“THIS isn’t the way to Gravlorn.”
Bran’s voice was expressionless, almost distant, as he said the words, and his eyes strayed away from the bloodied bodies that lay in front of him. The kingdom was caught in the bleak light of a late winter afternoon, with stark, leafless trees bearing silent witness to their discovery, though even they stood at a distance. The horses nickered behind him, the scent of blood, caked and dried though it was, was still fresh enough to make them nervous. Carrick said nothing, but his gaze turned to the surrounding landscape as well.
They—he and Carrick—had left Delfore more than two days ago, turning east at the first crossroads out of the capital city to make their way toward the port city of Dennor. The road they had chosen had lost its cobblestones shortly after the city was left behind, becoming well-packed and rutted dirt trailing over brown and lifeless hills. Their departure had in turn taken place only two days after the king had sent other Defenders north to the Defender city of Gravlorn—these Defenders, the ones at their feet—with the purpose of retrieving Prince Kherin, the youngest prince of the kingdom, with orders to return him to the capitol regardless of the arguments they would no doubt face. Four days in total; not enough time to reach the border city and return, and far too early to raise alarms about a delay.
The weather had held, so far at least, though the sun had not broken through the clouds that gathered overhead. They—Carrick and Bran—had been following separate orders from their king, namely traveling to Dennor to verify the rumors first spoken of weeks ago by the king’s favored trader. Carrick knew Derek Resh as well as Bran did despite his own intermittent presence in the castle, and he knew the trader wouldn’t have spoken of treason unless the threat had been real. But the passing of weeks—not days—with no further messages from the trader had done more than the mere words when it came to goading the king into action. Prince Kherin being in Gravlorn notwithstanding, silence from the trader lasting this long was rare, and it was unlikely to bode well.
The corpses of the men lying before them only confirmed the point.
Four men still wearing the ruins of their Defender armor lay dead, their throats cut, their bodies discarded at the edge of the road. The hard ground left little indication of what had become of their horses or their weapons, the bodies seemingly dumped and left for whatever scavengers found them. It was a wonder that so far none had.
But Carrick had known these men. Though his primary duties were at the grain mill far from the royal castle, he had been in Delfore long enough to know most of the men who carried swords. Bran would perhaps know these men better. He tended to weapons and arms in the royal armory. And Bran had been right; this was the wrong direction to take to reach Gravlorn, meaning these men had died in a place they never should have been to begin with.
He shifted his gaze to Bran, who still crouched at the edge of the road, noting the set of his jaw as he carefully avoided looking at the bodies. He wondered if the young Defender had ever seen men killed before, let alone men he knew. Duty at the border had been mild for years, with few if any deaths from battle. Enough years that it was unlikely that Bran had ever been in a true battle with the northerners. No one ever became accustomed to seeing friends and comrades lying dead, but everyone—Defender or otherwise—would undoubtedly witness it sooner or later. From old age, if nothing else.
“Northerners did this,” Bran said suddenly, his voice still flat, and sounding loud in the gray silence around them. He didn’t turn his gaze as he spoke.
“You’re making an assumption,” Carrick answered slowly, watching him. Still, it was unlikely that something as simple as bandits would have had the training or the arms to defeat Defenders this soundly, and they would likely lack the strength even if by some chance they had the first two. Because those living outside the borders of the cities often lacked the proper meals that could ensure good health.
Animals hadn’t done this either, and with all the contingent dead, there was little chance they had turned on each other. Northerners seemed a more likely answer than anything else Carrick could think of, but this far into Llarien…?
“But why bring them here?” Bran continued, turning his head to Carrick. “These men would have been going to Gravlorn, so they wouldn’t have come on this road at all. If the northerners killed them and brought them here, why?”
Carrick turned back to the bleak landscape, saying nothing.
But Bran wasn’t finished, and he stood slowly as he continued to speak. “If they didn’t want them to be found, they wouldn’t have left them by the road. Any road. And if they did, they would have picked a road more traveled, not a cut road that few would cross in winter.” He looked back down and studied the bodies thoughtfully. “It’s like they were taking them somewhere, then changed their mind.”
Carrick shrugged then stood as well. Whatever shock had taken the young Defender earlier was fading now, and in its place rose anger. As a Defender, he would have to master that as well.
“The trader said that northerners were seen in and around Dennor, and he said it was likely that they would move east and south, if for no other reason than the thinner population.” Carrick nodded in the direction of the port city as he spoke. “They may have already passed through Dennor and were making their way inland.”
“But how did the Defenders end up here?” Bran demanded. The note of challenge in his voice drew Carrick’s gaze. “None of them would have defied the king’s orders and chose Dennor over Gravlorn. They had no reason to turn east.”
Carrick drew himself up straight, but the weariness was present in the shake of his head. “We won’t know that until we learn to speak to the dead,” he said evenly.
Bran flushed and looked away, seemingly reminded of his place by the mere tone of the elder Defender. “I’m sorry. It’s just that….” He waved a hand over the bodies. Then the hand fell to his side as he sighed.
Carrick nodded, but didn’t let go of the formalness entirely. “I know. But we had better be moving down the road. Neither one of us is going to like camping out of doors if the snow breaks.”
“What about them?” Bran asked, indicating the bodies again.
