***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Anne Leonard
Riding, riding, he had been riding when the dragon appeared overhead and came slowly, inevitably, down. It was a cloudy day and he was in the Fells. The air still had plenty of winter in it here, high up. There were two men with him from the garrison. There had been no purpose to the ride besides itself; he had been sick of the dirt and smells and noise and press of soldiers in the hold and needed to clear his head with exercise and open air. Then the dragon’s cry, sharp and compelling as a hunting hawk’s, but longer, fiercer, more dreadful. He had heard it a hundred times and it still made the hair on the back of his neck rise and his skin prickle. He was prey, and his body knew it.
The horses knew it too and reared and neighed in terror. Corin was nearly thrown, and one of the soldiers was. The dragon descended. It folded its shimmering blue wings with a rush of hot air that smelled like sulfur. Long ivory claws gouged the earth. It was huge, its snout at least the length of a tall man’s arm. Silver scales on its sides glistened even under the grey sky. It crouched, tail switching back and forth, nostrils steaming.
By the time Corin had his own horse under control, the second soldier was kneeling beside the first, whose leg was clearly broken. One horse had not gone far, but the other one was out of sight. “Go back for help,” Corin said. “There’s nothing you can do about a dragon.” He did not even touch the hilt of his sword. It was useless.
The dragonrider came off the dragon in a smooth and graceful slide. Corin’s horse trembled and sweated but did not move. He would stay mounted as long as he could. When he glanced over his shoulder he saw that the soldier was obeying him and returning.
The dragonrider had dark skin and black hair, and when he spoke it was a different accent from the Mycenean Corin was used to. “Lord Prince.” The tone was hard, mocking.
“Rider.” He felt the dragon looking at him, and he was careful to keep his eyes on the man and not the beast. One who stared too long into a dragon’s eyes would go mad.
“I have for you a message.”
“The Firekeepers have chosen you to free them from their slavery. Already you walk in Hadon’s dreams. He fears you, so he will bring down war. He makes alliances with your enemies and turns your friends against you. This is your task, this and no other: to free the Firekeepers from the empire. They will lend you their power, so that you will be as them though still a man, until you have done this. They will do what magic they can for you.
Corin’s legs moved of their own accord. He walked stiffly toward the rider. The rider held out a small golden flask.
Faster than anyone could move, the dragonrider had hold of him and forced the liquid down his throat. It was sweet and thin and it burned. He struggled, but it was no good. One swallow, two swallows, three. His mouth had the taste of iron.
The dragonrider stepped back. Corin staggered. He felt feverish.
The rider said, “You will forget this until the change is complete. When you remember it, then it will be time for you to begin your labor. The Firekeepers will watch, do not shirk it.”
Darkness closed in on him, and when it lifted he remembered nothing of the dragon or the rider. He was sitting on the stony track beside the man with a broken leg, waiting, while his horse nuzzled among the rocks to see what thin new grass it could find.
The canyon walls were black. Sharp glasslike chips of stone and rough dark cinders lay on the ground. When she looked up the towering walls to the top, all she could see was the deep blue of sky. No trees, no grasses, nothing but stone and sky.
She walked. The ground was ashy. She heard the wind.
Then she walked among men, and they did not see her, and she knew she was a shade, a phantom. There were dozens of them, dark-haired, strong. Soldiers, she thought. They had rigged ropes down the sheer cliffs, with harnesses. More and more came down slowly, like spiders dropping in jerks and starts. They had baskets with them, baskets lined with firecloth and coals. The dragons’ bodies were stiff and dark. Men walked heedlessly by them as though they were nothing more than rock and gathered the eggs.
Smooth round eggs with a mother-of-pearl sheen. The eggs reflected back the black walls. The men carried them gently.
She came to the end of the canyon. A tall crack in the rock breathed icy air at her. She slipped through, untroubled by sharp edges. She could see in the dark. Inside was a large cavern, with a long crevice running across the center. Cold air rose from it, steaming and curling like smoke. Beside the crevice lay the body of a man.
She knelt beside him while the cold air coiled around them. His skin was the waxy white of death. His lips and fingernails were blue. There was no mark on him. With a gentle touch she opened his eyes and saw that they were as black and hard as the canyon walls. She placed her hand upon his cheek and wished him peace.
