed to give the man at least a semblance of dignity, Jack turned and scaled the slope.
Only when he reached the top did he allow his hands the shelter of his cloak. As he emerged from the tangle of bush and tree he spied the coop in the distance. Something dark moving from the west caught his eye. He couldn't gain perspective for a moment and thought it was flock of birds or a even a herd of cattle. His vision crystallized and in that instant his heart missed a beat. The sensation was nothing like the dreamy descriptions given by love poets. It was hard, jolting, throwing his whole body out of kilter: unsettling his very core.
The dark mass was mounted men, the Halcus, and they were heading toward the chicken coop. Toward Melli.
One step forward and then Jack felt the sliver of a blade upon his throat.
"Take another step and you're dead."
Melli was beginning to feel worried. Jack had been gone too long. There had been something odd about him when he left, and for one horrible moment she'd had the feeling that she wouldn't be seeing him again. Such fancies were pure foolishness, she told herself, as she paced the meager length of the coop.
The past weeks had been the most strenuous in her life, taking their toll not only from her body but her mind as well. She dreaded to think what the rigors of winter had done to her face, and was glad there was no mirror to confirm her suspicions. More important than that, though, was the loss of her peace of mind. Such an overused and undervalued phrase. Peace of mind was as simple as falling asleep and knowing there would be a hot drink waiting when you awoke, and as precious as seeing your worth in the eyes of the ones that you loved. It was, when one got down to the root of it, the assurance of stability. The comfort of knowing things would always being the same. Now, for her, there were no such assurances.
She unplugged the knot hole and looked out onto the blank snow, looking north and then east. She didn't believe her eyes at first. Although she had looked to the east for the past four days with the sole intent of spotting the enemy, now that she actually saw them coming, they seemed to be an appalling trick of fate. Like a child, she had supposed that watching for them would keep them away. She did not have time to mourn the loss of yet another stolen assurance.
Judging from their distance she had a minute or two to make ready. Melli could not allow herself to think of Jack, she must think only of herself. She was the measure of her own worth now, and the subtle and unbendable arrogance that only comes to those who are born into a world of high privilege, enabled her to value herself highly.
Rummaging through her scant possessions, she found the small food knife that the old woman pig farmer had given her. It was half the size of the pig-gutting knife and not nearly as sharp. There was no sense in her challenging a whole group of men with such a weapon. She decided to conceal the knife and use it later when the odds against her lessened. That was if the odds were given a chance to lessen.
Melli wouldn't allow herself to think like that. She would not give in to fear. She would meet the enemy with head held high. Let them know that the women of the Four Kingdoms were a force to be reckoned with, just like the men.
She drew the knife into her bodice, thinking luck was once again with her. She was still wearing the old fashioned dress that the pig farmer had given her. Unlike her own stylish court dresses, this had an out of date boned corset. So stiff and dense was the area between waist and breast that the hardness of a small knife might go undetected amongst the bones.
The noise of the riders could now be heard and Melli grew afraid. Her hands fluttered nervously to her face and then her bodice. Her cloak! She would put on her cloak. She could barely tie the fastening, so violently were her hands shaking. Her stomach was an empty hollow and its vacuum pulled at her nerves like a hunger.
The door burst open. Two men stood in the threshold and more behind them. "Where is the bastard?" demanded the first, the tallest.
Melli clasped her hands tightly together, tilted her chin and said with all the bravado she could muster, "Which bastard?"
The man's face momentarily registered confusion. He was quick to recover his equilibrium. "Don't trade words with me, girl. Lest you'll speak yourself into the grave." He dropped his voice an octave lower and Melli recognized the modulated tones of unquestioned authority. "Now then. Tell me where the boy is who killed one of my men." An abrupt hand gesture brought the second man forward. He was wielding a leather bound club.
"Why gentleman I was hoping you'd be able to tell me where he is, for I'm damned if I know." Melli could see surprise on the men's faces. She seized her advantage and continued. "Walked out on me he did, just this morning. Stole all my money. When you eventually find him I'd be glad if you could give him a few extra blows just for me."