Carrick looked at the remains for one last time and then turned back to where their horses stood. “Leave them. Their souls have already been taken, so there is nothing left there that shouldn’t stay in this world.” He continued when Bran’s eyes widened, “We don’t have the time or the means to bury them or take them with us, or to notify Gravlorn or Delfore before we reach Dennor. We will inform the council in Dennor, and let them handle returning the remains.”
Bran stared at the bodies and still made no move toward his own horse. Carrick’s tone changed then to that of one who was fully in charge.
“If there were scavengers nearby, they would have already found them. Get on your horse, Bran. We still have a long ways to go.”
“THERE’S nothing else we can do,” Kherin said again, his voice showing the edge that days of learning nothing of the northerners had honed to cutting sharpness. Another stone flew from his hand, and just like the others, it bounced only once or twice before it became lost in the thousands of others that littered the banks of the river.
Jarak watched him without speaking, but Kherin hadn’t truly expected an answer. The Delfore blacksmith had no more answers than Kherin did and wisely knew to offer nothing instead of platitudes that only wasted air. Delfore discipline or the blacksmith’s own stoic nature—either or both were enough to make Kherin grateful.
The day was late, with darkness creeping in behind the clouds that had blocked the sun throughout most of the day, and the air was considerably colder than it had been a week ago. The rain that had drowned the city of Gravlorn the previous days was thankfully absent, however, though the bleakness of winter arrived quickly on its heels. Snow would be coming soon, and ice had already formed in the deepest shadows of the camp and the city. And while it was true that the river wasn’t likely to freeze, the drop in temperature meant the water would turn deadly soon.
Which meant the time to cross was quickly running out. The cut on Adrien’s shoulder might in fact be healing well, but the need for a northerner to answer for the attack that had wounded his brother—and every attack made on Llarien both before and after—was still there.
A splash on the river’s murky surface followed the next stone Kherin threw, this one reaching farther than the ones he had thrown to the bank, and the darkness of the scattering waves only mirrored the darkness of his mood.
Sleep had come slowly to him last night, as it had every night since Derek left, and the austere sterility of the hospice did nothing to soothe his fraying thoughts as he listened to the sounds of the city outside the single sickroom window. He no longer needed the treatments of the hospice, although Adrien remained a patient of Willum’s, the healer assigned by his father to tend to the Defenders in Gravlorn. A patient, despite the seizures that had plagued him for weeks having seemingly ended, and despite his ability to walk outside the hospice to wander the circumference of the market square.
“It will take more than days for your brother to regain the strength he has lost” had been and still was the healer’s curt answer every time Kherin has asked why his brother remained ill, and he alluded to the fact that bitter winter air would do more harm than good given Adrien’s condition in order to stop the arguments from either prince on the subject of Adrien’s still-denied release. But it was the frailness that Kherin still saw in his brother that had so far kept him from pressing the healer too far, even if Adrien would argue differently.
And as long as Adrien remained a patient, Kherin would remain in the hospice as well. Willum hadn’t spoken against it, for which Kherin was grateful, although he suspected it was his status as prince that held the healer’s tongue. Derek would likely say it was mere courtesy rather than deference to royal standing that garnered the healer’s acceptance of the arrangements, but it was no secret that Derek had always given the healer more credit than Kherin was willing to. And he likely still did, even though he was no longer a presence in the healer’s halls.
Kherin exhaled a heavy breath as memories of the trader filtered into his mind, and he closed his eyes as he felt the soothing warmth that ghosted around him, bringing with it the scents of leather and saddle oil, and the heavy aroma of the herb-infused salve he had smelled only once. Four days had passed since Derek had left for the port city of Dennor, and yet Kherin could still feel the trader’s presence, and he still ached to reach for him and give in to the unrelenting strength and gentleness the trader offered, both before and after their one night in the Harper’s Den.
The vivid and relentless memories of that one night—the rough and nearly brutal lovemaking that had left a scattering of bruises on his skin and had brought his deepest fantasy to life; the gentleness of Derek’s kiss once they had found their pleasure in the sheets of the trader’s bed; the sound of his own heart mimicking the beat of Derek’s while he lay wrapped in the blankets and the trader’s arms—had followed him from that room. They had stayed with him, and more than once they had spurred him to another shattering release through the workings of his own hand as they replayed vividly in the darkest places of his mind and in what privacy he could find in the city.
But more than that, those memories had gripped his heart, with each beat pounding out the denial that what they had started had also ended after only one night.
“One night,” Kherin whispered as he opened his eyes to the peacefulness of the riverbank. One night that may have changed their worlds had Derek not traveled to Dennor to learn what he could about the north and its people. One night that had changed Kherin’s world, though his grip on it seemed more tenuous with every day that passed without the trader to reassure him that what he felt was true. Derek had sworn he held no regrets, and had promised that they wouldn’t—that they couldn’t—go back to the close but simple friendship they had had before Gravlorn, but not even the memory of Derek’s words of love given moments before he left could convince Kherin with absolute certainty that what the trader had meant then would hold true now.
And if it didn’t….
“I swear you fell in love with him when you were six….”
Kherin’s breath was shaky as he exhaled. Adrien’s words may have been teasing, but they were also the truth, though it had taken fifteen years to see it for himself.
And even should the worst be true, he wasn’t willing to go back now.