Featherlike, she drifted down the crevice. It was a long way. Ice crystals clung to the walls. The air grew colder and clearer. The stone was the pocked and circled roughness of lava gone cold. At the bottom another body lay. This one had been burned. It disintegrated into ash at her touch.
There were ashes everywhere. Many dead, she realized. There had been a conflagration. And then it had gone out.
The seeing twisted, and she spun further and further back.
The crevice glowed with heat. Flames shot up as though from a furnace. On the roof of the cavern was the shadow of a dragon. It writhed in pain. It screamed, and fire jetted to the cavern roof in a white-blue glow. A man with eyes that flashed silver stood on the edge of the crevice and drew the fire to him. He breathed it in. His skin shimmered. He became a puff of ashes that fell softly down.
And another man came, and another, eyes flashing silver, then turning to stone. They breathed in the flame and became ash, and the fire faded. The dragon’s shadow dimmed. Its writhing slowed.
One more spin, and she stood in the canyon. The sky was a black- ness that breathed fire and had wings of smoke. It was made of coal. Red sparks showered from its body. Its claws had the shiny brightness of fresh blood.
It reached down and ripped her open.
She faded into darkness.
Which became the darkness of sleep and waking in her own soft bed, and there was grey at the window. She heard dawn birds and kitchen noises and the rattle of a wagon along the street. By the time she had washed and dressed, the dream had so vanished from her mind that she did not even remember she had dreamed. She had not a single thought of dragons.
Corin stared unhappily at the dingy little inn that was the only public place with a roof on it for miles. He considered riding on. He had slept in such places before and would again, but he was not sure he had the stomach for it that night. The wood and paint were sun-blistered and faded to dull grey, and the yard was a trampled patch of bare earth with some chickens pecking at it. Next to a corner of the building, a skinny mongrel scratched itself vigorously. The rusting pump by the porch was probably the only source of fresh water. He certainly wouldn’t get a room to himself, and what bed he did get would be full of fleas. Houses that looked equally downtrodden were strung out along the road. A shutter somewhere banged in the gusty wind.
Beside him, Bron said doubtfully, “We could just pay him for his trouble and keep going.” They had sent a man ahead to find lodging when it became clear they needed it. The sky was a lowering dark yellowish-grey that promised rain at any moment.
Corin looked over his shoulder at the eight other men. They had been riding from dawn to dusk for a week, and another push still wouldn’t get them home this evening; they had nearly sixty miles more. All of them, himself included, were saddle-weary to the bone.
He took the map out of his cloak pocket. Wind threatened to tear it away. They were fifteen miles west of lyde and it was about that far to the next town of any size. It was the main east-west road, but this was farm country, and all they would find along it were scattered villages, none likely to be any better than where they were. Baron Stede’s estate was about seven miles northwest, and they could impose on him. But in Corin’s experience working soldiers did not mix well with lords or gentlemen, and the additional formality and time such visits required were rarely worth the better beds. Especially with Stede, whose obsequiousness was matched only by his dullness. The fleas at least were honest in getting his blood. And democratic too; they didn’t care how royal it was. The thought of hot water for a bath almost changed his mind, but the wind and the darkness of the clouds decided him.
“No,” he said, “let’s stay, but I don’t want to know a damn thing about the kitchen.”
Bron gave him a glance to see if he meant it, then dismounted and started giving orders to the men. Corin got down slowly and barely noticed when someone led his horse away. He hoped the stabling was adequate and decided Bron would have told him if it weren’t. No point in looking. One of his boots had been chafing at his ankle for the last hour or so, and he dropped to one knee to adjust the laces. He was stalling, and he knew it, so he screwed himself up and went in.
The captain had as usual arranged things so that he barely had to deal with the innkeeper. So far as the man knew, he was just another soldier. The inn itself was better than it looked from the outside. It was crowded and noisy. Oil lamps dispersed darkness and a few windows let in fresh air. The common room was tidy, the glasses clean, the food tolerable, and the wine surprisingly decent. Perhaps, he reflected sardonically, he had been leading a rough life too long and his tastes were changing. The last six weeks had been rough only in comparison with palace softness and he did not allow himself to take the thought seriously.