Another man forced his way in - the place was getting decidedly crowded - and Melli recognized him as the one who had escaped from the coop four days back. Her heart sunk as he said, "Don't believe a word of it, captain, she cried a warning to the mad devil. She's in league with him."
A trace of contempt could be seen in the face of the captain as his man spoke. "Well, girl," he said. "What have you to say to that?"
Melli got the distinct impression he knew she was lying and was merely amusing himself at her expense. She soldiered on regardless. "What is there to say, sir? Have you never disliked a man yet pulled him from the path of a horse anyway?"
The leader grunted. "I see the women of the kingdoms are as slick tongued as the men are thick headed."
"I can't speak for the men of my country," said Melli. "But on behalf of the women, I thank you. It must be a nice change for you to talk to a woman who does not whine like a goat."
The leader burst out laughing at this allusion to the complaining nature usually ascribed to the women of Halcus. He was about to speak when a voice called from behind:
"Captain! There's tracks in the snow. Looks as if something's been dragged away."
"The villain robbed my supplies," said Melli quickly. "Took a whole winter's worth of cheeses." She guessed Jack had done away with the body and knew that now was not a good time to mention it.
The captain ignored her comments. "How old are the tracks?"
"Fresh I would say, sir. No more than an hour or two old."
"Well follow them, you blasted fool! Take an extra five men." He turned to Melli. "I'll wait here with this little vixen. The rest of you outside."
Jack moved his head a fraction to look at his assailant. As he did so he felt something press against side of his throat. Only when the warm trickle of blood rolled down his neck did he realize he'd been cut. He was too numb from the cold to feel pain, so he had no way of telling how deep the wound was. A second knife pressed against his back.
"Don't move, or I'll kill you." The voice that spoke had an edge as hard as a blade. Jack stood perfectly still. The only thing he could see of the man was the white of his breath in the cool air.
Jack watched the riders approaching the coop. There were a full score of them. The wind, which had whipped and cut all morning, beating the snow into a frenzy, seemed to take a malicious delight in suddenly calming, allowing him a clear view of the little shack. He held his breath as the riders slowed and dismounted, and then one man kicked the wooden door open. Jack felt a pressure growing within; familiar, loathsome, yet strangely compelling. The taste was in his mouth, like copper, like blood: sorcery. It had been many weeks since he'd last felt its swell. He would not give in to it. As if seconding his unspoken resolution, his attacker jabbed the knife into his back. The press of the blade against his spine halted its flow.
Although he could not see the face of the man, he sensed a tension from him, perhaps in the increasing pressure of the knife. It occurred to Jack that although he spoke with the harsh tones of the Halcus, the man was not one of the group below, and in fact did not want to be spotted by them.
Jack looked on as three men entered the coop. He could almost picture the scene. He had no doubt that Melli would meet the Halcus with dignity. She was, above all else, proud. But for all his confidence in her bearing, he knew it would mean nothing to hardened soldiers. They would do whatever they wanted.
At that moment the chicken coop, which was no more than a spot on Jack's vision, formed the center of his universe. If only he knew what was happening. If only he hadn't left. The tension became unbearable. He had to go to her. Or at least try.
He sprang forward. Free from the knife for only an instant, his attacker sprang with him. Before Jack knew it, the blade was about his body once more. Strange how the metal was warm despite the cold.
"Don't think you can run from me." The voice again, low and hard. "Is the girl in the shack worth losing your life over?"
Jack was just comprehending the threat behind the man's words, when the scene below changed. Six men had mounted their horses and were beginning to follow the dead man's trail in the snow.
"Come." The man pushed Jack before him, forcing him in the opposite direction from the approaching riders. Jack caught a glimpse of one of his blades: it was curved and blackened, combining deadliness with show.
The pressure which had been so overwhelming only minutes before, had now dissipated leaving a sick feeling in Jack's stomach. Strangely, he drew courage from its absence: it was better to meet his fate with his body as his sole weapon. Not entirely true. He remembered the pig-gutting knife tucked into his belt. He would have a weapon after all. With stealth that would make a pickpocket proud, Jack drew his knife. He felt the lick of the blade upon his belly: the edge was still keen.
