Draft Histories: Crossroads 4 Chapter 3

On Draft Histories I’ve been releasing never published chapters and scenes for a story that, at the time, I called Crossroads 4 (hereafter C4, the 2010 draft version). This is part of that sequence.

Chapter 3

The forest lay quiet except for a faint erratic snapping: the sound of feet falling on dry leaves and dusty earth. Braced in the canopy of a sprawling [name] tree, Kellas closed his eyes to concentrate. A breeze fluttered, its breath cool on his face. His gloved hands tightened on the leash that held the net. A twig tapped the back of his helmet. His comrade Ezan breathed noisily as he, too, caught the sound of men walking and realized what it meant for their band of six: The bandits were coming their way.

They had set up late last night and now midday had come and gone while they waited, sipping water and nibbling on rice cakes and thin strips of smoked venison. Zeyard whispered something to Denni over on the mountain side of the path. Idiot. Didn’t he know how voices carried on such a quiet day? On the stream side, Aikar and Battas kept their mouths shut, but they shifted around, undergrowth rustling.

Kel opened his eyes just in time to see the wire, which had been laid across the narrow forest path under the cover of an artfully layered scumble of ground litter, stir like a snake woken by the warmth of the rising sun. He hissed through his teeth and the rope stopped moving. One of them mumbled a curse; they tramped; a voiced question floated through the branches.

“What got down my craw,” a man said as in answer to the question, “was when he took in the very soldiers we was meant to be fighting. That’s when I said there was something smelling of rotten fish about the entire business, not to mention that outlander styling himself commander. As if we in the Hundred need some manner of overlord like they have in other places. It’s like he had his eyes on the treasure chest the whole cursed time while you lot could not see his greedy, reaching hand.”

“The hells, Giffi, you’re always full of knowing what’s what long after the pudding is eaten from the pot.” The vanguard came into view, two men dressed in a piece-meal quilt of armor, leather, and patched clothing all carefully tended. Each wore a sheathed sword, and both carried hunting spears, points leading. “No one could have guessed that those who offered to save us were only offering a yoke to bind our necks–”

“Would the pair of you keep your mouths shut?” said someone behind them, not yet visible behind the bend in the path although movement flashed through the dusty leaves. “You know the sparrow warned us to get out because wolves are come prowling. So keep your mouths shut until we’re over the ridge.”

Kellas tried to estimate heads and bodies, for although they’d been told no more than ten men roamed the high country above Elegant Falls in the upper valley of the Asharat, he never trusted such estimates. It was always smarter to expect things would not go as planned.

And anyway, the cursed group was strung out farther apart than they would have wished. He angled his hip to get his left thigh wedged against the bole of the tree. Ezan, despite being an annoying braggart, kept his position with the patience drilled into all of the Black Wolves, the Hundred’s elite soldiers.

The hells! Twelve of the outlaws came into view, striding in close formation, tense but not frightened, and the man at the rear half turned to signal to yet some other person or persons farther behind. The two men in the front had already passed over the pit without noticing anything odd about the slight give in the ground and right under the tree without looking up. The little cadre held their positions with admirable discipline. Waiting . . .

Waiting . . .

When the mass of the central group was over the pit, Denni pulled the trap that released the logs and the ground gave way beneath the bandits. Three plunged straight onto the stakes below, screams breaking as the points split flesh, as the rest scrambled at the crumbling edge. Kel released the net onto the three men on the leading side, causing one to lose his balance and slide into the pit, dragging the other two with him. Four more men came running up the track, swords drawn. The rope had been meant for men escaping the pit, but Denni acted on this new threat and yanked it taut just as the first two hit it, tumbling over and leaving the two behind prey to Keyard’s arrows. Ezan had already loosed two arrows into the chest of a man reaching down to pull one of his comrades out of the pit; the man pitched forward onto the stakes.

Kel looked away, grabbing for the rope he had strung up from a farther, higher branch of the wide [name tree]. Ezan had laughed at him, of course, saying it wasn’t the kind of thing people could actually do even if they managed it in tales, but Kel hadn’t been able to resist. With his knives strapped across his chest and his sword in a sheath on his back, he vaulted off the branch and swung down gauging distance and depth as he tucked up his legs. The forward scouts had already turned and started running back, and he caught them entirely by surprise with a foot in each chest. The impact slammed him to a halt as they staggered and one went down. He flipped in the air as he released the rope, and landed on his feet behind them.

“Come out and meet us, you cursed cowards!” a man was bellowing, voice ripped raw by pain.

Kel drew his sword as he kicked out the legs of the man still standing and slammed the pommel into the sweet spot at the back of his neck. He dropped like stone but the other one was rising, hands gripping his spear’s shaft. He thrust, and Kel ducked aside, cut in, and struck with the pommel under the man’s chin. With a grunt, the man sagged into him, toppling him back. He let the weight carry him down and rolled sideways before the body pinned him, coming up to see a pair of arrows–these Keyard’s reds–stuck in the man’s back. Steel clashed. Kel dipped to one knee beside the man he’d dropped, flung away his weapons, and unknotting the kerchief at his neck, he bound the soldier’s hands tightly behind his back.

Rose to a cautious crouch, gaze scanning the path: where did they need him?