The table-maid was very pretty, with golden hair in a thick braid to her waist. She flirted and laughed and teased, all charmingly and without favoring anyone. But she was no harlot; when one of the men put his hand on her hip she slapped it away with the efficiency and ease of a motion she had made a hundred times before. The soldier’s discomfited expression brought laughter from the others, and Corin hid his grin behind his wineglass. When she topped off his cup several minutes later he found himself quite aware of the smoothness of her neck and arms and the pleasant roundnesses beneath her practical and modest clothing. In Mycene with a body like that she would be someone’s slave. She was lucky to be Caithenian. He watched her a little longer than he should have.
His muscles relaxed slowly with the food and wine. He was not only weary from the travel but still preoccupied by the events of the past weeks. His father had given him a straightforward task: one of the commanders of the northern holds had died of lung-fever in midwinter, and Corin had gone to install the new commander and perform an overdue inspection.
That part had all gone well enough. The north was beautiful in spring, with clear sunny skies and thousands of birds everywhere, the Fell Hills bright and beyond them the mountains rising sharp and distinct, white tips gleaming. Even the high ground above the treeline was colorful with the small creeping flowers that bloomed for a few weeks a year. When he rode on the open plain he saw the distant huts and woolsheds of the shepherds. The barks of the sheepdogs and the bleats of the sheep were loud over the wide lonely land. There was no danger to look for from the north; the Fells and the mountains were sparsely inhabited by very poor people struggling for an existence as far north as anyone had ever gone. The holds had been used only for military training for decades. He should have enjoyed the solitude that he never got at home.
But things could not be that simple, of course. There were dragons. It was a rare day when he did not see one flying overhead, sometimes circling, looking for all the world as though it were doing its own inspection. On occasion they flew low enough to frighten the horses with their scent. And that was not at all the pattern of things; emperor Hadon usually kept his dragons within the heart of the empire, not patrolling the bleak northern edge of this small vassal kingdom. No love was lost on either side between Hadon and the king, but Hadon had always kept with history and tradition, ruling from afar and leaving Caithen mostly to its own affairs. Like kings before him, Aram had never made trouble. If Hadon had sent dragons here now, it meant he was up to something. He was watching where he had no call to watch.
Worse, it was a taunting and unsubtle reminder of Hadon’s power over the dragons and over Caithen to bring them this close to the dragon Valleys from which they had been seized and where they could no longer go. The dragon had been the symbol of Corin’s house once, before the empire stole the dragons five hundred years ago, claimed the country, and forbade it. Corin hoped bitterly that the dragons would rebel, throw off their riders and come back to the caves that their blood remembered. Caithen had never mastered the dragons as the empire did, he could not say they were his dragons, but they belonged in his land. It did not matter that they were deadly.
Nearly as disquieting were the stories the soldiers brought back from the shepherds and farmers and villagers they talked to, oddly compelling stories that lodged themselves in Corin’s thoughts and would not leave. There were stories of huge white wolves creeping down from the mountains and slaughtering sheep by the dozens, of goblins, of two-headed calves that could speak, of witches laying curses and shadow-stealing, of necromancy. A woman in one village had the Sight and predicted doom. There were always such stories somewhere; natural philosophy was still the province of the rich and educated. The poor would have their gods of tree and stream and hollow, their hedgerow cures and charms. But those things were not usually tossed about in tavern gossip. For them to come out now meant fear of something else that was too hard to face. He had seen the hex signs, the wardings, on the farmhouse doors and the roofs of barns. On the sides of the roads were little primitive pyramids of stone for guarding and shrines with offerings of food. People expected evil.
It made no sense, not even accounting for the uneasiness the dragons cast. The winter had been milder than usual, and the spring days were clear and pleasant. The woods were thick with deer and the meadows with game. There was no severe sickness, no spate of dried-up wells, no vast quantity of dead or deformed lambs. The Sarian bandits who plagued other parts of Caithen had not made their way into this wild country. The farmers he met were busy and taciturn but not struggling. The alehouses were full of laughter. It was always someone else who had had bad luck.