The attacker was quickening their pace. Hooves could now be heard crunching the virgin snow. They emerged from the cover of the trees and two horses awaited.
"Get on the mare." The man accompanied this order with a push of his knife. Jack turned, blade in hand, and slashed at him. He was surprised to find a large but portly red-haired man as his foe. "You waste my time, boy," he said, a trace of annoyance mixed with something suspiciously like amusement. "Well, come at me if you must, but make it fast. There's men approaching."
Jack suddenly felt rather foolish. He had no skill with the blade, and the man before him, although heavyset seemed to have all the confidence and skill of a master. He moved his substantial weight from foot to foot with the grace of a dancer. Both short-knife and curved sword drew subtle shapes of encouragement in the air. "Come, boy, don't prolong the inevitable."
Jack lunged forward, pig-gutting knife at what he hoped to be a threatening angle. The curved blade knocked the knife from his hand with a bone-shattering jolt. In that instant the short-knife was upon his throat.
The man shook his head. "You shouldn't have been distracted by the sword, boy. It's the short-knife that will always find you." He turned his head, intent on listening for the advancing riders. They were close now. "Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to take drastic measures." With a flip of his wrist, the curved blade jumped into the air, spun around, and then landed blade in palm. Jack watched as the short-knife was drawn back. Then unexpectedly, he felt a powerful blow to the back of his head. His skull cracked loudly, and the world began to fade away.
The last thing he heard before he passed out was the man saying: "Of course, you should never have been fooled by the short-knife. It's the sword that will always get you."
"So," said the captain, "now that we're alone perhaps you can tell me what a Four Kingdom's noblewoman is doing roaming around Halcus." He permitted his mouth the curve of smugness, whilst his fingers traced the line of his moustache, reworking the fat and making it gleam once more.
Melli was beginning to regret her flippant manner; all her clever words had led to this. If she hadn't piqued his interest she would probably be outside being gagged and bound. And judging from her previous experiences with men, that would most definitely be preferable.
The coop now seemed unbearable small. The captain, leathers creaking with every breath, filled the room with the force of his presence, rather than the fact of his body.
"Your tongue appears to have lost its speed," he said. "Am I to take it that you can't put on a performance without an audience?"
Melli knew the danger in being thought a noblewoman of the enemy. She would be tortured and raped, then when there was little of her left, she would be ransomed. Every day the enemy waited on the payment would mean one less finger. Two years ago the Lady Varella had been kidnapped from her husband's estates along the River Nestor. When she had finally been returned she had only two fingers left. Three months later the woman had taken her life. Unable to grasp dagger or measure poison, she had thrown herself into the bull pen, and had been gored on the horns of her husband's mightiest bull. Melli shuddered at the remembrance. She would not be returned home fingerless.
She smiled coquettishly, and thrust forward her bosom. "Why, sir, you do me an honor thinking me nobly born. Though of course my grandfather's uncle on my mother's side was said to be nephew of a squire." Melli judged a simpering giggle was in order and acted accordingly. "So, as you can see, I do have some claims on the blood."
"You expect me to believe this?" The captain's handsome face grew dangerous. "You think me foolish enough not to know when I'm in the presence of a woman of the blood. You need to work on your acting, my lady. Your voice gives everything away." He moved towards Melli and grasped her arm. The smell of leather and sweat surrounded her. "Give me the truth now, or pay the price for your lies."
Melli took shallow breaths. She didn't want to draw in his scent: such a personal thing, the smell of another. "You are a clever man, sir." Melli stretched a slow smile, giving herself time to think. "I am indeed a noblewoman...of sorts." She knew she had to devalue herself, to become a less alluring prize. The Lady Verella's husband had been a wealthy man, with an even wealthier family. "I am the daughter of Erin, Lord of Luff." Melli picked a well known, poverty-stricken lord as her father. Besides his poverty, Luff was famous for his promiscuity, and had fathered many bastards. "I am not of his wife's issue," she said bowing her head.