As it happened, nowhere. The other five had finished off the rest. He trotted up as Battas slid down into the pit and cut the throats of the men thrashing below; a mercy, surely, seeing how the sharpened points had pierced one man right through the belly, blood pumping from both gut and back, and another with the point having gone through the body but merely pushed that last barrier of skin up between two ribs like a gruesomely distorted doll. He made himself watch as their bodies went limp, life draining away. Folk said that one of the reasons Commander Anji was so powerful was that he was gods-touched, that he could see the spirits rising out of the dying as they made their way to Spirit Gate to cross over to the other side. Kel could not see a cursed thing except red blood, withered leaves, and gathering flies. Battas had a couple of cuts, nothing major; Denni had a lump on his head because his helmet had come off and he’d been whacked by something, and Keyard was limping where he’d taken a solid blow to the leg. Otherwise, they were rumpled, filthy, sweating, and bloody, but ready to go.

“Heya, Kel!” shouted Ezan. “Looks like you only got one. You’re a cursed long count behind us, neh?”

Keyard said, “not even one. That fellow’s still alive and trying to crawl off the hells-cursed path.”

“I thought Chief Jagi would want to interrogate one of them,” said Kel.

“Neh, his orders was just to kill them all.” Ezan strode over to the man vainly squirming into the brush and stuck him like a pig once, twice and a third time as the man squealed and gabbled for mercy in a voice made grating and awful by the appalling cruelty of his pain.

“Eiya!” shouted Denni. “Just kill him, Ez! You think you’re impressing us?”

The horrible screams ceased. Silence swept like a cold wind over them. No birds chirped. They shuffled around, counting off Keyard’s reds, Ezan’s yellows, and Aikar’s blues, and it happened that Aikar had made the most hits although because in some cases a bandit had been hit by more than one color it was difficult to know which point had actually killed them.

They gathered all the weapons and picked through the men’s bags, but beyond a few pitiful strings of vey–these weren’t rich bandits, that was certain–and a decent stock of food recently obtained, the soldiers carried little of interest: a child’s worn cloth doll, a yellow silk scarf knotted in four places like a memento of a lost lover, and a silver ring now spattered with blood around the neck of the man Ez had slaughtered. Ez took the ring as his prize, but the scarf, although good quality silk, had about it such an air of ghostly melancholy that they left it with the man as they dumped him into the pit with the other dead bandits, eighteen in all.

Kel sorted through the stock of food as Battar and Aikar bundled up the weapons.

“What, you still hungry?” Keyard asked.

“Neh,” said Kel. “But see these cheeses? Might be we can figure out where the provisions came from. That way we could track the bandits’ movement. Interview people who might have seen them pass. It might be folk sympathetic to their cause supplied them with this food. Or it might be folk will tell false tales in the hopes of getting a hated neighbor in trouble. You never know.”

“Whsst!” said Keyard with a laugh. “I suppose a small time criminal like you would know about such things.”

Kel forced a grin while berating himself. He ought just to have left things as they were, not tried to nose out more secrets. He wasn’t here to track down secret cabals and nests of criminals and malcontents, and everything would be spoiled if his comrades learned what he really was. “Eh, you’ve caught me out, me and my shameful ways. Still, it makes you think, doesn’t it? And what did the one man mean, when he said a sparrow warned of prowling wolves?”

They thought about it while hiking out of the steep upper valley where they had set up their ambush, arguing all the way down about how much you could know from a round of common cheese. Battas and Aikar, being brought up on farms, claimed that you could know a cursed lot from a round of common cheese, while Ezan and Keyard were sure you could not know much. Denni kept his mouth shut, except once, when he suggested that Chief Jagi might want to interrogate everyone in the five villages within a half day’s walk of the fort. Kel hung to the rear, back prickling, sure they were being watched, but he heard nothing and saw nothing except, once, a crow perched on a fallen log in a clearing. Its black eyes were trained on them with the inhuman intelligence native to crows, but when Kel swung around, startled by its presence, and took aim with his bow, it took wing and vanished over the treetops.

He grinned. He’d never have skewered it, although Aikar might have. For a few breaths, letting the others pass out of sight, he savored the empty path and the quiet forest, alone in the world, no other living creature in sight although he could heard Ezan and Zeyard still arguing. Their voices faded. He shook himself and trotted after.

After a while, they passed a pair of upcountry farms ringed by stockades that protected against wild beasts rather than men. Even the nearby village was fenced to fend off deer and rabbits, not armed marauders. Chief Jagi waited with his command staff just beyond the village where the path forked in three directions. He took their report, then delegated a different sub cadre–one who hadn’t seen any action, to their disgust–to accompany a group of villagers with donkeys to fetch the bodies and haul them the three days’ journey down to the crossroads by the town of Sharra Crossing. There, they would be hung from posts until their sinews rotted away and their bones fell to the earth like so much rubbish. So were the bodies of all criminals displayed after execution, as an example to the reckless and dissatisfied who might think to follow them and as a promise to those folk who simply wished to live in an orderly peace.

“Go back to the fort,” he said to their sub cadre. “You’ve got liberty until your regular duty shift tomorrow.”