Yet sooner or later the talk turned to whispers of corruption, of savagery, of a violent unnatural world. Spirits and demons walked the earth, fire springing up in their footsteps, women miscarrying when they passed. Wraith lights led travelers astray and horses refused to ford familiar streams. Dogs howled and snapped at nothing. The garrison soldiers were a superstitious lot, and they became twitchy. After a while the tension was heavy enough that Corin had his own nightmares of singing bones and red-hot cages and miles of gallows. He caught himself making the signs against evil, throwing salt over his shoulder, thinking the nonsense rhymes to ward off faerie. He slept uneasily, and he saw the signs of sleeplessness in the men around him. It was hard to think logically, to keep account of tasks, to be civil. He was clumsy and irritable. Bron’s surreptitious worried looks at him became more frequent. And he began to forget things.
Small things at first, what he had had for breakfast or where he had put his cloak. But they grew larger. He spent an evening talking with the new commander and afterward could not repeat a word of it. He sat down to write letters and half an hour would pass between one sentence and the next. He found himself and his men miles south of the garrison one afternoon and did not remember leaving. He remembered preparing the night before, waking that morning, but he could recall nothing since dawn. When he tried to remark on it he spoke words that were entirely different. Something had to be done and he could not think what. An irrational insidious voice told him that he lay under a spell, and for all that he tried to shrug it off and convince himself nothing was wrong, he kept coming back to it.
Now, a week later, it should have seemed absurd. He had not had a nightmare for three days. But he could not shake the feeling of failure and lost chance, the nagging certainty that he had forgotten something important he was supposed to do, that hung over him. He was afraid to ask Bron, because he thought the captain might tell him something he did not want to hear. He glared into his wineglass and drained it quickly.
The table-maid appeared a few minutes later and refilled the cup. His fingers brushed against hers as he took it. She glanced at him. Their eyes met. He thought that she would not slap his hand away. He wondered if she knew who he was.
He was tempted, but she was too young and too ignorant. It would not be fair. As soon as he finished eating he stood up, taking his cup with him, and went outside. Rain was not falling yet, but he smelled the moisture in the air. The wind was stronger. It pressed his clothing against his body and tossed the leaves of a nearby tree upside down. The unpainted wood of the porch was cracked and warped with age, but it seemed solid enough. He put his cup on the railing and leaned outward, looking into the greyness. To his relief, none of the soldiers came out after him. He was well liked by his men, but they knew to leave him alone when he was in such a mood. A foul, ill-tempered mood, he admitted to himself. If they shunned him it was as much for their sake as for his.
A wagon rattled along the road. His legs were tightening up. Walking might be a good thing. When he went around the corner the full force of the wind struck him, bringing tears to his eyes. He ignored it. Behind the inn was a good-sized vegetable garden, yellow and white with blossoms. He saw peppers, beans, melons, beets, chard, onions. There were many plants he was too city-bred, or too wealthy, to identify. It was well maintained, and large enough that it was a significant labor. There must be one or two other servants besides the girl; cooking, gardening, cleaning, and laundering on the scale that this required was too much for any one person. Although it was possible that nine nights out of ten they had no guests. He doubted it; the crowd of people inside had suggested it was rather popular among the local farmers and villagers. What would happen to them when . . . when what? Once again it slid away.
He walked around the barn, the wash-house, and the inn itself before returning to the porch. It was far too early to go to bed, and there was nothing to abate his restlessness. The rain started. The dog scampered onto the porch and looked beseechingly at him. He went back in, hoping there were no leaks in the roof. He refilled his cup and went upstairs.
The room was better than he had expected, though tiny. The bed frame was well constructed and had a real mattress rather than a straw pallet. Besides the bed, the only other furniture was a small table, wobbly when jostled but sturdy enough to hold the cup. The floor had been swept and the linens looked clean. The door did not shut perfectly—he had to put his shoulder against it and push—and the windowpane was cracked and dusty. The ballast ropes were fairly new. Corin gingerly raised the frame a few inches, and it held.
He paused. There was a carved and painted hex in the outside sill. The paint was fresh. He ran his fingers lightly over it. A protection against wandering spirits. It should not surprise him, not in a country inn like this where likely no one could read. But it did. It was the newness of it, he decided, made from raw fear and not unthinking custom. For a moment he imagined he could feel his fingers tingling with galvanic power.
He pushed the thought aside and sat down on the bed. The rain hammered on the roof. It fell in heavy grey sheets, making the fields in the distance almost invisible. The only source of light in the room was a pair of thick ugly candles. No inn like this could afford glowlamps. Corin found the firestarter and lit them with a quick click.