But not knowing whether Derek was… or where he was, or how he was….
He drew another deep breath and let another pebble fly, and the splash in the river was sharp enough to tell of the change in his thoughts.
He couldn’t count the number of times he had seen Derek ride from Delfore with no real certainty of when the trader would return, and while there was no question that he had felt the loss every single time, never—never—had he felt it like this. Not knowing how Derek fared, not knowing where he slept, not being sure he hadn’t been hurt in an accident or lay trapped in the wilderness, or found himself surrounded by the bandits that everyone knew lived between the cities though few ever saw them….
Kherin drew in a sharp breath as he tried to rein in his thoughts from the wayward road they were taking. Derek would likely be in Dennor by now, of that much he was certain; everything else aside, he believed the trader when he said he wouldn’t tarry on the road. He wouldn’t have been there long, however, which meant he may or may not have already spoken to the former scholar named Dar, and may or may not have already learned whatever there was to learn about these ancient people known as the Akhael. And he may already know if there was—or was not—any truth to the claim of blood magic.
And whatever he learned, it would be far more than what Kherin had learned in the days he spent in this city. Those days had been useless as far as making progress with the northerner still held in the storeroom of the Open Door. The shaggy and feral northerner hadn’t said a word, hadn’t made so much as a sound from what his guards had reported, and yet he was kept fed and warm, and given clean water for drinking and thick blankets for sleep. In truth, he was treated better than most of the Defenders who protected the northern border—and that had done more than the northerner’s silence in stirring Kherin’s anger.
That, and poor standards of duty allowed by Gresham, Gravlorn’s Defender Leader.
“He tends to be lenient with his Defenders, which has made him popular among their ranks.”
Derek’s words may have been a disapproving observation, but the bitter accuracy of them combined with the shoddy discipline he had seen with his own eyes in the face of the northerners’ attack had driven Kherin to do the one thing he could do in this Defender city. The practice of allowing the camp to remain nearly empty while those responsible for defending it found their pleasures of the city had ended the day the trader left. The new policy was one he had no true right to make, but one he had made anyway on the threat of word reaching the king’s ear. It was also one that would treat those breaking it harshly, both in the punishments dealt and the reduction of pay for any who went against the decree. Kherin had chosen his words carefully when he detailed the decree to Gresham and the Defenders themselves, and there had been no question that every part of it had been a threat.
And there was no question that it had been taken as such.
“The presence of royal blood in your veins may not protect you when it comes to their own self-preservation.”
Derek’s warning may have echoed around him as his own pronouncements were said aloud, but that hadn’t halted either his words or his determination to correct the mistakes that were only growing worse in Gravlorn. He was well aware of the talk that took place both in and out of his presence as well the glares that were still cast at his back from every Defender who took offense, but he would be damned if he would allow Gravlorn to be so defenseless again during his tenure here. Six Defenders had been buried in Delfore just days after the heir to their own kingdom had been injured, and though these men may have already forgotten their names, Kherin hadn’t.
Though he didn’t doubt the loyalty of the Defenders from Delfore, the line between the Delfore Defenders and those from elsewhere in the kingdom had been drawn when his announcement had been made, and he knew it was only a matter of time before that line became a crack. Derek wouldn’t have had to tell him again how quickly some would be willing to breach it.
“The change in temperature will make it dangerous to cross the river again, my lord,” Jarak said slowly, breaking the drawn-out silence and drawing Kherin back to the present and the riverbank. “The northerners will be less likely to be caught off guard, and they know their side of the river better than we do.”
Kherin grunted at the accuracy of the statements, but left off words in favor of tossing another stone. Jarak could be telling him nothing more dire than the possibility of seeing snow in the coming days given the frankness of his tone, but Jarak wasn’t one to break no matter the threat he faced, and he wasn’t one to argue when the circumstances called for only observations.
And he hadn’t argued against the blacksmith’s presence beside him as he wandered to the river once his duty on patrol had ended, or guarded his words when he spoke of the plan that had begun before the trader left. Cross the river, learn what they could of the northerners, find out what it was that had made their attacks so frequent, and what had spurred them to attack now, after decades of relative peace between the north and the southern kingdom.
It was a plan that had yet to be carried out, but one that still held merit nonetheless. Even Derek hadn’t argued against it, but that had been before winter had truly made itself known. Perhaps Derek had been counting on the blacksmith to point out any details once he was no longer here to do so himself.
“If you need an ally, seek Jarak.”
Derek obviously trusted Jarak, and Kherin trusted Derek.
“Have you ever heard of magic in Llarien?” Kherin asked suddenly, glancing at the blacksmith before returning his gaze to the northern bank. Only out of the corner of his eyes did he see how Jarak frowned at the question, though the blacksmith directed the expression across the river rather than at the prince himself.
The northerners had used something that there was no explanation for other than magic the one time Kherin had reached the northern bank, and there was no doubt that if magic was what it truly was, they would use it again if they deemed it necessary. But whether it was truly magic…. Everyone in the kingdom knew magic existed—or had existed at one time—but none of them had ever had experience with it. Knowledge of magic of any kind had vanished ages ago.
Or so it was supposed to have.
He sent another rock into the river. “Derek mentioned it,” he went on quietly, feeling the bite in his stomach as he said the trader’s name aloud. “He said that an ancient people known as the Akhael had once inhabited the lands north and south of the river, and they had possessed some kind of blood magic….” He didn’t look at Jarak to gauge his reaction.