They jog-walked the two mey back to the fort and, instead of lying down to rest after their night awake, washed thoroughly in the tubs while the soldiers who had been stuck in the fort came in to find out what happened.

“Eighteen! You lot have all the luck.” About ten loitered, standing under the thatched awning or sitting on the benches set up on the planks that surrounded the washing tubs. “Not one cursed bit of excitement happened here the last two days.”

“Eh, we got another report, from Serry Village this time, that some drunken farmer saw a ghost woman out walking in the night.”

“Same as the other?” demanded Ezan. “Cloaked like twilight?”

“We should be so fortunate as to get a chance at killing a demon!” said the others, laughing. “Fifteen years we wolves have been chasing those cursed demons, and only second company ever took one down. Others have tried–you know how that’s gone. So you’ve already had your hells-cursed glory, Ez. If we find her, you keep your hands off her!”

“Them who stand where the wine is poured will get the first drink,” retorted Ez as he rinsed off his sweaty, sodden hair. “Heya, lads, what say we go down to that thrice-rotted inn and drink what passed for decent rice wine here in this cold-cursed valley?”

The others did not, of course, have liberty, which is why Ez made the suggestion in front of them. Chief Jagi rarely offered spoken praise to those of the soldiers under his command who did well, but he had other ways of showing that their performance had met his approval. So Kel swaggered out with the others–swaggering was necessary–and they put on their cold-weather cloaks and hurried down the main road to the village of Feather Vale, a thirsty mey’s walk with dusk floating down over them.

Chief Jagi had made an arrangement with an inn on the outskirts of the village; his men could take their liberty there as long as they did not fight with the locals and broke nothing, and his steward paid up the bill at the end of each week. The place was nothing special: a long porch where men stowed their sandals and boots before going inside to a single square room floored with old mats and made comfortable with low tables and very worn flat pillows for seating. Upcountry, like here, it actually got cold at night in the season of Shiver Sky, and the room was cunningly fitted with small lidded iron pots with vents and a grated bottom with a plate beneath to catch ash; in these, charcoal burnt to warm a man’s legs. Such things were never seen in Toskala. Then again, Keyard and Denni hadn’t even bothered to wear cold weather cloaks, claiming that it was just not that cursed cold here.

They argued at their table as the locals glanced their way and went back to their own drinking and gossip. The tavern had a rustic air, quite different from the sophisticated establishments in Toskala. The plank walls were unpolished wood; the ceiling was simply the thatching of the roof meeting at a peak high above where a feather of smoke drew a thread along the brace beam. The two women who worked in the tavern carried plain wooden trays and undecorated ceramic vessels and poured rice wine into crudely glazed cups, farmers’ ware. The smoke from the little warming stoves stung Kel’s eyes. He shut them, sinking back slightly, letting his shoulders relax. Images from the skirmish in the forest flashed in his mind, blending together: a fly crawling across a dead man’s open eye; a bobbing fern spattered with blood; Battas methodically wiping clean his sword, expression blank; the lush canopy of the [name] tree with its branching architecture offering so many places to climb and crouch; the watchful crow.

He forced his attention outward, letting the images ripple away like a pond disturbed by a stone’s toss.

The locals at the table behind them were speaking in low voices. “–says he saw the ghost woman again. D’ye think it’s a demon like the soldiers say?”

“Whsst! Not so loud or they’ll come calling to talk to you, and you don’t want that. Bad enough to have the wolves here now hunting in the woods. If they hear that tale old Dokon said about a light on Broken Ridge, they’ll never leave.”

Interesting. Something to tell Chief Jagi later.

The day and night behind him weighed heavily as the rice wine, heated to cure the cloying sweetness of a third-quality brew, went to his head. He had the knack of dozing lightly, alert to movement or any change of tone or mood in those around him. He could nod out, and then wake instantly to murmur a pointless comment–“is that so, Ez? Did you really do that?”–and fade out again.

Zeyard told a story about when he’d first seen one of the Qin soldiers, come recruiting likely young men up in Teriayne. The locals discussed an upcoming wedding. A man coughed. The door tapped shut once, twice, a third time. A man vomited. Water splashed over the porch outside, rinsing away the bile.

Was that a horn’s cry, far in the distance?

He stiffened to full wakefulness, turning his head, but after all it had only been a sound chasing through his dream, perhaps a memory of the time he’d almost been caught by an angry band of hunters who had pursued him over fifty mey from the town of Seven after he’d been sent to eliminate the hieros of the Devourer’s temple there for plotting sedition.

“So the wind came up, and mind you, when the wind comes up, that makes the water that much more dangerous.” Ez was telling the story of a chase across the Bay of Messalia between a pair of canoes. Ezan had a southern way of talking–vowels twisted wrong and half of his b’s turned to soft v’s–and a braggart’s way of making more of the story than was likely there. But he sure as the hells was impressing the other Black Wolves seated on the benches and more drunk than they ought to be with a full mey of black night to be traversed between here and the fort.