The flames bent and fluttered. He watched the red and gold flicker and elide into each other, and he thought once more of dragons. He raised his glass ironically. To the Empire.
At nearly midnight, he was about to go to bed when someone knocked. Rain still slapped loudly against the window. He opened the door. Bron stood in the corridor looking worried. Before Corin could say a word, Bron spoke urgently. “Sarians, sir, a dozen of them, they just fired a barn two miles east. One of the boys got here ahead of them.”
It was too troubling to swear about. The bandits harried the eastern fringes of the country. They had never come this far west. “How much time have we got?” he asked as he buckled his sword belt back on.
Bron shrugged. He was ten years older than Corin, a few inches shorter, and eminently capable. “Ten minutes? Not long. But they’re on foot.”
“Do the people downstairs know?”
“No, sir. Alric headed the boy off before he went in.”
Ten to twelve. They should be able to defeat the Sarians handily, but Corin wasn’t going to take anything for granted. He said, “Get all the people here into the common room and put two men at the door. Can we rely on the horses in this rain?”
“I wouldn’t,” said Bron. “Too much mud.”
“All right.” Corin put on his cloak and cap. It was going to be a hellish fight. None of them had any armor more substantial than their leather vests. The Sarians weren’t likely to either, though.
The rain was torrential, the darkness thick. They waited on the porch. The smell of the smoke and the glow of the burning barn were evident even in the storm. Huge puddles glimmered on the dirt yard. It would be treacherous footing, slick and full of holes and lumps hiding under the water. The wind was not blowing as hard as it had been earlier, at least.
Two of the soldiers had bows. Bron put them at open windows on the second story of the inn. With any luck they would be able to bring down a few of the Sarians before it turned to hand-to-hand fighting. Two, maybe three shots each before the darkness and the close quarters made archery untenable.
Corin held his sword ready. It was an excellent blade, and he was a good swordsman. The soldiers were all superb. He was not too worried about the outcome. He was far more worried about the fact of the Sarian presence at all. But allowing himself to think about it was too much of a distraction. He forced himself to pay attention to the rain and the men standing by him on the porch.
The Sarians made no secret of their coming. They were chanting loudly and carrying torches. Corin’s heart sank when he saw that; they were the greenfire war-lights that water could not extinguish. The men’s faces were painted white, contrasting sharply with their red hair.
Corin could not hear the bow-twangs over the rain, but he saw the flicker of darkness in the light before two of the Sarians toppled over. A third cried out. That was enough warning for the others, who flung the torches down and drew their swords. The metal shone green with the reflected light. The shadows were huge. One more man went down with an arrow in his throat as the bandits advanced.
It was impossible for Corin to plant his feet in the mud. He would have to step lightly instead. Two of the Sarians were coming at him. They were taller and heavier, all of them. Bron interposed himself but one of the men got around him and swung at Corin. He parried easily but from the shock of the blow he knew the other man was stronger. Water beaded on the white paint on the Sarian’s face.
He was dimly aware that the two archers had come out from the inn, but he dared not look. His opponent had the advantage of him in reach and was skilled with the blade. The swords clashed against each other over and over. The mud made it nearly impossible to hold his line. A white light flared blindingly from one of the abandoned torches, flickered. Movements became jerky, hard to follow. Shadows moved maddeningly over the ground. The puddles reflecting the light were sleek.
The Sarian advanced on him, pushing him toward the building. He was going to be trapped against the wall if he was not careful. He parried the next blow and darted to the side, turned, so his back was to open air, risky as that was. Again the swords clashed.
He was lighter, he should be able to use that. He quickened his own slashes and forced the man slowly back to one of the puddles. Somewhere else in the yard a man screamed in pain. He could not tell whose voice it was.
The Sarian stepped into thick heavy mud that gave under his weight. He tried to lunge but the mud slowed him enough for Corin to get past his guard and strike him on the forearm. There was a ringing sound as the blade hit against a metal cuff or bracelet of some sort. Corin’s arm shook with the force of the clash. He kept hold of his sword.