“Like witches or sorcerers?” Jarak asked curiously, sounding respectful, but nothing more than that.
Kherin shook his head slowly. “I don’t know. I’ve never heard of them.”
Jarak was silent for the fall of another stone, but then he answered with no more judgment on the question than if Kherin had asked what food would be served in the kitchen that night.
“Llarien’s been fighting the northerners along this border longer than either of us have been alive, my lord, so if they possess some sort of magic, you would think they would have used it against us by now.” He paused for only a moment. “But I suppose it’s possible.”
Kherin turned to look at him fully, but Jarak only glanced at him briefly before he returned his gaze to the northern border.
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard talk of ancient magic,” he went on calmly, “or the people who used to wield it, though I’ve never heard them named before, or heard the possibility that they inhabited both sides of the Ford.” He smiled briefly, the first time Kherin could ever remember seeing that expression on the blacksmith’s face. “There’s probably not much that I haven’t heard given the range of gossip that takes place in Delfore.”
Kherin grunted at that. The Gods knew how much that was true, and he could only imagine how much he had figured into the gossip Jarak and everyone else who set foot inside the city had heard over the years. But the possibility that this talk of magic wasn’t mere gossip had Kherin frowning again at the northern bank. His next words were more musing than voicing an actual question. “So if the magic is real, what do we do about it?”
He hadn’t expected Jarak to answer that question, and the blacksmith didn’t, though what Jarak did say was as just as unpleasant.
“Magic may not be the most immediate problem we face, my lord,” he said quietly, keeping his face carefully neutral. “Talk is beginning of Prince Adrien’s illness, even if no one knows the true nature of it. His highness has been gone from the camp for too long, given the injuries those witnessing the attack claim he received. And though he has been seen in the market square around the hospice, the stories of his debilitating illness are growing.”
Silence fell, and it lasted for several moments before Kherin broke it. But it wasn’t the subject of his brother he addressed.
“We need to go back across the river,” he said slowly, ignoring all the implications of Jarak’s words concerning Adrien’s illness and the rumors surrounding it, and instead confirming the plan for himself if not for Jarak. “Find out what is going on over there, and find out what is bringing all of this about now.” The stones rattled in his hand as he worked his way through his thoughts.
“Swords may be difficult to wield after crossing the water, my lord,” Jarak said then, likely understanding more than anyone save Derek and himself that Adrien’s illness and recovery didn’t need to be discussed too openly in the camp. “The cold will drain your strength….”
But Kherin shook his head. “We’re not going over there to fight them, let alone kill them. We’re going over there only to learn as much as we can. If they have brought back some ancient blood magic, we need to know exactly what it is we are up against.”
Jarak said nothing, though Kherin turned to face him.
“Do you have any better ideas?” Kherin asked him pointedly, meeting his eyes squarely over the small expanse of riverbank between them.
Jarak didn’t flinch, though he did shake his head. “No, my lord. We’ll have to find some trustworthy Defenders to join with you. Delfore Defenders may be best.”
Kherin nodded. Delfore Defenders were the only ones he would trust to cross with him, though he was glad Jarak hadn’t volunteered himself to be included. He would rather Jarak stayed while Adrien remained at the hospice; Jarak was the only Defender in this camp he truly trusted to guard his brother.
“Two will do,” he murmured quietly, returning his gaze to the land across the river. “The Gods willing we won’t be fighting, so we won’t need a strong force.”
Jarak only nodded, but Kherin had little doubt that he understood the purpose of the number. He and two others would make three, and three had long since been considered the standard number for spying: one to return with news if danger was found, one to bring news once it was determined whether the danger was real, and one to stay and watch how the danger would manifest and warn the Defenders who came to handle it.
Kherin grinned then, the curl of his lips a welcome feeling after so much happening so fast. But it felt good to have a plan, to have something real to do that might end all of this. Something that gave them a real chance of finding out what had truly happened to his brother and stop the kingdom from facing the same fate if magic was indeed returning to the land.
And something to keep his mind off the trader and the ache in his heart at knowing Derek was so far away. Derek would have no doubt offered both suggestions and caution when carrying the plan out, and pointed out any details Kherin was likely to overlook as the shape of the plan became clear. More importantly, he would have offered the unquestionable support Kherin had sorely missed since the trader had ridden from Gravlorn—and strong arms to fall back on if the plan fell apart.
Kherin’s grin faded as his gaze traced the northern banks again. Every reason his mind had named for wanting Derek here was true, but the greater truth was that he simply wanted Derek here.
Jarak seemed to read his thoughts, though Kherin couldn’t remember ever speaking to him about Derek’s place in his life. But then again, Jarak wasn’t the only Defender to notice the trader was the only true company Kherin kept, in the camp and out of it.
“I’ll ensure Lord Derek is aware of your plan should he return in your absence, my lord,” Jarak said quietly and plainly, and he gave the prince a second small smile as Kherin threw a look at him. “Though I doubt I’ll be the first he hears it from.”