“And after ten mey they were tiring, I’ll tell you.” Ezan mimed men panting and blowing as their arms and backs tired. “Then we came around the cliffs of Sorry Island right into the swells of the open ocean. And cursed if their steersman didn’t lose his nerve and then his blade, and their canoe flipped right over. Dumped them all into the ocean, and five of them were smashed onto the rocks before we could come up to the swamped boat. But the gods were with us, for our man we fished right out of the water and hauled back to Sandy Port to stand at the assizes for his crimes.”

“Hu! Ten mey out and ten mey back, and you never stopped for a rest or a drink? Paddling all that time?” asked Zeyard with a snort of disbelief. He drained his cup of rice wine and set it down on the table, daring the others to match him.

“What?” demanded Ezan with an answering sneer as he looked around the table of six men, their little cadre within a cadre. Kel glanced around the tavern. It was very late, and the rest of the locals had gone home, but the two women who ran the inn had not yet worked up the courage to ask the soldiers to leave. “No one of you can match that? A sad day when they had to let your broken swords into the Black Wolves. Haven’t you done a single impressive thing beyond surviving training? And Chief Jagi’s sympathetic eye? He’s the kindest officer you’ll ever serve under in the Black Wolves, I promise you.”

The other four men considered this question so seriously that Ezan’s tight posture and jutting chin relaxed as he contemplated his coming victory in the boasting stakes.

“I grew up in the highlands,” said Zeyard, and Denni nodded to show he had as well, and truly Denni had to stocky legs to show for it. “Climbed a lot. Herded sheep up in the summer pastures. But never did I see water wider than what I could throw a stone across until I went to Toskala for training.”

The other two, Battas and Aikar, were plains-bred farm boys who had worked long hours in fields and paddies but never done a cursed exciting thing before they’d joined the commander’s army and, by one stage and another, made the cut that elevated them to his elite cohort of Black Wolves.

“It’s a cursed impressive tale,” said Kel. “I’ll drink to it. That’s a long way to paddle. But I reckon you grew up there on the shore, neh? Got used to it.”

“That I did. It’s what everyone does, go out to fishing spots, to the breaker islands to gather shellfish and birds’ nests.” Ezan was the kind who grew more pleasant the more he felt he had one up on you. “But I suppose you lot wouldn’t know about that. No reason any of you should have spent much time on the water, beyond training, I mean. How about you, Kel?”

Kel had once paddled and swum across half the wide Bay of Messalia to steal a pouch of dispatches by infiltrating a reeve hall in the dead of night, and then swum and paddled back the way he had come, but he smiled and shook his head just as if he did not know that the distance from Sandy Port to Sorry Island was three mey, not ten. “I’m just a city boy from Toskala, Ez. You know me. Kicked around a while, got in trouble, had the choice to join the militia or a work party. The militia suited me more than anything else had, one thing led to another, and now I’m here.”

“You’re old to be a tailman,” agreed Zeyard, who was almost ten years younger.

“Slow learner,” said Kel with a lazy smile that attracted the notice of the younger of the women. She came over, ignoring the other men in favor of offering a friendly look to Kel.

“Are you hoping for one more drink, lads?”

“Isn’t it getting late?” Kel asked, as his cadre protested vehemently. “We’re the last ones here. No cause to keep you up later than you’re accustomed to, verea.”

“If you’re willing to spend your chief’s coin on one more drink, I’ll bring it,” she said. “I’ll say this. Those Qin outlanders are so honest that a merchant could leave his entire chest of leya with any one of them and not have to count it when he got it back.”

Kel shrugged as Ez stumbled over his own words in his haste to offer to stand the last round with his own coin. She nodded, with another smile at Kel, and walked back to the counter.

“What is it with you and women?” Zeyard muttered. “You’re not that cursed handsome.”

“I show a little courtesy,” said Kel, for once unable to keep a ribbon of contempt out of his tone. “Which you lads would think well on, rather than keeping these two women up all night for your own cursed pleasure.”

“Tell me,” said Denni, who rarely spoke, “that you aren’t eyeing that younger one and thinking of keeping her up all night for your own cursed pleasure.”

“I can’t take what’s not offered,” said Kel with a laugh, but cursed if that didn’t start them in on stories of women they had loved and lost or left, and temple hierodules who had taken their fancy and milked them dry. There was, truly, little more tedious than arrogant young men bragging about sex. Not that he hadn’t done the same when he was their age, but there was an edge to their boasting that made him uneasy.

The woman came back with a warmed vase as Ezan was speaking.

“–and then she said, ‘no, ver, I don’t think I’ve a mind to,’ and I said, ‘we’ve come too far for me to hear “no,” don’t you think, lass?’ and so I–”

The woman stopped dead a few paces from the table and Kel saw her expression shade from tired good humor to scarcely hidden disgust as Ez described how the girl had liked it anyway even as she’d kept saying ‘no, no, no’; but she schooled her expression, knowing that they were six, and armed, and she and her aunt were two women alone late at night in a tavern with drunken soldiers.

He rose, jarring the table with his legs as if he was so soused he could not control himself.

“Aui!” cried Ezan when the table’s edge kicked into his gut and he tipped back and barely caught himself from pitching over backward only because of all that wolves’ training.

“I heard something,” said Kel. “Something I didn’t like to hear, a horn’s cry. Didn’t the chief warn us that there were other outlaws in the woods using a horn’s cry to signal . . . ?”