The man pressed him again. He chilled briefly with fear. That pushed his body into harder, faster action. The sword felt weightless. It moved in the patterns he had practiced almost daily since he was a child. He did not have to think what to do. Even with the staccato light he could see clearly. Another slash to the man’s arm, and this time he hit not metal but flesh and bone, and he pulled back and swung again. The Sarian parried but more weakly.
Corin drew back once more. The man still lay open, and he surged forward, left palm on the pommel. The Sarian’s sword slid ineffectively against his and dipped down. He was through, pushing the blade into the man’s chest with all the strength he had. Dark blood bubbled out of the man’s mouth. Corin withdrew the blade. It grated hideously against bone. The Sarian was falling, slowly, backward with buckling legs. Blood poured from the wound. The man’s sword fell.
Breathing hard, sweat burning his eyes, Corin took his first look around. He saw immediately that he was not needed. Only two Sarians were still standing, and each had three soldiers ranged against him. They fell almost simultaneously. It was over.
He stepped onto the porch and wiped his face uselessly with his wet sleeve. Rain had already washed most of the blood from his own sword. There was a pain in his side from exertion.
Bron joined him. “All dead,” he said. “No one hurt on our side except Alric, it’s minor.”
“Put the bodies in the barn,” Corin said. They couldn’t stay there, the blood would disturb the horses too much, but they needed to be searched and looked at. The barn was dry and they could have a light.
Bron gestured backward at the torches. “What about those, sir?”
“I’ll take care of them,” Corin said grimly.
“Yes.” Bron knew as well as he did that ordinary Sarian bandits did not carry the war-lights. He twisted his cap to wring out what water he could. Bron stepped aside as he came down the steps.
There were five of the war-lights. One was flickering white, and one had gone out. The others still shone with green flame. Heat radiated from them. They smelled acrid and stung his eyes. He picked one up and found the knob on the side, turned it. The flame flared up. Quickly he turned it the other way. It extinguished with a snap, leaving no fading glow or ember. He touched the metal wick and pulled his finger away at once. It was still quite hot. He jabbed the wick into the damp ground and screwed it ruthlessly until he felt it bend. When he pulled it out it was coated with mud. He worked it back and forth at the bend until it snapped.
After he had done the same with each of them, he gathered them up and walked to the barn. The rain fell faster, whipping into his face. He was so wet already that it did not matter much.
Inside the barn, he dropped the war-lights with a clatter and looked around. The barn was large enough to belong to a much more prosperous inn, but old and in some disrepair. To the left was a walkway with about a dozen stalls on either side and a large covered pen at the end. To the right were bales of hay stacked fifteen high and ten deep, large feed barrels, mostly empty, and a row of hooks. There were some loose hay bales and two battered stools in the open area. The floor was dirt and gravel and was relatively clean, though the smells of horse manure and wet hay and leather lay over everything. The only light came from a lantern hanging from the ceiling on a long chain. It had been disturbed, and the shadows swelled and shrank like waves as the light moved slowly to and fro. The horses were shifting and huffing; if things were not kept calm they could become difficult. Three of the soldiers were attempting to settle them. There were no horses besides their own.
The bodies were laid out neatly on the floor. A dozen Sarians, all tall and red-haired, all strong. There was no look of starvation about them. If they were bandits they had been doing remarkably well. Bron and Alric were already searching. Alric’s forearm was bandaged neatly with no blood showing. To Corin’s relief none of the deaths had been messy. That made it easier on everyone.
The Sarian bandits had been a problem for most of the last four years, but only on the fringes of the country. They were cruel and vicious. Their targets were lone farms and poor villages well away from main roads and large towns. They were also luckless deserters of Tyrekh’s army, pushed westward by the forces they dared not try to go back through. They fought with knives and slings and staffs, not with good swords and war-lights. It was a hard, makeshift, and harried existence. These men were not of that sort.
He squatted beside a body and looked carefully at it. The Sarian had been one of the ones who died from an arrow, and there was little blood. Someone had cut his shirt open. From nipple to nipple, and from each nipple to navel, was a burn-scar in a straight line an inch wide. In the center of the triangle was a smaller triangle, inverted. Corin winced reflexively, seeing them. He was not surprised—he had heard of these brands, honor-marks—but he could not help imagining the pain. The nipples had been pierced and ringed. From each ring hung a sliver of bone. These were elite soldiers, the cruelest Tyrekh had. And that led only to one grim and inescapable conclusion: Tyrekh was on the move.