Kherin almost snorted as he nodded again, though he felt his lips turn up again even as another tug pulled at his heart. Derek’s ability to learn what was happening faster than anyone Kherin had ever met was still a mystery to the prince, but it was an ability the trader had honed, and it had served Derek well. The title of “Lord,” however, was a strictly honorary title, and one the trader had neither asked for nor claimed, though it was suitable, if Kherin were to be honest. Derek may have no noble blood, but he had gained what could only be called noble standing, and so the deference often given him seemed nothing less than natural. Kherin thought it was well-deserved, though Derek merely accepted it in stride.
“When will you leave?” Jarak said then, breaking into Kherin’s thoughts again with nothing more than a simple question.
Kherin looked at the sky, turning darker now from more than the clouds. “Tomorrow night, after dark.” That would give them time to find the best of the Defenders to go with him, and for Kherin to determine what exactly he would do once he reached the northern bank.
Both of their gazes turned to the north shore as silence fell again. There was nothing else to discuss, and moments passed in stillness before the decision to leave the river was made by the prince and followed by the blacksmith. The camp was full despite the hour and the temperature, but none had yet approached the prince to voice their displeasure at doing the duties they were obligated to carry out, though Kherin could feel their angry gazes regardless.
The thought of a bath before returning to the hospice came only after he had left Jarak in the camp, both for the soothing effects of the heated water and the privacy it allowed to follow his thoughts—and his actions.
Gods, he missed Derek, but with Derek out of reach….
His own hand wouldn’t be as pleasurable as the trader’s, but it would have to do.
“NORTHERNERS are gathering by the river, my lord.”
Kherin stared then surged into motion, gathering his cloak and his sword in one movement even as Jarak retreated back through the sickroom door. His bath was long finished, and it was one of the few times he was ever alone in the sickroom. Adrien was with Willum as the healer had stated that he wanted to see for himself how the elder prince fared in his recovery without the unwanted input of the younger.
“How many?” he demanded as he burst into the hall. Jarak was already pulling the outer door open.
“Several dozen. More are arriving even as we speak.”
Jarak didn’t turn as he spoke, and Kherin was only a step behind as they burst from the hospice into the darkened streets of Gravlorn. The bitter air of a cold winter night found its way under his cloak as he ran, but it was what he saw when he reached the camp that sent chills to his bones.
Northerners were already lined up on the far side of the river, dark shapes against the blue-tinted crust of ice that formed at the water’s edge, and they were making no attempt at concealing their presence. A look to the east and west showed they were ranged far enough to match the length of the camp, not tightly packed as they would have been for invasion, but two and three deep in places. They faced the Defenders with no air of fear, their axes visible. Axes… and bows.
Kherin felt his lips tighten at the sight of the recognizable shapes many of the northerners carried. This was the first time any could claim bows were present on the other side of the river, and the meaning of that would be nothing good.
Kherin turned his steps in the direction of the stables, not taking his gaze from the far bank as he walked slowly behind the Defenders who had gathered in lines matching those of the northerners. He felt rather than saw Jarak at his side as the blacksmith moved with him. The bows scattered among northerners were strung, though their points were lowered and not yet threatening. Bows were scattered among the Defenders as well, but fewer of them, and none held with enough confidence to instill trust in their use. Ronel left his place on the bank and fell into step beside Kherin and Jarak, then stood with them when they paused.
“Our bows can reach them, my lord,” the blacksmith said quietly. He carried one of the weapons himself, though his fingers had yet to position the arrow on the string.
“And theirs can reach us,” Kherin told him softly. “We don’t have enough to make it count, even if every arrow hit its mark.”
“They don’t have enough to make it count either,” Ronel put in. “Theirs outnumber ours, but that isn’t going to matter with the river between us.”
The three stood between the stables and central fire, and the Defenders around them moved back to give them room. Kherin’s gaze trailed along the line of northerners, taking in the long matted hair and trailing beards and the dirty, worn skins they wore over their bodies. All of them were dark and almost feral, looking more like animals than humans. But Ronel was right—numbers didn’t matter with the river between them. The first side to try to cross would be cut down the instant they reached the other bank. Neither side had enough bows to provide adequate cover.
That thought was nothing more than a passing acknowledgement for Kherin, however. He was more concerned with why they were here. And whether Adrien was in more danger than they were. They had attacked Adrien first, and Kherin wouldn’t rule out the possibility they were coming for him again. He continued to scan their line.
And was nearly stunned when he found the one who could only be called their leader.
Kherin hadn’t seen him since the night he had decided to cross the river the first time, but he had seen him then, and this was the same man—or animal—he saw now. He stood almost directly across from where Kherin himself stood, a few paces behind the others, nearly hidden by the crowd of bodies in front of him. Even behind the hair and skins, Kherin recognized the way the northerner’s head twisted, scanning the Defender line in the same manner Kherin had done, and for the same purpose.
But Kherin wasn’t standing behind his men; he stood with them, as he had always done, and that was likely the only reason the northerners had not yet identified him as anything more than one of the masses filling the southern bank. Gresham was the one standing protected as he had always done, and Kherin knew that that was the position the northerner was looking for. He silently cursed Gresham for doing the one thing that would make him the most obvious.
But it didn’t matter. In a matter of a few moments, first one and then more of the northerners’ gazes found him, and Kherin saw the northern leader catch the sudden attention and follow it to Kherin’s face. Prince and northerner stared at each other in silence for the length of several heartbeats.