“No, you tallow-brained jackass,” said Keyard, snorting out laughter, “that was the story Denni told last night about our duty in [Name]. The outlaws used an owl’s call to talk to each other. That was before you were assigned to us. Anyway, we killed them all, too. Just like this lot.”

With a single, unfathomable glance, mouth twisted as if to seal up words best left unspoken, the woman retreated. Yet by her glance toward Kel as she set the tray back on the counter and emptied the vessel’s rice wine back into the big pot, he saw she understood what he had done, and guessed why. She gave a slight nod, nothing more than a dip of the chin, and then she began polishing the counter as the older woman–she called her Auntie–came out from the back. The two women whispered together as Kel’s cadre berated him for his clumsiness.

“I’m going outside to piss,” he said, too loudly, and he made a show of staggering to the door. As he’d hoped, the others followed, remembering their full bladders, and once they were outside with the blast of cool night air on their faces, they sobered up a bit and eyed the sky and the stars and the rising half moon, and they considered the lateness of the night and the distance back to the fort and the rumors of a woman’s ghost the villagers who brought supplies to the fort had been talking about recently. Kel got Ezan started again on the cursed canoe chase so that they began to trot along at the steady jog they could keep up for half a morning, that being a usual part of their training. They had already forgotten the last round of drinks they’d not received. At the rear of their ragged, overloud procession, Kel glanced back to see the younger woman standing on the porch of the inn watching them go, one hand braced on the open door. He knew that look. If he could slip away, he’d find a welcome.

But his first chief–a cursed brutal-minded woman named Essisha–had made clear the three rules ruling the commander’s hounds, of which the third was: no dalliance when you’re working. Never. Hounds learned self control before all else; it was the first thing drilled into them, self control and the ability to endure pain.

He made a gesture of regret and parting, likely invisible to her where she stood on the porch beside the welcome lamp hanging from the eaves. But as if she had seen, she pinched out the lamp’s burning wick and vanished inside, sliding the door sharply shut behind her. They went on at that steady pace and the inn, on the outskirts of the village, was soon left behind.

When he could get a word into Ezan’s description of how the swells rose higher than a man standing upright in the canoe, Kel asked about the outlaws and the owl call because he was cursed if he was going to listen to Ez’s rambling any longer. Zeyard cut in as quickly as if he’d just been waiting for an excuse, telling Kel about how they’d stalked and killed the outlaws plaguing [Name] and gotten rewarded for their efforts afterward when the five villages who had most suffered under the outlaws’ depredations had set out a three days’ feast. The rice wine flowed freely, the lasses were eager, the music ran like a mountain stream, as it said in the tale, and best of all, their full cadre had gotten a commendation from the commander himself, who had ridden out with his officers and his son to meet with the local council.

“I will say this,” added Zeyard, “that lad has a shine to his face. The commander is an impressive man, truly, but I had to think the gods themselves have touched the boy, for he has that look about him. A good seat, and a measuring gaze more like that of a full grown man than a lad just past his Lover’s Crown.

Since Zeyard was himself just twenty, only six years out from his Lover’s Crown, Kel smothered the smile that threatened to curl his lips. “Never saw the commander’s son myself,” he lied. “Looks like his sire, does he?”

The others considered the question. Not much, they agreed, except maybe about the eyes and hair. Maybe he resembled his mother, but since no one had ever seen her face in public, her being an outlander and all with her bizarre outlander ways of remaining behind the palace walls and concealing her face if she ever did travel beyond those walls, it was impossible to say. But they all agreed the commander’s son possessed a spirit of special strength and brightness.

“What is it the Sirniakans say of their god?” Zeyard said. “The Shining One? Like that.”

“Eh.” Ezan waved a hand dismissively. “Those southerners can keep their cursed god on the other side of the mountains. No call for an outlander god to come traveling here.”

“I wouldn’t say so,” said Denni, “not where the chief can hear you.”

“Aui! None of the Qin worship that god, do they? What do they care? It’s those hidden women with their peculiar ways who brought the outlander god in, isn’t it? I never heard Chief Jagi say one thing about gods, except setting flowers on a rock dedicated to the Merciful One one time, and then because he was with his wife. Who is a proper Hundred woman and cursed pretty even for being a year or two older than our Kel here, if I may say so.”

“I wouldn’t,” repeated Denni, “and especially not where the chief can hear you. Or some lout hoping to suckle on the teat of good favor hear and go telling tales to him thinking to spin a thread of favor from their spying.” He glanced at Kel before shrugging. Clearly he trusted the rest of the little cadre, who had come up through training together.

“I’d think Chief Jagi would make short work of a tale-teller.” Kel made a great show of yawning. He wasn’t particularly tired, but he was getting horrifically bored of this assignment, whose end was predetermined. He just hadn’t yet figured out how to manage the necessary disgrace. Meanwhile, they had a ways to go and they had, at last, ventured into territory he was actually curious about.

“You know, when I was a young lad the age of you hopeless curs, we never called Hasibal ‘the Merciful One.’ Hasibal is the Formless One. I don’t know where this ‘Merciful’ name came from. Do any of you?”