"Luff's bastard. eh?" The captain squeezed her arm tighter. "Then what are you doing in Halcus?"
"I'm on my way to Annis. My father has a cousin there who is a dressmaker, and I am to be apprenticed."
"If your father thinks so little of you to send you to a trade, why then would he bother to have you versed in courtly manners?"
"We are not barbarians in the kingdoms."
The captain raised his hand and slapped her. Although she'd been expecting it, the blow still sent her reeling. She fell back against the wall of the coop and landed awkwardly in the matted straw. Her cheek was bright with pain, and when blood flowed to her skin it stung like vinegar.
"Watch your tongue, bitch." The captain stood over her, his elegant moustache framing his cruel mouth. "Seeing as you are of little worth, I best take my rewards where I find them." He leaned over her, his leathers straining and creaking, his mouth wet with saliva and moustache grease.
Melli was cornered. The walls were a prison, and the scratch of the dry straw was a torture. His mouth was on hers and tooth knocked against tooth. His lean tongue was in her mouth. Its presence revolted her and she bit down upon it. The captain's free arm whipped back. Pain exploded in her abdomen. He punched her again, lower this time, in the vulnerable flesh between her hips.
"Don't act like a coy virgin with me," he said. "A daughter of a bastard has no business with shows of virtue. You've had men aplenty before." His hands were running down her bodice, searching for the ties.
The knife! She couldn't let him find the knife. She had to distract him.
"I am a virgin," she cried. To her own ears, this, the first truth that she had uttered in his presence, had the clear ring of conviction about it.
The captain backed away, almost imperceptively. He reached out and took her chin in his hand, tilting her face to meet his. "Look at me and say that again."
"I am a virgin." Melli could not understand the man's sudden change of demeanor.
"I believe you speak the truth." He stood up and smoothed down his leather tunic. "So not all the women of the kingdoms rut like beasts, eh?" His eyes sharpened from the dullness of lust to the brightness of greed. Melli had lived long enough with her father to know when a man's face showed the knowledge of profit to be made. She was suddenly nervous, fearing that she had made a terrible error.
"What's it to you that I am a virgin?"
"I'm not about to answer questions from a bastard's daughter." A banging at the door diverted his attention. "Come."
The man who wielded the leather-bound club entered the coop. He spied Melli on the floor and smirked.
"Get up bitch!" commanded the captain. He then turned his attention back to his second. "Have you picked up the murderer?" "No. He got away."
"What d'you mean, got away?" The captain's voice was chilling in its calmness. "How can someone on foot outrun six mounted men?"
"He had some help. A red-haired man had two horses waiting. They rode like the devil."
"Red haired, you say?" The captain's hand was back smoothing his moustache.
The second nodded. "There was something strange about the whole business. The boy was slumped over his horse."
"Was he wounded?"
"It's hard to say."
"You mean you never got close enough to get a good look." The captain shot a glance at Melli. "I suppose it would be useless to ask you about this red-haired man?"
Melli was experiencing a whirl of emotions; wonder at Jack escaping, worry that he might be hurt, curiosity over who the red-haired man might be, and fear about what bearing the incident might have on her own circumstances. To make things worse, the pain in her stomach and lower abdomen was excruciating. "I know nothing of a red-haired man."
"Mm." The captain appeared to make a decision. "Very well. For now we'll head back to the village. We'll mount a proper search for the boy once the storm gives."
"Why the rush, captain?" said the second. "Why not finish your business here?" He looked pointedly at Melli. "And then maybe you'll be generous enough to share your fortune."
"No one will touch the girl. Understand, no one." The captain eyed the puzzled face of his second. "She is a virgin, Jared." The second nodded with comprehension. "A mighty fine looking one at that." "She's been court trained too." The second whistled. "Quite a prize." The captain turned his attention back to Melli. "Can I trust you to ride on your own, or will I have to bind you like a thief?" The exchange between the two men had filled Melli with apprehension. The combination of worry and punches made her feel sick. She was determined to show neither fear nor pain. "I will ride alone," she said.