Kherin didn’t know when the understanding dawned on the northerner, as he didn’t see him make any obvious moves, and he saw nothing as a sign to give him warning, but a surge of movement rippled through the northern line as they raised their bows and fired in almost a single breath, so quickly that most of the Defenders were frozen where they stood. Arrows flew across the water, forming a cloud nearly invisible in the darkness before falling toward a single target.
Jarak shouted loudly and shoved the prince aside, sending him staggering into Ronel before he himself jumped away from the deadly rain of arrows. The force of the shove threw Kherin off balance, and he hit the stablemaster heavily, sending Ronel staggering as well. Ronel fell, and it was only the tangle of their limbs that kept Kherin from scrambling out of the danger. Kherin hissed as fire bloomed in his thigh, the razor-sharp point of an arrow finding flesh, and his arm was twisted violently as another snagged his sleeve. More razored edges scraped flesh as Kherin staggered to his feet and then fell to his knees, and he felt the sting near his chin the same moment that blood burst forth in a heavy flow.
Kherin clutched the ground as he fought his way back from the deadly fall of arrows, though the sound of them striking the ground around him drowned out the shouts and his own labored breathing. Utter silence sounded after the last of the arrows fell, but barely enough time for a breath passed before the second shower of arrows was launched.
Kherin gasped sharply as he struggled to push himself farther back, and he heard the shouts begin again then fell with a strangled cry as an arrow’s tip bit into his shoulder, another grazing his thigh as a third punctured his side. His arm ignited in pain as an arrow bit into muscle, and he cried out again as he was driven back to the ground as sharpened metal sliced into his back. His fingers still gripped his sword, but he couldn’t raise it or force his fingers to release it. Every breath sent waves of agony through him, which sharpened and cut as he tried to pull his legs under him. He jerked sharply as a shadow fell over him and tried to raise his arms to fend off the attack. Blackness crowded his vision as rough hands seized his arms.
“You have to get back!” Jarak shouted fiercely. His large hands clenched tightly, and Kherin almost screamed when the blacksmith pulled him up and back. Ronel stood between Jarak and the northern bank, using his own body to shield him from the next volley of arrows.
The northerners howled for blood and battle and surged into the river even as they fired their third round of arrows. Kherin heard a cry from Ronel and caught a glimpse of the stablemaster falling to his knees before Jarak pulled him again. He couldn’t hold his scream in this time, and he didn’t need to see the smears of blood left in the dirt to know they were there.
Then Kherin cried out sharply as Jarak dropped him suddenly to the ground, and tears and dizziness made his vision swim violently. Sweat and blood dampened his skin, and he clenched dirt and stones with hands smeared red as he fought to gain his senses. He bit down the pain from the arrows still embedded in his body, and he made himself breathe against the urge to vomit.
He was in the shadows between two of the camp’s hollow buildings and he was alone. Jarak had left him, had rejoined the battle, and the cries and curses of northerners and Defenders rolled over the clash of steel and iron. His blurred vision made out the heavy presence of a northerner who broke away from the battle and staggered away from the crush of bodies, blood staining the blade of his axe, darkening the wood as well as the hand that held it.
Then the northerner fell sharply as another body slammed into him, the stained axe flying from his grip to land only a few feet from where Kherin lay. The two bodies fell heavily to the ground, but the Defender rolled to his knees without stopping, bringing his sword up, then down in one quick movement. The northerner’s head fell free from his body. Then the Defender was gone.
Kherin stared, meeting the lifeless eyes of the severed head that had landed eerily to face him. The head lay sideways, the trailing beard growing darker with the blood that flowed beneath, the mouth still open in either shock or fury. Even in death the eyes were dark with malice, and the unblinking stare was unnerving.
Then sudden strength filled him. He clenched his teeth as he forced his bloody hands under him, and his muscles shook as he pushed himself up to his uninjured knee. His stomach roiled and heaved, and he spit out the bile that rose and burned his throat. Under the leering gaze of the severed head, he threw one hand heavily on the nearest wall, and he tensed his fingers as he sought to grip the splintered wood. He couldn’t raise his other arm, couldn’t move it without releasing new waves of searing pain. The sounds of the battle still raged, and northerners and Defenders crowded his vision, the mass of bodies moving and twisting like shadows half-formed, both sides fighting and falling under the barrage of the other. The battle that raged now was to the death for all the Defenders and northerners, but that first strike had been meant for his death alone.
He felt the bite of unfinished wood under his hand, and he steeled himself for the agony as he pulled his body up, forcing himself slowly—slowly—to stand. Metal tips tore into flesh and muscle with his efforts, and fresh blood trailed from the wounds as the tips cut deeper. He leaned heavily against the wall as he fought to keep his senses from spinning. Shafts protruded from his shoulder and thigh, another from his arm—his sword arm. His shield arm bled through the sliced leather armor and torn flesh beneath. The arrow in his side had missed his heart and lungs, missed all his organs, instead burying itself deep in bloody flesh. His chin stung, sliced open and bleeding, and a wound on his neck burned as blood flowed warmly over his skin. His sword was no longer in his hands, having fallen from his grip at some point, though he didn’t know when.
He forced his gaze back to the camp and he knew that it didn’t matter. He couldn’t fight them, not now. The Defenders would protect him, would rally around him to block the axes that sought his life, but they couldn’t do that and protect themselves as well. They would die if they tried to do both.