The other four shrugged with the easy resignation of men who had no interest in the question, but Ezan had to have an opinion. “I heard–”

A horn’s cry split the night’s quiet. Three blats, three breaths, three blats, three breaths, three blats. As one, they shifted to a run, eyes on the road, and soon after heard the pound of hooves and saw a gleam of lamp light like so many demon hearts caged in glass off to their right moving through the shadows of the countryside of fields and broken woodland.

“The hells!” cried Zeyard.

“A demon” shouted Ezan. “Eihi! When I’m off duty! My chance for glory, spoiled!”

Abruptly, Ezan cut off the road to tear madly across an expanse of recently harvested dry field rice. Kel raced after him, stubble scraping his calves and crunching under his boots. His eyes had adjusted, and with swift comprehensive glances he measured the shadows that marked the irregularities of ground and thus kept to his feet when Ezan stumbled and crashed to his knees where the lip of a half hidden shallow ditch caught a boot.

A flutter of movement crossed before them like the dark wings of a bird trying desperately to get off the ground with an injured wing. A face flashed into view: a woman, no older than Kel and clearly terrified by the roll of her eyes and the rictus lock of her open mouth as she looked back over her shoulder. A cloak flowed and rippled around her, apparent only because it occluded the shadows of the land behind her; the fabric bore a faint, disturbing sheen, like the trembling glamor of light rising as a herald to dawn.

Her gaze remained fixed on what lay behind, which apparently was a troop of soldiers out of the fort. With a grunt of effort, Ez lunged up from his knees and grabbed, his hand someone touching, curling, at one of her ankles, then losing its hold and clutching as for purchase the hem of the cape. Blue sparks sizzled along the fabric and Ez screamed and released the cape, then pitched forward onto his face with a choked shout of dismay.

Her flight checked, she staggered, dropped to a knee to steady herself, and looked up directly at Kel.

The hells!

Her gaze devoured him, just as all the soldiers were warned was the particular sorcery of demons. Struck dumb, dazed and paralyzed, he could only watch as she rose with the determined grimace of the hunted shifting to bolt in a new direction.

But he was a hound, trained and honed, and masquerading as a wolf, lean and strong. He ripped his gaze away from hers and, to keep free of the power of her magic, followed the swells and eddies made by the cape that embraced her. Beneath, she was wearing a simple kilt and vest splashed with mud, as if she’s just finished a hard day’s work in a rice paddy somewhere in the Hundred where there was still water in the rice fields at this time of year.

All the Black Wolves knew what to do if they met a cloaked lilu, the most dangerous of demons: those who had usurped the gods-given power of the ancient and venerated Guardians and twisted it to the service of their own evil greeds and lusts.

He drew his sword as Ez whimpered on the ground beside him. The others, somewhere behind him on the road, were calling out, having lost sight of him and Ezan. The troop trotted past some distance away, lanterns swinging, having missed her trail.

She said, “Ver, I do not know who you are, but I am not what you think.” Her voice was husky, frightened, but beneath carried a core that reminded him of the pragmatic, hard-working women of his family. She had a comely body, honed from honest work; or perhaps that was the glamor with which lilu dazzled their prey before they ate out their hearts.

“You’re a lilu,” he said, more hoarsely than he meant. Sweat broke freely on his brow as the cool night breeze swirled around them. “Begging your pardon, verea, but I have to kill you.”

Strangely, she chuckled, and then the sound caught on a sob, quickly stifled. “Very polite, I am sure, ver. You were well brought up by your mother and aunties. But I promise you, I am not what you think I am. I am no lilu.”

“Isn’t that what lilus must say?”

“You have me there. I suppose it must be. But I’m no lilu. I’m just a farmer. I got caught up in a conflict, I stood up before [Name]’s council meeting and called down the gods’ eyes to be turned to the crimes of those who claimed to rule justly in our council. Folk grew angry, the councilors were hauled off to the assizes to answer to the accusations. I went walking down by the shore to dig some clams for my clan’s dinner, something hit me, and next thing I knew, I woke up with this cursed cloak wrapping me.”

She sounded sincere, but those few let in on the secret–the commander’s elite Black Wolves and his secret hounds–knew that the cloaked lilus possessed, above all, the ability to make you believe in what they were saying. I love you, you alone. I am your true mother; the other one has lied to you all these years because she stole you from me. I’ll show you to a hidden treasure-house of gems and coin and silk. Just come this way. Follow me into this dark pit. That’s how they trapped and destroyed those they stalked.

Yet her words unearthed a thread of recollection, the embrace of the warm waters of the Bay of Messalia, the admiring glance of a beautiful young woman on the crowded streets of Salya, the talk in the inn of an ordinary farm woman gone missing after publicly accusing an entire village council of abusing its responsibility and privilege through various acts of murder, theft, and extortion.

“Name?” he murmured, trying to recall the particulars of the story. Seven years stood between him and his first mission; only the memory of the waters cradling his body, and the hot pleasurable rush of triumph he’d felt when he pulled himself over the gunnel and into the waiting canoe with the dispatch pouch wrapped in oil cloth still tied to his back, really remained with him after all that time.

“Do you know it?” she asked on a sigh, a breath of longing caught in her throat. Then she flung up her head, stepping away from him. The horn’s harsh cry split the air: three breaths, three blats. Three and three and three more, the call to pursuit. The Black Wolves kept the peace in the Hundred, and they hunted demons at the commander’s order.