He gestured at the burns. “They’ll all have it,” he said, “or at least some of them. It’s ritual.”
“Bloody stupid ritual, it must kill some perfectly good fighters,” replied Bron, who was nothing if not practical.
“I think that’s the point,” Corin said. He stood and thought.
Six years ago Tyrekh had come out of the east from Sarium, on the other side of the nearly impassable Black Peaks. He had taken four other countries under his control over three years. He was said to be a sorcerer, a half-god, a fey immortal. His soldiers worshipped him, which made them fearless. Corin knew of at least six assassination attempts that had failed, resulting in impalement for the men who had been unlucky enough to survive their tries. Aram had flatly refused to send anyone himself after seeing what happened to those from other countries. Nor had he risked many spies, and those only the best. The Sarian troops were armed with weapons of fire and strength such as no one had ever seen. They were cruel, rapacious, and unstoppable. Tyrekh took the field himself and whatever resisted him was left shattered behind. Kersage, readh, Torent, Al Marini, Veniti, Arragon, great cities all and now their palaces were destroyed and their people were slaves, and Tyrekh’s governors sucked away anything that people still had. After taking Illyria, he had ceased, apparently content not to reach farther west into Argondy and Caithen, and there had been three years of nervous peace since. No one would be surprised to learn it had ended.
“I’m going back in,” he said. “I’ll need someone to take a message when you’re done. Make sure all the men know to keep quiet about the fight. Put the torches in one of my bags.”
Bron nodded. They looked at each other. Speech was pointless.
Corin went back to the inn. He changed into dry clothes, took writing materials from his saddlebag, and went downstairs to wait. The common room was still noisy and raucous; he could not even hear the rain. He suspected that some of the men in the room were too drunk to have been aware of the danger they faced.
He did not want to call attention to himself. He sat at a table and began composing mental messages to his father. They all had a tone of panic in them. He should have stayed in the barn and helped search; it would have kept him occupied and made it go faster. Dignity be damned. He scowled.
After a while he realized the uncomfortable feeling inside him was fear. He did not try to talk himself out of it. Caithen was a small country; its strength lay in spies and not in soldiers. The Caithenian army had increased fivefold in the last six years, but it was still small and inexperienced in comparison with Tyrekh’s. As much as Corin hated Mycene’s overlordship, he knew that it made the emperor bound to protect Caithen. But if the Sarians were already moving in, they had plenty of time to slaughter before they were challenged by Imperial troops.
Someone approached him. He looked up. The serving girl with a pitcher of beer. He accepted a drink, more to have something to keep his hands busy than because he was thirsty. She had a charm on a cord around her neck, and her hand was going to it frequently. She knew or felt something. He watched her, because it was easier and more pleasant than thinking about war, but he no longer had even the smallest flicker of desire.
His mug was still nearly full when Bron came and sat down. “Only one thing besides money,” the captain said. He put a small leather pouch on the table.
Corin opened it. The leather was rich, soft and finely grained, not something a bandit was likely to possess. Inside were a few coins, an extremely battered map, and a green stone carved in the shape of an animal fang. The Sarian gods were animals, wolves and bears and sharp-beaked birds. He touched the stone. A luck piece or ritual item of some sort, no doubt. It had failed the man this time. “Have you got someone ready?” he asked Bron.
He laid out his paper and scrawled a brief message. Twelve Sarians west of Lyde with war-lights. Soldiers not outlaws. I am making all haste. He blew the ink dry and folded the paper. The only thing to seal it with was cheap wax from a candle in a wall-sconce. He doubted it would hold, but it was better than nothing. Rine could be trusted not to read it.
“I’d prefer he go the whole way,” Corin said, sliding it to Bron. “He can answer questions. But it has to get there whatever way is fastest, he can give it to a courier. And interrupt my father no matter what he’s doing.”
Bron took the letter and left. A group of men burst into a drinking song on the other side of the room. One grabbed the table-maid by the shirt and pulled her to him. She emptied the beer pitcher on him. Despite himself, Corin grinned. That was spunk. He hoped she made him pay for the beer too. He watched a moment longer to be sure no harm came to her.
Then he went silently back to his room and stretched out fully clothed on the bed, sword at hand. The peace was well and truly broken.