With a fierce curse at both the northerners and himself, with anger boiling up within him, he turned away from the battle and staggered away from the camp. A bloody handprint remained on the wall, and dark streaks trailed into the dirt behind him.
ELLI had just placed a tray of brimming mugs on the table among a group of nervous shopkeepers when the Defenders entered the inn. It was obvious they had been drinking—heavily—as their loud voices carried throughout the main room, stamping out the conversations of the patrons and sending them instead into uneasy silence. They were aware of the attention they garnered, though few in the inn looked in their direction. Elli recognized Gresham immediately; it was always beneficial to remember your most generous customers.
Word of the battle in the Defender camp had made the rounds quickly in Gravlorn, and she herself had been one of the people who had crowded the streets when news of the battle had reached the Silver Fish Inn. The sounds of fighting couldn’t be heard over the rumble of the townspeople as they drove themselves into a frenzy over what might be happening. Elli had tried to follow the talk as news was shouted back and forth through the streets, but the jostling of those around her quickly sent her into muttered curses of her own.
Elli had wondered darkly exactly why, if the northerners were attacking, none of these people went to aid the Defenders. With the number of people she saw crowding the streets, surely they would have been able to do something.
She got no answer to that, and at last news that the battle was over was carried back. Only then did the townspeople move, with murmurs and shouts that beds would be needed for the injured, that healers would need to get their medicines, and that the taverns needed to be sure they had plenty of drinks ready for the weary Defenders.
Disgusting, Elli thought. Disgusting to stand in the street and let someone else defend them, as if they were incapable of defending themselves. Maybe they were.
Her thoughts didn’t last too long, for Master Jorin had snagged her as soon as the news reached him, his beefy arms almost dragging her back into the inn and then propelling her into the kitchen to help with the evening meals. Or at least to retrieve a broom and a rag to ensure the floor of the main room was swept and the tables were cleaned. The innkeeper seemed to delight in the prospect of increased business tonight and didn’t give a second thought to the fact people died today. Apparently, the Defenders had defended, and all that was left to do know was reap the profits.
Defenders had trailed in as the innkeeper had predicted, though not as many as would make him happy, and none stayed long after finishing a quick meal and a mug or two of ale. Elli listened where she could, hoping to hear news of what had happened at the river, or at least more than just rumors about the battle. Instead, she found that these Defenders were only bringing the dead and wounded into the city and were to return to the camp once their duty was discharged and a quick drink was gotten. None had mentioned any names, however. And none had mentioned Prince Adrien or Prince Kherin.
It was the shopkeepers of Gravlorn who were providing the most business for the inn, and though their talk was ripe and constant, it was as much speculation as fact and often contradictory. High-strung nerves made it all the more fervent.
Their demeanors changed when Gresham and four others walked in.
“The battle is won!” Gresham shouted into the room. He wore Defender armor, the thick leather that most preferred, but it was unsoiled and whole, a sign he had not been present for the battle, or at least had not been in the midst of it. “Even if the prince of this kingdom ran!”
Tense silence swept the room, and the air grew thicker with those last words, though still none met the eyes of the drunken Defender Leader, save for Elli and the innkeeper. And the two Defenders who had remained in the inn just a little longer than the rest. The four with Gresham snickered in malicious amusement.
Gresham himself glared around the room, his face red from too much drink, his eyes bright with drunken wildness. His gaze slipped past the Defenders seated to one side of the room, his attention too bleary to take note that they too wore Defender armor. And they carried weapons.
“A mewling whelp, that’s the color of your prince,” Gresham sneered. “Coddled, castle-born offspring barely weaned from his mother’s tit, soiling himself at the first look at a northerner. He ran, I tell you! Ran with his tail between his legs while other Defenders died!”
The four around him had turned hostile now as well, their faces hard and challenging, daring anyone to defend the prince. The patrons began to shift nervously, as did Elli, but the five still stood in front of the door. Elli caught the movement as the two Defenders still in the tavern slowly rose from their table to her left.
Gresham was in full spirits now, his face reddening further as he continued. “He ran and let others die in his place! You think some castle spawn has what it takes to defend this city? To defend the kingdom? He’s a coward! A coward who still hides behind his mother’s skirts!” He cast a glance at the ones around him, his sneer turning cruel. “Though the Gods know he doesn’t know what’s up a woman’s skirts! What’s inside a man’s breeches though….”
The group around him snickered again, louder now. Elli began to edge back toward the bar, even as the patrons tried to slink farther down in their chairs. Save for the Defenders who had risen from their table and were even now slowly making their way toward Gresham.
“You would let some child playing at war lead this Defender city,” Gresham went on mercilessly, once the laughter of his comrades subsided. “You’re fools for believing that that pampered cocksucker—”
Gresham fell silent as the two Defenders came to a stop in front of him, leaving several paces between them. Both had their hands on the swords at their hips and both leveled their gazes at Gresham alone.
“That’s enough, Gresham,” one said calmly, quietly, though his words carried clearly throughout the room. It was Teren. Elli knew his name, but little else other than he was among those who traveled from Delfore. “You’re too far into your cups and you’re making a fool of yourself.”