“Let me go,” she said, not fearful plea as much as a whisper of hope.

She caught his gaze again, or perhaps he looked right at her. He no longer feared her. He had killed before and could do so again if need be: the sword rested easy in his hand, and he carried two daggers likewise in his boots and pinned his long braid with twin needles which had, in their time, picked locks, unraveled a silk shroud, and just once applied a drop of poison almost invisibly to the target as they had passed each other in the market rush. Women and men can alike be criminals whose foul and corrupt acts harm all those around them and rip the delicate fabric that made up the peaceful life of the Hundred. The hounds only hunted those who had done a wrong thing or threatened others or taken a life themselves without meeting any accountability for it. He believed that. Even her steady gaze did not shake him.

And yet as he looked on her face, she who appeared rather younger than he was but who might be monstrously older, he knew he could not do it. He could not kill a young woman who reminded him of his sisters. He just could not, even if she were a lilu.

Anyway, how better to stage his necessary disgrace?

Ez was still whimpering on the ground beside him, but even so, the young soldier had begun to clear his mind past the pain of his burned hand and was starting to roll over to try to get to his feet and unsheath his sword with his off hand. The hope of glory burned away the hammer of pain.

In an over-loud voice, Kel said, “Sister, do not scold me. You know I recall my duty to our mother, whom I treated ill. Please, if the gods will show me both blessing and mercy, go take to her the news that I have overcome my hateful pride and now serve the Hundred as I am best able.”

Then he kicked Ezan hard, in the sweet spot where spine met skull, enough to stun but, he hoped, not damage him permanently.

Lowering his voice, he said, “Verea, if you drop down into the ditch right at my feet and cover yourself with your cloak, I’ll kick dirt over you. There you can hide until they pass and then when we have gone on, you can make your way in secrecy to wherever it is you mean to go. But you’ll have to move quickly, and do a better job staying hidden. No lights on altars, I beg you.”

For three breaths she examined him; he did not meet her gaze, but he felt it. “Why?” she asked.

“You know I could have killed you already. So either you trust me or you don’t. If you haven’t stolen my thoughts from me yet, then I’m not about to share them with you. My apologies.”

Hooves pounded. Men shouted. The lights rounded. Folk approached.

Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper. “If you have chosen mercy, then I pray the Merciful One to watch over you in all things and grant you blessing.”

She dropped into the ditch, spreading her cloak around her, and it cursed well almost concealed her with its shifting dusky tone blending into the shadow of night. But he kicked dirt over the lump that was her anyway, and tore up two thick clumps of stubble and planted them so as to disguise the hillock she made within the ditch.

Ez rolled over, grunting, not quite able to get meaningful words out.

Kel sucked in a deep breath, and then he shrieked, a long howl, followed by a babble of words: “my eyes! my eyes! It stings! Let me go! Let me go!”

WIth a curse, Ez shoved up to his feet, waving his sword around like the drunken soldier he was. He whistled shrilly, thrice, three breaths, thrice, three breaths, thrice. Then he threw up, right over the stubble and clods of dirt Kel had planted atop her folded legs.

The howl and the whistle brought their companions pounding up, and after them came the mounted troops with their lanterns bobbing and swaying. They converged as Ez, doubled over, heaved out bile. As Chief Jagi himself rode up, Ezan straightened up.

“This cursed hells-ridden soft noodle had the lilu within his grasp after I took these cursed burns stopping her in her tracks. But she got away from him. Ass!”

Jagi glanced at Ez, then at Kel. He wore no expression of disgust or anger; he merely nodded to show he had understood the words. “Which way?” he asked.

“I couldn’t do it, chief,” said Kel. “She looked just like one of my sisters. She kept running on the way she was going, away from you.”

Chief Jagi signaled, and the entire troop broke into four groups and spread out to cover the ground all around. No fool was Chief Jagi. He was just lacking the final piece of the puzzle.

“Your cadre will escort you back to the fort, where you’ll be held in the cages. I’ll judge your case later, Tailman Kellas.”

A sergeant bound his wrists with a cord, a symbolic binding rather than an effective one; it signaled his disgrace. His five companions spoke not one word to him the rest of the dark trudge back to the fort, but he felt their anger and disgust. With a few muttered curses, they handed him over to the sergeant in charge of the gaol where normally outlaws and criminals would be held temporarily until handed over to the local assizes or sent downstream to Toskala to Law Rock. There were four cages, placed in a row outside the barracks so every time soldiers went in or out they passed the prisoners. Each cage was six strides by six strides, a cube made of metal bars hatched like netting. No roof protected the prisoners from rain and sun; no screen gave privacy for the bucket. A cage might hold as many prisoners as the chief in charge of the fort cared to cram into them, but as it happened, Kel got them all to himself. A man–a common thief who had attacked an elderly farmer–had died here a few days ago, taken with a virulent sickness of the gut, and the ground still stank of his leavings although thank the gods the constant sun had baked the puke and diarrhea to a hard pan. Otherwise, all lay empty.