Gresham’s lips curled in a sneer. “Are you calling me a liar? Where was your prince while the Defenders were being slain? Where was he when those northern axes were cutting our own men down?”
“Where were you?”
The world froze in that instant, and even the sound of breathing was silenced. Gresham stared at the Defender as his eyes darkened with rage. Long heartbeats passed.
Then the hiss of steel leaving its sheath sounded clearly as the four surged forward, two lunging at Geoff, the Defender who stood at Teren’s shoulder, two preparing to battle Teren himself, once their Leader had finished first. Gresham pulled his sword in the same instant, and the ringing of steel sounded as his blade met Teren’s.
Patrons shouted as chairs were thrown back, and tables were overturned with the crash of shattering glass and wood. Elli was shoved roughly from all sides, frantic bodies pushing her from every direction. She struggled to keep her balance, to try to move out of the panicked crush of shopkeepers trying to flee. Something slammed into her back and she fell heavily under the press of bodies, landing roughly among the broken chairs and shattered glassware. She cried out sharply as a booted foot kicked her, and she fell back into the tangle of moving feet and legs. Another boot crushed her hand, and a hard-soled heel pounded into her hip. Hot tears fell on her cheeks, and sobs racked her body as she struggled to get out of the mass of twisting legs and harsh shouts.
Blinding pain pierced her skull as a boot crashed into her temple, and her cry was cut off as another cuffed her ear. She heard the sound of her head striking the floor, but cool blackness came before the pain set in.
“I NEED to go back to the camp,” Kherin gritted out, fighting against the hands that held him down, held him still. No one could have mistaken the target of the arrows fired by the northerners, and the question of “Why him?” was one he was going to find the answer to. And he wasn’t going to find it inside the chipped and peeling walls of the hospice.
Willum had brought Kherin to a different room in the hospice this time, one set far from the market square and the room where his brother lay, and one where the window opened only to the narrow, debris-strewn alley separating the hospice from the cobbler’s shop behind it.
“You are injured, my lord,” Jarak answered flatly, pressing the prince to bed, his hands positioned carefully between the cut where the arrow had found his shoulder and the shaft of the one still protruding from his side. His expression was neutral, but his tone was firm, and the two other Defenders in the room—Arick and Nestev—wisely said nothing on either side of the argument, concentrating instead on keeping the prince’s legs still and thus preventing the newly sewn stitches in his thigh from tearing. “The battle is ended, my lord, and your wounds need tending while the Defenders tend to the northerners.”
Kherin grimaced suddenly as an inadvertent twist forced the edges of the one arrow left to be removed into the uninjured flesh around it, and he fell back to the bed as his strength fled with his breath. The arrows hadn’t been deadly, but they had been damaging, and Willum was even now gathering what he would need to remove the final arrow from Kherin’s body and then sew the last of the wounds closed before he dared dismiss the Defenders serving as his aides. The other Defenders who had brought him here had already returned to the camp to learn what was happening there, leaving Jarak to oversee the healer and his treatments. The razor-sharp blade Willum was sterilizing in alcohol would come into use one more time before the night was over.
The opening of the door drew all their gazes to entrance, and a Defender Kherin knew only as Braden entered the sickroom with salutes to both the prince and the blacksmith before speaking. And then his words sent a blaze of anger through Kherin that burned through the pain of his injuries.
The northern attack had ceased nearly at the same moment Kherin had been dragged from the camp, Braden reported diligently, and the aftermath had been hectic given the absence of the Defender Leader, whom others had reported seeing entering the city nearly as soon as the fighting had ended. The belief that Gresham had been intent on going to the hospice was rampant, but Kherin already knew the Leader had had a different destination in mind. He spit a curse through his teeth as he wondered just how many mugs Gresham had managed to down thus far in whatever tavern he had chosen to haunt this night.
A gust of wind suddenly rattled the windowpane, the sound forcing a momentary distraction to Kherin’s thoughts as well as the report from Braden. Snow was already beginning, again, and Braden added quietly that both the search for lingering northerners and the reinforcement of the camp ordered by Jarak in Gresham’s absence would be completed before more than an inch or so had fallen, lacking any more serious attacks by the northerners. Kherin said nothing at this, and only his own labored breathing and the shift of the Defenders’ leather armor broke the silence that fell. Adrien, secure in his own room, had heard none of the report, and for that at least Kherin was grateful.
The movement of the healer drew Kherin’s attention away from the reporting Defender and his own churning thoughts, and light from the candle beside him glinted on the blade in the healer’s hand, letting him know the time for talking had reached its end. The last remaining arrow was no more serious than the others, but removing it would likely be more painful. Jarak and the Defenders brought to assist stiffened their hold on the prince’s body even before the healer spoke.
“Put the leather between his teeth,” Willum said emotionlessly, speaking to the Defenders rather than the prince. “And by the Gods, hold him still! The knife will do more damage than the arrow if you let him move!”
Kherin’s eyes met the old and weary gaze of the healer as the strip of leather—already bearing the marks of his bite—was raised again. He didn’t blink as he let Jarak position it, and didn’t move as the blacksmith’s weight returned to his shoulder. Arick took his place at the prince’s other shoulder as Nestev tightened his hold on Kherin’s legs. Willum nodded only once when they signaled they were ready then lowered the knife to begin his work.
The leather in his teeth did little to muffle Kherin’s scream.