The cages exposed a man to the slurs and spit of the soldiers, if they felt so inclined, and Kel expected slurs and spit but the night remained quiet as he dozed in the cleanest corner with metal bars pressed into his side and back. Chief Jagi did not return. Just before dawn the sergeant brought a covered pitcher with water and a bowl of porridge, just as he did with every prisoner. Kel ate the porridge at once and, after drinking, used the cord that had bound his wrists–he’d easily slipped out of it once inside the cage–to truss up the pitcher from the center of the bars that made the top of the cage, so no spear butt could tip it over.

But he needn’t have bothered. When the soldiers–both the Black Wolves on temporary duty here and the local militiamen who lived here year-long–woke, they ignored him as if he was not there. It was not, Kel thought, the Hundred way; , it was the Qin way, that these men had learned and accepted. If a man is no longer a man, then he has ceased to exist and isn’t worth acknowledging.

They went about their drill, groomed the horses, left for patrol, ate, drank, bathed, although no one laughed. The mood in the fort had a surly, violent edge. Only the code of the wolves held them back; he felt it just as he felt the sun’s rays on his head.

With little food, limited water, and no shelter from the sun, he rested as well as he could and waited them out. He was not a wolf. He’d lost nothing. He was only following orders. Mostly.

Yet why had he let her go? He might have found another way to disgrace himself, although none so spectacular. He ought to have killed her, or to let Ezan do it if he hadn’t the stomach for it. The question nagged at him as much as the silence of his former comrades lashed him, for there is a way in which silence is punishment, and as they went their rounds, he endured their mute scorn. Once he heard Ez’s voice, “I’m going to kill the hells-rotted bastard,” and then someone, Denni maybe, arguing him down.

Oddly enough he found himself returning time and again to the old prayers spoken when he’d been a lowly impatient discontented novice at Ilu’s temple. The new moon’s liturgy had always been his favorite, and he found strength as he murmured its cadences, as the long day passed, as twilight swept its cloak over him, reminding him of the young woman. Had she escaped? Did he want her to have escaped? Or did he only want not to be the one to see life and spirit drain from her face? And yet, did the cloaked demons actually have spirits if they were not human? In ancient days, cloaked Guardians had walked the Hundred as the gods’ servants, presiding over assizes in every town and city with their right hands measuring out mercy and their left hands justice. Then demons had stolen the cloaks and used them for their own corrupted lusts and greed. The demons’ army had laid waste to much of the Hundred, and only by the efforts of the commander and his militia and allies had the Hundred been saved. Yet the cloaks had escaped, and although the land lay mostly at peace, the Black Wolves remained vigilant, hunting down both those who disturbed the peace and the hidden demons.

Best to stick with the truth, then: he’d known his duty, but in the moment, had been unable to strike her down as he ought. He might even argue that she had bewitched him. Everyone would believe that, wouldn’t they? A gaze like an eddy of dark water, drawing him down, holding him, the waves warm and salty along his body . . .


He startled awake, winced as his buttocks shifted and were pinched by the edge of the metal bar on which he’d tried to balance out a less uncomfortable resting place. He grasped the edge of the cage above him and pulled himself up.

“Chief Jagi.”

The chief stood outside the cage, looking in. He was alone, carrying a lamp in his sword hand. It was so very late that the fort lay utterly hushed around them. Kel did not even hear the tramp of sentries’ feet.

“A strange way to go about your business, Tailman Kellas. Tell me again about the sparrow and the cheese. For I think some of the villagers here around are surely aiding the outlawed men, and I mean to track down and cut to pieces the entire net.”

So Kellas told him what he had heard, and what he had observed, in the concise manner all hounds learned.

Jagi listened intently, missing nothing, and nodded when Kel finished. “Now. Tell me what happened with the demon.”

So Kellas told it, just as he had rehearsed.

Chief Jagi was not much older than Kellas–five or six years older, perhaps–a mild tempered, quiet man whose cohort of Black Wolves was known for its resilience and loyalty and toughness. In his nine months with this company, Kel had never heard the man raise his voice, not once. But that narrowed gaze was brutal enough. Disappoint your Qin chief, and he’d simply deem you useless to him and cast you off.

That suddenly, Kel’s rehearsed words, his sense of superiority as a hound who knew more than the wolves he’d been sent to run among, vanished as mist under the heavy hand of the sun. Fear burned. Above all things, the commander wished to capture and bind the demon-haunted cloaks.

Jagi said, in his pleasant voice, “I for one would not wish to be the man who had to stand before Commander Anjihosh and tell him that story while his gaze rested on me. That’s your path to ride, however. You’ll be taken to Toskala to await his judgment.”

Kel went cold, and then hot, and a sweat broke over him.

You’ll be taken to Toskala to await his judgment.

He’d thought he was being so clever, waiting for a chance to publicly disgrace himself, just as he’d once thought he was being so cursed bold to climb Law Rock despite the prohibition. He’d had a hundred other ways to fulfill his purpose here, but naturally he had chosen, in the end, the one whose infamy would chase and echo through every cohort of Black Wolves for its shame. Maybe this time, finally, he would be killed and hung from a post as a warning to all: here’s a hells-rotted jackass who did one too many stupid impulsive reckless things, and now you see what comes of it.